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Do you want to know who Dizzy Gillespie  idolized? Did you ever wonder who inspired Kenny Clarke and Art Blakey? Who was the pianist that mentored Monk, Bud Powell, Tad Dameron, Elmo Hope, Sarah Vaughan and Mel Torme? Who was Art Tatum’s idol and Nat Cole’s mentor? What musical quartet pioneered the concept adopted later by the Modern Jazz Quartet? Were you ever curious to know who taught saxophone to Stanley Turrentine or who taught piano to Ahmad Jamal? What community music school trained Robert McFerrin, Sr. for his history-making debut with the Metropolitan Opera? What virtually unknown pianist was a significant influence on young John Coltrane, Shirley Scott, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons and Ray Bryant when he moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh in the 1940s?  Would you be surprised to know that Erroll Garner attended classes at the Julliard School of Music in New York and was at the top of his class in writing and arranging proficiency?

 

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For almost 100 years the Pittsburgh region has been a metacenter of jazz originality that is second to no other in the history of jazz.  One of the best kept secrets in jazz folklore, the Pittsburgh Jazz Legacy has heretofore remained mythical.  We have dubbed it “the greatest story never told” since it has not been represented in writing before now in such a way as to be accessible to anyone seeking to know more about it.  When it was happening, little did we know how priceless the memories would become when the times were gone.

 

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Duke Ellington is first African-American and the first musician to solo on U.S. circulating coin

    MARY LOU WILLIAMS     

            INTERVIEW

       In Her Own Words

Steal Away, Steal Away. The "Great Transcriber" of Negro compositions: Stephen Collins Foster

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Statue of 19th-century American songwriter and Pittsburgh native Stephen Foster, depicted with an African-American musician. It was once located in Highland Park, but is now in Oakland.
 
What to do with a Stephen Foster statue with a black man at his feet?

Over 150 years since his death, scholars and musicians still argue about the racial legacy of Pittsburgh native Stephen Foster. But to many observers, the issues surrounding Foster’s 10-foot-statue on Forbes Avenue are somewhat more clear-cut.

“It’s the single most offensive display of public art in Pittsburgh, hands down,” said Paradise Gray, a hip-hop activist, musician and writer. “It permanently depicts the black man at the white man’s feet.”

While sculptor Giuseppe Moretti depicted Mr. Foster seated on a perch with a visionary cast, the shoeless banjo player at his feet — identified as “Uncle Ned” after one of Foster’s songs — stares vacantly. Even the sunny assessment that Foster is taking inspiration from African-American culture angers Mr. Gray.

“He’s doing what the music industry does today: He’s got a slave playing the music, and he’s going to end up with the copyright.”

Linda Esposto of Forest Hills gets a hug from Judy Shipley of Allison Park (facing camera) during the Prayer for Pittsburgh, Prayer for Peace gathering in front of the City-County Building.
Adam Smeltz
Hundreds turn out for Downtown 'Prayer for Pittsburgh'

But after more than a century and countless complaints, the music may be just about over for the city-owned Foster statue. A task force led by the University of Pittsburgh has been pondering its fate, and the city’s Art Commission, to which Mr. Gray was appointed by Mayor Bill Peduto in 2015, is poised to weigh in. (Mr. Gray later stepped down from the commission for health reasons.) 

“The mayor would like the experts to come up with a recommendation,” said city spokesman Tim McNulty. He said the commission would likely take up the matter — with input from the task force and the community — within the next month.

Controversy over the statue, while nothing new, was rekindled after last weekend’s violent march by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., where a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee was a flashpoint. Since then, communities nationwide have been reassessing the messages sent by their own statuary. Scrutiny of the Foster memorial has flared up in social media, and in a story in the online publication The Incline.

But Mr. McNulty said that while the violence in Charlottesville “may have brought it to the forefront for some people, we’ve been working on this for awhile.”

Foster’s musical relationship to African-Americans is complicated, said Deane Root, a music professor at the University of Pittsburgh and director of its Center for American Music.

“He was the first songwriter to put enslaved people into his songs — texts that made them much less a caricature,” Mr. Root said. W.E.B. DuBois, a black writer and civil-rights activist, hailed Foster’s music, and one of Foster’s lifelong friends, Charles Shiras, was a noted abolitionist.

But Foster “used the language of the time, which was racist [and] hurtful and damaging,” Mr. Root said. “There are songs I can’t look at, even though I have to as a historian.”

And while Foster’s best work may humanize African-Americans, “The statue is not the rendering of someone with human characteristics that we hear in his lyrics.”

Less than two dozen of Foster’s 250 compositions, which include songbook favorites like “Oh! Susannah” and “Camptown Races,” feature slaves. Yet much of white Pittsburgh supported the statue that included one.

Pittsburgh Press editor T.J. Keenan Jr., whose paper campaigned for public donations to the statue, proposed depicting Foster as “catching the inspiration for his melodies from the fingers of an old darkey reclining at his feet.” Work was supervised by a committee including city leaders like banker Andrew Mellon and political boss Christopher L. Magee.

Schoolchildren, meanwhile, contributed their pennies toward the project, and when the statue was dedicated in 1900, some 3,000 were on hand to sing Foster’s compositions. (Originally installed in Highland Park, the statue was moved to Oakland in 1944 after vandals repeatedly stole the banjo and a pencil from Foster’s hand.)

The Foster statue is not the only case in which racial tensions lie in plain sight. A handful of Oakland streets — Neville, McKee, Craig — are named after former slave owners. And in nearby Schenley Park, protests on behalf of native peoples have been held at a 30-foot-tall statue of Christopher Columbus, which also has been vandalized repeatedly.

“With public monuments, there’s both the question of who or what is being commemorated, and the issue of how it’s done,” said Kirk Savage, a University of Pittsburgh scholar on public art. While controversy around the Columbus statue turns on the first question, he said, “In the case of Foster, it’s the ‘how’ question much less than ‘who.’”

The statue was among the nation’s first depictions of an African-American in public sculpture, Mr. Savage said. “But it was the only image of a black person in an outdoor setting in Pittsburgh. And that’s terrible. You have [Foster] looking pensive, and then this barefoot, snaggle-toothed, balding, raggedly dressed figure. When you set up that comparison, it’s really evil.”

“I’m the type of person who tries not to let racist, classist, sexist strings pull me away from my brothers and sisters from different backgrounds,” agreed Ricardo Iamuuri Robinson, a Garfield-based sound artist. “But I can’t deny that it is a representation that gets under my skin. When something like this is in a public space, it’s an obvious degradation that some parents have to explain to your children. ”

Mr. Iamuuri Robinson is currently developing an art project which would feature a live banjo concert at the statue with original compositions written “from the perspective of Uncle Ned. I’m working on songs to share the perspective that this is a pretty honest sculpture as far as articulating power relationships. But I was going to tap into Uncle Ned’s humanity and explain his discontent.”

As an artist, Mr. Iamuuri Robinson said, “I’m not one of the people who wants to tear down artwork. But I would relocate it out of the public sphere and into a place where people have a choice and can confront that history on their own terms. A lot of people walk past that statue and feel nothing, but it is an imposition on a particular community.”

Mr. Savage said he and other instructors have used the statue in class. “I’ve had students put up a new plaque on it, with an inscription about racism. These monuments can create constructive dialogue, but then I”m a white person — I don’t have to deal with being demeaned every day.”

Kilolo Luckett, a member of the art commission, said, “My position on it as a college student at Pitt still remains: it must be removed from the public. No words, as an amendment to the statue, can provide context to explain away the racial imagery on display. Instead it will only reinforce myth-making and white supremacy.”

Mr. Savage, like Mr. Root, is part of a working group that has been meeting for months to discuss the statue’s fate. Led by Pitt’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion, participants include scholars, city officials, and students. Members offered mixed views on what should be done with the statue, though there appears to be little appetite for leaving it as is.

“What is placed on public property is an indication of what a place values,” said Renee Piechocki, a working group member and director of the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council’s office of public art.

“When we have imagery that is painful and derogatory and racist, it hurts everyone.” She said she favored “a process to remove the work from public property,” though she declined to say what she thought should be done with the statue.

Mr. Root said he is generally “not in favor of taking down public art,” but says the statue has “no interpretation at all. I’d like to explain a lot of these issues,” while perhaps “balancing” it with a sculpture of a black Pittsburgh hero like 19th-century black newspaper editor Martin Delaney.

Indeed, said Mr. Gray, the arts commission member and activist, while it was “never too late” to address injustice, “there’s nothing new about this.”

“Charlottesville is white America’s wake-up call,” he said, emphasizing the word “white.” By contrast, he said, African Americans “have been going through this for 400 years.”

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Comment by Dr. Nelson Harrison on August 27, 2017 at 12:47am

hen Jack Daniel’s Failed to Honor a Slave, an Author Rewrote History

Photo
Fawn Weaver on a farm in Lynchburg, Tenn., where Nearest Green and Jack Daniel first began distilling whiskey together. Credit Nathan Morgan for The New York Times

LYNCHBURG, Tenn. — Fawn Weaver was on vacation in Singapore last summer when she first read about Nearest Green, the Tennessee slave who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey.

Green’s existence had long been an open secret, but in 2016 Brown-Forman, the company that owns the Jack Daniel Distillery here, made international headlines with its decision to finally embrace Green’s legacy and significantly change its tours to emphasize his role.

“It was jarring that arguably one of the most well-known brands in the world was created, in part, by a slave,” said Ms. Weaver, 40, an African-American real estate investor and author.

Determined to see the changes herself, she was soon on a plane from her home in Los Angeles to Nashville. But when she got to Lynchburg, she found no trace of Green. “I went on three tours of the distillery, and nothing, not a mention of him,” she said.

Scouring archives in Tennessee, Georgia and Washington, D.C., she created a timeline of Green’s relationship with Daniel, showing how Green had not only taught the whiskey baron how to distill, but had also gone to work for him after the Civil War, becoming what Ms. Weaver believes is the first black master distiller in America. By her count, she has collected 10,000 documents and artifacts related to Daniel and Green, much of which she has agreed to donate to the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington.

Through that research, she also located the farm where the two men began distilling — and bought it, along with a four-acre parcel in the center of town that she intends to turn into a memorial park. She even discovered that Green’s real name was Nathan; Nearest (not Nearis, as has often been reported) was a nickname.

She is writing a book about Green, and last month introduced Uncle Nearest 1856, a whiskey produced on contract by another Tennessee distillery; she says she will apply the bulk of any profits toward her expanding list of Green-related projects.

Ms. Weaver’s biggest success, however, came in May, when Brown-Forman officially recognized Green as its first master distiller, nearly a year after the company vowed to start sharing Green’s legacy. (Daniel is now listed as its second master distiller.)

Photo
Mementos from the photo album of Annabelle Mammie Green, a granddaughter of Nearest Green. Credit Nathan Morgan for The New York Times

“It’s absolutely critical that the story of Nearest gets added to the Jack Daniel story,” Mark I. McCallum, the president of Jack Daniel’s Brands at Brown-Forman, said in an interview.

The company’s decision to recognize its debt to a slave, first reported last year by The New York Times, is a momentous turn in the history of Southern foodways. Even as black innovators in Southern cooking and agriculture are beginning to get their due, the tale of American whiskey is still told as a whites-only affair, about Scots-Irish settlers who brought Old World distilling knowledge to the frontier states of Tennessee and Kentucky.

Green’s story changes all that by showing how enslaved people likely provided the brains as well as the brawn in what was an arduous, dangerous and highly technical operation.

According to Ms. Weaver, Green was rented out by his owners, a firm called Landis & Green, to farmers around Lynchburg, including Dan Call, a wealthy landowner and preacher who also employed a teenager named Jack Daniel to help make whiskey. Green, already adept at distilling, took Daniel under his wing and, after the Civil War and the end of slavery, went to work for him in his fledgling whiskey operation.

In all likelihood, there were many other men like Green, scattered around the South. Records are spotty, though references to slaves skilled in distilling and whiskey making pop up in slave sales and runaway-slave ads from the early 19th century. But only one of them helped found a whiskey brand that today generates about $3 billion a year in revenue.

Continue reading the main story

Recent Comments


Peggy Rogers

August 17, 2017

This is a story about two great Americans and one U.S. company that badly blew the opportunity to truly pioneer an important legacy. Mr....



Ozark

August 17, 2017

I grew up upwind a ways from Jack Daniels, with the young relatives of "Uncle Nearest," including some around my age whose older living...



Ned Netterville

August 17, 2017

I sure hope Ms. Weaver's book becomes a No. 1 best seller.Very few enslaved people had the necessary skills to record their own stories....


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Photo
Credit Nathan Morgan for The New York Times

The company had intended to recognize Green’s role as master distiller last year as part of its 150th anniversary celebration, Mr. McCallum said, but decided to put off any changes amid the racially charged run-up to the 2016 election. “I thought we would be accused of making a big deal about it for commercial gain,” he said.

It didn’t help that many people misunderstood the history, assuming that Daniel had owned Green and stolen his recipe. In fact, Daniel never owned slaves and spoke openly about Green’s role as his mentor.

And so the company’s plans went back on the shelf, and might have stayed there had Fawn Weaver not come along.

The daughter of Frank Wilson, the Motown Records songwriter who co-wrote “Love Child” and “Castles in the Sand” before becoming a minister in Los Angeles, Ms. Weaver began her career as a restaurant and real estate entrepreneur. She wrote the 2014 best seller “Happy Wives Club: One Woman’s Worldwide Search for the Secrets of ...

As she tells it, she was looking for a new project when she picked up that newspaper in Singapore.

“My wife often thinks and acts as a single activity,” said her husband, Keith Weaver, an executive vice president at Sony Pictures. “As her husband, I knew, ‘Here we go again.’”

Photo
In a photo in Jack Daniel’s old office, Jack Daniel, with mustache and white hat, is shown at his distillery in Tennessee in the late 1800s. The man to his right could be Nearest Green, a slave who helped teach Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, or one of Green’s sons.

What was meant to be a quick trip to Lynchburg turned into a monthslong residency, as Ms. Weaver discovered an unwritten history, hidden in forgotten archives, vacant land and the collective memory of the town’s black residents.

Through dozens of conversations, local people, many of whom worked or still work for Jack Daniel’s, told her about learning Green’s story from their parents and grandparents, holding it as fact even as the company kept silent.

“It’s something my grandmother always told us,” said Debbie Ann Eady-Staples, a descendant of Green who lives in Lynchburg and has worked for the distillery for nearly 40 years. “We knew it in our family, even if it didn’t come from the company.”

Nothing stays quiet in Lynchburg (population 6,319) for long, especially when it involves the biggest employer in town, and by late March Ms. Weaver was meeting with Mr. McCallum, the brand president, in the makeshift office she had set up in a run-down house on her newly acquired farm.

With a sampling of her estimated 10,000 documents and artifacts spread across a table between them, it quickly became obvious that Ms. Weaver, who had no previous background in whiskey history, knew more about the origins of Jack Daniel’s than the company itself. What was supposed to be a preliminary meeting turned into a six-hour conversation.

Photo
Debbie Ann Eady-Staples, a great-great-granddaughter of Nearest Green, works on the bottling crew at the Jack Daniel’s distillery. Credit Nathan Morgan for The New York Times

Mr. McCallum says he left reinvigorated, and within a few weeks he had plans in place to put Green at the center of the Jack Daniel’s story line. In a May meeting with 100 distillery employees, including several of Green’s descendants, he outlined how the company would incorporate Green into the official history, and that month the company began training its two dozen tour guides.

At one point Jack Daniel’s proposed adding a Nearest Green bottle to its “Master Distiller” series, a limited-edition run of bottles that celebrate its former master distillers, but dropped the idea over concerns from inside and outside the company about appearing to cash in on Green’s name.

Instead, Ms. Weaver has released her own whiskey, Uncle Nearest 1856, which she bought in bulk from another distillery. She is planning to produce a second, unaged spirit, made according to her specifications, which she says will mimic the style of whiskey that Green and Daniel probably made.

Jack Daniel’s seems unfazed, for now, by the use of Green’s name on someone else’s liquor. “We applaud Ms. Weaver for her efforts to achieve a similar goal with the launch of this new product,” a Brown-Forman spokesman said.

Ms. Eady-Staples, who met privately with Mr. McCallum before the big meeting, said she was proud that her employer was finally doing the right thing. “I don’t blame Brown-Forman for not acting earlier, because they didn’t know,” she said. “Once they did, they jumped on it.”

Photo
An original jug stencil from about 1879. Credit Nathan Morgan for The New York Times

And although there is no known photograph of Green, the company placed a photo of Daniel seated next to an unidentified black man — he may be Green or one of his sons who also worked for the distillery — on its wall of master distillers, a sort of corporate hall of fame.

“We want to get across that Nearest Green was a mentor to Jack,” said Steve May, who runs the distillery’s visitors center and tours. “We have five different tour scripts, and each one incorporates Nearest. I worked some long days to get those ready.”

Mr. May said that so far, visitor response to the new tours spotlighting Green’s contribution has been positive. It’s not hard to see why: At a rough time for race relations in America, the relationship between Daniel and Green allows Brown-Forman to tell a positive story, while also pioneering an overdue conversation about the unacknowledged role that black people, as slaves and later as free men, played in the evolution of American whiskey.

For her part, Ms. Weaver isn’t finished with her search for Green — and may never be.

“I’ve lost track of him after 1884,” the year when Jack Daniel moved his distillery to its current location, and Green disappeared from the fledgling company’s records, she said. She is still hoping to find Green’s gravesite, and has recently been traveling to St. Louis to meet with a branch of the family there.

“I could be doing this the rest of my life,” she said.

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Comment by Dr. Nelson Harrison on August 24, 2017 at 7:29pm
The Stephen Foster statue is different from Confederate symbols

I understand and sympathize with concerns about what to make of the Stephen Foster statue and what to do about it (“What to Do With Foster Statue With a Black Man at His Feet?” Aug. 19). However, the statue should not be lumped in with those of Robert E. Lee and other Confederate figures that are currently roiling the nation. Those Confederate statues were meant to demonstrate white hegemony by way of the soldier on horseback. They are an assertion of power and dominance. As such, their right to occupy public space is problematic. But the Stephen Foster statue is different. 

Foster was no racist. He was one of the first whites to appreciate the power and quality of black music. He went out of his way to meet, talk with, listen to and learn from black musicians in Pittsburgh. That said, this is a statue of Foster, and so one can understand the sculptor's decision to make Foster the larger figure. But the unnamed black musician is the one making the music; Foster is simply transcribing notes, showing how his music is being inspired by the black figure. The black figure is dressed in simple, tattered clothes, but one could read that as saying that his humble place in life has nothing to do with his musical talent and creativity. 

Foster’s songs do not demean blacks, but they do romanticize the South and the position of blacks in the South. That is a problem. But Foster, thankfully, stands apart from others in portraying blacks in a sympathetic fashion. Unfortunately, after Foster’s passing, racists took his music and, through the covers of sheet music, stereotyped blacks in truly demeaning ways. But Stephen Foster himself, and this statue in particular, does not do that. A careful look at the figure of the black musician shows that it portrays him as humble but proud. He looks into space, not up at Foster. The statue has long provided a teaching moment for students in my course, History of Black Pittsburgh.

LAURENCE GLASCO 
Associate Professor, History Department 
University of Pittsburgh
Oakland

Comment by Dr. Nelson Harrison on August 23, 2017 at 6:37pm

Should Public Statue Of Stephen Foster Be Removed Because It Depicts A Slave?

August 17, 2017 6:43 PM




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PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Mayor Bill Peduto has asked the Pittsburgh Arts Commission to review and suggest what, if anything, should be done about a statue of a famous Pittsburgh song-writer on city property.

The statue includes an African American slave.

Music: “Camp town ladies sing this song. Doo-dah. Doo-dah.”

Without question, Pittsburgh native Stephen Collins Foster deserves a place in history.

“I would challenge anybody to remember any other popular songwriter in the 19th century,” says Tom Powers, president of the Lawrenceville History Society.

Music: “O Susanna, don’t you cry for me.”

“Without question, a national icon. He’s the father of popular music,” says Joe Wos, a pop culture historian.

But now the only local public statue of Foster which is located outside the Carnegie Library in Oakland is under attack because it includes a depiction of an African American slave.

“I feel that this sculpture is not appropriate for public property,” says Renee Piechocki, director of public art with the non-profit Pittsburgh Arts Council.

“What is placed on public property is an indication of what a place values, and I don’t believe that Pittsburgh values causing people pain with derogatory images and content,” Piechocki told KDKA political editor Jon Delano on Thursday.

Not everyone thinks a nearly 120-year old statue should be removed, including Tom Powers, president of the Lawrenceville Historical Society where Foster was born and is buried.

“To sort of do a Soviet-style purge of statues is not what America is about,” says Powers. “It’s about different ideas, and it’s also acknowledging our history, the good and the bad.”

Instead of removing this statue of a Pittsburgh icon that may be offensive to some, one local historian says, let’s make this a teachable moment. Leave the statue but add some placards that explain why a statue like this was erected in the first place.

“In this situation, this is an opportunity to educate,” says Wos, who acknowledges Collins clearly wrote some racist lyrics.

“His contributions to popular music are very important, but we need to look at the bigger picture.”

Before any decision is made, Piechocki hopes everyone gets a voice.

“I would like to see as many people thinking about that and reflecting on the question and offering their point of view.”

The Pittsburgh Arts Commission is expected to hold public hearings on this, the mayor’s office says.



Comment by Dr. Nelson Harrison on August 23, 2017 at 12:07am

A symbolic and metaphorical monument to the truth.  Can you see it?

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