This is your annual reminder that jazz is Black music. The demographics of those who get gigs, grants, fellowships, teaching opportunities, etc., are radically different from those who created jazz. But don’t get it twisted. They are enjoying the fruit of a tree which they didn’t plant. Jazz pianist, arranger and composer Mary Lou Williams drew a picture for the slow learners.
A race man, Duke Ellington said, “Dissonance is our way of life in America. We are something apart, yet an integral part. … I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people.”
A 1959 film, The Cry of Jazz, sparked controversy when one of the characters asserted that “jazz is merely the Negro’s cry of joy and suffering.” The character, Alex, explained that “the Negro was the only one with the necessary musical and human history to create jazz.”
The film was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2010. The films selected are considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant, to be preserved for all time. These films are not selected as the ‘best’ American films of all time, but rather as works of enduring significance to American culture.”
The first enslaved Africans were brought to Philadelphia in 1639. Philadelphia was the center of organized resistance to slavery. A visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture shows that the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia.
In a city with Black National Historic Landmarks and National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites, gentrifiers in the most gentrified neighborhood have proposed that six blocks – 1400 to 2000 Christian Street – be designated Philadelphia’s first “Black-themed” historic district. The notables who lived on this stretch of Christian Street are largely unknown but they lived in elegant townhouses. The 1300 block of Christian Street is not included in the proposed historic district because it is lined with basic rowhouses. The Bessie Smith House is located at 1319 Christian Street.
Philadelphia has a demolition crisis. Gentrifiers are exploiting Black history to preserve the historic fabric of the blocks from which African Americans have been displaced. If it is about Black history and culture, how do you exclude the Empress of the Blues? Download my statement on the proposed “Black-themed” historic district here.
Throughout our history, there has been no richer influence on the American songbook than Black music and culture. From early spirituals born out of the unconscionable hardships of slavery; to the creation of folk and gospel; to the evolution of rhythm and blues and jazz; to the ascendance of rock and roll, rap, and hip-hop — Black music has shaped our society, entertained and inspired us, and helped write and tell the story of our Nation.
During Black Music Appreciation Month, we honor the innovative artists whose musical expressions move us, brighten our daily lives, and bring us together. Across the generations, Black music has pioneered the way we listen to music while preserving Black cultural traditions and sharing the unique experiences of the Black community. Black artists have dramatically influenced what we all hear and feel through music — joy and sadness, love and loss, pride and purpose.
I embrace Duke Ellington’s dictum that there are two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. I love good music but I live for the blues.
I’m living proof of the power of music to transform lives.
At age 84, Buddy Guy is getting his flowers – and American Masters treatment.
Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase The Blues Away premieres on July 27, 2021 at 9 p.m. ET. The documentary will be available on PBS and PBS Video App.
There are new documentaries (here, here and here) and a hip-hop tribute.
On June 2, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Smithsonian magazine will hold a virtual panel discussion, “Historically Speaking: In Remembrance of Greenwood,” focusing on the development of Black Wall Street, the events leading up to the one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history, and the Black community’s resilience. The event is free but registration is required. To register, go here.
May is Preservation Month, a time to celebrate historic places that matter to you. The former Douglass Hotel matters to me. Built in 1926, the Douglass Hotel was first listed in the Green Book in 1938. The property was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1995. The historical marker out front notes that when Billie Holiday was “[i]n this city, she often lived here.”
The Douglass Hotel was a safe haven for Black travelers. While the hotel rooms were basic, the basement was magical. For nearly four decades, and several ownership and name changes, the basement space played host to jazz greats from Cannonball Adderley to Joe Zawinul. In the 1950s it was known as the Rendezvous Club. In the 1960s, it was renamed the Showboat. In the 1970s, it was the Bijou Café. This door leads down to the basement where Sidney Bechet, John Coltrane and Grover Washington Jr. recorded live albums.
The future Queen of Soul performed in the basement of the Douglass Hotel on January 2, 1961. In Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul, John Wilson, a pianist for the legendary Clara Ward and the Ward Singers, recalled:
Aretha Franklin came to Philly to sing at the Showboat Club on Lombard Street. After checking in at the hotel upstairs over the club, she took a cab over to Mom Ward’s house to get connected to familiar souls. She was a little nervous about breaking into pop singing. That night Clara, me, and Rudy (the Wards’ chauffeur) went to the Showboat to catch Aretha’s performance. The only people familiar with the name Aretha Franklin were gospel people, who weren’t about to show up. They were angry at her crossing over to pop. When we went in the door we heard that wonderful voice and saw that it was being wasted on an almost empty house.
Sixty years later, there will be full houses to see the movie RESPECT starring Academy Award® Winner Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin.
RESPECT will be in theaters in August. If the movie lives up to the trailer, a second Oscar might be in Jennifer Hudson’s future.
Gaetano “Pop” Sciolla opened Sciolla’s Supper Club shortly after the end of Prohibition. Along with the Latin Casino and Palumbo’s, the Northeast nightspot was one of the “Big Three” nightclubs in Philadelphia.
Sciolla’s booked top acts, including Paul Anka, Frankie Avalon, Tony Bennett, Chubby Checker, Bobby Darin, Fats Domino, Bobby Rydell, Della Reese, Jackie Wilson, The Mills Brothers and The Platters.
Sciolla’s was later managed by Pop’s son, Anthony J. Sciolla.
Sciolla’s was the place “where the unknowns got their start.” One such unknown was Teddy Pendergrass whose mother, Ida, was a cleaning woman at the club. In interviews, Pendergrass said he taught himself how to play drums at Sciolla’s.
On May 5, 1959, tenor saxophonist John Coltrane entered Atlantic Studios to lay down the tracks for “Giant Steps” with pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor.
Coltrane composed “Giant Steps” while living in Philadelphia. His rowhouse in the Strawberry Mansion neighborhood is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places and the National Register of Historic Places. The property was designated a National Historic Landmark, the highest recognition for a historic property, in 1999. For more than a decade, the house has been deteriorating before our eyes and the subject of hand-wringing. So I nominated the historic landmark for 2020 Preservation At Risk.
For years now, questions regarding the future of the Coltrane House have been circulating within the preservation, jazz, local, national, and international realms. SMCDC has always viewed the house where Mr. Coltrane, his mother and cousin Mary lived, as a significant cultural and community asset that represents the community’s long-time relationship to jazz and Fairmount Park. SMCDC views the site feasibility study as the basis to implement its plan to restore the house as a museum, preserve the row’s architectural character, create a gateway to Strawberry Mansion and develop a world class venue where jazz can be heard, studied and appreciated.
As important, the Estate of Norman Gadson is involved. Gadson purchased the property from Cousin Mary in 2004. Aminta Gadson, an heir to the estate, said:
While my family and I have had a challenging time maintaining this property, we are happy to have been able to preserve it thus far because of the value it holds. We hope and pray that as future stewards, SMCDC, can restore it and share it with jazz fans worldwide.
On Mother’s Day 1985, the City of Philadelphia, under the “leadership” of Mayor W. Wilson Sr., dropped a bomb in a residential neighborhood, killing 11 Black people, including five children. Wilson stood by as his police commissioner and fire commissioner decided to let the fire burn.
Adding fuel to the fire, we now know the remains of at least one of the children, Katricia “Tree” Africa, were stored at University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and shuttled back and forth between UPenn and Princeton University for research without the consent of the family. A week ago, retired anthropology professor Alan Mann said he had not seen the remains in more than a decade. Mann told The Philadelphia Inquirer:
I would’ve given them back years ago, if anyone had asked me. There’s absolutely no reason for us to keep them. They should be given back.
The “body snatcher” lied. Mann has turned the remains of Tree Africa over to a Black-owned funeral home. The Inquirer reports:
The remains of a young girl killed in the MOVE bombing were delivered to a West Philadelphia funeral home on Friday by an anthropologist who had been in possession of them.
Alan Mann, a former University of Pennsylvania anthropology professor hired by a city commission to identify the remains in the 1980s, confirmed Friday that he gave the remains — a pelvic bone and part of a femur believed to be from Tree Africa — to the Terry Funeral Home.
Gregory Burrell, the chief executive of the funeral home, said Friday morning he picked up the remains from Mann’s home in New Jersey.
The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize to the Africa Family and the members of our community for allowing human remains recovered from the MOVE house to be used for research and teaching, and for retaining the remains for far too long.
Reuniting the remains with the Africa Family is our goal, and I am in direct conversation with them. The Africa Family and our community have experienced profound emotional distress as a result of the news that human remains from the horrific 1985 bombing of the MOVE house were at the Penn Museum and this fact has urgently raised serious questions: Why were the remains at the Museum in the first place? Why were they used for teaching purposes? And, most importantly, what are we going to do to resolve this situation?
In 2018, Philadelphia named a street after the mayor who set in motion the MOVE bombing and the still unfolding dehumanization of Black lives.
On May 7, 2021, Philadelphia City Council Committee on Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs will hold a hearing on the city’s landmarks and monuments review process.
Street names are also reminders of anti-Black racism and bigotry. Goode is forever associated with the wanton disregard of Black lives. In this moment of racial reckoning and restorative justice, the City of Philadelphia should erase W. Wilson Goode Sr.’s name from public memory.
I recently checked out SEPTA’s “Portal to Discovery” art installation on view at the subway station closest to Independence Hall. When it is safe to go maskless outdoors, I will lead walking tours to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad. The starting point is right above SEPTA’s 5th Street/Independence Hall station so I was eager to see whether any of the historic figures that I talk about are depicted. I was happy to see many are, including Still, Jane Johnson, Frances E.W. Harper and Frederick Douglass.
My happiness turned to dismay when I noticed Douglass’ first name is spelled “Fredrick.”
Why didn’t anyone notice the misspelling before the mural was installed? As it turns out, Tom Judd learned about the misspelling in February. Judd then concocted a story that the misspelling was intentional so that he would not have to admit his mistake. In the midst of the national reckoning on race, a white artist effectively said eff it. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:
Judd said he was upset about it. But he decided to let it go at that point because the error could be explained as “fitting into” a narrative that the chalkboard display had been written by a school student.
He voiced regrets for that decision. “I can see how it landed, like [it was] white people’s entitlement thinking that it [the misspelling] doesn’t matter,” Judd said.
For his “narrative” to make sense, the student’s teacher would not have caught the spelling error. To save face, Judd was willing to cast aspersions on Philadelphia’s teachers. This is white privilege in action. The real narrative is a story of indifference to Black history and the lack of diversity at the Philadelphia Art Commission which approved the design.
The misspelling has been corrected but “Frederick” sticks out like a sore thumb.
I recognize that 99.9% of those who view the mural will not notice the patch. But for me, it will remain a sore point. From the New York Times to student newspapers, misspelled names are routinely corrected. Yet a white artist, who was paid $200,000 in taxpayers’ money, apparently thought it was no big deal that he misspelled the name of a Black icon and seminal figure in American history.
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.