Two years ago on this day I launched All That Philly Jazz, a public history project that is telling the story of Philadelphia’s rich jazz legacy.
In documenting the places where jazz history unfolded, I also want to contextualize the impact of jazz musicians and the jazz culture. Fact is, the jazz culture was about “intersectionality” before the term was coined. As Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron notes in her column, “Ridge Avenue’s last standing jazz club,” gay performers such as the “Sepia Gloria Swanson” were an integral part of the scene.
In a piece for PlanPhilly, I wrote about why historic preservation matters:
1409 Lombard Street helps tell the story of artistic greats like Lady Day, Ray Charles, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and McCoy Tyner. It also tells the story of disruption and defiance. In remarks to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said jazz is “triumphant music.” If walls could talk, they would tell how the jazz culture broke down social barriers. The first racially integrated nightspot in Center City was a jazz club, the Downbeat. For the first time, blacks and whites mixed on an equal basis. Jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was “a steppingstone” to the Civil Rights Movement.
At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Who decides what gets saved and whose story gets told? The built environment reflects racial inequalities. Given African Americans’ socioeconomic status, few of the buildings associated with black history meet preservation standards regarding architectural significance. Although unadorned, they are places that tell a more complete American story. The stories of faith, resistance, and triumph are relevant to today’s social justice activists.
As an advocate for social justice, I celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. every day. On the official observance of his special day, I will join thousands for a ceremonial tapping of the Liberty Bell in his honor.
Afterwards, I’ll join the March for a Better America.
The march will begin at the slave quarters on Independence Mall and conclude at Mother Bethel AME Church, where POWER: An Interfaith Movement will unveil their 21st Century Declaration of Rights. They will call on elected officials, community leaders and ordinary citizens to support human rights. It sounds like a party for a drum major for justice.
Happy birthday, Dr. King.
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson became the first African American to play major league baseball.
Last week, PBS aired a two-part documentary, “Jackie Robinson.”
Like all African Americans, I admire Robinson’s achievements, and dignity and grace in the face of unrelenting racial taunts and threats. I was delighted when I stumbled upon the plaque in Brooklyn Heights noting the place where Brooklyn Dodgers President and General Manager Branch Rickey signed Robinson in 1945.
But somewhere along the way, I developed an inchoate impression the baseball icon had become an “Uncle Tom” after his playing days ended. Ken Burns’ film disabused me of that foolish notion. Robinson was a race-man who advocated for political empowerment:
I’m a black man first, an American second, and then I will support a political party—third.
Robinson was in the tradition of “Radical Republicans.” He understood that playing one-party politics in a two-party system would ensure black folks would not get a fair return on the investment of their political capital.
Robinson also pushed for economic empowerment. In 1964, he co-founded Freedom National Bank in Harlem. The bank later opened a branch in Bedford-Stuyvesant. I grew up in Bed-Stuy. As an emerging race-woman, I opened my first savings account at that branch. Frankly, I don’t remember whether I knew Robinson was associated with Freedom National Bank.
If you missed “Jackie Robinson,” you can watch full episodes online at PBS videos on demand.
Martin Luther King Jr. Day was first observed in 1986. Check out Marcus Baram's recap of how millions of Americans, led by Stevie Wonder, shamed Congress and President Ronald Reagan into showing Dr. King some love.
On Dec. 1, 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. By staying in her seat, she stood up for racial justice.
Parks’ civil disobedience sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted 380 days. The economic boycott gave birth to the modern Civil Rights Movement. On Tuesday, NPR’s Michel Martin will host a national conversation focusing on whether the bus boycott still matters.
You can join the conversation via Twitter using the hashtag #busboycott60.
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 and his 18-piece band were joined by the Philadelphia Heritage Chorale, and four narrators – Rev. Alyn Waller as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dion Graham as Muhammad Ali, Samuel Stricklen as Malcolm X, and Sonia Sanchez as Rosa Parks.
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.”
In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, McBride said:
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.
“The Civil Rights Act of 1964: A Long Struggle for Freedom” will be on exhibit at the Library of Congress until Jan. 2, 2016.