Category Archives: Cultural Heritage

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.

CuyjetMarionHDurham2 copy

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).

Mary Cuyjet - Judimar School of Dance

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.

Ridge Cotton Club

Opened in 1947 and listed in the The Negro Motorist Green Book, the Ridge Cotton Club shows the influence of Harlem and the Cotton Club. And like the legendary Harlem nightspot, it was probably controlled by the mob. The original owners, Morris Brodsky and Harry Hirsch, died within days of each other in January 1949 following “injuries inflicted by an assailant.”

Ridge Avenue Cultural District

The Elmer Snowden Trio played here in April 1946.

Heath Brothers’ Family Home

In his autobiography, “I Walked with Giants,” Jimmy Heath lovingly recalled the jam sessions in his parents’ basement that attracted the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.

Jimmy Heath Family Home - Basement

Benny Golson recounted:

Enough cannot be said about Mr. and Mrs. Heath, his mother and father, who continuously put up with all of us who used to come to their home in South Philadelphia, remove all of the furniture in the living and dining room, then begin our rehearsal. No matter what we did, how much noise (music) we made or how late we did it, they were always our champions. It was their support that, in part, enabled us to grow. And grow we did.

And grow they did. Both Heath and Golson are NEA Jazz Masters.

Bijou Cafe

The Bijou Café opened on October 4, 1972. The club was in the former location of the legendary Showboat. The Bijou hosted such jazz greats as Miles Davis, Charles Mingus and Bill Evans. Grover Washington, Jr. recorded “Live at the Bijou” in May 1977.

In the 1970s and early ‘80s, the Bijou was Philadelphia’s premier showcase for up-and-coming artists, including Barry Manilow, Angela Bofill and U2.

Longtime radio personality T. Morgan recalled:

The jazz lineups were nothing short of spectacular and the comedy was even better! The National Lampoon Show with future superstars John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Gilda Radner and Lorraine Newman all appeared together. Another comedy troupe, Firesign Theater also appeared. Billy Crystal was an opening act four times and a headliners three times. His impersonation of Muhammad Ali was a big crowd favorite. Albert Brooks, Richard Pryor, Martin Mull and his Fabulous Furniture, Steve Martin, Jerry Seinfeld and Dick Gregory all keep the audiences amused.

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Ridge Avenue

During Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz, there were jazz clubs in every neighborhood. There were so many that folks in North Philly didn’t go to joints in South Philly and vice versa. There were a handful of clubs that reached legendary status and attracted patrons from all over the city. The Blue Note at 15th Street and Ridge Avenue was “the town’s swankiest jazz emporium.”

From 15th Street to Columbia Avenue (later renamed Cecil B. Moore Avenue), Ridge Avenue was a jazz corridor where legends-in-the-making roamed.

Ridge Avenue Entertainment District - 7.26.17