Alfred Bennett Spellman, Jr.



Writer/Cultural Visionary Alfred Bennett Spellman, Jr. was born in Elizabeth City, North Carolina on August 12, 1935. Upon completion of P.W. Moore High School, Spellman moved on to Howard University, graduating in 1956 with a B.S. in political science and fulfilling the expectations of his parents, both of whom were educators.

Mr. Spellman recently retired from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) after thirty years of service. At the time of his retirement, Spellman was the NEA’s Deputy Director for Programs. Known as A.B. by his many friends and colleagues, Spellman has had a varied and influential career as a writer, cultural critic, educator, arts visionary and administrator.

An important theme played out through all of Spellman’s endeavors has been a keen interest in, and tireless effort on behalf of, Jazz. Jazz has profoundly influenced Spellman. Just as profoundly, one could argue, Spellman has helped to shape the contemporary understanding of what Jazz is and can be.

Early in his career, Spellman advanced this project through his writing, both creative and critical. During his time at the NEA, he was a powerful force for inclusiveness, for a more democratic distribution of resources in the arts and for the affirmative recognition of performance and cultural expression previously marginalized in the domain of public and private arts funding.

At the NEA, Spellman held a variety of consequential positions, most notably Director of the Expansion Arts Program, Special Assistant to the Chairman, and finally Deputy Chairman for the Office of Guidelines, Panel and Council Operations. Critically important NEA jazz initiatives, launched during Spellman’s tenure, include the NEA Jazz Masters Award, the nation’s highest jazz award, and a revealing assessment of the field, Changing the Beat: A Study of the Worklife of Jazz Musicians.

Clearly, Spellman did more at the Endowment than sit by the door. In 2005, the agency named one of its Jazz Masters awards in his honor, the A.B. Spellman Jazz Masters Awards for Jazz Advocacy. Reflecting on Spellman’s career at the NEA, Chairman Dan Goia commented, “A.B. Spellman has been an invaluable presence in jazz for nearly half a century. His vision and leadership played the key role in making the Arts Endowment a major presence in jazz.” Spellman was also honored with the Jazz Journalist Association “A Team” award in 2005.

Upon graduation from Howard, Spellman’s career in arts administration and programming would not have been easily predictable. Nor would his path as a writer have necessarily been discernable. Nevertheless by the mid-60s, Spellman was by turns an important presence in the New American Poetry and Black Arts movements, as well as a clear-eyed and prescient commentator on Jazz and related cultural expressions.

Spellman’s poetry collection, The Beautiful Days, first published in 1964, was reissued in the fall of 2005. Spellman frequently published in the independent, avant-garde literary journals of the period as well as in a variety of music magazines, among them Metronome and downbeat. With Amiri Baraka and Larry Neal, Spellman collaborated to produce Cricket, a short-lived but notable periodical devoted to African American music.

Recently reissued as Four Jazz Lives, the book Four Lives In The Bebop Business first appeared in 1966 and remains one of the most useful documents of that period, accurately identifying and portraying artists who were among the creative elite of the time and who would influence the course of Jazz into the new Millennium. Spellman was also one of the most insightful album annotators in a period of significant musical upheaval.

Spellman has lectured and taught at various colleges and universities, including Emory, Harvard, Morehouse and Rutgers. Recently, Spellman returned to Rutgers, after 24 years, to explore the topic, “The Black Arts Movement: Social Activism as Esthetic Guide,” as part of the university’s Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series.

He has served on numerous panels including the Rockefeller Panel on Arts Education and Americans; the Awards Panel of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP); and the Advisory Group of the African-American Museum for the Smithsonian Institution.

- W. A. Brower