Today in Black History, 10/11/2011

·   October 11, 1919 Arthur William “Art” Blakey, jazz drummer and bandleader, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By the time he was a teenager, Blakey was playing the piano full-time and leading a commercial band. Shortly afterwards, he taught himself to play the drums. In 1947, Blakey recorded with a group led by Horace Silver called the Jazz Messengers. When Silver left the group in 1956, leadership passed to Blakey and the group was renamed Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Over the years, the group served as a springboard for many young jazz musicians, including Donald Byrd, Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis, Terrence Blanchard, and Kenny Garrett. Blakey had a policy of encouraging young musicians and was quoted as saying “I’m gonna stay with the youngsters. When these get too old I’ll get some younger ones. Keeps the mind active.” In 1984, the Jazz Messengers won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Group for the album “New York Scene.” Blakey was inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame in 1981 and designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor in jazz, by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1988. Blakey died October 16, 1990, “leaving a vast legacy and approach to jazz which is still the model for countless hard-bop players.” In 2001, Blakey’s album “Moanin’” (1958) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame as a recording of “qualitative or historical significance” and in 2005 he was posthumously awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

·   October 11, 1924 Malvin Greston “Mal” Whitfield, track athlete and diplomat, was born in Bay City, Texas. In 1943, Whitfield joined the United States Army Air Force and became a member of the Tuskegee Airmen. After World War II, he enrolled at Ohio State University where he won the NCAA title at 800 meters in 1948 and 1949. Whitfield’s most notable athletic achievements occurred at the Olympics Games. At the 1948 London Olympic Games, he won Gold medals in the 800 meters and the 4 by 400 meters relay and a Bronze medal in the 400 meters. At the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games, he won a Gold medal in the 800 meters and a Silver medal in the 4 by 400 meters relay. Between the 1948 and 1952 games, he completed his military service which included 27 combat missions as an aerial gunner during the Korean War. In 1954, Whitfield became the first black athlete to win the John E. Sullivan Award as the outstanding amateur athlete in the country. After graduating from California State University, Whitfield worked for 47 years for the United States State Department conducting sports clinics in Africa. During that time, he trained dozens of athletes who represented their countries in the Olympic Games and arranged sports scholarships for more than 5,000 African athletes to study in the United States. In 1974, Whitfield was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame. In 1989, The Whitfield Foundation was established to “continue the work and programs orchestrated and implemented by Mal Whitfield during his 47 years of service as a professor, diplomat and sports program organizer in the U. S., Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Caribbean.”

·   October 11, 1936 Billy Higgins, jazz drummer, was born in Los Angeles, California. Higgins began playing drums at the age of five. He was one of the co-founders of the free jazz movement and beginning in 1958 played on Ornette Coleman’s first recordings. During the 1960s, he was one of the house drummers for Blue Note Records and played on dozens of their albums. In total, Higgins played on more than 700 recordings, including those of Donald Byrd, Dexter Gordon, Milt Jackson, Sonny Rollins, and many others. In 1989, Higgins co-founded The World Stage to encourage and promote young jazz musicians. He also taught in the jazz studies program at the University of California. In 1997, Higgins was designated a NEA Jazz Master, the highest honor in jazz, by the National Endowment for the Arts. Higgins died May 3, 2001.

·   October 11, 1941 Lester Bowie, jazz trumpeter and composer, was born in Frederick, Maryland but raised in St. Louis, Missouri. At the age of five, Bowie began studying the trumpet with his father who was a professional musician. In 1966, he moved to Chicago, Illinois where he worked as a studio musician before forming the Art Ensemble of Chicago in 1968. They recorded 40 albums, including “Tutankhamun” (1969), “Urban Bushman” (1980), and “Urban Magic” (1997). In 1984, he formed Lester Bowie’s Brass Fantasy whose recordings include “I Only Have Eyes for You” (1985) and “The Fire This Time” (1992). Bowie lived and worked in Jamaica and Africa and recorded with Fela Kuti. He died November 8, 1999 and the following year was posthumously inducted into the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.

·   October 11, 1956 Debra Martin Chase, lawyer and movie producer, was born in Great Lakes, Illinois, but raised in Pasadena, California. Chase earned her Bachelor of Arts degree from Mount Holyoke College in 1977 and her Doctorate of Jurisprudence degree from Harvard Law School in 1981. Chase practiced law during the 1980s before joining the legal department at Columbia Studios. She ran Denzel Washington’s Mundy Lane Entertainment from 1992 to 1995 and Whitney Houston’s Brown House Productions from 1995 to 2000 before starting her own company, Martin Chase Productions. Chase has produced a number of films, including “The Pelican Brief” (1993), “The Princess Diaries” (2001), “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” (2005), and “Just Wright” (2010).

·   October 11, 1991 Redd Foxx, comedian and actor, died. Foxx was born John Elroy Sanford on December 9, 1922 in St. Louis, Missouri. He moved to New York City in the early 1940s where he was an associate of Malcolm X. In Malcolm’s autobiography, Foxx is referred to as “Chicago Red, the funniest dishwasher on this earth.” Foxx gained notoriety with his nightclub act and was one of the first black comics to play to white audiences on the Las Vegas strip. From 1972 to 1977, Foxx starred in the highly successful television series “Sanford and Son” and in 1972 won the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Actor in a Musical or Comedy. He was also nominated for the Emmy Award for Best Actor in a Comedy Series in 1971, 1973, and 1974. From 1980 to 1981, he starred in the television series “Sanford.” Foxx died while rehearsing for another television series called “The Royal Family.” Jamie Foxx chose the surname Foxx as part of his stage name in tribute to Redd Foxx. Foxx’s biography, “Black and Blue: The Redd Foxx Story,” was published in 2011.

·   October 11, 1998 Spottswood William Robinson, III, educator, civil rights attorney, and judge, died. Robinson was born July 26, 1916 in Richmond, Virginia. He earned his undergraduate degree from Virginia Union University in 1936 and in 1939 earned his Bachelor of Laws degree from Howard University, graduating first in his class and achieving the highest scholastic average in the history of the university. From 1939 to 1947, Robinson was on the faculty of Howard’s School of Law and from 1948 to 1960 he worked with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. In 1951, Robinson litigated the lawsuit Davis v. County School Board of Prince Edward County, which was one of the cases consolidated and decided under Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. From 1960 to 1964, Robinson was dean of the Howard University School of Law. In 1964, he became the first African American appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Columbia. In 1966, he became the first African American appointed to the U. S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and in 1981 he became the first African American to serve as chief judge of the District of Columbia Circuit Court. Robinson took senior status in 1989.