Little-Known Carl Stokes Album Still Speaks To Us Today

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On November 7th, Clevelanders will choose the next mayor of their city.  The fact that both candidates are black isn’t surprising.  It was a different story fifty years ago when Carl Stokes became the first African American to be elected mayor of a major American city.  That achievement was celebrated in a little-known musical album that was recently re-discovered.

In was created in 1970 in a New York recording studio.  Carl Stokes, in his second term as mayor, read a selection of gospel lyrics and some poetry by writers Langston Hughes and Gil Scott-Heron. These readings were accompanied by a collection of classical and jazz musicians, and focused on themes of inequality and self-determination, like Hughes’ “I Too.”

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.

They send me to eat in the kitchen

When company comes,

But I laugh,

And eat well,

And grow strong.

Tomorrow,

I’ll be at the table

When company comes.

Nobody’ll dare

Say to me,

“Eat in the kitchen,”

Then.

Besides,

They’ll see how beautiful I am

And be ashamed—

I, too, am America.

© 1994 by The Estate of Langston Hughes.

Back then, behind the control room glass was famed New York jazz producer Bob Thiele.  Next to him was noted composer and arranger Oliver Nelson.  They’d collaborated on a series of recordings like this. Each one featured prominent American cultural voices commenting, sometimes metaphorically, on current issues over a musical soundtrack.


Bob Thiele produced a number of albums that blended jazz with social justice commentary on his Flying Dutchman label

Take this hammer, carry it to the captain
Take this hammer, carry it to the captain
Take this hammer, carry it to the captain
Tell him I'm gone
Tell him I'm gone

If he asks you was I runnin'
If he asks you was I runnin'
If he asks you was I runnin'
Tell him I was flyin'
Tell him I was flyin'

If he asks you was I laughin'
If he asks you was I laughin'
If he asks you was I laughin'
Tell him I was cryin'
Tell him I was cryin'

They want to feed me cornbread and molasses
They want to feed me cornbread and molasses
They want to feed me cornbread and molasses
But I got my pride
Well, I got my pride

© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc, T.R.O. Inc.

Music historian Loren Schoenberg says the albums were released on Thiele’s personal label, Flying Dutchman, and they definitely weren’t heading to the top of the pop charts.

“In the late 1960s, people were branching off into independent labels based on philosophies and ideals,” Schoenberg says.  “At that time, you had people who were making enough money from the commercial stuff, that felt that they could go out and record things that they loved.  There may not have been a big payday at the end.”

The Stokes recording was released under the title The Mayor and the People.  On one side, Nelson composed “A Black Suite for String Quartet and Jazz Orchestra” for the occasion.  Among the musicians accompanying Stokes were such jazz luminaries as flutist Hubert Laws, saxophonist Phil Woods, and drummer Grady Tate.  The other side consisted of an impromptu question and answer session from an invited audience arranged by Thiele.

In one exchange, Stokes called for young radicals to work within the democratic system:

 “You can’t beat the system by violence.  You’re talking about a country that’s got the Army, the Navy, the CIA.  Do you know what would happen if they turned, as they can turn, on an identifiable minority group in this country? They’d wipe you out tomorrow morning.  And, as horrendous as it would be to me and you, it would not be inconsistent with history”.

41-year-old Johnny Parker wasn’t even born when Carl Stokes was elected mayor, but Parker says he’s grown-up with the Stokes legacy.

“Carl Stokes has always been present in our family as a kind of inspirational figure, that kind of dogged toughness of ‘let’s go after it, let’s get it, let’s be about the business of effecting change.’”

Parker was co-director of a recent concert featuring music from the Stokes recording, performed by a combination of gospel and jazz performers assembled by Cuyahoga Community College.

“It’s the Stokes Legacy Jazz Orchestra,” says Parker’s concert collaborator, Dominick Farinacci.  “That concept of bringing music and current events together is very important right now for our culture.  The country is so divided in many ways, on many fronts.  Arts and music is always a pathway to empathy.  It’s very powerful.” 

Oliver Nelson, Jr. attended the performance and was happy to hear his father’s music performed live for the first time. He noted that the poetry readings from 40 years ago, sounded very relevant today.

“The names have changed,” said Nelson. “The Black Panther Party is no longer around --- but Black Lives Matter is around and we’re still fighting the same battles.” 

Johnny Parker says those long-fought battles and the continuing conversations about the best way to address police-community relations might be discouraging to some.  He finds them inspiring.  Just like reviving a forgotten recording that still has a powerful message.

“If you’re talking about it, you have to think that there’s some hope,” he says.

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