How we can honor a Bronx jazz great

A piano.
A piano. Photo Credit: Yeong-Ung Yang

Maxine Sullivan was one of the most important female artists in the history of American Jazz. Her recording of a swing version of the traditional Scottish song “Loch Loman” elevated her to national fame and in 1940 she became the first African-American jazz artist to host a weekly radio show.

For the next 30 years, she performed jazz on radio, in film and on TV while raising a family and being active in schools and community organizations in her Bronx neighborhood, Morrisania, where she lived until her death in 1987.

But she was not the only major jazz figure who made her home in the Bronx in those years. Among the jazz greats in Morrisania were Henry “Red” Allen, Elmo Hope, Herbie Hancock, Donald Byrd, Thelonious Monk and Lou Donaldson. And jazz clubs in Morrisania hosted a veritable all-star team of jazz greats, including Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Nancy Wilson.

Until the formation of the Bronx African History Project in 2003, which recorded oral histories with people who had lived in Morrisania, this history of jazz creativity had been largely forgotten, seemingly swept away with the fires that beset the community during the 1970s. However, jazz scholars and community residents, helped by Fordham University, the Bronx County Historical Society and many community organizations, have finally begun to reconstruct the Bronx’s great jazz history.

It’s time to transmit that legacy to future generations. Turning Maxine Sullivan’s house on Ritter Place, which is for sale, into a community educational center and museum celebrating jazz in the Bronx, would be a way to honor the great musicians who lived, performed and were educated in the Morrisania community.

At a time when educators seek to promote the arts in schools, this is an opportunity that should not be passed up. I hope elected officials, working with nonprofit organizations and universities, can purchase the home and raise the funds to make it a community cultural and educational center, which is what it was when Sullivan was alive. She didn’t only work with young people in schools, she also opened her home to them and helped mentor them as artists and people.

That’s a tradition worth honoring and reviving.

Mark Naison is a professor of African-American studies and history at Fordham University and director of Fordham’s Urban Studies Program.