Since 2002, April has been designated Jazz Appreciation Month. This year’s celebration was kicked off with a big bang. The Smithsonian announced the LeRoy Neiman Foundation has donated $2.5 million towards the expansion of jazz programming.
The foundation also donated “Big Band,” a painting by LeRoy Neiman.
Neiman considered the painting “one of the greatest in his career.” Four of the 18 iconic jazz musicians have been inducted into the Philadelphia Walk of Fame – John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday and Gerry Mulligan.
The painting is now on display at the National Museum of American History.
March is Women in Jazz Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of women to jazz.
As a lifelong activist, I want to celebrate the role that women in jazz played in paving the way for the Civil Rights movement. While Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is well-documented, Ethel Waters’ “Supper Time” is not well-known. Written by Irving Berlin especially for Waters, the song is about a wife’s grief over the lynching of her husband.
I also want to celebrate the pioneering women of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, the first racially-integrated all-female big band.
The 17-piece band was led by vocalist Anna Mae Winburn. The Sweethearts were popular in the 1940s. Indeed, they were one of the top swing bands, appearing on radio broadcasts, and touring the U.S. and Europe. The group disbanded in 1949.
In 1964, Dizzy Gillespie threw his beret into the ring and ran for President of the United States.
In a piece for Al Jazeera America, Tom Maxwell wrote:
It started as a joke, as so many serious things do. His booking agency had some “Dizzy Gillespie for president” buttons made around 1960, because, you see, it’s funny. Somebody even asked Gillespie why a black jazzman — a permanent member of the underclass if there ever was one — would even think of trying for the job. “Because we need one,” he said.
“Anybody coulda made a better President than the ones we had in those times, dillydallying about protecting blacks in the exercise of their civil and human rights and carrying on secret wars against people around the world,” Gillespie wrote in his autobiography “To Be, or Not … to Bop.” “I was the only choice for a thinking man.”
This thinking woman would have voted for him. Vote Dizzy! Vote Dizzy!
Back in the day, entertainers used to “walk the bar.” Philly native Lee Morgan was “honking and stepping.”
In a Smithsonian jazz oral history interview, National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) Jazz Master and Philly native Benny Golson said: “I caught my boy John Coltrane on the bar.” In a 2009 piece, jazz critic Marc Myers also shared the story:
In 1954, Coltrane’s expanding heroin and alcohol addiction cost him playing jobs, most notably a significant one with alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges. After moving back to Philadelphia, Coltrane was forced to play with local R&B bands to make ends meet. In some of these bands, he had to honk away on the tenor while walking along the bar. One night, he saw childhood friend and tenor saxophonist Benny Golson enter the club. Mortified, Coltrane climbed off the bar and walked out for good.
The Smithsonian interviewer asked Golson where that tradition was started:
I don’t know where it started. It didn’t start with the jazz artists, per se. It started with one of the entertainers. An entertainer’s plot is to do or to second-guess what the audience wants to hear. Yeah, I got involved in that. I did some crazy stuff when I was doing all that stuff. You do what you think is going to entertain them. It’s going to bring acclaim to what you’re doing. Yeah, what’s more ridiculous than getting up on the bar where the drinks are and start playing your low B-flats no matter what key you’re in, just honking. We call that honking and stepping. They’re applauding. Ain’t nothing happening. Stepping over those drinks.