Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Abbey Lincoln, Jazz, & The Grandassa Models

Edited by Azizi Powell

The Grandassa models were a group of African American female models whose afro-centric fashion shows were the first to promote the slogan "Black is Beautiful". Based in New York City, the Grandassa models' fashion shows were held in various cities in the United States from 1962 to 1979.

This is Part 2 of a 3 part series on the Grandassa models. This series is largely composed of excerpts from online articles. I have compiled these excerpts in this post as a means of increasing access to the historical, sociological, and educational information provided in those articles. I have credited all the authors or publications of these hyperlinked excerpts and thank those authors/publications for providing such information about the Grandassa models.

Click for Part 1 of this series.

Click for Part 3 of this series.

"Anna Marie Wooldridge (August 6, 1930 – August 14, 2010), better known by her stage name Abbey Lincoln, was a jazz vocalist, songwriter, and actress...

Lincoln sang on the 1960s landmark jazz civil rights recording, We Insist! – Freedom Now Suite (1960) by jazz musician Max Roach and was married to him from 1962 to 1970. Especially since this album, Abbey Lincoln was connected to the political fight against racism in the United States...

In 2003, she received the National Endowment for the Arts NEA Jazz Masters Award."
The following excerpt is from an announcement of a 2002 program in New York City honoring Abbey Lincoln and Grandassa models provides information about that creative woman's involvement with that group of models:

Sunday, April 28th
The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
515 Malcolm X Boulevard @ 135th Street in Harlem.

The National Conference of Artists (NCA) and The African Jazz-Art Society & Studios (AJASS) will pay tribute to singer, songwriter actress, Abbey Lincoln at their 40th Anniversary production, “Naturally 2002”, the show that gave birth to the theme “Black is Beautiful” beginning in 1962.

The show subtitled “The Original African Coiffure and Fashion Extravaganza Designed to Restore Our Racial Pride & Standards” is credited with projecting Black pride in general and uplifting the image of Black women in particular with their productions that continued from 1962 thru 1979 before giving way to decade celebrations.

This fashion and cultural show was inspired by the “Miss Natural Standard of Beauty” contest conducted by Carlos A. Cooks and the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement held at the annual Marcus Garvey Day celebrations, where contestants were required to compete without the use of hair straightening or make-up.

The idea for the show began after the 1961 celebration where Elombe Brath, Kwame Brathwaite, and members of AJASS witnessed the event and decided to create the conditions for Black women to feel proud of their natural beauty.

AJASS decided to package a show and established the fact that “Black Is Beautiful”. AJASS, quoting from a 1927 article in the Amsterdam News describing why Garvey attracted so many people to his cause, is that “he taught that “Black is Beautiful.” The show featured the Grandassa Models, a group they created to show Black women (and the world) that our Black skin, kinky hair and full lips were a thing of beauty, not something to be ashamed of. The show also gave rise to the wearing of African traditional and African inspired fashions, a phenomenon that has exploded into an industry in our communities in many major cities, including a strip of Brooklyn’s Fulton Street that is called “Bogulan Brooklyn” after the mudcloth fabric from Mali in West Africa.

Abbey Lincoln, who was a charter supporter of the show, became both commentator and featured vocalist for the production that featured the original models, Clara Lewis, Helene White, Black Rose, Wanda Sims, Priscilla Bardonille, Beatrice Cranston, Mari Toussaint and Esther Davenport. Abbey also served as “ambassador”, for the “Naturally” show, charting new territory for the show while on her travels performing in various cities."
One photograph of the Grandassa models can be found online at That page also provides the following information about Abbey Lincoln's with the first Grandassa fashion show in 1962: "That first show starred Abbey Lincoln as guest singer and commentator for the show, and famed jazz drummer, Max Roach as Abbey’s accompanist on piano."

From we learn that "The original production, beginning with "Naturally '62", ran successfully, as a
twice a year production, until 1979. The show toured colleges and universities, and played to women's groups and other community organizations."

Several citations about the Grandassa models in the popular African American magazines Ebony & Jet can also be found online. In Jet Apr 17, 1969, a reporter notes that [the] "Truly black and bountifully beautiful- Grandassa Models “turned on” the soul crowd".

And in Jet - Nov 13, 1969, the Grandassa Models are described as "gorgeous". Given the negative attitudes that many African Americans had regarding dark skin and natural hair, it's very significant that these magazines that were so widely read (among African Americans) included such positive descriptions of dark skinned afro wearing models.

An article in Ebony 1970 includes a photograph of four Grandassa models and a man riding in a car during a parade. In Ebony Feb 1973 an article about the afro and other natural hair styles includes an interview with one of the original members of the Grandassa model troupe, Black Rose (Rose Nelmes). Here's an interesting excerpt from that article:
"Black Rose wears a nose ring through one nostril and has observed that some sisters are getting into piercing their ears five or six times and wearing several earrings in one lobe. As she sees it the best is yet to come. “We’ve still only come so far, but we’ve seen enough to begin to understand how much further there is to go for those who come after us."
Black Rose is also mentioned in two other online articles about photographs of Black women which were used for American Jazz album covers. In a December 2001 article about females on Jazz album covers, Lara Pellegrinelli puts down the name "Grandassa" and writes disparaging remarks about how the Grandassa model Black Rose came to be featured on the Lou Donaldson album cover for Good Gracious!. I'm including that writer's entire quote about African Americans on Jazz album covers because of its possible historical interest, though undoubtedly if that writer had known more about African Americans she might not have written so disparagingly about the group name "Grandassa"*
"African-American women appeared on covers of soul-jazz and organ-trio records, social music for dancing and good times. Rejecting the faces of mainstream white culture, they could also be interpreted as political symbols—ones that asserted black is beautiful. Miles Davis had Columbia recall the original cover for Miles Ahead, which featured a white woman in a sailboat. His wives and girlfriends adorned the records to follow: Frances Davis on Someday My Prince Will Come, Friday and Saturday Night at the Blackhawk, E.S.P. and Porgy and Bess; Cicely Tyson on Sorcerer; Betty Mabry on Filles de Kilimanjaro; and Marguerite Eskridge on At the Fillmore...

There was a woman who kept coming by the sessions who wanted to be on a cover, so we put her on the cover,” says Lou Donaldson in reference to Good Gracious!, shot by Ronnie Brathwaite and designed by Miles. “I never knew her name exactly—we called her ‘the Black Rose.’ She was a hairdresser and her place wasn’t so far from the place we played up in Harlem called Connie’s at 144th and 7th avenue. And sometimes after the shop closed late at night, she’d come there. She was friendly with one of the guys.” One reissue credits her as Rose Nelmes, from the suspiciously named “Grandassa Models.” The Women Jacketed By Records December 2001

* As mentioned in Part 1 of this blog series, the name "Grandassa" came from name African nationalist leader Carlos Cooks applied to Africa".

The following writer debunks Lara Pellegrinelli's position with this comment:
"Like racism, sexism is not a problem confined to the jazz world. What we see within our “neighborhood” is, much of the time, just a reflection of how it is everywhere else. I raised this point recently during a television news segment, when a local anchor asked me if Jane Monheit would have gotten so far so quickly if she had not been attractive. My answer was to wonder whether an aspiring news anchor stood any chance of employment if he or she were not sufficiently telegenic. Whatever the playing field, in our culture looks count.

Which is why I, for one, would not be as quick as Lara Pellegrinelli to dismiss Grandassa Models, as she does in the December issue, the reputed employer of the woman Lou Donaldson ogles on the cover of Good Gracious! Grandassa was also the source of the female head shots that adorn other Blue Note albums from the period such as Donaldson’s The Natural Soul and Big John Patton’s Oh Baby. At a time when Miles Davis had to demand that white women not be used on his LPs, these covers might be more worthy of celebration as a blow for civil rights." By Bob Blumenthal; April 2002

I'll end the text portion of this post with this final comment about Jazz and the Grandassa models:
Jazz discussion forum
Posted by Groovissimo!
09 July 2008 - 06:24 AM

"Very interesting that Lou Donaldson played the first AJASS/Grandassa gig in 1962. It must have been he who recommended Grandassa Models to Blue Note for the cover of "Natural soul" - and the TITLE means a lot more than I thought it did.

One doesn't hear anything about this side of Lou's story - except when you listen to "Hot dog" :)"

Editor: That page includes a link to a now deleted page about afro-centric clothing from my Cocojams website site.

Unfortunately, I've not been able to find a video of the Grandassa models. However, for your aesthetic enjoyment, here are three examples of performances by Abbey Lincoln and Abbey Lincoln & Max Roach:

Example #1: Afro Blue - Abbey Lincoln

Andrea L, Uploaded on Dec 15, 2009

Abbey Lincoln's brilliant rendition of by Mongo SantamarĂ­a's 'Afro Blue' from her album 'Abbey is Blue' (1959)

Exampl #2: Max Roach Quartet feat Abbey Lincoln - "Freedom Day"

rian Grey, Uploaded on Aug 7, 2011

"Freedom Now Suite" Belgian TV BTR2 1964 (probably January)

Example #3: Abbey Lincoln - For All We Know [added October 13, 2014]

TallFnJoe, Uploaded on Oct 23, 2010

Abbey Lincoln - For All We Know
Comment [added October 13,2014]

Dave Pipe, August 2014
"Anna Marie Wooldridge (August 6, 1930 – August 14, 2010), better known as Abbey Lincoln.
#dapimusic #mymusichangout #jazz #abbeylincoln #singersongwriter #actress #civilrights #bornonthisday #bornonthisdate "

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