Music tribute set for Thelma W. Anderson, 89, Philly official and jazz promoter
Ms Anderson distinguished herself in business and city service, but her real passion was jazz. "She was a jazzy lady and an awesome mom," her daughter said.
A musical tribute will be held Saturday, Nov. 25, for Thelma W. Anderson, 89, of Chestnut Hill, a former Philadelphia deputy managing director and longtime jazz promoter, who died Friday, Oct. 6, of pancreatic cancer at Keystone Hospice in Wyndmoor.
In the mid-1970s, Ms. Anderson served as an assistant to Deputy Mayor Goldie Watson, and in the mid-1980s became a deputy managing director under Mayor W. Wilson Goode Sr.
As part of her duties, she directed the Clean Philadelphia Program and created the Philadelphia More Beautiful Committee, both citizen-based improvement efforts for neighborhoods. She retired in the 1990s.
Ms. Anderson's real passion, though, was jazz, which she learned to savor while very young.
"In the second grade, I used to listen to Fats Waller on the radio — just 15 minutes, but what a 15 minutes," she told the Chestnut Hill Local in an April 2013 profile.
"My father was a barber, and he'd sometimes get passes to the Nixon Theater at 52nd Street near Market in West Philadelphia. Even if he didn't, it cost just six cents for kids to get in. I saw Ella Fitzgerald there with the Chick Webb Band. I'd catch shows, too, at the Fays Theatre at 40th and Market. That's where I heard the bands of Jimmie Lunceford, Andy Kirk, Lionel Hampton and Lucky Millinder. What memories they were."
Ms. Anderson told the Local that she met jazz musicians such as Benny Golson long before they joined the pantheon of America's outstanding jazz saxophone players and composers. As children, Mrs. Anderson and Golson lived in the same apartment building in North Philadelphia.
"One day, Benny and I went to the movies," she told the Local. "The picture was Bride of Frankenstein. I was so scared I wanted to go home, but Benny insisted I stay, so I did. That night, my parents went out for the evening, something they almost never did. I was still scared to death. I called Benny to come sit with me, and he did. We're still in touch."
Ms. Anderson told the Local how she sneaked into some of Philadelphia's better jazz clubs, only to be ejected for being underage. Often her mother would come and remove her from the clubs. "I went to Morgan State University in Baltimore just in time," she said.
As an adult, she became a relentless promoter of jazz, and earned the sobriquet "the Queen of Philadelphia Jazz," her family said.
In 1991, Mrs. Anderson founded the Council of Jazz Advocates (COJA). The nonprofit sponsored jazz events, supported young musicians in public schools, and pushed to get jazz programming on TV and radio. The group established the Tony Williams Jazz Festival. Proceeds from the benefit funded college scholarships for graduates of the Mount Airy Cultural Center.
In 2015, Ms. Anderson gave an interview about jazz that was posted on YouTube.
"Jazz is important to me because it's part of our heritage, our contribution to America," she said of African Americans. "We've always been kind of a peculiar society in terms of recognizing [our jazz greats], and we have many of them here in Philadelphia. Some of them have gone on to be international artists all over the world."
In the video, she urged aficionados to hear jazz live.
"You cannot support the artists in your living room — you have to go out and see the performers, because it's more than just playing the piano or blowing a horn. It's the union of harmony and rhythm, and Philadelphians are quite tuned in to that," she said.
The only child born to Willie Wilson and Fannie Walden in Suffolk, Va., Ms. Anderson grew up in North Philadelphia.
She graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls and Morgan State, where she pledged the Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Early in her career, she set milestones. She was hired as the first woman of color in Blue Cross Blue Shield's customer service department, and rose to the position of instructor, overseeing the entire department, her family said.
"At that time, it was something unheard of," said her daughter, Tracey L. Andrews. "She was elated."
In the 1960s, Ms. Anderson commuted to New York, where she was the regional director of advertising for New Lady Magazine.
When not working, she enjoyed cooking, collecting African art, cross-stitching, traveling, and reading.
"She was a jazzy lady and an awesome mom," her daughter said.
Besides her daughter, Ms. Anderson is survived by son M. Dean Anderson; three grandchildren; five great-grandchildren, and five great-great grandchildren. She was divorced from Milton Anderson, who died in 2012.
A memorial featuring live jazz music will be held from 2 to 5 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 25, at the Oxford Presbyterian Church, 8501 Stenton Ave. Burial will be private.
Memorial donations be made to the American Cancer Society via www.cancer.org.