Is American jazz black music? Is the Pope Catholic?
A 1959 documentary, Cry of Jazz, sparked controversy when one of the characters asserted that “jazz is merely the Negro’s cry of joy and suffering.” The character, Alex, explained that “the Negro was the only one with the necessary musical and human history to create jazz.”
In 1979, jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams drew a picture of the history of jazz for the slow learners.
The roots of the blues were planted in 1619 when Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia on a slave ship. Jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron observed:
America provided the atmosphere for the blues and the blues was born
The blues was born on the American wilderness
The blues was born on the beaches where the slave ships docked
Born on the slave man’s auction block
If your ancestors didn’t pick cotton from “cain’t see in the morning till cain’t see at night,” Benny Turner wants you to know who sang the blues first.
I love music, any kind of music.
Music sustained the ancestors and was the soul of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:
In a sense the freedom songs are the soul of the movement. They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign; they are as old as the history of the Negro in America. They are adaptations of the songs the slaves sang — the sorrow songs, the shouts for joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement. I have heard people talk of their beat and rhythm, but we in the movement are as inspired by their words. ‘Woke up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom’ is a sentence that needs no music to make its point. We sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that ‘We shall overcome, black and white together, we shall overcome someday.’
To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the National Museum of African American Music curated a playlist of songs that ignited social change.
The songs include Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” John Coltrane’s “Alabama” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” You can listen to “Sounds of Social Justice: MLK 2020” here.
Later this month, I will give a talk on the Green Book at the Paul Robeson House and Museum in Philadelphia. I first wrote about “The Negro Motorist Green Book” in 2015. That year, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture digitized Victor Hugo’s travel guide which was published from 1936 to 1966.
The now-iconic publication is experiencing a renaissance. Countless news articles, essays and blog posts have been written. A documentary, Driving While Black, will air on PBS next year. In June 2020, a Green Book exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service will begin a three-year tour. The first stop is the most famous Green Book site, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
Over the course of 30 years, dozens of Philadelphia businesses were listed in the Green Book. The businesses were clustered in South Philadelphia, then the heart of the African American community.
Almost 70 percent of Philadelphia’s buildings were constructed before 1945. So it’s not surprising there are 45 extant Green Book sites. A few are vacant; most have been repurposed. Five are in the same business including the Hotel Carlyle which was first listed in the Green Book in 1948 and is doing business under the same name.
To arrange a presentation for your organization, university, school, etc., contact #GreenBookPHL Project at email@example.com.
Fisk University was founded in January 1866 to educate newly freed blacks. Between 1871 and 1880, the Fisk Jubilee Singers staged a series of fundraising concerts that introduced slave songs to the world.
From Fisk University History:
The tradition of excellence at Fisk has developed out of a history marked by struggle and uncertainty. Fisk’s world-famous Jubilee Singers originated as a group of traveling students who set out from Nashville on October 6, 1871, taking the entire contents of the University treasury with them for travel expenses, praying that through their music they could somehow raise enough money to keep open the doors of their debt-ridden school.
The singers struggled at first, but before long, their performances so electrified audiences that they traveled throughout the United States and Europe, moving to tears audiences that included William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Ulysses S. Grant, William Gladstone, Mark Twain, Johann Strauss, and Queen Victoria.
On November 19, 2019, American Experience PBS will air “Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory.”
When I moved to Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo, a former mayor and police commissioner, had been dead for nearly two decades. Still, Philadelphians spoke about him with a passion and anger that was visceral. Rizzo’s legacy includes the untreated trauma that he inflicted on the African American community.
As I researched Philadelphia’s jazz history, I heard stories about how Rizzo harassed jazz musicians and club owners. So it is shocking that a monument of a man who was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for a pattern of police brutality that “shocks the conscience” is at the gateway to municipal services.
I looked at the story behind the story and learned the Rizzo monument was financed by his family. The public was never asked whether the vanity project was an appropriate monument for the City of Philadelphia. Not only was the public not asked, the vanity project was unveiled on January 1, 1999 after the Mummers Parade, an event that for decades featured marchers in blackface.
On the day Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced his endorsement of Sen. Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic presidential nomination, it was reported Kenney has no plan to remove the Rizzo monument from Thomas Paine Plaza. Warren supports removal of Confederate monuments and the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi state flag.
I join Pennsylvania State Chapter National Action Network in calling on Warren to support removal of the monument of Frank Rizzo, a racist cop who trampled on civil rights, urged supporters to “vote white” and traumatized the African American community. You can read the press release here.
On October 22, PlanPhilly held a panel discussion on historic preservation, public memory, cultural heritage and displacement. PlanPhilly Managing Editor Ariella Cohen moderated the discussion. The panelists were:
The conversation was lively and at times confrontational. You can listen to the audio here.