A. B. Spellman

Alfred Bennett (A. B.) Spellman, a founder of the Black Arts Movement, was born on August 7, 1935, in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Both of his parents were educators. After graduating from high school in Elizabeth City, Spellman enrolled at Howard University. While there, he engaged in the performing arts with the Howard Players and began writing. Spellman earned a BS degree in political science in 1956. After graduation, he enrolled at Howard University Law School.  

In 1965, Spellman published his first poetry collection, The Beautiful Days (Poets Press). He published his second collection, Things I Must Have Known (Coffee House Press, 2008), more than four decades later. 

Spellman developed a career in the 1960s as a jazz critic, publishing reviews in Downbeat and Metronome. In 1966, he published his first work of nonfiction, Four Lives in the Bebop Business (Pantheon Books), an oral biography of the jazz musicians Ornette Coleman, Jackie McLean, Herbie Nichols, and Cecil Taylor. The book was later reprinted as Four Jazz Lives (University of Michigan Press, 2004).

Spellman has taught at Emory, Harvard, Morehouse, and Rutgers universities. In 1975, he was appointed director of the Arts in Education Study Project for the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA). Three years later, he became the director of the NEA’s Arts Endowment Expansion Program, a position he held until 1993. Spellman remained at the NEA, next becoming the special assistant to the chairman and acting deputy chairman for programs. From 1994 to 1996, he served as associate deputy for program coordination at the organization, and then became the director of the NEA’s Office of Guidelines and Panel Operations. In 1998, Spellman was appointed the deputy chairman for the Office of Guidelines, Panel, and Council Operations.