The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the renaming of the Harlem School of the Arts (HSA) to the Herb Alpert Center finally took place, and it made you proud to be a New Yorker. It made you especially proud to be a Harlemite and even prouder to be a lover of the arts. The weather held up for the outdoor ceremony; it wasn’t too cold, and even the sun peaked through the clouds of an otherwise gray day to celebrate the occasion.
Gracing the dais was Mayor Michael Bloomberg, always a poignant speaker; Yvette Campbell, president and CEO of HSA; Chairman of the Board of Directors Charles J. Hamilton Jr., Esq.; Janice Savin Williams, vice chair and secretary; Rep. Charles Rangel; and the man himself, Herb Alpert with his wife, Lani Hall.
Remarks were interspersed with entertainment featuring soloist Busisiwe Zamisa, singing “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hand,” accompanied by HSA students Sophie Blumenstein, Aoi Furutate, Madison Maklachi and Makai Jones. Young artist Leonay Shepard did a wonderful job singing “Tomorrow” from the hit musical “Annie.” Putting the cherry on top of the icing was performer/actress N’Kenge, star of “Motown: The Musical,” who sang “Defying Gravity” from the musical “Wicked.” All of the performers were phenomenal and just went to show exactly what Harlem can produce.
“Defying Gravity” was so appropriate, because that is exactly what HSA has done. Since its inception in 1947 when former opera singer Dorothy Maynor incorporated the St. James Community Center Inc. into the basement of the St. James Presbyterian Church (located on the corner of 141st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue), where her husband was pastor, arts in the Harlem community have defied gravity and soared. In 1964, it was officially renamed the Harlem School of the Arts; it was then that Maynor really began to pave the way, providing an opportunity for children to hone a craft, to develop their inner being through finding their passion in the arts.
The school continued to thrive as Arthur Mitchell joined the ranks and began teaching classical ballet to almost 200 students prior to forming Dance Theatre of Harlem. Meanwhile, the success stories and accolades continued to mount until one day, a famine descended upon the school as the funding became scare and the HSA everyone had come to know and love almost did succumb to gravity; it was on the brink of closing.
Bloomberg heard the call and rallied the troops together to save what was once a little-known after-school arts center to what had become an institution. Councilwoman Inez Dickens; Lloyd Williams of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce; Kate Levin, Department Cultural Affairs; Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer; Rangel; Ken Knuckles, president and CEO of Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone; and Rona Sabastin were some of the people who heard the call for help. Adding the last push for relief was Alpert, who gave a donation of $500,000 to help heal the wounds.
Humble and grateful, it was Bloomberg who put Charles Hamilton in charge and told him, “don’t screw it up.” Truth be told, the mayor admitted that he used language a little stronger than that, but he kept it clean for the press. Putting together a strong contingency, Hamilton grabbed a hold of the reins and no one has looked back since. Upon seeing just what HSA and the Harlem community was made of, Herb Alpert completed his gift by generously adding another $5 million to the pot. As Bloomberg stated so succinctly, “This guy’s in love with you,” a sentiment felt by us all, I’m sure.
Rangel had nothing but praise for all as he thanked everyone involved, including Hamilton. He said, “Hamilton may be Harvard-trained, but when Harlem called, he came running.” Turning his attention to the mayor, Rangel stated, “Though you are term-limited, we certainly hope your generosity is not term-limited.” To Alpert, a simple thank you meant so much.
Alpert was most humble as he stated, “Art brings out the uniqueness in every child. I am so proud and honored to have my name on this building and be a part of this rich and historic community.”
Inside the HSA Herb Alpert Center was a delicious array of muffins and fresh fruit prepared by Spoonbread, with owner Norma Jean Darden in attendance to make sure everything was just so for the event. The Harlem School of the Arts Advanced Jazz Combo, featuring Director D.D. Jackson, Matthew Whitaker on piano, Franklin Ranklin on guitar and tenor sax, Oren Maximov on bass and Dominique Gervais on percussion, really wowed the crowd. Among the many glad to be a part of history in the making were Ed Lewis; Jonelle Procope of the Apollo Theater Foundation; Thelma Golden, president and chief curator of the Studio Museum of Harlem; Dion Clarke, publisher of the Harlem Fine Arts Show Magazine and founder of the Harlem Fine Arts Show, which drew thousands this year; and too many others to mention. It was N’Kenge who stated it best, saying, “Everyone deserves a chance to fly.”
In one column, there’s an article on the richest people in the world, almost 50 of whom are billionaires, and many of whom are Americans. In another column, there’s a story of a recent intimate gathering of film enthusiasts and human rights activists for a viewing of an upcoming documentary called “Food Chain,” executive produced by Eva Longoria. This film documents the blight of the American farm workers, who grow and provide the food we eat, yet live below poverty levels. What’s wrong with this picture?
Andre Leon Talley, who was once a judge on “America’s Next Top Model” and whose work can be read in Vogue Magazine, has written a book paying homage to the little black dress. The little black dress was a closet staple started, I believe, by Madame Coco Chanel. What started as a fad caught on quickly and has lasted the test of time. While I’m not a fan of Talley, it is fitting that he should write such a book, and it may be interesting to see how he can delve into such a simple subject as the little black dress. I first saw Talley in person when he attended the opening of Spoonbread on Lenox Avenue at 138th Street. Pulling up in a white luxury car and entering the venue with all of his flair, he was instantly recognizable. Excitedly introducing myself as his counterpart at the Amsterdam News, I was terribly dismayed when I asked to have a picture taken with him–as I had the photographer on hand all ready to take the shot–and he snubbed me by saying, “I don’t take pictures.” Slinking back to my seat, I continued to watch him as he tried to get down with the Harlem folk. Strange, I thought, that he would even be there in the first place; but then again, Darden is known to attract such an eclectic crowd. Imagine my horror when a short time later, I saw Talley’s photo in a periodical, the name of which I can’t remember now, smiling alongside someone. Well, of all the nerve. Anyway, as spring will soon be here and the invitations will once again come rolling in, how can you go wrong with a little black dress?
Until next week … kisses