Arzell Nelson Inspires Through Music And Civil Rights Advocacy
How often it is that we find out how very little we actually know about the details of many of the people who are loosely part of our lives. One great benefit for me to writing this blog is getting the opportunity to learn about those stories.
Arzell ‘Papazell’ Nelson is one of those people in my world. We have been ‘connected’ as Facebook ‘friends’ for more years than I can remember; but I am finding out there is so much to this man who has politely offered encouraging words that needs to be told. I am awe struck at the accomplishments of a man who, up until now, has been under my radar.
A composer, playwright, musician, music promoter, civil rights advocate, mentor, leader, and family man, what Arzell has achieved, what he stands for, and the example he sets truly needs to be told proudly and widely.
It struck me as very humbling how his answer to my question about his proudest accomplishment was unequivocally his being honored locally (just one of many) in 1981 with the Kool Jazz Festival Award, Dino Santangelo Award and the Ohio Valley Jazz Award. This may sound huge to anyone reading this, but take into account this is a man who, in 2011, flew to India where he accepted the “KARMAVEER PURASKAAR’S” GLOBAL AWARD for SOCIAL JUSTICE and CITIZEN ACTION and NOBEL LAURETTE under the GLOBAL ARTISTES 4 CHANGE MUSIC category. Arzell also has been given the key to our city by three different Cincinnati mayors, was recognized twice by Ohio’s Governor George Voinovich by proclamation for his civic leadership, and was recognized by the Shreveport, La. Ukraine’s Department of State and the AFL-CIO. President Bill Clinton wrote him two letters of appreciation for Arzell’s work in human relations.
What caused this internationally respected leader to be so proud of that Kool Jazz Award? It was presented to him for his musical score and show, ‘Little Boy Jazz’ performed at the Playhouse in the Park Marx Theatre which most importantly to him included his daughter and son playing lead roles, and many School for Creative and Performing Arts (SCPA) students performing alongside them.
Truly, this is a man with a huge heart for changing the world beginning with the young, impressionable minds of youth.
Arzell’s childhood came at a time when segregation was still very familiar. When his family moved from the West End to East Walnut Hills, they were the first black family on the street. It was many years later – in 1973 – when he joined the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission and was charged with reducing juvenile delinquency in the first neighborhood he knew.
He asked his boss, Executive Director Virginia Coffey, “What do you want me to do?” Her answer is what pretty much has changed the course of Arzell’s life. “Whatever you can do to keep kids off the street,” he told me he replied.
Music was part of his entire family. It was one of his great memories growing up. And so, with this task, Arzell began organizing workshops with a borrowed electric piano. Attendance took off and soon he began writing songs for his students to perform.
“I didn’t really have a plan in terms of pursuing music,” Arzell told me. “It just happened.”
One morning he saw Sammy Davis Jr. show support of President Nixon on television. It upset Arzell and moved him to write a musical, Straighten Out Sammy. He put together a group of local singers and actors and was getting about 300 people to show up for performances. That led to Arzell’s group, the Corporation of Truth, which played Cincinnati’s first Martin Luther King concert.
And from there, this man who has been under my radar all this time, went on to write over 300 songs and more shows. He has recorded at Columbia Records; promoted concerts of big names; and opened up on stage for well known artists such as Philip Bailey, George Dukes and Freddie Hubbard.
Through it all, he has continued his pursuit of social justice. His career with the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission spanned 25 years, ending with him in the role of executive director. He also served as a cultural/ethnic diversity consultant. He has been with programs such as Share Food, which involved food distribution to poor and working class citizens at minimum cost; and was also involved with ‘Back on the Block’, a program offering education, recreation and employment opportunities to youth.
Currently Arzell is working on a film documentary and television series called, ‘Don’t Count Me Out’ that will address the issue of violence against women and children.
I asked him about an experience that touched his life. He shared with me a time when he called home to his dad from college asking for money. “I said, ‘dad, I need $50,” Arzell told me, “and my dad told me, ‘Oh you do? Tell you what, call me back in a couple days to let me know how you are doing.’
“I ended up getting the $50 on my own and I remember that I was so proud,” he continued. “I called my dad to tell him and he told me, ‘Great, I am so proud of you.’ Dad taught me to look out for myself and that put me on my right track of believing in myself and my abilitiess.”
Yes, Arzell, you definitely have abilities. And I am so glad that I learned about them!