Category Archives: Cultural Heritage Preservation

2021 NEA Jazz Masters

Since 1982, the National Endowment for the Arts has awarded Jazz Masters fellowships, the nation’s highest honor in jazz, to individuals who have made significant contributions to America’s classical music. The 2021 NEA Jazz Masters include Philadelphia native Albert “Tootie” Heath.

Drummer Tootie Heath is the youngest of the three Heath Brothers. Back in the day, the family home was a welcoming space for jazz musicians. The legendary jam sessions in their parents’ basement attracted the likes of John Coltrane, Benny Golson, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker.

The NEA Jazz Masters Tribute Concert will be co-hosted by 2017 NEA Jazz Master Dee Dee Bridgewater and actor Delroy Lindo.

NEA Acting Chairman Ann Eilers said:

As part of our efforts to give all Americans access to the arts we are proud to partner with SFJAZZ on this virtual concert. It is an opportunity for audiences around the world to tune in and explore the honorees’ many contributions to jazz while also experiencing an evening of performances by an incredible line-up of jazz musicians.

SFJAZZ Founder and Executive Artistic Director Randall Kline added:

It is an honor to again partner with the NEA to celebrate these Jazz Masters. We are looking forward to all of these artists and our global communities coming together to honor these legendary jazz masters for their profound contributions to our world.

The free concert will be livestreamed on Thursday, April 22, 2021 at 8:00 p.m. ET/5:00 p.m. PT. on arts.gov and sfjazz.org, among other platforms. For more information, go here.

National Poetry Month

April is National Poetry Month. It is also Jazz Appreciation Month.

It’s serendipitous the two art forms are recognized during the same month. The most celebrated jazz poet, Langston Hughes, collaborated with jazz musicians. In his 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, Hughes wrote:

But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.

Hughes read his poem, “The Weary Blues,” on a Canadian TV program in 1958.

Hughes presented the history of jazz in a children’s book, The First Book of Jazz, published in 1955.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month and National Poetry Month with online programs, including “The Power of Poetry Blog Series.” For information on African Americans’ contributions to today’s jazz and poetry landscape, visit NMAAHC.

Jazz Appreciation Month 2021

The Smithsonian Institution designated April as Jazz Appreciation Month in 2001.

As made clear in his remarks before the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the power of jazz to bring about social change.

Sadly, Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 while standing on the balcony of the Hotel Lorraine in Memphis, Tennessee. I want to kick off Jazz Appreciation Month by remembering the Prince of Peace in song.

Tioga Theater

Located in the Tioga neighborhood in North Philly, the 1400-seat Tioga Theater opened in 1915 and operated as a movie theater until circa 1950.

Tioga Theater - Vintage

Tioga Theater - Interior

In the late 1950s and ‘60s, top jazz artists performed here including John Coltrane, James Moody, Zoot Simms, Donald Byrd, Sarah Vaughan, Kenny Rodgers and Cannonball Adderley. On January 12, 1958, Dizzy Gillespie and Lee Morgan headlined a concert. The Philadelphia Tribune reported:

What began as a sizable crowd for Sunday’s jazz matinee concert at the Tioga Theater, became what is known in the newspaper business as a SRO (standing room only) gathering by nightfall. It all goes to prove that Rock-N-Roll hasn’t as yet completely captivated the musical world–and modern jazz is nowhere near dead.

The Tioga was repurposed and later abandoned by Deliverance Evangelical Church in 1973. It has been vacant ever since.

Tioga Theater

Coronet Club

Opened circa 1944, the Coronet Club was located on South Broad and Cypress streets.

Coronet Club - Feature

Ada Brown performed there on August 30, 1945. The blues singer appeared in “Stormy Weather” accompanied by Fats Waller.

On August 16, 1946, Ella Fitzgerald opened a two-week engagement opposite Tiny Bradshaw and his Orchestra.

Coronet Club

United States vs. Billie Holiday

It has been nearly 62 years since Billie Holiday passed away. Hundreds of dissertations, books, films and documentaries later, she is a blank canvas onto which fans and detractors project their hopes, dreams and issues. I see a strong Black woman whose back did not bend.

From an early age, Billie was failed by the institutions that should have protected her. She was racially profiled and harassed by the FBI and hounded by the Philadelphia Police Department. From where Billie sat, the whole of the United States was arrayed her. But still she persisted. She didn’t give a damn what folks thought about her drug abuse, sexuality or string of no-good men.

Billie was a popular club artist and concert artist but she harbored no illusion about her audiences. She famously said, “They come to see me fall on my ass.” While there, she demanded their attention when she sang “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching protest song that took a toll on her livelihood and ultimately her life.

The Billie Holiday historical marker at 1409 Lombard Street piqued my interest in investigating her story beyond the marker. One of Billie’s Philadelphia stories is told in the new biopic starring Andra Day and directed by Lee Daniels.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday is now streaming on Hulu.

The Black Church in America

I am not a church-goer but I fight to save historic churches from demolition (here and here). Regardless of the denomination, the Black Church served as “the foundation for [our] freedom struggle.” Built with the blood, sweat and tears of the ancestors, these buildings hold stories of faith, resistance and triumph.

Most Sunday mornings, I listen to spirituals and old school gospel music.

In his remarks at the 22nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts & Public Policy, Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center Wynton Marsalis said:

Those spirituals were the first body of identifiable purely American music art. … Slaves reaching across time to connect the Old Testament and the New, and Moses and freedom, and Jesus and freedom and made it all be right now. They couldn’t even read. But they knew. And I’m telling you these songs brought people together because singing gives a community purpose. And they put everything in those songs. And that music made us believe and it called us home.

On Tuesdays, February 16-23, 9:00 p.m. ET, I will be called home to the church as PBS premieres the two-part series, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, which retraces 400 years of the Black Church in America.

The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song will be available on PBS, PBS.org and PBS Video App. Check your local listing here.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

From the cries of the enslaved to George Floyd’s anguished cry for his mother, Black people have sung “sorrow songs” of suffering and oppression.

For African Americans freedom is a constant struggle. From slave songs to freedom songs music is the glue that binds African Americans together in the struggles for emancipation, civil rights and racial justice. In an interview, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

A Negro song anthology would include sorrow songs, shouts for joy, battle hymns, anthems. Since slavery, the Negro has sung throughout his struggle in America. “Steal Away” and “Go Down, Moses” were the songs of faith and inspiration which were sung on the plantations. For the same reasons the slaves sang, Negroes today sing freedom songs, for we, too, are in bondage.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021, TV One will premiere UNSUNG PRESENTS: MUSIC & THE MOVEMENT, a two-part documentary of 400 years of “auditory dissent.” The film features interviews with artists, archival footage from memorable speeches, and live vocal performances.

Cathy Hughes, Chairwoman of Urban One Inc., said in a statement:

Music is the heart and soul of Black culture – giving life to our experiences, voice to our stories and growing power out of our pain. Every melody, lyric and rhythm artfully depicts the layers of Black diversity, scope of Black creativity, and depths of the complexity of our people. TV One’s Music & the Movement special pays homage to the music and music makers whose talents created a soundtrack of Black music during moments of political and social unrest throughout our history.

Robyn Greene Arrington, Vice President of Programming and Production, added:

Throughout history, Black music has been a clarion call to amplify the voice of our community and important social and political movements like the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements. After an unprecedented year of social, economic, and political turmoil, we felt MLK Day was a great time to chronicle the ongoing struggles of Black Americans along with those who tirelessly lend their voices to protesting injustice and instigating positive changes for our community and social justice movements.

UNSUNG PRESENTS: MUSIC & THE MOVEMENT will air on TV One on Monday, January 18, 2021, at 8 p.m. ET.

American Masters: How It Feels To Be Free

In a 1969 interview, Nina Simone said, “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times. I think that is true of painters, sculptors, poets, musicians.”

The upcoming PBS documentary How It Feels To Be Free tells the story of six Black artists who reflected the times – Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, Pam Grier, Diahann Carroll, Lena Horne and Cicely Tyson.

Michael Kantor, American Masters series executive producer, said:

These revolutionary Black women embody stories of courage, resilience and heroism. They fought for representation and economic, social and political equality through their artistry and activism. We are proud to share the stories of how each left an indelible mark on our culture and inspired a new generation.

Executive producer Alicia Keys added:

I am proud to be a part of such a meaningful, important project. Art is the most powerful medium on the planet, and I continue to be inspired by and learn from these powerful, brave and stereotype-shattering women who leveraged their success as artists to fearlessly stand up against racism, sexism, exclusion and harassment. I honor their courage by celebrating their stories and continuing the work they started.

How It Feels To Be Free premieres Monday, January 18, 2021 at 9 p.m. on PBS. Check your local listing here.

Help Preserve Historic Eden Cemetery

George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In my youth, I took the long way to my high school rather than the short-cut through the nearby cemetery. Fast forward to today, when I pass a burial ground, I often think of Johnny Taylor who sang “people in the cemetery, they’re not all alone.”

Eden Cemetery is a 53-acre historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a site on the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and a member of the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project. A stroll through Eden is “like walking through a book of Black history.” The lives of those interred span from 1721 to the present.

Under the CARES Act, taxpayers who don’t itemize their deductions are allowed to deduct an additional $300 for cash contributions to public charities this year. You can help protect Eden’s legacy and preserve African American memory by making an end-of-year donation here.

Your tax-deductible donation will ensure the graves of Father of the Underground Railroad William Still, Letitia Still, Henry Minton, Octavius V. Catto, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Marian Anderson, among others, will be kept clean.