by Richard and Missy Lee
One of us (Missy) began to call Chestnut Hill resident Thelma Anderson “The Queen of Jazz” when she first met this charming and ebullient lady. While the other of us agrees, he sees Thelma also as a life force, a lady totally dedicated to her calling, which is the preservation and perpetuation of jazz music as a uniquely American art form.
We met Thelma simply by walking up and saying hello. The venue was one of the Woodmere Art Museum’s exciting Friday evening jazz concerts. (They are due to continue through June 21 and resume in the fall.) When she offered her business card reading “Thelma W. Anderson, Founder and President Emeritus, Council of Jazz Advocates, Inc.,” we suspected a story lurked. And so it does.
Thelma at 85 is far and away the most active “emeritus” we have ever met. On the day we interviewed her at her Chestnut Hill Towers apartment, she was busily arranging an April two-day jazz event that by good fortune included her 85th birthday, but also featured a Saturday jazz dinner followed next day by a Center City jazz vespers. Proceeds of this and similar events go toward scholarships for young musicians and similar volunteer-driven jazz-related charitable activities.
Thelma, who was part of earlier jazz volunteer and social organizations, founded the Council of Jazz Advocates (COJA) in 1991. COJA’s jazz agenda includes support for young musicians, music education in public schools, jazz programming and airtime and jazz-based social gatherings. In its first six years, the organization also created and produced the Tony Williams Scholarship Jazz Festival, and awarded 22 scholarships to college-bound graduates of the Mt. Airy Cultural Center program. Thelma also helped organize an annual outdoor jazz festival at the historical Cliveden property in Germantown.
In 1998, COJA passed on the production of the festival to the Cultural Center when it obtained 501(c)(3) charity status. The Center still produces the Tony Williams Festival each year. (Tony Williams founded the Cultural Center. At 81, he is still one of jazz music’s premier saxophone players. Lou Mancinelli wrote an excellent profile of Tony for the Nov. 8, 2012 Local. It can be found online.)
Thelma is possibly the ultimate jazz fan. She streams jazz via cable at her apartment. Her walls bear witness to her abiding interest and to her firsthand knowledge of many jazz greats. And she loves to tell tales on herself, back in the day.
“In the second grade, I used to listen to Fats Waller on the radio — just 15 minutes but what a 15 minutes! The only other thing back then was ‘The Romance of Helen Trent;’ oh, dear!
“My father was a barber, and he’d sometimes get passes to the Nixon Theater (on 57th Street near Market in West Philadelphia). Even if he didn’t, it cost just six cents for kids to get in. I saw Ella Fitzgerald there with the Chick Webb Band. I’d catch shows, too, at the Fays Theater (40th and Market). That’s where I heard the bands of Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk, Lionel Hampton and Lucky Millinder. What memories they were!”
Thelma met scores of jazz musicians, too — in the case of Benny Golson, long before he became one of America’s most outstanding jazz sax players and movie composers. Benny and Thelma lived in the same apartment building as youngsters.
“One day, Benny and I went to the movies. The picture was ‘Bride of Frankenstein.’ I was so scared I wanted to go home, but Benny insisted I stay, so I did. That night, my parents went out for the evening, something they almost never did. I was still scared to death! I called Benny to come sit with me, and he did. We’re still in touch.”
Thelma speaks with pride of how she got thrown out of some of Philadelphia’s better jazz clubs, including the original Zanzibar, for being under-age, and how her mother came along and yanked her out of clubs, too. “I went to Morgan State University (in Baltimore) just in time,” she said, relishing the naughty teen memory.
After college, Thelma worked for national magazines in New York, and later was Deputy Managing Director for the City of Philadelphia from 1969 until 1990, working under seven Managing Directors. She operated the Clean Philadelphia Program and was a member of the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee.
She has a son, Dean, a daughter, Tracy Andrews, three grandchildren, four great-grands and two great-great-grandchildren. (Had Fats Waller known this, he doubtless would have said, “My, my!”)
In its Statement of Purpose, COJA expresses Thelma’s philosophy. Its closing paragraph reads, in part: “Too many of our master musicians have labored in the musical vineyard without proper remuneration and appreciation for their contributions. Those of us who have spent years enjoying the fruits of their labor must not allow these indignities to continue. For those who are creating the magic of classical jazz today, we must let them know now, by our concerted efforts as Advocates, that we appreciate and respect them as artists. We take pride in their accomplishments and thank them for the joy their music brings us.”
The above was written in 1991, and even more so today, jazz — in Philadelphia, at least — needs all the help it can get. “So many of the clubs have closed, like Lakey’s, Ortlieb’s Jazzhaus and Zanzibar Blue, that we need to support the ones still around, like Chris’s (1421 Sansom St.) and the Clef Club (736 S. Broad St.),” Thelma insisted.
Thelma Anderson welcomes fellow jazz lovers to be part of The Council Of Jazz Advocates. Information at 215-753-0232.