Aretha Franklin: A Los Angeles Tribute to the “Queen of Soul”

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin, the Rev. James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir convened in Los Angeles and recorded “Amazing Grace,” a groundbreaking album that is still one of the nation’s best-selling gospel recordings.

On the evening of August 30, 2018, the person who managed the production of “Amazing Grace” – along with 20 of the choir members who performed on the recording – took part in a musical tribute to the late Aretha Franklin at the California African American Museum in Los Angeles (CAAM).

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas flanked by members of the L.A. chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America and the Southern California Community Choir Alumni. Photos by Aurelia Ventura / Board of Supervisors

The event – hosted by L.A. County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, CAAM and the L.A. County Arts Commission – featured a mass choir that included the L.A. chapter of the Gospel Music Workshop of America and the Southern California Community Choir Alumni. The mass choir performed selections from “Amazing Grace.”

Aretha Franklin was saluted for her social justice activism as well as her music. Her father, the Rev. C.L. Franklin, was an important supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), the national organization headed by Dr. King. As a young woman, Aretha travelled with Dr. King in the South during some voting rights campaigns.

Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, former executive director of the Los Angeles SCLC chapter, led the effort to create the tribute.

Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas speaks to a standing room only audience at the tribute. Photo by Aurelia Ventura / Board of Supervisors

“We honored her for her service to human rights and we paid tribute to her talent by listening to some selections of Amazing Grace,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas.

The recording was co-directed and arranged by the Rev. Alexander Hamilton, retired pastor of the Los Angeles-based Community Baptist Church and former music director for the Voices of Inspiration choir. He was among those who prepared the mass choir for the tribute.

“As Aretha Franklin’s co-music director and arranger with Reverend James Cleveland on the ‘Amazing Grace’ album, this was the apex of my 60 plus years in the music business,” said Rev. Hamilton. “She was a singer’s singer and a musician’s musician. The hard work, effort and musical precedence of this landmark production transcends anything imaginable or envisioned. It will always garner Aretha Franklin R-E-S-P-E-C-T!”

(left to right) LA County Arts Commission Executive Director Kristin Sakoda, Supervisor Ridley-Thomas, Avis Ridley-Thomas, Marian Wright Edelman, and Sebastian Ridley-Thomas. Photo by Aurelia Ventura / Board of Supervisors

Bishop Kenneth C. Ulmer, senior pastor of the Inglewood-based Faithful Central Bible Church, was among those who attended the recording of the 1972 performance.

“To watch in spiritual amazement the anointed collaboration of the Lady Aretha Franklin, the ‘Queen of Soul’ and Reverend James Cleveland, the ‘King of Gospel Music,’ coupled with the musical creativity of the choral arrangement of Maestro Alexander Hamilton was to be in the presence of artistic royalty,” Bishop Ulmer said.

That recording was highlighted in “How Sweet the Sound: Gospel Music in Los Angeles,” a CAAM exhibition that closed August 26.

LA County Renews Focus on the Arts

LA County Arts Commission’s Annual Arts Summit for students participating in the LA County Arts Internships Program. Photo by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors.

Los Angeles County is reaping the rewards of a renewed focus on the arts.

Community Chandelier at Stoneview Nature Center. Photo by Fallen Fruit.

Two of the County’s civic art projects in the Second District have been recognized by the Americans for the Arts as outstanding public art projects created in 2017. Meanwhile, the County’s Arts Internship Program is providing 179 university and community college students with meaningful experience in nonprofit arts organizations this summer – its largest class ever.

“It’s important that we create an environment that fosters creativity because this offers a range of benefits for individuals and communities, besides being an economic powerhouse,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, lead author of a recent motion to create the County’s first ever Department of the Arts, as well as another motion nearly a decade ago that saved the Arts Internship Program from elimination during an economic downturn.

The latest Otis Report on the Creative Economy estimated the County’s creative economy generated $178 billion in economic output in 2016, directly employed more than a tenth of all private sector workers countywide, and supported close to a fifth of all jobs countywide.

Taiko Drummers perform at the Japanese American National Museum during the LA County Arts Commission’s Annual Arts Summit. Photo by Diandra Jay / Board of Supervisors.

“Arts and culture in Los Angeles County are vibrant and growing at a phenomenal pace,” said Kristin Sakoda, executive director of the County’s Arts Commission, whose profile will be raised by the creation of the Department of the Arts. She committed to further “increasing access to opportunity in the arts and expanding career pathways into the creative sector” through programs such as the Arts Internship Program.

This summer’s 179 interns – a quarter of them from community colleges – will participate in paid internships at 127 nonprofit performing, presenting and literary arts organizations. Since its inception, more than 2,000 young people have completed the internships.

Sakoda noted the County’s deep pool of talent has not gone unnoticed. Americans for the Arts, the nation’s leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts and arts education, has recognized civic art projects in the County four years in a row through the Public Art Network Year in Review program.

Original Watercolor painting by Sandy Rodriguez for the Martin Luther King Junior, Recuperative Care Center Project. Photo by Audrey Chan.

This year’s honorees include the Artist-in-Residence project at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Recuperative Care Center (MLK RCC) in Willowbrook. Visual artist Sandy Rodriguez enabled patients and staff to create artwork to adorn the walls of the MLK RCC, and developed a program to help support homeless patients’ transition into housing. “This project demonstrates ways in which creativity can be part of the healing process,” she said.

Civic artwork at the Stoneview Nature Center. Photo courtesy of Fallen Fruit.

Also among the honorees was the civic artwork at the Stoneview Nature Center in Culver City. David Burns and Austin Young, who constitute the artist group, Fallen Fruit, held community meetings and then created artwork in the lobby that includes quotations from local residents, personal photos, family portraits and historic images. They also created a garden of “living sculptures” that feature different species of fruit trees and California native plants.

Fiscal Health Matters:
Can LAUSD Govern Accordingly?

Op-Ed

By Mark Ridley-Thomas

I recently had the opportunity to see Austin Beutner in action as the new superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District when we both visited the Boys Academic Leadership Academy at George Washington Preparatory High School in South L.A.

LAUSD is at a pivotal moment and must take advantage of this change in leadership to avert impending financial disaster. I urge Superintendent Beutner and the Board of Education to join forces to ensure the nation’s second largest school district and its students are thriving.

I recognize that our schools face profound educational challenges, with more than 60 percent of students struggling to read, write and speak fluently, and more than 70 percent struggling with math. Though the district had an 81 percent graduation rate in the previous school year, more than half of its graduates were found ineligible for admission to the UC and CSU systems.

Nevertheless, I remain steadfast in urging LAUSD to make fiscal solvency its top priority.

One might argue that the district doesn’t have a choice. With a deficit projected to surpass $400 million in the upcoming fiscal year, the District may become obligated to spend more outside the classroom than inside it. Unless reforms are implemented, and quickly, that gap will grow even wider. California school districts receive state funding based largely on attendance, and enrollment in the LAUSD has already dropped precipitously, down to 500,000 from a peak of 700,000.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was growing up, engineers in Los Angeles helped put an American on the moon. Whether students want to be engineers, machinists, artists, doctors, teachers or even public servants, they need the basic building blocks of education. When even those are threatened by their school district’s financial instability, even the best academic innovations will fail.

Already, California ranks near states like Mississippi and Alabama – at the bottom of the list – in terms of how much it invests in students. New York City, the nation’s largest school district, provides more than $20,000 per pupil; compare that to just $15,000 in Los Angeles. But matching or even exceeding those numbers would not be enough of a solution, given LAUSD’s structural challenges.

Superintendent Beutner should work closely with the Board to appoint an independent fiscal monitor who will deliver monthly reports and recommend immediate steps to bolster economic stability that can be implemented within the 2018-2019 school year.

As teachers hold the key to our students’ success, I hope Superintendent Beutner will invest in them as well. He should consider teacher residency programs, as well as individualized professional development plans.

Superintendent Beutner should also prioritize improving the curriculum to adapt to the changing economy, and increase access to apprenticeships, paid internships, and specialized instruction that can better prepare students to join the workforce.

I always marvel at how Los Angeles County’s economy – the 17th largest in the world – continues to grow and diversify. The next generation of Angelenos must to be prepared to succeed in emerging job opportunities across all sectors, such as bioscience.

Previous superintendents have wrestled with the district’s grim fiscal reality with varying degrees of success and failure. Some established misguided priorities, while others aimed too low to be deemed truly successful.

Superintendent Beutner must have the courage to make bold decisions in the face of resistance, the business acumen to correct the district’s perilous finances, and an understanding of local culture and politics to carry out the necessary changes.

We cannot continue to do business as usual. We must ensure that future generations of Angelenos are empowered to lead our industries and our communities.

Mr. Superintendent, you now have the job you sought. Now show us how to save the District.

Mark Ridley-Thomas is a former high school teacher and currently serves as a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.

Supervisors Create First LA County Arts Department

The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to create the first Los Angeles County Arts Department. Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and Board Chair Sheila Kuehl coauthored the motion with broad support from arts funders, creators and institutions.

“With a new arts department, we can further elevate the impact of the arts on our community, culture, and economy,” said Supervisor Ridley-Thomas. “The importance of the creative industries cannot be overstated, particularly in Los Angeles. Creativity is one of our most essential economic assets.”

According to the 2017 Otis Report on the Creative Economy, the total creative output generated by industries within the region’s creative economy was $190 billion in 2015. It also employed 759,000 people, which accounted for 1 in 8, or about 15 percent, of all private wage and salary workers in the region.

“Los Angeles County contains an unparalleled wealth of arts and culture. It makes sense that we establish a County department to support arts and culture. With this motion, we will provide the capacity for a robust department that can strengthen the arts and expand our commitment to cultural equity and inclusion,” said Supervisor Kuehl.

“This is a historic moment in the arts for this region,” said LA County Arts Commission Executive Director Kristin Sakoda. “It is world-class and community-based and there is still more to come!”

The LA County Arts Commission was initially established in 1947. It has grown in the last 70 years since from solely supporting local music performances to supporting hundreds of nonprofit organizations and functioning as a full-service local arts agency.

Throughout the decades, the Commission’s role has expanded to include innovative and meaningful programs including working with school districts throughout the County to develop and implement a strategic plan to integrate arts into K-12 public schools. It also administers the Civic Art program, where artists are aligned with capital projects to bring aesthetics and programming to the community in which the project is located.

It also oversees the iconic Arts Internship Program. To date, more than 2,000 college and university students participate in a paid internship for ten weeks during the summer in arts organizations and venues throughout the County.

“A County Department can make a deep impact in providing workforce training and advancing cultural equity and inclusion efforts,” said Stacy Lieberman, Deputy Director of The Broad.

The new County Department will retain the Arts Commission as an advisory body and will begin its transition by July 1, 2018.

Singing the Praises of a Jazz Legend

In honor of International Jazz Day, Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas awarded a scroll to the world-renowned vocalist, Barbara Morrison, the most recorded jazz and blues artist of her generation.

During the ceremony, she sang a beautiful rendition of Duke Ellington’s Come Sunday, drawing enthusiastic applause from the audience in the Board of Supervisors hearing room at the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration.

“I’m pleased to recognize Barbara Morrison, who has entertained and influenced jazz enthusiasts throughout the world for nearly six decades,” Supervisor Ridley-Thomas said. 

Morrison has been entertaining and influencing jazz enthusiasts for nearly six decades, since her professional career began at age 10 with a performance at a Detroit radio station.

She relocated to Los Angeles in 1973 and began performing with blues artists Eddie Vinson and Johnny Otis. She recorded her first solo album in 1985 and now has more than 20 albums featuring original compositions of live and studio performances.

Since 1994, Morrison has taught jazz vocal classes at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music. She has received three Grammy nominations, been recognized by National Public Radio as one of the Voices of the Century: 50 Greatest Female Jazz Vocalists, and received a Motown Heroes and Legends Award in 2015, Morrison continues to perform with her duo and trio throughout California and worldwide.  

Her list of accomplishments includes performing with noted jazz and blues artists such as Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Etta James, Nancy Wilson, Tony Bennett, Esther Phillips and the Count Basie Orchestra. She has performed in such highly regarded venues as Carnegie Hall, the North Sea Jazz Festival, the Bern Jazz Festival and the Playboy Jazz Festival.

She opened the Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center in 2008, and the California Jazz and Blues Museum seven years later, in the heart of the African American arts scene at the historic Leimert Park District of Los Angeles.