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.
But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month and National Poetry Month with online programs, including “The Power of Poetry Blog Series.” For information on African Americans’ contributions to today’s jazz and poetry landscape, visit NMAAHC.
Billie Holiday, née Eleanora Fagan, was born on April 7, 1915 at Philadelphia General Hospital. “Looking for Lady Day,” hosted and written by news anchor Tamala Edwards, is a fact-based portrait of the iconic singer who changed the game on and off stage.
The stops include the Academy of Music, Billie Holiday Walk of Fame plaque, and hotels where Lady Day stayed, including the hotel where she and her husband, Louis McKay, were arrested. The arrest is depicted in the biopic United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Our next-to-last stop is the former location of the Green Book site where Billie Holiday performed four months before her death. Emerson’s Tavern is the setting for the Broadway play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” Audra McDonald won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play.
The dates of the walking tour will be announced. To be added to the mailing list for updates, contact Faye Anderson at phillyjazzapp[@]gmail.com.
As made clear in his remarks before the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the power of jazz to bring about social change.
Sadly, Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 while standing on the balcony of the Hotel Lorraine in Memphis, Tennessee. I want to kick off Jazz Appreciation Month by remembering the Prince of Peace in song.
Located in the Tioga neighborhood in North Philly, the 1400-seat Tioga Theater opened in 1915 and operated as a movie theater until circa 1950.
In the late 1950s and ‘60s, top jazz artists performed here including John Coltrane, James Moody, Zoot Simms, Donald Byrd, Sarah Vaughan, Kenny Rodgers and Cannonball Adderley. On January 12, 1958, Dizzy Gillespie and Lee Morgan headlined a concert. The Philadelphia Tribune reported:
What began as a sizable crowd for Sunday’s jazz matinee concert at the Tioga Theater, became what is known in the newspaper business as a SRO (standing room only) gathering by nightfall. It all goes to prove that Rock-N-Roll hasn’t as yet completely captivated the musical world–and modern jazz is nowhere near dead.
The Tioga was repurposed and later abandoned by Deliverance Evangelical Church in 1973. It has been vacant ever since.
Computer scientist Joy Buolamwini, founder of Algorithmic Justice League, had to wear a white mask to have her face detected by a facial recognition program. Buolamwini’s groundbreaking research is showcased in the documentary Coded Bias.
Coded Bias premieres nationwide on PBS on Monday, March 22, 2021. The documentary will be available on PBS, PBS.org and PBS Video App. Check your local listing here.
March is Women’s History Month. The Bible says a woman’s hair is her crown and glory. But for Black women, their natural hair is vilified. The current debate over natural hair has its roots in slavery. First enacted in 1786, Tignon laws forced free and enslaved Black women to cover their hair.
Fast forward to today, Black hair is still policed. Black people face discrimination and micro-aggressions because of the hair that grows naturally from their head and how they choose to style it.
One of the earliest challenges to modern Tignon customs happened in 1987. Cheryl Tatum was a cashier at Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Virginia. The personnel director, Betty McDermott, told Tatum to unbraid her hair because company policy banned “extreme and unusual hair styles.” McDermott said:
I can’t understand why you would want to wear your hair like that anyway. What would the guests think if we allowed you all to wear your hair like that?
Afros are protected under the Civil Rights Act. But if a Black woman wore a regal updo, she could face hair discrimination in all but eight states.
Viewed through the white gaze, natural hair is considered “unkempt” and “unprofessional.” But it’s not just Black women. Black men and Black children also face hair discrimination. A Black teenager was told to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a wrestling match.
Beyoncé won 2021 Grammy for Best R&B Performance for “Black Parade.” A Black woman or girl could face hair discrimination for wearing the natural hair styles depicted in the music video.
Black voters delivered the White House and the Senate majority to Democrats. They should deliver for Black people and end hair discrimination by passing the CROWN Act, Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.
It has been nearly 62 years since Billie Holiday passed away. Hundreds of dissertations, books, films and documentaries later, she is a blank canvas onto which fans and detractors project their hopes, dreams and issues. I see a strong Black woman whose back did not bend.
From an early age, Billie was failed by the institutions that should have protected her. She was racially profiled and harassed by the FBI and hounded by the Philadelphia Police Department. From where Billie sat, the whole of the United States was arrayed her. But still she persisted. She didn’t give a damn what folks thought about her drug abuse, sexuality or string of no-good men.
Billie was a popular club artist and concert artist but she harbored no illusion about her audiences. She famously said, “They come to see me fall on my ass.” While there, she demanded their attention when she sang “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching protest song that took a toll on her livelihood and ultimately her life.
The Billie Holiday historical marker at 1409 Lombard Street piqued my interest in investigating her story beyond the marker. One of Billie’s Philadelphia stories is told in the new biopic starring Andra Day and directed by Lee Daniels.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is now streaming on Hulu.
I am not a church-goer but I fight to save historic churches from demolition (here and here). Regardless of the denomination, the Black Church served as “the foundation for [our] freedom struggle.” Built with the blood, sweat and tears of the ancestors, these buildings hold stories of faith, resistance and triumph.
Most Sunday mornings, I listen to spirituals and old school gospel music.
In his remarks at the 22nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts & Public Policy, Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center Wynton Marsalis said:
Those spirituals were the first body of identifiable purely American music art. … Slaves reaching across time to connect the Old Testament and the New, and Moses and freedom, and Jesus and freedom and made it all be right now. They couldn’t even read. But they knew. And I’m telling you these songs brought people together because singing gives a community purpose. And they put everything in those songs. And that music made us believe and it called us home.
On Tuesdays, February 16-23, 9:00 p.m. ET, I will be called home to the church as PBS premieres the two-part series, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, which retraces 400 years of the Black Church in America.
The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song will be available on PBS, PBS.org and PBS Video App. Check your local listing here.
Public art matters. Confederate monuments were installed to change the narrative about slavery and the Civil War, and to romanticize insurrectionist leaders of the “Lost Cause.”
In cities across the country, citizens have organized to take down symbols of white supremacy.
In some places an empty pedestal is all that remains.
Color of Change has launched The Pedestal Project, an Augmented Reality experience that replaces symbols of hate with symbols of equality:
Contentious statues have been torn down all across America, leaving behind empty pedestals in their wake. It’s time to place new symbols in their stead. The Pedestal Project is born of the vision to repurpose these ill-conceived pedestals by using technology to help people choose the statues that should go up on them. Statues of people who have dedicated their lives to fighting for justice and equality. So that beacons of hope and progress can stand where symbols of hate, oppression and inequality once stood. And that people everywhere can have an active voice in the movement for racial justice.