Here There & Everywhere: “Civil Rights — Jazz Document 1963”

By Don Heckman

I’m willing to bet that anyone who was actually around in the sixties remembers the decade as a whirling kaleidoscope of people, events and  places.  Yes, I know the line – if you remember the sixties, you weren’t there.  But I was there, and I remember it well.  Or, at least, I thought I did, until I recently read a posting on Howard Mandel’s always-informative blog, “Jazz Beyond Jazz”

The posting is titled “Civil Rights – Jazz Document 1963.”  In it, Howard disputes an article in the entertainment section of the New York Times asserting that movies opened the way toward the election of the country’s first African American president.

thad_jones
Thad Jones

I maintain, writes Mandel, that the jazz community was in the forefront of the civil rights movement, and remains in the lead for demonstrating how all-inclusive meritocracies look, sound and work. A historical document highlighting the conjunction of jazz and the Civil Rights movement has come to hand — programs from two nights in 1963 when major players performed and major jazz journalists emceed a benefit for CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) at New York City’s Five Spot Cafe, plus a letter of thanks to bassist Henry Grimes  participation.

kenny-burrell
Kenny Burrell

Mandel goes on to describe the remarkable assemblage of individuals who came together on October 20 and 27 – barely two months after the March on Washington  — in the now long gone jazz club at the corner of Third Avenue and St. Marks Place.

The extraordinary gatherings on October 20 and October 27 of musicians now regarded as jazz giants — among the most recognizable: saxophonists Ben Webster, Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Booker Ervin, Eric Dolphy, guitarist Kenny Burrell, brass man and composer-arranger Thad Jones, pianists Bill Evans, Paul Bley, Sal Mosca, Horace Parlan, Billy Taylor (now Dr. Billy . .. ), Don Friedman, Dick Katz, drummers Roy Haynes, Ben Riley (misspelled “Reilly” — and other misspellings abound), Paul Motian, Joe Chambers, bassists Gary Peacock, Ronnie Boykins (of Sun Ra’s Arkestra), Ron Carter and vibist Bobby Hutcherson, singers Helen Merrill and Sheila Jordan — were likely prompted by the Civil Rights rally at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28 (occasion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have A Dream” speech) and the September 15 bombings by the Ku Klux Klan of Birmingham, Alabama’s 16th St. Baptist Church, which targeted church-going children and killed four little girls.

I hadn’t read more than two sentences of the posting before it all began to come flooding back to me.  Because I was there.  More than that, I was a participant.

The CORE benefits’ emcees, continues Mandel, besides Dr. Taylor, who has  made his mark as a jazz television and radio broadcaster, educator and activist as well as pianist-composer-bandleader, were

  • Don Heckman, then writing about music for the Village Voice, soon to go to the New York Times, and today, after a lengthy tenure with the now beleaguered Los Angeles Times, is a key blogger at The International Review of Music.
  • Alan Grant, then WABC disc jockey behind the radio show “Portraits In Jazz” eventually retired with his wife to New Zealand but with his own Last.fm channel.
  • Ira Gitler, a ’50s record producer and in ’63 the New York editor for Down Beat, a jazz historian, author (with Leonard Feather of The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz and journalist these days teaching at Manhattan School of Music and often read in New York’s Jazz Improv magazine.
billy-taylor
Dr. Billy Taylor

I don’t know why the event had somehow wound up in the distant corners of my memory.  Because, in retrospect, I remember it vividly – an extraordinary experience for a young writer just beginning to gain his footing in the big city.  There I was, emceeing the October 20th program with Billy Taylor, introducing the likes of Ted Curson, Roy Haynes, Thad Jones, Kenny Burrell, Frank Strozier, Helen Merrill and more – many more.  Reveling in the transcendent togetherness that – in its own unique way – makes jazz the art form that most directly reflects the ideal of what America can and should be.

sheila-jordan
sheila Jordan

Carefully preserved somewhere in my memorabilia files, I have a framed letter of thanks from James Farmer, then the Executive Secretary of CORE.  Reminded of those two remarkable days in 1963, I will now dig through the boxes, find the letter and once again proudly hang it near my desk.  And I thank Howard Mandel for the jog to my memory that has allowed me to reclaim a treasured event in my personal history of the sixties.

Howard Mandel’s complete “Civil Rights – Jazz Document 1963” blog can be read here: http://www.artsjournal.com/jazzbeyondjazz/2009/01/civil_rights-jazz_document_196.html.

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