Dizzy Gillespie, Ignacz Paderewski, Sonny Rollins, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Vito Marcantonio, and the Benjamin Franklin High School Riots of 1946
Posted by Stephen Lewis on February 6, 2008
Further to “Vote for Jordan for President!” …
Dizzy for President
During the 1964 US presidential election, I spent a few days handing out leaflets urging voters to bypass Democratic and Republican candidates Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater and write in the name of be-bop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie as their choice for president instead. Promoting “Dizzy for President” was a late-beat-era fringe protest against the the dryness of mainstream politics but, as I look back, Dizzy’s beret-in-the-ring might well have augmented the political field. A brilliant innovator, a disciplined and inspiring orchestra leader, and an African -American whose adopted Baha’i faith strengthened his inherent humanism, Dizzy had much to offer.
Should musicians run for president? Legendary classical pianist Ignacz Paderewski, the only musician I am aware of ever having been a head-of-state, served only a single year, 1919, as the premier of newly-independent Poland before he was pressured to resign — but Paderewski was a soloist and not a seasoned band leader like Dizzy.
For me, a musician in the White House would be no less unthinkable than an aging B-movie actor as president or a one-tine professional body-builder as governor of California. In contemporary Russia, even former chess grandmasters entertain political careers. Musicianship, like other endeavors, can generate requisite empathy and responsibility. My friend Ben Salzano — himself one of the generation of young Italian-American jazz musicians that flourished in the 1950s in the Rochester, New York — relates the following anecdote about how jazz saxophone great Sonny Rollins discovered the social responsibility of musicianship while a high school student in New York in 1946.
East Harlem 1946
1946 saw the opening of an immense new high school building in working-class Italian East Harlem just north of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The school, Benjamin Franklin High School, like much of the infrastructure and services of East Harlem, was a product of the perspicacity and idealism of the neighborhood’s long-time congressman, Vito Marcantonio. Marcantonio’s power-base was rooted in East Harlem’s insular Italian-American community and also in the neighborhood’s growing Puerto Rican and African American populations. A socialist, an egalitarian, and a political realist, Marcantonio ensured that Benjamin Franklin High would admit both local white students and black and Hispanic students from throughout Harlem, in the process accelerating racial integration of schools city-wide. Residents of Italian East Harlem, however, thought otherwise. When the first black students (Sonny Rollins among them) showed up at Benjamin Franklin for the start of the school year they were greeted with catcalls and a rain of bricks, bottles, and garbage thrown from the roofs of neighborhood tenements. Fracases erupted between Italian and black teenagers and the atmosphere remained tense for weeks. To calm the situation, Marcantonio and the principal of Benjamin Franklin High invited Frank Sinatra to perform at the school.
Sinatra and Nat King Cole
In 1946, Frank Sinatra was not yet the cynical rat-packer and Nixon hanger-on of later decades. He still had the crystal-clear voice and dark good looks of a young working-class urban crooner. He also had ideals and didn’t hesitate to express them. He had just recorded and performed in a film short of him singing “The House I live In,” New York City leftist school teacher Abel Meeropool’s ode to an egalitarian vision of post-war America, a country-wide hit that came to be an unofficial second US national anthem in the years between the defeat of fascism in Europe and the chill of the McCarthy era back home. From the stage of the auditorium at Benjamin Franklin High, Sinatra told the students, white and black, to knock off the violence and learn to live together, advising, as Sonny recalled it: “… you don’t have to love everybody but you don’t have to kill them either.” A few days later, according to Rollins, Nat King Cole showed up at the school to give a concert of his own and make the same appeal for peace. The violence soon ended and integration of Benjamin Franklin High School was underway. This, Rollins claims, taught him what musicians can and should accomplish.
Recently, Ben Salzano told me that he had recounted Sonny Rollins’s tale to a fellow musician, a native of Italian East Harlem who attended Benjamin Franklin High School at the same time as Sonny and who remembered the 1946 disturbances clearly. Was Sonny Rollin’s narrative accurate? Salzano asked. His colleague answered in an accent and tone once characteristic of the neighborhood: “Sonny? Nah! Sonny’s full-a-shit; Sinatra and Nat played Benjamin Franklin on the same day.”
Additional entries on Vito Marcantonio and on the social, economic, and ideological roots of the ethos and infrastructure of New York will follow in subsequent postings.
For more on the life and music of Sonny Rollins including, I am told, a tighter retelling of his recollections of Benjamin Franklin High School anno 1946, see Eric Nisenson’s “Open Sky: Sonny Rollins and His World of Improvisation”, St. Martin’s Press, 2000.