Happy 4th of July

3 Jul

Is Jazz Black Music?

22 Jun

On June 7, 1979, President Jimmy Carter recognized June as Black Music Month. A resolution recognizing the importance of African American music was introduced by Congressman Chaka Fattah in 2000. Passed unanimously by the House of Representatives, House Resolution 509 proclaimed:

Whereas African-American genres of music such as gospel, blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, rap, and hip-hop have their roots in the African-American experience.

Incredibly, some question whether jazz is black music. That was the subject of a panel discussion at Lincoln Center a few years ago. Jazz critic Nat Hentoff wrote:

We wouldn’t have been at Lincoln Center for that discussion had it not been for black field hollers, ring games, call and response church music and the blues. So it’s indisputable that jazz began as black music.

That 2008 discussion wasn’t the first time the roots of jazz were questioned. A 1959 documentary, 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, Cry of Jazz 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.”

Black culture matters.

Philly ‘STEMists’ Head to National Competition

15 Jun

As the school year winds down, students from across the country are gearing up to compete in the National Engineering Design Competition.

MESA Design Competition - 6.15.15

In April, I attended the MESA Day Prosthetic Arm Competition organized by Dr. Jamie Bracey, director of STEM Education, Outreach and Research at Temple University. Dr. Bracey leads Pennsylvania Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA).

Teams of “STEMists” from seven high schools – Abraham Lincoln, Edison, Frankford, G.W. Carver, High School of the Future, Hill-Freeman World Academy and Penn Wood – competed for an all-expenses-paid trip to Utah to represent Pennsylvania in the national competition. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Their challenge was to design and build a low-cost prosthetic arm suitable for an urban environment.

The day began with inspiring keynote remarks by Ken Scott, an electrical engineer, who shared how he got started in engineering.

MESA - Ken Scott - 6.15.15

Scott said:

A lot of it is curiosity. If you like solving problem, engineering is for you. No one is better at solving problems than engineers. It’s about having the initiative to do different things. … Engineers rule the world. Everything starts with engineering.

The teams were judged on a number of tasks, distance accuracy, object relocation and dexterity, design efficiency, technical paper and academic poster presentation.

MESA Judges - 6.15.15

And the winner is …

MESA - 1st Place - 6.15.15

Good luck to Dr. Bracey and the awesome STEMists from George Washington Carver High School.

Why Murals Matter

1 Jun

June is Black Music Month. First observed in 1979 at the White House, I’m kicking off the celebration at City Hall where I will offer public comments at a hearing on the Philadelphia Housing Trust Fund. Some background.

Last year, the Pennrose Company demolished the John Coltrane mural in Strawberry Mansion. Pennrose has been feeding at the public trough of government subsidies for decades. But in an instant, the company erased a tribute to an American cultural icon.

John Coltrane Collage

While the nation celebrates the centennial of the birth of Billie Holiday and Mary Lou Williams, the Philadelphia Housing Authority plans to demolish this cultural asset.

Women of Jazz Mural

Now, you might be wondering what is the connection between murals and the affordable housing crisis? Kelvin Jeremiah, President and CEO of PHA, said it best in his remarks before the City Council Committee on Housing, Neighborhood Development and the Homeless on April 27:

It is my view that the affordable housing crisis that confronts this great city is also an issue of deep-seated structural poverty. … Solving the poverty problem will go a long way to solve the affordable housing crisis.

Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the nation. A whopping 40 percent of school-aged children live in poverty. There is a correlation between education and poverty. If the educational achievement of poor children is increased, fewer will end up on PHA’s 10-year waiting list for public housing.

A growing body of evidence shows that students with access to arts education perform better on standardized tests. In addition to improved student achievement, arts education contributes to the development of cognitive and social skills, nurtures a motivation to learn, increases student attendance and fosters a positive school environment. At-risk students cite their participation in the arts as a reason for staying in school.

Students involved in arts instruction report less boredom in school. Ask students why they dropped out of school, they will say they were bored.

The School District of Philadelphia has drastically cut arts and music programs; 25 percent of schools offer no music instruction. In the absence of arts education, murals may be poor students’ only exposure to the arts.

At the opening of the new Whitney Museum, First Lady Michelle Obama said the arts “could inspire a young person to rise above the circumstances of their life and reach for something better.”

Community-based public art inspires young people to reach for their star.

Reach for Your Star

To be clear, it’s not about preserving brick-and-mortar. Instead, it’s about the transformative power of the arts to engage, motivate and keep students in schools.

It’s also not about money. Through digital and mobile technology, a mural can be recreated at a fraction of its original cost. Indeed, the cost of preserving this great city’s cultural heritage would be far less than, say, Pennrose’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions.

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