Category Archives: Cultural Heritage

Ella Fitzgerald@100

March is “Women in Jazz Month.” It’s also “Women’s History Month.” As the National Museum of American History notes, Ella Fitzgerald was about intersectionality before the term was coined:

Fitzgerald succeeded in the male-dominated field of jazz. By overcoming the odds, breaking barriers, and setting precedents, she paved the way for other women to follow her inspiring example.

The centennial of the “First Lady of Song” is being celebrated from the Apollo Theater to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.

First Lady of Song - Ella Fitzgerald at 100

On March 23, the Apollo Theater, where Ella made her debut on an Amateur Night in 1934, is hosting “Ella! A Centennial Celebration.” The community event features a panel discussion and musical reflection by the author and star of “Me & Ella,” Andrea Frierson, and her trio.

Ella - Apollo Theater

From March 24-25, the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University will present CELLABRATION, a two-day symposium to celebrate the most influential vocalist in jazz history.

Ella Fitzgerald - Institute of Jazz Studies

A phenomenal woman, Ella Fitzgerald will be celebrated for generations to come.

U.S. Postal Service Tribute to Sarah Vaughan

On March 29, 2016, at the Sarah Vaughan Concert Hall at Newark Symphony Hall, the United States Postal Service released the Sarah Vaughan Forever Stamp.

Sarah Vaughan - Available Now

Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman dedicated the stamp:

As one of the most compelling vocalists in American history, Sarah Vaughan was renowned for her artistic eloquence. Her dynamic vocal range, iconic vibrato, and innovative phrasing helped to transform jazz and popular music. The Postal Service is proud to honor Sarah Vaughan. Let this stamp serve as a lasting tribute to her legacy.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who played with Miss Vaughan when he was 21 years old, sent a video tribute:

It’s only fitting that Sarah Vaughan is being memorialized with a forever stamp. She was great on so many levels. In honoring her, we honor ourselves. And her talent is truly forever.

The Sarah Vaughan Forever stamp is available at local post offices or online.

Marion Cuyjet, A Black Swan

Black Swan Theory—The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.
—Wikipedia

Born in 1920 in Philadelphia, Marion Cuyjet was “light, bright and damn near white.” Cuyjet took advantage of her skin tone to take classes with the prestigious Littlefield Ballet. The company was surprised to discover that she was a black swan. In an interview with Brenda Dixon Gottschild, author of Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina, Cuyjet recalled:

MC: It was obvious someone had seen me, and I didn’t know it—somebody black! So in another performance they came in a little group, my friends from the YWCA club and from church. They came backstage to say hello.

[…]

BDG: So did the Littlefields know you were black?

MC: They didn’t know before the girls came, but [then] it was easy for them to believe it.

BDG: What happened once they found out?

MC: Out! Out! Out! Definitely out! And don’t come back! It was a lady who worked at the desk who takes the money and answers the telephone.

BDG: Did she say why?

MC: No, but I knew what she meant.

On Sept. 21, 1948, Cuyjet incorporated the Judimar School of Dance where she passed on what she had learned. She trained and mentored generations of black swans, including Joan Myers Brown, Founder and Artistic Director of PHILADANCO! and recipient of the 2012 National Medal of Arts, and Judith Jamison, Artistic Director Emerita of the Alvin Alley American Dance Theater. Jamison performed her first dance recital at the age of six at the Judimar studio, located at 1310 Walnut Street.

Marion Cuyjet Collage v2

Cuyjet was the first African American woman to rent space in racially segregated Center City. However when the landlord found out she was a black swan, she was evicted. In her autobiography, Dancing Spirits, Jamison wrote:

She looked Caucasian and rented studio space that landlords would not rent to a person they thought was black. ‘She broke the color barrier and was constantly evicted once black children were discovered on the premises; she had to move her school seven times.

At age 14, Delores Browne won a scholarship to study with Miss Marion, as she was affectionately called. Brenda Dixon Gottschild, an author and dance historian, observed:

She recognized Delores Browne’s talent and Miss Cuyjet had this agenda. Her agenda was through the vehicle of Delores Browne to develop the first black ballerina to dance in a white ballet company.

Browne went on to audition for the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet. She became one of only six black students.

Cuyjet was a visionary whose determination and commitment to social justice changed the face of classical ballet. Misty Copeland, the first African American female principal with the American Ballet Theatre, stands on Miss Marion’s shoulders.

Negroes in Ballet

Today, Philly’s development boom is erasing African Americans’ cultural heritage. So while we are still here, we must preserve the legacy of those who cleared the path. Marion Cuyjet beat the odds and had a major effect on the cultural heritage of Philadelphia and the nation. If we don’t tell the story of those who came before, who will?

NB The Judimar School of Dance was located directly across the street from the famed Latin Casino.