AJASS and The Grandassa Models – Origins of the Black is Beautiful Movement


 In 1956 a group of young artists and jazz lovers, formed The Jazz-Art Society (soon to be renamed The African Jazz-Art Society & Studios – AJASS) and began producing jazz concerts featuring some of the greats of jazz including Lou Donaldson, Jackie McLean, Gigi Gryce, Johnny Griffin, Cannonball Adderley, Hank Mobley, Junior Cook, Art Taylor, Philly Joe Jones, Betty Carter, Leon Thomas, Wilbur Ware and many, many others. coupled with art exhibitions and African cultural presentations. Influenced by Carlos A. Cooks and the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement (ANPM), an off-shoot of Garvey’s UNIA, AJASS began incorporating African Nationalist themes into their productions. After witnessing the 1961 “Miss Natural Standard of Beauty Contest” hosted each Garvey Day, August 17, in which girls competed without straightening their hair, AJASS organizers Elombe Brath, Kwame Brathwaite, Robert Gumbs, Frank Adu, Chris Asmandeces Hall, David K. Ward, Leroy “Satch” Giles, Jimmy Abu Williams, Ernest Baxter and Gus Williams launched the Grandassa Models and the theme “Black Is Beautiful.”

The Original models were: Clara Lewis, Black Rose, Nomsa Brath, Priscilla Bardonille, Mari Toussaint, Esther Davenport, Wanda Sims and Beatrice Cramston.

AJASS, with the aid of Abbey Lincoln and Max Roach, began producing a series of “Naturally” shows, beginning with “Naturally ’62″ that projected racial pride, African culture, poetry and art. The show, subtitled “the original African coiffure and fashion extravaganza designed to restore or racial pride and standards” traveled to colleges and universities in the US and self-produced many shows in Black communities for more than thirty years. The AJASS productions, starting in Harlem, was the beginning of what is known as “The Black Arts Movement” that later saw Leroi Jones, Larry Neal, Ed Bullins and others create some powerful theatre in Harlem. They found a Black arts movement in Harlem that had started nine years before they arrived.

AJASS used many forms of art imagery, including cartoon caricatures. They were exponents of African nationalism, and as such, had differences with the way the “civil rites” movement as they called it, handled the quest for equal rights and full freedom. Disturbed by the use of women and children facing the racism mobs in the south as opposed to the MEN doing the confrontations, they advocated not integration but self determination, self reliance, self protection by whatever means necessary and the Garvey philosophy of Back to Africa.

AJASS founded the Black Standard Publishing Company in 1963 that published two small booklets (now collector’s items), the “Naturally ’63 Portfolio” and in late 1963, “Color Us Cullud: The Official American Negro Leadership Coloring Book”, and program books for some of their theatrical presentations. It was critical of most of the Civil Rights leaders and analyzed the suspension of Malcolm X from the Nation of Islam, which prompted Brother Malcolm to tell me, “tell your brother that he is a genius”, speaking of the author, caricaturist Elombe Brath who created the book.

The “Naturally” shows continued on a regular basis thru 1980 and then commemorative events on ten year anniversaries thru 2002.