Tag Archives: Mary Lou Williams

We Knew What We Had: The Greatest Story Never Told

Like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh once had a robust jazz scene with legendary venues, including the Granada Theater and the Crawford Grill.

Crawford Vintage

Crawford Grill - Pittsburgh - Historical Marker - 2001

Pittsburgh produced jazz greats such as Art Blakey, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, George Benson, Ahmad Jamal, Stanley Turrentine, Billy Eckstine and Kenny Clarke.

We Knew What We Had2

Thanks to a new documentary, “We Knew What We Had: The Greatest Story Never Told,” the world will know what Pittsburgh had.

The one-hour documentary includes live performance clips of the Jazz Masters, interviews and archival photographs. As important, the filmmakers contextualize Pittsburgh’s jazz culture by exploring social conditions and historical events.

“We Knew What We Had: The Greatest Story Never Told” will air in February. For more information and air dates, visit their website.

Mary Lou Williams, Jazz Icon

This year marks the 115th anniversary of the birth of Mary Lou Williams. Since 1995, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts has paid tribute to the legendary pianist and composer with the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival.

Williams is the subject of a new documentary, Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band. The film premiered on public television on April 1.

Missed it? If you’re in the Philly area, you’re in luck. There will be a screening of the documentary on Tuesday, July 14, at the International House. Hosted by the Scribe Video Center, the screening and conversation with director Carol Bash is co-sponsored by the Leeway Foundation, Philadelphia Jazz Project, Ars Nova Workshop and Reelblack.

Sadly, luck is running out on the Women of Jazz mural, which depicts jazz icons including Williams, Billie Holiday and Nina Simone. This cultural asset is on the Philadelphia Housing Authority’s chopping block.

Women of Jazz Mural

On June 1, I provided public comment before the Philadelphia City Council Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless, which is chaired by Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell. I brought to Blackwell’s attention the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to demolish the mural. I made it clear the goal of increasing the availability of affordable housing and preserving the City’s jazz heritage is not mutually exclusive.

COUNCILWOMAN BLACKWELL: Thank you very much. So you’re saying they’re slated to tear down the mural?
MS. ANDERSON: Yes. The Women of Jazz mural at 3200 [block] of Arlington. It will be torn down sometime this year. The date to be determined.
COUNCILWOMAN BLACKWELL: All right. I’m happy to work on that.

The complete transcript is available here. Clap along if you’re happy.

Why Public Art Matters

June is Black Music Month. First observed in 1979 at the White House, I’m kicking off the celebration at City Hall where I will offer public comments at a hearing on the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund. Some background.

Last year, the Pennrose Company demolished the John Coltrane mural in Strawberry Mansion. Pennrose has been feeding at the public trough of government subsidies for decades. But in an instant, the company erased a tribute to an American cultural icon.

John Coltrane Collage

While the nation celebrates the centennial of the birth of Billie Holiday and  Mary Lou Williams, the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to demolish the Women of Jazz mural.

Women of Jazz Mural

Now, you might be wondering what is the connection between murals and affordable housing? Kelvin Jeremiah, President and CEO of PHA, said it best in his remarks before the City Council Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and The Homeless on April 27:

It is my view that the affordable housing crisis that confronts this great city is also an issue of deep-seated structural poverty. … Solving the poverty problem will go a long way to solve the affordable housing crisis.

Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation. A whopping 40 percent of school-aged children live in poverty. There is a correlation between education and poverty. If the educational achievement of poor children is increased, fewer will end up on PHA’s 10-year waiting list for public housing.

A growing body of evidence shows that students with access to arts education perform better on standardized tests. In addition to improved student achievement, arts education contributes to the development of cognitive and social skills, nurtures a motivation to learn, increases student attendance and fosters a positive school environment. At-risk students cite their participation in the arts as a reason for staying in school.

Students involved in arts instruction report less boredom in school. Ask students why they dropped out of school, they will say they were bored.

The School District of Philadelphia has drastically cut arts and music programs; 25 percent of schools offer no music instruction. In the absence of arts education, murals may be poor students’ only exposure to the arts.

At the opening of the new Whitney Museum, First Lady Michelle Obama said the arts “could inspire a young person to rise above the circumstances of their life and reach for something better.”

Community-based public art inspires young people to reach for their star.

Reach for Your Star

To be clear, it’s not about preserving brick-and-mortar. Instead, it’s about the transformative power of the arts to engage, motivate and keep students in schools.

It’s also not about money. Through digital and mobile technology, a mural can be recreated at a fraction of its original cost. Indeed, the cost of preserving this great city’s cultural heritage would be far less than, say, Pennrose’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions.