Category Archives: Advocacy

#NEAJazz17 Recap

The 2017 Jazz Masters are in the history book. With threats to its funding, will the National Endowment for the Arts itself be history? First, a recap of #NEAJazz17.

The NEA conferred the NEA Jazz Master award, the nation’s highest honor in jazz, on Dee Dee Bridgewater, Ira Gitler, Dave Holland, Dick Hyman and Dr. Lonnie Smith.

NEA Jazz Masters - Resize
2017 NEA Jazz Masters Dave Holland, Dick Hyman, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Dr. Lonnie Smith (not pictured: Ira Gitler) at the 2017 NEA Jazz Masters Awards Dinner, sponsored by BMI, on April 2, 2017. Photo by Yassine El Mansouri

The celebration kicked off with the NEA Jazz Masters Listening Party at NPR, moderated by Jason Moran. The Jazz Masters and Fitz Gitler (representing his father) were joined in conversation by musicians whose lives they have influenced. They generously – and humorously – shared stories about their musical journey.

NPR Listening Party Collage

On April 3, the NEA held a tribute concert in the Jazz Masters’ honor at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

While joy filled the air, there are some discordant notes. If the NEA is defunded, the Class of 2017 may be the last Jazz Masters. The New York Times reported:

President Trump’s budget proposal last month called for eliminating the endowment entirely — the first time any president has proposed such a step. While some members of Congress in his own Republican Party have opposed the move, it is a reminder of the agency’s vulnerability.

[…]

Created in 1965, the endowment provides funding to arts organizations, including jazz projects that are supported with dozens of grants each year. It also sends nearly half of its funding budget to regional arts organizations that disperse funds themselves.

The NEA can’t advocate for its own survival. So, as jazz and film critic Gary Giddins noted, it’s “jazz advocacy of the hip, by the hip and for the hip shall not perish from the Earth.”

Truth is, NEA is about more than jazz.

#SavetheNEA

The arts matter. Art transforms lives and communities. The arts are also an economic driver. So let’s make some noise. Here’s what you can do in two minutes to help #SavetheNEA.

Checker Café

The Checker Café opened in 1934. Located at 2125 Ridge Avenue, it was in the heart of the Ridge Avenue Entertainment District.

Ridge Avenue Cultural District

The Checker Café was a place to see and be seen. On May 23, 1935, Philadelphia Tribune columnist, “the Negro Councilman,” wrote:

When the show has nearly ended you will then see no other than our own sepia Gloria Swanson, who is direct from the Grand Terrace in Chicago and then you can tell the world that you have seen a real show.

As with many jazz venues, the Checker Café was about “intersectionality” before it became a thing. The “sepia Gloria Swanson” was a female impersonator.

Checker Cafe Ad

In the 1980s under new ownership, the nightspot was renamed the Checker Club.

2125 Ridge Avenue - Checker Club Sign

Trumpeter Cullen Knight is the recipient of the 2015 Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and Performing Arts “Living Legend” Award. Knight shared some memories with Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron:

It’s a bit ironic that the Checker is the only one of those Ridge Avenue joints to survive. It wasn’t the biggest or best known of the venues that lined the avenue during North Philadelphia’s jazz heyday in the mid-20th century. That distinction was probably held by the Pearl Theater on the next block, where Bailey and her sister Jura worked as ushers, and brother Bill tended the candy counter.

Trumpeter Cullen Knight, who grew up a block away, says the Checker was where musicians hung out before and after the shows, partly because the food and the house trio were equally reliable. Its motto was “Good Food. Good Cooks. Good Service.” Among those providing service was Pearl Bailey, who did a stint as a singing waitress and is now immortalized by a mural on the building’s south side. In the ’30s, a gay singer known as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” was also a regular.

While some clubs, like Ridge Cotton Club and Blue Note, took their inspiration from famous Harlem venues, the Checker got its name from the black-and-white pattern painted on the ground floor. Its horseshoe-shaped bar had just enough space in its curve for a small band. Tables occupied the rest of the room.

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Philly Celebrates Jazz

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. The destruction of the Royal Theater, and John Coltrane and Women of Jazz murals gives one reason to believe otherwise, but Philly celebrates jazz.

Philly-Celebrates-Jazz

Mayor Jim Kenney kicked off the celebration by presenting the Benny Golson Award to multi-instrumentalist and “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jon Batiste.

Philly Loves Jazz - Jon Baptiste

Kenney said:

I am honored to present the first Benny Golson Award to Jon Batiste, who exemplifies what can be accomplished in using your talents in educating our youth in the importance of the arts and culture. As I have said many times, arts education is not a luxury, it is a necessity and one of the most effective ways of helping our children grow and develop into not only more creative, but also open-minded and compassionate people.

The Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy organizes the month-long Philly Celebrates Jazz. Over 200 events are scheduled, including a photo exhibition, “Live Philly Jazz Vol. 2.

The WRTI Jazz Listening Sessions will be hosted by Jeff Duperon. The hour-long conversations will be held before a live audience in the Art Gallery @ City Hall. The listening sessions are free but space is limited. Seating is first come, first serve and you must register.

Over the course of Philadelphia’s jazz heyday, roughly 1940s to 1960s, there were jazz spots from the Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue.

All That Philly Jazz - Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue

The “Philly Celebrates Jazz Community Series” harkens back to the time when the joints were jumping in every neighborhood, including  “The Golden Strip,” Ridge Avenue and “The Strip.”

Philadelphia Celebrates Jazz Community Series

A complete calendar listing of Philly Celebrates Jazz events is available here.

Historic Preservation and Social Justice

Two years ago I launched All That Philly Jazz, a place-based public history project that is telling the story of Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. In documenting the places where jazz history unfolded, I am also contextualizing the impact of jazz musicians and the jazz culture on the struggle for social justice.

Fact is, the jazz culture was about “intersectionality” before the term was coined . As Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron notes in her column, “Ridge Avenue’s last standing jazz club,” gay performers such as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” were an integral part of the scene.

Checker Cafe Ads

In a piece for PlanPhilly, I wrote about why historic preservation matters:

1409 Lombard Street helps tell the story of artistic greats like Lady Day, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and McCoy Tyner. It also tells the story of disruption and defiance. In remarks to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said jazz is “triumphant music.” If walls could talk, they would tell how the jazz culture broke down social barriers. The first racially integrated nightspot in Center City was a jazz club, the Downbeat. For the first time, blacks and whites mixed on an equal basis. Jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was “a steppingstone” to the Civil Rights Movement.

At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Who decides what gets saved and whose story gets told? The built environment reflects racial inequalities. Given African Americans’ socioeconomic status, few of the buildings associated with black history meet preservation standards regarding architectural significance. Although unadorned, they are places that tell a more complete American story. The stories of faith, resistance, and triumph are relevant to today’s social justice activists.

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Show Boat

The legendary Show Boat was located in the lower level of the Douglass Hotel. Pianist Sam Dockery led the house band. The historical marker out front notes that Billie Holiday “often lived here.”

Douglass Hotel

Herb Keller owned the Show Boat from 1950 to 1964. Herb Spivak bought the property in 1964 and renamed the jazz spot “Showboat Jazz Theatr” (purposely leaving off the “e”). All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson interviewed Spivak on International Jazz Day 2019.

Herb Spivak - Faye M. Anderson

The Show Boat was compact. Spivak increased the seating capacity from 100 to 200. The small bandstand was behind the bar. The Showboat played host to jazz greats such as Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Lee Morgan, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Bootsie Barnes, Philly Joe Jones, Thelonious Monk, Aretha Franklin, Dinah Washington and Ramsey Lewis.

On June 17, 1963, John Coltrane Quartet recorded “Live at the Showboat” featuring Coltrane (sax) McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Roy Haynes (drums).

Cadillac Club

The Cadillac Club was located in North Philly. Owned by Benjamin and Ruth Bynum, the jazz spot played host to legends-in-the-making, including George Benson, Aretha Franklin and Billy Paul.

billy-paul-at-cadillac-club

From Wikipedia:

[Billy] Paul recalled: “[The Cadillac] was a famous, famous club. Aretha Franklin worked there. Me and George Benson used to work there all the time.” Located at 3738 Germantown Ave. in North Philadelphia, the Cadillac opened in 1965 and was run by Benjamin and Ruth Bynum before becoming the Impulse Discothèque in 1977. Benjamin booked the entertainers, Ruth handled the finances, and their two young sons Robert and Benjamin Jr. worked at the club. Benjamin Jr., who with his brother followed in their parents’ footsteps and ran their own jazz club Zanzibar Blue [and here] from 1990-2007.

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2016 NEA Jazz Master Archie Shepp

The 2016 NEA Jazz Masters were honored at a tribute concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

This year’s class includes Archie Shepp who grew up in West Philadelphia. During an NEA interview, Shepp talked about jazz and Philadelphia:

The music that we call jazz has always been important in the African American community, especially in the poorer neighborhoods.

There was a lot of racism and prejudice, but a lot of music, a lot of blues and some good times. Music was all over Philadelphia. You could go down to North Philadelphia and hear young John Coltrane or Johnny Coles, Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy Heath. I suppose that’s what jazz is all about, suffering and good times, and somehow making the best of all of that.

At the tribute concert for Benny Carter, I got a chance to spend some time with Shepp during the break. He reminisced about the jam sessions at the Heath Brothers’ Family Home. He shared that he learned how to play chords from Coltrane and Lee Morgan.

Truth be told, Philadelphia’s contribution to jazz is mostly an untold story. We must capture stories about Philly’s jazz scene while those who know the history are still here.

Music City

In 1947, drummer Ellis Tollin and his business partner William E. Welsh opened Music City, an instrument store. Tollin transformed the 4th Floor into a unique performance space where top jazz musicians, including Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis held jam sessions and mentored up-and-coming musicians like Lee Morgan, Bobby Timmons and Archie Shepp.

Music City Collage

Trumpeter Ted Curson recalled:

It was like the scene in Philadelphia for young cats and old cats. They would bring guys in from New York to play and they would have the young guys sit in with them. If you played pretty good you always ended up with some kind of gig.

Jazz legend Clifford Brown gave his last performance at Music City. He left directly from here for a gig in Chicago. He never made it. He was killed in a car accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike on June 26, 1956.

In a piece for Hidden City Philadelphia, archivist and Philadelphia music historian Jack McCarthy wrote:

On Tuesday evenings in the mid 1950s, young jazz enthusiasts from all over the city would gather inside the popular music store, Music City, at what is now 1033 Chestnut Street. Some came to jam, while others sat back and listened to intimate performances by major players of the era. It was an especially fertile period in Philly jazz when the city hummed with lively clubs and was home to many of the genre’s important instrumentalists. For aspiring teenage musicians who were too young to get into the clubs, Music City was a place to trade notes with fellow young players and even to play with their musical heroes if they were lucky. Many emerging Philly jazz performers of the 1950s cut their teeth there.

[…]

[Clifford] Brown had established himself as one of the top trumpeters in jazz by the mid1950s. He was living in Philadelphia during this period and was a frequent, featured guest at Music City. As the original story went, Brown performed at the store on the evening of June 26, 1956, accompanied by Ellis Tollin on drums and several other Philly musicians, and left directly from there to drive to a gig in Chicago. With him on the trip were the pianist Richie Powell and his wife, Nancy, who did the driving. On the Pennsylvania Turnpike between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, the car ran off the road and crashed, killing all three.

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Before 1964, Jazz Musicians Traveled While Black

Philadelphia Jazz Appreciation Month is in full swing. In a recent interview, I noted that jazz musicians performed in nightclubs where they could not sit and hotels where they could not stay. The jazz legends whose music paved the way for the Civil Rights movement were subjected to racial discrimination as they traveled while black.

In 1936, Victor H. Green, a postal worker and civil rights activist, published the first edition of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide to navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and de facto segregation in the North.

The “Green Book,” as it was called, lists hotels, tourist homes, restaurants, nightclubs, beauty parlors, barber shops and other services. Philadelphia hotels in the 1949 edition include the Attucks, Chesterfield and Douglass.

Douglass Hotel Bus Ad - Cropped

The list of clubs includes Emerson’s Tavern, the setting for the Tony Award-winning play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill,” Café Society and Watts’ Zanzibar.

Cafe Society - Watts' Zanzibar

In the wake of the landmark 1964 Civil Rights Act which outlawed racial discrimination, the last edition of the “Green Book” was published in 1966-67.

UPDATE:  A documentary, “The Green Book Chronicles,” co-produced by Calvin Alexander Ramsey and Becky Wible Searles, is in production.

In an interview with NBCBLK, Ramsey said:

There was no Internet back then to get the Green Book, this was put together with love from black people for each other to keep each other safe. The Green Book to me was a love letter of sorts. There was a time when we loved each other so much that we would open our homes just to keep another black person safe. You could be a superstar, a singer, an artist and in those days still have no place to stay, eat or bathe while on the road, so this book was about the love and ability to preserve our dignity.

Show Ramsey and his team some love and make a donation to help them complete “The Green Book Chronicles.”