This is my least favorite time of the year. That said, I love Christmas music, particularly Christmas blues. Before I wallow in the blues, I want to share one of my favorite gospel albums, “Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration.”
The Mural Arts Program began in 1984 as the Philadelphia Anti-Graffiti Network. Thirty years and more than 3,600 murals later, Philly has become the “City of Murals.”
The murals tell the story of Philadelphia, a city of neighborhoods:
But as stunning as the murals are themselves, they are, most importantly, the visual products of a powerful and collaborative grassroots process in communities. The mural-making process gives neighborhood residents a voice to tell their individual and collective stories, a way to pass on culture and tradition, and a vehicle to develop and empower local leaders.
Murals reflect the character, history, activism and people specific to that location. The faces on the wall are family members and neighbors. Understandably, folks are outraged when a mural is torn down or covered up.
Don’t just complain how gentrification. Get in this good fight. Our fight is not to save brick-and-mortar structures. Rather, we want to preserve African Americans’ cultural, civic and educational heritage in Philadelphia.
To get involved, call Avenging the Ancestors Coalition Arts and Culture Committee at (215) 552-8751. With technology, we can recreate better murals. We can make walls talk.
Philadelphia is changing. From the “Lost Our Lease” signs on Market Street to the “For Sale” or “For Rent” signs in gentrifying neighborhoods, the signs of change are everywhere. There is growing concern that gentrification will displace longtime residents.
Black Philadelphians have seen this movie before. African Americans were pushed out of Society Hill. Black business owners were advised to leave South Philly because an expressway was going to be built. It wasn’t. The neighborhood was once chock-a-block with black-owned jazz spots and small businesses. Dubbed the “Harlem Quarter,” it now looks like its namesake. African Americans are no longer the majority in Harlem.
On the heels of the destruction of the John Coltrane mural, another iconic African American mural is on the chopping block. The Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to tear down the Women of Jazz mural in Strawberry Mansion.
The blonde next to Nina Simone is Dorothy “Dottie” Smith. A longtime resident of Strawberry Mansion, Mrs. Smith died in January 2013. Her family and neighbors are outraged that PHA is doing nothing to preserve the mural. Their outrage is shared by the community at large.
When I brought the destruction of the murals to his attention, Michael jumped on it. I will update the community tonight at the monthly meeting of ATAC, which starts at 7:00 p.m. at Zion Baptist Church, located at Broad and Venango.
For most folks, Philadelphia’s jazz legacy begins and ends with John Coltrane. To be sure, Coltrane is a giant part of the story. But as James G. Spady wrote in “Lost Jazz Shrines”:
Conversations with pioneers of the jazz community in Philadelphia reveal the city’s illustrious yet largely undocumented jazz history.
We’re working on an app for that. All That Philly Jazz is mapping Philly’s jazz heritage from bebop to hip-hop.
From Dizzy Gillespie at the Downbeat to The Roots mural on South Street, we are breathing life into legendary jazz spots like Union Local 274 (Clef Club), Pep’s, Showboat, Aqua Lounge, Watts Zanzibar, Café Holiday, Geno’s Empty Foxhole and the Red Rooster.
Sadly, few of the physical assets remain. Jazz spots fell victim to race riots and urban renewal. As a result, the legacy largely resides in the memories of those who were there. So to preserve the history for future generations, All That Philly Jazz is crowdsourced. As we build out the interactive map, we have created a placeholder website where community members and folks anywhere in the world can share their memories, photos and videos of the jazz scene back in the day.
Billy Strayhorn was a teenager when he composed “Life is Lonely,” later renamed “Lush Life.” One can easily imagine that life was indeed lonely for a black gay male in Pittsburgh, circa the 1930s.
Strayhorn went on to become Duke Ellington’s shadow. The recent OutBeat: America’s First Queer Jazz Festival brought LGBT jazz musicians out of the shadows. Organized by the William Way LGBT Community Center, the four-day event featured panel discussions and performances by LGBT artists, including Dena Underwood, Fred Hersch, Andy Bey, Mike McGinnis, Patricia Barber, Bill Stewart and Terri Lyne Carrington.
Strayhorn composed Ellington’s theme song, “Take the ‘A’ Train.”
The “A” train was my subway line. Strayhorn’s composition has loomed large in my imagination since I was child.
So I was particularly looking forward to its re-imaginings at the “Tribute to Billy Strayhorn,” presented in collaboration with the Philadelphia Jazz Project.
I was not disappointed. It was an awesome evening. For me, the highlight was spoken word artist Lamont Dixon’s “Encore for Strayhorn.”
Strayhorn died on May 31, 1967. At his funeral, Ellington said this about his friend and collaborator
He demanded freedom of expression and lived in what we consider the most important and moral of freedoms: freedom from hate, unconditionally; Freedom from self-pity (even through all the pain and bad news); freedom from fear of possibly doing something that might possibly help another more than it might himself and freedom from the kind of pride that might make a man think that he was better than his brother or his neighbor.
It was a historic weekend. We had all of the great living LGBT jazz greats in the city, and a lot of allies who came because they wanted to participate in this history-making moment. It was one great concert after another. Everyone said we need to do it again, that we need to continue to explore the story.
Bartlett was asked whether there’ll be a second OutBeat:
Our initial thought is that we’ll do it every two years. We’re very excited to do it again and continue this conversation. It’s revealed the great energy of today's LGBT jazz performers, and opens doors for a whole new generation of jazz performers who are eager to continue the work of the people we saw this weekend.
Jazz paved the way for the Civil Rights Movement. OutBeat can play a similar role for the LGBT community. While out of the shadows, the community still isn’t free from hate crimes and homophobia.
I’ve attended at least half of the conferences dating back to, well, never mind when I started going.
There’s a mash-up of workshops and braintrust meetings from the “Art of Social Entrepreneurship” to “Working Families Fight Back.” To be sure, some folks will be moaning and groaning about the lack of follow-up. It somehow escapes them that the follow-through starts with the person in the mirror.
A. Shuanise Washington, the president and CEO of the CBCF, said in a statement:
Any discussion about African-American history and culture must include African-American artists. Through the Celebration of Leadership in the Fine Arts, the CBCF and the CBC Spouses pay homage to those whose creative bodies of work convey the rich and diverse African-American experience.
About Bill Withers:
Bill Withers is a legendary singer-songwriter with a music career that spans more than four decades. Between the 1970s and 1980s, he won “Song of the Year” Grammys for “Ain’t No Sunshine,” “Just the Two of Us” and “Lean on Me.” His songs have been covered by numerous artists across various genres of music, including Michael Jackson, Barbra Streisand, Gladys Knight, Michael Bolton, John Legend and Jill Scott. In 2005, Withers was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame.
I can’t pick a favorite Bill Withers’ song because there’s one for whatever mood I’m in. That said, some of my favorite lyrics are from “Moaning and Groaning”: “If she ain’t the best in the world, she’s good as the goodest one.”
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.