As a young boy in Brooklyn, Mortimer Levitt loved to listen to the live performances at Luna Park on Coney Island. Of course, he had to stand outside, since he didn’t have the money for the ticket. His immigrant father was a street vendor there. Listening to these performances surrounded by the beauty of the park was almost as magical as his rags-to-riches story.
Levitt quit school at 16 so he could go to work and help support his family. He took a job at a fabric and textile firm, later becoming a salesman. In the middle of the Great Depression he launched a clothing company that sold made-to-order shirts and named it The Custom Shop. He opened new shop locations around the Northeast steadily, and by 1942, he had made his first million dollars.
His wife was Annemarie Gratzinger from Vienna, Austria, whom he met in New York City while she was working in Museum Collections at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). They married in 1948 and began to support youth music programs, performing arts organizations and educational institutions. The first Levitt Pavilion opened in 1974 in Westport, Connecticut, where free concerts were presented throughout the summer. He was extremely proud that admission to these open-air concerts was always free.
By 1999, the success of the Levitt Pavilion inspired him to lay the groundwork for a national network of performance venues. At the age of 90, Levitt sold his company, including 70 retail branches nationwide, and transferred the proceeds to the Mortimer Levitt Foundation. The Foundation was charged with helping communities across America establish their own Levitt-style venues through the Levitt AMP Grants. Mortimer Levitt passed away at the age of 98 in 2005. His legacy left many communities culturally richer and more livable places.
In early 2017, Chattanooga won a $25,000 grant in matching funds to present a free Levitt AMP Chattanooga Music Series. Applied for by the Chattanooga Urban League in cooperation with the Bessie Smith Cultural Center ℹ️ and Jazzanooga ℹ️, the series will be appropriately staged on the lawn of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center (BSCC). Executive Director Dionne Jennings, says she is excited about the concert series.
“This provides a wonderful opportunity to animate the lawn at the Bessie Smith Cultural Center,” says Jennings. “It will create a vibrant place for our community and for visitors to enjoy free live music.” Jennings came to the BSCC a couple of years ago from nonprofit, The Next Door, and seems to enjoy working on projects with other nonprofit groups. Representatives from each of the three organizations say they think the city won the grant, in part, because of the strong collaboration between them. Now, deep in the performance planning process, Jennings says the series will begin on August 24 and run through October 26. The Thursday night free concerts will be held on the lawn in front of the Center where people are welcome to bring a lawn chair. Food trucks and alcoholic beverages may be available for concessions. The logistical details of the event will be attended to in the next few weeks.
“It’s so exciting when you look at all the cities that applied for the grant—and it’s truly an honor,” says Jennings. “Music is a great way to bring people together.” It’s a good fit for the Center, too. The mission of the Bessie Smith Cultural Center is to provide education about African-American heritage and culture, and specifically, to preserve African-American history in Chattanooga, through art, education, research and entertainment. Jennings loves to tell the story of how, during a school group tour, a young girl came up to her and asked why there was a picture of her aunt Venus on the wall. Jennings reminded the group that Venus Lacy was an Olympic gold medalist who played professional basketball for the WNBA. And when children want to know who Bessie Smith was, she helps them understand that Bessie Smith was “the Beyonce of her day.” They get it.
The recognition of these individuals’ success within our collective history are meaningful to a child’s understanding that they can accomplish a great deal—whether in science, art, sports or music, adds Jennings.
By all accounts, this neighborhood was at the heart of music in the early days, and Shane Morrow, founder of Jazzanooga, Chattanooga’s only producer of jazz and blues festivals, believes that heritage will be enhanced by this new cultural opportunity.
“Bessie Smith lived in this neighborhood, it’s an appropriate venue to showcase a wealth of talent,” Morrow says. As a musician and nonprofit administrator, Morrow moved to Chattanooga 13 years ago, and in 2011 Jazzanooga was launched as a one-day festival which he funded privately for the first three years. In those first days, his office was in the BSCC and Morrow refers to it affectionately as “the Bessie.” Today, Jazzanooga has a permanent office a few doors down from BSCC and has expanded to include approximately 125 programs or performances throughout the year. Those include a jazz brunch series at the Hunter Museum of American Art and a Youth Music Academy serving 24 kids at local community recreation centers. Jazzanooga has a $250,000 operating budget and aired its first television production called “The Jazz Experience” in February. (youtube.com/Jazzanooga)
The third important partner in this collaboration is The Urban League of Chattanooga. Working on projects that range from a new literacy program at Woodmore Elementary to classes in project management and computer technology for adults with low to moderate incomes, the Urban League added muscle to the application process for the Levitt series.
“We want this to be a concert series that will appeal to the entire region,” says Warren Logan, president and CEO. “Levitt has a dynamic inventory of music performance and we expect it to draw a mix of people.” Executive Assistant Lily Sanchez will be working on the series, too. “The setting will provide a relaxing environment that we believe will foster a sense of community,” Sanchez says.
Concert sponsors sense that the long-ago child of immigrants—Mortimer Levitt—would have approved of their efforts. Some budding entrepreneur and philanthropist just might be in the outdoor audience on the lawn at “the Bessie,” listening under a canopy of stars.
For more information on Bessie Smith Cultural Center see bessiesmithcc.org
The Levitt AMP Chattanooga Music Series is supported in part by the Mortimer & Mimi Levitt Foundation, a private foundation that empowers towns and cities across America to transform underused public spaces into thriving destinations through the power of free, live music. In 2017, more than 450 free Levitt concerts will take place in 22 towns and cities, all featuring a rich array of music genres and high caliber talent. Learn more at levitt.org.
Photography by Clay Miller and courtesy of the Mortimer Levitt Foundation