For years I could not get pass the optics of Louis Armstrong, mainly the broad grin and ever-present handkerchief. Fast forward to today, my love and respect for Pops’ musical genius and civil rights activism is immeasurable. At the dawn of the modern Civil Rights Movement, Armstrong cancelled a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of the Soviet Union in support of the Little Rock Nine. Pops blasted Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus, a staunch segregationist, and President Eisenhower.
As a preservationist, I am in awe of Pops and Lucille Armstrong’s dedication to preserving his legacy in public memory. The Louis Armstrong House Museum, a National Historic Landmark, and the new Louis Armstrong Center provide a blueprint for historic preservation, as well as cultural heritage preservation.
Pops once said, “I don’t get involved in politics. I just blow my horn.” Behind closed tours, he had a lot to say about politics and racism. Decades after his death, the public will hear the full story of Louis Armstrong in the documentary, “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues.”
The legendary trumpeter got his flowers while he was alive. Pops is now getting overdue props for his resilience and resistance to white supremacy. “Louis Armstrong’s Black & Blues” premieres October 28 on Apple TV.
In their latest court filing to gain possession of the Strawberry Mansion rowhouse that John Coltrane purchased in 1952, Ravi and Oran Coltrane claim their father’s beloved cousin, “Mary Lyerly Alexander, put in place a plan to unlawfully claim the Coltrane House for herself and her progeny instead of the remaining grandchildren of Alice Gertrude Coltrane, as required by the Will.” Ravi and Oran speciously claim that a typo is evidence that conveyance of the Philadelphia property was “fraudulent.” In the deed conveying the property to Norman Gadson in 2004, Coltrane is misspelled “Cultrate.”
Cousin Mary had a plan to preserve the John Coltrane House. After decades of indifference, do Ravi and Oran Coltrane now have a plan to rehabilitate the National Historic Landmark?
To catch up on the ongoing John Coltrane House family feud, go here.
In the Before Times, I celebrated John Coltrane’s birthday (September 23, 1926) by leading a walking tour. We would meet at Coltrane’s Walk of Fame plaque where I would give an overview of the legendary saxophonist’s time in Philadelphia and talk about the John Coltrane House.
In light of the drama unfolding in the Court of Common Pleas, I am not in a celebratory mood. Coltrane’s sons, Ravi and Oran, are suing Norman Gadson’s daughters, Aminta and Hathor, for possession of the Philadelphia rowhouse that their father purchased in 1952 and where he composed Giant Steps.
They claim Mary Lyerly Alexander, better known as Cousin Mary, “duped” Gadson into buying property that she had no right to sell. Gadson paid $100,000 for the National Historic Landmark in 2004. That same year, John and Alice Coltrane’s house in Dix Hills, NY was at imminent risk of demolition.
On August 31, 2022, the third anniversary of Alexander’s death, Defendants allege in court filings that Cousin Mary “extinguished” Ravi and Oran’s remainder interest in the property with their knowledge and acquiescence. Defendants further claim that if they lose possession of the property, they should be reimbursed more than $220,000 for costs incurred in maintaining, renovating and insuring the Coltrane House. They claim “Plaintiffs would have no remainder interest were it not for the activities of Gadson and his successors.”
While the claims and counterclaims fly back and forth, I think about that hot and humid Saturday morning when something – or someone – told me to go check on the Coltrane House. Later that day, I learned Cousin Mary had died.
I vowed at Cousin Mary’s homecoming celebration that I would do everything I could to save the National Historic Landmark.
Little did I know my successful nomination of the John Coltrane House for listing on 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk would set in motion this family feud.
Ravi and Oran have cast aspersions on Cousin Mary. The court will decide who owns the Strawberry Mansion rowhouse. But for nearly 40 years, Cousin Mary devoted her life to preserving John Coltrane’s legacy in public memory. On July 6, 2004, she agreed to sell the property to Norman Gadson, a friend and jazz enthusiast who shared her vision for a Coltrane Museum and Cultural Center. Three months earlier, random Coltrane aficionados, preservationists and local officials saved from demolition Ravi and Oran’s childhood home in Dix Hills, NY. The place where their father composed A Love Supreme.
Scottish historian Sir Walter Scott observed, “Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive!”
Ownership of the John Coltrane House has been a tangled web ever since the property owner of record, Norman Gadson, died in 2007. I raised the “tangled title” issue with Ravi Coltrane on March 13, 2020. During the conference call, Ravi said organizations raising money in the name of John Coltrane need the permission of the Estate of John and Alice Coltrane. That “ties their hands unless there’s a partnership with the estate.” That was my first and only conversation with Coltrane’s son.
In a lawsuit filed on April 27, 2022, Ravi and his brother Oran allege they are the rightful owners of the Strawberry Mansion rowhome that their father bought in 1952. Coltrane and his first wife, Juanita “Naima” Austin,conveyed the property to his mother, Alice Gertrude Coltrane, on March 24, 1958.
Coltrane’s sons claim their father’s beloved cousin, Mary Lyerly Alexander, better known as Cousin Mary, “duped” (read: deceived) Gadson into paying $100,000 to purchase her life estate in the Coltrane House. According to Alice Gertrude Coltrane’s Last Will and Testament, Cousin Mary had “the right and privilege to live on the premises at 1511 North 33rd Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during her lifetime.” Her life estate ended on August 31, 2019.
My successful nomination of the Coltrane House for listing on 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk is cited in the Complaint and included in an exhibit, but I found out about the lawsuit by happenstance. The lawsuit was also a surprise to the defendants, Aminta Gadson Weldon and Hathor Gadson. A spokesperson for the defendants’ lawyer, Edward A. Fox, said in a statement:
The Early-Gadson family was enormously surprised and saddened to learn of the litigation filed by John Coltrane’s sons given the family’s 18-year history of ownership, preservation, and deep commitment to this National Historic Landmark, with the full knowledge of the Coltrane family.
The parties have clammed up. So I decided to follow the money to try to untangle the web of claims and counterclaims.
The John and Alice Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, New York is owned and stewarded in partnership by the Town of Huntington and Friends of the Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, a nonprofit organization. On September 21, 2021, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation awarded Friends of the Coltrane Home a grant of $1 million“to support the preservation of the Home, enhance organizational capacity, and expand programmatic offerings.” In announcing the grant, the Mellon Foundation notes: “While the funds received from the Mellon Foundation will go a long way to renovating the Home and transforming it into an innovative museum, additional support will be needed before the Home can be opened to the public.”
The Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation (SMCDC) has raised $855,000 for the Coltrane House, including a $300,000 grant awarded under Pennsylvania’s Blight Remediation Program on May 25, 2021. The reimbursable grant is for “engineering and renovation costs associated with façade remediation activities at the Coltrane House Property.” The grant ends on June 30, 2023.
The Mellon Foundation awarded SMCDC $500,000 on December 10, 2021. The two-year grant is “to support organizational capacity and development for a community-focused project honoring the legacy of John Coltrane.” SMCDC needs an additional $5 million before the John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center can be opened to the public.
According to their IRS return, Friends of the Coltrane House received $18,100 in contributions in 2020. Between 2016 and 2020, the nonprofit received a combined total of $296,502 in contributions. Their 2013 Indiegogo and 2018 Kickstarter fundraisers were unsuccessful. Both campaigns closed after raising less than $9,000.
The O’Jays warned us that money can “do funny things to some people.” Ravi and Oran Coltrane’s lawsuit was filed four months after SMCDC received the Mellon Foundation grant. Defendants claim SMCDC has “five other grant applications pending.” Did money and the lack of permission from the Estate of John and Alice Coltrane trigger the lawsuit?
My lived experience tells me there’s more to the story. Stay tuned to “John Coltrane House Family Feud” as I follow the money.
Founded by WDAS program director and DJ Jimmy Bishop in 1964, Artic Records was a building block for “The Sound of Philadelphia.”
Future cofounder of Philadelphia International Records Kenny Gamble was a songwriter and producer for the record label, and recording artist with the group, Kenny Gamble and the Floaters.
In a 2013 interview, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Gamble told WHYY:
That was like my training ground. It was like going to school. Experimenting. Jimmy Bishop used to let me work in the studio, work on the board.
Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates got his start at Arctic with the blue-eyed soul group the Temptones
A teenager from North Philly, Barbara Mason, wrote and recorded Artic’s best-selling record (Kenny Gamble was one of the backup singers).
Arctic released its last record in 1971. Around the same time, Jimmy Bishop disappeared, and to this day nobody knows whether he’s dead or alive.
The site of Artic Records is a stop on my walking tour, “North Broad Street: Then and Now.” We will take a stroll down North Broad in October 2022. To be added to the mailing list, send your contact info to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The time is always right to do what is right.” It’s past time for the Pulitzer Prize Board to do right by Duke Ellington and grant him the award he was denied in 1965. The New York Timesreported on May 5, 1965.
Jazz historian and author Ted Gioia has launched an online petition for Duke Ellington to be granted the Pulitzer Prize in Music:
In 1965, the jury for the Pulitzer Prize in Music recommended that jazz composer Duke Ellington receive the award in honor of his lifetime legacy of excellence. The Pulitzer Board denied the request, and decided to give no award in music that year rather than honor an African-American jazz composer. In the aftermath, two of the three jury members resigned in protest.
The time has come to rectify this unfortunate decision, and name Duke Ellington as the winner of the 1965 Pulitzer Prize in Music. The recent precedent of Jim Thorpe’s reinstatement as sole winner of the 1912 Olympic gold medals, taken from him 110 years ago, makes clear that even after many decades these wrongs can still be righted. Ellington was a deserving candidate back in 1965, and the significance of his legacy has become all the clearer with the passage of time. Giving him the 1965 prize is the right thing for Duke Ellington, the right thing for the Pulitzer, and the right thing for American music.
It’s never too late to right an egregious wrong. If you love Duke Ellington madly, keep your eyes on the Pulitzer Prize and sign the petition.
The exclusion caused an uproar in the Black community. Historian John Henrik Clark, a consultant for the exhibition, later withdrew in protest. Dr. Clark told The New York Times:
Fast forward to today, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney and his appointee, Kelly Lee, executive director of the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE), want to give a no-bid $500,000 commission to Wesley Wofford, creator of the traveling statue, Harriet Tubman: The Journey to Freedom. The commission would be for a new statue. Wofford has no unique insight into Harriet Tubman and knows nothing about Philadelphia, a city that is majority minority. His studio is located in the North Carolina Mountains.
The exclusion of Black artists has caused an uproar. OACCE’s plan to spoon-feed Wofford gives new meaning to “starving artist.” The data collected from the public survey “will help determine the theme and messaging of the permanent Harriet Tubman statue to make it unique to Philadelphia and inform the physical design and statue’s text.”
We are taking a page from the Black Emergency Cultural Coalition, a watchdog group whose members included Benny Andrews, Romare Bearden and Harlem residents. We are protesting the planned exclusion of Black, women and other underrepresented artists from competing for the Harriet Tubman commission. Much to their chagrin, Mayor Kenney and Kelly Lee cannot just give Wofford the commission. While professional services contracts are not subject to the lowest responsible bidder requirement of the Home Rule Charter, OACCE must follow the procurement process and post a non-competitively bid contract opportunity to the eContract Philly website. Applicants will have at least 15 days to submit a proposal. When the notice of “New Contract Opportunities” is posted, we will give the signal.
We will share the Request for Proposals on social media and via email. Established artists should be able to respond within the timeframe. We already know the location of the statue, City Hall’s North Apron, and some design elements, granite base and at least nine feet tall. The theme(s) will be announced once the public survey data are compiled. So start visualizing your design. By the way, don’t be concerned that submitting a proposal will jeopardize future opportunities with OACCE. Kelly Lee and Jim “I’ll be happy when I’m not mayor” Kenney are lame ducks. Kenney leaves office in January 2024.
The world will come to Philadelphia in 2026 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I wrote that rather than celebrate slaveholders (34 of the 56 Signers, including Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves), we should celebrate resistance to slavery as personified by Douglass.
The renowned orator’s presence in Philadelphia dates back to his escape from bondage. He arrived by steamboat from Wilmington in 1838. We can bring Frederick Douglass to life by staging public readings of his iconic speech at places and sites associated with the abolitionist, including Independence Hall, Mother Bethel AME Church, Concert Hall, the Union League of Philadelphia and Camp William Penn. Douglass was delivering a lecture at National Hall when the news came about John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.
At the same time, we should heed the advice that Douglass gave a Black activist shortly before his death: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” Agitation means we resist Philadelphia insiders who presume to tell us how the United States Semiquincentennial should be commemorated. We should follow the blueprint of the July 4th Coalition which, in 1976, rallied between 30,000 and 40,000 people to protest the lack of diversity in official celebrations and the whitewashing of history.
You can read my op-ed, “This July 4th, let’s honor Frederick Douglass and ‘agitate’” here.
Sadly, all good things must come to an end. So I will close out Black Music Month with “The Blue Note Show” which aired on PBS’ Soul! television series on January 26, 1972.
The episode featured Blue Note Records artists Horace Silver, Bobbi Humphrey, Cecil Bridgewater, Bob Crenshaw, Billy Harper, Harold Mabern, and Andy and Salome Bey. Philadelphia natives Jymie Merritt and Lee Morgan, and long-time resident Mickey Roker were in the house. At 33:58 Silver tells host Ellis Haizlip that he formed his quintet after “the fellow that owned the Showboat in Philadelphia called me and said he wanted me to get a group together and come in for a week.”
Lee Morgan’s appearance on Soul! was one of his last performances. He was shot and killed less than a month later.
Lee Morgan’s legacy lives on. All That Philly has nominated the legendary trumpeter for a Pennsylvania historical marker. We are hopeful the nomination will be approved when the committee meets in September.