By March 30, 2013 0 Comments Read More →

Charlie Parker slept here.




While Civil War battlefields, inns where our founding fathers slept and birthplaces of 19th century billionaires tend to be the most visited historical sites in America, there is another, less known world of obscure and arcane monuments out there. From the violent, the sad and the paranormal to the simply dull, there seem to be historical markers for every taste. Jazz, fortunately, is no exception.

Thirty or forty years ago, a lot of what passes as “popular culture”—and jazz was no exception—was deemed too unimportant for federal, state and local historical commissions to commemorate with any sort of “this happened here on this date” monument. With increased awareness about African-American culture, as well as a general baby boomer sense of themselves and a sense that their culture was historically significant, things began to change, however slowly.

As Detroiters, we often pass by Hitsville, USA, the 1960’s headquarters of Motown Records. It’s a nondescript house on West Grand Boulevard, west of the Lodge Freeway, but Esther Gordy Edwards, sister of the label’s founder, raised enough money back in the 1980’s to turn it into a nice museum. It was, in fact, where the Funk Brothers accompanied the recording of every significant Motown hit during the 1960’s. Paul McCartney, the last time he was in town a couple of years ago, spent most of two days there, and ended up donating the funds necessary for a full restoration of the studio’s quite-used Steinway piano. Yes, the state of Michigan has—belatedly—placed a historical marker in front of the building.

One problem with identifying the culturally significant geographic locations of African-American cultural history is the very migration that defined so much of it. As blacks began heading north to cities after the First World War, their rural, Southern history often disappeared behind them. A significant example is that of the Mississippi “Delta”, and its place in the evolution of blues music. Not located in the delta of the Mississippi River, as some suppose, the Delta is an area in northwestern Mississippi, southeast of Memphis, that gave rise to many of the prominent, early blues creators, such as Son House and Charlie Patton. Robert Johnson, who recorded in the mid-1930’s, virtually defines the place and the genre, and later artists like B. B. King hail from there as well.

Sadly, neither local residents or the state of Mississippi seemed to care much about this history. It wasn’t until the 2005, when the first marker was placed on the Mississippi Blues Trail, that visitors could get a sense of what happened where in the formative years of the blues. Now, there are dozens of historical markers, honoring juke joints, birth and burial sites, record companies and every other aspect of the history. Check out their website, here. Interestingly, B. B. King’s birthplace is marked on the Trail, making it one of the few historical markers anywhere that honors a living person.

Other places that became forgotten as African-Americans moved out of the South were the birthplaces of those who became famous once they were established in northern cities. It’s not as surprising to see a historical marker at John Coltrane’s residence in Philadelphia during the years 1952-58, where he lived while playing with Miles Davis and establishing himself as a leading force in modern jazz, or Billie Holiday’s apartment in the same city similarly honored. They were at least relatively famous when they lived there, so people remembered these sites. Their birthplaces, conversely, tended to be forgotten until quite recently.

Luckily, one can now see bandleader and bassist John Kirby’s birthplace marked in Winchester, Virgina, as well as composer-pianist Billy Strayhorn’s, in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Clifford Brown wasn’t born in the South, so it’s perhaps a little less unexpected to see a nice marker for him in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. Charlie Christian now has a marker and even a street named after him back in Oklahoma, which we think shows real progress as America attempts to reconcile its past with its present. It’s one thing to have a Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, and quite another to have the birthplace of bandleader and influential early arranger Don Redman marked in Piedmont, West Virgina. While we think it’s great to honor pop culture like Cleveland does, it shows a certain maturity when West Virginia can cast out some old demons and honor a relatively obscure, African-American native son like Redman.

Post a Comment