March is Women in Jazz Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of women to jazz.
As a lifelong activist, I want to celebrate the role that women in jazz played in paving the way for the Civil Rights Movement. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol, is the first protest song.
Ethel Waters’ “Supper Time” is not well-known. Written by Irving Berlin especially for Waters, the song is about a wife’s grief over the lynching of her husband.
For Lady Day and Ethel Waters, Black Lives always mattered.
African Americans have resisted historic and ongoing oppression, in all forms, especially the racial terrorism of lynching, racial pogroms, and police killings since our arrival upon these shores. These efforts have been to advocate for a dignified self-determined life in a just democratic society in the United States and beyond the United States political jurisdiction. The 1950s and 1970s in the United States were defined by actions such as sit-ins, boycotts, walk outs, strikes by Black people and white allies in the fight for justice against discrimination in all sectors of society from employment to education to housing. Black people have had to consistently push the United States to live up to its ideals of freedom, liberty, and justice for all. Systematic oppression has sought to negate much of the dreams of our griots, like Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston, and our freedom fighters, like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Septima Clark, and Fannie Lou Hamer fought to realize.
Billie Holiday denounced the terrorism of lynching in “Strange Fruit,” the first protest song. Bassist Charles Mingus observed that Lady Day resisted racial oppression before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
From Louis Armstrong to Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, jazz is the music of Black Resistance.
Poet Langston Hughes said jazz transformed Black Resistance into an art form:
But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.
Jazz is the sound of resilience and the struggle for freedom.
“The Sound of Jazz” aired on CBS on December 8, 1957.
Recorded live from CBS Studio 58 in New York City, the one-hour program was hosted by New York Herald-Tribune media critic John Crosby. “The Sound of Jazz” was the first major program featuring jazz to air on network television. A who’s who of blues and jazz greats performed, including Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Jimmy Rushing, Thelonious Monk, Henry Red Allen, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Jo Jo Jones, Gerry Mulligan and Roy Eldridge.
Billie Holiday, née Eleanora Fagan, was born on April 7, 1915 at Philadelphia General Hospital. “Looking for Lady Day,” hosted and written by news anchor Tamala Edwards, is a fact-based portrait of the iconic singer who changed the game on and off stage.
All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson leads a walking tour, “Billie Holiday’s Philadelphia.” The tour starts at the Bessie Smith Walk of Fame plaque. During an appearance on “Eddie Condon Floor Show Live” in 1949, Condon remarked, “You’re the best Bessie I’ve seen since Bessie.”
The walking tour ends at the Attucks Hotel (distance: 0.7 miles).
The stops include the Academy of Music, Billie Holiday Walk of Fame plaque, and sites of the Fantasy Lounge and South Broad Street USO.
We also stop at hotels where Lady Day stayed, including the hotel where she and her husband, Louis McKay, were arrested. The arrest is depicted in the biopic United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Our next-to-last stop is the Green Book site where Billie Holiday performed four months before her death. Emerson’s is the setting for the Broadway play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” Audra McDonald won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play.
To schedule a presentation or to be added to the mailing list, contact Faye Anderson at email@example.com.
It has been nearly 62 years since Billie Holiday passed away. Hundreds of dissertations, books, films and documentaries later, she is a blank canvas onto which fans and detractors project their hopes, dreams and issues. I see a strong Black woman whose back did not bend.
From an early age, Billie was failed by the institutions that should have protected her. She was racially profiled and harassed by the FBI and hounded by the Philadelphia Police Department. From where Billie sat, the whole of the United States was arrayed her. But still she persisted. She didn’t give a damn what folks thought about her drug abuse, sexuality or string of no-good men.
Billie was a popular club artist and concert artist but she harbored no illusion about her audiences. She famously said, “They come to see me fall on my ass.” While there, she demanded their attention when she sang “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching protest song that took a toll on her livelihood and ultimately her life.
The Billie Holiday historical marker at 1409 Lombard Street piqued my interest in investigating her story beyond the marker. One of Billie’s Philadelphia stories is told in the new biopic starring Andra Day and directed by Lee Daniels.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is now streaming on Hulu.
Former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo was sued by the Justice Department for a pattern of police brutality that shocks the conscience. Rizzo died on July 16, 1991. He was born again eight years later in the form of a 10-foot monument commissioned by Rizzo family and friends.
The Frank L. Rizzo Memorial Committee decided to place the statue in front of the Municipal Services Building. They also decided it would be unveiled on New Year’s Day 1999 after the Mummers Parade, an event best known for clowns prancing around in blackface.
Almost from the moment the hunk-of-junk was unveiled, African Americans and allies peacefully protested for its removal from the gateway to municipal services. Fast forward to 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney said it would be removed by May 2018. Then he said by 2021. Then Kenney said the statue would not be moved before 2022. On May 30, 2020, demonstrators tried to topple it.
Realizing the jig is up, Kenney said the statue would be removed:
The way its engineered, it’s bolted into the stairs and under the stairs is the concourse where people get their permits and pay their taxes. We didn’t want to tear that up until we did the entire place. We’re going to move it, hopefully in about another month or so. We’re going to accelerate the removal.
The protests accelerated the removal. Rizzo was hauled away three days later. As for the concourse under the stairs, who are we to believe – Kenney or our lying eyes?
Kenney’s lie was compounded by his spokesperson Michael Dunn:
The statue is bolted into the infrastructure of the plaza, which is also the roof of the underground concourse. Removing it while ensuring the integrity of that infrastructure will be a complicated task.
It was such a complicated task the statue was removed under the cover of darkness.
March is Women in Jazz Month, a time to celebrate and recognize the contributions of women to jazz. As a lifelong activist, I want to celebrate women who used music as a platform for social change.
Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is well-known.
Ethel Waters’ “Supper Time” is not as well-known. Written by Irving Berlin especially for Waters, the song is about a wife’s grief over the lynching of her husband.
Ella Fitzgerald broke down racial barriers. On October 7, 1955, the “First Lady of Song” performed with the Jazz at the Philharmonic in Houston. The concert tour was produced by her manager Norman Granz, an ally in the fight for racial justice. The Music Hall had “Negro” and “White” labels on the bathroom doors. Shortly before the show, Granz removed the labels.
Houston’s segregationists were angry about Granz’s attempt to integrate the show by refusing to pre-sell tickets. Some whites asked for a refund rather than sit next to an African American. After the first show, the police stormed Fitzgerald’s dressing room and arrested her, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and other musicians on trumped-up charges.
With the intervention of her friend, actress Marilyn Monroe, Fitzgerald was the first African American to perform at the legendary Mocambo nightclub.