I am director of All That Philly Jazz, a place-based public history project that is documenting and contextualizing Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. The project is at the intersection of art, public policy, and cultural heritage preservation.
In 1979, President Carter proclaimed June as “Black Music Month.” Every president since has continued the tradition, including President Joe Biden. In his 2023 proclamation, Biden said:
During Black Music Month, we pay homage to legends of American music, who have composed the soundtrack of American life. Their creativity has given rise to distinctly American art forms that influence contemporary music worldwide and sing to the soul of the American experience.
I want to kick off African American Music Month by sharing NEA National Heritage Fellow’s tribute to one such legend, soul singer and songwriter William Bell. The National Heritage Fellowship is a lifetime honor presented to master folk and traditional artists by the National Endowment for the Arts.
Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day was first observed on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina.
Thousands of African Americans, including the formerly enslaved, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, were led by children as they gathered to honor 257 Union soldiers who were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand of the city’s Washington Race Course. The ancestors paid tribute to those who gave their lives by decorating their graves, hence Declaration Day.
May is Historic Preservation Month. This year’s theme is People Saving Places. In Philadelphia, four people are ripping each other apart in court filings while the John Coltrane House continues to deteriorate. It’s particularly disheartening that Ravi and Oran Coltrane have dragged the estate of their father’s beloved “Cousin Mary,” Mary L. King, into the courtroom drama.
Ravi and Oran are using their fundraising against them claiming the $855,000 raised is “part of their plans to profit from the Coltrane House.” At the same time, John Coltrane’s sons cite my work to dispute the defendants’ counterclaim for $220,877.11 for “the expenses [Aminta Weldon] and her parents have incurred in maintaining, renovating and insuring the property.” They question “whether the purported expenses even satisfied the basic upkeep of the Coltrane House.”
This increasingly nasty family feud is in the name of preserving the John Coltrane House.
James Forman, known professionally as James Mtume or Mtume, was born and raised in South Philly. His biological father was legendary saxophonist Jimmy Heath of the Heath Brothers. Mtume was a jazz and R&B musician, songwriter, producer, activist and radio personality. He came to prominence as a jazz musician working with Miles Davis between 1971 and 1975.
In the 1980s, Mtume formed his own band, which combined jazz, funk and R&B. The group’s biggest hit was the 1983 single “Juicy Fruit” which reached No. 1 on the R&B charts and became a crossover hit on the pop charts.
“Juicy Fruit” is one of the most sampled songs, including by the Notorious B.I.G.
Mtume also had a top-five R&B hit with the single “You, Me, and He”. He created hits for Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway (“The Closer I Get To You” and “Back Together Again”), and co-wrote and co-produced Stephanie Mills’ Grammy-winning “Never Knew Love Like This Before.”
Mtume joined the ancestors on January 9, 2022. He is gone but not forgotten. On May 12, 2023, the 1500 block of Wharton Street will be ceremoniously renamed James Mtume Way. Special guests include singer and actress Melba Moore and survivors of the Heath Brothers band. Faulu Mtume said:
It’s beyond words just how great this is, the City of Brotherly Love honoring my father, a Philly native. Wharton Street is where his journey into music, social activism and politics began. The roots for all three are there.
In 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated April 30 as International Jazz Day “in order to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe.”
The U.S. State Department sponsored jazz icons, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Sarah Vaughan, to travel the world as cultural ambassadors to combat racially-charged Soviet propaganda during the Cold War. Their mission was at the intersection of race, civil rights and public diplomacy.
To commemorate International Jazz Day, I nominated Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder for inclusion in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Recordings selected are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
A year ago, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney planned to award a $500,000 no-bid commission for a permanent Harriet Tubman statue to a white artist, Wesley Wofford, who has never won a public commission for a Tubman statue. After sustained agitation, the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) reversed course and issued an Open Call. Wofford was among the 50 artists who responded to the Open Call. The five semi-finalists were announced on March 31, 2023. Wofford didn’t make the cut. He’s now batting 0 for 24 public commissions for Harriet Tubman statues.
All of the semi-finalists—Vinnie Bagwell, Richard Blake, Tanda Francis, Alvin Pettit and Basil Watson—are Black. The public is invited to attend a virtual public input meeting with the artists.
The Zoom webinar will provide an opportunity for the artists “to hear directly from the public before they create initial design proposals for the Harriet Tubman statue. The winning proposal will become a statue that will be located on the northeast apron of City Hall and the first statue of a Black female historical figure in the City’s public art collection. OACCE encourages all Philadelphians to be a part of this historic public art commission for the City by attending this public meeting and making your voice heard.”
The public input meeting will be held on Monday, April 24, 2023 at 5:30pm ET. RSVP for the Zoom webinar here.
The Library of Congress has announced the 2023 National Recording Registry, an annual list of audio recordings that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” The Registry was established by the National Recording Preservation Act of 2000 which created the National Recording Preservation Board whose members are appointed by the Librarian of Congress. The Registry includes a wide variety of recordings that are deemed significant to the nation’s audio heritage.
Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said:
The National Recording Registry preserves our history through recorded sound and reflects our nation’s diverse culture. The national library is proud to help ensure these recordings are preserved for generations to come, and we welcome the public’s input on what songs, speeches, podcasts or recorded sounds we should preserve next.
The 2023 list includes “St. Louis Blues” by W.C. Handy’s Memphis Blues Band.
One of my all-time favorites, Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle,” is on the list.
Fletcher Henderson’s “Sugar Foot Stomp” and Wynton Marsalis’ “Black Codes (From the Underground)” were added to the Registry.
The complete National Recording Registry Listing is available here.
April is Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), a time to increase awareness and appreciation for jazz as a uniquely American art form that is rooted in the Black experience. JAM was first celebrated in 2001. This year’s poster, “Jazzed about Art,” features Miles Davis.
Davis’ 1959 album, “Kind of Blue,” was one of the four albums that changed jazz forever.
“Kind of Blue” is the best-selling jazz album of all time. It has sold over five million copies. Several of the songs from the album, including “So What,” have become jazz standards.
Philly Celebrates Jazz is the city’s annual celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told Black people:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Less than 24 hours later, the “King of Love” was assassinated as he stood on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.