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.
One hundred and one years after her birth and two decades after her death, Ella Fitzgerald’s voice still sounds like your best day, your most clever retort, your most glamorous party. By age twenty she had turned that voice into an instrument of outstanding facility and inventiveness; brassy, husky, and pearly by turns, there was nowhere it couldn’t go, nothing it couldn’t do. In that way, her sound itself defied the restrictions of the Jim Crow era into which she was born, and the personal and social blocks that dogged her thereafter. In the end, the “First Lady of Jazz” seems to have outwitted them all — stylishly and profoundly expanding the parameters of Black women’s art.
Ella was the “First Lady of Jazz” but there was nothing ladylike when she told her man: “If you don’t like my peaches, why do you shake my tree? Stay out of my orchard and let my peach tree be.”
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Tubman, the most celebrated conductor on the Underground Railroad. Like most enslaved Black Americans, she did not know her date of her birth so we remember Harriet on the day of her death, March 10, 1913.
Lee Morgan was killed by his former paramour at Slugs’, a New York City jazz club, on February 19, 1972. While only 33, Lee’s legacy includes collaborating as a sideman on John Coltrane’s Blue Train and Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers’ Moanin’. As a bandleader, Lee recorded 30 albums for Blue Note Records, including The Sidewinder, one of the label’s best-selling albums.
Lee’s nephew, Raymond Darryl Cox, and I visited his grave on the 50th anniversary of his death. Lee was briefly united with his cherished flugelhorn.
To commemorate this milestone, All That Philly Jazz, along with Blue Note Records, Lee’s family, Mastbaum Area Vocational Technical High School alumni, business leaders, and Lee Morgan scholars and enthusiasts have nominated the legendary trumpeter for a Pennsylvania historical marker. A historical marker recognizes people, places and events that have had a measurable impact on their times, and are of statewide or national significance.
Cem Kurosman, Vice President of Publicity at Blue Note Records/Capitol Music Group, said:
Fifty years after his death, Lee Morgan’s music remarkably continues to grow in stature. There remains a high level of interest from jazz fans all over the world in Lee’s life and music, which has fueled our efforts to reissue his Blue Note catalog so that his music can keep finding new generations of listeners. The expanded box set The Complete Live at the Lighthouse was widely acclaimed and sold out shortly after its release in August 2021. A historical marker would be a long overdue public memorial celebrating one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time.
Raymond Darryl Cox, executor of the Estate of Lee Morgan, said:
My mother, Ernestine Morgan Cox, was Lee’s older sister. She bought Lee his first trumpet and exposed him to jazz at the Earle Theater. JazzTimes named The Complete Live at the Lighthouse the number two historical album of 2021. The flugelhorn with which Uncle Lee posed on the album cover is a treasured family heirloom. Uncle Lee lives forever in our hearts. If the nomination for a Pennsylvania historical marker is approved, Lee Morgan will live forever in public memory.
Jazz master and trumpeter Cullen Knight met Lee in 1956. Knight was entering Mastbaum AVTS and Morgan was graduating from the storied high school. Knight said:
Lee’s heart and soul went into his music, and that’s what came out. Although Lee’s life was cut short, he said what he wanted to say with his trumpet and his compositions, and that was plenty.
To kick off Black History Month, the National Museum of African American Music presents Rivers of Rhythm. Made possible by Renasant Bank, the six-part docuseries traces the history of African American music from its roots in Africa to The Roots and hip-hop.
Historian and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, launched Negro History Week the second week of February 1926. Black history became a month-long celebration in 1976. Several Philadelphians are included on Woodson’s iconic broadside, Important Events and Dates in Negro History, including Richard Allen, Anthony Benezet, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, and Robert Purvis.
The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia erased 371 years of Black history and nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as Philadelphia’s first “Black-themed” historic district. I voiced opposition to the proposed Christian Street Historic District from the jump (here, here and here). February is the shortest month so I’ll keep it short: Why Christian Street? The most accomplished albeit largely unknown former resident of the proposed historic district, architect Julian F. Abele, did not identify as Negro. His biographer, Dreck Spurlock Wilson, told Smithsonian magazine, “For all intents and purposes, Julian did not consider himself black. He was almost a-racial. He buried himself in being an artist.”
In Julian Abele, Architect and the Beaux Arts, Wilson notes that Abele was not adverse to following in his brother Joseph’s footsteps but he was not light enough to pass for white. He wrote:
Abele’s racial denial approached delusion. He was both a cocoon with interstitial space for only himself and a shell to ward off unwelcome intrusions. It insulated his talent giving him precious time to mature and repelled the exigency of racism from subverting his ambition. He chose an existence that was neither black nor white. It was beige.
In view of his lifelong rejection of his racial identity, Abele would roll over in his grave at the notion that he would anchor a “Black-themed” historic district.
Abele’s great uncle, Absalom Jones, cofounded the Free African Society with Richard Allen who founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The historical markers memorializing this history are located at 6th and Lombard streets. Fact is, from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River there are extant buildings on Lombard Street where Black history happened.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mother Bethel is central to African American history and culture. Henry O. Tanner, who is included on Woodson’s broadside, created a bas-relief of Bishop Richard Allen, Sarah Allen and the blacksmith shop where the first AME church was built.
As the first African American and Native American sculptor to earn international recognition, Edmonia Lewis challenged social barriers and assumptions about artists in mid-19th century America.
Born in Greenbush, NY, Lewis spent most of her career in Rome, where her studio became a must-see attraction for American tourists. In addition to portrait busts of prominent people, Lewis’s work incorporated African American themes, including the celebration of newly won freedoms, and sensitively depicted her Native American heritage as peaceful and dignified.
The Edmonia Lewis Black Heritage Stamp will be available for purchase in panes of 20 at post offices and online.
Martin Luther King Jr. “was born on the fifteenth of January” in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. King’s fearless leadership powered the Civil Rights Movement and inspired artists who have kept his legacy in public memory, including Nina Simone, Max Roach, Otis Spann, Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Grant Green and Stevie Wonder.
To celebrate Dr. King’s heavenly birthday, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has on display an original draft of the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
The speech will be on view in the Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom exhibition through February 27, 2022. To learn more, go here.