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.
Sam and Harry Kessler opened Parisian Tailoring Company on South Street, the-then heart of the Black community, in 1923. Better known as Parisian Tailors, the company made uniforms – sports jackets and slacks – for Black orchestras. Chief cutter Eddie Lieberman promoted musical acts on the side. Business was booming so as a way to give back to the Black community, Lieberman proposed a children’s radio show to compete with predominantly white The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour.
The weekly radio show, Parisian Tailors’ Colored Kiddies of the Air, was broadcast from the stage of the Lincoln Theater. Colored Kiddies of the Air debuted on Sunday, March 27, 1932 on WPEN. The live broadcasts featured young Black musicians backed by all-star big bands.
Regular child performers included future jazz legends and National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Percy Heath Jr. (bassist) and Joe Wilder (trumpeter). Wilder went on to become the first African American to play a principal chair in a Broadway pit orchestra. He also integrated broadcast radio and television network orchestras.
In Softly, With Feeling: Joe Wilder and the Breaking of Barriers in American Music, biographer Edgar Berger wrote:
The Colored Kiddies radio show emanated from the stage of the Lincoln Theatre, on Broad and Lombard Streets, Philadelphia’s main venue for leading black performers. Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Armstrong, Fletcher Henderson, and Fats Waller were just some of regular headliners at the Lincoln in the mid-1930s. What was most extraordinary about the radio show is that the children were backed by members of these legendary orchestras. Because of Pennsylvania’s blue laws, there could be no regular performances in clubs or theaters on Sunday. As Joe put it, “We could go out and shoot each other on Sunday, but we weren’t allowed to play jazz!” So as part of their contracts with the theater, the visiting bands were obligated to play behind the youngsters during the one-hour broadcasts on Sunday mornings. “We had the joy of having every name band—Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, Fletcher Henderson, Earl Hines, Count Basie, the Mills Blue Rhythm Band— play for us on their day off,” Joe said. “They would improvise backgrounds for whatever we played, and they encouraged us. It was unbelievable!” Although the bandleaders themselves didn’t usually play, they did come to the rehearsals to make sure that their musicians fulfilled the terms of their contracts.
The Coltrane House has been in a deteriorating condition for nearly four decades. Mary L. Alexander, better known as “Cousin Mary,” sounded the alarm as early as 1985.
Restoration has been stymied by, i.a., legal entanglements (the owner of record died in 2007) and lack of imagination. Over the past 20 years, there have been several schemes to repurpose the property as a historic house museum. The schemers failed to recognize that the traditional house museum business model wherein an organization must raise millions of dollars before the property is open to the public and millions more to keep the door open is no longer sustainable. According to a 2017 study (the most complete recent data), nearly 50% of history museums have an annual operating budget of less than $100,000.
As I wrote in an op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, an Act 135 conservatorship is the only viable option to save this National Historic Landmark.
I am collaborating with Chris Hytha, a digital artist and founder of the Rowhomes project, to raise awareness that the rowhome in which Coltrane lived from 1952 to 1958 is threatened. Hytha will create the John Coltrane House NFT, digital collectible art. He said:
NFTs are deeply rooted in the culture of collectability. Featuring the John Coltrane House would add another layer of historical significance, and has the potential to introduce this piece of Philadelphia history to a global audience. Collecting memorabilia has been a part of our culture for centuries, and NFTs provide a new outlet to raise funds for the preservation of this National Historic Landmark.
At the same time, I have teamed up with an architecture firm that is a pioneer in virtual design and construction. Building on floor plans, archival photos, scholarly research, oral histories and 3D rendering, we will digitally reconstruct the exterior, and virtually reimagine the interior the way it looked when Coltrane lived here (read: virtual period rooms).
John Coltrane House Digital Reconstruction is at the intersection of art, technology and historic preservation. We will improvise a new paradigm for historic preservation in the Digital Age.
At the same time, we will cast a wide net for a financially-capable alternate stewardship – an Act 135 conservatorship – to preserve the structure, the physical reminder of John Coltrane, in public memory. We are taking giant steps to preserve for the current generation and the next generation of tech users the rowhome where John Coltrane experienced a spiritual awakening and composed “Giant Steps.”
In November 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”:
International Jazz Day brings together communities, schools, artists, historians, academics and jazz enthusiasts all over the world to celebrate and learn about jazz and its roots, future and impact; raise awareness of the need for intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding; and reinforce international cooperation and communication. Every year on April 30, this international art form is recognized for fostering gender equality and for promoting individual expression, peace, dialogue among cultures, diversity, respect for human dignity, and the eradication of discrimination.
Jazz carries a universal message with the power to strengthen dialogue, our understanding of each other, and our mutual respect. As the world is affected by multiple crises and conflicts, this international day highlights how much music and culture can contribute to peace.
All That Philly Jazz director Faye Anderson is one of 19 American community partners.
The signature event, an All-Star Global Concert, will be back where it all began – the United Nations General Assembly Hall in New York. The lineup includes Marcus Miller, Gregory Porter, David Sanborn, Ravi Coltrane, Randy Brecker, José James, Terri Lyne Carrington, Linda Oh, Shemekia Copeland and Lizz Wright.
With conflict and division in many parts of the world, it is my hope that, through the universal language of jazz, our celebration this year can inspire people of all nations to heal, to hope and to work together to foster peace.
The All-Star Global Concert will be webcast worldwide on April 30 at 5:00pm ET (2:00pm PT) on jazzday.com, unesco.org, hancockinstitute.org, and International Jazz Day YouTube and Facebook channels.
The Library of Congress has announced the 2022 National Recording Registry, an annual list of audio recordings that are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important.” Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden said:
The National Recording Registry reflects the diverse music and voices that have shaped our nation’s history and culture through recorded sound. The national library is proud to help preserve these recordings, and we welcome the public’s input. We received about 1,000 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry.
The list includes “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” the legendary drummer’s still resonant 1960 social protest album.
Duke Ellington’s 1956 album “Ellington at Newport” is on the list.
Soul music and R&B recordings include The Four Tops’ “Reach Out, I’ll Be There” and Alicia Keys’ debut album “Songs in A Minor.”
April is Jazz Appreciation Month. America’s classical music is appreciated around the world but in New Orleans, the city where jazz was born, there was a 100-year-old ban on jazz in the public schools. While the ban was honored in the breach, it was only officially lifted last month. The prohibition was white supremacists’ tacit acknowledgement that jazz is Black music.
In an interview with the Associated Press, four-time Grammy winner Robert Glasper said that African Americans are reclaiming jazz:
Absolutely, because it’s African-American music… our ancestors are the ones who birthed this music. Blood, sweat and tears. And we, as a people, have gotten away from it and other people have taken it and been able to capitalize off of it.
We’re just living our truth, and that’s what it is. And we are jazz (musicians) — because some people say, “What they’re doing is not jazz.” Yes, it is — it literally is. It’s just jazz with a heartbeat. It’s still alive. What you like is dead. What we’re doing is alive. And that’s the difference.
To borrow a phrase from Grammy-winning producer Swizz Beatz: Long live jazz!
Fifty-four years ago today, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was gunned down as he stood on the balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
The livestream of the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel’s annual event remembering Dr. King begins at 4pm CT with a musical preclude. The hybrid commemorative service “Remembering MLK: The Man. The Movement. The Moment.” begins at 4:30pm CT. The commemoration includes the changing of the balcony wreath and a moment of silence at 6:01pm CT, the time Dr. King was assassinated.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Masters Fellowship. Since 1982, NEA has awarded 165 fellowships to jazz luminaries, including Dizzy Gillespie, Sun Ra, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, Percy Heath, McCoy Tyner, Sonny Rollins, Abbey Lincoln and Ramsey Lewis. The 2022 NEA Jazz Masters are:
Bessie Smith famously told us: “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.”
I have made it my business to oppose the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s proposed Christian Street Historic District which would memorialize a small “light, bright, and damn near white” Negro elite. Cataclysmic events during the period of significance (1910 to 1945) include the Great Depression, the Great Migration, two World Wars, and the New Deal.
The Empress of the Blues lived on Christian Street. Her house is located less than 500 feet outside the arbitrary boundaries of the proposed historic district. The fact that one of the highest paid Black entertainers in the 1920s and ‘30s is excluded from the gentrifiers’ narrative about “Black wealth” tells you all you need to know about the merits of the nomination.
Bessie Smith shaped a fashion aesthetic for blues singers. Drexel University professor Alphonso McClendon, author of Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation, wrote:
Contrary to the sad lyrics they espoused, the blues ladies dressed in extravagant designs that articulated their growing wealth, as well as the changing attitudes of women. … In a publicity photo for Columbia Records , Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, captured the Oriental aesthetic, elegantly draped in a sleeveless net tunic embroidered with beads and floral appliqués that scalloped at the hem. Smith was known for her opulent headdresses that exploited beads, fringe and feathers, conceivably a strategy to emphasize the head as practiced by early African societies.
For info about the “Oriental aesthetic” and the Jazz Age, check out “Venus and Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age” exhibition presented by the Fox Historic Costume Collection at Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.