Some folks, friends actually, were outraged to learn that 52 years ago to be exact they missed a series of the most significant outdoor music concerts to be presented in Harlem. From June 29 to Aug. 24, 1969, the Harlem Cultural Festival played for six Sundays in Mount Morris Park (now called Marcus Garvey Park). Such iconic figures as Stevie Wonder, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, B.B. King, The Staple Singers, The 5th Dimension, David Ruffin, Mahalia Jackson, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Ray Barreto, Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx, then at the peak of their careers and still rising among others, performed for over 300,000 people. Though NYPD officers were present at each concert, the concert producer and emcee Tony Lawrence (a performer himself), enlisted the help of the Black Panthers to act as security, to protect citizens of Harlem from the police. “It was a very spiritual vibe,” said poet and playwright Roger Parris. “Everyone was into the music. I didn’t make all the shows, but the ones I did see will always be memorable moments in Harlem.”
All six of these historic monumental concerts were filmed by television veteran Hal Tulchin and a sponsorship deal was made with Maxwell House Coffee to finance the giant production. The 40 hours of footage was edited down to 117 minutes by the musician and producer Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who directed this project and retitled it “Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Could Not be Televised).” In his directorial debut he restored the meaningful spirit of the past by way of intimate, newly restored footage, and recent interviews with attendees and the artists who performed.
Most recently the “Summer of Soul” documentary premiered at its original location in Marcus Garvey Park; as an audience treat Gladys Knight and Billy Davis and Marilyn McCoo (5th Dimension) performed live before a HUGE audience. “Summer of Soul” debuted on Hulu, on July 2 and can now be seen on that cable network.
It is such a disappointment the Harlem Cultural Festival with the biggest names in African-American music, culture, and politics coming together for a landmark, transformational Black cultural event did not attract the same international acknowledgement and accolades as the three-day Woodstock Rock Festival (Aug. 15-18), although it happened a month before. People had the audacity to refer to the Harlem festival as the “Black Woodstock”—that is just disrespectful.
In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine listed Woodstock as number 19 of the 50 Moments That Changed the History of Rock and Roll. In 2017, the festival site became listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Unlike the upstate music festival, the footage from the Harlem Cultural Festival could not find a home that summer of 1969. New York City’s affiliate television station WNEW Metromedia Channel 5 (now FOX) broadcast two hour-long specials of the footage, but after that summer, Tulchin was told there was little interest in a “Black Woodstock.” “It was a peanuts operation because nobody really cared about Black shows,” Tulchin told Smithsonian in 2007. “But I knew it was going to be like real estate, and sooner or later someone would have interest in it.” His little-seen footage has been sitting in his basement in Bronxville, New York for the past 50 years, keeping the most dynamic Harlem music celebration in American history hidden until now.
Robert Fyvolent, writer and producer, originally heard about the footage from a friend in 2016.
“A college classmate told me about the existence of footage, about an iconic concert series that took place in Harlem around the same time as Woodstock,” says Fyvolent. “Intrigued, I tracked down the original owner of the footage, Hal Tulchin, and developed a relationship that lasted many years.” After sharing the footage with producer David Dinerstein, the two producers had conversations with Tulchin regarding the footage he termed “Resurrection of a Revolution.” After Tulchin’s passing in August 2017, his widow informed them that he had signed their contract for the rights to the footage just before his death, in the hopes the film would serve as his legacy.
Once the rights were secured, the producers decided Thompson would be the perfect director. “It was crucial to find a director who understood music and its history,” explained Dinerstein. “Someone who could put the footage and its relevance in context. Ahmir embodied all of those things.”
Thompson describes the unwanted footage as an example of Black erasure, and could not believe there was no record or documentation of this incredible historical, cultural event. “The fact that 40 hours of footage was kept from the public is living proof that revisionist history and Black erasure, be it mean-spirited or on purpose or by accident, is very real,” says Thompson. “Blacks have always been a creative force of our culture, but sometimes those efforts are easily dismissed. I want to make sure that Black erasure doesn’t happen during my lifetime anymore, and the film was an opportunity to work towards that cause.”
“Summer of Soul” was conceived to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination under the banner of Black unity. It was also a diversion from additional unrest brought on by the anniversary of King’s death.
There were other Black cultural festivals and programs like Jazzmobile whose conception blossomed on the fridge of civil unrest. Although Jazzmobile was founded in 1964 by patron Daphne Arnstein and pianist, composer Dr. Billy Taylor, it was a blueprint for presenting jazz to New York City neighborhoods. Its educational component teaches and encourages students to express themselves through the creative arts. “Though the riots came much later,” said Taylor, “they would have burned Harlem down soon, if nothing was done.”
The Watts Summer Festival founded in 1966 was launched as a celebration of Black heritage and culture as “one of the positive outcomes of the 1965 Watts Revolt.” It continues to represent Black cultural nationalism in Southern California.
In 1972, the Watts Summer Festival and founder Jacquette partnered with the seminal Stax Records to produce a benefit concert commemorating the seventh anniversary of the Watts Rebellion. It was held in Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum on Aug. 20, 1972. Wattstax featured the label’s star acts such as The Staple Singers, Isaac Hayes, The Bar-Kays, as well as civil rights activist and politician Jesse Jackson, who delivered his “I Am Somebody” speech, attracting more than 100,000 people. The Wattstax concert produced the double-LP album, “Wattstax: The Living Word,” and the documentary, “Wattstax,” both released in 1973.
THE REVOLUTION REPEATS “When things started to unravel around April and May 2020, and especially in June, I had a casual observation: Isn’t it weird? The same circumstances that brought this concert together are now happening again while we’re trying to make this movie?” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson
Yes, there was some hesitancy about returning indoors for live jazz but after a year of being beat up and threatened continuously by that damn COVID-19 pandemic, I figured what the hell. It was exciting to be in Birdland again, a real live jazz club with dim lights, bartender and all, waitresses taking orders and oh yeah the check. Allan Harris and his nonet were outstanding. He spoke to the audience, told us stories about Harlem, life and love all from his latest album “Kate’s Soulfood,” it was cookin’. He is the consummate entertainer; as Louis Armstrong shared with trumpeter Clark Terry and George Benson, “You have to give the audience a show more than an instrument, more than just a song.” Harris covers the tradition of live music. “We are so happy to be back. For a moment I wasn’t sure if we would be able to make it,” said Gianni Valenti, Birdland’s owner. “I am so grateful to the fans and everyone that supported us and have returned for this great in-person live music.” For sure the people at the next table whispering, clapping hands, laughing at Harris’ wit, those clicking glasses. It’s all so wonderful back live up close and in person. Get out and enjoy it…