Historian William Loren Katz shares memories of his father, labor and cultural activist Ben Katz (October 13, 1902–June 15, 1970).
My father, Ben Katz, fell in love with African American blues and jazz music. He first had a large 78-rpm record collection, and then a large collection of African American history books and pictures.
I had to be one of the few white kids in the world who went to sleep listening to Bessie Smith, Sidney Bechet, and Louis Armstrong, and woke up surrounded by the writings of Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, and E. Franklin Frazier.
As he volunteered for a host of good fights, he took me as a school kid:
- to the strike headquarters of longshoremen and Popeye cartoon artists in the 1930s;
- to New York’s Schomburg Library and its treasure of African American history;
- to meet legendary jazzman Bunk Johnson (who helped teach Louis Armstrong trumpet) in 1946;
- to meet the masterful Sidney Bechet, James P. Johnson, “father of stride piano,” and a niece of Bessie Smith in our living room in 1947 and 1948; and,
- to hear Louis Armstrong at his 1947 Carnegie Hall concert and Billie Holiday at a Harlem night club.
Katz helped raise funds for the United Negro and Allied Veterans of America (UNAVA) by organizing “Really the Blues” and “Bessie Smith Memorial” concerts at Town Hall. I was there.
Katz and his best friends, Ernest Crichlow and Walter Christmas, joined with Charles White, Alice Childress, and others to help found the Committee for the Negro in the Arts (CNA) that sought to crack the color line in theater, radio, advertising, publishing, dance, classical music, etc.
With Christmas, Katz wrote “Lift Every Voice Poetry Production,” a Black history play performed in the Schomburg Library basement starring William Marshall, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Frank Silvera, and Alice Childress.
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Thanks, Dad — especially for bringing Ernie and Walter into my life, and pointing me in the right direction.