On Saturday at the Merriam Theater, bassist Christian McBride performed like it was 1969. McBride’s “The Movement, Revisited” is centered around the words of four Civil Rights icons, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Muhammad Ali.
McBride shared that he grew up reading Jet and Ebony which gave him a history lesson in the black experience. The four icons stood out for him. “The Movement, Revisited” stems from a commission by the Portland Arts Society to compose a piece for Black History Month:
The genesis for this project began in 1998 when McBride was commissioned by the Portland (ME) Arts Society to compose THE MOVEMENT, Revisited, a two-part composition for small instrumental group and gospel ensemble. This year, McBride envisioned a project of wider scope on the same theme and it has grown into a full-scale, 90-minute production.
The narrators brought to life the personality and passion of their character. I particularly enjoyed McBride’s exuberant “Rumble in the Jungle.” The choir evoked the spirit of the Freedom Singers with “I’m So Tired” and “Freedom, Struggle.”
I don't want to predict anything, but the magnitude of the piece - why it was written, what it was about - I can't imagine I'll ever write something as monumental on this scale again. I do get overwhelmed playing it, and every time I do, it feels new. Sometimes, I play this piece and still go, “Wow, did I really write this?”
If the standing ovation is any indication, the audience was wowed by the piece.
McBride’s message music harkens back to earlier generations of jazz greats who were inspired by the struggle for racial justice. In 1929, Louis Armstrong asked, “(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue.” Composed by Fats Waller, it is considered the first American popular song of racial protest.
Billie Holiday told the world about the horrors of lynching.
Both Armstrong and Holiday are featured in an exhibition at the Library of Congress, “The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom.” The multimedia exhibition explores the events that shaped the Civil Rights Movement. It includes manuscripts like Dr. Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” composed in 1954 and popularized by Nina Simone in the 1960s.
In 1959, bassist Charles Mingus composed “Fables of Faubus,” a satirical protest against Arkansas governor Orval Faubus who had deployed the Arkansas National Guard to Little Rock Central High School to prevent nine African American students from entering the segregated school.
Jazz has an element of freedom. It is that freedom that allowed jazz musicians to use their platform to sound a message of defiance and resistance. From John Coltrane’s “Alabama” to Max Roach’s “We Insist! Freedom Now Suite,” jazz was a soundtrack to the Civil Rights Movement.
I am an accidental preservationist. For this lifelong activist, the movement to save diverse places is about racial justice. It’s about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story.
In his remarks before the National Trust for Historic Preservation's annual conference, Bryan Stevenson, founding director of the Equal Justice Initiative, spoke eloquently about the ways in which the built environment reflects social inequalities:
Identity matters. You can tell the identity of a nation by looking at what they honor. . . . There is power in memorialization. You preserve the things that matter. . . . We do an injustice when we tell stories about history that are incomplete.
From the Civil War to Civil Rights, Philadelphia’s historic resources tell a more complete American story. But in Philly, only two percent of historic properties are protected. Incredibly in the 1950s, City Hall narrowly escaped the wrecking ball. Much to the chagrin of city leaders, including Edmund Bacon, then-head of the Planning Commission, rehabilitation cost less than demolition. In other words, it was “cheaper to keep her.”
Fast forward to today, gentrification is laying bare Philadelphia’s culture of demolition. As I write this post, a developer is demolishing the church where Marian Anderson learned to sing and the congregation nurtured her talent. The world renowned contralto helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement.
The Royal Theater was a center of the African American community from the 1920s to the 1950s. It was Philly’s first and largest movie theater to cater exclusively to African Americans. Although it’s listed in the National Register of Historic Places and the Philadelphia Register, the historic property is about to undergo a “facadectomy.”
These places are at the intersection of historic preservation and social justice. The buildings’ social history of resistance and triumph is connected to contemporary issues, including gentrification, displacement, income inequality and social inequity. Truth be told, developers are deciding which places are important.
In Los Angeles and Phoenix, adaptive reuse is a matter of public policy. Philadelphia’s culture of demolition has been exacerbated by the 10-year residential tax abatement which provides a perverse incentive for developers to tear down historic buildings.
To bring about policy changes, we must engage and empower accidental preservationists to become stewards of historical assets in their neighborhood.
I'm off to Washington, DC for PastForward, a conference of people saving places that matter.
I was awarded a diversity scholarship so I'm particularly looking forward to the PastForward Diversity Summit sponsored by the National Park Service and the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of African American History and Culture. During a Twitter chat on Friday, I invoked an African proverb to underscore why diversity matters:
Some of the diversity sessions will be livestreamed. You can sign up to be a Virtual Attendee at no cost. You also can join the conversation via Twitter using the hashtag #SaveDiversePlaces.
Coltrane was into cultural heritage preservation before it was cool. His composition, “Alabama” was in response to the Sept. 15, 1963, bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church that killed four young girls. His mournful tribute captured the zeitgeist of the Civil Rights Movement.
Philadelphia shaped and nurtured Coltrane. On June 5, 1945, the Dizzy Gillespie Quartet, featuring Charlie Parker, performed at the Academy of Music. Coltrane and Benny Golson were seated in the next-to-last row. In an interview with the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project, NEA Jazz Master Golson recalled:
When we heard – John and I – when we first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie – I told you he was sounding like Johnny Hodges – our lives changed that night. We had never heard any music like that. Never. We were screaming like these Beatles groupies, when they used to hear the Beatles.
Coltrane kicked his heroin habit at his home in Strawberry Mansion, a neighborhood in North Central Philly. The Mural Arts Program, in collaboration with the community, honored a former neighbor. On or about Sept. 15, 2014, Pennrose Company demolished the Tribute to John Coltrane mural.
Pennrose has not contributed a dime to replace the tribute to an American icon. The cultural resource was paid for, in part, by taxpayers. After being called out, a company rep lied about “ongoing discussions.”
I know they lied because I was part of the only discussion that has taken place. At the March 10, 2015, meeting with Mural Arts, Lopa Kolluri, Pennrose's Vice President of Operations, asked for a “menu of options.” Mural Arts sent a proposal and several follow-up emails to which Pennrose has yet to respond.
Pennrose's arrogance is particularly galling given the company has feasted on public subsidies seasoned with political donations for nearly 40 years. In 1989, a Philadelphia Inquirer story noted the company's reliance on government subsidies.
Pennrose doesn't think our stories matter, but we do. It's our responsibility to remember the ancestors and preserve their legacy for future generations. #BlackCultureMatters
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 civic asset is on the chopping block.
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.