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#ThisPlaceMatters: John Coltrane House

29 Sep

I talk to the ancestors. More important, I listen to them. On a hot Saturday, the ancestors pushed this cold-weather person to check on the John Coltrane House in Philadelphia. So on August 31, 2019, I stopped by the rowhouse where Coltrane lived from 1952 to 1958. I later learned that was the same day that “Cousin Mary,” Mary Lyerly Alexander, joined the ancestors.

Cousin Mary - 2003

“Cousin Mary” is a track on Coltrane’s landmark album Giant Steps. The album was composed in the rowhouse he shared with his mother, Alice Gertrude Coltrane, and his beloved cousin Mary. The exterior of the property is in worse condition than when I was last there three years ago.

John Coltrane House - Steps - Faye Anderson

My call to action was published in Philadelphia Weekly. Read my essay and then add your voice to the growing chorus of voices who are concerned about the condition of this National Historic Landmark, the highest designation for a historic resource. The time for wringing one’s hands is past. Tell Mayor Jim Kenney to fix this blight on Coltrane’s legacy.

Mayor Kenney can be reached via email at james.kenney@phila.gov or by phone at (215) 686-2181. His Twitter handle is @PhillyMayor.

UPDATE: All That Philly Jazz, along with Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition and Philadelphia Jazz Legacy Project, have nominated the John Coltrane House for listing on Preservation Pennsylvania’s 2020 Pennsylvania at Risk.

2020 Pennsylvania At Risk - Preservation Pennsylvania

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An Opry Salute to Ray Charles

23 Sep

Ken Burns’ latest film, “Country Music,” makes clear that African American music is at the root of the genre. Long before Lil Nas X, there was DeFord Bailey, Rufus “Tee Top” Payne, Charley Pride – and Ray Charles. Brother Ray’s 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, topped the charts in the U.S. and Britain. The album and its lead single, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” were certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Country Music Hall of Famer Willie Nelson observed:

When Ray did “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” that was probably the time when country music was heard by more people than ever before. He kicked country music forward 50 years. Before him, a lot of people had probably never heard of songs by Don Gibson or Hank Williams.

In his autobiography, Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story, the country music pioneer wrote:

I just wanted to try my hand at hillbilly music. After all, the Grand Ole Opry had been performing inside my head since I was a kid in the country.

The Grand Ole Opry “celebrates the songs of Ray Charles and the influence the revolutionary artist had on country music” in a television special, “An Opry Salute to Ray Charles.”

An Opry Salute to Ray Charles

Hosted by Opry member Darius Rucker, the star-studded salute features Boyz II Men, Cam, Brett Eldredge, Leela James, Jessie Key, Ronnie Milsap, Lukas Nelson, LeAnn Rimes, Allen Stone, Travis Tritt, Charlie Wilson, Trisha Yearwood and Chris Young. The program will air on PBS stations nationwide so check your local listings.

On Vacation

25 Aug

In September, I will lead a walking tour of Green Book sites in Philadelphia. The stops include the Douglass Hotel which offered transportation to Atlantic City, or more accurately, to Chicken Bone Beach.

Douglass Hotel Bus Depot

After complaints from white bathers, African Americans were restricted to a stretch of the Atlantic City beach near Convention Hall. The segregated area became known as Chicken Bone Beach.

Chicken Bone Beach Plaque2

This two-part audio doc provides an overview of Chicken Bone Beach and the entertainment district that became a magnet for black vacationers, day-trippers and luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Sammy Davis Jr.

For more info, visit Chicken Bone Beach.

Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Walking Tour: Green Book Edition

15 Jul

What’s old is new again. The Negro Motorist Green Book published by Victor H. Green, a postal worker in Harlem, is all the rage. Access to the Green Book in the New York Public Library Digital Collections and the regrettable “Green Book” movie sparked interest in the crowdsourced travel guide that was published from 1936 to 1966.

#GreenBookPHL Collage

The Green Book empowered African Americans to “vacation without aggravation.” The guide helped travelers, including musicians, athletes and businesspeople, navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and racial segregation in the North. “Your Rights, Briefly Speaking!” is a precursor to the current mantra to “know your rights.”

Your Rights, Briefly Speaking (1963-1964)

A network of postal workers scouted out advertisers for the travel guide. Green Book listings included hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, barber shops and beauty parlors. Green envisioned a time when his publication would no longer be necessary:

There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year.

That day did not come until July 2, 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public accommodations.

Over the course of 30 years, there were dozens of Philadelphia listings. Some businesses advertised every year; others for one or multiple years. Drawing on archival materials and oral histories, we have contextualized Philadelphia’s jazz heritage. All That Philly Jazz Walking Tour: Green Book Edition will visit safe spaces in Center City and South Philly.

Douglass Hotel Bus Depot

The tour begins at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel (now The Bellevue Philadelphia) and ends at the repurposed Attucks Hotel. Parenthetically, the architectural drawings for the Attucks Hotel are included in the Magaziner Collection of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

#GreenBookPHL Begin-End - Feature

Points of interest along the way include:

  • National historic landmark where John Coltrane and Benny Golson first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie;
  • Supper club that was a hangout for the producers and musicians who created “The Sound of Philadelphia”;
  • Hotel that welcomed jazz luminaries to its stage from the 1940s to the 1980s, and where Sidney Bechet, Coltrane and Grover Washington Jr. recorded live albums;
  • Hotels where Billie Holiday stayed and was arrested;
  • Jazz club that paid homage to postal workers and U.S. Postal Service;
  • Dive bar that is the setting for the Broadway play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”;
  • Fraternal lodge where Bessie Smith’s funeral was held; and
  • Residence for African American women made possible with the financial support of John Wanamaker.

All That Philly Jazz Walking Tour: Green Book Edition will be held in September and October. The tour will be led by Faye Anderson, a storyteller who is passionate about uncovering hidden places and untold narratives.

#GreenBookPHL - Faye Anderson - Club 421

Join us as we walk and talk about a forgotten chapter of Philadelphia history.