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Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

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.

For a timely posting by my friend and colleague Doc Searls, a long-time independent-voter, on his decision to support Barack Obama in the present primary elections click here.


6 Responses to “Dizzy Gillespie, Ignacz Paderewski, Sonny Rollins, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Vito Marcantonio, and the Benjamin Franklin High School Riots of 1946”

  1. Amiek said

    Dizzy for president would have been great. Wasn’t there a country and western singer who became mayor of some town? In holland we have some musicians turned politician. Most (in)famous is Henk Westbroek of Het Goede Doel (they had the hit Belgie in the eightees) who is in the city council of Utrecht. Andre Hazes was in the city council of “Ronde Veenen” and flutist Berdien Stenberg is in the city council of Almere. I wouldn’t vote for any of them, but that’s a different story.

  2. Sandra Rufolo said

    Your rendition of Benjamin Franklin High School, if you are referring to the same high school my father attended in 1937, I believe about the time the community-driven school was started by its principal and social activist Leonard Covello. African Americans attended from the start with no incident of racial problems. I have proof of it because I have my father’s yearbook. Check the history of the school.

    • Katherine Miles said

      The school was indeed intergrated from the beginning that was the master plan of the school founder Leonard Covello. Race relations, as now, were never perfect but they were inflamed with the Italian invasion and occupation of Ethiopia, and also the destruction of large areas of Italian Harlem to provide for public housing(initially intended for the displaced) which by the time they were completed were increasingly occupied by African-Americans and Hispanics who were also residents of East Harlem. The alumni association has an early yearbook (1937) which documents the racial breakdown of the school from before it occupied the East 115th building. One of the notable alumni featured is “Pop” Gates a basketball hall-of-famer, an African-American.

      • Dear Katherine Miles,

        By chance I was online when you comment arrived. Thanks for it. It is especially appreciated because the post itself (unlike most posts to my two weblogs) was based on second-hand tales and was left unverified. Your linking of the story to world events, to changes in NYC demography and housing infrastructure, and to the mindset of the maintenance of abstract immigrant identities makes your comment all the more appreciated. I’m quite curious what brings you to know so much about Benjamin Franklin HS and the web of conflicts and frustrations of 1930s and 40s NY — neighborhood roots, historical research, or whatever else? Do let mek now if and when you have a moment.

        While growing up, my only contact with Benjamin Franklin HS was its reputation, During my years at Seward Park (early-1960s) Benjamin Franklin was said to be an even “tougher” school, and Seward was tough enough on its own. I also remember that, some years after my high school days, my younger sister, a student at the very un-tough HS for Music and Art, was badly beaten during a racial confrontation following a dance at Benjamin Franklin If you have any knowledge of the history of integration at Seward Park, I would be all the more appreciative if you got in touch, it would help objectify my own memories tales of the unexpected violence and unexpected friendships during those years, and help place in broader context a conundrum that cast a shadow over those years, i.e. my (and others’) confused feelings at the time of closeness with African Americans marred by fears violence across racial lines. In some ways, my life has alternated between flights from such tensions and active commitment to their eradication.

        To close, work and the exigencies of “the crisis” have cut down on my blog posting, but I hope sometime soon to post some memories about the cynically minimal token integration of Stuyvesant Town not long after its opening.

  3. Sandra. Thanks for your comment and for taking my site seriously enough to contact me. I will certainly re-check my facts, first by looking in the NY Times index (which I maybe should have done at the beginning). What I wrote was based on oral communications from a musician who had heard the story from Sonny Rollins and from one Italian-American musician who was a student at the school at the time; the events are also described in the book I mentioned in my posting. If I am wrong about the founding of the school or any details of the events of 1946, please give me the correct details. Also, please tell me more about the principal of the school and about the early integration of the school if you can. Note that Vito Marcantonio is one of my special New York heroes as is his Jewish equivalent from the Lower East Side, Meyer London; I plan to write more about both. Both have been largely forgotten as the communities each served move up the social ladder and out into middle class America. Stephen

  4. Raanan Geberer said

    Sinatra’s role was very commendable, as was Marcantonio’s, but I think you’re whitewashing Marcantonio too much. Although his work for civil rights and labor was praiseworthy, he was tied in both with the Communists (for example, he opposed any aid to Britain during the Hitler-Stalin pact) and the mob (opponents were severely beat up in his district one Election Day in the 1940s).

    Raanan G

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