For generations, Black music has conveyed the hopes and struggles of a resilient people — spirituals mourning the original sin of slavery and later heralding freedom from bondage, hard truths told through jazz and the sounds of Motown during the Civil Rights movement, and hip-hop and rhythm and blues that remind us of the work that still lies ahead. The music created by Black artists continues to influence musicians of all persuasions, entertain people of all backgrounds, and shape the story of our Nation.
As noted in the 1971 documentary “Black Music in America: From Then Till Now,” Black music is “one of the great artistic contributions to American culture. Black music in America began as the African drum beat and plantation song ignored and then suppressed by white culture.”
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.
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.
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.
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.