‘A Musical Journey Through the Byways of Life’: An Interview with Alfie Pollitt

Introduction: Alfie’s Portrait of Philadelphia

Alfie Pollitt, the Philadelphia jazz and R&B musician, took part in forging the history of Philadelphia and black America by immersing himself in its deep traditions. He was born 1943 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania to a mother who was a steadfast advocate of African-American history and an organizer in her community at Saints Memorial Baptist Church and his father who was a worker and a fine arts musician. His family — the men and women, parents, siblings and cousins, all played a role in cultivating the moral fortitude which served as the foundation that would guide him through his trials and tribulations in the coming years. 

He established a new meaning of life and purpose through making his pilgrimage to Philadelphia in the height of the Black Freedom Movement during his youth. There, he experienced the essence of the black American arts and revolutionary movement. On these trips, he often attended the Uptown Theater in North Philadelphia, which hosted some of the greatest musicians that America has ever produced such as Stevie Wonder, James Brown, and Michael Jackson. He frequented jazz clubs such as Pep’s Musical Bar and the Showboat Lounge, coming face-to-face with his hero, the legendary jazz musician John Coltrane. In 1970, he decided to permanently leave Bryn Mawr to move to the city.

All of this took place amidst a pivotal moment in American history, where the awakening of black Americans was shaking the foundations of white civilization by confronting the most evil forces of racism in society. Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., the leader of the ongoing struggle in the south to end segregation, influenced Philadelphia’s Cecil B. Moore to desegregate Girard College. And Malcolm X, in fact, lived in Philadelphia as a Minister of the Nation of Islam.

The musical and political force of the black world created the conditions for Alfie’s personal transformation which led to one of the most significant decisions in his life. He admired Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali for their courage to stand up against war and the system which oppressed black people. In 1970, he joined the Nation of Islam and became a registered member of Temple #12 under the leadership of Minister Jeremiah Shabazz. 

Through the ‘70s and ‘80s, Alfie traveled with Teddy Pendergrass and the Blue Notes across the country as a pianist. On these tours, they opened for the likes of Marvin Gaye and The Isley Brothers. This direct interaction with the popular black artists of the era cultivated a community of musicians who were organically connected to the people and their movements for liberation. Therefore, the music they created was formed by the aspirations and strivings of black people which stood for love in a time of widespread war.

Through Alfie’s story and his journey toward endlessly redefining himself, we will learn about the unsung heroes of America — all of the pieces which create the whole — who teach us more about the inextricable nature of the struggle to transform ourselves and to transform the world. In letting the people and their history make him, Alfie seized the capacity within himself to become a maker of history. 

We will furthermore learn about Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in the United States, whose true identity was born out of the Black Freedom Movement. Once the home of Malcolm X, John Coltrane, Cecil B. Moore and W.E.B. Du Bois, Philadelphia arose organically from black America, and the city has made a lasting contribution to the lives of many through its political movements and culture forged out of a struggle for a just world. 

Working professionals and young, educated people who move here are often encouraged to lay claims to Philadelphia despite having no historical understanding of it. This perpetuates destruction of the city’s rich history and its true moral culture, thus erasing what it can contribute to the lives of all people searching for purpose and freedom. In obscuring this moral foundation, the ruling class keeps the masses blaming each other rather than realizing a common liberation. Education within universities and the public school system does not tell the youth what their responsibilities are, or what their role in society is. 

However, through Alfie’s story, we will learn that another world is possible — where men and women are guided by the principle that peace and unity between all peoples must be at the core of all creative potential. His sacrifices and moral choices show us how to live a more principled life and to discover our possibilities which are negated by living in white society. This interview can inform us on how we can learn from history and the makers of history to better ourselves and society. And from this history, to determine what our duty to humanity is.

Finally, we are publishing this interview as a tribute to Alfie Pollitt’s life. We had originally met Alfie in 2018 through the Saturday Free School’s event “Pan Africa and Pan Asia: A World United For Humanity,” a symposium which celebrated the 150th birthday of the black fighter for peace, W.E.B. Du Bois. In May and June 2020, we interviewed Alfie five times over the span of five weeks, moving chronologically through his life, developing and asking new questions as we learned more from him each week. The final published interviews have been organized by theme, and will be released as six separate parts, each defined by a unique chapter of Alife’s life. 

The history Alfie has lived and forged has shown us a foundation to understand the significance of Philadelphia, what it has produced and what it can offer to the struggle for a world rooted in principles of morality. We wish to honor him and his life’s sacrifices by sharing his story, which serves as a guiding light to those who are striving to unite humanity toward a future of beauty and peace.

Interview conducted and compiled by Michelle Yuan Lyu and Brandon Hai Do.