Braithewaite, Kwame. Bronx African American History Project. By Mark Naison and Maxine Gordon. Fordham University Project, May 17, 2002.


African American Studies


Kwame Braithwaite, a longtime activist, photographer and expert on the history of jazz in NYC was originally born in Harlem and his family moved to the Bronx in 1943 when he was five years old. Braithwaite’s parents are both from Barbados, but they met in Brooklyn. His father was a tailor who owned several Dry Cleaning businesses, which kept him constantly busy, and his mother was a homemaker who sold special Caribbean dishes from her home, such as coconut bread, cucu and sauce (pig’s feet). His family’s house was on Kelly Street between Longwood Ave and 156th, near by Prospect Hospital and St. Margaret’s Church. This was when Black people were just beginning to move into the neighborhood and his family was the third or fourth Black family to move onto the block. His block was made up of mostly privately owned houses except for the buildings on the corners. The Braithwaite family originally rented the bottom apartments to white people. Braithwaite lived on a very racially mixed block composed of Jews, Italians, Irish people, Puerto Ricans and Black people. Some of the Black people were from the Caribbean and the others from the South. The block is still intact.

Braithwaite’s family attended St. Margaret’s Church and sent Braithwaite and his brother Elombay to PS 39, where they became acquaintances with Colin Powell’s family. PS 93 was on the corner of Longwood and Kelly Street and Braithwaite attended from 1st to 6th grade. Fordham University had a “fish lab” in the school, which Braithwaite thinks may have been put there by the Bronx Council. Kwame and his brother loved going to school and education was considered very important by his parents as he grew up. Braithwaite received his political influences from both his parents and his Uncle Lionel who came to live with them for a while. Uncle Lionel discussed the Garvey movement and Kwame’s mother’s fist cousin was a Clenem Wickem, a radical who was forced to leave the island. Although the family did not belong to any Barbados or West Indian associations or fraternal organizations, they did go to Church and Community dances. The music they listened to was Do-Wop, Caribbean, the Calypso and Latin music, and at the dances musicians such as Tito Puente, Fats Green, The Orioles and Calypso Rose would perform. The dances were at the Embassy Ballroom, Hunts Point Palace and Rockland Palace (which was in Manhattan). Everyone brought their own food and drinks since many of the places did not have a liquor license. Tickets to enter the dance and tickets for a table were sold separately. People shared their food with each other and the tables were made for you on the spot to accommodate the amount of people you had with you. About one third of the place would be at tables and everybody else would be standing. Hunts Point Palace was the largest in the Bronx holding maybe a thousand people. Braithwaite was between the ages seven and ten when his family began taking him to the Church and ballroom dances, although his father rarely danced because he was usually working. Between the ages of ten and twelve Braithwaite and his brother began working in his father’s shop on Saturday, writing up the customer’s clothes, putting the cleaning tags on it, working the cash register and taking clothes off the rack with the pole (no commercial cleaners yet). Braithwaite and his younger brother were allowed to play outside after they washed, changed their clothes and completed their homework. The children played in front of the house because the parents’ had a garden in the backyard from which they grew and sold sunflowers, peaches, apples and currant jelly. The mother trusted the children would be safe to play outside because the block was privately owned and all the children from the block played together. The people in the apartments, which consisted mostly of, African Americans from the South considered themselves tougher than the people in the privately owned homes and referred to Braithwaite’s block as “Sissy Kelly”. Braithwaite and his friends played in the street and on the stoop in front of their house, in the schoolyard of P.S. 39 and P.S. 52, and each season had different games. Some of the games included stoopball, cards (“war”), stickball, punch ball, “lowdies”, softball, and there were marble seasons, kite seasons and bike seasons. Mostly boys played together because there were not many girls on the block. Each kid owned baseball equipment and played at the PAL Center, “Lynch Center”. There were no problems between kids from other blocks concerning class difference and kids from other blocks formed teams and played stickball in “money games”. Braithwaite and his brother rented bikes, until the bike was stolen and the parents bought them individual bikes.

Braithwaite did not have a black teacher until P.S. 52. and he did not receive bad treatment from teachers based on race until High School. At John Nalton school Braithwaite encountered many black teachers who would become significant influences on him, such as Mrs. Brooke an art and English teacher, and Ms. Fisher an art and music teacher. He had no major problems growing up in a multi-ethnic, multi-racial neighborhood, except a few instances, such as when a young Jewish boy hit him and when Braithwaite hit back the Jewish boy was upset because “they were not supposed to defend themselves” (the Jewish boy moved to Pleasantville shortly after). Also, a young boy named Russell Corley around the age of ten or twelve got into some trouble with the police and had his hands against the wall and the police shot and killed him. This incident inspired a lot of talk among the neighborhood and was the beginning of Braithwaite’s realization of racism, until now he had been taught racial pride by his parents, but not in a way that divided people. The whites gradually left the neighborhood; Braithwaite has no clear memory of a direct “block busting” strategy by Landlords, but concludes that was probably the Landlords’ plan. Also, in grammar school Colin Powell called Braithwaite’s brother Elombay a “nigger” during an argument (Powell’s family are from Jamaica and had a “light and dark thing”) and Elombay chased him up the stairs and punched him in the mouth. In the late 1940s and ‘50s he began learning about the issue of heroin by seeing a group of guys nodding at a 45-degree angle, but not falling. Drugs was rarely seen on the block and usually occurred in the tougher tenements. There were also “well known and notorious” gangs from around his neighborhood since his youth, but none on his block.

Braithwaite’s interest in the arts originated from his music lessons in piano and clarinet, in particular his lessons from Prof. Phillips, a black Caribbean teacher whose methods were old and proper, but very effective. Braithwaite’s mother did not set a strict music program and P.S. 39 did not have a music program, but he could read music and he joined the band in P.S. 52. In High School, there were less St. Margaret dances and more apartment parties, which divided into two different crowds. The Braithwaite house became a social center because they had a furnished basement that Braithwaite’s parents allowed their sons throw un-chaperoned parties in on the weekends. There was no clean cut racial divide between groups of friends; some white girls came to the Braithwaite brothers’ parties, but not the white boys. The radio did not have a huge impression on musical choices until the early 1950s. They played the “bird groups” at the parties: The Orioles, The Sparrows, The Rens, The Platters and The Chords, among music by other artists such as Thelonius Monk. Braithwaite became interested in jazz in 1954 when he was a junior in High School at the School of Industrial Arts; Elombay, his friends skipped their senior prom and with Kwame went to Basin Street East on 11th and 12th on 51st Street between Park and Lennox and saw Max Roach and Clifford Brown at the club before their fatal car accident. The School of Industrial Arts was a great experience for Braithwaite with a very mixed, co-existent atmosphere where spontaneous dancing was the norm during lunch, except for some unpleasant, but amusing antagonism between a French and Chinese student during the Korean war. In 1954, Elombay graduated and went to cartoonist and illustrator’s school, and in 1955 Kwame graduated.

Braithwaite entered the Harnett School of Music with the ambition of being a professional musician. On Sundays he would go to Rosalyn Hargrave’s house in Brooklyn on 380 Lewis Ave and listen to jazz records (they considered themselves cooler Do-wops) and he began going to clubs. Some of the earliest clubs were “The Pad” and “Club 845”. In 1956 Braithwaite and their group of friends wanted to start doing jazz concerts and they recruited people they knew from the School of Industrial Arts and the Bronx to form a musical group. They began dressing as musicians and originally held practices across the street from Bunny Granby’s house on Prospect Ave, by Freeman Street in the Bronx, but decided to have meetings in their own homes for more room. They used Garvey Day on August 17 to loosely record the date of when they started and at the same time, the African National’s Pioneer Movement with Carbon Crooks in Harlem was occurring. the first time Braithwaite saw Carbon Crooks he was on the corner talking about Africa and contradictions, and Crooks’ words struck a chord with Kwame and his past knowledge of the Garvey movement and a “consciousness [that was] always there”. They started “The Jazz Arts Society” as a way to bring jazz into the Bronx, and it composed mostly of musicians (and some people just wanting to party). The original members were Elombay, Kwame, Robert Gums, Philip Mungen, Andy Barren, Bernard McEwen, Frank Adou, Carl Anderson and Shirley Daley (Shirley was the secretary and was over the age of twenty-one; they needed someone over the age of twenty-one to make it official). The society was created with the goal of promoting jazz and jazz artists (they were many jazz artists in the Bronx at the time and the Bronx was known as the “be-bop Bronx”). The interviewer speculated and Braithwaite agrees that the Bronx could be considered a suburb of Harlem because upper class families were moving for the Bronx for better housing and schools. They decided to have a dance that was a jazz concert and have an African dance group during the intermission (rather than the usual exotic dancer or stripper). They found musicians by going to different clubs in the Bronx, like “Freddy’s Lounge” on Boston Road and “Silvia Blue Morocco”. (There was already a modern jazz society that would have concerts at “Freddy’s Lounge”.) The clubs were mostly Italian controlled, and places like the “Palm Café”, “Palm 2” and “Baby Grand”, were mostly bars and music, but not jazz. However, they did find “The Turf” a useful bar and restaurant on 49th Street and Broadway. They also had to get a permit to do the concert and the musicians needed a cabaret card (a union delegate would come and make sure everyone had their cards). They would also have to pay tax on the gigs, “they did things by the book”. Finally, they hired Tina Carter and her group to dance and set up their first affair on Christmas Eve 1956 entitled “A Small Paradise” in Harlem. They did not start charging until this event. They started putting on Sunday afternoon jazz concerts, which turned out a good attendance. Thelonius Monk visited a concert once, took them outside and said, “that’s good” and that was all. Along the walls of their jazz concert was revolutionary at the time (graphic art). Despite the Harlem residence of Club 845 most of the talent in the beginning was from the Bronx.

. That spring Braithwaite went to school for Advertising art and met David Giddens a friend who came to a jazz concert and took pictures. Braithwaite’s became interested in photography from his friend’s pictures and his uncle’s attendance at the NY Institute of Photography. In 1957, he visited a friend at the School of Industrial Art and saw his grades were good enough to go to college despite the racist misleading of his math and homeroom teacher Mrs. Abrams. He took night classes at Baruch in order to keep some small day jobs he liked and studied business administration. He also bought a camera, began working for the college’s paper “The Reporter”, and became the photo editor in 1959.

In the summer of 1957 on 225th Street, East 225th at the International Park Games (bar with a big gazebo out back) they held the “Jazz and Barbeque: Pick a Rib and Dig a Riff” a free outdoor picnic. The jazz concerts were held at Club 845 from 1957 to 1961, and then they moved headquarters to 125th Street on October 1, 1961 and officially changed to the name because they were working with Latin and African groups and the terms “jazz on society” and “African jazz on society” were both being used.

The 20th Annual Marcus Garvey celebration held a beauty contest called “Ms. Natural Standard of beauty” inspired them to create a fashion show with music and a commentator and the first was called, “Naturally ’62: The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza. Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride and Standards” with women wearing natural hair and African attire or European fashion with an Afro centric flair. The fashion shows lasted from 1962 to ’78 or ’79, and were done again in ’82, ’92, and 2002. The theme and goal of the even was unity, and when the models walked the catwalk they walked together, therefore, they all changed during the same time and during that block of time “The Ages Repertory Theater Company” would perform satirical skits or positive pieces of poetry by Garvey or Hughes. The show always opened with Garvey’s “Black Woman”, and there was a mix of age in the audience including supportive old Garveyites, but no kids. The show became popular and moved to larger venues like Rockland Palace Arts Center. They would have two or three shows a year to pay the rent for the studio on 243 West 125th Street, next to the Apollo which they kept open from October 1, 1961 to September 2001 or ’02 (in the later years it was used mostly for storage and after 1997 for the African Liberation Support Committee for panels). The society began traveling in 1968 to Africa and since then they have traveled to nine other countries. The brother Elombay is was leader and spokesperson and Kwame was the one that got the actual work done as the chief of publicity, photography, writing, getting things to the press and staying on top of the details. Their jazz niche was a “black thing” to promote the artists who were not making “watered-down jazz” and were making less money for it. The group members stayed away from drugs, but they let the musicians “do their thing”.

Key Words: Harlem, Jazz, St. Margaret’s Church, Caribbean, Colin Powell, PS 93, The Bronx Council, Barbados, Dances, Tailor business, Kelly Street, The Garvey Movement, Embassy Ballroom, Hunts Point Palace, Rockland Palace, Privately owned block, Stoop games, Racial Pride, PAL Center, “Lynch Center”, Black teachers, Block busting, Music, Jazz, Landlord, P.S. 52, The School of Industrial Arts, Jazz Arts Society, Garvey Day, African National’s Pioneer Movement, Carbon Crooks, Modern Jazz Society, Jazz clubs, Thelonius Monk, “be-bop Bronx”, Club 845, Barbados

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