This year marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s remarks to the 1st Berlin Jazz Festival. In the foreword to the program, Dr. King wrote:
God has wrought many things out of oppression. He has endowed his creatures with the capacity to create—and from this capacity has flowed the sweet songs of sorrow and joy that have allowed man to cope with his environment and many different situations.
Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.
This is triumphant music.
Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.
Twenty years earlier, a jazz drummer, Joseph Rudolph Jones, triumphed over the hard reality facing black employees of the Philadelphia Transportation Company. When the PTC proposed to hire blacks as trolley car operators, the segregated Philadelphia Rapid Transit Employees Union staged a wildcat strike. As Bart Everts wrote for Hidden City Philadelphia, the illegal strike threatened the war effort:
Seventy years ago, on August 1, 1944, a faction of white transit workers with the Philadelphia Transit Company (PTC) staged a wildcat strike for a nefarious reason: they didn’t want African Americans, employed by the transit company as mechanics and laborers, to be given the same high paying jobs driving the trolleys they had.
The strike effectively shut down Philadelphia, one of the key centers of defense related manufacturing, at a crucial moment in World War II. The action halted the city’s war production, as workers were unable to get to the Navy Yard and factories throughout the city. Philadelphia was the third largest producer of war materials (about one of every six dollars spent here), and the military and federal government quickly took notice. The threat of a major disruption was so severe that the Roosevelt Administration intervened, ending the strike after a week.
When the strike ended, Jones was among the first group of African American trolley operators (Jones is on the far left).
Legendary jazz drummer Charlie Rice recounted that Jones was a multi-tasker:
Joe had a job driving a trolley car – the 21 line that extended from Chestnut Hill, at the very top of Philadelphia at the North End, all the way through the city down to South Philadelphia. That was the longest trolley ride in the city.
It ran on 11th Street, right past the Downbeat, which was on the second floor.
Joe often stopped the trolley in front of the club. He’d grab the controls, jump out, and sit in for a number or two. The people hung out the window of the trolley, growing more and more impatient. They wanted to get home, or wherever they were going. When Joe got back to the trolley, everybody would cheer, and off they’d go to South Philly.
Joe, better known as Philly Joe Jones, went on to become a modern jazz drumming legend.
Long before Philly Joe Jones became the drummer of choice for Miles Davis and John Coltrane, his trolley route went pass Coltrane’s apartment on 12th Street in North Philly. While the rowhouse where Coltrane lived when his family migrated from North Carolina is no longer there, the tracks are still visible.