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As a preservationist, I am in awe of Pops and Lucille Armstrong’s dedication to preserving his legacy in public memory. The Louis Armstrong House Museum, a National Historic Landmark, and the new Louis Armstrong Center provide a blueprint for preservation of the built environment, as well as cultural heritage preservation.
Pops once said, “I don’t get involved in politics. I just blow my horn.” Behind closed tours, he had a lot to say about politics and racism. Decades after his death, the public will hear the full story of Louis Armstrong in the documentary, “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues.”
The legendary trumpeter got his flowers while he was alive. Pops is now getting overdue props for his resilience and resistance to white supremacy. “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” premieres October 28 on Apple TV.
In their latest court filing to gain possession of the Strawberry Mansion rowhouse that John Coltrane purchased in 1952, Ravi and Oran Coltrane claim their father’s beloved cousin, “Mary Lyerly Alexander, put in place a plan to unlawfully claim the Coltrane House for herself and her progeny instead of the remaining grandchildren of Alice Gertrude Coltrane, as required by the Will.” Ravi and Oran speciously claim that a typo is evidence that conveyance of the Philadelphia property was “fraudulent.” In the deed conveying the property to Norman Gadson in 2004, Coltrane is misspelled “Cultrate.”
Cousin Mary had a plan to preserve the John Coltrane House. After decades of indifference, do Ravi and Oran Coltrane now have a plan to rehabilitate the National Historic Landmark?
To catch up on the ongoing John Coltrane House family feud, go here.
In the Before Times, I celebrated John Coltrane’s birthday (September 23, 1926) by leading a walking tour. We would meet at Coltrane’s Walk of Fame plaque where I would give an overview of the legendary saxophonist’s time in Philadelphia and talk about the John Coltrane House.
In light of the drama unfolding in the Court of Common Pleas, I am not in a celebratory mood. Coltrane’s sons, Ravi and Oran, are suing Norman Gadson’s daughters, Aminta and Hathor, for possession of the Philadelphia rowhouse that their father purchased in 1952 and where he composed Giant Steps.
They claim Mary Lyerly Alexander, better known as Cousin Mary, “duped” Gadson into buying property that she had no right to sell. Gadson paid $100,000 for the National Historic Landmark in 2004. That same year, John and Alice Coltrane’s house in Dix Hills, NY was at imminent risk of demolition.
On August 31, 2022, the third anniversary of Alexander’s death, Defendants allege in court documents that Cousin Mary “extinguished” Ravi and Oran’s remainder interest in the property with their knowledge and acquiescence. Defendants further claim that if they lose possession of the property, they should be reimbursed more than $220,000 for costs incurred in maintaining, renovating and insuring the Coltrane House. They claim “Plaintiffs would have no remainder interest were it not for the activities of Gadson and his successors.”
While the claims and counterclaims fly back and forth, I think about that hot and humid Saturday morning when something – or someone – told me to go check on the Coltrane House. Later that day, I learned Cousin Mary had died.
I vowed at Cousin Mary’s homecoming celebration that I would do everything I could to save the National Historic Landmark.
Little did I know my successful nomination of the John Coltrane House for listing on 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk would set in motion this family feud.
Ravi and Oran have cast aspersions on Cousin Mary. The court will decide who owns the Strawberry Mansion rowhouse. But for nearly 40 years, Cousin Mary devoted her life to preserving John Coltrane’s legacy in public memory. On July 6, 2004, she agreed to sell the property to Norman Gadson, a friend and jazz enthusiast who shared her vision for a Coltrane Museum and Cultural Center. Three months earlier, random Coltrane aficionados, preservationists and local officials saved from demolition Ravi and Oran’s childhood home in Dix Hills, NY. The place where their father composed A Love Supreme.
Scottish historian Sir Walter Scott observed, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”
Ownership of the John Coltrane House has been a tangled web ever since the property owner of record, Norman Gadson, died in 2007. I raised the “tangled title” issue with Ravi Coltrane on March 13, 2020. During the conference call, Ravi said organizations raising money in the name of John Coltrane need the permission of the Estate of John and Alice Coltrane. This “ties their hands unless there’s a partnership with the Estate.” That was my first and only conversation with Coltrane’s son.
In a lawsuit filed on April 27, 2022, Ravi and his brother Oran claim they are the rightful owners of the Strawberry Mansion rowhouse that their father bought in 1952. Coltrane and his first wife, Juanita “Naima” Austin,conveyed the property to his mother, Alice Gertrude Coltrane, on March 24, 1958.
Coltrane’s sons allege their father’s beloved cousin, Mary Lyerly Alexander, better known as Cousin Mary, “duped” (read: deceived) Gadson into paying $100,000 to purchase her life estate in the Coltrane House. According to Alice Gertrude Coltrane’s Last Will and Testament, Cousin Mary had “the right and privilege to live on the premises at 1511 North 33rd Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during her lifetime.” Her life estate ended on August 31, 2019.
My successful nomination of the Coltrane House for listing on 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk is cited in the Complaint and included in an exhibit, but I found out about the lawsuit by happenstance. The lawsuit was also a surprise to the defendants, Aminta Gadson Weldon and Hathor Gadson. A spokesperson for the defendants’ lawyer, Edward A. Fox, said in a statement:
The Early-Gadson family was enormously surprised and saddened to learn of the litigation filed by John Coltrane’s sons given the family’s 18-year history of ownership, preservation, and deep commitment to this National Historic Landmark, with the full knowledge of the Coltrane family.
The parties have clammed up. So I decided to follow the money to try to untangle the web of claims and counterclaims.
The John and Alice Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, New York is owned and stewarded in partnership by the Town of Huntington and Friends of the Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, a nonprofit organization. On September 21, 2021, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Friends of the Coltrane Home a grant of $1 million“to support the preservation of the Home, enhance organizational capacity, and expand programmatic offerings.” In announcing the grant, the Mellon Foundation notes: “While the funds received from the Mellon Foundation will go a long way to renovating the Home and transforming it into an innovative museum, additional support will be needed before the Home can be opened to the public.”
The Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation (SMCDC) has raised $855,000 for the Coltrane House, including a $300,000 grant awarded under Pennsylvania’s Blight Remediation Program on May 25, 2021. The reimbursable grant is for “engineering and renovation costs associated with façade remediation activities at the Coltrane House Property.” The grant ends on June 30, 2023.
The Mellon Foundation awarded SMCDC $500,000 for the John Coltrane House Museum and Cultural Arts Center on December 10, 2021. The two-year Humanities in Place grant is “to support organizational capacity and development for a community-focused project honoring the legacy of John Coltrane.” SMCDC needs an additional $5 million before the John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center can be opened to the public.
According to their IRS return, Friends of the Coltrane House received $18,100 in contributions in 2020. Between 2016 and 2020, the nonprofit received a combined total of $296,502 in contributions. Their 2013 Indiegogo and 2018 Kickstarter fundraisers were unsuccessful. Both campaigns closed after raising less than $9,000.
The O’Jays warned us that money can “do funny things to some people.” Ravi and Oran Coltrane’s lawsuit was filed four months after SMCDC received the Mellon Foundation grant. Defendants state SMCDC has “five other grant applications pending.” Did money and lack of permission from the Estate of John and Alice Coltrane trigger the lawsuit?
My lived experience tells me there’s more to the story. Stay tuned to “John Coltrane House Family Feud” as I follow the money.
The Coltrane House has been in a deteriorating condition for nearly four decades. Mary L. Alexander, better known as “Cousin Mary,” sounded the alarm as early as 1985.
Restoration has been stymied by, i.a., legal entanglements (the owner of record died in 2007) and lack of imagination. Over the past 20 years, there have been several schemes to repurpose the property as a historic house museum. The schemers failed to recognize that the traditional house museum business model wherein an organization must raise millions of dollars before the property is open to the public and millions more to keep the door open is no longer sustainable. According to a 2017 study (the most complete recent data), nearly 50% of history museums have an annual operating budget of less than $100,000.
As I wrote in an op-ed published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, an Act 135 conservatorship is the only viable option to save this National Historic Landmark.
I am collaborating with Chris Hytha, a digital artist and founder of the Rowhomes project, to raise awareness that the rowhome in which Coltrane lived from 1952 to 1958 is threatened. Hytha will create the John Coltrane House NFT, digital collectible art. He said:
NFTs are deeply rooted in the culture of collectability. Featuring the John Coltrane House would add another layer of historical significance, and has the potential to introduce this piece of Philadelphia history to a global audience. Collecting memorabilia has been a part of our culture for centuries, and NFTs provide a new outlet to raise funds for the preservation of this National Historic Landmark.
At the same time, I have teamed up with an architecture firm that is a pioneer in virtual design and construction. Building on floor plans, archival photos, scholarly research, oral histories and 3D rendering, we will digitally reconstruct the exterior, and virtually reimagine the interior the way it looked when Coltrane lived here (read: virtual period rooms).
John Coltrane House Digital Reconstruction is at the intersection of art, technology and historic preservation. We will improvise a new paradigm for historic preservation in the Digital Age.
At the same time, we will cast a wide net for a financially-capable alternate stewardship – an Act 135 conservatorship – to preserve the structure, the physical reminder of John Coltrane, in public memory. We are taking giant steps to preserve for the current generation and the next generation of tech users the rowhome where John Coltrane experienced a spiritual awakening and composed “Giant Steps.”
Bessie Smith famously told us: “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.”
I have made it my business to oppose the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s proposed Christian Street Historic District which would memorialize a small “light, bright, and damn near white” Negro elite. Cataclysmic events during the period of significance (1910 to 1945) include the Great Depression, the Great Migration, two World Wars, and the New Deal.
The Empress of the Blues lived on Christian Street. Her house is located less than 500 feet outside the arbitrary boundaries of the proposed historic district. The fact that one of the highest paid Black entertainers in the 1920s and ‘30s is excluded from the gentrifiers’ narrative about “Black wealth” tells you all you need to know about the merits of the nomination.
Bessie Smith shaped a fashion aesthetic for blues singers. Drexel University professor Alphonso McClendon, author of Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation, wrote:
Contrary to the sad lyrics they espoused, the blues ladies dressed in extravagant designs that articulated their growing wealth, as well as the changing attitudes of women. … In a publicity photo for Columbia Records , Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, captured the Oriental aesthetic, elegantly draped in a sleeveless net tunic embroidered with beads and floral appliqués that scalloped at the hem. Smith was known for her opulent headdresses that exploited beads, fringe and feathers, conceivably a strategy to emphasize the head as practiced by early African societies.
For info about the “Oriental aesthetic” and the Jazz Age, check out “Venus and Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age” exhibition presented by the Fox Historic Costume Collection at Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.
Historian and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, launched Negro History Week the second week of February 1926. Black history became a month-long celebration in 1976. Several Philadelphians are included on Woodson’s iconic broadside, Important Events and Dates in Negro History, including Richard Allen, Anthony Benezet, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, and Robert Purvis.
The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia erased 371 years of Black history and nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as Philadelphia’s first “Black-themed” historic district. I voiced opposition to the proposed Christian Street Historic District from the jump (here, here and here). February is the shortest month so I’ll keep it short: Why Christian Street? The most accomplished albeit largely unknown former resident of the proposed historic district, architect Julian F. Abele, did not identify as Negro. His biographer, Dreck Spurlock Wilson, told Smithsonian magazine, “For all intents and purposes, Julian did not consider himself black. He was almost a-racial. He buried himself in being an artist.”
In Julian Abele, Architect and the Beaux Arts, Wilson notes that Abele was not adverse to following in his brother Joseph’s footsteps but he was not light enough to pass for white. He wrote:
Abele’s racial denial approached delusion. He was both a cocoon with interstitial space for only himself and a shell to ward off unwelcome intrusions. It insulated his talent giving him precious time to mature and repelled the exigency of racism from subverting his ambition. He chose an existence that was neither black nor white. It was beige.
In view of his lifelong rejection of his racial identity, Abele would roll over in his grave at the notion that he would anchor a “Black-themed” historic district.
Abele’s great uncle, Absalom Jones, cofounded the Free African Society with Richard Allen who founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The historical markers memorializing this history are located at 6th and Lombard streets. Fact is, from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River there are extant buildings on Lombard Street where Black history happened.
Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mother Bethel is central to African American history and culture. Henry O. Tanner, who is included on Woodson’s broadside, created a bas-relief of Bishop Richard Allen, Sarah Allen and the blacksmith shop where the first AME church was built.
The April 1952 issue of Ebony magazine included a quiz, “Which is Negro? Which is White?”
The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as a “Black-themed” historic district. The notables who lived on that stretch, including architect Julian F. Abele, are largely unknown. According to his biographer, Abele did not identify as Negro; he classified himself “other.” Abele and his French wife lived at 1515 Christian Street. In 2021, African Americans are again asking, “Which is Negro? Which is White?”
The Preservation Alliance’s architectural historians claim that “between 1910 and 1945, the west side of Christian Street—from Broad to 20th—was ‘the social center of colored wealth and pride’ in Philadelphia.” Two white men crafted a narrative that flies in the face of decades of research by Black scholars, primary source documents, and African Americans’ lived experience. During the period of significance, “colored wealth” was concentrated among professionals. More doctors, dentists and lawyers lived on Lombard Street, and in West Philly and North Philly than on Christian Street. Colorism was the defining characteristic of the professionals who lived on so-called “Black Doctors’ Row.” Colorism is anti-Black racism by another name. By the way, when did the descriptor Black Doctors’ Row come into use? Before 1968, calling a Negro “black” would lead to a fight.
The myth of Black Doctors’ Row stems from a random article in the Philadelphia Tribune. In Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class in the United States, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier noted:
Although the Negro press declares itself to be the spokesman for the Negro group as a whole, it represents essentially the interests and outlook of the black bourgeoisie. Its demand for equality for the Negro in American life is concerned primarily with opportunities which will benefit the black bourgeoisie economically and enhance the social status of the Negro. The Negro press reveals the inferiority complex of the black bourgeoisie and provides a documentation of the attempts of this class to seek compensations for its hurt self-esteem and exclusion from American life. Its exaggerations concerning the economic well-being and cultural achievements of Negroes, its emphasis upon Negro “society” all tend to create a world of make-believe into which the black bourgeoisie can escape from its inferiority and inconsequence in American society.
As for Christian Street’s bougie Negroes being the center of racial pride, don’t get me started. Instead, listen to Dr. Frazier:
Their emotional and mental conflicts arise partly from their constant striving for status within the Negro world, as well as in the estimation of whites. Moreover, they have accepted unconditionally the values of the white bourgeois world: its morals and its canons of respectability, its standards of beauty and consumption. In fact, they have tended to overemphasize their conformity to white ideals. Nevertheless, they are rejected by the white world, and this rejection has created considerable self-hatred, since it is attributed to their Negro characteristics. At the same time, because of their ambivalence towards Negroes, they are extremely sensitive to slights and discriminations which Negroes suffer. Since they do not truly identify themselves with Negroes, the hollowness of the black bourgeoisie’s pretended “racial pride” is revealed in the value which it places upon a white or light complexion.
I will oppose the Christian Street Historic District nomination when it comes before the Philadelphia Historical Commission. For now, I will share some observations of Lawrence Otis Graham, the foremost authority on the Black elite. In his New York Times bestseller Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, Graham acknowledged:
Skin color has always played an important role in determining one’s popularity, prestige, and mobility within the black elite. It is hard to find an upper-class black American family that has been well-to-do since before the 1950s that has not endured family conversations on the virtues of “good hair, sharp features, and nice complexion.” These code words for having less Negroid features have been exchanged over time for more politically correct ones, but it is a fact that the black upper class thinks about these things more than most.
The Negro press also thought about skin color more than most. A large part of their revenue was derived from advertisements for skin bleaching products.
Graham’s kind of people — “the doctor-lawyer, high-church, high-yellow, Episcopalian crowd” — lived on Christian Street where the first meeting of Jack and Jill of America Inc. was held at the home of Marion Turner Stubbs who was married to Dr. Frederick D. Stubbs.
Graham grew up in Jack and Jill. In his chapter, “Jack and Jill: Where Elite Black Kids Are Separated from the Rest,” he wrote:
In its early years, Jack and Jill—like many groups that catered to the black establishment in the first half of the twentieth century—attracted a negative reaction from many blacks who lacked the resources, the pedigree, or the physical appearance to be considered for membership. History shows that some chapters, particularly the ones in the larger southern cities, were clearly guilty of placing a great emphasis on these characteristics, but others were unfairly attacked for doing the same thing when what really was happening was that they were just nominating people who were in their social circle, their church, their bridge club. And not surprisingly, these darker, less-pedigreed people had long before been shut out of those institutions.
Jack and Jill kids did not play with the kids at the Christian Street YMCA which was founded in 1889. The founding meeting was held at the Washington Square West home of William Still.
The Christian Street Historic District would memorialize a caste system that stems from slavery and the rape of Black women and girls by their enslavers. White supremacy comes in many guises, including colorism and self-hatred. Christian Street notables were “light, bright, and damn near white.” If Negroes did not have white-adjacent features or an economic status that “compensated” for their skin color and hair texture, they had to “get back, get back, get back.”
John Brown launched the raid on Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859.
The home of elite caterer Henry Minton was one of the last places the freedom fighter laid his head. Minton was an abolitionist and stockholder in the Underground Railroad. In The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that Minton “wielded great personal influence, aided the Abolition cause to no little degree, and made Philadelphia noted for its cultivated and well-to-do Negro citizens.”
Minton was a cosigner of an iconic Civil War recruitment broadside.
In Black History Month 2019, the Henry Minton House was considered for listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The Committee on Historic Designation unanimously recommended designating the property a historic landmark. On April 12, 2019, the Historical Commission ignored the recommendation and denied historic designation. City Council President Darrell Clarke’s designee was the lone vote in support of the nomination. Mayor Jim Kenney appointed 12 of the 13 commissioners.
On the eve of Black History Month 2021, New York City-based Midwood Investment & Development demolished the Henry Minton House. Midwood’s lawyer, Matthew McClure, was a member of the Mayor’s Task Force on Historic Preservation.
Since April 2019, I have railed against the Commission’s vote (here, here and here). As it turns out, the denial of historic designation was less about systemic racism and more about systemic cronyism. Last week, Josh Lippert, Department of Licenses & Inspections’ designee, blew the whistle. Lippert said he was “directed by the administration as a designee to the commission for L&I to vote against designation for a specific project for what I can tell was for development and/or political reasons.” He has since resigned.
Paul Chrystie, a spokesperson for the city, shrugged off Lippert’s allegation. Chrystie told WHYY, “There is nothing untoward about a Commissioner instructing his representative about how to represent him. Accordingly, in those cases in which the administration [read: Mayor Kenney] has a position on a proposed designation before [the historical commission], those departments are expected to be receptive to that position.”
Chrystie’s comment begs the question: Why would the Mayor and his appointees have a “position” other than to preserve one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad?
The Office of the Inspector General has opened an investigation. Councilmember Helen Gym (At Large) said in a statement:
We need to trust in the integrity of our public institutions. The recent allegations by a member of the Philadelphia Historical Commission must be taken very seriously.
Last year, I joined organizers, historians, and activists across the city to protect the Camac Baths, which proudly displayed our city’s tribute to LGBT visionary Gloria Casarez, and the Minton Residence, home and workplace of abolitionist Henry Minton. I share in the community outrage when the Commission denied these locations historical designations that could have protected them from destruction.
The OIG says, “See Something? Say Something.” At the April 12, 2019 meeting of the Historical Commission, I saw the commissioners ignore the unanimous recommendation of the Committee on Historic Designation. The chair of the Committee switched sides and voted to deny protection to the Henry Minton House.
To this day, Emily Cooperman has not explained why she changed her vote. So I reported the switcheroo to the OIG. Stay tuned.