In August of 1963, things were going pretty well for Nat Phipps. He was recently married, working as a high school music teacher and playing the piano two or three times a week with his own band. All that was good, but not good enough.
“I was very concerned about the atmosphere in this country and the civil rights situation,” said Phipps, a Newark, N.J., native who has lived in Guilderland for 29 years. “I was very involved in activities around Newark, and having the opportunity to participate in something like the March on Washington wasn’t something I was going to miss.”
It was 50 years ago on Wednesday that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before more than 250,000 people all gathered together for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Phipps, now 81 and still a popular Capital Region musician, remembers the occasion like it was yesterday.
“It was as hot as the dickens, but I wanted to get as close as possible, so I started gravitating over toward the Lincoln Memorial early,” said Phipps. “When I looked at pictures of the speech I’d look for me because I did get pretty close. But I was still probably 100 feet away with about 15 rows of people in front of me.”
Phipps listened to King’s words, spellbound, like the rest of the crowd. Phipps’ parents came from the West Indies and raised their family in the Episcopal faith, so King’s preaching style was unfamiliar.
“His kind of delivery was quite different for me, but after going to many meetings in Baptist churches since I have become used to it,” said Phipps. “My Episcopalian minister wouldn’t have sounded like that, we being more associated with the Catholic church. But King had this absolutely great way of speaking to you. It wasn’t like he was lecturing. It was like he was speaking one person to another, and there was such a genuineness to it, such honesty.”
King was the last speaker of the day, and as he concluded with the words from the spiritual, “Free at last, free at last. Thank God Almighty, we are free at last,” Phipps realized he had witnessed first-hand a great moment in history.
“He said how we hadn’t arrived, but that we were heading in the right direction,” said Phipps, echoing King’s words. “He said we gotta keep pushing. It was a great experience, and absolutely, you knew you had been someplace special. It was King’s words, and it was all the camaraderie. If it was all black people, you might have said, ‘well, OK, that’s nice,’ but it wasn’t all black people. There were plenty of white people there, too, because they cared, and you had this great feeling of going forward together. That was one of things that really impressed me.”
Phipps was also impressed by the complete lack of violence that day at the Washington Mall. Authorities had been forecasting all kinds of trouble as a result of the march. All liquor stores were closed that day, extra police were hired, the National Guard was on alert and Life magazine wrote that Washington hadn’t experienced such “an invasion of jitters” since the First Battle of Bull Run during the Civil War.
“There was an enormous body of people there, and yet there were no rumblings or hostilities,” remembered Phipps. “All I saw was a well-organized, well-behaved, highly motivated group of people all wanting our society to move beyond where it was. They wanted a higher standard for all people.”
Early that day, Phipps headed to New York’s Penn Station and boarded one of the 21 chartered trains leaving from stations around the country, filled with people heading to Washington for the march. There were also 2,000 buses making their way to the nation’s capital and 10 chartered airline flights.
“I didn’t know any of the people I was with,” said Phipps. “We were given an itinerary and things were pretty spelled out for us. I got off the train in D.C. and then just kind of wandered over to the Mall. It was a long day. I probably got back on the train around 5 and headed back to New York.”
He returned to Newark feeling pretty good about the future, but was then hit with another dose of reality.
“I got something in my eye on the train ride back to New York, and it got so bad I had to go to the emergency room the next morning,” he said. “There was this white nurse there and she looks at me and says, ‘who were you fighting with?’ I looked right back at her and said, ‘I wasn’t fighting with anyone.’ She assumed that because I was a black guy I had been in a fight. It was a reminder to me. The March on Washington was great, but now it’s back to reality.”
Phipps says interracial relations have improved since 1963, but he has days when he wonders just how much.
“When I was a kid I asked my mother once, ‘what did we do to make white people hate us,’ ” said Phipps. “I lived in an area of Newark where there were a lot of confrontations, and while we have made steps in the right direction, sometimes I think we’re going backwards. Then I remember that I’ve always had white friends, and some of my dearest friends to this day are white. But sometimes when you look at what’s going on around you it gets scary.”
Teacher of Year
Phipps was New York State’s Teacher of the Year in 1976 for his work with the music department at Sterling High School in Brooklyn. A graduate of New York University with a master’s from Hunter College, Phipps worked at Livingston School for Girls in New York City before moving to the Capital Region in 1979 to work for the State Education Department. Since retiring in 1995, he has worked as an adjunct professor at the University at Albany and Schenectady County Community College.
“I love teaching, and the feeling you get when you’re really able to reach a student,” said Phipps, who along with his wife, Berta, raised three daughters. “Performing is great, and I’ve kept doing it because playing and teaching never interfered with one another. But there isn’t enough money to equate with the feeling you get when you know you’ve made a difference in someone’s life.”
Bill Meckley, chair of the music department at SCCC, said Phipps’ value at the college can not be overstated.
“He’s a tremendous jazz piano player, and he brings a combination of things to the students here,” said Meckley. “He brings his professional experience as a performer, and I think the kids appreciate that, and I think that he really is a gifted teacher. He knows how to reach the students, and he makes them learn and listen as if they were musicians. He’s a real positive force to be around.”
Phipps says his playing style includes be-bop and jazz, but according to Patti Melita, a Troy-based singer who hires Phipps on occasion to accompany her, when Phipps sets down at the keyboards the man has no limitations.
“He played at a surprise birthday party for me in 2002, and then, after we were in a show together, I started hiring him for gigs that I had,” said Melita, who typically performs swing music. “He can play anything. If he doesn’t know a song, you just give him a chart and he works with you. He’s brilliant, and he’s also a wonderful man. He’s one of those people who doesn’t act special, even though he is.”
Phipps and his twin brother, William, were born Christmas day in 1931, the youngest of 10 siblings. William, who died in 2011, became a prominent saxophone player and was one of many professionals, including jazz great Wayne Shorter, who played with Nat Phipps early in their careers.
“I wanted to play the sax, but my uncle taught my brother to play the sax and me the coronet,” remembered Phipps. “But the coronet was not easy to play, and after listening to my sisters on the piano, I settled on that.”
The Nat Phipps Band and its later incarnation, Nat Phipps and the Megatones, was one of the most popular jazz bands in the New Jersey-New York area.
“We started in high school, and I didn’t want to be the leader, but when we were talking about our name, the other guys said, ‘it’s gotta be you Nat, you have to be the leader.’ I guess I knew the most about music so they told me I had to be the leader and I finally agreed. That was back in high school. Little by little we became very popular. We always had jobs. Every Friday and Saturday night we were playing somewhere.”
Reach Gazette reporter Bill Buell at 395-3190 or email@example.com.