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.
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.
The legendary Showboat was located in the basement of the 1409 Hotel, formerly the Douglass Hotel, a favorite hangout of jazz musicians and their fans.
The historical marker out front notes that Billie Holiday “often lived here.”
In 1964, Herb Spivak bought the basement taproom and renamed it the “Showboat Jazz Theatr” (purposely leaving the “e” out). 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, Art Blakey, Cannonball Adderley, Bootsie Barnes, Philly Joe Jones, Thelonious Monk, Dinah Washington and Ramsey Lewis.
On June 17, 1963, John Coltrane recorded “Live at the Showboat” featuring Coltrane (sax) McCoy Tyner (piano), Jimmy Garrison (bass) and Elvin Jones (drums).
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.
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.
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.
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 (where the tailoring shop is now located).
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.
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.
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.
Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels will direct a documentary about the legendary Harlem showplace, “The Apollo Theater Film Project.”In keeping with the Apollo’s tradition of audience participation, the project is crowdsourced:
If you or someone you know has visual or audio-visual material documenting the APOLLO THEATER or the neighborhood of HARLEM, we want to hear from you! We are looking for film footage, photographs and audio recordings to help tell this remarkable story.
Daniels wants you to go to the website and “help a brother out.”