U.S. Postal Service Judicial Officer William Campbell said:
Frank Sinatra, himself a stamp honoree, once characterized Ray Charles as “the only true genius in show business,” and certainly, if anyone was a musical genius, it was Ray Charles. Despite being blind and having a young life marked by tragedy, hardship and tremendous challenges, Ray Charles went on to have a remarkable 58-year career playing music that blurred the lines of jazz, gospel, blues and, in later years, country. In doing so, he became the personification of the American Dream.
The Postal Service also made available an unreleased recording of a Ray Charles song, “They Can’t Take That Away From Me.”
Indeed, they can’t take that away from me -- loving Ray Charles.
The celebration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is in the history books. Sadly, the impact of role of jazz musicians and the jazz culture in breaking down barriers to racial integration has largely been lost to history.
In 1939, Billie Holiday told the nation that “Southern trees bear a strange fruit.”
In 1955, Louis Armstrong transformed Fats Waller’s song of unrequited love, “(What Did I Do To Be So) Black and Blue,” into an anthem of protest against racial discrimination.
Holiday, Armstrong and Waller were members of the Harlem Renaissance. In his invocation at the “Let Freedom Ring” commemoration, Pastor A.R. Bernard Sr. noted how artists helped ignite the civil rights movement:
They called themselves the New Negro Movement, better known as the Harlem Renaissance, creating their own literature, art, music, theater. They artistically and intellectually challenged the pervading black stereotypes. From this generation emerged names like W.E.B. DuBois, Alain LeRoy Locke, Zora Neale Hurston, Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington.
White America experienced it and said, “Ooh, we like the style of these people.” So they enjoyed it, adopted it, integrated it and exploited it. And the popularity of black style and culture soon spread throughout the country. But it was not enough for black folks to be artistically admired. Blacks wanted and demanded full participation in the social, political and economic life of American society. And that attitude set the stage for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and the 1960s.
The legacy of the March on Washington include the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In February 2014, we will commemorate the signing of that seminal legislation, as well as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s remarks at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. For more information, send us an email.
Jazz history was made in Philadelphia. It’s the city where such legendary musicians as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Philly Joe Jones, Shirley Scott, Billie Holiday, Jimmy McGriff, Bill Doggett, Stan Getz, Benny Golson, Lee Morgan, Grover Washington Jr., Trudy Pitts and Jimmy Smith made major contributions to jazz.
Philadelphia is the most important focus of John Coltrane’s development as a virtuoso musician. Philadelphia’s rich black jazz milieu in the 1940s nurtured the novice teen reed player just up from the South. The house on North 33rd Street was special to Coltrane. In this house, he wrote “Giant Steps,” a title that foreshadowed his future musical stature. In this space, in 1957, Coltrane experienced a life-altering epiphany when he freed himself from heroin addiction cold turkey.
All That Philly Jazz, a digital history project, is mapping Philadelphia’s jazz heritage, including historic landmarks and events, legacy clubs and other points of interest. Sadly, much of Philly’s jazz legacy has disappeared. As a result, the history largely resides in the memories of those who were there.
So we have launched a mobile platform to crowdsource collection of stories, photos and videos. All That Philly Jazz’s free app is available on Google Play and iTunes (search term “icihere”).
Philadelphia’s jazz legacy is like that family secret that everyone knows about you and your family, yet you have no idea about it. Our city’s musical status in the world is rich and valued. Our story is well known in places like London, Paris, Osaka, Berlin and Rio de Janeiro while at home we have yet to explore, appreciate and celebrate the greatness that emerged from these very streets. It’s time for us to look into the Philadelphia family album of jazz and understand just how wealthy we truly are and can continue to be.
Jazz enthusiasts anywhere in the world can go to http://ph.ly/MyPhillyJazz and share their memories of Philly’s jazz scene back in the day. If you were there, that would be awesome. If someone shared a story, photo, etc., with you, please share it with us. After all, if we don’t tell our story, who will?
With our app, residents and visitors can, say, stand on the corner of Broad and Lombard Streets, and reimagine Billie Holiday leaving the Showboat, which was in the basement of the Douglass Hotel.
If Billie walked south on Broad, she would have arrived at Pep’s in less than five minutes. Along the way, she would have passed the Dunbar (Lincoln) Theatre.
Although we’ve barely scratched the surface, the first iteration of the map is telling the story. Broad and South Streets, and Columbia Avenue (now Cecil B. Moore Avenue) were chock-a-block with jazz spots.
But All That Philly Jazz is not just about the past. It’s about building new audiences for jazz musicians by exposing Millennials and others to a unique American art form.
In his State of the Urban League Address, NUL President Marc H. Morial observed:
Next month – on Aug. 28 – will be 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington, organized in part by our own Whitney M. Young, Jr., and challenged this nation to live up to the founding ideals that were conceived in Philadelphia and engraved in that Liberty Bell.
The events, both good and bad, of 1963, awakened the conscience of this nation and sped up the wheels of progress. I mention these events, not to elicit tears or sadness, but to remind you of both the sacrifices and the progress that have been made over the past 50 years. These events directly led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Thank God, things ain’t what they used to be. As Morial noted:
Fifty years ago, 75% of black adults had not completed high school. Currently, 85% of black adults have a high school education. At the college level, there are now 3.5 times more blacks enrolled, and five times as many blacks hold a college degree.
As part of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the Urban League and The Memorial Foundation will convene Drum Majors for Justice Summit: Redeem the Dream “to celebrate, renew our commitment, and equip young leaders to be drum majors into the future.”
African Americans have always had a hand in shaping the American sound. From gospel and Motown to bebop and blues, their story is bound up in the music they made -- songs of hurt and hardship, yearning and hope, and struggle for a better day. Those feelings speak to something common in all of us. With passion and creativity, African-American performers have done more than reinvent the musical styles they helped define; they have channeled their music into making change and advancing justice, from radio booths to the stage to our city streets.
That story is still unfolding today. We see it in the young poet putting his words to a beat; the conservatory student perfecting her technique; the jazz musician making old melodies new again. During African-American Music Appreciation Month, let us celebrate these artists and the generations who inspired them, and let us reflect on our heritage as a Nation forever enriched by the power of song.