Archive for the Music Reviews Category

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Swings Berkeley

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, Photo-Essays with tags , , on November 17, 2015 by playthell


Maestro Marsilis conducts the Boys in the Band

 An Evening of Gilded Memories and Divine Music

Standing in front of Zellerbach Hall waiting for the great Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to hit, my mind was filled with random thoughts; all provoked by being in that particular place on that particular occasion.  The University of California at Berkley has a unique niche in my memory bank.  I first became aware of this campus in the 1960’s, over half a century ago, when it had a dual identity both as a center for radical ideas and activism, and the University with the most Nobel Laurates on its faculty.

Furthermore it was located in a part of America whose exotic manscapes and landcapes looked as if they had emerged from a fairy tale to my East Coast eyes.  The aura of “radical chic” was enhanced by the fact that Berkeley was located just across the Bay from San Francisco, then the home of the Hippy Counter-Culture which I had observed first hand upon my maiden voyage to the City, where I found myself living at the intersection of Haight and Ashbury.

The Square outside Zellenboch Hall
First Choice

It was as if I had stumbled into an alien world unbeknownst to me.  I had been raised in the racially segregated black community in St. Augustine Florida, where I was socialized on the values of the “Talented Tenth;” the enlightened striving class who set high standards for the Afro-American community and guided us away from “the worst in our own and other races” as Dr. DuBois had called upon them to do in 1903.

And I made my maiden voyage to San Francisco directly from the comparatively staid and culturally conservative environment of Philadelphia.  I had driven up from Los Angeles with a young mathematician who had worked on the Appollo Space Project plotting maps around the moon. And her sister, a young MD, lived the Haight-Ashbury District.  It was the now iconic “Summer of Love,”  a time and place where like the song says “anything goes.”  It was sex, love, acid, Psydchelic rock music, and people were tuning on and tuning out. I was fairly shocked at the way white folks were carrying on in “the Haight.”  The few black folks I encountered were Jimi Hendrix acolytes, and at that time I thought Hendrix had lost his cotton pickin mind.

Me and the Mathematician

Playthell and Rose

Dr. Fine: My Sanfrancisco Guide

At the time I was a disciplined member of the leadership of the Revolutionary Action Movement – an armed underground movement of Afro-Americans which gave birth to the Black Panther Party of Oakland, a matter I have written about extensively elsewhere – and as a doctrinaire Maoist I viewed the entire counter-cultural movement as a mass exercise in bourgeois self-indulgence that only well off white folks could afford to fool with.  I was a soldier in the black struggle, a committed warrior intellectual who had been trained in the use of arms by the US military.

My first visit to the University of California Berkley was occasioned by an invitation to present a speech on the importance of Black Studies in the struggle to eradicate white racist ideology and behavior from American life.  Given the nature of the times – with massive urban riots in which it seemed that the torching of American cities had become common fare and the country was on the verge of race war – this subject matter was considered an urgent matter and Universities were trying to define a useful role they could play in resolving the racial crisis. Normally presenting this argument was easy work; I had already presented it with great success at universities and school boards across the country, including the Claremont Colleges and four of the campuses of the University of California.

But to my mind Berkeley was different.  I was all too aware that this was the incubator of the “Free Speech Movement,” an Ivory tower where great minds communed about perplexing problems in the social and physical world.  Hence when I walked through the imposing gates on Telegraph Ave and set foot on the campus I felt an intimidation that I had never felt before.  Nobody really knew me there yet I got a big audience because I was on the program with Afro-American writer Alex Haley, whose collaboration on “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” had made him the most famous author in America, and read around the world.

At the time Haley was a Writer-in-Residence at the university and was working on a new book that he called “Before the Anger,” but was later published as “Roots,” an epic saga about African slavery in America that became one of the bestselling books in the history of publishing and was made into a riveting blockbuster television saga that made ratings history.  As a devotee of Brother Malcolm, whom I knew well, and a big fan of the book, I was delighted to meet Mr. Haley, whom I thought had done America a spiritual benefaction by writing the “Autobiography.”

He was a warm and unpretentious southern brother that reminded me of church deacons that I had known in Florida.  I expressed my gratitude for his labors which he accepted with grace. As I waited to go on after his remarks, I pondered how to approach this audience, who routinely heard great minds hold forth in this space.  It was as if I suddenly had a revelation; I heard an inner voice say “What would John the Prophet Do?”

It was not the biblical prophet that I had in mind but the modern day sound sorcerer John Coltrane, whose music we revolutionaries were convinced was the sound track of the black Revolution.  And when he showed up at a speech of mine in North Philly at a rally organized by radical activist/Jazz Pianist John Churchville, a leader in the Northern Student Movement and we spent the rest of the evening rapping, I was convinced that we were right….Trane told me so.  “I say it all with my horn young brother,” he replied when I invited him to speak to a Black history class I was teaching in the basement of Mt. Zion Church, pastored by the Reverend Doctor Leon Sullivan, “The Lion of Zion!”

After pondering the question for a moment, I decided that if Trane was in my place he would come out and wail, knowing there was no profounder musical truth than that which he was preaching….so that’s what I did.   The audience bought what I was selling – being a skilled orator trained by my aunt Rosa, an exacting tutor, made the task a lot lighter – and they rewarded me with a standing ovation! All of these memories swirled around in my head as I waited for the concert to start in Zellerbach Hall.

Although I am a former history professor who left the profession for other endeavors, I have never lost my love for the study of history and how it can illuminate our understanding of present realities.  It is especially gratifying when you can reflect on events that you participated in that have now become important historical milestones and the people now famous whom you knew back when.

I found special satisfaction in how Black Studies have become a standard part of university curriculums across this nation. This was not always true; I know because I was a co-founder of the first free standing, degree granting, Black Studies Department in the world at UMass Amherst in 1969, just a couple of years after I spoke on this campus, and we were the first to incorporate Jazz Studies taught by seminal artists into the curriculum when we awarded full professorships to instrumentalists/Composers/bandleaders Max Roach and Archie Shepp.

I also have a deep pride in what the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has made of itself since I was present at its inception and produced the most extensive media report on the opening of Jazz at Lincoln Center, presented on WBAI FM in New York. I have also worked on a book project with the world famous photographer Frank Stewart, who is the official photographer for the JALC Orchestra.

Titled “Magic Moments in the House of Swing,” the book documents some of the great performances in this Mecca of Jazz in words and pictures.  Some of my essays were written as program notes for important concerts at Rose Hall, and they were illustrated with Frank’s photos.  As I write the manuscript is finished but unpublished because publishers say a picture book is too expensive to publish correctly and books on Jazz don’t sell well enough for them to make the investment.

The slice of history that I was most conscious of that evening was a story told by Dr. Ortiz Walton – bassist extraordinaire, insightful music critic and Ph.D. in sociology – who had been a doctoral student when Duke Ellington and his Orchestra performed on campus circa 1966.   Walton – who would later write the great book “Music: Black, White and Blue” – was shocked and appalled by the absence of black students at the concert. In order to provide a scientific explanation for what was obvious evidence of a cultural disconnect Walton designed a questionnaire and administered it to the Black students at Berkeley, and the results provided evidence a cultural disaster!

The dominant answer of the black students was that they played past the concert because Duke Ellington’s band “didn’t play Black Music.”  Walton was astonished!  Duke Ellington, the greatest composer in the Afro-American musical tradition, had become a stranger to his progeny; a prophet without honor in his own land.  It was the predictable results of a music business driven by the imperatives of commerce rather than a commitment to promoting high culture, and a educational system that has either removed musical instruction altogether or continues to priviledge European concert music over the indigenous art music of America.

This experience led Walton to write two important books about music and the Afro-American tradition.  A musically ambidextrous virtuoso on the double bass violin, Walton was a principal bassist with the Cairo Symphony and also played with John Coltrane.  Like Wynton, he is a master of both musical Idioms.

Hence one of the things I paid close attention to was the number of black students, or young black people from whatever walk of life, who attended the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra concert.  Although half a century has passed since Duke’s band was here, and the world has turned upside down, black student disinterest in serious Afro-American art music has evidently remained pretty much the same. Here the old adage “the more things change the more they stay the same” applies.  The scant black presence at the concert dribbled off to near nothing when it came to young people, who were outnumbered by their elders despite, and among those that I talked to only one young couple were not musicians; the rest were all aspiring musicians.

However the diversity of the crowd and the young musicians who sought Wynton’s musical advice is eloquent testimony to the widespread influence of the Afro-American art of Jazz; which in its love of personal freedom and promotion of invention makes it the quintessentially American art. (see: “Jazz Around the World” on this site.)  And that art has never been on finer display than it was at Zellenbach auditorium on that enchanted evening.  The band, an aggregation of virtuosi on all instruments, was in fine form.  The ensemble play was perfectly balanced, with each musician contributing his unique voice to a musical tapestry composed of many intriguing colors.

The program moved effortlessly as the music went from the classic big band repertoire to the most modern Jazz styles; the entire tradition of complex Afro-American art music was traversed and each was true to the performance style of the period. The essence of Jazz is individual improvisation in conversation with the ensemble, which places the soloist at the center of the action.

Here the JALC orchestra offers an embarrassment of riches as each instrumentalist speaks with a highly original voice and individual style that moves the audience to repeated ovations.  I think the seeker would be hard pressed to find a Jazz orchestra that ever played the music better than this one, now or at any period in the past.

Maestro Marsalis: Leader of the Band
The Brighest Star and Guiding Light

Wynton Marsalis, Pulitzer Prize winning composer and multiple Grammy winning trumpeter, remains the Orchestra’s guiding light as Artistic Director, as well as its most celebrated and inspirational performer.  When the orchestra sounded its last note the audience, hungry for more of these celestial blues drenched sounds that make body and soul dance, rose to its feet in a thunderous ovation and shouts of “Bravo!” rang out in the auditorium.

I have seen this Orchestra play many times; they are always excellent….and on this night in Berkeley they served up the music straight with no chaser, swinging hard and straight ahead.  The audience showed their love through vigorous applause when the musicians were on stage, and something akin to hero worship during the reception backstage when they got a chance to meet and greet them.  I was there, and I had my camera.  Below are some of my visual impressions of the evening.


The sold out audience was mostly white, Asian…..
………..and long in the tooth
 This couple were the only young black people……


…..who were not musicians
The Afro-Americans in attendance were Seasoned Fans


Like Heidi Moore-Reynolds
Maestro Marsalis

Edited Version

Positions himself to meet and greet the crowd
And they came in droves


Some just wanted to speak to the great artist
Other’s posed for Pictures


A momento that, like fine wine, will grow more valuable with time
Other band members soon joined Wynton in the reception lounge

Ali edit

Ali Jackson shares tricks of the trade with a young drummer
Trombonist Don Gardner
Imbibed Spirits with the adoring music lovers
A brilliant composer and arranger


He always takes the time to talk with aspiring 
Alto Saxophonist / Arranger Ted Nash

 Edit III

Was right at home among the Cosmopolites
With Oakland’s City Council President Jane Doe on left


And Sculptor/Professor Susannah Israel to his right
Sophisticated Ladies from all walks of life….


……….vie for his Attention
 And Music students ask complex technical questions


Demonstrating the proper embrocure for trumpet
Other times he conducts impromtu discourses


Discussing weighty questions about music theory
The City Council President paid close attention


And listened closely
So did Professor Israel


Who gloried in the marvelous music and good company
Wynton autographed every program presented to him


Most are musicians 
People from all backgrounds turn ot to hear the Band


Proof that Jazz  lovers are EVERYWHERE!
And I was there with my Camera!
Wynton and Me - Copy - Copy - Copy
Double click on links below to see the JALCO
Wynton and JALCO members tuning up before a concert
Watch the Lincoln Center Orchestra in concert featuring Wayne shorter
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Text and Photos by: Playthell G. Benjamin
*** Cover photo and Wynton in Perormance by: Frank Stewart
****Photo of Playthell and Wynton by:Susannah Israel

Fronting for Uncle Charlie

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, Photo-Essays with tags , , on October 31, 2015 by playthell


Promoter Darryl Anderson  and Mayor Todd Strange

This Could be the Start of Something Big!

When I was a very young man selling life insurance, my sales manager called me into his office one day and said “We really don’t offer benefits much different from a dozen other companies; the key to selling is to sell yourself, make the customer like you so that they will buy from you rather than the other guy.”  Riding around Montgomery Alabama wheeling and dealing with concert producer Kwaku Saunders, as he put the various pieces in place for a Charlie Wilson concert on November 7, I witnessed the truth of the manager’s claim.

We set out early, driving down from Atlanta at six in the morning, and from the moment we hit town he went to work.  The first stop on a crowded agenda was a press conference with the Mayor of Montgomery to announce the forthcoming concert and receive the Mayor’s personal welcome.  There was a slight chill in the clear morning  air as we were joined by the concert’s promoter Daryl  Anderson at Montgomery’s beautiful River Front Park, the venue where the concert will be held.

A Fabulous Venue for a Concert


The producer will convert this elegant band shell into a state of the art sound stage

The Mayor was warm and exceedingly eloquent in his comments as the television camera’s rolled, employing terms like “ambiance” – with the proper French pronunciation – in his descriptions of the venue.  Listening to his southern drawl I had figured him for a country music fan, but the enthusiastic way spoke of Charlie Wilson’s forthcoming concert one would never know.  He sounded like a sho nuff soul man from way back in the chicken shack, cut from the same cloth as Elvis who was a huge fan of black music.

There were hearty smiles all around and a whole heap of back slapping. It was a portrait of good will as both sides congratulated each other for making the event happen. It was a portrait of a deal well done, because the essence of a successful deal is that both sides get what they want. For the Mayor and the promoter there was far more at stake than a single concert.

After explaining the complicated arrangement with the state that brought River Front Park into being, Mayor Strange pointed out that he had not found a way to make it pay.  Hence he was all ears for whatever the promoters had to say.  The promoter was seeking to promote a series of events this beautiful venue not just hit it and quit it…and this was seductive music to the Mayors ears  It sounded like a match made in Nirvanah, a splendid example of the art of deal making.

Although there are standard steps in successfully promoting a concert, securing the act and the venue being basic to the project, actually producing a successful public event that makes, rather than loses money, is far more art than science.  It involves being able to think on ones feet and sell the dream of a glorious evening when all will participate in a joyous occasion to various people who are vital to your success. In this instance it was a performance by the legendary song and dance man Charlie Wilson, with the lady killer crooner El Debarge as the opening act.

A few years ago promoting  concert featuring these two stellar performers would have been a piece of cake.  Although they are performing at a high level and some music critics, commentators and fellow musicians feel that the are better than ever, they appeal to an old school crowd that require more effort toget out than the youth market.  However among young musical performers its a different story; they know these artists because they were influenced by their work.    In fact, the nick name “Uncle Charlie” was bestowed on Wilson by Rappers who got their grove on listening to Charlie when he was the leader of the ultra-funky Gap Band.

Kwaku’s task was to sell this concert to the right demographic and see to it that everything is in order to deliver a great show, while satisfying the myriad demands of the artists contained in “riders” i.e. special clauses in their contracts. It was fascinating watching Kwaku as he artfully put all the pieces of this complex puzzle together so that things will move with the precision of clockworks.

Nobody does it better, as his splendid track record as an events producer will testify.  Kwaku has worked in every phase of the business first as an agent with Norby Walters – who taught him the tricks of the trade – then on to the Super agency William Morris.  From there he went into artist management – Mint Condition, The Sounds of Blackness, etc – and finally events production, where he produced Jazz in the Gardens for the city of Miami Gardens, taking it from a non-entity to the largest music festival in the South, attracting as many as 50,000 paying customers a night over several days.  He is one of the best in the business of putting performing artists on stage.

From the press conference with the Mayor we went straight away to a meeting of the Special Events office for the City of Montgomery.  Although the coming event and the promise of future events had a built in appeal, Kwaku still had to convince them to get on board for some complicated and potentially costly tasks.  Although he is a big guy, his luminous smile, soft spoken demeanor and abundant charm cast him as a jovial giant.  It is a winning combination; plus he can “talk a gopher outta his hole” as folks used to say when describing smooth talkers back in the day when I was growing up in Florida.

Kwaku got everything he wanted from them and we proceeded to the best hotel in town, where he also got the deal he wanted.  Then he worked out a peachy arrangement with the local Coca Cola distributor to supply soft drinks.  And it was on to meetings with a local promoter who was engaged for his expertise with the Montgomery market, then he worked out a deal with the local radio station.  It was like watching a great performing artist at work; a thing of beauty if you are into business deals.

By the time we headed back to Atlanta all the pieces of the puzzle were in place, and those who attend this concert are in for the time of their lives.  All that Uncle charlie and El Debarge will have to do come show time is walk out on stage and “break a leg” as they say in show business.  The front men will have done everything else – lights, sound, seating, food and drink concessions, security, seating, etc right down to supplying the guitar stands.  Now let the show begin on November 7th!


What a Place for a Show!


A Riverfront setting that combines modern design…….
….with ancient Greco-Roman inspired architecture


Combining the Classic with the quintessentially American
The Promenade is Stunning!


A great place for a stroll and drinks before curtain call….
……Or Recline on the Veranda of the Sand bar


Imbibing fine Spirits…..
Maybe even take a Steamboat Ride
Before the Show begins
The Choices are Endless


Take Your Choice
And then there’s Charlie!

CINCINNATI, OH - JULY 26: Charlie Wilson performs during the 2013 Macy's Music Festival at Paul Brown Stadium on July 26, 2013 in Cincinnati, Ohio. (Photo by Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images)

Large and in Charge

And El Debarge


Driving the Ladies Crazy with his Soulful Tenor Voice
Kwaku Lays out the Master Plan
Guiding them through Step by Step 
Its no Wonder the Mighty Three are Laughing
They know they bout to rock da park with a hellified show!
The Promoter expresses gratitude to the Mayor and Montgomery’s Fans
DSCN8236 And promises many more to follow


This is a multi-media Presentation, click on links below to see Artist
Charlie Wilson Live in Europe
 El DeBarge Live:  “All This Love
Text and photos by: Playthell Benjamin
*** Except for Photos of Charlie Wilson and El Debarge
  • Charlie Wilson’s photo was shot by Steven Cohen
** El Debarge Photo was supplied by his management.

A Living Legend!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Logan Westbrooks: Living Legend, Music Reviews, Photo-Essays with tags , on October 25, 2015 by playthell

llf awards logan brenda (1)

Dr. Logan Westbrooks  recieves Vanguard Award from Brenda A. King

Living Legend foundation honors Logan Westbrooks

From the moment I heard that Logan Westbrooks had been chosen for the Vanguard Award by the Living Legends Foundation I decided to attend the ceremony.  Given the pioneering role he had played in advancing the position of black professionals at major companies by virtue of his success, I felt such recognition from his peers was long overdue.  Logan and I have been buddies for forty years and during that time I have witnessed his remarkable career from a front row seat.  It is a rare opportunity to watch somebody accomplish something that hasn’t been done before; to set out on a journey filled with obstacles without a map or compass yet successfully navigate their way.  When I first met Logan he was already at the top of his game as the Director of Special Markets for CBS Records, which, at the time, was the most iconic entertainment company in the business.

I remember that his office had a carnival like atmosphere with colorful streamers hanging from the ceiling and people running to and fro grooving to The Sound of Philadelphia; it seemed that everybody was having fun while they took care of business.  Logan had an open door policy where one could pretty much walk in and ask to speak with him.  And if they sounded like they had a good idea they could get an audience.  That’s how the Senegalese promoter Johnny Sekka convinced him to come to Senegal to attend a music festival featuring the Jacksons.  It was a marvelous model for conducting business and the proof of Logan’s methods was the steady string of hits that issued from his department that generated millions of dollars.

Among the acts that fell under the purview of Logan’s department were Earth, Wind and Fire, Sly Stone and especially the acts on the Philadelphia International label whose records were written and produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and their gifted associates like Tommy Bell and Linda Creed.  Clive Davis, the Harvard trained music loving lawyer who headed the CBS Records Group, tells us in his book that Gamble and Huff started turning out hit records before the ink was dry on their contract with CBS.  The acts in Logan’s department would dominate the charts during the 1970’s; Gamble and Huff went on to induction into the Rock & Roll Songwriters Hall of Fame. 

Logan’s performance at CBS exceeded all expectations and set a benchmark that opened the corporate doors for all who followed. Although we don’t hear it much nowadays, when we were coming up it was conventional wisdom that if you were the “first” black person to walk through the doors of opportunity you should try and be “twice as good” as your white counterparts in order to make it easier for other Afro-Americans to enter.

Although this may sound like he was walking into a pressure cooker Logan didn’t experience it that way.  By the time he arrived at CBS Logan had learned the business of marketing music from the ground up, and knew exactly what he wanted to do.  Although it has become conventional wisdom that the now famous Harvard Business School Case Study supplied him with the blueprint for success, Logan told me that it only confirmed what he had already learned from working the field for years with several companies.

What he did learn from the study had more to do with organizational structure and management than the marketing of black music, which is what he was tasked with by CBS, after Clive accidentally discovered how much money was in it.    Once they decided to get in the Black Music business CBS conducted a nationwide search; big multi-national corporations do not select people for top executive positions and put them in charge of million dollar budgets with final decisions on how it is spent without thoroughly checking them out – which was especially true for their first black executive!  So obviously Logan was a star in the records business before he went to CBS; they just gave him the resources to shine brighter.  And he became a Supernova!

When we used to hang out back in the seventies the record business was in a golden age that’s gone with the wind and will never return. This was a time when record companies made stars of anonymous performers…sometimes overnight sensations.  Thus top executives had virtually unlimited expense accounts so long as they were doing company business.  But in the business of music the difference between work and play is sometimes hard for the untutored eye to distinguish. I got my first taste of that opulent lifestyle when a CBS act was performing in Atlantic City and Logan asked me if I wanted to join him in a trip down to the Shore from Manhattan to see the show.

He and I were living in the same building at the time , One Sherman Square at 70th and Broadway; which was about twenty blocks from the “Black Rock,” a sobriquet for the CBS headquarters building at 50th Street and Avenue of the Americas.  Logan ordered a limo and we were chauffeured down to Atlantic City, sipping Champaign and imbibing exotic spices of life along the way.  During the show we dined on splendid gourmet fare fit for kings.  When I marveled at the plushness of it all Logan just smiled and said “this is how the game is played in the major Leagues.”

But he didn’t start in the big leagues and had done his time in the minors, learning the tricks of his trade down on the ground where the action is.  By the time he was recruited by CBS Logan says “I knew everything there was to know about marketing records because I had done it.”  In fact, when Logan went to CBS to market Black Music he was always the most knowledgeable exec in the room; CBS had the wherewithal but Logan had the know how.

It proved to be a perfect marriage and produced millions in revenue.  Logan was innovative in his approach to building his promotion team and this accounted for much of his success.  He understood that the key to the success of an act was good record production, air play and publicity.

In Gamble & Huff, Sly Stone and Earth, wind and Fire he was provided excellent products; his job was to sell them, which nobody at CBS had any idea how to do.  The first thing that Logan did was to assemble a crack promotion team.  Unlike most people, who would have hired people they like, Logan polled the Jocks that made decisions about which records got on the air in major markets and asked them to recommend promotion men.

He figured if the Jocks picked the promotion men they would have the best chance of getting his records played: it proved a stroke of genius!   He also demonstrated great insight and vision by insisting that his promotion men attend important events in the markets they worked in, thereby becoming a part of the life of the the community.  All of these practices were innovations introduced by logan to the business of marketing music.

His next step was to hire Afro-American publicists for the first time ever at CBS and he bought large ads in black publications which was also a first.  He hired Howard Bingham, Muhammad Ali’s personal photographer, to shoot album covers – another first at CBS.   And when his good friend, the Chi-Town jock Don Cornelius, launched his television dance show, “Soul Train,” Logan got Gamble & Huff to write the theme song.  Once the show was established Logan used it as a major venue for the promotion of his acts.

The Hit Maker!

Logan Westbrooks, hit maker

Back in the Day: Logan displaying some of his many hit records

Logan’s entire approach to the marketing of black music was a marvelous combination of art and science. And when he left CBS and started his own label, Source Records, in LA, his first release, “Bustin Loose,” by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, went to # 1 on the Billboard R&B charts. With the great success of this record Logan took a local Washington DC sound, Go Go music, and made it world famous The rhythm track was later sampled by the rapper “Nellie” for his Grammy winning mega hit “It’s Getting Hot in Here,” which continues to pay handsome publishing royalties. 

After experiencing great success as the founder and Director of the Special Markets Division, Logan transferred to the International Division.  When he was selected to head a joint venture with African businessmen to produce and market African music from a base in Nigeria, he again set a precedent by engaging this writer as a consultant.  At the time I was still a Professor in the University of Massachusetts, at Amherst where I taught a course on African history and politics.   Logan assembled a group of executives from CBS international and I conducted a seminar on the history, economy, culture, ethnic divisions and politics of Nigeria.  I also recommended a select bibliography for further study.  At the top of this list were the novels of Chinua Achebe, especially “Things Fall Apart” and No Longer at Ease.”

I chose Achebe because his novels present the reader who is untutored in African affairs with a comprehensive and penetrating view into the realities of African life and cultural values, and like all great novelists Achebe allows the reader to enter that world and see events through African eyes.  Logan would later tell me after his Nigerian sojourn – which he abruptly terminated after witnessing the 1976 assassination of General Murtala Muhammad, the military ruler of the country, while riding in a motorcade with him! – that he understood everything which was going on around him after reading Achebe.

Logan left the country as soon as possible because many Nigerians suspected CIA involvement in the Assassination;which made all Americans in the country suspect, and therefore in danger.  He had remained calm throughout this incident because although he has a humble demeanor, Logan is in fact a former US Army paratrooper who had completed officer training….hence he was trained for trouble!

Logan is the ideal student that every professor wishes for…a student who loves to read and is anxious to learn something new.  After I conducted the seminar at CBS headquarters and left them speechless, Logan would later laugh cynically and observe with a sense of pride: “These white folks up in here never think that we might know anybody black that can teach them something about the world…”

Logan has left an indelible mark on this business of music; hence I can think of no one more deserving of the Vanguard Award than Logan Westbrooks.  Since this essay is a multi-media presentation the reader can learn more of the details of Logan’s career by simply clicking on the link from the University of Indiana Archives – where all of his records from his years in business are housed and catalogued by Dr. Portia Maultsby – located at the bottom of this text.

A Note on Logan’s Life After the Record Business

Although it is not as well-known Logan’s life after he left the record business is just as fascinating and in some respects even more important.  While there is a plethora of examples I could cite, one in particular stands above all the others: his work with young black boys who had run afoul of the law i.e. having committed serious crimes that led to incarceration.  I think his work in this regard is especially important to mention here because endangered black boys was a persistent theme in the Living Legends event under discussion, but more importantly because of what it reveals about the relationship between Logan and his beloved wife Gerry.

Having witnessed their relationship from a pretty good vantage point over four decades, the first thing that comes to mind in any attempt to characterize it is to say that it is a great love story…the kind of love story that is extraordinary even by the exaggerated standards of a romance novel.   As evidence for my claim it is quite enough to note that they have been married for 50 years!

Alas, anyone who is vaguely familiar with the many temptations and pit falls a life in show business presents will recognize this as something of a miracle.  Yet they appear to still be really in love; as is evidenced by Logan ending his speech at the Awards ceremony with a love poem to his wife. It was so moving that the next inductee openly acknowledged that he had learned from Logan’s example and would incorporate his style in order to improve his own game on the home front!

However I discovered the true depth of their relationship and what a magnificent team they are working together – and since Logan was just starting out in life and was like a snake without a pit to hiss in when they hooked up, everything that he has accomplished Gerry was right by his side….not behind him – around the issue of these dangerous juvenile delinquents that virtually everybody else had written off as dead end thugs destined to go nowhere in life.

At first that’s how Logan saw them too, and so did I when I heard that Gerri was teaching a group of young LA gang bangers, all of whom had committed serious felonies – more often than not involving violent assault.   However in 1981 Sidney Miller, the publisher of Black Radio Exclusive – an important trade journal in the industry at the time -engaged Logan to produce his annual convention and he selected Rev. Jesse Jackson and myself as keynote speakers.

When I came to LA I had conceived of my task as composing a speech for rich black people in a period of Republican resurgence; which was difficult enough, given the notorious lack of political consciousness among the well-to-do.   So I composed a speech titled “On the Role of the Black Elite in the Age of Reagan, and proceeded to the conference certain that I had the situation in hand.  The speech was published in the next issue of Black Radio Exclusive and can be read there.

But not long after I got in town I was confronted by Gerry, who told me in no uncertain terms that her boys needed to hear some inspiring words from me far more than some rich fat cats at the Hyatt House in downtown LA.   And it was abundantly clear she was not taking no for an answer; Logan warned me “Gerry is a Tushie from way back,” which is an old southern way of describing a woman with an iron will that is determined to have her way once she sets her mind on something.   Unable to envision an honorable way out, I set my mind to composing a speech suitable for a group of Bloods and Crips who posed such a menace to society that they were locked up in a real prison – the fact that it was designed for youths made it no less a prison.

I decided that my first, and most important, task was to construct a speech that would “keep hope alive,” as the Righteous Reverend Jessie L. Jackson preached.  Alas, this was no easy task.  Yet I was inspired to press on by the admonition from our enduring Poet Laurate Langston Hughes “Hold fast to dreams /for if dreams die / life becomes like a bird with broken wings / and cannot fly.”

Once having defined my purpose and theme, I began to contemplate the content of my speech with the objective of selecting examples that could help me achieve my goal of giving these incarcerated youths a reason to hope for a better future.  I decided that the most powerful presentation I could offer would be to introduce them to a number of men who had served time in prison yet went on to accomplish great things later in life.

I chose two playwrights – the Frenchman Jean Genet and the New York Puerto Rican writer Miguel Pinero, a bad boy from the hood whose prison play “Short Eyes” had recently won the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle prize for Best Play.  I included the great Jazz saxophonists Jimmy Heath, Businessman/boxing promoter Don King, World Heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and California writer/ activist Eldridge Cleaver, whose book of essays “Soul on Ice” was largely written while he was incarcerated in the California prison system and had captured readers world-wide.  And I concluded with a discussion of Malcolm X, who went to prison a dope dealing thug but emerged one of the greatest spokesmen for the oppressed in the 20th century!

I was satisfied that I would touch their souls with this speech…unless they had deep holes in their souls that could not be repaired, in which case my words would just seep through as if in a sifter.   However from the moment that Gerry began to address the class in this grim heartbreaking place – the misery of which was amplified by the fact that it was situated amidst the vulgar opulence of Malibu Beach – I began to see them in a wholly different light.

This is because, as she would later explain to me: “I never saw them as dangerous thugs; I saw them as lost little boys in need of love and guidance.”  She spoke to them the way a kind and wise parent would speak to their children.  Her love and concern for them was palpable, and they responded to her in kind.

It was a transcendent moment the likes of which I have never witnessed in a classroom before or since….and I come from four generations of teachers, have lectured to many diverse audiences of students and remain something of a compulsive pedagogue even now.  After a generous introduction from Gerry, I instantly gained their attention and trust.

It was easy work from that point on and my speech went very well.  Yet if they gained inspiration from my talk, I was also inspired by their response into believing that many of them could be salvaged, and I could see that their chances of salvation were immeasurably increased by having Gerry Westbrooks in their lives.  For she was much more than a teacher: she was a savior.

I had often wondered why she took on the job of teaching those whom the rest of society had condemmend as the worst kids in America – especially when she didn’t need to work at all for financial reasons. When I asked her one day if she was so dedicated to teaching why she didn’t choose to teach in better schools; she said simply: “Those kids don’t need me, they already have everything.  These kids need me.”

It is impossible to understand this kind of commitment unless you understand the commandment of Jesus Christ to serve “the least among us.”  Gerry is a real Christian that practices what she preaches.  It is the kind of rare and amazing grace that can move the heart of even an unchurched wretch like me.  I felt honored to have participated in her program; it was the kind of experience that even the memory can make your spirit dance.

Through Gerry’s prodding Logan would also have a change of heart and great things happened as a result.  From her close work with these troubled young men Gerry came to the conclusion that they needed different kinds of male role models; so she convinced Logan to polish up his Rolls Royce, dress to the nines, cock his hat duece tray  and come out to visit the boys so that they could see a hip black man who had acquired those material things without being a gangster, athlete, or entertainer.

Once Logan met her boys he fell in love with them too.  And working together they made a great difference in the lives of many of them.  By the time I went out to speak with them Logan was firmly in their corner and to witness the way these young gang bangers related to them as parental figures was a marvel to behold!

As a result of their work with these troubled young men the Westbrooks bought the fabulous mansion built by Lucy Hauerwass – the wife of the widow of the wealthy German immigrant businessman John A. Hauerwass – in 1914. They converted this house into the Helping Hands Home for Boys in the early 1980’s and maintained it for a decade before selling it to Boys town in 1998.

Gerri Westbrooks was honored by the City of Los Angeles for her devoted work on behalf of at risk boys, which she carried out with Logan’s support.  Hence while all of the eleven honores who received a Living Legend’s Award have made outstanding contributions, none was more deserving than Logan Westbrooks.

The Awards celebrations were outstanding by any measure.  Covering several days, the formal ceremonies began with a tribute from the Los Angeles City Council, and reached its apex with the evening banquet; then everybody had a ball at the Sunday Picnic.  My photographic impressions of each phase of the ceremonies are exhibited below.  This is a multi-media presentation;  with text, photos and videos.

The subject matter in the video clips are clearly labeled and the reader can view them by double clicking on the links at the bottom of this page.  All of the details on the honorees and the foundations work can be found on the first video clip titled “On the Living Legend Foundation Awards.” For maximum viewing of the photos, expand your screen to 150%.

The Helping Hand Home for Boys
Logan Westbrooks - Home for Boys II
Logan and Gerry Westbrooks Refuge for Boys at Risk
Gerri Westbrooks Honored by City of Los Angeles

Gerri Westbrooks Honored by city


Visual vingettes from the Celebration

At the City Council

Logan and Councilman

Logan Westbrooks with City Councilman


Dr. Westbrooks with Conference organizer

Logan and Organizer

Sunshine smiles beamed all around


Record Industry Icons Rap


About the golden days of the Music Business


Which they remember as a whole lotta fun 


Turning out the hits that brought Joy to Millions


Representatives of the Living Legends Foundation


Kept a Watchful Eye over the Proceedings


Councilman addressing the Honorees before entering the Chamber


He spoke knowledgebly about the recording Industry


Living Legends display their Citations
 Recognition for their role in bringing us good music


It was a Marvelous Moment
Radiant Smiles told the Story


Logan and Wife Gerry Leaving the Council Chamber
 Logan was deeply moved by the ceremony

 At the Banquet

 Edited VersionA A Motown Legend


It Was Star Time
 Edited II
As Logan and his elegant wife Gerry arrive in their Bentley


It was all the way Live!

Edit III

Classic Hollywood Glamor


There was even a Red Carpet!

Edit IV

Where the entrance of the Stars was filmed


Lights, Camera, Action!

Edit V

It was Strictly Hollywood……


Noted Movie Critic Gil Robertson was there…..

Edit VI

Checking things out with a critical eye


And so many Stars!


Ruben Rodriguez and his lovely Lady


Elegant Eye Candy was on Prominent display


Like this chocolate Delight!


Or this Butterscotch Beauty Colleen Wilson

Edit IX

Elegance and Class…Fine as Vintage Wine


Powerful full Figured Foxes


A Living Legend and her Tribune


The Full range of Black Beauty was on Display

Edit X

Dark and Lovely like the Night


They were Masters not slaves to fashion… 

Edit XI

High Style and Great Taste were Common Fare


Clean as a Mississippi Sissiy on Easter Sunday!

Edit XII

He looks like he stepped off the cover of GQ


It was a Bootylicious Affair!


J-L0 ain’t got Nothin on Her!


The Outside Gardens were Lush


In an LA sort of Way


And Inside Everything was Plush

Edit XVI

Todd Kalman: Vice-President at Marketron


The Awards Ceremony

Honoring Living Legends
The Main Ballroom was da bomb!


Nothing was spared on the Grandeur of the Fete


Pater-Familias of All Black Record Executives in the Fortune 500 


Logan Westbrooks Recipient of the Vanguard Award
Reed Shannon, Star of the Musical “Motown,”   sang our National Anthem
 The depth of emotion of his performance was astonishing from one so young


 The Audience Rose to its Feet….

Edit XIX

Lifted Every Voice and Sang!


As the Living Legends were introduced by their Presenters


The Vanguard Award winner dropped some science his many progeny


Logan Graciously Shared treasured Memories of a Life Well Lived
Logan Westbrooks II
And implored the audience: “We must tell our own stories


The Living Legends that followed


Gave Shout Outs to Dr. Westbrooks


This Young Lady


Accepted the Award for her Parents


Cee Cee was presented an award for her work with the Foundation


It really caught her by surprise


Big John was in tha House!


The New CEO: Warner/Chappell Worldwide Operations


But he had come to sing the praises of a Legendary Young Entrepreneur
And was just one of tha Boyz


It was the kind of fabulous affair where people came to see…..


…….and be seen


But mostly it was an occasion for old friends……


…… get together and reminisce about good times past

Honorees and Foundation Board Members

Logan Westbrooks in group Photo - honorees and Foundation board

Los Angeles October 2015

At the Picnic!


Ain’t Nothin but a Partay!


She’s Down wit it…….


………and can’t quit it!


Big Party over here!
P Funk in da Hooouse!


Rico Suave was Layin Down da Beats!
And Pumpin uo da Funk! 


Some folks just sat around looking outrageously fine….


……..Like Jackie Rinehardt!


And it was all about the Record Business


The Real Deal!


Double click on links below to view videos. 
On the Living Legends Awarda
Videos on the Career of Logan Westbrooks
Double click on links below to view
A Short documentary on Logan from the University of Indiana  Archives
To View Logan’s Comments on Chuck Brown’s #1 hit record
To hear reording of “Bustin Loose
On the Assassination of General Muhammad
Text and Photos by: Playthell G. Benjamin
*****Except for the following Photos.
*The Cover and the group ph0to of the Honorees
*The Mansion
*Gerri Westbrooks receiving Award from City
October 25th, 2015

Fallen Angel: Self-Destructing before the World  

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism, Movie Reviews, Music Reviews with tags , on July 7, 2015 by playthell


Amy during better days
 The Short and Tragic Life of Amy Winehouse

The new documentary film on the British singer Amy Winehouse now playing at the Sunset Theater in the East Village is beautifully produced and directed by Asif Kapadia. Over the course of two hours and eight minutes we are provided a remarkable look into the life of this six time Grammy winner who rose up from the London working class and captured a world-wide audience writing and singing songs based on the vicissitudes of the high times and bizarre episodes that mark the rise and fall of her short but remarkable life.  Watching the movie I got the impression that we were witnessing the human equivalent of a shooting star that blazes across the night skies in a bright flash of light and then flames out before our eyes.

The film is thoughtfully constructed from video clips of her life; some of it is finely produced footage from her live performances in the UK and the USA, but most of the footage comes from family and friends.  Thus we see her in a wide variety of settings.  Some of the film has sound, and thus we can observe her speaking, but other footage is accompanied by voice overs of Amy speaking.  Hence we hear a lot of her story in her own words. And what we see is a young person of considerable creative talent who appears to understand little in life except making music, and cannot overcome the deep seated emotional problems caused by the lasting trauma of her father abandoning her and her mother at an early age.

This leaves her with a deep need to be loved by men, or at least win their approval, and her emotional neediness drives her into a destructive relationship with a guy who is also emotionally damaged because of a screwed up relationship with his parents.    He promises to be her rock and help Amy cope and instead he introduces her to crack cocaine and heroin.  Abuse of these drugs along with excessive alcohol consumption final did her in at the tender age of 27.  However in the meantime she managed to become an international superstar who could have become fabulously rich if she had been able to stay sober.

Although Amy’s particular experience is unique, the basic narrative is an old story: old wine in a new bottle.  In many ways her saga is so familiar she comes across at times as a cliché, depending upon who is watching it.  For those who know something of music business history and inside lore it is easy to place Amy’s self-destructiveness within a tradition of music history in the 20th century. Creative geniuses like Charlie Parker and Jimmy Hendrix self-destructed on drugs, and there is a long line of singers whose fame and fortune couldn’t rescue them from self-destruction: Billy Holiday, Judy Garland, Elvis Pressley, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, Phyllis Hyman, Whitney Houston, et al.  However none of them acted their destruction on stages with a million people watching.

Under Asif Karpadia’s direction we are provided glimpses of Amy’s life before she became a star, when she was a passably pretty girl who was more sensuous that beautiful; her best feature being full pouty lips –DSL’s that forced one’s mind into the gutter –and her long black hair, which she often wore in “big hair” styles resembling the popular “beehive” styles of the 1960’s.  She reminded me of one of those smart mouth delinquent working class English girls in the British movie “To Sir with Love,” starring an unusually stiff and priggish Sidney Portier.

But after all is said and done the raison d’etre for this documentary film is Amy Winehouse’s talent and importance as a musical artist.  On this issue the movie becomes an extended panegyric that degenerates into special pleading.   While there is no doubt that Ms. Winehouse had talent, it is a gross exaggeration to call her “The Queen of Soul,” while the real queen, Ms. Aretha Franklin, was alive and well – not to mention her numerous Afro-American progeny such as Whitney Houston, Alicia Keyes, Beyoncé et al who are singing their asses off in the tradition.  And Tony Bennet’s claim that she was “one of the purest jazz singer I ever heard….if she had lived she would have been on the same level with Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday,” is shameless hyperbole.

Perhaps Tony Bennet’s assessment of Ms. Winehouse’s talent was influenced by the fact that she constantly cites him as her artistic “hero,” along with Sarah Vaugh, Billy Holliday, Thelonious Monk, and other Afro-American Jazz greats.  Testimony from black American artists in the film like the drummer/leader of “Da Roots,” an innovative hip hop band from Philly, revealed that she was a serious student of the Jazz tradition that was constantly recommending records for him to study.

However most of the music selected for the film – which one presumes was a representative sample of her work – was Rhythm & Blues and her band was rocking!  There were excerpts from some of her Jazz performances, the most extensive being a recording date she did with Tony Bennett, where she was scared to death and nearly walked out of the studio when she kept screwing up on take after take.  It was clear that Amy and Tony have a mutual admiration thing going; that accounts for the dreamy things they say about each other.  But reality is not so easy to conceal.

Amy Winehouse was just the latest white singer to study the black vocal style and brazenly imitate her idols.  Here too her story is an oft told tale.  It was true of Elvis Pressley, Mick Jagger, Joe cocker, Billy Joel. Janet Joplin, et al.  It was also true of white instrumentalists too.  And in each of these cases once the white performer became competent in the genre they were crowned “The King of Jazz” aka Paul Whiteman; the “king of Swing” aka Benny Goodman; the “King of Rock and Roll” aka Elvis Pressley; the “King of Hip Hop” aka M&M; the “Queen of Rap” aka Iggy Azalia.

According to this film Amy Winehouse was both “The Queen of Soul” and was on the way to rivaling the great Ella Fitzgerald and the incomparable Billy Holliday as a Jazz singer.  Yet each of these art forms are Afro-American inventions, and only black artists and audiences can decide who is boss because they set the standards of excellence.  The resulting product has captured the imagination and created devotees among musicians all over the world…since the turn of the twentieth century Afro-American musicians have been the most infventive and imitated artists on earth. It is obvious that white folks need to chill, get over themselves.

Aside for these gross exaggerations regarding the magnitude of Ms. Winehouse’ talent; this is a pretty good flick about a very troubled performer who literally decomposes before our eyes.  We watch her go from a healthy, perky, quite attractive girl, to a bulimic sack of bones who seem to be knocking on death’s door – one foot in the coffin and the other on a banana peel.

Lost in Space?
High off everything ….but life

Yet nobody cold reason with her; not her closet girlfriends who had been at her side since childhood, nor the Afro-American rapper/actor  Mos Def, who she evidently admired and pops up throughout the movie at various stages of her career like Banquo’s ghost, warning Amy to turn away from her self-destructive path. Finally, on a hot July day in 2011, she finally killed herself; the autopsy said she died of “alcohol poisoning.”

In the end the filmmaker managed to produce a poignant portrait of a self-destructive artist who turned her pain into song poetry and allowed the world to witness her self-immolation even as she tried to hide out in plain sight.


Double Click on links to see Amy Perform

Live in London 2007

Amy’s last tragic Concert


Aretha Franklin

Whitney Houston

Fanfares for a Culture Hero!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on June 14, 2015 by playthell

Select Senator Pic

Senator Bill Perkins, Rome Neal and Producer Woody King
 An Evening of Banana Puddin, Panegyrics and Jazz

It was yet another wonderful evening of performing art at the Nuyorican Theater. But on this occasion it was the indefatigable impresario Rome Neal that was the raison d’etre for the festivities, as the performers turned out to honor a man that has done so much to advance their careers by providing a space and opportunity to perform in New York City.   For the performing artists the Big Apple is a Darwinian milieu, red of tooth and claw, where only the strong and persistent even if talented and gifted will survive. Rome Neal personifies that intrepid spirit.

With little more than spit, grit and mother wit Rome has not only made a place for himself as an actor and director in the theater, but has become an important independent producer of Jazz performances.  In his role as Jazz impresario he has presented such unique shows as “Women in Jazz” and “LGBT Jazz Greats,” in which he has introduced these Jazz musicians to a wider audience than they might otherwise have had an opportunity to play for.

His “Banana Puddin” Jazz concerts have featured a wide variety of musicians such as “A Night of Legends Featuring Barry Harris, Randy Weston and  Danny Mixon.”  His “Young and the Jazzy” series has also uncovered obscure gems whose prodigious talents might have gone unrecognized.  Rome’s “Japanese Jazz Connections” concerts showcased many of the outstanding Japanese Jazz musicians who migrate to New York in search of the source of their art the way Muslims go to Mecca.  He is continuing the tradition begun by Dr. Billy Taylor, the late great Jazz pianist/composer/bandleader .

From his base at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Lower East Side, Rome has produced both innovative theater and cutting edge Jazz performances.  As the Director of Theater in this landmark East Village cultural emporium Rome has produced the plays of Laurence Holder – the Dean of playwrights that mine the treasure trove of Afro-American history and employ its riches as the basis for their dramas – and has single handedly kept the dramatic voice of the great Oakland California based novelist/dramatist/poet/essayist Ishmael Reed alive in New York.

An iconoclastic satirists who wields his pen like the sword of an avenging angel, Reed – whom English Professor and insightful critic Leslie Fiedler has called “a highbrow Ironist” and The Nation has declared the most important American satirist since Mark Twain –  has been practically banished by a Euro-American cultural establishment that ought to be celebrating him for enriching American literature and thought.  Rome has come repeatedly to Reed’s rescue by producing his plays in New York; if this were the sum total of his activities as a cultural impresario it would be a worthy legacy.  But he has done so much more, especially in the realm of music.

The liveliest and most spiritually moving of the arts, it is not unusual for people working in other art forms to become mesmerized by the power of music and wish to become involved with this intoxicating medium of expression, but few have managed to make this transition on the level of Neal….Ishmael Reed’s conquest of the piano being the exception that proves the rule.  Reed has become so proficient a pianist that Rome produced a concert featuring the great writer as a pianist.

Rome’s metamorphosis from actor/director to singer and Jazz impresario seems to really take off with his riveting performance of Thelonious Monk, in an insightful one man play written by Lawrence Holder. (See, Monk: the Play on this blog)   Rome’s performance as the enigmatic Jazz piano virtuoso Thelonious Monk is a marvel to behold, a tour de force.  Like all great acting performances we witness Rome morph into his character until we are unable to separate the actor from his role and we forget that he is acting. Which, after all, is the essence of the thespian’s art.

Rome Neal in his signature role
Rome Neal, actor performs in his award winning play "Monk"

Rome Neal, actor performs in his award winning play “Monk”

 A remarkable transformation

Witnessing Rome’s actions since he began playing Monk it sometimes appears that he too could not distinguish the difference between himself and the role.  For instance he began taking music lessons with the great Jazz pianist Barry Harris at the Jazz Cultural Center, a unique learning and performance venue in Tribeca where apprentice where tutored by master musicians in a collegial environment, and he learned to sing.  I confess that I was skeptical of Rome’s new venture, having grown up surrounded by great singers – my next door neighbor Blanch Hammond won a national talent competition singing an extremely difficult passage from Wagner – and had once served as bandleader for Jean Carn, one of the outstanding singers of the twentieth century, I have exacting standards for singers.

Hence I thought Rome’s chances of succeeding at becoming a singer were less than a snowball’s chances in a steel furnace.  Furthermore I did not hestitate to make my feelings known in unambiguous language; willing to risk brusisng his feelings in order to rescue my friend from embarking on a fool’s errand. I was vocal  critic. But he proved me wrong when he played the lead part in Laurence Holder’s play about a Jazz singer: “The Crooner.”

Despite the fact that he would probably not been cast in this role if he were not the producer/director of the play, Rome held his own in the production.  Again I was a first hand witness to his incredible tenacity and his willingness to risk failure in order to realize his artistic aims.  Many of the people who turned out to celebrate Rome’s 12th year as producer of the Banana Pudding Jazz Series at the Nuyorican have benefited by his tireless efforts in behalf of Jazz artists and thespians; efforts fueled by a heroic optimism that come what may great art will find a way.

It was a grand celebration, an outpouring of love and appreciation as one artist after another took the stage and offered musical libations to a respected elder of their community.  Most of the performers were instrumentalists because Jazz is a complex instrumental music that prizes virtuosity and spontaneus innovation, but the singers chimed in too and had their say.  It was an evening of cookers, straight ahead swing, Duke and Dizzy’s thing. They swung so hard the hoofers got up and got down; tapping out complicated rhythms of the sort that inspired the best drummers in the Jazz tradition until tap went the way of the dinosaurs – crushed by changing public taste and the imperatives of the marketplace.

Rome’s love of Jazz is extraordinary…one gets the impression that exposure to it enriches his life in a special way that few can share or even understand. However Rome also deeply believes that exposure to Jazz music can enrich the life of anyone; I believe it is what inspires his efforts as a Jazz impresario.  The extent of this belief was dramatically revealed during his recuperation from a bad fall off a ladder while working on a set at the Nuyorican.  When he began his rehabilitation from the serious injuries resulting from the fall at Governeur Health clinic, the therapist asked him what kind of music he liked; as music is increasingly recognized by medical practitioners for having therapeutic powers.

Rome told the physical therapist, a young white woman, that he loved Thelonious Monk. Although she had never heard of him, through the magic of the internet she found Monk’s music and put it on.   As they began the workout Rome started to tell her Monk’s story and she was amazed at his knowledge of this obscure musician whose existence she had never heard of a few moments ago.

When she asked him how he knew so much about Monk, Rome told her that he had played Monk in an award winning one man play.  Then he began to recite poignant passages from Holder’s play.  And when Round bout Midnight came on – a canonical composition in Jazz – Rome sang the lyrics to her.  He watched a change come over her as the soulful blues and abstract truth of Monk’s musical revelations began to mess with her mind….at the end of the session she left wanting to hear more of Monk’s music.

From his description of the experience, I was reminded of some lines from “The Ballad of Thelonious Monk,” written by Jimmy Rowles, made famous by Carmen McCrea, but most convinvingly recorded by a male country and western singer – my favorite version: “I used to think cowboy music/ was the only thing there was….and then I heard Thelonious Monk.”  The song goes on to explain the marvelous effect monks music had on his life, explaining that his horse wouldn’t go to sleep unless he played “Ruby My Dear.”

The word got around the hospital that they had a great actor and Jazz impresario as a patient.  Before he was done Rome produced a special women’s jazz concert and dedicated it to his female doctor and therapist.  They attended as honored guest and it was a great moment for them.  He later produced a Jazz concert for his team of orthopedic surgeons and they all came out.  Many were introduced to the art of jazzing for the first time, and they have come back for more. This, in essence, is Rome at his best.  He is ever the Jazz Impresario.

One of the grandest moments in an evening of magic moments was when Harlem state Senator Bill Perkins presented a Proclamation from the New York Senate commending Rome for his contribution to the arts, an honor he exuberantly shared with his grandchildren, Delano and Jolie.  Perkins had made the arduous journey from the Capitol, which is upstate in Albany, after the morning session in the Senate in order to make the tribute and present the Proclamation in person.  Rome, in turn, surprised Senator Perkins with a Shekere Award; which he bestows on outstanding lovers and supporters of the arts.  It was an enchanted evening….one befitting a devoted Eulyptian and fearless cultural warrior.  

Senator Perkins reading the Prolamation
As grandaughter boldly looks to the heavens
Rome with Senator Bill Perkins
 Presenting the Proclamation to Rome’s Grand Daughter Joile
Rome presenting the Shekere to Senator Perkins
DSCN0026 A Special Award for Eulypians
Showing the Senator how to shake that thang
Tapping out a rhythm on a stringed gourd with Cowry shells
Woody King Jr.
DSCN0019Offering up praise songs to the man of the hour
The Jazz Impresario Anoints the Audience
 Droppin Science big time
 Rome and Songstress Rosanna Vitro


Musicians came from everywhere
Yoichi Uzeki all the way from Japan
 And Fredrika Krier came from Germany






Alto Saxophonist T.K. Blue


Trumpeter and Congero: Michael C. Lewis and Steve Kroon




Tenor man Arthur Green added a grand voice




Pianist and Bassist: Andre Chez Lewis and Corcoran Holt


Patience Higgins and the Boys


 Hoofer Hank Smith took the Floor
Third Choice
Tapping out Complex Jazz Rhythms

 First Choice

Trading twelves with the Drummer


 The Singers!

Eric FraizerSwinging the Blues
You Don’t Know What Love Is……


 ……Until You Know the Meaning of the Blues
Like a beautiful Bird of Paradise
Leziie Harrison thrilled audience and musicians alike


 Rusannah Swung Blue Monk with a whole lotta soul!



Steve Cromity wasAll Blues!

 The Man of the Hour!


Expresses his gratitude to the artists and audience


Double Click on link to see video

Sweet Willie and the Rappers!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , on May 25, 2015 by playthell
Shakespeare as a hip hopperSweet Willie: Premiere Poet of the English Language


A Daring Discourse on Hip Hop and Shakespeare

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

~William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Sc. 2

 There are so many treasures to be found on You Tube that I feel compelled to introduce some of these important videos to a wider audience by reviewing them and publishing the essay with a link to the video.  The videos that interest me cover politics, sport and culture.  And the subject of the video under review here is the relationship between the verse of William Shakespeare and the best Hip Hop bards.

The presenter in the video is an Afro-British poet and teacher named Akala, who is the guiding light of a unique cultural experiment that blends the works of William Shakespeare – which were written in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries – with that of 20th century American rappers, demonstrating the similarities between the esthetics and concerns of Shakespeare’s verse and the poetry that arose from Afro-American street bards in New York City during the 1970’s called Hip Hop or Rap, a cultural phenomenon that I witnessed and wrote about.  I am also a published Shakespeare critic.

Hence it came as a pleasant surprise when I searched them out and read the mission statement of the London based Shakespeare and Hip Hop Company.

“Both hip –hop and Shakespeare’s theater represent energetic and inventive forms of expression.  Both are full of poetry, word play and lyricism.  Both deal with what it is to be human, and issues from people’s lives, and of course just like Shakespeare’s work, hip-hop is all about the rhythmic tension of words. The similarities between hip-hop music and Shakespeare’s theater are striking.  As a media-savvy popular entertainer and talented businessman, we think hip-hop would have been Shakespeare’s thing – a truly old school Jay Z.”

Jay Z: Hip hop Poet and Super Entreprenuer

Jay Z

He turns street literature into lucre!
Jay Z and beautiful wife Byonce chillin at the apex of power

Barack, Byonce and Jay Z

Rappin with fellow hip hop head Chilly B. Knowledge

Upon reading this I reflected on how my first, and most influential, teachers of Shakespeare’s texts – My aunt Rosa Morgan and Ms. Rosalie Gordon –would have reacted to such a claim.  Knowing their reverence for the Bard I suspect that they would have been scandalized.  But that is because all English teachers revered Shakespeare as something akin to a demi-god, a divinely inspired wizard of the word – written or spoken.

However the scholarship on Shakespeare has revealed that he was quite a down to earth fellow who held little in common with the pious prigs who are now the keepers of the Western canon – one imminent Yale literary scholar has declared “Shakespeare is the Western canon” – meaning the sacred texts of secular literature; those texts selected by the great scholars of Western literature as required reading in formal classes on English language and literature. Thus we can safely assume that many of the canonical sentries will be fairly alarmed by any suggestion of an affinity, a Sympatico between the verse of the Bard and the rhymes of rappers.  In their view the former is high-brow poetry; the latter low brow doggerel….and it shall remain ever thus.

Yet The Bard might have liked hip hop as Akala suggests, for upon closer examination we find some fundamental differences between Shakespeare and those who now interpret his works. To begin with the guardians of the canon are all professional intellectuals, scholars trained by virtue of many years of rigorous university study, guided and tutored by imminent specialists in their field and terminating with the Doctor of Philosophy or PhD degree.  Most of these professional academics know but little of actual life as it is lived by all levels of society, and they abhor business practices as a kind of amoral chicanery unworthy of one committed to the exalted life of the mind.

Their knowledge of the world is highly specialized, which has resulted in them knowing more and more about less and less.  William Shakespeare was a very different animal.  He wanted to know everything about the world and how human beings responded in different situations.  That curiosity, along with his unique insights and literary genius, accounts for the fact that if one tries hard enough it is possible to find a Shakespeare quote for any human activity…he is more reliable than the Bible; which some students of the King James version believe he wrote.

The son of a leather tanner he learned early on about business practices, and the first lesson every businessperson everywhere must learn is that they must show a profit after paying vital expenses or they won’t be in business long.  Without inherited wealth or rich patrons Shakespeare had to figure out how to make a living while he created his art or he would be forced to choose between writing and eating regularly. Evidently the starving artist mystique held no more romantic charms for him than for Jay Z.  Literary scholar Leslie Fiedler ably examines Shakespeare’s attitude toward art and commerce in a brilliant and insightful essay titled “Literature and Lucre,” which is a chapter in his seminal book on the changing values and function of literature in Western  culture What Was Literature? 

The great insight that Fiedler’s text provided for me was his elucidation of how Shakespeare felt about making money from creating art.  A practical man, he decided that since he was an actor and playwright he should own and manage his own theater.  This decision had a profound impact on how the Bard viewed the purpose of his plays, which affected how he crafted them.  His first concern was shared by every theater owner anywhere in the world: putting butts is seats until the room is full for every show.

The second major concern was to write compelling entertainments employing the Greek masks of tragedy and comedy, pathos and bathos that would satisfy the emotional needs of his customers who would then spread the word and keep them coming.  Shakespeare understood well that a satisfied customer is one’s best advertisement. He was wearing two hats, businessman and artist, for him there was no contradiction between the aims of commerce and culture that pervades the thinking of so many creative people who think of themselves as fine artists, some of whom regard being commercial as a sign of artistic treason i.e. “selling out.”   Although we are left to speculate about how good a businessman Shakespeare was, the texts he left to posterity testifies profoundly to his genius as a poet and dramatis – no one has ever done it better!

I have been fairly mesmerized by the writings of William Shakespeare ever since my Aunt Rosa, who taught English literature in high school when I was a boy, bade me listen to the music of his words.  She said to me one day that the way to tell if you had written something well is to read it out loud because, she emphasized, “If a thing is well written it will read well out loud.”  Then she picked up a copy of the Bard’s text and began to read it out loud while instructing me on how to listen.  I fell in love with the iambic pentameter rhythms of his verse and it is a love that has lasted a lifetime.

My love of Shakespeare’s text soon led to a fascination with the spoken word; this enchantment was partially due to the fact that I suffered from a severe speech impediment in early childhood.  And once I overcame it through the patient and loving guidance of my mother, my aunt Rosa drafted me onto her oratorical team, just as she had done with our parents a generation before.

It was during my tenure on the oratorical team under the stern tutelage of my aunt that I began to recite Shakespearian monologues.  At the same time I was studying the Bard’s plays under the guidance of Mrs. Gordon, the daughter of college professors who held a degree in English Literature from Boston University, where she dated Countee Cullen, a budding poet at Harvard who hailed from Harlem, then a the most glamourous and accomplished black community in the world.

An actress at heart Ms. Gordon was an impassioned teacher of Shakespeare and when she read from Macbeth we could see the witches in the skies attempting to fill his head with avarice and ambition as he returned from battle.  And when she read Lady Macbeth’s cold and calculating monologue bidding her husband to hurry home so that she could stoke those vile ambitions we sat riveted in our seats.  I can still hear her even now, over half a century later – “Thine heart is too full of the milk of human kindness/ hie the hither / that I may chastise with the valor of my tongue/ all the that impedes thee from the golden round/ with which supernatural and metaphysical aid/ Hath doth crowned thee withal.”  And we agonized with Lady MacBeth as she vainly struggled remove the blood of the murdered King Duncan from her hands: “Out Damned Spot!”

Hence I have had an ear for the rhythm of Sweet William’s verse since boyhood. My fascination with the Bard’s work was heightened when Joseph Papp, producer of the Shakespeare in the Park summer theater – where professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays could be seen at the Delacorte theater in Central Park – mounted a production of Othello. The play starred the Spanish actor Raoul Julia in the role of Othello, and this decision sparked a furious debate among New York theater critics.  The essay in the august New York Times theater section “Looking Inside that Outsider: Othello the Moor,” caught my eye.   What got my attention in particular is a claim by the Director of the Delacorte production, an Irishman named Joe Dowling, that Shakespeare didn’t intend for Othello to be a black man.

He speculated that this was a recent interpretation motivated by a tendency toward political correctness in the arts. And like most historical ignoramuses he went on to say that Shakespeare could not have intended for Othello to be black because there were no black men in Elizabethan England.  However as the Caribbean scholar Edward Scobie tells us in his path-breaking book Black Britannia, there were many black people in England during Shakespeare’s time and cites a report of the Privy Council complaining to Queen Elizabeth about the growing numbers of “blackamoors” in her realm.

Scobie, who was a Professor at New York City College, pointed out that Shakespeare had more than a casual knowledge of the Blackamoors because he was madly in love with his black mistress named “Lucy Negro,” whose heart he stole from a British nobleman and who was described as black and beautiful and a superb actress with the Greys Inn’s Revels.  Since I have already written and published an extensive treatise on the question of Shakespeare and race I shall not belabor it here.  For those who wish to read my thoughts on the subject see: “Did Shakespeare Intend Othello to be Black: A Meditation on Blacks and the Bard,” in the anthology Othello: New Essays by Black Writers, Howard University Press.

The essay above was inspired by the discussion of Othello’s race in the New York Times article; it was my answer to their nonsense masquerading as authority.  As it happens, just before the Othello production a troupe from the Royal National Shakespeare Theater visited New York and performed Macbeth.

It was a fabulous production staged in a massive old Gothic church on the posh East side of Manhattan, and the cast was all black.  I thought it the most fabulous production of Shakespeare I had ever seen.  I was bewitched by the cacophony of mellifluous voices spoken in exotic accents from all over the black world: Africa, Europe and the American diaspora.

It was a Pan-African production staffed by beautiful gifted thespians of earthen hues that conjured up strains from Duke Ellington’s tone poem Black, Brown and Beige Suite.  I was so moved by their performance that I hurried to my computer and wrote a review, “Shakespeare in Living Color,” which was published on the cover page of the Arts section in the New York Village Voice, whose coverage of the Arts scene was unsurpassed in the 1990’s.  For instance it was here that serious, literary, criticism of the growing hip hop phenomenon was born.  With outstanding Afro-American writers like Barry Michael Cooper, Harry Allen, Greg Tate, Nelson George, Joan Morgan, Dream Hampton, et al. the Voice became the tribune of hip hop.

The reception that greeted the Macbeth review was such that I became known to the producer of the play, who arranged for some of the cast to come on my WBAI radio show one afternoon on their day off, and I had a ball reading Shakespeare with members of the Royal National Shakespeare Theater.  I told them the story on air of how the great Afro-American actor Ira Aldridge – unquestionably one of the outstanding Shakespearian Tragedians of the 19th century and the most powerful Othello according to theater critics all across Europe who reviewed his performances – learned his craft at the Grove Theater, a black owned theater in Greenwich Village devoted to the performance of Shakespeare’s plays.

Alas, he was forced to flee to England in order to find a safe space to perform, because ignorant racist white thugs routinely attacked them for daring to perform Shakespeare.  Aldridge would go on to become a sensation in Europe playing Othello and Aaron, Shakespeare’s two magnificent Moors in whom he invested virtue and vice, their dramatis personae symbolizing the extremes of good and evil. It was these experiences – meeting the black Shakespearians, writing about their performance, the controversy over Othello’s racial identity –   that led me to write the extended treatise on Othello. At the time of my meeting with the black Shakespearians Aldridge was the only black actor with a chair in the Shakespeare memorial at Stratford Upon Avon, The Bard’s birthplace.

Ira Aldridge
The Greatest Othello of the 19th Century?

During this period I had an experience that began my enlightenment about the predicament of black artists in Britain. At the time I was writing regularly for the London Guardian – which was then the venerable Manchester Guardian – and when Senior Editor Alan Rushbridger visited New York, accompanied by a group of writers, I took my London colleagues to lunch at B Smiths, a first class restaurant located in the Broadway theater district owned by an Afro-American high fashion model. As one would expect, this was a smart and stylish crowd. The cuisine was superb and we were serenaded by a first rate Jazz trio as we dined.

The senior editor looked about the plush environs in wonder and then confided “There is no smart affluent black scene like this in London.”  Although it struck me as odd, I was in no position to dispute him, considering that on a previous business trip to London when I was a boxing promoter I split my time hanging out with millionaire white businessmen at the Dorchester – which they assured me was London’s finest hotel – and black Jamaican gangsters in Brixton. (see: “On Being Black in London.”)  And since I had never experienced anything but the warmest collegiality at the Guardian, my fail-safe racial bullshit detector was powered down.  But when the editor went on to tell me how happy they were to have me writing for the Guardian because there were no black writers of my caliber in England, the flashers began to go off in my head and I could hear the warning voice saying “beware of bullshit tips!”

Although I had no evidence to dispute him I knew Rushbridger’s astonishing claim couldn’t possibly be true.  A few days later my suspicions were confirmed. I was browsing through a book stall at the famous Papyrus book store, located right across the street from Columbia University, which is a great place to be if you are into used books, and I stumbled across a book titled “The Struggle For Black Arts in Britain.” 

The book was an anthology composed of essays by a variety of writers, all of them black and residing in Britain.  The English prose composition was finely crafted, innovative, and animated by a flash of Pan-African spirit; its polyrhythmic phrases seemed to dance off the page. I was stunned….how could such gifted writers be so ignored?  They struck me as prophets without honor in their own land.

All of these memories were conjured up as I watched the lecture demonstration on the relationship between Shakespeare’s literary project and the concerns of hip-hop artists by the Afro-British poet Akala: spoken word artist, insightful intellectual, Shakespeare devotee, thespian and theatrical innovator.  It is hard to imagine a more effective spokesman for this bold movement to combine the work of Shakespeare and hip hop artists in live performance to hip hop beats.

This is something really new, a genuine innovation, and they are not just floundering about trying anything, but are building a new genre of Rap performance that is extending the artistic ambitions of the form.  They are about the business of establishing an original voice in the world of hip-hop, a dazzling new voice that combines verbal virtuosity with a deep knowledge of poetry, a celebration of lyrics that prize intellect and elevated notions about the role of the poet in contemporary society.

There are speakers who have much of importance to say but say it badly, and there are those who have nothing of real gravitas to say but say it so well that the can bewitch the crowd with the power of their oratory alone.  Like being told to go to hell in such attractive language you actually look forward to taking the trip.  One speaker puts the crowd to sleep from boredom as if they had been feed sleeping pills instead of words.  The other entertains the crowd but teaches them nothing.  In both instances the audience is cheated and little learning takes place.  But there are special occasions when a speaker has something of value to say and says it well.  That’s when we really learn something.  Akala is that kind of teacher.



Innovative Rapper and Shakespeare Scholar

From the introduction of his subject of the commonalities of hip hop and Shakespeare, it was clear to me that Akala knew his stuff.  One gets the impression that by now he has heard all of the objections of the naysayers who are offended by the comparisons and conducts a clever exercise that removes all doubt that he is on to something real and we are not about to be subjected to a display of buffoonery conducted by some barely literate special pleader who knows not the grave offense that he is perpetrating.

He tells the audience that he is going to recite some lines and form Shakespeare and some lines for US rappers, and although they were written over 400 years apart in different regions of the world he challenges the audiences to vote with a show of hands which lines were written by Shakespeare and which by rappers.  Although I thought the idea preposterous I nevertheless sat up on the edge of my chair anxiously anticipating his recitations.

The first quote was “To destroy the beauty from which one came.”  The second line was “Maybe its hatred I spew….maybe its food for the spirit.”  The audience voted overwhelmingly that both lines were authored by Shakespeare, and since this was an audience nurtured on the texts of the Bard I knew they could not be easily deceived…but they were.  The first lines were penned by Jay Z and the second were written by M&M.  He then Recited lines from the Wu Tang Clan, and fooled the audience again.

That little demonstration made Akala’s  point in a powerful way, the fact than nobody expected it made it all the more effective.  The experience was like getting hit over the head with the truth; from that moment on he grabbed our attention and held it tight.   The audience became so confused and intellectually  intimidated that when he quoted lines authored by the Bard only half the audience got it right…and I didn’t do much better.  It was a revelation….but Akala’s presentation goes much deeper.

He discussed the class structure that existed in England at the time, and pointed out that the country was rife with violent conflicts and 90% of Shakespeare’s audience was illiterate and explained that, like the rappers, Shakespeare’s art had to appeal to the untutored masses.  Akala gave a remarkably cogent analysis of the origins of hip hop culture among the Afro-American population of New York City; cited the great innovators in the development of hip-hop like African Bambatta, D.J Red Alert, Kool Herc et al, and explained the African origins of the word “hip” a term Afro-Americans introduced into the English language.

Afrika Bambaataa


Bronx Bard and a Founding Father of Hip Hop
DJ Red Alert!


A Pioneering MC
Kool Herc

Kool Herc

One of the Holy Trinity of Hip Hop

I had never heard of its connection with Africa, but serious students of Afro-American culture and speech have identified several words of African origin.  What was most enlightening is how similar the meaning of the word is in African and Afro-American cultures.  His discussion of rappers as latter day neo-African griots is also fascinating.  Yet as impressive as the intellectual discourse is it is Akala’s performance as a spoken word artist/rapper that steals the show.  The boy’s got skills big time!

Akala is a verbal virtuoso who spits out words like bullets from a machine gun.  At one points he recites the Bard’s Sonnets over hip hop beats, and demonstrates the similarity between some rappers flows and Iambic pentameter, Sweet Willie’s favorite flow.  This came as a surprise to me because I had always thought of the French playwright Moliere as having the most in common with modern day rappers by virtue of the fact that he told his stories in rhyme, as in his much celebrated play “The Misanthrope.

After listening to Akala’s presentation one begins to understand why Professor Henry Louis Gates included the verse of rappers in his canon building Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature, a move many intellectuals believed to be a sacrilegious act.  So sit back in your favorite chair and check out this video; let Brother Akala take your mind on a fantastic journey. Among the surprising revelations this video unveils is the fantastic influence hip hop has had on the popular culture of the world.   After all, this is an art invented by young working class blacks and Puerto Ricans  with a compulsion to make music but were denied the opportunity to receive formal training in the art of music due to the severe cuts in funding for public education in New York City.

This is the result of pragmatic philistines who cannot distinguish between what students need to know in order to make a living, and what they must know in order to make a rich and satisfying life.  In word and deed Akala testifies to the positive influence of hip hop on contemporary popular culture whose appeal flows over all borders.  It is a bravura performance, unlike anything I have ever witnessed in a spoken word exhibition, and it is accompanied by an ongoing intellectual discourse which is distinguished by erudition and eloquence.  Bravo!



Double Click on link to see Akala’s presentation

Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 24, 215

Get On Up!

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 12, 2014 by playthell

Boseman Chadwick-james-brown-get-on-up-movie (1)

Chadwick Boseman Rocks his Role as the Inimitable James Brown


The James Brown Story Comes to the Silver Screen

In her insightful magisterial study “The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright,” Professor Margret Walker says of the great Afro-American novelist “Richard Wright came straight out of hell;” the same can be said of James Brown, an iconic figure in American popular music.  Browns life story is both an epic tale about the triumph of the human spirit through the agency of art and a representative anecdote for American civilization – which that peerless interpreter of American culture Albert Murray defines as “any story of steerage to boardroom” or the rags to riches tales of Horaito Alger. It is a story of tragedy and triumph that allows us to look into the life, loves and art of one of the unique American public figures of the 20th century.

The elements of a great movie are a good story, a well written script, imaginative sets and costumes that capture the milieu – i.e. spirit of the time and place – a good musical score, thoughtful creative directing and great acting.  This film has them all…an embarrassment of riches.   While Shakespeare’s observation that “the play is the thing,” is true enough, it takes actors to transform those words from inanimate symbols scrawled on paper into living breathing believable characters.  Through their agency the words become flesh…in a god-like act.

I have never seen anyone do it better than Chadwick Boseman.  As I watched him bring the larger than life character of James Brown to life, I conjured up the voice of Sir Lawrence Olivier, who is thought by many to be the most accomplished actor of the 20th century, warning young thespians who aspire to greatness as actors: “Acting is a noble profession but an actor should never be caught doing it.”  Boseman must have taken Sir Lawrence’s words to heart and placed it at the center of his art because after a few minutes I completely forgot that he was not James Brown!   He was every bit as convincing in the role as Jamie Fox was as Ray Charles….and he won the Oscar for his performance….jes sayin.

It was a strange experience for me because I witnessed James Brown’s entire career.   I first saw him perform in 1956, when he was enjoying his first hit record “Pleas, Please. Please.”   He was the headliner at the “Two Spot,” the premiere black night club in Jacksonville Florida. All of the great Jazz, Blues and Rhythm and Blues acts performed there.  People came from all around, not just Jacksonville, but the surrounding towns and counties, such as St. John’s County where I lived in the ancient city of St. Augustine.  Some party people even drove down from Augusta Georgia, James Brown’s home town to check out the show.

Please, Please, Please was burning up the airwaves on WOBS, the radio station serving the large Afro-American communities in the Jacksonville area.  Their star D.J Johnny Shaw “The Devil’s Son in Law,” played it constantly.  We had listened to the record on the radio and everybody was running to the nearest record store to buy it.  So me and my boys were very excited to see this guy James Brown perform live.  Never having seen him we were totally unprepared for the spectacle we witnessed.  I was actually too young to even be in the club, but since I was singing with a R&B group that was performing on the Sunday Afternoon Matinee I was allowed to enter this magic temple where great music was made.

The Sunday Matinee at the TWO Spot was a talent contest between competing singing groups in the area.  It was like a scene in Robert Townsend’s great movie homage to the golden age of live R&B performance “The Five Heartbeats.”  The place was packed with pretty girls out to “let the good times roll,” a frame of mind immortalized by Brown’s New Orleans contemporaries Shirley and Lee on their hit record “Come on Baby Let the Good Times Roll.”

All of the five members of my group, “The Dewdrops,” could croon their asses off; we were members of the Murray High Glee Club, directed by my Aunt Marie, and we sang everything from J. Rosamond Johnson and Harry T. Burleigh’s arrangements of the “Negro Spirituals” – that marvelous body of sacred music produced by Black American slaves – to Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s B Minor Mass.  Hence when “Bubba Duck” Jackson, a ruggedly handsome football player with a high falsetto tenor voice, fell to his knees while singing  “This is Dedicated to the One I Love” – a Hank Ballad and the Midnighters  hit – with tears rolling down his cheeks, the girls went crazy!  But that was just the dress rehearsal.

Like us, the ladies were there to see “James Brown and the Famous Flames.”   After the talent contest was done, with us coming in second in a very tough competition, the Master of Ceremonies announced “It’s star time at the Two Spot!   Hereee’s James Brown and the Famous Flames!”  The audience exploded in applause and began to move to the groove of the band as we waited for the man of the moment to emerge from the wings.  Suddenly this ebony black guy in a white tuxedo with tails strolled onstage followed by a group of back ground singers dressed in black pants. White shirts, black tuxedo jackets with purple satin lapels and bow ties  closely followed.  He opened with his arrangement of a Louis Jordan hit from an earlier period “Cladonia!”

From the outset his dancing was a marvel, although we recognized that at root it was his improvisations on the “Mashed Potatoes’” and the “Camel Walk” two popular Afro-American vernacular dances au courant at the time, but when James added his unique moves they became something different and something more.  It was love at first sight, I fell for the James Brown sound completely, as did my peers, and it is a love that has lasted a lifetime.  It was an enchanting evening in a magical place, the Two Spot dance hall and supper club in Jacksonville Florida, where great musical performances was common fare, because most white clubs and concert halls wouldn’t book black artists.  They preferred the corny white artists who “covered’ their records with saccharine corny versions aimed at white America – ala Pat Boone’s cover of Little Richard’s rousing Rhythm& Blues hit “Tutti Fruti.”

The James Brown Show on Screen

James Brown_Get_on_Up_film_

It was like seeing James Resurrected

This movie captures the essence of those magic moments in American popular music and more. The writers, John-Henry and Jez Butterworth, capture all of this in their well written script and the actors bring it convincingly to life under the able direction of Tate Taylor.   Alas, despite the artistic success of this film, the fact that these major creative functions were all performed by whites and blacks were reduced to the artistic equivalent of ventriloquist dummies whose movements and speech echo the words and ideas of whites, raises some serious questions about the ongoing phenomenon of Euro-American creative artists appropriating Afro-American cultural ingredients and epic tales that define major black historical figures.  What, the thoughtful observer is compelled to ask, does this tell us about the persistence of rampant racism and cultural imperialism in the movie industry.

The broadly learned and insightful Afro-American cultural historian and critic Harold Cruse discussed this issue in depth a half century ago in his masterwork “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.” But considering the fact that Tate Taylor also directed “The Help” – a hit film about black maids working for racist whites in the apartheid south of the first half of the  20th century – and the recent hit biopic on the life of Jackie Robinson was also written, produced  and directed by whites it’s time to take up the subject of the Afro-American creative artists in the cultural arena again.  However neither time nor space affords us the opportunity to do justice to this this critical issue here; that subject will be addressed in a future essay devoted to this topic.

Chadwick Boseman proves that he is not only a great actor, but a hell of a singer and dancer too!  James Brown is the most influential dancer/singer in a genre in which dance is central to the performance.  Every major dancer in Rhythm and Blues i.e. “Soul” music since the 1950’s has been influenced by James Brown.   Some of James Brown’s R&B contemporaries – Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, Bo Diddly, Chuck Berry,   et al – had their own moves.

The Delta blues man Muddy Waters was also a great dancer, and Cab Calloway – who was from the preceding generation, taught them all.  But James Brown is by far the most influential dancer in the Rhythm and blues tradition.  Michael Jackson, Prince, MC Hammer and even the Filipino star Bruno Mars are all extentions of the spectatular artistry of James Brown.  And Brown himself belongs to a long tradition of Afro-American vernacular dance.  For insance it is easy to see how he was influenced by the great Song and dance man Cab Calloway, who also fronted a dynamic band.

Cab Calloway

Cab Calloway
The Grand Daddy of them All!

One need only look at such great dancers as Prince, Michael Jackson, Morris Day, MC Hammer, Chris Brown, et al to recognize the indelible influence of James Brown. In Fact MC Hammer made a video calling Michael Jackson out for not giving props to the “God Father” of dance in the R&B idiom.

James Brown
The God Father of Soul!
 Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson II
His moves mesmerized the world!



 Openly Acknowledges that he based his act on James Brown’s Model

MC Hammer

Hammer II

They couldn’t touch this!!!!!

Filipino Sensation Bruno Mars


All are Artistic Extensions of James Brown!

It is no mystery why Afro-Americans have created every popular dance craze in the US.  The ever insightful Albert Murray attributes this to the “tendency of Africans to turn all movement into dance like elegance.”  Growing up in Georgia, and spending his early boyhood in the backwoods where he was immersed in the black folk culture that retained elements of West African culture, James attended a sanctified “Holy Roller” church, and witnessed the power of music to move people…and the way the dancing preacher – a fairly common figure in black fundamentalist churches – used music, chants and movement to hypnotize his followers.

The movie captures all of this in a powerful vignette, and affords us an insider’s view of the origins of James Brown’s performance style.  It is no wonder that Albert Murray would observe that a James Brown performance created the emotional power of a great revivalist preacher in his seminal text on Afro-American music “Stomping the Blues.”  Like Little Richard, Sam Coke, Ray Charles, et al, James began singing in the Afro-American church – an institution that has produced more great original American musicians than Julliard.  Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, who revolutionized western instrumental music, as well as the grand operatic divas Leontine Price, Jessie Norman, Kathleen Battle, et al  and legions of musicians in all genres were products of the black church.

But James Brown remained close to his musical roots, the black southern country churches and those unlettered preachers the black bard and 20th century Renaissance Man James Weldon celebrates in his epic poems “God’s Trombones.”   Of these untutored sable clerics who claimed to be called to the pulpit by God almighty himself, Johnson said “The old time southern Negro preacher had all the devices of eloquence at his command.”  James Brown converted that eloquence into music.  In him we see the evidence of Zora Neale Hurston’s claim that black folk religion is for “people who love magnificence and can’t get enough of it.”

This however, was not the church of the formally educated black middle class, of whose church services the ‘Poet Laureate of Harlem” and peerless observer of Afro-American life and culture Langston Hughes says was the result of a decision to “Let’s be boring like the Nords” in his path-breaking essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”  James Brown, a country boy molded in the hell of America’s racist apartheid South, kept it real and relied on the power of his folk roots for the source of his artistic inspiration.  And he brought the funk like nobody else; any R&B or Rap artist who does not understand this is faking the funk!

The movie explores all of this and more, as it takes us into aspects of James Brown’s life that are not well known to many of his fans…this writer included.  With Browns’ longtime musical colleague and personal friend Bobby Bird as a historical consultant we get intimate details of Brown’s life that we could not have gotten from any other source.  And no doubt this is because of the guiding hand of Mick Jagger in the project. A rock music legend that saw James Brown perform live during a tour of the US and never forgot it – in fact he includes the scene in the movie – Jagger understands the intricacies of keeping a band on point and ready to perform on the road.

Thus we are afforded a view of the problems of a touring band that usually never meet the public eye.  We get to see what a strict task master Brown was, docking the musicians pay for every infraction, sometimes seeming petty and ego-maniacal, but the result was one of the tightest bands in the history of the Rock and Roll era. That’s why they were able to respond dramatically to every gesture of his body the way they did. Or go directly to the bridge when he called for it.  We all enjoyed watching him cue the band with words or body movements….but we never understood the hard work required to achieve such precision in performance.

However the greatest revelation about the life of James Brown that I experienced is his relationship with his parents and how he was raised.  Dirt poor and stuck in the back woods, reliant upon a brutal father whose meager pay working as a laborer in the pulp wood industry was routinely squandered on whisky and gambling, who was ignorant, and a mother who confused and abused, James had to figure things out for himself while yet a child.  His mother, tired of poverty and abuse, ran away and became a whore, and when his daddy joined the army to escape his miserable dead end existence in the racist backwoods of Georgia, James was left to live with his aunt, who was the madam of a thriving whore house.

When we look at the conditions these black women endured in the South – oppressed on the basis of race, gender and class – who among us is righteous enough to cast the first stone of condemnation….not I.  They played the bad hand they were dealt as best they could, and some of them aspired to better things for the youths than were available to them.   This was especially true of James’ aunt who ran the cat house.  She told him that he had something special, that one day the whole world would know his name and that he would be fabulously wealthy.  Raised by kind hearted hos James got a look at life that was raw like Sushi.

All of these factors contributed to the personality formation of the man the world came to know as the God Father of Soul.  He was a man who understood that everything good that had happened to him in life was because of his talent as a performer.  And life became very good indeed; luxury jets, fine cars and mansions of many rooms were all his – as well as an endless bevy of black, brown and beige beauties.  No doubt he could have had his pick from a multitude of snow queens, but he stayed with the sistas.   Yet his childhood memories of seeing his mother turning tricks with soldiers, and all the whores he grew up around, made him more than a tad puritanical about the women in his life.  It also made him abusive.

Some of the most dramatic moments in the film involve James and his wife – played by the voluptuous brown beauty Jill Scott – a type A female who stood her ground….what the folks in Georgia used to call a “Tushie.”  When he slaps her down in one scene it is shocking to behold: but then, James Brown, like all of us, is a product of his socialization – or lack thereof.  Hence it should come as no surprise that he was relentless and ruthless with is band members in his quest for fame and fortune, and a unapologetic patriarch with his women, or that he showered them with expensive gifts and took good care of his children.

‘Thick Fine” Jill Scott and Chad Boseman


Sizzle on Screen as James Brown and Wife

We can see the seeds of all these adult traits being forged in his personality by virtue of his experiences as a boy.   This film captures it all:  the glamour, the tragedy, the good times and bad, the pathos and bathos of Afro-American culture…and most of all the marvelous music!   According to the director, Boseman pulled this amazing performance off with only two months of preparation.  “We got the go ahead from Universal around the end of August. Chad Boseman had September and October to become James Brown—the dancer, the singer, and played him as a 17-year-old all the way to a 63-year-old. I literally can’t understand how he did it.” Taylor recalls.   The resulting product of all this hard work and generous talent is a cinematic tour de force:  Bravo!



See Video Clips Below

Double click to see “James Brown and the “Famous Flames”

This concert was at the height of his prowess in 1964
Click to see: James Browns Greatest Moves

Where James got his Inspiration

Cab Calloway: Grandfather of Soul!
James Brown honored by the President at Kennedy Center

Playthell G. Benjamin                                                     

Soul Brother #1

On the Road
August 11, 2014

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