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Jump for Joy: Duke Ellington and Social Change

9 Jun

Legendary composer, bandleader and pianist Duke Ellington was not an outspoken activist. His activism was expressed in benefit concerts, non-segregation clause in his contract and his music. In the 1960s, Ellington was asked when he was going to compose a civil rights piece. His reply, “I did my piece more than 20 years ago when I wrote Jump for Joy.”

Duke Ellington-Jump-For-Joy

Debuted on July 10, 1941, at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles, the musical addressed African American identity and representation. For Ellington, showcasing black excellence was an act of resistance to racial caricatures. Although Jump for Joy received rave reviews, it ran for only 122 performances. The musical never made it to Broadway. The “Great White Way” was not ready for Ellington’s unapologetic blackness.

Nearly 80 years later, audiences still jump for joy when they hear songs from the musical, including “I’ve Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good) and “Rocks in My Bed.”

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International Jazz Day 2019

29 Apr

All good things must come to an end, including Jazz Appreciation Month. But the celebration of America’s gift to the world will end on a high note at the International Jazz Day Global Concert in Melbourne, Australia.

International Jazz Day All-Star Global Concert 2019

In November 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated April 30 as International Jazz Day “in order to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe”:

International Jazz Day brings together communities, schools, artists, historians, academics and jazz enthusiasts all over the world to celebrate and learn about jazz and its roots, future and impact; raise awareness of the need for intercultural dialogue and mutual understanding; and reinforce international cooperation and communication. Every year on April 30, this international art form is recognized for fostering gender equality and for promoting individual expression, peace, dialogue among cultures, diversity, respect for human dignity, and the eradication of discrimination.

Jazz pianist Herbie Hancock (USA) and trumpeter James Morrison (Australia) are artistic co-directors of the All-Star Global Concert; John Beasley (USA) is the musical director. Confirmed artists include: Confirmed artists include: Cieavash Arian (Iran), William Barton (Australia), Brian Blade (USA), Dee Dee Bridgewater (USA), A Bu (China), Igor Butman (Russian Federation), Joey DeFrancesco (USA), Eli Degibri (Israel), Kurt Elling (USA), James Genus (USA), Paul Grabowsky (Australia), Antonio Hart (USA), Matthew Jodrell (Australia), Aditya Kalyanpur (India), Ledisi (USA), James Muller (Australia), Eijiro Nakagawa (Japan), Mark Nightingale (United Kingdom), Chico Pinheiro (Brazil), Tineke Postma (Netherlands), Eric Reed (USA), Antonio Sánchez (Mexico), Somi (USA), Ben Williams (USA), Lizz Wright (USA) and Tarek Yamani (Lebanon).

Feeling down because you can’t make it Down Under? No problem. The concert will be webcast on YouTube.

Women in Jazz Month 2019

3 Mar

March is Women in Jazz Month, a time to celebrate and recognize the contributions of women to jazz.

Women In Jazz Month - JAM

As a lifelong activist, I want to celebrate women who used music as a platform for social change. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is well-known.

Ethel Waters’ “Supper Time” is not as well-known. Written by Irving Berlin especially for Waters, the song is about a wife’s grief over the lynching of her husband.

Ella Fitzgerald broke down racial barriers. On October 7, 1955, the “First Lady of Song” performed with the Jazz at the Philharmonic in Houston. The concert tour was produced by her manager Norman Granz, an ally in the fight for racial justice. The Music Hall had “Negro” and “White” labels on the bathroom doors. Shortly before the show, Granz removed the labels.

Houston’s segregationists were angry about Granz’s attempt to integrate the show by refusing to pre-sell tickets. Some whites asked for a refund rather than sit next to an African American. After the first show, the police stormed Fitzgerald’s dressing room and arrested her, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and other musicians on trumped-up charges.

Ella Fitgzerald - Arrested - October 1955

With the intervention of her friend, actress Marilyn Monroe, Fitzgerald was the first African American to perform at the legendary Mocambo nightclub.

Ella Fitzgerald - Marilyn Monroe

Nina Simone’s outrage over the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church emboldened civil rights activists.

Simone’s celebration of black excellence inspired a new generation of civil rights activists, including the writer.

#ThisPlaceMatters: Legendary Blue Horizon

27 Jan

After the Civil War, North Broad Street became one of Philadelphia’s leading addresses. North Broad was attractive to wealthy industrialists for two reasons. First, many of their factories and mills were located in nearby industrial areas. Second, the old money crowd in Rittenhouse Square snubbed their noses at the nouveau riche businessmen.

The brownstone mansions that lined North Broad were built to house the families of the industrialists. Between May 1912 and June 1913, the Loyal Order of Moose Lodge 54 acquired three brownstones to establish a new clubhouse. The buildings were renovated with the addition of an auditorium and ballroom.

blue horizon - vintage

In 1961, Jimmy Toppi Sr. purchased the property. Toppi renamed the buildings after “Beyond the Blue Horizon,” a song from the 1930 film Monte Carlo. The Blue Horizon hosted international, regional and state title fights. It was voted the #1 boxing venue in the world by The Ring magazine; Sports Illustrated called it “the last great boxing venue in the country.” The Legendary Blue Horizon closed in June 2010.

The Philadelphia Historical Commission added the Legendary Blue Horizon to the local register of historic landmarks in 2015. However, only the Broad Street façades were protected. Four years later, Orens Bros. is back before the PHC Architecture Committee to seek final approval of its design of the front façades. The developer plans to demolish the brownstones and construct a hotel.

blue horizon - front facade rendering

PHC staff recommended the Committee deny final approval of the design. And indeed it did. The Architecture Committee voted to send the developer back to the drawing board.

All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson provided public comment in support of the Commission staff’s recommendation:

The Legendary Blue Horizon is one of the few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. Before it was a beloved boxing venue, it was an entertainment destination. Duke Ellington performed in the ballroom that was added on by Philadelphia Lodge No. 54, Loyal Order of Moose. The members-only bar later became a nightspot open to the public. The Camero Room played host to jazz legends-in-the-making like trumpeters Clifford Brown and Fats Navarro.

The Legendary Blue Horizon holds a special place in the hearts and minds of Philadelphians as evidenced by its depiction on the Philadelphia Courthouse Mural commissioned under the Percent for Art Program. As you can see, the iconic stairs figure prominently in Philadelphians’ memories.

blue horizon - philadelphia courthouse mural

I posted the recent Philadelphia Inquirer report about the Orens Bros. proposal to All That Philly Jazz’s Facebook page. The post has gone viral. Why? This place matters.

The proposed hotel is appropriately named since it takes a lot of moxy to seek approval to cheapen a beloved historic landmark with modern add-ons, materials and signage. The proposed design erases the historic character of the front façades.

I agree with the Commission staff that the applicant’s design does not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties. It would make a mockery of historic designation if the Committee voted to ignore the standards.

I recognize that financing of the project is outside the purview of this Committee. That said, it is important to note that in an earlier iteration of the project, Orens Bros. received $7 million in grants under Pennsylvania’s Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) for what was then an $18 million project.

Of the $7 million in state grants, Orens Bros. drew down $748,578; the balance of the grants expired. The applicant spent nearly three-quarters of a million dollars in taxpayers’ money and walked away without sealing the buildings. The historic landmark is now exposed to the elements.

The first round of RACP funding applications closes on January 31. I fully expect Orens Bros. will again rattle the cup for a public subsidy for its now $22 million project. If the proposed design is approved, Philadelphians and other taxpayers would effectively pay for the demolition and defacement of a beloved historic landmark.

Orens Bros. Real Estate does not care about the Legendary Blue Horizon, but this Committee can make them care. The application should be denied on the grounds the proposed design does not comply with the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, specifically Standards 2, 9 and 10.

The applicant should go back to the drawing board and develop a design that does, in fact, preserve the front façades and respect their historic character.

Orens Bros. can appeal the Architecture Committee’s decision to the full Philadelphia Historical Commission. Or they can accept the “denial with hope” decision. Stay tuned.

Jazz Is Black Music

13 Jan

Jazz Congress 2019, organized by Jazz at Lincoln Center and JazzTimes, was held last week. I was not able to attend in person so I watched the webcast of the panel discussion “Jazz, Swing, Race and Culture” with Myra Melford, Christian McBride, Wynton Marsalis, Terri Lyne Carrington and Nicholas Payton. Andre Guess was the moderator.

#jazzcongress

I listened with disbelief as Wynton Marsalis disputed Nicholas Payton’s comment about the racial origins of jazz:

The music doesn’t have a racial identity because race is a fake construct that was used in our country to enforce a class consciousness and to make people accept an inferiority.

The panel discussion was not the first time the racial roots of jazz were questioned. A 1959 documentary, The 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, the documentary 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.”

It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Well, jazz pianist, arranger and composer Mary Lou Williams’ “History of Jazz” says it all.

mary lou williams - tree of jazz

Jazz is black music, point, blank, period.