April is Jazz Appreciation Month. The City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection got the party started early with the Philly Celebrates Jazz kickoff on March 28th.
Mayor Jim Kenney proclaimed April as Philadelphia Jazz Appreciation Month. He also honored Philly native and Grammy Award-winning bassist and composer Christian McBride who was given an inscribed Liberty Bell, the equivalent of the key to the city.
Christian McBride is an ambassador of Philadelphia to the world, not only through his music, but also through his work as an educator and advocate for music education. “Christian’s story and accomplishments demonstrates the power of arts education, in our schools and communities, and the impact it can have on a person’s life and how we can encourage and build the next generation of musicians, artists, and creative thinkers.
Philly Celebrates Jazz includes live performances, film screenings and art exhibitions. Now on view at City Hall are two photography exhibitions, Live Philly Jazz – Through the Photographic Lens and The Clef Club at 50, a retrospective curated by Don Gardner, Managing Director of the Philadelphia Clef Club, and Artistic Director Lovett Hines.
Black Swan Theory—The black swan theory or theory of black swan events is a metaphor that describes an event that comes as a surprise, has a major effect, and is often inappropriately rationalized after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. —Wikipedia
Born in 1920 in Philadelphia, Marion Cuyjet was “light, bright and damn near white.” Cuyjet took advantage of her skin tone to take classes with the prestigious Littlefield Ballet. The company was surprised to discover that she was a black swan. In an interview with Brenda Dixon Gottschild, author of Joan Myers Brown & the Audacious Hope of the Black Ballerina, Cuyjet recalled:
MC: It was obvious someone had seen me, and I didn’t know it—somebody black! So in another performance they came in a little group, my friends from the YWCA club and from church. They came backstage to say hello.
BDG: So did the Littlefields know you were black?
MC: They didn’t know before the girls came, but [then] it was easy for them to believe it.
BDG: What happened once they found out?
MC: Out! Out! Out! Definitely out! And don’t come back! It was a lady who worked at the desk who takes the money and answers the telephone.
BDG: Did she say why?
MC: No, but I knew what she meant.
On Sept. 21, 1948, Cuyjet established the Judimar School of Dance where she passed on what she had learned. She trained generations of black swans, including Joan Myers Brown, Founder and Artistic Director of PHILADANCO! and recipient of the 2012 National Medal of Arts, and Judith Jamison, Artistic Director Emerita of the Alvin Alley American Dance Theater. Jamison performed her first dance recital at the age of six at the Judimar studio, located at 1310 Walnut Street.
Cuyjet was the first African American woman to rent space in racially segregated Center City. However when the landlord found out she was a black swan, she was evicted. In her autobiography, Dancing Spirits, Jamison wrote:
She looked Caucasian and rented studio space that landlords would not rent to a person they thought was black. 'She broke the color barrier and was constantly evicted once black children were discovered on the premises; she had to move her school seven times.
She recognized Delores Browne’s talent and Miss Cuyjet had this agenda. Her agenda was through the vehicle of Delores Browne to develop the first black ballerina to dance in a white ballet company.
Browne went on to audition for the School of American Ballet, the official school of the New York City Ballet. She became one of only six black students.
Cuyjet was a visionary whose determination and commitment to social justice changed the face of classical ballet. Her push for social justice paved the way for Misty Copeland, the first African American female principal with the American Ballet Theatre, stands on Miss Marion’s shoulders.
Today, Philly’s development boom is erasing African Americans’ cultural heritage. So while we are still here, we must preserve the legacy of those who cleared the path. Marion Cuyjet beat the odds and had a major effect on the cultural heritage of Philadelphia and the nation. If we don’t tell the story of those who came before, who will?
Last week we nominated for listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places the house in which Malcolm X lived in 1954.
Some background. In 1954, Elijah Muhammad sent Malcolm X to Philadelphia to expand Temple No. 12 of the Nation of Islam. During his stay in the City of Brotherly Love, Minister Malcolm X lived in the Sharswood neighborhood at 2503 W. Oxford Street.
The nomination for listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places is sponsored by All That Philly Jazz, a public history project that I launched in 2013. The young Malcolm was known as “Detroit Red,” a fixture on the jazz scene in Harlem. The house at 2503 W. Oxford Street was located a short walk from Philly’s storied Golden Strip.
But that is not why the Malcolm X House is historically significant. 2503 W. Oxford Street is a place where history happened. Minister Malcolm X was a master teacher whose charismatic leadership laid the foundation for the growth of Islam among African Americans across the country. Today, there are 200,000 Muslims in Philadelphia, 85 percent of whom are black. According to the Pew Research Center, African Americans make up 23 percent of the U.S. Muslim population.
2503 W. Oxford Street is part of the story of the Great Migration. Architectural historian Oscar Beisert, co-sponsor of the nomination said:
Built in 1883, the house at 2503 W. Oxford Street has been chiefly owned by three families. Between 1920 and 1930 the demographics had changed to the point where African Americans were able to purchase property in the neighborhood. By 1940, the neighborhood of W. Oxford Street had become almost entirely African American.
2503 W. Oxford Street was purchased by Ida Mae Vacca in 1956. She lived there continuously until her death in 2012. Her descendant, Robin Cooper, recalled:
Ida was the kind of woman who said everything matter-of-factly. This was how the Malcolm X conversation occurred, in a very matter-of-fact way. An inquisitive child, I wanted to know how long she lived in such a ‘big’ house as the house was big in my little eyes. While talking about her house, she indicated that someone famous lived there before she moved there. I questioned her and she stated that Malcolm X used to reside there.
We anticipate the nomination of the Malcolm X House will be considered by the Historic Designation Committee of the Philadelphia Historical Commission on June 15, 2016. For updates, follow All That Philly Jazz on Twitter.
On this day in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated in the Audubon Ballroom in New York City.
In the 51 years since his death, Malcolm has become a cultural icon. He’s now in the pantheon of freedom fighters that includes Richard Allen, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela.
In 1954, Elijah Muhammad sent Malcolm to Philadelphia to establish Temple No. 12. For years, there has been confusion about where Malcolm lived during his time in Philly. His FBI file has an address provided by an informant. I recently viewed a documentary that includes a first-hand account of where Malcolm lived. In Seeds of Awakening: The Early Nation of Islam in Philadelphia, Brother Hassan recalled:
We would sit up all night. When Malcolm was here, we’d sit up all night talking. We had a Unity House, a Fruit House, on 2503 Oxford Street. A big house. That’s where Malcolm would stay and all the brothers would come.
The house is still there. It’s been owned by the same family since 1956.
In the next few weeks, we will nominate 2503 W. Oxford Street for historic designation by the Philadelphia Historical Commission. Later this year, we will submit the nomination to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
I celebrate black history 365. But outside the African American community, black history is recognized, if at all, in February, the shortest month.
The world-famous Apollo Theater has been “honoring the legacy, advancing the path” for 82 years. On Saturday, I attended their Open House Weekend, the theme of which was the arts and activism.
The event celebrated Apollo artists at the intersection of art and social justice. Artists like Billie Holiday, Sam Cooke, James Brown, B.B. King, Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Public Enemy and N.W.A.
Although I’ve viewed the YouTube video countless times, hearing Lady Day sing “Strange Fruit” on the big screen with the Apollo Theater’s sound system brought an immediacy to her performance.
The program included film clips, live performances and commentary by Billy Mitchell, aka “Mr. Apollo,” and legendary radio personalities Bob Slade and Imhotep Gary Byrd. It ended with the performers and audience singing “Say It Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” like it was 1969.