Funding bid for Manna House Workshops documentary launched in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland

Manna Jazz and SurvivalA crowd-funding campaign for a new documentary film on the remarkable story of a small music school in East Harlem, New York, is being launched by a film-maker based in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland.

‘Manna – Jazz & Survival in East Harlem’ is the work of multi-media journalist and independent producer, Peter Urpeth, who lives and works on the Isle of Lewis in the Western isles.

The film tells the story of The Manna House Workshops in East Harlem, New York, and its founder, the singer Gloria DeNard – aka ‘The Belle Canto of Soul’.

In 1967, Gloria DeNard, working with local community and church leaders, set about addressing the social deprivation and poverty of East Harlem – at that time one of the USA’s most deprived neighbourhoods, struggling with unemployment, poor-housing, drugs and crime.

East Harlem was a neighbourhood forgotten in the minds of governments, a symbol of discrimination and neglect, a place you left if you could.

Access to education was a problem, and access to music an even greater problem for the local community. But full of hope and resolve, Gloria founded a neighbourhood music school, based on jazz, that would provide affordable and accessible classes and events to the local community.

Fifty two years later, now aged 92 years, Gloria DeNard remains as the school’s director, but the future is looking uncertain…

A model of how self-determination can be central to how a community over-comes its problems, The Manna House Workshops is a much-loved icon in East Harlem, its permanence in the face of volatility and uncertainty, a beacon of hope.

Its alumni include Kenwood Dennard, a drummer who learned his trade in the Manna House’s basement space and who went on to work with Miles Davis, Gil Evans, Jaco Pastorius and Brand X, and who is now Professor of Percussion at Berklee. 

But, more importantly, over the years, many 1000s of children have found a creative space they can call home in The Manna House, and some even say it saved their lives.

Since its founding in 1967, some of New York’s finest jazz talent has taught in its class rooms, including the legendary pianist and composer, Bertha Hope (still teaching to this day!), the unique pianist and multi-instrumentalist, Cooper-Moore, and trombonist, composer and band-leader, Craig Harris.

The documentary features exclusive interviews with Gloria DeNard, Kenwood Dennard, Bertha Hope, Cooper-Moore and others directly involved in The Manna House’s history, plus, interviews with leading Harlem writer (a biographer of James Baldwin), historian and activist, Herb Boyd

Peter Urpeth first came into contact with The Manna House in 2014 when, on a working trip to New York, he went to a Sunday afternoon concert, a duet of Cooper-Moore and legendary bassist Henry Grimes, in a small, obscure performance space in a music school in East Harlem. He knew at once that this place was unique.

Peter Urpeth said:

“Going to The Manna House was an awakening. It became clear to me, from the start, that this small space had a unique beating heart, a relationship with creative music and the local community that was built on years of shared struggle and commitment. Its story is compelling.

“The Manna House is a survivor. A symbol of the power of music in lives and collectively. One of those real-life, nuts-and-bolts examples of how communities survive in the face of sustained racism, discrimination and poverty. Yet which often remain obscured by the big picture history. I felt its story needed to be told, and The Manna House too now needs help to survive and to benefit the next generation.

“Interest has grown in the subject matter of this film, and sadly, events in US politics are proving timely for its purpose – and yet again communities face the rising scourge of discrimination. The lessons of the past need to be told and seen more than ever.”

The fund-raising campaign is launched to fulfill the greater opportunities that has arisen for the film since production started in Summer 2018.

Hence, funds are needed now to push this film to feature length for festivals and other showings. In return, those who help will be fully acknowledged and will know that they have played a key part in getting The Manna House Workshops’ message of self-determination and the power of music out into the world.

Peter Urpeth is a multi-media journalist, writer, film-maker and free-jazz pianist currently working on music film projects, and as a Local Democracy Reporter (p/t) for The Stornoway Gazette. Peter has more than thirty years experience as a journalist, with a specialism in jazz, free improvisation and radical music, and has been a local newspaper editor in Scotland. In Summer 2018 Peter Urpeth was awarded an MA Journalism (Distinction) from Edinburgh Napier University and The Tristan Hewins memorial Prize for Excellence in Journalism.He lives and works in and from the Outer Hebrides.