Archive for September, 2009

Higher Ground!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews on September 24, 2009 by playthell



  Jazz at Lincoln Center Celebrates New Orleans


Over the years I have had a unique relationship with the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, which is arguably the greatest performance venue in the world.  I was first attracted to the place because it was the home of the New York Philharmonic, and I was captivated by it’s dynamic, brilliant and theatrical conductor, Maestro Leonard  Bernstein, whom I had become a fan of when he presented my Philly homeboy, pianist Andre Watts, in one of his famous “Young People’s Concerts.” More than a decade later I would play there with my own band, backing the great singer Jean Carn in a sold out concert at Avery Fisher Hall –the home of the Philharmonic.

 Then one night in the early eighties, I heard a nattily dressed brilliant young trumpeter from New Orleans playing in Alice Tully Hall with Herbie Hancock’s VSOP orchestra, a confederation of virtuosos that included bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams, and Saxophonist Wayne Shorter – or at least I think it was Wayne, because I was so mesmerized by the young trumpeter, who looked like the milk had just dried around his mouth but was wailing his ass off, I forgot who was playing sax.  His name was Wynton Marsalis, the name caught my ear because it reminded me of the great pianist Wynton Kelly, whom I had heard with Miles and would later learn is his namesake, and I knew from jump street that the boy was gonna blow up big.  Having failed at playing the trumpet at an early age, and then having listened with great attention and admiration to every trumpeter from “Pops” Armstrong to Harry “Sweets” Edison, Roy “Little Jazz” Eldridge, “Dizzy” Gillespie, “Fats” Navarro, “Sweet” Clifford Brown, Miles Davis, Booker Little and Lee Morgan it was obvious that this new kid on the block was something special.  You had to be tone deaf not to hear it, and even Ray Charles could see it.

A few years later I met the young man and became a militant defender of the fledgling Jazz at Lincoln Center program, where he was the artistic director, when it was under siege from the naysayers in the New York media.  And on that memorable day in 2004, when the brand new Jazz at Lincoln Center opened in Columbus Circle with a Rambunctious New Orleans style street march down Broadway, I chronicled it with the longest and most thorough account in the New York media – except for the excellent extended coverage provided by Channel Thirteen of the Public Broadcasting System, which is in a class by itself when it comes to covering what really matters in art and politics.

Thus it was no surprise to that the first person I encountered in the corridors back stage on a summery September evening in 2005 was an elegantly attired graceful lady whom, to my horror and vexation, I momentarily mistook to be Lynn Cheney – the wicked witch who tried to destroy the National Endowment for the Arts – but to my delight turned out to be Pat Mitchell, the CEO of Channel 13.  It was in the nature of things that Ms. Mitchell should be there because her station was broadcasting the musical magic show in real time. And as a longtime champion of the program it was also true to the logic and legacy of Jazz at Lincoln Center that I should get to stand in the wings – the $10, 000 ticket price being too rich for my blood, although it was well justified because the treasure gathered there was going to the survivors of Katrina– and witness one of the greatest concerts in history.  And this historic happening was properly dubbed, “Higher Ground.”

Mood Indigo


Trumpeter Terrance Blanchard Plays The Blues

Although it took a hurricane the size of Katrina – a devastating phenomenon that I believe is a manifestation of Mother Nature’s revenge for the years of flagrant abuse by egocentric men – to bring them together, there were many magical moments once these Eulipians took the stage: The poets, the singers, the thespians, and the master musicians swinging their axes.  They had gathered together to anoint the nation with their gifts and raise money to assist our battered brethren in the Crescent City who had watched their dreams sink in the floods.

 Many of the musicians, along their family and friends, had suffered unspeakable losses.  But you couldn’t tell that from the music they made; glorious sounds which soared into the astral plane and buoyed our spirits.  And at no point in the evening was this truer than when the superbly gifted trumpeter and music educator Ervin Mayfield, who told the shocked audience that his father was still missing, performed a solo rendition of a spiritual that was a favorite of his father’s and dedicated his performance to him.  I have never seen a more inspired and compelling demonstration of the fine art of the trumpet!

 Song for his Father


Ervin Mayfield Wailing A Hymm


While forging great art out of tragedy is an old story, the Higher Ground concert, coming as it did while we are still in the grips of the tragedy, represents a unique triumph of the human spirit.  It was clear to everyone who witnessed it that the spirit of New Orleans was alive and well.  You could hear it in the music of the first band, composed of New Orleans musicians and conducted by the brilliant singer/songwriter/pianist Alvin Toussaint.  When I peeped Toussaint on the gig, I immediately thought of his immortal songs “Southern Nights” and “Lady Marmalade,”  and I knew it was about to get funky up in there.  When they backed singer Aaron Neville, who looked like a dock worker amid parlor pimps, his near falsetto tenor voice conjured up all the joy and pain of the human condition in New Orleans at this moment of profound crisis.

The Jordan family is a splendid example of this triumph of the spirit in the face of tragedy.  The four siblings – trumpeter Marlon, Flutist Kent, violinist Rachel and  Songstress Stephanie – who were taught the art of music making by their father, a professor of music at Southern University, gave a moving performance of beautiful a Jazz standard. To listen to the lovely relaxed sound of trumpeter Marlon Jordan, one of the younger crop of jazz virtuosi to emerge from the Crescent City, you would never guess that only a few days earlier he had been rescued from a roof top as raging flood waters swirled around him.   And while you could hear the pathos and pain of the tragedy wrought by Katrina in the soulful sound of Stephanie’s voice, Rachel’s joy at having a chance to play her 200 year old violin for music lovers in Jazz’s second city was irrepressible.

I first encountered Rachel in the corridor, a beautiful woman with milk chocolate skin standing alone warming up her fiddle with sensitive strokes. Sensing my surprise at finding a violin amidst the gaggle of reeds and brass and bull fiddles, she offered to play me a tune.  As she coaxed the pristine polished blues tinted sound from her fiddle, I wondered once more how anyone ever figured out that you could produce such beauty from a little wooden box with cat gut strings stroked by a horse hair bow. Together the Jordans produced music that was too beautiful for words, so I shall simply say that it was heavenly.

As the evening wore on a steady stream of top shelf talents paraded on and off the stage, each offering their gifts for the listening pleasure of the audience.  As talented as the artists were, they were aided by the marvelous acoustics in Rose Hall, the first concert hall in the world that was specifically engineered for the sound of jazz.  There were young lions like Tenor Saxophonist Walter Blanding and the pianist Cyrus Chestnut, and old masters like Ellis Marsalis, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock and Joe Lavano. For the young musicians it was like being in a master class.

It was clear that all the jazz cats had taken the Duke’s dictum to heart: “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing,” especially the drummers.  To the surprise of those who know him only as a funk drummer, Idriss Muhammad conducted a clinic in the elements of swing and rocked the house, first with Herbie and the young bass virtuoso Reginal Veal, and then behind Joe Lavano, where he hipped us to how to swing outside.  Aside from his unique palette of rhythmic colors and consistent swing, Idriss embodied the essence of the jazz esthetic in his personal style; with his white tam O’Shanter cocked duce tray, he was a picture of the personal freedom and unique style that has marked the great jazz men ever since  Willie “The Lion” rakishly cocked his derby while striding at the piano, Diz sported his horn rimmed glasses and berets as he pondered whether to be or not to bop, and Cab Calloway danced “The Mooche” in his fly zoot suits.

The hard swinging Herlan Riley, New Orleans born and bred, was ubiquitous.  One minute he was driving the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, a full fledged big band who are masters at performance of what the jazz critic/historian and cultural theorist Albert Murray calls “the fully orchestrated blues statement.”  Other times you could see Herlan firing up the small ensemble, time traveling between the funky butt rhythms of old New Orleans, or swinging at the speed of thought in the modernist mode.  And before the night was over he hitched on a bass drum and wiggled and writhed around the room as the pulse of the “second line” dance that snaked around the auditorium.  Herlin is the kind of drummer who inspires me to start patting my feet upon the mention of his name.

All In The Family


The Master Teacher and Sons


When Ellis Marsalis and his brood took the stage everybody acknowledged that the first family of New Orleans music was in the house.  There was Wynton on trumpet, Delfeyo on trombone, Jason, the baby of the family who had appeared earlier with the blind piano genius Marcus Roberts’ trio, on drums and the paterfamilias of the clan, Ellis Marsalis, running the show from the piano keyboard.  However the question on everybody’s lips was “Where is Branford?” Back stage speculation about the possibility of a rift in the family abounded, because given his stature on the Tenor and soprano Saxes, anyone would want Branford in the band, especially on such an auspicious occasion, so there must be something wrong, said the  signifying monkeys!   In any case, even without Branford they were a swinging bunch.  And we later learned that Branford was off playing another fund raiser with his home boy the singer, actor, pianist Harry Connick Jr. – another one of Ellis’ protégées.

While the instrumentalists were the toast of the evening, garnering the lion’s share of the time and applause, which is as it should be in the world’s most important jazz emporium, the singers graced the evening with their polyphonic voices.  Buckwheat Zodiac was as rambunctious as a Louisiana yard dance, his accordion flaring as he sang and cut a country step. And the prolific songwriter/singer Jim Taylor accompanied himself on the acoustic guitar and sang his heart out rendering his composition “Never Die Young.”  Bette Midler was both charming and moving as she took the stage with her accompanist, the fine pianist Bette Susssman, who was decked out in a wicked form fitting black dress and looked more the star than the fabulous miss M.  Then Diane Reeves electrified the audience with her superior pipes, powerful passion and multicolored voice.

Oh Diana!

DSC_0146 Diane Reeves Swinging Hard


Abbey Lincoln – her voice a whisper of what it once was – evoked the pathos that lay just beneath the surface of the laughter.  Cassandra Wilson’s full throated deep contralto voice seemed to plumb the depths of her Mississippi soul as she sang for the supper of her folks down home.  And Diana Krall looking like she had just stepped from the pages of a glamour magazine, added a touch of sin and soul as he sat on a stool revealing generous proportions of her finely formed alabaster calves crooning about the birth of the blues.  And the gorgeous Nora Jones, continuing a tradition pioneered by virtuoso pianist/singers such as Hazel Scott and Nina Simone, played and sang like an angel. If you adore good singers and songs the way I do, the whole thing was like a continuous eargasm.


Cassandra: Conjuring Up Her Mississippi Roots 


Since the message is always more powerful when it contains the right proportions of words and music, each adding potency to the communicative  power of the other, the thespians and poets who anointed the audience with eloquent words of encouragement and hope were an important element in the success of the evening.  The list was impressive and ranged from the Nobel laureate Toni Morrison, who gave a moving reading from her Pulitzer Prize winning novel Jazz, and other brilliant humanists who routinely speak out on matters of war and peace, freedom and oppression, such as Harry Belafonte and Danny Glover, and loquacious comics like Robin Williams and Bill Cosby. Laurence Fishburne was wonderful as the Master of Ceremonies weaving a narrative of New Orleans that gave coherence and context to the evening’s the performances.  Each in their-own way sought to keep hope alive.

And it’s a good thing too; because as my grandfather, who was an active member of the Odd Fellows Lodge, used to tell me: Hope is the most powerful of the three links of the chain that symbolized their secret order because it holds faith and charity together.  At the end of the day hope was resurrected and given new life through the alchemy of art.  I was there, I witnessed it, and these are my impressions of what went down on that enchanted evening when the Eulipians congregated at the Lincoln Center and celebrated the gifts of the Crescent City to the world. 


Double Click on link to view Allan Toussaint

The Crescent City Master Performs Southern Nights


Playthell Benjamin
New York City 
September 22, 2005 
 * Photos By: Frank Stewart





The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra!

Posted in Music Reviews with tags , , on September 23, 2009 by playthell

The Great Gerald Wilson!


A Swinging Octogenarian  Leads the Band!


 Avatars of a Great Cultural Tradition

 Born in a period when the last radio station devoted to  programming classic acoustic Jazz, WRVR, had unceremoniously gone off the air  and replaced with Country Music here in the Big Apple – the jazz capitol of the world – and the art form itself seemed in danger of going the way of the dinosaurs, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has been the vehicle by which the Jazz department at Lincoln Center assumed it’s place as the pacesetter and savior of this quintessentially American art form. 

Thus it is no exaggeration to say that this aggregation of virtuoso musicians have served as the avant garde in the effort to rescue American culture from drowning in a sea of esthetic mediocrity and commercial banalities.  From the outset the mission of the orchestra was to breathe new life into a grand musical tradition that had evolved to a stage where it could rightfully take its place among the great art music of the world; but, alas, was being slowly starved to death by a lack of institutional support from the American cultural establishment. Who were far too busy genuflecting before the cultural artifacts of Europe to notice the impending death of the great American contribution to the classical culture of mankind.

Not only dose Jazz music require the highest standards of technical virtuosity from those musicians who aspire to master the form, but unlike the symphonic musician, who plays musical ideas notated by their composer, the jazz musician must also create the score as he conceives it at the time.  Hence the musician that would master the art of Jazz must be prepared to conjure up complex musical ideas – “blues and the abstract truth” as the great arranger Oliver Nelson called it – at the speed of thought. 

Furthermore, Jazz is the only arena of American culture that embodies the fundamental values of American civilization.  Jazz is democratic, values individual freedom, promotes innovation and invention, swings to the clockwork rhythms of a machine age world, and is infused with a sensibility shaped by the tragi/comic sensibility of the blues; that most American of musical modes.  Such a marvelous art is certainly worth preserving and taking its place as an integral part of the heritage of all mankind. 

There are special moments in the history of art when the birth of an important aesthetic movement can be traced to a specific time and place.  For instance Da Da, which emerged in the aftermath of the disaster of World War I and reflected the disillusionment of the European intelligentsia with modern technological civilization and the way it resolves international conflict, was born in the Café Voltaire in Zurich Switzerland.  And New York will surely be remembered in the history of art as the City in which Jazz was reborn.  Jazz at Lincoln Center will be remembered as the venue in which this act of cultural heroism occurred, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will be duly noted as the band of cultural warriors who rescued American culture from ignominy with their swinging axes.                                             

The Greatest!!


 Master Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis

At the opening ceremonies of Jazz at Lincoln Center Manhattan Congressman Jerome Nadler celebrated the importance of the occasion with the pronouncement: “If Yankee Stadium can be called “The House that Ruth built, Jazz At Lincoln Center shall henceforth be known as: The House That Wynton Built!”   And the centerpiece of Wynton’s handiwork is the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, of which the great  multi-Grammy wining bi-lingual trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize winning composer is Artistic Director and Conductor. 

 Wynton Conducting The Boys In The Band


 The Lincoln Center Orchestra and Ghanaian Percussionist


Deep In the Groove Soul to Soul!

 This band of peerless jazz virtuosi are the reigning masters of what the great cultural historian, theorist and musical critic Albert Murray -author of the seminal study “Stomping the Blues” and a artistic consultant to JALC at its inception – called “The fully orchestrated blues statement.”  From the outset the mission of this band of cultural warriors was not only to make great music, but also to do battle in defense of the art of jazzing by institutionalizing the mysterious alchemy by which the Jazz tradition has been able to produce world class musicians in the absence of musical conservatories. 

After correctly analyzing the process of educating the novice jazz musician by placing them under the tutelage of masters of the genre, much as master craftsman tutored apprentices in medieval guilds, they created an institution to accomplish this: the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  Aside from its incomparable musicianship this Orchestra is distinguished by its ability to play Jazz music from any era or style with authenticity.  I heard the Ellington Orchestra many times, and Basie too, and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, to name a select few.  But none played this music better than the JALC Orchestra.  For my money they are the best ever:  the Muhammad Ali of Jazz bands: The Greatest!


Playthell  Benjamin

Winter Season, 2009

 * Photos – by Frank Stewart

David Brooks Is Clueless!

Posted in On Right Wing Pundits and Bloviators, Playthell on politics with tags , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2009 by playthell

David Brooks

 The Pundit Pontificating

Notes On The Enduring Riddle of Race In America

 Sometimes erudition, no matter how eloquently expressed, burdens rather than buoys an argument, obfuscates more than it enlightens.  On such occasions what sounds like weighty argument upon first hearing quickly metamorphoses into sophistry after close examination.  That was my reaction after giving a close reading to a much cited September 18, column analyzing the causes of the enormous hostility expressed towards President Obama by the untutored right wing mob that descended on Washington last Saturday.  Written by David Brooks, an editorial Page columnist with the august New York Times, it was pompously titled :”No, It’s Not About Race.”

First I was aghast at the know-it-all tone of the piece, and then somewhat offended, as I  pondered the finality with which Mr. Brooks delivered  his pronouncement.  The vibe was like: the great white father has spoken…that is all…there isn’t anymore to be said on the matter!  Of course part of this has to do with the mind set of all commentators, a conceit from which I cannot claim to be exempt, but then Mr. Brooks is also writing on the editorial page of the New York Times, which claims to “print all the news that’s fit to print.”  Hence in the normal course of human nature chances are a Times columnists must feel even more prescient than the common lot of us.

However, given the hostility toward the Times from ideologues of the left and right, I’d like to make it clear that I am a big fan and devoted reader of the Times; I find it a reliable and comprehensive source of news about the important events in the world, a marvelous first draft of history, without which my life would be immeasurably impoverished – although I must confess my bias for Maureen Dowd and Frank Rich among the columnists for both style and intelligence. And for sheer intellectual gravitas it’s Paul Krugman,the reigning Nobel Laureate whom Barack Obama would have done well to listen to.  And for solid reporting, social conscience, high purpose and advocacy for the poor and voiceless Bob Herbert is my man.  So I’m a fan and friend of the New York Times – although I like the London times even better because they have been generous in publishing my work in the Sunday Edition, “The Culture” magazine to be exact.

Yet unlike Mr. Brooks, who is persuaded that the “progressive news media…exaggerates stories like the Joe Wilson shout and the opposition to the Obama schools speech to show that small town folks are dumb whackos,” I am convinced the very fact that most of the people at the Tea Parties proudly confess their belief that FOX television news is a more reliable source of information about the bewilderingly complex issues that confront us than the New York Times, is irrefutable evidence that they are ignorant whackos!

That’s why they listen to verbose ignoramuses and racial arsonists like Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter, Laura Ingrahm and that rotund racist dope fiend Rush Limbaugh, and mistake them for wise men!   And we need not engage in a Freudian analysis of symbols to know that the fundamental tone of these demonstrations are racist; the protesters carry sings that make it plain that they are racist, and the verbal feces that flow endlessly from their nasty mouths co-signs the signs. Although there is no deficit of fools that hail from big cities, on average small town people are behind the times when compared to cosmopolites who inhabit the great cities of the world.  That’s a fact jack!  And the exceptions only prove the rule.

Having grown up spending my winters in a small town in Florida and my summers in Philadelphia and New York, and  now regularly travel all over this country, especially in the old confederate states of the south, by Grey Hound Bus in order to mingle and talk with real people – even though it is sometimes more expensive than flying – I feel I have as reliable an impression of what the temper of the country is these days as anyone – and I find racial tensions at a boiling point throughout the south.  Both races are armed to the teeth and the shooting could start any minute.  That’s the truth I see.  And Mr. Brooks, in spite of the ostentatious erudition displayed in his column, is clueless!


I will assume that the gentle readers, including Mr. Brooks if I’m fortunate, will at least concede my point that anyone who turns to the air head verbal arsonists on WABC – Rushbo and his minions – is by definition a certifiable moron.  If not you should stop reading now, because this argument will surely be over your head.  I know that most of the people from the untutored mob in the march will have been hopelessly lost already, if perchance they happened upon my text and had a dictionary and Thesaurus on hand and made it thus far.

Mr. Brooks talks about how he formed his opinion of who these people are and their attitudes about race by casually mingling with them; interrupting his workout routine jogging around the capitol, because “Sociology was more important than fitness.”  Well, as an avid and long time reader of sociological literature, having been indelibly influenced by the late great C. Wright Mill’s treatise “The Sociological Imagination” and I gained my first real understanding of how this country works by reading his learned and insightful book “The Power Elite.”  And it would be hard to exaggerate the insight I’ve gained about questions of racism, poverty and social policy from careful readings of the  scholarly tomes of William Julius Wilson – especially “The Truly Disadvantaged, Racism, Privilege and Power, When Work disappears, etc – I agree.  Sociology is indeed important.

In fact I could cite a treasure trove of brilliant sociological treatises on the problems of race and class in America that, had Mr. Brooks, and other over-privileged “ conservative” white guys like him, bothered to read they wouldn’t say some of the silly things they say.  For instance if our intrepid reporter really understood social Science methodology he would know that although the participant observer is a legitimate method of investigation it requires a much longer and in-depth interrogation of one’s subjects before grand generalizations can be made about the forces that motivate them and determine their behavior.

Alas Mr. Brooks thinks the fact that he saw some of the white marchers buying food from black folks who were partying on the mall and attending a rap concert there is more compelling evidence that the white marchers were not racist, than the blatantly racist signs and unambiguous hatred they have for him personally.  Is his knowledge of American racial etiquette so shallow that he does not know that even at the height of racist caste system white folks loved black cooking, especially in the south!

And while Mr. Brooks view white folks listening to rappers as evidence that they are not racists, I’d like to remind him that at the turn of the 19th century, the period the eminent Afro-American historian Rayford Logan called “The Nadir” – which is French for “lowest point” – in a seminal book on the Post reconstruction period, “The betrayal Of the Negro,”  the most popular music in the county was “Ragtime,” an Afro-American invention just like rap.  Dr. Dubois summed up that curious phenomenon by wryly remarking “White folks lynch Negroes while singing their songs.”

And what, after all,  is the President’s offense that’s got the Tea Party kooks so atwitter?  He is trying to provide health care for everyone…to heal the sick as commanded by their avowed lord and savior Jesus Christ!   Yet Mr. Brooks has declared that these people are neither racists nor dumb whackos.  He may get over with this muddled apologia in some quarters, but I find Mr. Brook’s sociological observations on race relations unconvincing to say the least.  Yet there remains much we can learn about race relations from real sociologists, especially those who have personally suffered the slings and arrows of racism.


Over a century ago the Afro-American scholar Dr. W.E.B. Dubois, returned from Germany armed with the latest theories and techniques of “social Science” – having studied with and become a close friend of Dr. Max Weber, the scholar who invented the discipline – and produced the first American sociological classic: “The Philadelphia Negro, which was published in 1898 under the auspices of the University Of Pennsylvania.

Dr. Dubois was convinced his scientific investigations into the causes of the black predicament in America and the relationship between the races would lead modern men of good will whose lives are governed by reason to adopt enlightened policies to relieve racial oppression and advance American civilization beyond the barbarism of racial caste oppression, with it’s attendant reign of extra-legal violence and ritual murders called lynching.

However after a decade of such scientific investigations, and hosting a annual conference of social scientists on the campus of Atlanta University – a small all black school devoted to a first rate liberal education like that DuBois received at Harvard – which were attended by his friend Max Weber, Dubois began to have doubts about the effectiveness of scientific knowledge in persuading white Americans to change their evil ways.  When he began his studies at Atlanta, producing a serious scholarly monograph every year, he had said “The world is thinking wrong about race” and believed science could make it right.

It is instructive to understand that during the years when Dr. Dubois was carrying out his studies African Americans – mostly males – were being publicly crucified in ritual murders in which they were hung, shot and burned alive for the amusement of white mobs every two and a half days from 1882 to 1916!  The pictures are in the archives and they show the carnival atmosphere that prevailed at these gruesome events, which the distinguished Harvard sociologists Orlando Patterson has convincingly argued was a form of collective cannibalism on the part of the white mobs in his book Rituals Of Blood. 

 That’s a bit of sociology that Mr. Brooks needs to read if he wants to understand why howling white mobs calling for the death of a black man – like the crowds at the Palin McCain rallies at Pottsville Ohio – look like lynch mobs to African Americans.   These ritual murders of black men caused Dr. DuBois to abandon his scientific work, although he had designed a plan for one hundred years of continual research, and become an activist and propagandist for racial justice and economic equity.  His 1903 literary classic “The Souls Of Black Folks” was the beginning of that effort which led him to become a founder of the NAACP six years later and establish “The Crisis” which chronicled the struggle for racial justice and promoted Afro-American Art and culture throughout the twentieth century and is still in publication.


What is most telling about where Mr. Brooks is coming from – i.e. his vision of the American story – is his selective reading of history; it is the most white bread interpretation possible.  For those of us who know something about the history of race relations it sounds like the ramblings of an ignoramus or a charlatan.  The one thing that any intellectual flim flam man can count on is that he can say virtually anything about American history and the vast majority of his listeners will have no idea if they are listening to fact or fiction, and they will find no resolution to this confusion in most of our high school history texts, whose editorial policies are determined by sales departments who have discovered that it’s not good business to tell the truth about race in America.

We need only witness the bitter battles over attempts by some school boards to adopt the text Land Of the Free” written by the distinguished Afro-American historian John Hope Franklin, in collaboration with two white professors.  White parents in the school districts that rejected the book said in no uncertain terms that they didn’t give a shit whether the facts contained in the book were true or not, they didn’t want their children reading it because it tarnished their white heroes!   Hence the political theorist and cultural critic Harold Cruse was right when he concluded that Americans were “anti-intellectual and anti-historical.” And if this is true of Americans in general it goes triple for right- wing Republicans, who routinely demonstrate contempt  for the truth.

Hence we get this bit of silly sophistry from Mr. Brooks that is repeated as real wisdom ad nauseum by the talking air heads in the media who are even more ignorant than Mr. Brooks.  Only someone blinded by white privilege – what some black folk call “whiteitis” could discuss populism in America and not mention the role of white racism in defeating that movement among radical agrarians led by Tom Watson at the turn of the twentieth century.  Had he read “Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel “ by the distinguished southern historian C. Van Woodward, Mr. Brooks would understand the absurdity of his approach to the question of populism and racism.

And it takes a special pair of blinders not to recognize that everybody he cites in an attempt to decouple populist thought from racism were all arch racist!  Thomas Jefferson was a slave holder whose racist views are well documented.  Here is a man who was so depraved he deflowered a thirteen year old girl, Sally Hemmings, had seven children with her and yet kept her and his children as slaves until his death!  There is hardly a more disturbing document on the pathology of American family life than the memoir left by Jefferson’s son Madison Hemmings, which is included as an appendix in Professor Fawn Brody’s path breaking book Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History.”

Andrew Jackson was an arch racist who was not only a slave holder but a notorious Indian killer who dispossessed whole nations and drove them from their ancestral lands.  Dr. Gerald Horne, the Moores Professor of History and Afro-American Studies at the University of Houston – who is perhaps the most broadly learned and prolific historian writing in America today – and has also held appointments as a professor of law – is presently writing a book about how Andrew Jackson destroyed a large and prosperous African and Native American community in Pensacola Florida and massacred the inhabitants when it was still a Spanish territory!

The white folks called him “Old Hickory” the defender of the “common man.”  But they conveniently leave out the critical adjective “White” man.  It is instructive that the rights of women were not a part of his advocacy, and the native Americans had another name for him: “Sharp Knife!”  The native American’s view of “Old Hickory” can be read in “Bury My Heart At wounded Knee,” which is the voices of Native Americans recorded by government stenographers.

Although I was already astonished having read thus far into Mr. Brooks exercise in Republican apologia and what historians call “special pleading,” masquerading as serious historical analysis, I was never-the-less shocked by his citations of the racist Louisiana Demagogue Huey Long – who was the model for “The King Fish” in Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “All The King’s Men.” And the notorious anti-Semite father Coughlin, who used the radio to whip up hatred against the Jews in the same way that Dr. Goebbles used the radio airwaves of Germany to goad the Christian Germans into committing genocide against the Jews that resulted in the slaughter of millions of innocents!   Longtime village voice writer Nat Hentoff recalls his father having to pull off the highway to calm his nerves after hearing one of Coughlin’s anti-Semitic diatribes on the car radio.

Furthermore Father Coughlin is the model and spiritual father of the incendiary radio and television racist of today ala Rush Limbaugh, Glen Beck, Sean Hannity et al who seem to be trying their best to push this country into a race war.  By choosing the historical actors he chose Mr. Brooks defeats his own argument, because they read like a rogues gallery of racists and anti-Semites!  In fact, it strongly suggests that perhaps racism is an integral ingredient in populist movements in the US.  Strangely, all of these facts seem to have escaped Mr. Brook’s in his white bread reading of history.  Interestingly enough, the one historian Mr. Brooks did refer to has little or nothing to say about the fundamental question the column pretends to address: What is the role of racism in the present demonstrations against President Obama?

Hence I would like to give Mr. Brooks an assignment that will better prepare him to offer and analysis that enlightens more than it obscures the next time he ventures into these troubled waters – assuming that education and not obfuscation is his objective.  This assumption however requires a heroic leap of faith given the lies and racist demagoguery that has become the standard for the Republican contribution to our political discourse.  In order to understand what is happening with the so-called “Tea Party Rebellion” there is two books Mr. Brooks must absolutely must read – and  based upon the convoluted nonsense he has  presented as serious argument it is obvious to this writer that he has read neither.

The more important of the two is “The Politics Of Rage,” written by the distinguished Bancroft Prize winning historian Dan T. Carter who, ironically, was a longtime professor at Emory University where President Jimmy Carter made his spot on assessment of the role of racism in the irrational hate mongering of many of the demonstrators and the talking media heads who egg them on.  I have already posted my views on that controversy in “A Self-Evident Truth,” so I won’t belabor the matter here.

Dr. Carter’s book is the best single treatment on how the Republican Party replaced the Democrats in the former confederate states of the South, which for most of the twentieth century hated the Republicans like they now hate the Democrats.  What this work shows is that in both instances the critical factor was maintaining white supremacy, which is, after all, the raison d’etre for racism.  With the careful arguments of the accomplished historian Professor Carter systematically marshals the evidence to show how the Republican strategy that resulted in the election of Ronald Reagan – which represents the triumph of the far right in the US – was originally authored by George Wallace, during the period  before his rejection of racist doctrine and embracing a posture of racial reconciliation.

In fact, it is a measure of how reactionary the Republican base is on this question that George Wallace’s daughter supported Barack Obama for President and is now supporting his old law school class mate for governor of Alabama, while the most powerful spokesman for the Republicans, Rush Limbaugh, is stoking the fires of racial hysteria!   The point here is that the reason why none of the leadership in the Republican Party will  denounce the obvious racism of the Tea Party Demonstrators or the racist broadcast bloviators is because they understand that their bread is buttered with white racism.

Hence to call the racist by their proper name could spell the end of their political career.  And thus  they have made a Faustian bargain with racist – whether every Republican personally harbors such views is irrelevant in this context –  and  it is devouring the soul of the Republican Party while embarrassing our country around the world and pushing us toward racial violence!  Furthermore, several experts on Presidential assassinations have gone on record saying that all of this inflammatory racist rhetoric emanating from the Republican camp is greatly increasing the chances of our President being assassinated!    This assessment is supported by the Secret Service’s revelation that they are receiving more threats against the life of  Barack Obama than any previous President.

The fear of assassination has been an abiding fear of African Americans – this writer included – in fact, I went down to the Talkers Magazine awards ceremonies  accompanied only by Scott Pellegrino of FAIR and accused Sean Hannity of trying to get Barack Obama assassinated during the presidential campaign.  It can be viewed on You Tube – see “Playthell Challenges Racist White commentators.”  It was this fear on the part of Colin Powell’s wife Alma that kept the General from running for President, and in retrospect kept him from becoming the first black man to occupy that high office.  It was a fear that deprived us of the wise leadership of this great American and inflicted eight years of George W. Bush on the nation, a blunder of epic proportions that even Republicans now admit was a colossal mistake.

Hence Mr. Brook’s attempt to deny the role of racism in the present attacks – many of which are explicit, or implicit in the pervasive coded language like “we want our country back” and attempts to deny his American birth – is a fool’s errand.  Alas, this is an odd mission for a man who pretends to wisdom and wishes to be taken seriously by serious people. Mr. Brooks appears to be so out of touch with reality he would  almost certainly argue that his position on the editorial page of the New York times has nothing to do with the fact that he is a WASP male with a passably reasonable conservative point of view. That, I believe, is characteristic of his point of view on benign the role of race, gender and ethnicity in deciding who gets what in contemporary American society.

Finally, the second book that Mr. Brooks desperately needs to read is “Nixon’s Piano: Presidents And Racial Politics From Washington To Clinton,” By the eminent historian of racism and American politics Dr. Kenneth O’Reilly.=On “The Great Democratizer” Andrew Jackson, Mr. Brook’s champion of the common man,  Professor O’Reilly tells us: “the Jacksonian movement invented a party and style of presidential leadership that knew no higher purpose than protecting slavery forever.”  Yet, as Abraham Lincoln and the “Free Soilres” would later point out: the existence of slavery prevented free white labor from being able to bargain for a fair wage!

Yet most of the poor whites, who were the vast majority of southerners, supported slavery because of their commitment to the ideology of white supremacy even if was against their interests.  Just like the poor whites that make up the base of the party of the plutocrats. However the most important point in Nixon’s Piano – among many eye opening revelations that contradict the conventional wisdom on the role of racism in American politics – is that white politicians need not harbor racist views themselves in order to utilize racists for political purposes.

This was especially true in the case of Ronald Reagan and George Bush as opposed to “Tricky Dick” Nixon, author of the infamous “southern strategy,” who was both a racist and an anti-Semite.  And it is also true of all the Republican aspirants for President today; which is why John McCain remained silent as Sarah Palin – the ignorant shrew who would be President – whipped up white mobs into a racist frenzy against Barack Obama.  And the fact that Barack went on to win the election does not mean – as the President himself has implied when he reminded David Letterman that he was black before he was elected, racism is not a driving force in the protests against him.  His remarks must be seen as political wisdom not a candid assessment of the facts.  For it is certainly wise for him to avoid personal entanglement in the question if racism, which could derail his grand objectives for the nation.

The plain fact of the matter regarding the state of race relations in America is that most of those whites who voted for Barack have moved beyond the well established  white pathology of “nigger hating.”  But a great majority of those who did not are royally pissed that a black man is in the white House and are trying to do everything they can imagine to ruin his presidency in order to manufacture a self-fulfilling prophecy that no black man can lead this great country – just as President Carter said!   And thus they can kill two birds with one stone: insure our President’s failure – as Limbaugh has publicly committed himself to – and insure the American people will not dare vote another African American to this high office again!  In spite of the anti-health care rhetoric this is the real aim of the Tea Party movement.

 Racist Parody Of Obama

 How the President looks to the Republican Demonstrators

Alas, Mr. Brook’s foray into historical interpretation only adds confusion to a discourse that is already riddled with Republican lies and myriad distortions. Since I cannot know the true sentiments of Mr. Brook’s heart, I shall refrain from labeling him a secret agent for the racist Republican rabble, and conclude that he is simply clueless!


Playthell G. Benjamin

Harlem New York

September 23. 2009

Salsa Dancing From Coast to Coast

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews on September 21, 2009 by playthell

On The Art Of Mambo!

 El Chocolate Caliente in Cuba-final

The Conga Drums: Heartbeat of The Mambo!

I suppose because I became aware of this music, which is now popularly known as “Salsa,” when it was universally called “Afro-Cuban” music I continue to think of the dance form as Mambo.   This dance, though perfected in New York City, is obviously an extension of the Danzon the national dance of Cuba.  The accelerated tempo of the Mambo and the complexity of the turns in partners dancing reflect the complexity and break neck pace of the milieu in the great American City where this style of dancing reached its apotheosis.

The First couple are New Yorkers, the male is Puerto Rican and the female is my daughter Makeda, an all Afro-American girl whose roots go back twenty generations or more in this country.  Yet she dances as if her heritage is Afro-Latin.  The dancing here is in a club and completely improvised.Makeda’s mastery of the Mambo is a function of several factors and confirms what anthropologists have long argued regarding the fusion of cultures.  First of all Makeda is a trained dancer who has formally studied various genres of dance ranging from classical ballet, modern dance, Afro-Cuban, Puerto-Rican Bomba, Haitian traditional dances, Congolese dance, etc. 

And secondly, she grew up among Afro-Indio peoples from the Caribbean and South America, and developed a love for their cultures from cuisine to music, and especially dance!  And finally, she was raised in a household where the music was played and her father played the conga drums and danced the Mambo.  All of the influence contributed to her mastery of Afro-Latin Dance.  She dances with some of the best musicians and dancers of the genre. 

As the reader can see from my pictures of Latin dancers in far away San Francisco, her New York City approach to the dance has become the dominant trend in the genre.  I was surprised to find such skilled dancers in Frisco, and I have attempted to capture their grace, passion and elegance in these poignant images.

Live At Club Caribe:  In Spanish Harlem!

In spanish Harlem With Keda 187

Makeda: Queen Of the Mambo Dancing with Armando

Popi Chuela!

Scenes from New Years Eve and other 180

At Gonzalez Y Gonzalez!


Moving In Sync

In spanish Harlem With Keda 205

Dancing As One


The Mambo In Black Harlem!

Blackhispanic Mambo in Harlem 011

In The Ballroom Of the Adam Clayton Powell Building


They Come At All Ages

Blackhispanic Mambo in Harlem 045And And Shake their Groove Thang!


In The Mission District Of San Francisco!

Last Days in San Francisco 435

Dancing With Elegance


On the Dance Floor Age Nor Race Matters!

Last Days in San Francisco 365

Only The Exquisite Ectasy Of the Dance!


But Whether In New York

Scenes from New Years Eve and other 168


OR In San Francisco

Last Days in San Francisco 378

The Mambo Is Mui Caliente!!


Last Days in San Francisco 442And And Graceful Beyond Descriptio


In the Mambo

Scenes from New Years Eve and other 146The Men Control The Dance

Whether Playing the Conga Drums Or Dancing

Openineg night at the Chimney Club 103

The Mambo is Intoxicating!



Photo’s and Text by: Playthell Benjamin

* Excerpted from his forthcoming book “The Art Of Mambo”







A Visit To the Fillmore District

Posted in Cultural Matters, Playthell on politics on September 21, 2009 by playthell

At the Shrine Of John The Prophet!

Last Days in San Francisco 271

San Francisco Poet and painter Renaldo Ricketts Paying Homage To A Saint


 The Strange Case Of Fillmore

A  Cautionary Tale For Harlem and Black Urban Communities Everywhere!

For forty years or more I have heard predictions that “the white folks are gonna take Harlem back,” but I always dismissed it as some species of paranoia bordering on hysteria.  Just looking around at the masses of black people crammed into this section of upper Manhattan the evidence of my senses assured me that removing them was not possible; whites had all of down town and mid-town, I conjectured, so they weren’t interested in moving uptown among the dreaded and feared blacks.

But after having watched the population trends of the last few years I am beginning to feel the way the Native American “Indians” must have felt when they witnessed the wagon trains increase in volume year after year as the “wretched refuse” of Europe trekked across the great plains driven by an insatiable land hunger.

Sugar Hill Now!

On Sugar Hill

 Life is still sweet for blacks on Sugar Hill…but things are changing

The neighborhood where I live, the once world famous “Sugar Hill,” was home to some of the most famous black people in the world.  Duke Ellington, Dr. WEB Dubois, Langston Hughes, and Walter White all live here.  Count Basie, Thurgood Marshall , Johnny Hodges and Andy Kirk all lived in my building.  Joe Louis lived here when he was World Heavy Weight champion and the most famous man in the world!  Paul Robeson, a paragon of human perfection and one of the greatest men of the twentieth century, lived in the very apartment where I have resided for the past thirty years.

 When I first moved to Sugar Hill the neighborhood was 99% black.  First there was a great Hispanic migration to the area, and now the whites are coming.  It seems that every time I look around there is a new white neighbor in my building.  Some of them speak and try to be friendly, others act as if they have encountered a man from Mars.  Longtime black residents all over Harlem are encountering the same experience, and there is a growing feeling that we are “losing Harlem.”  However, in spite of this visible trend  I found it impossible to imagine Harlem as a “post black” community…until I visited Fillmore.

Groundings With My Brothers

Last Days in San Francisco 234 

The brothers in the barbershop said…

” They are trying to cocentrate the few blacks left in the projects”

For here in this choice residential neighborhood of San Francisco, black people have virtually disappeared from this once bustling African American community.  For those who remain, there is the widespread feeling that they are like the last of the Mohicans.  It is a palpable feeling, and word quickly spread that there was a writer from Harlem who was interested in interviewing Afro-Americans about their displacement from this community people seemed to appear out of nowhere anxious to tell their stories.

A surprising number of them felt that the dismantling of their community was a planned event directed from City Hall through Urban renewal schemes in which City officials used the powers granted them under the laws of eminent domain.  Listening to them talk I was reminded of a slogan that was popular in the 1960’s when much of this redevelopment activity began: “Urban Renewal means Negro removal!”

The Way We Were

 Last Days in San Francisco 221

Fifty Years Ago Fillmore Was full of Afro-American home owners

Now It’s Mostly High Priced Condos

Last Days in San Francisco 216

Owned by whites and Asians!

Well history has proved those words to be prophetic.  And as I travel around the US I see this trend in inner cities large and small the evidence of this demographic trend is unmistakable. For instance, in St. Augustine Florida, the nation’s oldest city and first free black community, Lincolnville, the all black community where I grew up, is now 70% white!  And Harlem, whose virtues as neighborhood was first celebrated in James Weldon Johnson’s “Black Manhattan” seems next on the list for “Negro Removal.”

This slogan often came to mind as people stood on the streets and pointed to where black owned businesses and Jazz clubs such as the world famous “Bop City” once flourished.  This story is told in poignant detail in the PBS documentary “The Story Of the Fillmore,” where we see clips of Afro-Americans predicting the end of their community

 The Golden Age Of Jazz In Frisco!

John Coltrane at Bop City

A young John Coltrane Jamming at Bop City

Hence the Fillmore experience serves as a harbinger of what lies down the road in the future and is a poignant warning to black urbanites across this vast nation.  As the great saxophonist, singer and showman Louis Jordan – who no doubt played in the clubs and theaters of Fillmore many times – warned us: Beware Brother Beware!

The Bop City Baby…Keeping The Tradition Alive

 Last Days in San Francisco 236

 His Father took him to Bop City as a child..

 and now he curates The Jazz Museum in Fillmore


Photos and Text by: Playthell Benjamin

* Except for the picture of John Coltrane

Portrait Of A Georgia Song Bird

Posted in Music Reviews with tags on September 21, 2009 by playthell




Jean Carn 


 A Saturday Night Fish Fry with Jean Carn and Friends

 I have see Jean Carn perform in some of the world’s most prestigious venues, and once fronted a band that accompanied her in a sold out concert in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall.  But this was different.  It was home cooking at the East Point Municipal Auditorium last Saturday night when she joined a group of Jazz cats from Atlanta who got together to jam at a fund raiser for Ronald Reed Senior, a local Afro-American politician who was running for Mayor of this little pastoral town on the outskirts of Atlanta.  It was a part of the community service that appears to be second nature to her, the results of which is clearly observable in the warmth and admiration with which she was greeted everywhere I went with her in the black community. And her contributions were recognized with a “Distinguished Service” award, presented on stage at intermission for her work, in heading a committee struggling to save her Alma Mater Morris Brown College.  And with characteristic modesty she smiled brightly, uttered a simple thanks and departed the stage.

 Although she was definitely the star of this show, Jean conducted herself as just one of the guys. Generously complimenting the other singers on the bill she pointed Henry Porter out to me and extolled his prowess as a singer of European classical music, as he gave a soulful rendition of the beautiful ballad My Funny Valentine, and she gushed with compliments for Reginald C. Dancil, who sounded like a classic crooner ala Billy Eckstine and Al Hibbler as he glided through such standards as Orange Colored Sky and My Favorite Things, a beautiful Broadway tune immortalized by John Coltrane, which he graciously dedicated to Jean.  And he sang it to death!  This guy is great; he can sing the socks off suckers like Tony Bennett – or Frank Sinatra for that matter!   He should be a household name, and the fact that he isn’t is further testimony to the venality of the music business and the banality of public taste.    

 From the moment they got together to rehearse you could feel the love.  The love of great music, and the love for performing live for an audience.  The band, Jazz South, was fronted by J.O. Wyatt, Atlanta’s venerable Jazz promoter/politician who once owned “Just Jazz,” the premiere downtown jazz club showcasing the major talents of the genre until he was driven out of business due to the skyrocketing rents ushered in when the Olympic Games came to this southern boom town. J. O., as he is known about town, hails from San Antonio Texas – a town that evokes unpleasant memories of my stint in basic training at Lackland Air Force base, where my transformation from a “candy-ass” civilian to a “SAC trained killer” began.

 Like Jean, he was educated at one of the city’s prestigious black colleges.  While Jean attended the financially troubled Morris Brown, J.O. went to Morehouse, the Alma Mater of Dr. M.L. King, historian Lyrone Bennett Jr. and legions of other Afro-American men who departed those ivy walls and made history. J.O.’s personal history provides a glimpse of the fabulous legacy of black colleges.  A varsity basketball player at Talladega College before transferring to Morehouse, he was a team mate of Calvin Hernton, who went on to become one of the nation’s most accomplished writers and critics, holding a professorship in English at Oberland College before his untimely death.  And at Morehouse he was a team mate of Don Clendenin, who went on to a great career in major league baseball.

 That Jean attended Morris Brown is another measure of the talent that passed through the halls of these historically black colleges. Having won a Metropolitan Opera competition at eighteen, she could, like Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis, have gone up north and attended Julliard.  I first heard her sing when I came down to Atlanta in the late Sixties to speak at a conference of progressive clergymen who were active in the Civil Rights struggle, and she performed as a soloist with the Morris Brown choir. 

 Having spent many years in the bass section of school and church choirs where we sang chorals written and arranged by the great masters, and after listening for years to the many fine singers who came to my aunt Marie for vocal lessons, I had a well tutored ear for good singing and was not easily impressed.  But this slightly built young lady nearly knocked me off my feet with her big voice.  I remember wondering where all that sound was coming from, since I had already concocted a theory about the sources of the marvelous multi-colored sound that is the hallmark of great black singers.  Using such wonderful songbirds as Marian Anderson, Mahalia Jackson, Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald as models, I had concluded that it was a combination of full lips and healthy hips. 

Since Jean had neither of these physical features, she blew my hypothesis out of the water.  As an unmitigated partisan of science, I was forced to seek other explanations, since everything that is wonderful about the black female voice – from the gifts of warmth and color, to its tantalizing timbres, to the way in bends notes like pretzels – is abundant in the sound Jean’s bewitching vocal instrument. Here is a voice of such versatility and sheer beauty that one is tempted to paraphrase Maestro Leopold Stokowsky’s panegyric to Marian Anderson: “Hers is a voice that is heard once in a century!”    If this was true of Ms. Anderson – and I don’t doubt it, for I have yet to hear another contralto comparable to hers – then it is certainly true of Jean Carn, because she can sing brilliantly in every genre from the European classics to gospel, jazz and rhythm and blues.



 Around 8:oclock a rotund fellow with a jovial personality approached the mike and introduced himself as “Captian Mellow” an Atlanta Jazz D.J., and he was enthusiastically applauded when he asked if the audience was ready to hear some jazz.  He was greeted with more applause when he introduced “Jazz South” the house band for the evening.   When J.O. took the stand he looked different from the evening before when we first met in Satterwhite’s Feast, a unique soul food restaurant that is distinguished for its delicious pork free southern cuisine and all-you-can-eat smorgasbord style, he was dressed casually in shirt and pants with a Nike sports cap.  But when he struck up the band Saturday night he was quite the fashion plate, his fine slacks and sports coat topped off with a elegant fedora; strictly high fashion.  The instrumentation in the quintet was standard issue for jazz combos, except for an amplified wooden guitar accompanying the tenor sax in place of the traditional trumpet voice. 

 It didn’t take long to peep the fact that they were all master musicians with mucho chops on their axes.  The warm response from the audience – who were well schooled in jazz etiquette and knew when and where to clap – fed the creative impulses of the musicians and they swang with a steady groove  up-tempo, and flowed as smooth as butter on the ballads, especially “Tenderly.”  Although I had winced when I saw an electric keyboard onstage – being a great lover of the art of acoustic piano, Jim Bell, a local music teacher, took us to different places with his artistry on the amplified keyboard, reminding me of Lonnie Listen Smith when he was Astral Traveling. 

 J.O. demonstrated his mastery of all genres of the Jazz esthetic with his full bodied sound and blues voice that reminds me of those other big voiced blues shouting Texas Tenors like Arnett Cobb and Illinois Jaquette.  When they played “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” the Joe Zawinul tune made famous by the late Cannon Ball Adderly’s band, which featured a rousing and technically brilliant solo from the guitarist, Charlie Robinson, the audience went off.   By the time the pianist took his solo, folks were clapping on the beat all over the room.  The audience stayed right in the groove as the band went right into Charlie Parker’s Latin inflected tune “Little Suede Shoes.”  Jazz South is a band who really knows how to swing the blues in any tempo, and the audience gave them a hero’s welcome.

 When the MC, Captain Mellow, introduced Henry Porter, he was greeted with tumultuous applause before singing a note.  As it turns out he used to teach mathematics in the public schools of East Point.  And he continues his career as a pedagogue by teaching voice pro bono at his beloved Alma Mater, Morris Brown.  When he opened his set with the old Ray Charles classic “Hallelujah I Just Love Her So,” sounding like a flat footed blues shouter right out of the honky tonks, I was reminded of the unique artistry of Three Mo Tenors, some other brothers who can sing Verdi and Ray Charles on the same program.   After rocking the house he mellowed out and serenaded us with the lovely ballad “The Nearness of You.”  He completed his set with a selection of standards that included a swinging version of “Bye Bye Black Bird that had the house clapping along.




            Finally it was star time at the East Point Center,  “Everytime I hear this lady’s name three words come to mind “Magic, Magnificence, and Melodic.  Captain Mellow intoned.  The audience exploded in sonic waves of applause as Jean came on swinging hard on the classic Ellington/Strayhorn tune “Take the A Train, a tune loved around the world.   From the outset the learned listener could revel in the fascinating colors and remarkable versatility of her voice.  After dedicating her next song to “the Divas who inspired and influenced me” she launched into a soul stirring rendition of “At Last,” a beautiful ballad made famous by the great Etta James.  J.O. now having dressed down to his street soldier uniform, knit skull cap and all, played a magnificent solo behind her.  I loved it, I could feel the words deep in my soul and it sent a thrill cascading down my spine from my cranium to my phalanges.

 Then the mood changed dramatically as the band broke into the entrancing Bossa Nova rhythms of Antonio Carlos Jobim’s Brazilian classic, “The Girl/Boy from Ipenema,” and jean reminisced about her recent sojourn in Brazil.  I had not seen her perform live in a decade, and the main difference I observed in her performance style is that she has become much more theatrical – dancing constantly and acting out the lyrics in dramatic gestures – whereas before she simply stood and sang, relying only on her magnificent voice to capture the audience.  It is an extra added attraction however, because it is still that incomparably beautiful voice and inventive delivery that satiates the hunger of her audiences.  The fact that this was a pick-up band that she was performing with, having had only one rehearsal a couple of hours before the show, is a powerful testament to her special talent. 

  The next Diva that she selected for tribute was the late great Dinah Washington as she sashayed into “What a Difference a Day Makes.” Although her up-tempo Latin tinged version of the tune was lovely, I’d have preferred to hear her sing it in slow drag time.  After she concluded the tune she was presented with flowers by Ron Reed, another demonstration of the love and reverence which the audience feels for this wonderful and generous artist who seems – like the late great Sammy Davis Jr. – to give her all to every song she sings. 

 When she sang the moving ballad, “The Wind Beneath My Wings,” and took the liberty to alter the lyrics to say “Shero” in alternate verses, with hero, dedicating it to the candidate and his wife, we all fell completely under her spell. The audience drowned her in applause and gave her a standing ovation. This writer included.  And here is the downside to unrecorded live performances: Some of the greatest performances are confined to the few lucky souls that happen to be there in the moment. Then Jean was greeted with another round of applause when she introduced her son Joe Carn, a fine young man who is running for the city council in College Park Georgia.

 After acknowledging the contributions of several Jazz giants the lady sang the blues, inspiring the musicians to get down and dirty with a sassy shuffle that made the audience clap on the groove and me want to jump up and do the “Funky Chicken” or the “Dirty Dog!”  It was a Saturday night fish fry the way Louis Jordan told it, home cooking for real.  J.O. fired up the house and became a honker in the tradition of Gator Tail Jackson and the Bull Moose.  I looked around and saw that I wasn’t the only one felt like I wanted to dance or die!   Even the security people were cutting a rug. It was reminiscent of that great scene from the Fats Waller video “This Joint is Jumpin,” where the cops come to quell a loud party and ended up boogying down with the guest.  Before it was over half the audience was on their feet and the other half were grooving to the beat in their seat.  The audience loved Jean…and I love her too.

Two Of My Favorite Flicks

Posted in Movie Reviews with tags , , , , , , , on September 21, 2009 by playthell

On  Cadillac Records



Wow! An Instant Classic

 Ever so often a movie comes along that captures the spirit of an age, Parkwood Pictures’ Cadillac Records is such a movie. A period piece set in the racially tumultuous era between the end of the great depression and the outbreak of World War II in the early 1940’s, and the turbulent 1960’s when the walls of segregation – which had defined the lives and art of the bluesmen in fundamental ways – came tumbling down, we follow the lives, loves and musical careers of the legendary Mississippi bluesmen who created the “Delta Blues.’

One of the many achievements of this remarkable movie is the way it shows how their sound was the bedrock upon which a multi-billion dollar industry was built, as the musical styles that became world famous as Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, and Hard Rock all evolved from these blues roots – what the perceptive music critic Robert Palmer calls “Deep Blues” in his authoritative book by that name.

 As in any historical movie the sets, costumes, language, etc play a critical role in the ability of the film to transport us back in time.  But the ultimate time machine is the music they played back then. The much celebrated Afro-American novelist Ralph Ellison, reflecting on the birth of Be-bop in Harlem’s “Minton’s Play House,” observed: “Music gives resonance to memory.”  And as this movie is about the migration of Mississippi country blues musicians to the great city of Chicago, we have a treasure trove of sound portraits that mirror their journey.

As a student and teacher of history I am intensely interested in historical drama and fictions.   I am especially thrilled when I see another important slice of black life successfully portrayed on the giant silver screen, where it literally becomes larger than life.  And if Woodrow Wilson – a former US President and Princeton history Professor – thought D.W. Griffiths racist propaganda film Birth of a Nation was “history written by lightening,” Cadillac Records is history written with enlightenment.

Cadillac Record’s is remarkably candid in portraying the racist social etiquette and oppressive political system of white supremacy that it supported.  And it does so without ever becoming preachy; the play remains the thing, and the imperatives of dramatic art are ever observed.  In this film the muses are served in fine fashion; even while the harsh realities of the sharecropper south where hunger, poverty and random white violence were omnipresent, and the dangerous cities of the north with its seductions of vice and the catharsis of violence,  are graphically portrayed.

This film however, does not stop at portraying the most obvious aspects of race prejudice and the discriminatory treatment that results from it, but also looks at questions of class and ethnicity and subtly meditates on how they have shaped the contours of American culture.  There is a richness here that inevitably results when a film maker – who is, at their best, a celluloid dramatist – takes an honest look at the cultural complexity of the United States of America.  For they are sure to find, as our former Mayor David Dinkins elegantly put it: “A gorgeous mosaic.”

In the opening scenes of this movie we are given an inside glimpse of what it was like being the poor son of Polish Jewish immigrants in Chicago in the portrayal of a young Leonard Chess.  Convincingly played by Adrien Brody – a talented actor whom I first saw in The Pianist, a movie about the plight of the Polish Jewish community during the German Nazi occupation – Chess is hungry for success in America after the father of the lady he wanted to marry spurned his request for her hand with the pronouncement: “Your father and I are from the same shit hole in Poland.  I didn’t travel all this way to have my daughter marry some schmuck from the same village!”

On another occasion when Muddy waters and Leonard chess were traveling the back roads of Mississippi by car Muddy asks Chess why his family traveled across the vast oceans from Poland to come to Chicago, Chess replies by asking him why “ yo ass left Mississippi” to come to Chicago?”  This episode alludes to the shared experience of African-Americans and Eastern European Jews who hailed from Poland and the Russian Pale.

For both of them Chicago was a city of refuge and hope as they sought to escape racial discrimination and random violence. It is through the use of such representative anecdotes, accompanied by the employment of artful intelligent visuals, that much of the sociological depth and complexity of this story is simplified and given a human dimension.  And like all good historical dramas, Darnell Martin, the writer and director of this splendid art film, have shown excellent taste and judgment in selecting the right issues and episodes to capture the zeitgeist of the era.


From a purely artistic point of view this script was a writer’s delight.  The characters that people this flick are the right stuff for the making of legends.  Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, the harmonica virtuoso Little Walter, and the legendary Willie Dixon, composer of blues hits such as “My Babe” and “Hootchie Kootchie Man are all there. These modern day troubadours took the trials and triumphs that mirror the vicissitudes of life universal to the human condition and set them to song – that’s why their music touched and inspired people across racial, ethnic, class, and national boundaries.

This should come as no surprise however, after all, as Albert Murray, the preeminent commentator on the philosophy, esthetics and cultural significance of the blues tells us in his seminal book Stomping the Blues: “The blues as music” is  the antidote to “the blues as such.”  In  other words, while most people who hear the blues outside of its social and  cultural context think of the music as sad, Murray argues that the blues sensibility is just the opposite  of “sack cloth and ashes.”   In fact, as the title of his book suggest, musicians stomp the blues to chase the Blues away.

All of this is captured marvelously in Cadillac Records and gives it the ring of truth.  It’s insightfulness into the philosophy and esthetics of the blues is clearly on display in the way they portray the lives and personalities of the bluesmen and the milieu in which they thrived.  As Mr. Murray has observed, the blues is more likely to celebrate the joi de vivre  of Afro-American life than to wallow in self-pity and sadness.  Put differently, the blues is party music, the cure for depression.  And the bluesmen in Cadillac Records partied all the time as they created great art that continues to win the hearts of fans all over the world

Jeffry Wright as Muddy Waters Jeffery Wright As Muddy Waters

 Jeffrey Wright is as good playing Muddy Waters as Jamie Fox was playing Ray Charles, and Jamie won the Academy Award for his performance!”   One can take the measure of an actor’s skill by the way they interpret the subtleties of character, idiosyncratic gestures expressed in body language and nuances of speech.  I didn’t know Muddy Waters like I knew Ray Charles, but I feel the same way about Wright’s portrayal of him as Albert Einstein felt when the Rabbi’s demanded to know if the scientist believed  his theories explained how god created the universe. To wit Einstein replied: “No, but I know that he could have done it that way.”

Wright is that convincing in the role.  Having grown up around southern black musicians I am amazed at the accuracy of the portrait of them the actors render in Cadillac Records. It is a tribute to their diligence in preparing for the roles they sought to play.  And anybody who was fortunate enough to hear them interviewed on BET and elsewhere, knows that these great performances were inspired by the actors’ profound respect for their characters.

Cedrick the Entertainer give a solid performance as the level headed Willie Dixon, and Eamonn Walker is sensational as The Howling Wolf, one of the most interesting and original of the Mississippi bluesmen.   A man of imposing stature, Eamonn Walker can go from a smiling geniality to a murderous scowl with a twitch of his face muscles and a gesture from his heavily muscled ebony frame.  When we consider the fact that he is a British actor, Walker’s amazing rendering of backwoods Mississippi speech through a marvelous control of his voice and an amazing ear for nuance distinguishes his performance as a tour de force that stands out in a cast of great performers.

It is a pity that the academy does not give awards for ensemble acting, because great performances are common fare in this film.  For instance Columbus Short’s portrayal of the innovative harmonica virtuoso Little Walter would certainly qualify as a great performance by any objective measure.   He was like a man possessed by the spirit of a great ancestor and had become one with his subject.  Although I thought Moss Def was miscast as Chuck Berry since he looks nothing like him, Will smith would have been perfect for the part, his performance was splendid.  After a while the physical disparity seemed trivial.

As any story about great blues musicians must be, the cast of Cadillac Records is male dominated and the narrative is told from the point of view these gun toting, free spirited, libertine song poets.  A great part of the achievement of this film is the way in which it shows how the blues man was a symbol of black male freedom and potency in a society where the full power of the armed state was employed to crush any manifestation of it.

Having acknowledged the dominance of male concerns and the outstanding performances of the male actors, let me hasten to acknowledge that Gabriel Union, an elegant hot chocolate beauty, revealed the depth of her talents as an actress playing the stoic but earthy wife of the ebullient philanderer Muddy Waters. And it remains true that casting Beyonce Knowles as Etta James was a singular act of genius.

Having dominated the pop music charts for several years now, with this moving picture the great singer has come of age as an actress.  Abandoning the glamorous persona that is her stock in trade, Beyonce gained over twenty pounds in order to give authenticity to her performance as the young Etta James – a boozy dope fiend who courted tragedy because of a deep inner-pain that she seemed to almost nurture as the source of her tortured, though profoundly beautiful, art.

           An Actress Of Substance

       beyonce-as-etta-jame3 Byonce As Etta James


This role demonstrates Beyonce’s range as an actress, for she is called upon to recreate emotions that cannot come from her well of experience with the ways of  a dope fiend and bar fly who appears to have occasionally turned tricks when she was just starting out.  In regard to all these tawdry matters, Ms. Knowles’ well is dry.   Hence it is all artifice in the truest sense of the word, for interpreting the complex highly neurotic character that was the youthful Etta James, the illegitimate daughter of the legendary white pool hustler “Minnesota Fats,’ and a black prostitute he hooked up with.  In the film she is obsessed with gaining the recognition of her father, and that is the deepest source of her pain.

Beyonce’s performance ranks right up there with Diana Ross’ portrayal of Billie Holliday, another tragic vocal genius, in Lady Sings the Blues, Angela Basset’s rendering of Tina Turner in What’s Love go to do with It?   Jennifer Hudson’s portrait of Florence Ballard in Dream Girls must also be added to this list of great performances by black actresses in bio-pics.

Hudson won the Oscar for her role, and Ms. Ross and Ms. Basset would have won if everybody played fair.  However, unlike the other three ladies Ms. Basset cannot sing so she was forced to act her way through it, just as Halle Barry had done in her powerful portrayal of the  beautiful and superbly gifted Dorothy Dandridge – a role I always thought would have been better suited for Vanessa Williams who, like Dorothy, is a triple threat.  She can sing, dance, and act with seemingly equal facility – and she is brilliant at all three.

However the three singers all gave inspired performances in their roles, buoyed by the wonderful repertoire of American song that the role provided.  While I do not intend to make invidious comparisons because I believe that both Ms Hudson and Ms Knowles are great singers – Prima Donna Absoluta’s of the dynamic Gospel/Soul style –I must nevertheless confess that I found Beyonce’s rendition of the Etta James hits ‘At Last” and “I’d Rather Go Blind Baby, Than Watch You Walk Away From Me,” to be without equal.  When she sang “At Last” our spirits were buoyed by thoughts of past loves that now seem perfect, or we reveled in a newly found love; it was a joy.   And when she sang I’d Rather Go Blind” there wasn’t a dry eye in the house…this writers eyes included. It was a bravura performance …Bravo!


Watch Beyonce sing “I’d Rather go Blind”

 See Etta James Sing the Original


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem New York

Fall 2008               


Soul Power!

 African American Stars Return to the Motherland

soulpower-BB King

Blues Boy King Wailing In the Motherland

Soul Power, a powerful documentary film directed by Jeffery Levy-Hinte, about an extraordinary troupe of musicians from the African Diaspora in the Americas, is the real sound track from the 1974 “ Rumble in the Jungle,” the epic boxing match between Muhammad Ali and the fearsome George Foreman which was recently released as the moving documentary film “When We Were Kings.”

The attention of the world – and not just the sporting world – was focused on this prize fight, which was held in Zaire, the sprawling Central African nation formerly known as the Belgium Congo.  The controversies that surrounded the fight, like the star attraction Muhammad Ali, transcended the sport of boxing and accounts for the great interest the event held for people who were not boxing fans or sports fans at all.  It is impossible to grasp the gravity of this spectacle without understanding its relationship to broader historical trends.

At the time Muhammad Ali was the most famous man in the world and the perfect icon for an era of world black revolution which came of age with Ali in the 1960’s, and was embodied in his personality.  Having given up millions of dollars when he was stripped of his heavy-weight crown because he denounced America’s criminal invasion of Vietnam and refused induction into the US army, Ali became one of the most controversial personalities of that revolutionary decade and the ultimate symbol of militant black resistance.  What made his stance so admirable was that he would have been assigned to special services and never have to actually go into combat.  So his stance was an unmistakable act of principle, made at great sacrifice to him self.

There was no comparable act by anyone in the world of sports and entertainment.  And when he joined the feared and hated “Black Muslims” of the Nation of Islam, the white media and white supremacist of every stripe were up in arms.  Ali’s decision to join the NOI, which under normal circumstances would have been his personal business, was announced at a time when the NOI’s spokesman Malcolm X was the most feared and hated man in the nation by white Americans.

During his preparation for the title bout with the seemingly invincible Sonny Liston – a former Mafia enforcer who became the undisputed champion and petrified everybody else in the heavy-weight division – Ali invited Malcolm X into his training camp.  After his relatively easy victory over the powerful but outclassed Liston, which shocked the boxing world, Ali attributed his victory to the state of mind he developed in rap sessions with Malcolm during training.

There were white guys in the boxing business who had never said a word about the role of white gangsters in the game who wanted to strip Ali of the title immediately.  But since freedom of religion is a constitutional right of all American citizens they would surely have been defeated in court had they attempted to take the crown by administrative fiat.  Hence Ali’s refusal of induction was a gift to these reactionary racist who saw their chance to dethrone him; they knew this was the only way he would lose the crown because he was miles ahead of any of the heavy-weight contenders.  Ali was truly the greatest!

However aside from the rumblings on the right about the fight, there was much consternation on the left too.  For black progressives, who were huge Ali fans, both the legendary promoter Don King – the best since P.T. Barnum – and Mobutu SeSe Seko, the corrupt dictator who ruled Zaire with a ball and chain, were black charlatans who had appropriated the symbols and slogans of the black revolution but where all blow and no go.

In the view of politically astute black people Don King was giving positive play to a traitor to the African revolution. A man who had collaborated with the Belgium colonialists to assassinate the true leader of the Congolese liberation movement- the brilliant and fearless Patrice Lumumba – that resulted in his ascension to power, where he presided over a government that was so corrupt that analyst had to coin a term to describe it: “Cleptocracy!”


This is the minimal essential background one must understand in order to fully appreciate the contemporary and historical significance of “The Rumble in the Jungle.” While Don King was mostly interested in making money and Mobutu was in it for the glory, in spite of King’s effusive “black talk,” the musicians were excited about going to perform in the motherland.  For them it was a spiritual journey to the wellsprings of their art, Neo-African musical forms which has expanded and enriched the western musical tradition.

This is readily apparent from the ongoing interviews with the performing artists at every stage of the trip; the triumphant return to the motherland is a recurrent theme.  The film is constructed so that the narrative builds in drama by showing the great anticipation which greeted the performances on the part of everybody: the planners and promoters; the set builders and sound and lightening men; the people of Zaire; Muhammad Ali and his entourage, and most of all the musicians.

The great enthusiasm with which the musicians anticipated this performance was displayed in the impromptu performances that broke out on the long plane ride from the Americas back to Africa.  This was an all star lineup, the most popular black American and Afro-Latino musicians in the world!

Although the Latin contingent included musicians of all complexions – from the virtuoso Congero Ray Barretto, who is a white Puerto Rican, to the great singer Celia Cruz, who is a black Cuban, they were all committed to a Neo-African art form.  In both the English and Spanish speaking Americas, the music created by the blacks and mulattos is the most dynamic and popular – the national music of their civilizations.

 Celia Cruz: Queen of Afro-Cuban Song

Celia Cruz

Her Powerful Pipes lit it up!

Given the prominence of rhythm instruments in Afro-Latin music it is no wonder that it was they who started the jam on the plane.  It started with clave, cow bell, hand claps and voices – led by the singing of Celia Cruz – and soon the guitarists joined in on acoustic guitars, strumming rhythmic figures and inventing melodies, then the violinist had their axes out.  It got so funky blues icon B.B. King had his guitar out picking along.  The Johnny Pacheco broke out his flute and the plane was rocking, this preview only wet our appetites for the performances to come.

 On the night of the concert the Latin musicians brought the house down.  Although the Zaireans loved the Afro-American musicians, and the “Godfather of Soul” James Brown was the biggest star of all, the Latinos had a special rapport with the audience because their music has retained so many African elements.  First of all African music is characterized by complex polyrhythms, with percussion instruments the dominant voice, and so is Afro-Latin music: Afro-Cuban music especially.   Furthermore the Son Montuno, which is the traditional Afro-Cuban orchestral music, was largely attributed to the creative genius of Arsenio Rodriguez, who is said to be of Congolese origin.  One need only listen to bands like Africando to see how well Africans relate to Afro-Cuban music.  All African music is dance oriented and drums are played for a variety of religious and cultural rituals, which is also true of Afro-Cubans.

So the Latin Musicians wowed the crowd; Celia Cruz was marvelous, she got everybody on their feet as the band fired her up. Flautist Johnny Pacheco, who was conducting the band went off, he played beautifully on the flute and then got down with Celia Cruz in a dynamic display of the art of Mambo.  The crowd went wild!   Ray Barretto delighted the crowd with his virtuosity on the Conga drums, at one time playing four of them.  It was a wonderful exhibition of what the African musical tradition became when it encountered the melodically and harmonically complex music of Europe in the new world.

soulpower-Pacheco and Cruise

Celia Cruz and Johnny Pacheco Getting Down

When Louis Armstrong toured West Africa during the colonial period in the 1950’s his British hosts assured him that Africans would only appreciate up-tempo dance music with “a lot of loud drum solos.”  Pops rejected their musical advice and played his normal repertoire, and the African audiences loved it.  I thought of this when I watched Bill withers singing a very slow and beautiful romantic ballad, accompanying him self on acoustic guitar, casting a spell on the crowd who listened with rapt attention.

soulpower-mv-billwithers-3 Bill Withers Crooning a Sensitive Song

A great songwriter and dynamic performer, withers is also a sensitive and intelligent guy.  The African Journey was a deeply spiritual experience to him.  When the question arose as to what the musicians wanted to take back from Africa, withers said the main thing he wanted to carry back home from his journey wasn’t souvenirs but “this feeling I have here.”

B.B. King was another guitar man who played his regular repertoire and just came out and shouted the blues, the audience loved him and he loved them too. The journey was also profound spiritual journey for him. Growing up in apartheid Mississippi where his blackness and African origins were used as an indictment against him as if it were a crime by the white rulers of the state, the trip to Africa was a kind of spiritual cleansing, he even loved the sweltering heat that had everybody dripping with sweat from the moment they took the stage.

soulpower-M. Makeba

 The Divine Merriam Makeba!

Some of the most touching moments was the exchanges between African performers and the Africans from the American Diaspora. The scenes of Ray Barretto and other Latin percussionist drumming together and Sister Sledge exchanging hip movements with the African ladies – who got the better of the exchange – are poignant examples.

They Africans also loved the all male Rhythm & Blues singing group with their tradition of great singing while executing fabulous complex choreography.  Which on this occasion was represented by the Spinners, the classic group with Phillppe Wynn singing lead, who rocked the stadium with their hit song “One of A Kind Love Affair.”  One of the characteristics of this genre of singing, who’s staple is the love song – sung slowly or uptempo – and to be effective the lead singer must recreate the emotional experience, the ecstasy of being happily in love or the pain of heartbreak.  None has done it better than Phillippe Wynn, who gave an inspired performance as the Spinners backed his lead with glorious harmonies and fancy footwork.

 soulpower-The Spinners

 The Mighty Spinners in Full Effect!

 Of all the magic moments in this film – and there were many – none were more moving than the performances of the African musicians.  There are the wonderful scenes of the Cameroonian Saxophonist Manu Dibango, who recorded “Soul Makossa,’ which combined Afro-American Rhythm & Blues arrangements on top of a slamming African percussion section.

The record was a monster smash hit in Africa, Europe, Latin America and the USA.  One could credibly argue that it was the beginning of what is now euphemistically called “World Music.”  In the movie we do not see Dibango’s concert performance; rather he is filmed wandering through the city’s neighborhood’s with his soprano sax playing for the children like a pied piper.  When the children surround him he begins to compose a chant with them on the spot.

Soul Makossa!

soulpower-mano Dabango

Mano D’bango the Pied Piper

As with the Latino’s on the plane, this episode demonstrates how Africans can create an impromptu musical performance with polyrhythmic hand claps and antiphonal chants – call and response – with a lead singer whose lines are answered by a chorus.  As the children gathered around, mesmerized by the sound of the saxophone much like Emmanuel Kant was mesmerized by the church steeple, the teenagers began to surround him too.  Soon they were all singing and clapping in a joyous display of polyrhythmic polyphony, two elements that are present to some extent in all African derived music.

Although among African Americans in the US polyphony eventually gave way to harmony, as an examination of our singing styles from the work songs of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – which is very African in character – to the sleek four and five part harmonies of Rhythm and blues singing.  Polyphonic singing is alive and well in Afro-Latin music however; polyrhythms and antiphony remains a basic feature of all Neo-African music whether vocal or orchestral.  This was very clear in comparing the African and Neo-African bands in the movie.

Among the galaxy of stars who performed at this historic concert none gave a more spiritually uplifting performance than the gifted South African songstress Merriam Makeba.  While there was much talk about the African struggle against European oppression, the state of African peoples in the world was uneven, with various nationalities experiencing different degrees of liberation.

For instance, the centuries old struggle of African peoples in the America’s had eliminated chattel slavery and resulted in various degrees of civil rights and national integration in their societies.  In the US racial discrimination had been rendered illegal after a final bloody push in the 1960’s, and Cuba had dramatically eliminate the system of legal racial apartheid as a result of the armed revolution in which Afro-Cubans played a major role.  Although racist sentiment still hangs on in the hearts and minds of some white Cubans.

However the symbol of that continuing struggle was best represented by Merriam Makeba, whose countrymen were still suffering under an oppressive murderous racist regime whose ideology was synonymous with Nazism.  Her Marriage to the radical black leader from the US Stokely Carmichael – who made a brief cameo in the film rapping with Muhammad Ali – was a living symbol of the unity of the pan-African struggle against white domination.  Hence her performance was the most politically significant of the concert.

 When all was said and done, the undisputed superstar of the three day musical happenings was James Brown, “The Godfather of Soul!”   Earlier in the film Loyd Price – one of the fathers of Rhythm & Blues – is seen telling James Brown how he has heard many bands performing his music, although French is the European language that they are conversant with.

Yet, Price tells Brown, “They sing your songs in English.”  Such was Browns appeal on the African continent that politicians routinely used his music to draw crowds at their rallies!  James Brown listened with genuine joy and humility, and it made him determined to put on the best show of his life…which was no mean feat since he was already known as “The hardest working man in show business!”

James Brown and Lloyd Price

soulpower-James Brown and Loyd Price

Soul Survivors Who Created an Art form

While most people fifty years old and younger may not know who Lloyd Price is, I remember him as a big star of the mid 1950’s who was a founder of the musical style we have come to know as Rhythm & Blues.  Price was right out there with the Georgia boys who contributed so much to the foundation of this dynamic musical genre: Ray Charles, Little Richard and James Brown.

Billed as “Mr. Personality” because of his luminous style and dynamic stage persona Price produced a string of hits that did much to define the style: Lawdy Miss Claudy, Stagolee, Where Were You on Our Wedding Day, Personality, etc.  So I was very disappointed that we did not get to see him perform his vintage hits: oldies but goodies for sure!

soulpower-James Brown The Godfather Makes A Grand Entrance

The crowd was hyped for James Brown’s performance, which was the highlight of the historic show.  And when it was superstar time in the stadium the Godfather was super bad.  Backed by a rocking big band that was funkier than a mosquitoes Tweeter, James Brown demonstrated why he justly deserves the title of “Hardest working Man in show business as he sang is heart out and danced like a whirling dervish.  Browns basic moves comes off of a style we used to call the mash potatoes, of which he was the undisputed king if not the inventor.

All of the greatest dancers in the US pop music tradition flow from James Brown.  While he had some close competitors – for instance Jackie Wilson, Little Richard and Muddy Waters were some dancing fools too – James Brown has emerged as the greatest influence on contemporary performers like MC Hammer, Prince and the recently departed King of Pop Michael Jackson.  The Africans – who dance on all important occasions, as those who witnessed highly intellectual octogenarian Nelson Mandela dancing the Toi Toi upon his election as the first black President of South Africa can attest – surely recognized the influence of their dance traditions in Browns spectacular soul ballet.

 The God Father Works up a Cold Sweat!

soulpower-James Brown II

“Super Bad.”

The only star in this show who was larger and shone more brightly that The Godfather was Muhammad Ali: “The Greatest!”  Like Brown Ali is a man of the people – not like the central character in the Nigerian novelist and modern African sage Chinua Achebe’s well crafted and highly insightful novel by that name.  He is the real deal, black people all over the world love him with an unusual passion reserved for those who struggle and sacrifice in their behalf.  One of the most entertaining, witty and inspiring features in this documentary is the unexpurgated monologues of Muhammad Ali.

 The Avatar of Our Hopes and Dreams


The Cause Celebre that brought a multitude to Africa.

Ali expanded on his views about There was no question that the man of the moment, the raison de’ ere for the magnificent celebration of our Africanity, was Muhammad Ali. The great affection with which he was held in Africa was reflected in the constant chants that rang out from the crowds everywhere he went: “Al Boomaye!  Ali Boomaye! “Which literally meat “Ali Kill him!”   When the hulking and menacing George Foreman, found out the meaning of the chants he was so unnerved he threatened to pack up and go home.  George foreman had mistakenly assumed that the Africans would be for him because he looked more like them than Ali.

 But that’s the same mistake the white Republicans make when they choose obsequious house Negroes like Clarence Thomas, Dr. Alan Keyes and Mikie Steele – whose spine seems to be made of mercury – in the vain hope that black people will support them because they are unambiguously black in their physical persona.  However black people are far more sophisticated than that – we have even coined a term for such quislings: Oreos!  Africans in particular are not overly impressed with skin color because in Africa both the heroes and the villains are black!  They loved Ali because they can feel that he loves them and has sacrificed for black people in a way that has made him one of the most beloved sons of African anywhere in the world.

It is instructive that Nelson Mandela, one of the greatest men of the twentieth century, and a former heavy-weight boxer, said that following Ali’s fights inspired them and helped him continue his own fight during the 27 years he was imprisoned at the notorious Robbin Island prison! You can’t get a better endorsement than that. This movie was a great tribute to the man and his mettle, and a great musical experience to boot.  Everybody who interested in the history of popular music in the twentieth century and the history of the black liberation struggle too, should see this movie in the theater and rush to the store and buy it when it comes out on a DVD.  This is a piece of the black experience in the modern world you would like to own.


Watch Celia Cruz in Zaire
Watch James Brown in Zaire
Watch the Spinners

Watch the Entire Movie
Playthell Benjamin
New York City 
July 10, 2009