NEW YORK, NY (July 18, 2005) — A McDermott Will & Emery pro bono trial team successfully represented the heirs of the late Charles Luckeyth ("Luckey") Roberts, a famous African-American jazz musician prominent in the Harlem Renaissance, in the recovery of his priceless handwritten scores and other musically and historically important memorabilia. The team saved Luckey Roberts' memorabilia from being auctioned and ensured the return of the artifacts to the family and to the jazz community.
Luckey Roberts' family members sought assistance from McDermott after an elderly relative sold her Harlem house in which all of Luckey Roberts' memorabilia was stored. The collection consisted of photographs, handwritten symphonies, sheet music and other documents relating to Luckey Roberts' career and to the history of jazz, as well as the history of New York City and its African American heritage. Upon learning of the value of the materials, the buyer of the house claimed the artifacts were included in the sale and attempted to sell some of the more significant pieces at Guernsey's Auction House.
"My family and I are elated to have these steppingstones in the development of jazz and American popular culture returned to us here in Harlem," said Christina Brown, Roberts’ great-granddaughter and McDermott pro bono client. "We are especially grateful for the effective, heartfelt representation Banks Brown and his legal team at McDermott Will & Emery brought to bear. Without their help, this invaluable collection of African-American ancestral treasures would have disappeared with the highest bidders, robbing the scholarly community and the general public of irreplaceable, historic artifacts. This victory will greatly encourage scholars and fans as they revitalize the Harlem Renaissance."
"McDermott Will & Emery considered it a privilege to assist the family, New York City and the Harlem community on this matter," commented Banks Brown, a partner and head of the New York Trial Department at McDermott.
"Luckey Roberts was one of the seminal figures in the development of American music in the early 20th century," said David Berger, a member of the jazz studies faculty at the Julliard School in New York City. "He influenced and taught such talents as Duke Ellington, Hoagy Carmichael and George Gershwin, and his Broadway musicals presaged those of Gershwin, Kern, Rodgers, and others,” Berger added. "Roberts was the link between minstrelsy and modern American music and show business."
According to Christina Brown, Luckey Roberts' family intends to use the memorabilia to aid in the completion of Luckey Roberts' biography and, at a later date, to make them available to the public for viewing through museum donations.
Luckey Roberts, known as the "King of New York pianists," is recognized as one of the leading pianists of the Harlem Renaissance, having directly influenced many of the keyboard giants of the 1920s, including Duke Ellington, Earl Hines and George Gershwin. He composed countless Broadway musicals and symphonic jazz works, one of which he performed at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall. A favorite bandleader with the gilded society of America’s storied jazz age, Roberts was in steady demand from Newport to Park Avenue to Palm Beach, reportedly earning as much as a thousand dollars a night at his peak. Roberts died in 1968 at the age of 81.
Among the many artifacts recovered as a result of the settlement was a letter to Luckey Roberts from first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, congratulating him on the eve of his public debut at Carnegie Hall on August 30, 1939. "My best wishes go to you for a very successful occasion," Mrs. Roosevelt wrote.
McDermott Will & Emery's New York pro bono trial team consisted of John Calandra with assistance from Banks Brown and the McDermott Diversity Committees. The pro bono case was brought to the Firm on the premise that these items had great historical importance to the Harlem community and the Roberts family's commitment to donate the materials recovered to a museum to benefit the public. As a result of the McDermott's pro bono efforts, New York City benefits from the preservation of the memory of one of its great Jazz legends and from the conservation of this important piece of history of its cherished Harlem community.