Archive for Wynton Marsalis

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

Jazz and Gumbo!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , on June 24, 2014 by playthell

 Wynton and me

Two Southern boys Partying in the Big Apple

 A New Orleans Style Party at Wynton’s Crib

   The night had been a smash before the party got started.  Earlier in the evening the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra played their season opening concert featuring the inimitable Ahmad Jamal at the piano and we had all attended. It was an affair to remember as the sold out crowd repeatedly rose to their feet in ovations to the musicians.  It is always a special treat to hear Jazz performed in the House of Swing, especially the Rose Theater, the acoustic engineering alone would make it a rare treat for the serious jazz fan; but the opulent and imaginative interior decoration enriches the experience in ways that’s hard to explain but you know it when you feel it.

Hence everyone was in high spirits as we retired to Wynton’s crib for Gumbo and wine, with some succulent and exotically seasoned fried shrimp appetizers.  Nerves were on edge as we waited for the huge pot of Gumbo to heat up, but as there was abundant French breads fruits and wine we persevered. Wynton’s crib is a great place for a party.

It is spacious, elegant but manly and livable, and enjoys a magnificent panoramic view of Manhattan and New Jersey.   The size of the pad and the diversity of the crowd were such that there were actually several parties going on simultaneously.  Wynton mostly hung out in the main drawing room where the piano is located.  Chess sets were also in abundance in the great room, and like the piano they would be played several times before the evening was over.

 Wynton Plays Chess with is homeboy Matt Dillon
 Wynton and LD

 Hanging out at Wynton’s place brought to mind a party I once attended at Duke Ellington’s spot on Central Park South, right after his triumphal concert with the New World Symphony in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, circa 1974.  That gathering also attracted an accomplished international crowd of beautiful people, but Ellington was a much older man and he was treated in the way that religious devotees treat their messiah.

People seemed to struggle to keep from genuflecting before the great man, even the titled European Aristocrats at the party had to struggle to maintain their cool.  But here the vibe was totally different.  Although I’m certain that the guest at Wynton’s party were just as aware that they were hanging out with history, that our host was a rare genius whose great works will live long after he has departed this world, still everybody was laid back and treated Wynton the way he acts: like one of the guys.

 Like Duke Ellington, music is Wynton’s mistress…
 Wynton's Piano
 …..and Just as in Ellington’s apartment, the piano is omnipresent  

 Wynton is the most unpretentious person I know, given his truly spectacular gifts and achievements; he seems indifferent to his greatness and regards celebrity as a picayune matter.  I have known him for twenty years now and I have never seen him talk down to anyone nor show any trace of arrogance or vanity; he seems to always be trying to get better at what he does and help others achieve their dreams.

Musically it amounts to an incredibly generous attitude that I also noticed in Betty Carter and Duke Ellington, who regularly discovered young talent, nurtured it, and graced the stages of the world with their gifts. Although I find him a jovial and even tempered guy, I don’t know anybody who works harder at their chosen profession nor enjoy it more.  Wynton has a restless and endlessly creative mind that is constantly conjuring up new musical ideas, or strategizing with the managers at JALC to market the program, or managing the diverse personalities of the great artists who make up the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and consistently giving great performances on the trumpet around the world.

Thus I would argue that what some critic’s mistake as arrogance is simply the self-assuredness that comes with great achievements and knowing what you are talking about. Hence confidence is mistaken for arrogance.  Wynton does not suffer fools gladly…and neither do I! He relaxes by taking young street b-ball players to the hole, or bombing them out with his “fabled” jump shot on the courts of nearby projects, or scheming on the chess board for the best strategy to defeat his opponents.

But when he defeated Matt Dillon in a game he damn near jumped up did a break dance, yet gracefully acknowledged that Matt had trounced him countless times on the Chess board, even conceding that his opponent had the better game. As soon as Matt decided the Gumbo was properly heated the guest hurried to cue up, and once they savored the gourmet New Orleans cuisine it quickly became apparent from the soft ecstatic moans, and squeals of delight, that Matt “done messed around stuck his foot in the pot” as the old folks used to say down south.

Chef Matt Dillon: The Man of the Hour!

Wynton's buddy Matt

His Gumbo Inspired Much Love from Everyone

Gumbo is obviously a word that is derived from Louisiana’s African heritage, a cultural reality that the arbiters of American culture prefer to ignore.  As cuisine it is a kind of amalgamated stew with generous proportions of shellfish – oysters, clams, shrimp – along with chicken, sausage, peppers, etc served with rice.  It is like a French version of the Spanish dish Paella, except its soupy and a lot spicier.

When properly prepared the myriad flavors assault the senses with a cacophony of delectable sensations that makes it an intense sensual experience rather than merely a meal. It was the kind of meal we used to call “fightyamammys” in Florida back in the day; the idea was that some meals are so good you’ll “fight your mammy” over it.

The cultured and highly civilized guest could barely manage to contain the predatory side of their character in their quest for more of this bewitching brew. After the guest had stuffed themselves on Gumbo and Baguettes, the wine poured and Wynton sat down to the piano and began a lively rendition of “Happy Birthday to you.”  It turned out that it was the birthday of Joe Temperley, the great Baritone Saxophonist with the Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Joe Temperley
Playing his Baritone Sax next to the Bassist

Joe is living proof of the global influence of the language of Jazz.  As one of the two great traditions of complex instrumental art music produced in the western world, everybody who is serious about acquiring instrumental virtuosity attempts to play one or the other.  And in rare instances – ala Wynton Marsalis, Hubert Laws, Carlos del Pino, Paquito de Rivera, John Lewis, et al – a truly great musician will perform in both traditions.

Although both genres are expressions of modern western art music, Jazz is the musical Gumbo that was conjured up in the clash and diffusions of West African and European culture as it was played out in the United States.  Wynton recognized this vital cultural connection when he composed A Tribute to Congo Square, an extended work of several movements written as a remembrance of that hallowed ground in New Orleans where the roots of Jazz were formed, for performance by the JALC in collaboration with Adada! a Ghanaian percussion ensemble. The uniqueness of this cultural amalgamation can be seen in the fact that Jazz is strikingly different from the other neo-African musical forms that developed in other parts of the African Diaspora in the Americas.

Offering a Musical Libation to the Ancestors
           Wynton and the Aficans
Photo by: Frank Stewart

There are of course the obvious similarities that are common to all neo-African music, which is a reflection of their common origins, the most important characteristics being polyrhythm, antiphony and polyphony, but while the  music of Cuba and Brazil has remained dance oriented and thus rhythmically restricted to the needs of dancers, jazz is a complex instrumental music in which experiments in melody and harmony were as important as rhythmic innovation; and since the advent of bop it has become increasingly divorced from the dance, evolving into a concert music designed for listening, or deep intellectual and spiritual musings.

Yet what finally sets Jazz apart from any other music of the western tradition are the elements of blues and swing guided by a democratic philosophy that values individual freedom and promotes innovation, which are quintessential American values and thus Afro-American music is a product of the unique experience of Afro-Americans.

We are the only African people who grew up in the belly of the most powerful and technologically advanced nation in the world and played an integral role in its development since birth. The USA is inconceivable without the input of Afro-Americans. From the five thousand patriot/soldiers who fought in the American Revolution that ushered in the bloody birth of our nation, to the quarter of a million black men who bore arms in defense of the Union when the southern aristocrats led the red neck rabble into a treasonous rebellion against our government that tore the nation apart in defense of human slavery, to the many others who fought in the rest of America’s wars that preserved the nation and helped it grow powerful.

And the most powerful defenders of the unique American concept of freedom have been Afro-American clerics, activists and intellectuals. Then there were the unsung millions who cleared the land and tilled the soil, turning the south into the cotton kingdom and making New Orleans the wealthiest city and biggest sea port in the nation by 1850.  A financial empire built on unrequited black slave labor.

But in a grand historical irony, out of this bitter and shameful history came a percolating cultural stew that produced Jazz and Gumbo.  And we had a generous serving of both at Wynton’s crib that enchanted evening, as Matt Dillon not only prepared the Gumbo, he also pre-programmed the music on his computer and we were serenaded with classic recordings from the jazz tradition past and present.  

Joe Temperley, looking as contented as a Carnation cow, gave me a nod, an assured wink, and then declared: “This Gumbo is so delicious eating it is more fun than playing the saxophone.”  Coming from a great Jazz master of the baritone sax, whose big lush silky tone and flawless flow marks him as the rightful heir to the legacy of the late great Harry Carney of the Ellington Orchestra, That’s a rave!

When I was invited to Duke Ellington’s party thirty four years ago I gave not a thought to the fact that I would be an eyewitness to history; I felt the same way about Wynton’s party.  Yet in during the course of the event I realized that it was an event that should be recorded for posterity. So I preserved Ellington’s party for history in the essay “An Evening with Edward Kennedy Ellington.

The Duke!

Duke+Ellington - paragon of elegance

The standard to which the JALC Aspires 

The present soirée will be commended to the historical record as Jazz and Gumbo.  And,fortunately, this time I had my camera…and I remembered the words of James Vanderzee, the photographer who set out to preserve for future generations the images of elegance, accomplishment and pride exhibited by African Americans during the cultural awakening of the 1920’s known to history as The Harlem Renaissance: “A picture will last forever!”


Double Click to see Wynton Warming up Before the Gig

 D0uble Click to see Ahmad Jamal with JALC Orchestra
– Picture Perfect –
Flight to Russia
Photographs and Text
By: Playthell G. Benjamin
*Photos of Wynton, Adada!
and Joe Temperly in Sax Section. 

By: Frank Stewart.

Posted: June 24th 2014
*** The event was held at an earlier date.


Praise Songs for a Master Musician

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, You Tube Classics with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2014 by playthell
Louis Armstrong: His horn and voice changed the world of music

A Fitting Tribute to a Great Artist on the Centenary of his Birthday

On the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Armstrong a celebration in his honor was held at Columbia University, one of America’s most distinguished institutions of higher learning. Titled The Artistry of Pops: Louis Armstrong on his 100th Birthday,” three of the nation’s most outstanding intellectuals and artists – Robert O’Meely, Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis – conducted an ancestor veneration ritual in memory of Louis Armstrong, a great American original.

Robert O’Meely is a Professor of English at Columbia, Director of the Institute for Jazz Studies and a serious Jazz scholar who wrote an important book on Billy Holliday; Stanley Crouch is the nation’s premiere Jazz critic and biographer of Charlie Parker; and Wynton Marsalis is Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center – the most important Jazz performance and education venue in the world – and leader of the internationally renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, an aggregation of great musicians who can play every genre of jazz without accent.

It is a certainty that almost anyone who takes the time to view this video will be greatly enlightened by the experience.  My certainty lies in the fact that I was enlightened by it and I have been writing about Jazz for over 20 years and have published essays about the music in some of the most prestigious journals in the English language.  The video begins with an opening address by Dr. O’Meely, rich in eloquence and erudition, it paints a complex portrait of Louis Armstrong that demolished the stereotypical view of him as a simple minded entertainer and borderline clown.

What emerges from Professor O’Meely’s succinct but learned lecture is a compelling portrait of a great artist who changed western music and won devotees among musicians and music lovers all over the world.  We learn that the ability to play and instrument and also sing well enough to have a lasting influence on both arts is a very rare feat; the province of genius.  Yet, he tells us, this is precisely what Louis Armstrong did.

       Pop’s Armstrong Singing
                         Louis Armstrong singing
Recording with the magnificent Ella Fitzgerald

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitgerald

                    One of Pop’s many artistic “children”

In his professorial fashion Dr. O’Meely cited a scholarly text to provide evidence of the influence of Louis Armstrong on the major singers who dominated American jazz and pop music for most of the twentieth century and set the standards many singers still emulate. The Book, “Pops Children,” lets us hear it from the horses’ mouths through the author’s interviews.  Among those who pay homage to Pops as an artistic inspiration and guide are Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Lady Day, et al.

O’Meely’s lecture was the ideal introduction to Louis Armstrong, because he enumerates the many facets of Armstrong’s interests and talents and defines the elements that characterize his style and innovations in western music. Although he teases us with glimpses of Armstrong’s multi-faceted personality and varied interests, he reminds us they are laboring under the tyranny of the clock and thus must confine their discourse to the matter of music.

Despite the fact that he is a Professor of English Dr. O’Meely is a fine music critic.  Like Crouch and Marsalis he is a protégée of the novelist, essayist, musician Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray, the recently departed Harlem sage and blues philosopher whose masterpiece, “Stomping the Blues,” is a canonical text on Afro-American music…especially Jazz. Thus O’Meely’s analysis is well informed by a broad knowledge of the history and nature of artistic creation and innovation, and his discussion of Louis Armstrong is conducted within the comparative context of all great art.

As a literary man beguiled by the blues in its many splendored guises, Dr. O’Meeley conjures up the memory of Professor Sterling Brown, a Harvard educated pioneer blues poet and longtime Professor of English at Howard University in Washington, who had jazz musicians play for his class live and who is called out by name as the hippest intellectual in the nation’s capitol in Ledbelly’s famous song “Washington is a Bourgeois Town.”  

It was Professor O’Meely who was called upon to make the keynote speech at the dedication of the monumental statute “Invisible Man,” created by Elizabeth Catlett, outside of Ellison’s residence on Riverside Drive, not far from Columbia’s campus. Unlike Sterling Brown, O’ Meely does not need jazz musicians to play for his class because just a few blocks down Broadway from campus is Jazz at Lincoln Center, where the greatest Jazz musicians in the world perform nearly every night.  O’Meely is immersed in the Jazz milieu being centrally located in the Jazz capitol of the world he has seen it all, which makes him an ideal critic fully equipped to evaluate the place of Louis Armstrong in American music.

I got a taste of the depth of his erudition when we debated an essay on music and literature written by Albert Murray in a seminar at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Debating the Learned Professor O’Meely at the Sorbonne
        A Joint Meeting of the US and European Associations of American Studies  

At the conclusion of his learned commentary on the character and contributions of Pops Armstrong, Professor O’Meely turned the floor over to Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis after reading their impressive bonafides to the audience, calling them “two of the smartest people talking about Jazz.” Crouch was introduced first to tumultuous applause, but when Wynton walked on stage, trumpet in hand, the crowd went wild.

In an extended discussion Crouch compared the heroism of people who invent major movements in art or intellectual ideas to those in classical Greek mythology, and Wynton dazzled with his in-depth knowledge of the art of trumpet playing and the history of its development in the USA. As always, his lecture became a “show and tell” when he would demonstrate his point on the trumpet.

This video is a wonderful portrait of Pops which require no further comment, since we have the film. However it is impossible to overstate the importance of the work that O’Meely, Crouch and Marsalis are doing by institutionalizing Jazz in elite, well funded, American cultural and academic institutions such as Lincoln Center and Columbia University.

It is both fitting and proper that this effort should be led by Afro-American artists and intellectuals.  Jazz is, after all, Black America’s gift to the nation and America’s gift to world culture.  Look, listen and learn about one of the greatest artists and most interesting American men of the 20th century, the trumpet virtuoso that invented both the extended Jazz solo and a distinctly American approach to singing… the Jazz song.

Pops At Carnegie Hall with Kate Middleton 1947
                      A Sartorial Trend Setter Always sharp as a Tack
The Axe with Which Louis Conquored the World!
Louis Arnstrongs trumpet presented to him by King George V of England in 1933
This Trumpet was a gift from King George V in 1933
Double click on link to see the video Tribute 

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

April 4, 2014

Afro-American Jazz and Black South Africans

Posted in Cultural Matters, Guest Commentators, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 19, 2013 by playthell

 Hugh Masekela

Hugh Masakela: A South African Original


 On the Transformative Power of Black Jazz

Growing Up in Mantzi I have been Fortunate enough to come from a Township of Soweto that in the early sixties and all the way to the rule of the ANC had electricity and telephones in our community.  Why is this important?  I grew up with uncles who were playing 78 rpm dicks on a gramophone, and we gradually upgraded to what was called Pilot FM radio (big and huge like caskets which contained a turntable and a FM radio.  Eventually we came to be exposed to Hi Fi systems in the late 1960’s and 70’s and graduated to more sophisticated name brands like Marantz and the like.

Music was the driving force in the evolution and American Jazz was one of the most powerful influences that we were exposed to.  Our elders, uncles and big brothers collected all of the great artist such as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and all the seminal figures Playthell Benjamin cites in his essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art, as the produced this music. And we sought to get in their favor by our recognition and approval of the importance of their treasure troves of LP vinyl Jazz albums.

Furthermore, we were living amongst musicians who played Jazz and formed big bands here in Mzantsi; we were also imbibing a lot of South African Jazz that embodied all the diversity characteristic of South Africa in its sound.  As we grew older we extended our listening and appreciation of the music by forming Jazz Clubs in the late Sixties whilst still in high school.

Our weekends were spent getting together bring new vinyl recordings we might have bought on Friday, and sample it with other members.  If they could not identify the record one was made Jazz Appreciation King for the day and it lasted the entire week until we met again.  Exposure to American Jazz was very important for us and it affirmed and solidified our beliefs that we were not mere “Kaffirs” (niggers) who were backward in all we did or were – African American Jazz told us, that those who looked like us, that those who looked like us, were the best in the world in this art form.

The Great Edward Kennedy “Duke Ellington”
Duke+Ellington - paragon of elegance 
Composer, Pianist, Bandleader, Paragon of Male Elegance
Dollar Brand
Dollar Brand
South African Pianist, Composer

This told us too, that we are the better people in the world, just from the Jazz perspective.  We imbibed art forms and so forth from our African American brothers, but Jazz was paramount in entrenching and embedding beliefs about ourselves.   Some of us went as far as to walk, talk, and dress like our Afro-American brothers.  Others named themselves accordingly.

As we became more mature and refined in our understanding of the wide world of Jazz, we began to travel overseas to Jazz concerts all over the states, Canada and Europe.  This expanded our horizons beyond the brutal apartheid world of South Africa.  We became well marinated in the Jazz Milieu, which knew no national boundaries because of the recording industry.  What has all this to do with Wynton Marsalis, the subject of Playthell’s recent essay?  Everything!

Playthell’s analysis of the heroic role of Wynton in the advancement of Jazz as a vibrant art form supports the fledgling arguments of those among us here in South Africa, who have been insisting that Wynton has advanced Jazz beyond what the hard core Jazz classist here in Mzantsi think of a real Jazz, in fact they insisted that Wynton was not playing Jazz at all.

Wynton Marsalis

The Most Versatile Trumpeter in the World

I think the fact that he came from the Baroque side of classical music was lost to these detractors here for they knew nothing about the fact that Wynton had become the Master Jazz/Trumpeter /Composer/Innovator of the art and literally lifted and elevated Jazz into the 21st century.  They just couldn’t wrap their minds around that fact.

I also suspect that they have lost touch with what Wynton was doing and saying, and hung on to the old ways of understanding Jazz.  Wynton blew some of us away when he merged modern Jazz with African drummers on the same stage.  We were amazed and fascinated as we watched his rehearsal sessions with these Africans, especially the way that he was able to show the similarities and the origins of Jazz as an African art form.

Conducting the performance of Congo Square
The Lincoln Center never witnessed anything like it!

Soul to Soul


The Rhythmic circle remains unbroken


The drum choir blended perfectly with the band

This edified us and lifted our long held beliefs that the music we were listening to called Jazz had melodic signatures which can be found in our own traditional songs and Jazz music here in Mantzsti.  Playthell’s essay “Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art,” is for me and Jazz Aficionados of kindred spirit, is so filled with erudite analysis about the art of Jazz and Wynton’s role in preserving and advancing the best of the tradition, that I feel compelled to post it on all the African sites I have access to.

There are some pretentious self- proclaimed Jazz gurus and avid fans who cannot accept anything new in Jazz.  Not since Babatunde Olatunji took his “Drums of Passion” orchestra to Carnegie Hall – industrialist Andrew Carnegie’s gift to New York City and the art of music –has anyone achieved that.  Wynton, however, took it a step further; many levels higher in fact, by merging both ensembles – African American musicians and a choir of African master drummers – on the same stage as part of one group.  To me it was one of the things Wynton did that silenced the howling jazz dinosaurs in the Appreciators here in Mzantsi.



 Greatest of All Times!

I concur with all that Playthell wrote about Wynton Marsalis….and then some.  I have learned so much from reading this article that I immediately went over to my collection of Wynton’s records and have been following on some nuggets he doled/dropped in the essay.   This kind of study will upgrade one’s understanding, appreciation and listening skills; enabling you to better grasp the techniques Wynton is employing to make such marvelous music.  I am happy to have found Playthell’s article, for it confirmed what we had long believed.   Jazz is an African art form and it resonates loudly with us here in Mzantsi and wherever it is played.


Double Click to see Dollar Brand

Double click to see Dollar Brand in a clearer video

Click to see Hugh Masakela  perform tribute to Mandela

Double Click to see Wynton conduct Congo Square with Orchestra and African drums

Double Click to hear the Winston “Mankunzu” Ngozi Quartet


Skhokho Sa Tlou

Mzantsi, South Africa

August 19, 2013

 ** All Photos of Wynton and Congo Square Concert 

by: Frank Stewart, official photographer for JALC

Wynton Marsalis and the Great American Art

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 18, 2013 by playthell


 Conducting his innovative suite “Congo Square” with Ghanaian Drummers

 I have written about Jazz in the New York Daily News, The Sunday Times of London, The Guardian- Observer of London, he Village Voice et al.  And I have major essays anthologized in books.  I have also covered the New York Jazz scene on WBAI FM.  I have written about Wynton in all these venues and interviewed him on radio. I am about to put those interviews online. I have also appeared with Wynton and Ellis in a lecture/demonstration on Jazz and wrote the program notes for Jazz at Lincoln Center Concerts.  Hence I have firsthand knowledge of the jazz milieu and I have paid close attention to Wynton’s career.

The Jazz scene in New York had become so dismal by the late 1970’s that I published an essay despairing over the future of the art form – See: “Will Jazz Survive: Notes on the State of the Great American Art ” in the Freedomways Reader – because the last commercial jazz station in New York, WRVR, had suddenly gone off the air.  I wondered how the tradition could survive if the jazz community in the Mecca of Jazz couldn’t even sustain a single radio station devoted to this quintessentially American art. How could you produce new stars if young musicians couldn’t even hear the music on the radio?

Then I heard this young trumpet player from New Orleans perform with the Herbie Hancock VSOP orchestra…and my spirit danced.  I knew he was going to be the next big thing the anointed one – having seen all the great innovators from Pops Armstrong to Freddie Hubbard live, I felt qualified to make the judgment – and history has proven me right…as it often does with my political prognostications.

Later I heard Wynton play the classical trumpet; a magnificent art that most jazz fans no know nothing about and many jazz musicians can’t play….I was amazed.  As a failed trumpeter I understand the technical requirements for performing the masterworks by the great European composers.  I know what embouchure is; I understand the difficulties of triple tonguing and circular breathing; I know how hard it is to achieve great intonation, and the complexity of fingering.  All of which a trumpeter must master in order to play the European classical repertoire. Yet Wynton makes it look so easy people who have no hands on experience trying to play the trumpet are clueless as to the degree of difficulty involved.

It’s not surprising that music for the trumpet is so difficult in European art music, especially the Baroque music Wynton is so fond of; the trumpet is, after all, their instrument.  I am presently writing a piece about Wynton’s influence on the great young classical trumpeters.  Most people will be shocked to discover how many of the principal trumpeters in the great symphony orchestras were inspired and tutored by Wynton’s performances.

Yet the classical trumpet is Wynton’s second language on the horn.  He is first and foremost a jazz trumpeter, who was raised by Ellis Maralis – a great pianist who is so devoted the art of Jazz piano that he named his son after a piano player, the marvelous Wynton Kelly, who was of Jamaican background – and he was tutored in the art of jazz by Alvin Bastise, a New Orleans clarinetist who is a master of Jazz and European classical music.

I watched as a member of the New York media as Wynton became the most sought after musician /commentator for the art of Jazz by virtue of his unique “skill set” as a bilingual trumpet virtuoso who was also a serious student of the history of Jazz and European art music; he was erudite, articulate, charming and funny.  Plus he was good looking and a fabulous dresser: he was a television producer’s dream! That’s how it happened; the role was thrust upon him even as other’s would have given anything to play the role.  That’s the real reason for all the hatin.

Much of Wynton’s style on and off the stage  came from his tutelage under the great writer Albert Murray, author of the single most important book on Afro-American music: Stomping the Blues,” and whom Duke Ellington said was “The hippest cat I know.”  In 1996 I presented a paper at a conference on Afro-American music held under the auspices of the European and US Associations of American Studies at the Sorbonne in Paris exploring this relationship titled: “The Influence of the Writings of Albert Murray on the Musical Compositions and Sartorial Style of Wynton Marsalis.  But the point is that for all of these reasons I have cited here, i.e. his myriad virtues, Wynton became a favorite of television producers and hosts: And it is the best thing that ever happened to Jazz.  In fact, I believe Wynton’s advocacy for the form as artist and advocate resurrected classic acoustic jazz – which is the highest expression of the art form.  And I am prepared to argue this point with anyone!

Wynton Conducting the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra


A Master of his Trade

As a former history professor and co-founder of the first degree granting, freestanding, black studied department in the world – the WEB DuBois Department of Afro-American Studies at U-Mass Amherst, which awarded full Professorships in black music to Jazz Masters Max Roach and Archie Shepp – I know something about the history and cultural development of Afro-Americans, and I would argue that the Jazz at Lincoln Center program here in Manhattan is the most important cultural development in the history of black America!

And it definitely would not have happened without Wynton Marsalis.  In order to get a Jazz department in the Lincoln the first task was to convince the Princes and Powers at the Lincoln Center – the world’s greatest performance emporium – that Jazz was an art form worthy of inclusion in a cultural warehouse that was stocked with classical European arts: Ballet, Grand Opera, Chamber Music, and the New York Philharmonic.  Wynton was the ideal person to sell them on the artistic merit of Jazz precisely because he had won Grammy’s for the best Jazz and Classical instrumental performances – an incredible feat that no other musician in the world has repeated!  And they bought what he was selling to the tune of 150 million dollars.

That’s why Congressman Jerry Nadler, who represents the district, said on opening day of the 150 million facility – “If Yankee Stadium can be called The House that Babe Ruth built, then Jazz at Lincoln Center will henceforth be known as the House that Wynton built.”  As for the criticism of other musicians: I say bring them on!!!!!!  Like the late great Sugar Ray Robinson I love a good fight, although, I must confess, that thus far they wither like snow balls in the sun when they cross swords with me on this question.  However I would like to conclude this little discourse with the following observations about musicians and Wynton.

All of those I have heard criticize him are clearly his inferiors as musicians and promoters of the music.  I could name names but I won’t….unless my veracity is called into question …but I’d rather not go there because my intention here is to set the record straight about Wynton not rag on other musicians.  But if properly provoked I’ll sing like a canary.  For the moment I a representative anecdote that is characteristic of what I found investigating the gripes of Wynton’s critics among musicians will suffice.

There was this very well know jazz trumpeter who used to dog Wynton’s playing; said it didn’t have enough ‘grits’ or some such inexplicable foolishness.  So Wynton issued a challenge for him to come down to Lincoln center during a concert and “cut my head,” which is Jazz parlance for engaging in a competitive duel called “cutting sessions.”  After the challenge was issued Wynton told me “That joker ain’t gonna show up…I’ll bet money on it.”  He seemed so sure about this prediction that I hesitated to accept a wager that at first looked like easy money.  So I declined the offer and instead asked him how he could be so sure the other trumpeter wouldn’t show.  “Because he can sell all the Woof tickets he wants out in the streets,” said Wynton, “but he and I have practiced together and he knows the truth!”  As Wynton predicted the dude punked out!

The affect that Wynton has on other trumpet players reminds me of the way flute players responded to Hubert laws when he first showed on the scene, another ambidextrous musical genius.  Hubert scared everybody to death and it resulted in people saying dumb stuff like “his tone is too pretty,” or “he does not make enough mistakes” or “he plays like a machine.”  I recognized it as the baseless slander of jealous peers back then, and the criticism I have heard of Wynton today does not rise above that level in my estimation.  THEY ARE ALL JEALOUS HATERS!!!!!!!!!

The World’s Greatest Trumpeter?
Gerald Wilson Thinks So!

However let me conclude on the upbeat.  While Wynton has his detractors he also has many ardent admirers among musicians.  Dr. Billy Taylor, the Dean of musician/critics, loved the ground Wynton walked on and considered him the best hope for the music’s survival and growth.  He told me that because of Wynton’s efforts to promote the music to a wider audience many of the musicians who criticize him are working more than ever.

When I wrote a big feature story for the Sunday Times of London on Betty Carter and the jazz youth festival she was hosting at the Majestic Theater and Brooklyn Academy of Music titled “School For Cats,” all of those brilliant young musicians – which included such virtuosi as pianist Cyrus Chestnut and drummer Adonis Rose – told me that one of the main reasons why they were seriously playing Jazz was because “Wynton came to my school and gave a talk on Jazz.”

At the time Wynton was in a little feud with Miles Davis, whom Wynton tells us in the interview with David Frost was his major influence.  I asked the Empress of Swing, who had seen and heard them all, what she thought of the beef.  “Miles is just jealous!” she said.  “I knew Miles when he was Wynton’s age and has never been the trumpeter that Wynton is.”

Maestro Wilson Conducting JALC Orchestra
A Swinging Octogenarian

When I interviewed the legendary bandleader/arranger/composer Gerald Wilson – who also happens to be a trumpeter of long standing – I asked him what he thought of Wynton’s playing. He said without a moment’s hesitation: “Wynton Marsalis is the greatest trumpeter in the world!    One of the virtues of writing in this new digital medium that is not enjoyed by writers in print publications is the ability to create multi-media presentations.  Hence by virtue of You Tube I can demonstrate Maestro Wilson’s Claim.

I have selected two performances by Wynton Marsalis: a classical European composition and a wholly improvised jazz performance.  Both performances were chosen because of the technical demands on the artist, which require the highest level of virtuosity in each genre.  The extent of the difficulty an artist must overcome is the measure of their mastery of the horn.  In the first video Wynton performs “The Carnival of Venice.”  When the great composer of martial music John Phillip Sousa formed the US Marine Corps band he billed it as “The greatest Brass Band in the World!”

The brook of fire trumpet and cornet players had to cross in their auditions was to perform the Carnival of Venice,” a composition that contain myriad pit falls into which a hapless player will be devoured.  It is a piece that demands mastery of all the elements of trumpet performance.  The second video features Wynton playing Cherokee at break neck speed.  It was the composition that those who aspired to share the bandstand with the elite players had to perform, often in a jam session when all eyes were on you.

Whereas in European art music all solos are composed, with improvisation allowed only in cadenzas, a kind of extended ornament, in jazz extemporaneous coherent musical statements is the rule.  This demands the ability to create music at the speed of thought.  Thus the more complex the musical statement – which must be negotiated within the restrictions of complex harmonic changes and polyrhythmic pulses – dictate the level of virtuosity required to perform it.   To the untutored ear it may all sound the same but, as a matter of fact, they are vastly different.

Check them out, and you need not be highly tutored in musical performance in order to recognize the Genius on display here. And you will lose any desire to argue with Maestro Gerald Wilson when he declares: “Wynton Marsalis is the best trumpeter  that I have ever heard and I played with all the greats,” So there!  You have it from the lips of the Gods….I say fuck the haters!!!!!


He is the best that I have ever heard and I played with them all!!!” So there!  You have it from the lips of the Gods….fuck the haters!!!!!

Me and Dr. Robert O’Meely Droppin Science at the Sorbonne

Me and Robert O'Mealy

Exploring the relationship between Wynton and Albert Murray 1996
Double click here to see Wynton Perform Carnival of Venice
This video has a million and a half views!
Double click here to see Wynton perform Cherokee
Double click to see Wynton interviewed by David frost

Text by: Playthell Benjamin

All photos by: Frank Stewart – except pic from the Sorbonne

August 17, 2013

Jazz Meets Clave!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on November 29, 2010 by playthell

The Original CuBoppers

Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody And Cuban Congero Chano Pozo


The JALC Orchestra

Maestro Marsalis Strikes Up the Band!

The concert at Lincoln Center last Saturday night was aptly name Jazz Meets Clave; it was like a replay of that halcyon era in the 1940’s, when Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza – Afro-American and Afro-Cuban master musicians – put their heads together and decided to experiment with a new sound that has become world famous as “Latin Jazz,” a distinct genre in the lexicon of Jazz music.  Since this music was a mixture of the musical traditions of the two cultures, the Son Montuno and Jazz, and was concocted by Afro-Americans and Afro-Latin’s in Manhattan when the Bebop style invented by Bird and Diz was au courant, this new synthesis became known as Cubop. The music played in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s beautiful Rose Hall by the great orchestra that resides there, on last Saturday night, can be considered an extension of that experiment.


Machito and his Afro-Cubans

The Cuban Side Of Bop

One of the highlights of the evening was a composition by Carlos Enriquez, the bassist in the Lincoln Center Orchestra, who is Puerto-Rican, or more accurately Nuyorican.  The piece was inspired by the Orchestra’s recent trip to Cuba. In his introduction of the composition Carlos explained how the trip to that culturally rich Caribbean isle was a musical and cultural revelation.  He was first of all surprised to discover the high level of musicianship displayed by the young musicians of Cuba, as well as the educational system that trains them.

Frankly I was astonished by his surprise, because all one need do is look at the musicians who have migrated from that Island to New York City, or simply come here to perform – like Chucho Valdez, whom I consider the greatest pianist in the world, to know that something rare and exciting is going on musically in Cuba.  Chucho is not alone at the top of his game; the same argument can be made for the contrabassist Carlos Del Pino, the multi-reed virtuoso Paquito de Rivera, or the trumpeter Autoro Sandoval – the only trumpeter in the world who can potentially rival Wynton Marsalis in his multi-lingual virtuosity. And there are so many great Cuban percussionists they defy tabulation.

In an eloquent and erudite monologue Carlos told us how the different movements of his composition were based on various rhythms and song forms that are integral to the Afro-Cuban style, and explained how they would alternate with the swing of Jazz.  Unlike some ill fated attempts to synthesize musical genres, this composition was a rousing success.  The result was a performance of great drama, as the musicians interpreted this inspired and original score constructed on complex poly-rhythms and poignant blues voicing’s of various shades. This composition also featured an extended solo on the timbales, and instrument that offers far less to work with than the drum set preferred by jazz drummers; yet it is critical to the Afro-Cuban rhythm section. Consisting of only two tom toms on a stand, with two cowbells mounted on it, plus a ride cymbal, the Timbales are a minimalist version of the Jazz drum kit.


David Hernandez Of Zon Del Barrio!

The Art of Timbales


The Jazz drum set is the most complex percussion instrument in the world, and by far the most difficult to play when performing in the modern jazz context.  While I am not prepared to say who played this instrument first, African American drummers in the United States created the great virtuoso tradition and are its greatest artists.

To understand the complexity of the jazz drummer’s art, let’s examine the art of precision rudimental trap drumming alone.  Here I am referring of the art of the snare, or trap drum.  This kind of drumming is common to military style marching bands, including high-school and especially the great college marching bands.  The rhythmic compositions to which the band marches called “cadences’ are constructed on twenty eight “rudiments.’  These rhythmic exercises, such as five stroke rolls, seven stroke rolls, flams, ratamacues, paradiddles, flam paradiddles, etc are very precise rhythmic statements, sort of like etudes for drums. A wonderful recreation of what it was like to try and make the great Florida A&M drum section can be seen it the movie Drumline.


A Grand Master of The Drum Set

Max Roach Playing Five Drums and Four Cymbals

Most jazz drummers had the benefit of this kind of rudimental training on the snare drum, having grown up playing in marching bands, but in the set the snare is only one of four or five drums, depending on the drummer’s taste.  It is however the lead drum from which all rhythmic configurations is initiated. The standard set is snare, small tom tom, and floor tom tom, plus the bass drum.  In terms of the human voice it would be like soprano, tenor, baritone and basso; if they were viols it would be violin, viola, cello and conta-bass.  When the jazz drummer tunes these drums – and some fine tune them to the pitch of the piano – a variety of percussive voices are possible.

That’s why the great Jazz drummers with musical imaginations – like Max Roach, Art Blakey or Jack De Johnette -sound as if they are playing melodically.  Aside from the drums however there are at least three cymbals.  Two are mounted on stands – some drummers prefer three – and the sock cymbal is played with the foot.  The essence of the art of playing the drum set is to be able to play a different rhythm with each hand and foot.  Hence the Jazz drummer creates a complex polyrhythmic statement by his lonesome.

The timbales are sparse in comparison, but unlike the jazz set the timbale player is not expected to carry the percussion rhythm alone; timbaleros are  accompanied by the conga and bongo drummers, guido or clave and the big cow bell.  When each instrument is in the groove they produce a poly-rhythmic sound that compels the listener to dance. Thus the timbalero usually has help from other percussionist while the Jazz drummer is expected to supply all the percussion functions in the band.  On this occasion the timbalero was a true master of his instrument and rendered an electrifying solo!   When I first saw Afro-Cuban musicians play at Florida A&M I wasn’t at all impressed with the timbales.  But that would change once I began to understand the nature of the instrument and the skill required to play them.  And when I started to study the congas I came to admire, respect, and even love them.  Part of the genius of the art of timbale playing is that they do so much with so little equipment.

Conga, Timbales and Guido

The Heart of the Afro Cuban Rhythm Section


The Bongo Player

The bongolero also doubles on the big cow bell

The Cow Bell Anchors the Rhythm

Everybody Plays Off The Big Cow Bell


Every part of the timbales can be played.  Whereas jazz drummers play only on the skins of the drums – with the occasional rim shots – the timbalero plays all over the drums; the rims and the sides too.  The skins are used accent the rhythms that are steadily played on the sides or the cowbells, and for dynamic solos.  The Afro-Cuban rhythm section is so precisely worked out that every rhythm fits perfectly in its “pocket.” Which is another way of saying each man to his station in the rhythmic jig saw.

JALC Bassist Carlos Enrique


After a swinging interlude in which Ali – the trap drummer with the JALC – announced his presence like rolling thunder,  Marcus Printup gave a solo of great sensual beauty, playing with a wide vibrato; the influence of his Cuban sojourn could clearly be heard as he conjured up memories of the great Afro-Cuban trumpeter Chaputin. The composition, and the set, ended with an impressive solo from Carlos on the bass.




The second set began with the audience being shown how to clap the clave rhythm, and Ali soloed on the drum set as they clapped in time.  Then Carlos started walking the bass and Ali began swinging hard.  The music is a movement from Wynton’s Third American Symphony, and it is very modern.  Moving at the frantic pace of rush hour traffic on the West Side Highway, which is clearly visible from the piano where Wynton composed it, the influence of environment on the way musicians imagine music is very clear.  In any case it’s clear to me; I don’t know if Wynton thinks of it that way, which is to say that he is conscious of the influence…but it is there.

Ali Jackson

All around Musician and Virtuoso of the Drum Set


As in all of the performances the solo work was marvelous.  First there was a kind of rapid fire interplay between Wynton and the trombonist.  Wynton played magnificently, even though he had just been back in his dressing room suffering with aching eyes.  Walter Blanding Jr, my favorite tenor prayer of the younger generation, gave a spellbinding solo on the soprano sax.  Obviously by his choice of horns he is following in the footsteps of John the Prophet.

The next composition was also written by Carlos, who was obviously smitten with the great musical tradition of Afro-Cubans.  This composition is based on the Songo form created by the Cuban master musician Chungito. The tune utilized the 6/8 time signature which is the rhythm of the most sacred of Afro-Cuban religions societies like Santeria.  However being afro-Latin raised in New York he hears both traditions in a marvelous way. His orchestrations were fresh and highly inventive.


The Great Gerald Wilson Conducting His Music

The JALC Orchestra Saxophone Section

Carlos is extremely fortunate to be in a musical organization like JALC, because it allows him to fully exercise his musical imagination as a composer. Like the Ellington Orchestra, the gifted musicians around whom he is surrounded are capable of playing anything he can invent.  This gives all the members on the band an added incentive to write, thus contributing to the bands book of original compositions.  Again the solo work by the trombonist was breathtaking.  Surely when John Phillip Sousa chose trombonists for his band he never imagined anybody playing the instrument with such lyricism and imagination.

The next tune was a Cuban Standard – the Peanut Vender.  However Carlos explained the history of the tune then delighted the audience with the announcement that this particular arrangement was done by the great Duke Ellington. This further establishes the long standing  interest Afro-American musicians had in Cuban music.  To listen to the JALC perform this music with the standard Afro-Cuban Rhythm section was a wonder.  You could not tell they were not a Cuban orchestra.  Another trumpeter took an extended solo that captured the flavor of the tune. The Latin percussionists were right in the pocket all night. Dukes arrangement was intoxicating, with those unique Ellington voicing’s for the different sections.

The trombonist Vincent Gardner – a former member of the FAMU marching band – wrote the next composition titled “Afro and Cubans.”  A somewhat strange title, which made me wonder if it was a reference to the fact that race conscience black Cubans do not consider themselves “Hispanic,” which they see as the proper designation for those Cubans who descended from the Spaniards.  They are quite aware of the fact that they are neo-Africans of the west.  When I asked Vincent hom much is composition was influenced by the cultural redefinition that is occurring among black Cubans, which is rife among Cuban hip hop artists, he said it was this Afro-Cuban perspective that inspired the work.

The Conga drummer was featured in an extended solo on this tune. He was playing three congas, all tuned to different keys, and he sounded like he had six hands!!!  He was accompanied  only by other rhythm instruments. His solo was followed by an extended solo on the timbales.  It was an impressive demonstration of the art of Afro-Cuban percussion. I continue to be amazed by the level of virtuosity achieved by performers on these percussion instruments.

The final tune of this historic concert came from the song book of the late great Tito Rodriquez.  While its rhythms were typical Afro-Cuban and it was dance music, the horn arrangements display the advanced knowledge of blues harmonies and jazz ensemble arranging that is the hallmark of the New York Salsa sound in its big band Latin /Jazz expression begun by Machito and elaborated on by Nuyoricans.  Wynton soloed on this tune and he used a mute, which allowed him to scream, laugh and cry on his trumpet.  His sound was majestic!

The rhythm was an up-tempo Mambo of the sort made famous at places like the Palladium and all those fantastic nights at the Village Gate.  The bongo drummer got his moment on this tune and he thrilled the crowd with his virtuosity on those two little drums that look like toys.  I have watched bongo players for years – including the best ever, Mongo Santamaria – and it remains a mystery to me how they do what they do.  When the last note was sounded the audience rose to its feet in a prolonged and boisterous ovation!   Viva la musica!


Hangin With The Master Drummers!

Their Timbale and Conga Drumming Fired The Band




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

November 29, 2010

Double Click to cee the Jazz ay Lincoln Center in Cuba, featuring the Cuban flautist Michel Herrera soloing.  The artist of traditional Cuban percussion instrunebts are also native Cubans.


Double Click to See The JALC Orchestra  at “Jazz Meets Clave” Concert


Double Click to hear Machito and his Afro-Cubans playing Cu-bop

Double Click for Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra play Cubop

This performance is at Lincoln Center in 1982,

Almost four decades  after he and Mario Bauza invented Cubop

An Evening Of Wynton Marsalis With Strings

Posted in Music Reviews with tags , , , on October 4, 2009 by playthell

The Best Ever

DSC_0582 Match 

 A Match Made In Nirvana

Of the many gifts that the beleaguered Crescent City has given to the world – Gumbo, Tennessee Williams and Ellen Digeneris among them – Louis Armstrong, who introduced the art of extended solo improvisation to the world, and Wynton Marsalis, multiple Grammy winner in Jazz and European concert music, holder of the Pulitzer Prize for composition, and Artistic Director of Jazz At Lincoln Center, are unique.  Not only do their life’s experiences demonstrate the claim that great artist can rise up from anywhere – Armstrong from the whore houses, dives and mean streets, while Wynton, like Mozart, was forged from an extended apprenticeship with a musically accomplished father, and later did stints at the prestigious Tanglewood music festival and Julliard School of Music – both of these New Orleans trumpeters extended the range of what was previously thought possible for performers on their instruments and enriched the vast tradition of western music with new ideas.

 This was, to say the least, no picayune accomplishment because the art of perfectly ordering and cultivating sound to produce the beautiful vibrations that we call music reached it’s apotheosis in Europe between the 17th and 19th centuries with the rise of peerless geniuses such as – Bach, Vivaldi, Hyden, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Chopin, Schubert, et al – who composed the European classical tradition of instrumental music which set the standards for instrumental virtuosity.

 After the achievement of the European masters many serious students of music thought there was little of value anyone could add in the realm of organization, esthetics, or creative ideas.  And since the European system of melody and harmony performed on piano, viols, woodwinds, brass, etc produced the most beautiful and versatile sounds ever heard on this planet, for a while they were right.

 Until the ascendancy of the African American musician in the twentieth century, the dominance of European classical music as the sole art music of the western world went unchallenged. As the mid-twentieth century New York Times music critic Henry Pleasants – who was based in Europe for most of his career – points out in his uniquely learned and insightful book Serious Music and All that Jazz, no one had even added a new term to the lexicon of western musical terminology, largely invented by the Renaissance Italians, until the jazzmen came along.  Although Pleasants was the first “serious music” critic to recognize that Jazz was the classical music of America – a new music for a new civilization – it should have been obvious to anyone who was learned in music and not blinded by artistic or racial prejudice. 

 Like American civilization itself, Jazz is rooted in the European tradition but flowered into something different in the wilderness of North America. It is the sound of a civilization whose character – as was shown by the innovative historian Frederick Jackson Turner – was formed in the experience of constantly expanding frontiers.  It was an environment in which improvisation, personal initiative, and democratic decision making were indispensable to survival and progress. 

 Thus it is in the logic of things that the quintessential art form of such a civilization would be democratic, value individual liberty, promote innovation, and pulsate with the clockwork poly-rhythms of a machine age milieu.  Having grown up under the roof of pianist Ellis Marsalis – a master musician and teacher of the genre – surrounded by virtuosi such as the great clarinetist Alvin Batiste and legions of others who dwelled in New Orleans, then attending finishing school in the  Art Blakey band, Wynton swings like jazz is in his genes.

 As one of the world’s foremost trumpeters in the European tradition – one need only listen to his recordings of the most difficult masterworks of the European classical repertoire in order to recognize that this is no exaggeration – he has performed with some of the greatest string ensembles of this era in western music.  Thus Wynton is ideally suited to perform jazz music with strings, an idea that was once considered blasphemous!   But the recordings of Charlie Parker and Clifford Brown with strings changed all that.  Yet as beautiful as these collaborations of idioms were, Wynton has taken it to a new level. 

            I think there are two reasons for the stunning artistic achievements we are treated to on Hot House Flowers and The Midnight Blues, the two Jazz albums that he recorded with strings.  First there are the superior arrangements; although “Brownie” and “Bird” sang with a soulful lyricism the arrangements were often corny and the strings were sometimes too loud.  But Wynton, in collaboration with his arrangers has solved those problems and given us some sonic masterpieces that entertains and enlightens, soothing the soul while stimulating the intellect.  

 Speaking of Hot House Flowers, Stanley Crouch, the peerless jazz critic and moving spirit behind the creation of JALC, obliterates the boundaries that separate prose from poetry in his description of the music.  “Yes, it all comes down,” he writes, “the harmonies full of idiomatic dissonance or siren sweetness, the notes that might as well have been stenciled with stardust on the night sky, the rhythms so celebratory, then the conjoined memories and dreams of the magic at the core of intimate majesty.”  Here we have art as critical statement, a comment worthy of its subject.

 As I listen to The Midnight Blues I hear a unique technical brilliance and the sensual eloquence of the blues moan unite in the service of song. The plaintive wail of Wynton’s trumpet on After You’ve Gone conjures up memories of the bitter sweet passion and pain of lost loves, I Got Lost in Her Arms inspires me to dance the Tango, It Never Entered My Mind makes me want to squeeze somebody gently and shower them with kisses, and The Midnight Blues makes my spirit strut.  It is my fondest hope that you will feel these things too when Maestro Sadin strikes up the band and we join Wynton in celebrating a quarter century of  accomplishing great things in this tempestuous business of music.  It is with but little alteration and no exaggeration that I paraphrase Shakespeare’s description of Othello “The elements so blended in him that all the world could see here stands a trumpet master.” For my money no one has ever done it as well, never mind better.




Jazz At Lincoln Center

New York City



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