Archive for the Music Reviews Category

An Evening of Triumph and Travesty

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on February 14, 2017 by playthell

beyonce-at-the-grammys

 Beyonce In Performance!

 Reflections on Queen B and the Grammys

Last Sunday night Beyoncé experienced both triumph and travesty at the Grammy Awards. Appearing on stage visibly pregnant the popular music Diva performed a moving tribute to motherhood that was so spectacular even the language of Shakespeare, Chaucer and the King James Bible seems bereft of superlatives sufficiently powerful to adequately describe it! But thanks to the magic of this cyber medium you can witness Beyoncé’s  performance.*

It will no doubt go down as one of the greatest performances of all times on this show that has hosted countless great performances, where marvelous musicians of all genres display their gifts before their peers. Although Beyoncé won a couple of awards she should have won at least one more: “Best Album of the Year,” a view shared by the winner Adele, the gifted British singer / songwriter who sang beautifully and walked away with the lion’s share of the prizes, a total of five.

In an unprecedented gesture of generosity and grace, Adele turned down the “BEST ALBUM” Award. Calling Beyoncé “The artist of my life…my idol,” Adele said that Beyoncé should rightly have won the award for “Her monumental album Lemonade.” Her declaration left everybody in the vast Staple Center in LA speechless! A reaction that was no doubt shared by the millions of viewers around the world who also witnessed it. Adele would later ask of Beyoncé: “What the fuck does she have to do to win?” My question exactly!!!

Monumental is precisely the word to describe “Lemonade,” a major work that expands the boundaries of what we previously believed could be achieved in this popular art form. I think it is no exaggeration to say that the video version – which won the “Best Video Award” for one of its segments “Formation,” a highly political statement that sparked a furor when it was performed live at the Super Bowl last year – is a work of fine cinematic art!

Formation!

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 01: Beyonce performs during the Formation World Tour at the Georgia Dome on May 01, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. Beyonce wears a custom lace corset and stockings by D Squared. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/WireImage )

(See Video at bottom of this essay)

However, the many faceted album was confined to the “Best Urban Contemporary” award. This is where the controversy arose and it raises many questions of sufficient depth regarding race, politics and art.  To begin with, like everything else in the USA, music marketing is segregated, with albums by black artists placed into certain categories that industry people recognize and this is how the product will be promoted.  Hence whether a record is promoted as “Pop.” “Rock” Rhythm & Blues,” “Urban Contemporary,” and so on.

Of course, white record company executives, promotion men and music journalists will deny that race plays any role in these designations; they will argue these categories are determined by musical styles alone. Yet if this were true you wouldn’t have black artists automatically assigned to the R&B category when their music sounds like Pop or Rock, and white musicians who are performing Rhythm & Blues classified as “Pop” or “Rock.”  Since virtually all popular music in the US and Britain spring from black roots – US or Caribbean – virtually all white popular music by artists from these countries contain black musical ingredients.  It’s just a matter of degree.

Even a cursory glance of US musical history will reveal the truth of that claim. From “Ragtime,” to “Dixieland Jazz,” to “Blues” to “Swing,” to “Modern Jazz i.e. “Bebop” to “Rhythm & Blues / Rock and Roll,” to “Hip Hop,” are all the creations of Afro-Americans.  Yet as soon as some white musicians learned to play it competently they were made “The “Original Dixie Land Jazz Band,” or “The King of Jazz,” or the “King of Swing,” or the “King of Rock and Roll,” or the “Queen of Hip Hop.” i.e.  Nick La Rocca, Paul Whiteman, Benny Goodman, Elvis Pressley and Iggy Azalea

White artists could get away with this cultural appropriation in the past because the white audience had no idea who the real original artists were.  Even after the advent of sound movies and television, black artist were so seldom presented in these media that this situation persisted to the extent that many white American Rock musicians with prodigious record sales said they had no idea that the Blues they were playing was invented by their black countrymen until white British Rockers like “Eric Clapton” told them so!

However, when it became no longer possible to deny the creative genius of Afro-American musicians the music industry came up with these different categories that allowed them to continue marketing their white artists to the lucrative white majority, while shunting black artists off into “Special Markets” departments.   All this tawdry history came to bear in determining how Beyoncé’s visionary musical masterpiece became confined to the “Urban Contemporary” category when it was clearly the “Best Album of the Year,” even in the eyes of the artist who was given the award!

Aside from “Lemonade’s” artistic excellence – the music, poetic lyrics, dazzling dance, splendid costumes, lush imaginative settings, stunning cinematography and excellent direction – the fact that it is officially Black History Month offers an additional rationale for presenting Beyoncé with the Grammy for Best Album.   The album is full of historical references and allusions to Afro-American culture and contemporary political issues.  However, let me hasten to say that this fact alone would not be reason enough to bestow this prestigious award on the record.

I agree with Mao Tse Tung in his “Lectures at the Yenan Forum on Literature and Art, where he addresses the role of art as propaganda designed to promote the goals of a mass movement for progressive change.  “All art is propaganda but all propaganda is not art,” Mao argues, “in order to be effective as propaganda it must first succeed as art.”

This explains why Beyoncé touched so many people with her album, which means it would be important as a cultural artifact in the Afro-America musical tradition even if had no higher ambition than making art for the sake of art.  And instead of condemnation she might well have been wildly applauded by those who do not wish to be emotionally disturbed by being forced to confront unpleasant realities that contradict the master narrative of American Exceptionalism.

After all, even the most racist white Americans have been seduced by the power and charm of Afro-American song and dance.   It is a strange paradox that compelled Dr. WEB DuBois to remark during the height of white terrorist attacks on innocent Black Americans in the early 20th century: “White Americans lynch the Negro while singing his songs.”

Hence so long as black artist just sing and dance but keep their mouths about the unpleasant realities of black life in the US all is well, but they are to be chastised if they dare to speak truth to white power.  I salute Beyoncé for not caving in to this well-known but unwritten rule: NOT EVEN A HUNDERD GRAMMYS WOULD HAVE BEEN WORTH IT!!!  The white cultural gate keepers may have denied her the Grammy but she has won the admiration and respect of her people…. and that is INFINITELY MORE VALUABLE!

 

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Click on links below to see:
Formation Performace at Super Bowl
https://youtu.be/c9cUytejf1k
* Beyonce’s Performance at the Grammy Awards
– http://www.independent.co.uk/…/grammy-awards-2017-beyonce-l…
The Album Lemonade
 https://youtu.be/gM89Q5Eng_M?list=PLxKHVMqMZqUSPF11Ghs0KqDfOGhB9Vw5E
 
Playthell G. Benjamin
 Black History Month
 February 14, 2017

Freedom Music that Inspired South Africans

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, You Tube Classics with tags , , on August 19, 2016 by playthell
Maz and Abey IIRevolutionaty Music: Background sound to the Liberation Movement

The Sound Heard Around the World!

The videos posted below  brings to mind the role both Max Roach and Amonata Moseka played in the arts movement of South Africa. I say this because I got to know about Max and Amonata as a very young boy. What they did for African Americans, they also did very effectively for the arts and music in South Africa. I actually learned and got to see Max’s influence in many drummers of the early fifties and sixties in South Africa, like Gordon Mfandu, Early Mabuza, Louis Mofolo, and countless drummers who collected his music, and played like Max, emulated and refined some of his licks and so forth;

Then there was the ladies who sang in the sultry notes of Aminata  Moseka, singers like Dolly Rather, Dorothy Masuka, Thandi Klaasen, and of the younger generation, Sibongile  Khumalo – daughter of Khabi Mgoma who was the conductor of the Ionian Choir of Africans in South Africa.  He would go on to become the Director and curator of Dorkay House, lcated on Elloff Street in Johannesburg.   Dorkay House was the Hub of African Jazz musicians and music students Dorkay House was situated next to BMCC, where all the artist – painters, poets, dramatist, et al were practicing their artistic endeavors.

Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln

Max and Abbey

Father and Mother of the Black Arts Movement

These institutions were very influential in spreading what Max and Abbey were doing for the arts and music world in the USA. Max’s 78 rpm’s and LPs were exchanged amongst the artists, and we, the children of some of these musicians, were encouraged to go to BMCC to learn about up and coming painters and sculptors. Some of my young friends took piano, drum and other instrumental lessons in Dorkay House.

Khabi Mgoma, after his creation of the Ionian Classical Music choir, went on to teach in Natal. But before he left he served as the Director of Dorkay House, and this was frowned upon by the Apartheid Goons who wanted to suppress any sign of modern cultural nationalism among blacks. We children from the townships who loved Jazz got to listen to and watch our African Brothers and uncles practice the new licks from Max Roach, while hanging out with many artists like Dumile Feni, Fikile Magadlela and Solly Bobela, and so forth.

They all came out of that mix.   BMCC played a major role in churning out these young musicians and artists.. Dorkay House was also a hangout for the Musicans /Artists, etc  who played Billiards at BMCC.   It is from such settings that I got to hear and know about Max and Amonata Moseka.

Musicians played his LPs on their gramophones and newly acquired Hi-Fi Radio system. Although we grew up listening to the great drummer Philly Jo Jones and other contemporaries, Max topped the bill for our listening pleasure. This was long before there were the Jazz Clubs that have become a staple since the coming to Power of the ANC. For us, Jazz clubs during my teenage years was hanging out with all types of artists and musicians, and it was from such esteemed people, that I developed a reverence for Jazz that has stayed with me to this day.

As For Leroi Jones, I got to know him from his book, “Blues People”, but I will reserve my comments for now regarding this book. Anyway, we did not read Jazz, only form Magazines like ‘Down Beat”, but the experience of living with, hanging out, and  listening to musicians from a very young Age.  The intoxicating sound of Jazz reaffirmed the oceanic connections that we had with our African bothers, specifically in the US.   I know the influence of the “African Jazz Art society” was certainly felt in South Africa because I remember that my father used to get information on them.

Living within the Jazz Milieu of Apartheid South provided a kind of spiritual refuge…where our souls could dance freely, transcending the physical oppressions of the House of Bondage that our beautiful country had become. Thus the powerful race conscious music of Max and Amonata – such as the “Freedom Suite: We Insist Freedom Now”- made life worth living for many of us here in South Africa.

Those who fought and defeated the apartheid regime are still affected by their cultural contributions more than I can put into words. Max and Amonata was it for us, especially my Age group.   I am older now, but I still listen to my pristine Vinyl recordings of their music and am still inspired by the art of the politically conscious Jazz Giants.  All one need do to understand why is to check out their performance on the videos below.

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Freedom Day!

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Cosmic Freedom Sounds!

Max Roach and South African Pianst Dollar Brand

May the Circle Remain Unbroken!

The Struggle Continues….
Skhokho 
South African Revolutionary
August 1, 2016

Wynton is The Greatest!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, You Tube Classics with tags , , on August 2, 2016 by playthell
DSC_0250
Maestro Marsalis at work

The Evidence on Video and Audio

The great composer, arranger, bandleader and trumpeter Gerald Wilson once told me emphatically during an interview: “Wynton Marsalis is the greatest trumpeter in the world!” And as a failed trumpeter who retained a passionate love for the instrument, as well as an acute appreciation for the formidable obstacles and treacherous pitfalls which confronted the aspiring artist that attempted to master it, I wholeheartedly agreed.

As a serious lover of complex instrumental music I had listened to many great trumpeters in Jazz and European concert music – the former a New World invention, a 20th century art that expressed the Afro-American love of freedom as well as the quintessential American ideals of Democracy, Personal Liberty and Innovation. The latter a great art music from the Old World of Europe that was already centuries old, and reflected the hierarchal and highly formalized character of the societies that produced it. And although both musical idioms employ the same instrument, and the music they make is based on the same system of melody and harmony – a European invention that produced sublime sounds by their great master composers – the two musical forms were profoundly different in instrumental technique, compositional structure and artistic philosophy.

In the classical music of Europe the instrumentalist is a vehicle for the ideas of the composer. And if they perform in symphony orchestras, operas or chorales they are also subjected to the dictates of tyrannical composers. Hence in European concert music the creativity of the instrumentalist is severely circumscribed. Everything from tempo, intonation and interpretation of the music is dictated the composer and enforced by the conductor with an iron fist.  Hence conformity to tradition and achieving excellence based upon well-established standards of performance is the objective to which the successful artists must aspire.

Conversely, the art of Jazz performance demands that the performer seek their own voice, follow their personal muse, and create something new under the sun.  Furthermore the music must swing to the clockwork rhythms of the unique machine age milieu in which it was born…the most modern civilization the world had ever seen.  Hence all Jazz is modern music.  That’s why visual artists from American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollard and Wilheim de Kooning, to European masters of Modernism such as Pablo Picasso and Salvadore Dahli lionized their music.

The difficulty of mastering both musical idioms is self-evident in the fact that of all the great musicians that have lived in the world there are so few that have achieved virtuosity in both that we can count them on our fingers and toes. Flautist Hubert Laws, Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, pianists Chucho Valdez and Herbie Hancock, bassists Ron Carter, Carlos del Pino, Richard Davis and Ortiz Walton first among them. However Mr. Marsalis is the only musician on any instrument who has won the coveted Grammy for performances in both genres.  And he has achieved this impossible feat nine times!  Four were for “Best Classical Performance” and five for “Best Jazz Performance.”

For this presentation I have chosen one of the most difficult instrumental pieces from each genre where Wynton is featured as a soloist.  Added to this are two performances with Wynton as accompanist to a singer…a fine art unto itself.  For the instrumental Classical repertoire I have selected “The Carnival of Venice,” and for the Jazz performance I have chosen “Cherokee.” As to the difficulties posed by the first piece suffice it to say that when trumpeters auditioned for the great United States Marine Band, billed as “The Greatest Brass Band in the World” – under the direction of its founder and premiere composer Maestro John Phillip Sousa – who wrote such enduring works as El Capitan, Semper Fidelis, Anchors Away! And the immortal Stars and Stripes Forever – “The Carnival of Venice “ was the piece that they were required to play.

This is because Arbans’ Carnival presents the trumpeter with a series of obstacles that requires mastery of all the technical problems posed by trumpet performance: Legato and staccato phrasing; triple tonguing, circular breathing, fingering the keys, exquisite timing, embouchure and intonation. Cleary Wynton masters them all…and with ease!  This is a heroic achievement, because a trumpet after all is just some twisted brass pipes with a hard metal mouthpiece and only three keys!  Yet it is capable of playing all the notes in the musical lexicon.

This amazing feat is achieved by manipulating sound from the way one blows into the instrument, which is to say mastering embouchure.  It is such a marvelous feat the only reason that great athletes such as Michael Jordon and Russell Wilson attract more fans that Wynton is because more people understand the greatness of what they do. Everybody has had some experience playing sports – if only because physical education is a required component of every school curriculum…and sadly instrumental music is not.  However to grasp the brilliance of Wynton’s performance on Carnival, one need only read the comments of trumpet players from all over the world under the video and note their astonishment – one even said that “suicide” would be easier and a lot less painful that the epic failure one would experience trying to duplicate this performance!”

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 Cherokee, the Jazz selection, was the piece that the hep cats at Minton’s Playhouse threw on Charlie “Yardbird” Parker to prove his mettle when he showed up at Minton’s Playhouse from Kansas City “looking country” totin his alto-sax in a cardboard case.  But when he took out his axe and begin to “cut heads” with his complex, erudite and original musical statements, Bird astonished everybody who witnessed it.  Dizzy Gillespie, a key figure in the aggregation of musical rebels who congregated in Minton’s and experimented with new ideas, said when he heard Bird he thought: “There it is, this is the sound we have been searching for.”  He said that they had bits and pieces of the music that would become world famous as Be-bop, and Bird filled in the gaps and brought the whole thing together.

From that musical communion came a genre of Jazz that would change the way musicians heard and played music all over the world. The artistic challenges Bop presented intrigued musicians from the great to near great to apprentices.  If I had to sum up Bird’s achievement I would say that he did for the world of music what Einstein did for theoretical physics: change the relationship between time and space forever.

The great writer Ralph Ellison, a well-schooled trumpet player competent in both the classical repertoire – he was a music major at Tuskegee, where he studied with the outstanding Afro-American composer in the classical European style but with an Afro-American voice. William Dawson – and was also grounded in the hard swinging blues style of the “Stomp” that was popular among the “Territorial Bands” that played in his native Oklahoma City – bird hailed from nearby Kansas City.

Ellison, was so astonished and overwhelmed by what he head in Minton’s that he wrote “They were playing be-bops…I mean re-bopped be-bops.” The drummers had abandoned the steady bass drum pulse that was so essential to the dancers who got down to the Stomp, that Ellison was horrified by the seemingly free form complexity of their rhythms and described them as “frozen faced introverts dedicated to chaos!”

The experience of hearing this new music called “Be-Bop” invented in Harlem’s Minton’s Playhouse by players like trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, pianist Thelonious Monk, bassist Oscar Pettiford, drummer Kenny “Klook” Clarke and others that he gave up playing the trumpet and became a writer -.one of the greats.  So music’s lost was literature’s gain.

When listening to Cherokee, remember that essential to the genius of Jazz is not only the requirement of virtuosity on the part of each instrumentalist…but one must be able to compose complex music while swinging the blues over chord changes  at the SPEED OF THOUGHT!!!  Hence the speed at which Wynton is playing adds to the magic of it all!  So Kick back and check out the marvelous vibes from the horn of Maestro Marsalis…THE GREATEST TRUMPETER IN THE WORLD!!!

Chillin Back Stage
Wynton in Berkley After a triumphant concert at U-Cal Berkeley
Click to see: THE CARNIVAL OF VENICE

Click to see: CHEROKEE
https://youtu.be/3blL4v-cY18
Boroque Duets: Wynton and Kathleen Battle

Watch Wynton Accompany Jazz Great Sarah Vaughn

Watch Wynton Warm up before a Concert

The concert featured legendary pianist Ahmad Jamal with the JALC Orchestra

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
August 1, 2016
***Cover Photo by Frank Stewart
U-Cal Berkeley Photo by: Playthell Benjamin

Stompin the Blues

Posted in Music Reviews with tags , , on May 29, 2016 by playthell

Albert Murray--classic photo

Elegant in Style and thought
Memories of Mr. Murray… a Modern Renaissance Man

From the first time I was introduced to Albert Murray by Larry Neal – a distinguished poet, Critic, teacher of literature at Yale and founding father of the Black Arts Movement – I knew he was the real deal; a first class intellect in the possession of a man whose elegance of style and manner was exceeded only by his eloquence and erudition.  Albert Murray was a marvelous mixture of unique virtues, and the span of his interests was such that he met the measure of a modern Renaissance Man.  Alas, this is a much abused and misused term; most of the time those who are called “Renaissance Men” are mere polymaths.

The two are as often confused as the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution; folks are always quoting from one and attributing it to the other, just as one is inclined to confuse any person that is smart in several subjects, the Polymath, with a Renaissance Man.  Yet the distinction of the Renaissance Man is that they are not only knowledgeable in several subjects but they transcend the boundaries between and science and art.

A brilliant, insightful and original critic of music, literature and art Albert Murray was equally at home discussing the science of military aviation, of which he was a Professor; the difference between the orchestrations of the Ellington and Basie Bands; the idiomatic nuances and philosophical insights of the Blues; the Sweet Science of Sugar Ray Robinson in the boxing ring; the meaning,  magic and heroism of “blues idiom dancing;” the black literary tradition and its relationship to the western canon, or the au courant trends in fashion – which was conspicuous in the elegant manner in which he groomed and decorated himself. These are the attributes of a modern Renissiance Man, and I would argue if Leonardi Di Vinci is the classic model, Professor Murray fits the modern mold.

It was precisely his knowledge of art and science that enabled him to critique the works of Social Scientists with such unique insights. Murray argued that their studies tended to promote a “folklore of white Supremacy” and a “fakelore of black pathology.”  His critiques of the much celebrated works by Dr. Gunnar Myrdal and Dr. Kenneth B. Clarke are classic cases in point. An American Dilemma – a lavishly funded massive sociological treatise on race relations in America authored by the distinguished Swedish Social Economist Gunnar Myrdal – is chock full of statistics of every kind and was universally acclaimed as the most objective and informative scholarly tome ever produced on race in America.

However Professor Murray contemptuously observed that it was a waste of money, pointing out that any study of Afro-Americans that failed to interrogate the meaning of the Blues in our culture was worthless – in fact he called the researchers “mere Social Survey technicians” and declared their statistical method of analysis “an elaborate fraud!”

He also dismissed the claims of Dr. Kenneth Clark – a famous black social-psychologist of Caribbean back ground – whose research in the famous “Dolls Study” had helped convince the Supreme Court Justices to outlaw racial segregation in public schools in the Brown Decision.  Yet Mr. Murray boldly denounced Dr. Clark’s much celebrated study of Harlem, “Dark Ghetto” as a book written by “A Negro who hates himself.” Murray argued that things in Harlem couldn’t be as bad as the portrait Clark painted “even if half the residents robbed the other half every night.”

Murray’s caustic criticism of these texts came as a shock to me, for I had relied so heavily on sociologists in analyzing the condition of black folk in America. Murray not only dismissed THEM….but also trained his critical cannons on some much celebrated black novelists of the time.  He declared if Harlem was as bad as James Baldwin said it was it could never have produced him! And when downtown book reviewers declared Claude Brown’s bestselling novel “Manchild in the Promised Land” an authentic portrayal of life in Harlem, Mr. Murray told them it was no such thing.

It was the story of one Negro growing up in Harlem “and evidently had a hard time doing so” he said.  Professor Murray pointed out that Brown’s book tells one nothing about what it’s like to be Sugar Ray Robinson; the Society Editor of the Amsterdam News, a Surgeon at Harlem Hospital, Duke Ellington, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, or one of the people who operate the most complex mass transportation system in the world!   Mr. Murray also warned us about calling Harlem a “ghetto,” pointing out that this was a term that defined Jewish communities in Eastern Europe, and suggested that its use Afro-american activists in describing Harlem was the result of “too much pillow talk between black intellectuals and their Jewish lovers.”

Mr. Murray was no less candid in his criticism of Richard Wright for painting such a bleak portrait of black life in Chicago in Native Son, while never allowing us a glimpse of the elegance, high art and heroism that took place at the Grand Terrace Ballroom every night when Earl Fatha Hines struck up his hard swinging orchestra and the stylish black, brown and beige crowd took to the dance floor.

These attitudes toward those who would play us cheap, portray us as less than we are, regardless of race, inform all of Mr. Murray’s writings. Where others see only a bare cupboard Professor Murry envisions a grand cornucopia of cultural riches sufficient to shape the sensibilities of the most powerful civilization in the history of the world; a sensibility best expressed in Afro-American music and dance – bewitching black arts that prizes personal freedom, promotes innovation, and practices a symbiotic relationship between musicians and dancers that is a blueprint for democratic relations. All of America’s most cherished values…”America as she is swung” in Mr. Murray’s parlance. It is such a thing of grace and beauty no wonder it has made Afro-Americans the most imitated people in the world!

The Elegance of Blues Idiom Dancing

Photo XV- Jazz Dancers

Stomping the Blues!

Famous big-band and jazz composer and leader, Count Basie, directing his orchestra on stage. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Yet by virtue of the fact that he remained a well-mannered southern colored gentleman at heart, like my Uncle Jimmy who was also a military officer and a southern gentleman, Mr. Murray thought it was bad manners to boisterously proclaim Afro-American superiority – even where it is clearly obvious – such as militant cultural nationalists of my generation felt compelled to do.

During the Harlem Renaissance people often said:Nobody enjoys being a Negro as much as Langston Hughes.”  Well, I suspect Mr. Murray may have enjoyed it even more. One could argue that his life was “a fully orchestrated blues statement,” a phrase he coined.  In the theater of my imagination I can see Mr. Murray “Truckin” through the Pearly Gates waving his finger, while Basie’s band wails on Moten Swing, a strutting magnificent sound performed with the “velocity of Celebration” and all the grandeur befitting such a man as Professor Murray.

In his linguistic improvisation and daring word play, seamlessly blending the sophisticated with the vernacular, his ironic signifying and heroic optimism, Mr. Murray’s works are the literary counterpart of what the musicians he celebrates were doing: Stompin the Blues!  Yes life can be a low down dirty shame, but we gotta keep on swinging anyway!  These unique elements so blended in Albert Murray that I am convinced…. we will not see his like again.  And the intellectual legacy he left us will prove to be a priceless benefaction that can only grow more valuable with time.

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** This lecture was presented at a forum on Albert Murray honoring the centennial of his birth held a Jazz at Lincoln Center on May 24th 2016. It was preceded by a reading I gave from his book “South to a Very Old Place,” in the chapter titled “Mobile.”

 *** Photo of the Basie and by: © Bettmann/CORBIS

NOTE: Double Click on link to see the Basie band in concert

For a great treatise on Basie and his music see: “Good Morning Blues.”  This is the Autobiography of Count Basie as told to Albert Murray.
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 28, 2016

Celebrating the Art of Jazz with Pizazz!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , on May 19, 2016 by playthell
Jazz Men ditDrummer George Gary Led his hard Swinging Quartet

At the Central Brooklyn Jazz Coalition’s Annual Feast

From the moment I walked into the beautiful Weeksville Heritage Center I thought of my good friend Jo Ann Cheatum, who recently danced and joined the honored ancestors.  I had been thinking about Jo Ann a lot lately, because I have a solo Photographic exhibition on display at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem, and I shot it with a camera given to me as a gift by Joan.

After looking at a couple of photos I shot to illustrate an article I wrote for her magazine Pure Jazz , a rare publication devoted to high quality journalism on the art of Jazz published by an Afro-American, she said “you have an eye for a good photograph, but you need a more advanced camera.”  A couple of weeks later she gave me one; it is the same camera that I shot the photos for this essay with.

 Jo Ann had also worked side by side with the founders of the Weeksville historical project that resulted in this venerable black community gaining landmark status. The Weeksville Heritage Center,  imaginatively designed with big spaces and large windows that enhances the feeling of openness, is one of the conspicuous fruits of their efforts. And finally, Jo Ann was a long time member and moving force of the Central Brooklyn Jazz Coalition and would surely have been sitting front and center when I took the podium to deliver the keynote address.  Like a welcome version of Banquo’s ghost her spirit was popping up everywhere.

Although it was the 17th annual CBJC banquet, this occasion was unique because it was free.  The leadership of the coalition made it clear that this was a benefaction to the supporters of their work, and was made possible by virtue of some very successful fundraising this past fiscal year.  In the announcement for the event there were explicit instructions to the guest that they should dress to the height of fashion…or a bit above it.  And they used a picture titled “The Bebop Dancers;” taken from my photo exhibition  “The Elegance of Afro-America, to set the standard.

The Bebop Dancers….
Photo XV- Jazz Dancers
Struttin their Stuff in Charlie Parker Park

After a meet and greet session in the large vestibule we were seated in the elegant dining room and treated to a swinging performance by the George Gary quartet. The band played straight ahead Jazz, no watered down quasi-rock or “easy listening” fusion music.  This was hard core Bop based swing – Bird and Dizzy’s thing!  It was hard to tell who was having the most fun, the musicians or the audience; it was a mutual admiration society….nothing but love.  It was one of those special occasions that musicians look forward to, an occasion where true symbiosis occurs between audience and performer – mutual thrills.

The menu was fine gourmet cuisine, artistically arranged and skillfully served on elegantly set tables.  The whole experience was designed to satiate the most epicurean taste.  A series of brief speeches that featured a formal Welcome by CBJC President Clarence Mosely and Executive Director/President of the Weeksville Heritage Center Ms. Tia Powell Harris, were offered up.  They were followed by remarks from  CBJC Treasurer Bessie Edwards, who gave an accounting of the financial health of the organization.

Ms. Edwards was followed by City Councilman Robert Cornegy. After a thoughtful speech reflecting on his love of Jazz and reminicing about old Jazz shrines in the Brooklyn he grew up in,  the Councilman shared with us how he had sucessfully cultivated a taste for Jazz music in his five kids.  And he heaped abundant praises upon the Central Brooklyn Jazz coalition and the Weeksville Heritage Center for their ongoing good works and the lavish banquet

When he was finished the Master of Ceremonies introduced me to the audience for the Keynote Address. They gave me the kind warm and enthusiastic reception that is usually reserved for cultural heroes and I was both energized and inspired when I took the podium.  My presentation consisted of two parts: Reading a wide ranging essay on the influence of Jazz, philosophically as well as musically on world culture.  I explained that Jazz as music captured the imagination of serious instrumentalists everywhere, and the values it embodies in its social organization and performance etiquette captured the imagination of intellectuals seeking a working democracy that promotes personal freedom and innovation.

Since the text is written and can be read by clicking the link at the bottom of this photo-essay I shan’t belebor it further here.  The second part of my presentation was a an extemporaneous critique of the feature film “Miles Ahead,”  a film about the great master trumpeter, band leader and Jazz innovator.  I explained that although I entered the theater wanting to love Mr. Cheedle’s film, excited that the story of this enigmatic Afro-American genius had finally made it to the movies, I was profoundly disappointed alas. For we never  As for the Banquet, all in all it was an enchanted evening and I had a ball!

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The Speakers

At banquet (2)

Playthell Spoke on the influence of Jazz on World Culture
The City Councilman

A Brooklyn Councilman Speaks

Spoke Eloquently of his long love Affair with Jazz
The Feast was permeated with beautiful People and Soulful Vibes

Seasoned Foxes III

Women of Substance: Bessie and Coalition Member

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At Banquet

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At Banquet Edit XX

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At the Banquet Edit III

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 At the Banquet Edit IV

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At the Banquet Edit VIII

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At the Banquet Edit XXI

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At the Banquet XI

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At the Banquet Edit XXIII

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At the Banquet Edit XIX

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The Band was Swinging Hard! 

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Bassist - Edit I

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the Pianist

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Rome Neal Spittin Verse

Rome Neal jumped up and Started Spittin Verse
The Band Played On….. 

Jazz Men Edit I

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And Oh How They Danced!

Rome Dancing VI

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Rome Dancing V

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Rome Dancing VII

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Rome Dancing IV

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Jazz Dancers Edit I

The Joint was Really Rockin!

Jazzmen Edit II

It was a Swingin Affair!!!

Double Click on Link to hear Miles, Trane and Cannonball

So what?

Click on Title “Jazz Around The World” for text to my speech 

https://commentariesonthetimes.me/2011/04/28/jazz-around-the-world/

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 17, 2016

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Swings Berkeley

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

 

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Maestro Marsilis conducts the Boys in the Band

 An Evening of Gilded Memories and Divine Music

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

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

The Square outside Zellenboch Hall
First Choice

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

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

Me and the Mathematician

Playthell and Rose

Dr. Fine: My Sanfrancisco Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Like Heidi Moore-Reynolds
Maestro Marsalis

Edited Version

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

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

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

Ali edit

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

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

 Edit III

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

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

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

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

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

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And listened closely
So did Professor Israel

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

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

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Proof that Jazz  lovers are EVERYWHERE!
And I was there with my Camera!
Wynton and Me - Copy - Copy - Copy
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Double click on links below to see the JALCO
Wynton and JALCO members tuning up before a concert
https://youtu.be/ZqtHqCIMyMs
Watch the Lincoln Center Orchestra in concert featuring Wayne shorter
https://youtu.be/yMFgqHuvF6U
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Text and Photos by: Playthell G. Benjamin
*** Cover photo and Wynton in Perormance by: Frank Stewart
****Photo of Playthell and Wynton by:Susannah Israel

Fronting for Uncle Charlie

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

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Promoter Darryl Anderson  and Mayor Todd Strange

This Could be the Start of Something Big!

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

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

A Fabulous Venue for a Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What a Place for a Show!

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

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

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

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

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Take Your Choice
And then there’s Charlie!

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

Large and in Charge

And El Debarge

El 5- EL DEBARGE

Driving the Ladies Crazy with his Soulful Tenor Voice
Kwaku Lays out the Master Plan
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Guiding them through Step by Step 
Its no Wonder the Mighty Three are Laughing
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They know they bout to rock da park with a hellified show!
The Promoter expresses gratitude to the Mayor and Montgomery’s Fans
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This is a multi-media Presentation, click on links below to see Artist
https://youtu.be/kCiRaZXe7AY
Charlie Wilson Live in Europe
 El DeBarge Live:  “All This Love
https://youtu.be/AXZ5HvjkaJ4
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Text and photos by: Playthell Benjamin
*** Except for Photos of Charlie Wilson and El Debarge
  • Charlie Wilson’s photo was shot by Steven Cohen
** El Debarge Photo was supplied by his management.