Two years ago I launched All That Philly Jazz, a public history project that is telling the story of Philadelphia’s rich jazz legacy. In documenting the places where jazz history unfolded, I also want to contextualize the impact of jazz musicians and the jazz culture.
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.
African American bankers E. C. Brown and Andrew Stevens opened the Dunbar Theater in 1919, with plans to offer refined entertainment. However, within two years, business floundered and Brown and Stevens sold the theater to John T. Gibson, the black owner of the more raucous Standard Theater on South Street.
Later during the Depression, Gibson was forced to sell the theater to white owners who renamed it the Lincoln Theater.
From the 1920s to 1940s, the 1400-seat theater hosted major performers such as Duke Ellington, Louise Beavers, Willie Bryant, Lena Horne, Don Redman, Ethel Waters, Cab Calloway, Paul Robeson and Fats Waller.
The joint was jumping.
All That Philly Jazz was named one of the top 50 jazz blogs and websites for jazz musicians, teachers and students. We came in at #41. The list includes JazzWax and Jazz at Lincoln Center.
Way to go!
For more news and mentions, check out ICYMI: All That Philly Jazz in the News.
Opened in 1809, the Walnut Street Theatre is the nation’s oldest theatre. In 1978, the theatre launched a superstar jazz series, kicked off by saxophonist Dexter Gordon.
Other performers in the series included Woody Shaw, Sonny Rollins and McCoy Tyner.
In 1957, Sister Rosetta Tharpe moved to Philadelphia. She was a first-generation resident in the historical Yorktown neighborhood, and a member of Bright Hope Baptist Church.
From Philadelphia, she did some of her finest recordings, releasing five LP’s and gaining a Grammy nomination with her 1968 album, “Precious Memories.” Her tours of Europe in the late 1950’s helped to spark the British blues revival and onset of 1960’s popular music.
Sister Rosetta was gospel’s first superstar who brought spiritual music into the mainstream with a blend of blues, jazz, big band, and rhythm & blues. Her ringing soprano voice and guitar virtuosity set her apart from other greats of gospel’s Golden Age. She was inducted into the Blues Hall of Fame.
In 2011, a historical marker was installed outside the house in Yorktown where she lived for 15 years, until her death in 1973.
The Met was located in the Metropolitan Opera House.
From Curbed Philadelphia:
The Philadelphia Metropolitan Opera House was built in 1908 by Oscar Hammerstein I, the grandfather of Oscar Hammerstein II. Designed by architect William H. McElfatrick, it sat some 4,000 people, becoming the largest theater of its kind in the world. After some time Hammerstein I fell into debt and sold the property, which then went through a number of owners. Over the years it’s served as a movie theater, circus venue, ballroom, and most recently, a church.
Legendary saxophonist, composer and arranger Benny Golson began his career in Philadelphia with Benjamin Clarence “Bull Moose” Jackson. In Whisper Not: The Autobiography of Benny Golson, the NEA Jazz Master recounted:
Three weeks after I joined the band, we landed a gig at the Wharton Settlement, 22nd Street and Columbia Avenue, a public venue for basketball, dances, swimming, checkers (anything to keep kids from idleness on city streets). We were paid: too good to be true, but welcome. Jackson’s band played stock arrangements that cost seventy-five cents each, most of which written by Spud Murphy or Van Alexander (who recently died at age one hundred) and other writers I have forgotten. Our repertoire included “Take the A Train,” “One O’Clock Jump,” “Tuxedo Junction,” “Jumpin’ at the Woodside,” “The 9:20 Special,” “Stardust,” “Down for Double,” and a variety of honorable standards. Sure enough, I received four dollars that night. It was months before I actually spent those precious few dollars, but I was on my way.
Published by Temple University Press, Golson’s autobiography is available for purchase here.