On June 7, 1979, President Jimmy Carter recognized June as Black Music Month. A resolution recognizing the importance of African American music was introduced by Congressman Chaka Fattah in 2000. Passed unanimously by the House of Representatives, House Resolution 509 proclaimed:
Whereas African-American genres of music such as gospel, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rap, and hip-hop have their roots in the African-American experience.
Incredibly, some question whether jazz is black music. That was the subject of a panel discussion at Lincoln Center a few years ago. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff wrote:
We wouldn’t have been at Lincoln Center for that discussion had it not been for black field hollers, ring games, call and response church music and the blues. So it’s indisputable that jazz began as black music.
That 2008 discussion wasn’t the first time the roots of jazz were questioned. A 1959 documentary, Cry of Jazz sparked controversy when one of the characters asserted that “jazz is merely the Negro’s cry of joy and suffering.” The character, Alex, explained that “the Negro was the only one with the necessary musical and human history to create jazz.”
In 2010, Cry of Jazz was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. The films selected are considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant, to be preserved for all time. These films are not selected as the ‘best’ American films of all time, but rather as works of enduring significance to American culture.”
Today marks the 50th anniversary of the start of the civil rights demonstrations at Girard College in protest of the segregated all-white boarding school. The demonstrations were led by then-Philadelphia NAACP President Cecil B. Moore and legendary radio broadcaster Georgie Woods who served as vice president of the local chapter.
The voice of the community, Georgie, as he was affectionately called, was the “Guy with the Goods.”
Georgie produced and sometimes emceed shows at the famed Uptown Theater. He also staged sold-out “Freedom Shows” that raised tens of thousands of dollars for the Civil Rights Movement.
In addition to a plaque on Philly’s Walk of Fame, Georgie is immortalized in a mural on a wall of the Uptown.
In a recent interview, I noted that jazz musicians performed in nightclubs where they couldn’t sit and hotels where they could not stay. The jazz legends whose music paved the way for the Civil Rights movement were subjected to racial discrimination as they traveled while black.
“The Green Book,” as it was called, lists tourist homes, restaurants, nightclubs, beauty parlors, barber shops and other services. Philadelphia hotels in the 1949 edition include the Attucks, Chesterfield and Douglass.
The list of taverns includes Emerson’s, the setting for the Tony Award-winning play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.
The Café Society and Watts’ Zanzibar are listed.
After passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, “The Green Book” was no longer published. As All That Philly Jazz breathes life into the city's jazz heritage, my appreciation of jazz is increasing exponentially.
Today is the centennial of the birth of Billie Holiday. Contrary to popular belief, she was born in the City of Brotherly Love in Philadelphia General Hospital.
The misapprehension about Holiday’s place of birth may account for why she hasn't been inducted into the Walk of Fame. Despite her arrests and conviction in Philadelphia, she had love for her hometown. It was, after all, the place where she could work in the nightclubs. After her conviction, she lost her cabaret license and could not work in any place where alcohol was sold. She could perform at a sold-out Carnegie Hall, but couldn't get a gig at a hole-in-the-wall in Harlem.
Parenthetically, Holiday was inducted into the Apollo Theater’s Walk of Fame yesterday.
Yes, there’s an historical marker noting that when Lady Day was in town, she often lived at the Douglass Hotel.
Holiday is depicted in the Women of Jazz mural in Strawberry Mansion. But the mural is scheduled to be demolished by the Philadelphia Housing Authority.
The Music Alliance is best known for the Walk of Fame along Broad Street’s Avenue of the Arts. This series of over 100 bronze commemorative plaques honors Philadelphia area musicians and music professionals who have made a significant contribution to the world of music. The Walk of Fame is the City’s most impressive public monument to the people who have made Philadelphia a great music city.
It’s never too late to do the right thing. So I nominated Billie Holiday for induction into the Walk of Fame.
Happy birthday, Lady Day. We love you more than you’ll ever know.
UPDATE:The Philadelphia Music Alliance announced that “as a special birthday gift,” Billie Holiday is the newest inductee into the Walk of Fame. In a statement, Chairman Alan Rubens said:
The Philadelphia Music Alliance wanted to present what we think is a 'perfect' birthday gift to an extraordinary vocalist, Billie Holiday, and announce her induction on her 100th birthday. It will be an absolute pleasure to be able to walk down Broad Street and see her name where it rightfully belongs, on the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame, with other homegrown jazz giants like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, and Grover Washington, Jr.
It’s said that “blues ain’t nothing but a botheration on your mind.” I’m bothered that developers are erasing African Americans’ cultural heritage.
In Philadelphia, developers routinely – and without notice – build in front of or demolish murals that are paid for in part by City taxpayers.
Murals are part of Philadelphia’s cultural fabric. The Mural Arts Program creates murals that engage the community. They reflect a community’s history, identity, hopes and dreams.
City Council members can use Councilmanic Prerogative to require that developers of publicly-subsidized projects replace murals of social or cultural significance. Who will determine which mural meets that threshold? Let’s stipulate that murals that tell stories about events or persons who are the subject of books, songs, documentaries, national holiday, or City and congressional resolutions are culturally significant.
The how of replacement is negotiable. What is non-negotiable is that developers can erase African Americans’ cultural heritage because, to borrow a phrase from Al Gore, there is “no controlling legal authority.” A Council member is the controlling legal authority in his or her district. He or she decides which projects go forward and which ones go nowhere. While developers view murals as disposable, Council members must exercise their prerogative and demand that they respect that which came before.
If you are concerned about cultural heritage preservation, get involved with Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) Committee on Arts and Culture, which I chair. For more information, call ATAC at (215) 552-8785.
For updates, follow #BlackCultureMatters on Twitter.