Rev. Dr. Sandra Butler-Truesdale is the epitome of a walking local encyclopedia, with a curiosity to discover more. I first met Truesdale in summer 2020 on the set of a project we collaborated on highlighting the successes of the Black community in the DMV. That project was followed by a lunch, which went on for five hours. I took out a tape recorder to record our conversation and was regaled with tales about Howard Theatre, where Ella Fitzgerald would stay when she performed there, and singing in choir with Marvin Gaye who was “cute.” We have worked together many times since. Walking down the street next to her all you hear from passersby is “Hey, Sandra!” And she greets them with “Hey, baby!” She has the attitude and energy of someone in their ‘20s with no sign of slowing down. Her vast career in D.C. as an entrepreneur, warrior for education, music historian/enthusiast makes her a person who you want to grab a cup of coffee with to soak up her most important role: storyteller. We recently reconnected for another conversation — as if I needed an excuse to linger in her radiant and legendary orbit again.
District Fray: You are a true Washingtonian, born and raised here. At almost 82 years old, what has been the biggest change you’ve seen in the city throughout the years?
Rev. Dr. Sandra Butler-Truesdale: There have been several changes. You need to understand that I have actually lived eight decades. But a major change that I saw was the integration of D.C. Public Schools and another was D.C. citizens getting the right to vote. It was about D.C. not having elected officials and [being] run by Congress and a committee.
What has your career trajectory been like?
I was taught that besides an academic education, I should pursue other vocations. My grandfather used to tell me, “Always have a vocation, because the man giveth and the man taketh away.” So, I learned to do several different jobs. I owned a women’s gift shop called the “The New Thing.” It was rather successful. I was then on the road with James Brown and Ray Charles in the 1970s doing hair and make-up, followed by working and retiring from Verizon, the telephone company.
You then founded DC Legendary Musicians, Inc. in 2002. What did you think the need in the musician community was?
Remember, I had worked on the road and I learned from jazz musicians that they did not think about benefits. They were in the business of performing/singing. If they became ill on the road or anything, they didn’t have insurance. When I left the road, I saw there was a need for an organization to help them get benefits. Through GWU and the D.C. Office of Aging, I found the means to assist musicians and performers and anyone else who needed assistance.
What has your impact been on the music industry of Washington, D.C., since starting DC Legendary Musicians?
We have a board that does a lot of work, but one of the things I want to point out to you is that we work really closely with R&B and gospel musicians. Genres other than jazz also don’t receive the benefits or acknowledgments that they are entitled to.
What was it like to participate in the original March on Washington to see Martin Luther King Jr. speak in 1963?
It was the largest group of people I had ever seen who joined together for a cause. They were perfectly peaceful. All were focused on civil rights and making positive change.
You’ve worked with a myriad of talented musicians, including James Brown and Ray Charles. What is it that attracts you to music?
I came from a family that loved music. I tell people that [during] the time I was coming up almost all families, particularly in the Black community, had some type of musical instruments in the homes. In my neighborhood on Corcoran Street Northwest, there were musicians all over who eventually became professional, like drummer Jimmy Cobb and saxophonist Carter Jefferson. We had a music teacher on the corner who taught us how to play classical music. It’s always been in my surroundings and the attraction is very natural.
What are your future plans for the D.C. jazz community?
To continue to work with other organizations that are focused on jazz musicians and to educate our young people on the value and the history of jazz. It’s important to learn what that history is, where it started and who was involved.
You recently started a new business venture with no signs of slowing down. What will your new company be doing?
Local Strategies by SBT is a consulting firm that supplies information and research about music and the history of the Black men and women in D.C. I guide the musicians who may need help with outreach in the community.
What needs do you hope to meet for musicians in the District?
[I want to] provide services for the performing arts community, develop creative opportunities for musicians, and continue to provide and educate them on their needs. More importantly, I want to research the history of musicians before us. And research the history of venues in the DMV, such as the Kennedy Center. People may not know that the KC is built on land that was owned by, rented by and lived on by Black people. The KC owes the Black community recognition for that land.
Favorite place to eat in D.C.? The Saints Paradise Cafeteria. Go-to venue for live music? Mr. Henry’s in Capitol Hill. It’s an intimate venue and they tend to hire local musicians. Favorite artist you worked with? The one I worked with and cared the most about was Ray Charles. Ray was multitalented and was a person who was willing to give opportunities to young musicians aspiring to be professional. What are you currently listening to? I listen to a lot of jazz now because I am coming back to what I listened to as a child. And of course, what I learned to love in my teenage years was R&B. I even listen to go-go. Favorite neighborhood in D.C.? The community is Petworth because I lived there for 52 years. Most memorable event that’s happened in your lifetime in D.C.? It is very difficult to say one event, but I was and still become very excited about the organization and development of the Funk Parade in U Street Corridor. Where can you be found on a Saturday afternoon? On Saturday you would most likely find me at home resting and getting ready for Metropolitan AME Church service for the next day. What does music mean to you? Everything. I think of music as a spirit. And it is a spirit that can uplift you if you are down and out and even if you are happy. The positive sounds accentuate that.
Follow Rev. Dr. Sandra Butler-Truesdale on Instagram @sandrabutlertruesdale. Listen to “Don’t Forget the Blues” on Wednesdays on WPFW Radio, 89.3 FM, of which she is programmer, writer and producer. Learn more about the work of DC Legendary Musicians at dclmusicians.org.
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