Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Harrison Ridley, Jr.'s Obituary

Harrison Ridley, Jr., Jazz Educator, Historian, and Broadcaster, Dies at 70

Harrison Alexander Ridley, Jr., a lifelong devotee to what he called "The Positive Music," was an icon in the jazz world. His exuberance was shared with legions of radio listeners who, for over 32 years, tuned to WRTI-FM on Sunday nights when he hosted The Historical Approach to the Positive Music. Mr. Ridley died on February 19th after a brief illness. He was 70 years old and lived in West Philadelphia.

Fans from all over the world discovered Mr. Ridley on the dial, and recently found his show online at wrti.org. They enjoyed his encyclopedic knowledge presented in a friendly and relaxed style characterized by his signature phrase, "Yes Indeedy!" A tireless advocate for jazz history and education, his enthusiasm and knowledge were welcomed in the classroom, the community, and everywhere else he travelled. Mr. Ridley served as a consultant for the Library of Congress, and was recently presented with an honorary doctorate of music by Villanova University where he taught an Honors Course in African-American Music. During his career he was the recipient of over 80 awards and citations.

"On behalf of the WRTI community, both listeners and staff, it is with great sadness that we reflect on the significant loss of Harrison Ridley, Jr. to the jazz community," says WRTI's General Manager David. S. Conant. "The honors and the respect Harrison garnered in his lifetime were many and well deserved. But what I will remember most, along with his trademark 'Yes Indeedy!' is the broad and authentic smile with which he would greet me, along with the occasional bear hug. Knowledgeable, and sincere in his love of jazz, he was above all a gentleman and a truly gentle man.

"Mr. Ridley grew up in West Philadelphia, the oldest of 10 children. His father, Harrison Ridley, Sr., loved music and brought home records for his children to enjoy; Jazz, R&B, and Gospel. Though his six sisters and three brothers were content to listen to the music, Ridley remembers that it wasn't enough for him. He had a passion for history, and he wanted to know the story behind each musician and his music. That curiosity took him to the library, where he began amassing notebooks of information.

He also had a passion for collecting. Originally he collected sports cards, but soon he began collecting music books and record albums. (His mother Katherine graciously put up with the clutter, as would his wife Janet years later.) Mr. Ridley also played the vibes in a neighborhood band and was a hoopster in the Philadelphia Basketball League, where he played for 22 years.

His early schooling was at Blankenburg Elementary School, and Shoemaker Junior High. After graduation from West Philly High School, Mr. Ridley was drafted into the Army and received training as a teletypist for the Signal Corps. And there he began sharing his love of jazz and his knowledge of its history with his Army buddies. "Being in the service was a wonderful two-year experience," he recalled. "I got technical training, played in the camp's basketball league, and taught jazz appreciation classes.

"Back in civilian life, he took a job on the custodial staff of the Philadelphia Board of Education, working there for 37 years (30 of them without a single absence). And he continued collecting records and books and doing his research, which incorporated African-American history as well. It was the late '60s when he began lecturing on the history of black music at Philadelphia high schools and community centers. An auxiliary course developed as a result. "You can't understand the history of jazz without understanding African and African-American history and culture," he explained.

With his reputation as an anchor growing, he made several guest appearances on local radio and TV shows such as Malcolm Poindexter's Black Editions. It was in the early '70s that he became a familiar face at WRTI. He volunteered to help the student hosts put their shows together. Then in 1976, the station manager offered him his own show, the Sunday evening slot between 8 and midnight. Mr. Ridley recalled, "I didn't accept immediately. I had to think about it. It was a big commitment." It was, indeed, an enormous responsibility to do a quality four-hour show each week.

But as with everything he did, he took this commitment seriously, only missing three broadcasts during his 32-year tenure as host. This astounding accomplishment was done in the face of maintaining a full-time job, enjoying family life with a wife and daughter, and teaching workshops and classes at the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the Clef Club, Temple University Center City, the Villanova University Honors Program, and the African-American Studies Department at Temple University.

In all, Mr. Ridley lectured at more than 30 colleges and universities along the East Coast, and was a member of the Duke Ellington Society and the John Coltrane Society. He won over 80 awards including the honorary doctorate from Villanova, an Award of Appreciation from the West Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, an Outstanding Services Award honoring 35 years of service to the community presented by PASCEP Temple University, and other honors from the University of Pennsylvania, Peco Energy Company, and the Parkway Program of the Philadelphia School District.

Fellow WRTI Jazz Host Bob Perkins says, "Harrison was the quintessential source of knowledge about jazz. If anyone had a question about a jazz subject, he was the final arbiter – the Supreme Court Judge of Jazz." Yes Indeedy!

Preceding Harrison in death are his mother Katherine Holloway Ridley, father Harrison A. Ridley Sr., and siblings Carl and Carolyn Ridley.

He is survived by a large family including his wife Janet Collins Ridley; daughter Jade Wideman-Ridley; step-son Laurence E. White, Jr.; siblings Eleanor Anderson, Shirley Braxton, Estella Banks, Delores Brown, William James Ridley, Harold Sherman Ridley Rita Ann Ridley; aunts and uncles Sherman and Janet Holloway, Earline Humphrey, Annabelle Ridley, and Kathleen "Kitty" Holloway; and extended family Flora Ralls, Sherrice and Jack Ferguson, Karen and Will Meredith, Rudolph and Gail Braxton, Marc Braxton, Franklin Brown, Curtis Brown, Terry Banks, Kendall and Valerie Banks, Jack Ferguson Jr., Javar Ferguson, Jack Fuller, Sherrie Anderson, Michelle Anderson, Gabrielle Braxton, Rudy Braxton III, Tiffany Phillips Banks; and a host of friends and relatives.

© Copyright 2009, WRTI
© Photo by LoHo, 2003

4 comments:

LoHo said...

This digital rendition of Harrison Ridley, Jr. was added to my "Philadelphia Jazz Fabric" collection in 2003. The images in this collection are of people I have photographed and, in my humble opinion, are each fibers in the fabric of jazz in this city during my lifetime.

He IS an icon! All of his students, in formal classes or just listeners to his show, learned something new about the music "referred to as jazz" almost at every encounter. In over 35 years circulating through the jazz scene in Philadelphia, I can't recall ever seeing Harrison without some vinyl nearby. Within moments of being in his presence, class was in session. Sunday night will not be the same, ever again!

If you sit quietly and reflect on him, you'll begin to hear the sweet sounds of the "positive Music" on your spiritual dial!

Ella Gahnt said...

I can't believe he's gone!! What a gentle Giant of a man...a real Jazz Historian! He was our personal friend (Leon Mitchell & me). Personally, I've learned so much from him. He taught me the history behind the songs I love to sing. He will be constantly remembered and sorely missed.

Mike said...

I hadn't heard Harrison in some years and on a whim, thought I'd see what's up with him. I knew Harrison Ridley only casually, as a customer of the copy center where I worked in the 80s. He'd amble in carrying a massive canvas bag of books, use the self-service copiers for a while and amble back out. If there was a nicer man in Philadelphia I have yet to meet him.

Always willing to chat for as long as you wanted, always smiling, a soft-spoken walking encyclopedia of jazz who indulged no pretensions.

I'm saddened at his passing but I know he's out there somewhere grooving with Bird and Trane. A soul as big as Harrison Ridley's never really goes away.

William Michalski said...

I was in the army with Harrison, Ridley as we called him. A great guy, knew he liked music and also basketball, could he shoot.
Sent him a picture of us in the Army to his work, never heard from him and when looking him up tonight on google, shocked to hear of his death.
My prayers go out to his family, may he rest in peace and truly, one of the nicest guys I met in the Army. Any of his family may contact me as I still have that picture of us I think at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, could have been at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
God bless his family
Bill Michalski
Middletown, New Jersey