Archive for the Music Reviews Category

The Midnight Ravers Presents!

Posted in Music Reviews, THE MIDNIGHT RAVERS PRESENTS! with tags , on September 21, 2019 by playthell

“Sweet Mama Stringbean” aka Ethel Waters

Women!  Tangled Up in the Blues

The Euridite Blues philosopher Albert Murray observes in his seminal text “Stomping the Blues” that blues as music is the antidote to the blues as such. Hence far from being a sad lament of resignation in the face of life’s trials and tribulations, the Blues is a music that celebrates life. It’s sensibility is “the opposite of sack cloth and ashes. Indeed Blues musicians chase the blues away, “they stomp the blues!”

The essential lesson of the blues Professor Murray argues, is although “life may be a low down dirty shame we got to keep on swinging anyway.” Just keep on keepin own as the old colored folks used to say down home. Certainly this was true of the pioneering women in the blues tradition.

Although few in the audience may have known the troubles she had seen, when these ladies of the Blues took the stage they were powerful, often risque, triumphant Divas who were large and in charge on the bandstand; the opposite of a downtrodden helpless female. The themes of the songs they sang were varied and covered a wide rage of  emotions and experience that capture the essence of the human condition in the modern world.

For instance, W. C. Handy’s iconic blues ballad “St. Louis Blues” is such an accurate mirror of the urban milieu in which he was living at the turn of the 20th century, that the distinguished Afro-American sociologist E. Franklin Fraizer refers to it in his analysis of the character of black life, culture and chances in their transition from rural southern to northern urban communities.

When Handy begins the St. Louis Blues with the lines “I hate to see that evening sun go down,” it was literally true, because he was homeless and sleeping in a park at the time!   The claim that popular song is the “literature of the masses” is as valid for the blues as for the ballads of the great Trinidadian song poets of the Calypso tradition. Among it’s themes are magical conjurations, natural disasters and  personal tragedies; most often expressed in their ordeals with men.

There are also comedic songs, the most clever of which is the double entendre songs which are often risque – such as “Handy Man” and “I’m Sellin my Porkchops but giving my gravy away,” marvelously  performed by Alberta Hunter and Memphis Minnie linked to the bottom of this essay. They were wild women whose calling was to drive the blues away with their sassy songs which – as the Afro-American novelist, essayists and blues musician Ralph Ellison argues -confronted the unpleasant vicissitudes of life with “a tragi/comic sensibility.”

Female Blues singers were pioneers in the record industry as they were among the first Black singers and Blues artists who were recorded. They were also instrumental in popularizing the 12-bar Blues throughout the U.S. When they sang, they usually were accompanied either by pianists or small Jazz ensembles, which were generally males who worked for them. As employers of men, this made Blues Women pioneers pioneers in another important respect, for there were very few women who publicly bossed men around publicly as the head of an economic organization. Blues bands were not just artistic ensembles, they were also a business. Hence, blues women had to also be good businesswomen.

This required an independence of spirit, vision, self-confidence, and strenght of personality that was essential to success for any entreprenuer, but doubly so for a woman boss in a man’s world, and triple so as black women in a racist white mans world. As has been said of Ginger Rodgers, Fred Astaire’s dance partner: “She did every complicated step Fred did, but she did it dancing backward wearing high heels.”

For black women in the racist apartheid America of the early 20th century, it was like dancing backward, in high heels on one leg! This is why the Blues woman emerged as a heroes of the feminist movement; they were the kind of strong willed independent women successfully competing in a male dominated arena that has emerged as the feminist ideal.

This special is dedicated to these artistic Amazons who were the pioneers in the illustrious tradition of Black Blues Women, women who were willing to hang out all night in dives jammin with “The Cats” in order to master their art. In Victorian America, where the Blues was born, “respectable” women didn’t hang out in such places alone in the early evening; let alone the early morning.  It was this rebel spirit that inspired the song “Wild Women Don’t Get The Blues.”

Gertrude “Ma” Rainey (born in 1886, died in 1939), is known as “Mother of the Blues,” and is credited as the first to perform the Blues on stage as popular entertainment when she began incorporating the new music into her act of show songs and comedy around 1902.

Ma Rainey and Her Band

In her recording of “See See Rider,” a tale about a cheatin two timing man, we see the combination of vulnerability and strength that would define the Blues Woman’s dramatis persone:

“I’m goin’ away, baby, I won’t be back til fall Lord, Lord, Lord

Goin away, baby, I won’t be back till fall

If I find me a good man, won’t be back at all.

I’m gonna buy me a pistol, just as long as I am tall

I’m gonna buy me a pistol, just as long as I am tall, Lord, Lord, Lord

Shoot my man, catch a cannonball

If he won’t have me, he won’t have no gal at all.”

Ma Rainey’s music would inspire African American poets such as Langston Hughes and Sterling Brown. More recently, Alice Walker looked to Ma Rainey’s music as a cultural model of African American womanhood when she wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple.

Mamie Smith (born in 1891, died in 1946),was the first Black female vocalist to record the Blues. Titled “Crazy Blues,” the song was recorded in 1920 and sold over 75,000 copies. Smith became known as “America’s First Lady of the Blues”. In 1920, the vaudeville singer, Lucille Hegamin, who was born in 1894 and died in 1970, became the second black woman to record the Blues when she recorded, “The Jazz Me Blues”.

Mamie Smith

Bessie Smith

But the most popular of the classic Blues singers was Tennessee-born Bessie Smith (no relation to Mamie Smith), who was born in 1894 and died in 1937. She first recorded in 1923 and became known as the “Empress of the Blues”. She signed with Columbia Records and became the highest-paid Black artist of the 1920s, a fertile period for Afro-American musical innovation, recording over 160 songs.

Alberta Hunter (born in 1895, died in 1984), attained recognition in 1923 when her original song “Downhearted Blues” was recorded by Bessie Smith. In 1926, she replaced Smith in the leading role of How Come? on Broadway. Hunter toured extensively for the USO during World War II and again during the Korean War. After World War II, she performed in England, toured Canada, and played long residences in Chicago. She retired from active performing in 1954. Amazingly, she worked for 20 years as a nurse then came back to recording and performing in her eighties.

Ida Cox (born in 1896, died in 1967), was a vaudeville performer and a pioneering Blues singer who, along with Gertrude “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, founded the Female Blues genre which was an early form of Blues music popular in the 1920s. An amalgam of traditional Folk Blues and urban theater music, the style is also known as Vaudeville blues. A savvy businesswoman, Cox served as her own manager and producer, and enjoyed a lucrative career. Marion Harris (born in 1896, died in 1944), became one of the first white female singers to record the Blues. She also appeared in a few movies.

Ethel Waters (born in 1896 or 1900, died in 1977) was a singer and an actress. At the age of 17, billing herself as “Sweet Mama Stringbean,” Waters was singing professionally in Baltimore, Maryland. It was there that she became the first woman to sing the W.C. Handy classic “St. Louis Blues” – a composition which introduced the Blue Note into western musical literature – on the stage. After roles in Broadway revues and musicals, in 1933, Waters appeared in Irving Berlin’s musical, As Thousands Cheer, her first departure from shows with all-black casts. Her rendition of “Heat Wave” in that show linked the song permanently to her. Considered one of the great Blues singers, Waters also performed and recorded with such Jazz greats as Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman. Two of her other signature songs are “Dinah” and “Stormy Weather “.

Alberta Hunter

Ida Cox

Memphis Minnie was born in 1897 and died in 1973. Female Blues singers seldom recorded as guitar players and female guitar players (such as Rosetta Tharpe and Sister O.M. Terrell) were seldom recorded playing Blues. Excluding contemporary artists, the most notable exception to this pattern was Memphis Minnie. She was the most popular and prolific blueswoman outside the vaudeville tradition who earned the respect of critics, the support of record-buying fans, and the unqualified praise of the Blues artists she worked with throughout her long career. She recorded for Columbia, Vocalion, Bluebird, OKeh, Regal, Checker, and JOB. Her best work consisted of deep Blues like “Moaning The Blues”.

Sippie Wallace (born in 1898, died in 1986), carried on the tradition of Texas-styled Blues that emphasized risqué lyrics and rough-cut, rural vocal phrasing rather than the sophisticated accents of the era’s more cosmopolitan Blues singers. Wallace’s first recorded songs, “Shorty George” and “Up The Country Blues,” sold well enough to make Wallace a Blues star in the early 1920s.

Koko Taylor (born in 1928, died 2009) became known as the “Queen of the Blues.” She was known primarily for her rough and powerful vocals and traditional blues stylings. In the late 1950s, she began singing in Chicago Blues clubs and was spotted by the great Blues composer Willie Dixon in 1962, leading to larger venues and her first recording contract. In 1965, Taylor was signed by Chicagos’ Chess Records, the premiere lable for Blues music, for which her single, Wang Dang Doodle (written by Dixon, and a hit for Howlin’ Wolf five years earlier) became a major hit, reaching number four on the R&B chart in 1966 and selling a million copies. After her recovery from a near-fatal car crash in 1989, the 1990s found Taylor in movies such as Blues Brothers 2000.

Memphis Minnie

She Was Also an Accomplished Gituarist
Sippi Wallace

Koko Taylor

 

It must be noted that Katie Crippen, Edith Wilson, and Esther Bigeou, among others, made their first recordings before the end of 1921. These Blues recordings were typically labeled as “race records” to distinguish them from records sold to white audiences. Nonetheless, the recordings of some of the classic female Blues singers were purchased by white buyers as well. As has been the case with all genres of Afro-American music from Ragtime to Hip Hop, for black music has been the sound track for the American saga. “America as she is swung” as the brilliant blues philospher Albert Murray put it.

Other classic Blues singers, such as Clara Smith, and Sara Martin, who recorded extensively until the end of the 1920s These early Blues singers were an influence on later singers such as Mahalia Jackson and Janis Joplin. These Blues women’s contributions to the genre included “increased improvisation on melodic lines, unusual phrasing which altered the emphasis and impact of the lyrics, and vocal dramatics using shouts, groans, moans, and wails. The Blues women thus effected changes in other types of popular singing that had spin-offs in Jazz, Broadway musicals, torch songs of the 1930s and 1940s, Gospel, Rhythm and Blues, and eventually Rock and Roll.”

Listen to the Broadcast

At

https://www.wbai.org/archive/program/episode/?id=5904

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Playthell Benjamin

Midnight Ravers

WBAI FM 99.5

New York, 9/20/2019

Listen to the Blues Diva’s Wail

Ma Rainey

“See See Rider”

Bessie Smith

The St. Louis Blues

 

Mamie Smith

 

Ethel Waters

Stormy Weather

 

Alberta Hunter

My Man is Such a Handy Man

A Risque Double Entendre Song

Memphis Minnie

I’m Sellin my Pork Chops but Giving my Gravy Away

A Risque Double Entendre Song
Hoodoo Lady

Here Minnie’s Superb Gituar Style Can be Heard

Ida Cox

Lawdy Lawdy Blues

 

Sippi Wallac

Women Be Wise…Keep Yo Mouth Shut!

 

 

Billy Holiday and Louis Armstrong

“Farewell to Storyville”

Saturday Night at Bill’s Place!

Posted in At Bill's Place, Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , on October 7, 2018 by playthell

Bill Saxton: Jazz Guru and his Diciples

An Intimate Setting for Classic Acoustic Jazz

For those in search of a unique Jazz venue reminicent of oldtime Harlem Jazz clubs, Bill’s Place is the joint. Located in a former Speakeasy from the 1920’s, that fabulous era when Harlem was the most famous neigborhood in New York – a period vividly dscribed in “When Harlem Was in Vogue,” written by Puliter Prize winning historian David Levering Lewis – Bill’s Place features world class virtuoso’s who have performed all over the US and Abroad, sharing the bandstand with up and coming youngsters trying to learn the art of Jazz performance.

For unlike European classical music, whose techniques can be taught in the academy, the secrets of playing extended improviastional solos over chord changes, creating coherent musical statements at the speed of thought, telling a nuanced story while swinging with a Blues feeling, can only be learned jamming on the bandstand with masters of the trade.

Bill’s Place – founded by Virtuosso saxophonists, composer, arranger and band leader Bill Saxon, and his lovely brilliant wife Theda, is the ideal spot for the young seeker after the blues and abstract truth that is the essence of Jazz. Harlem born and bred, Bill Saxon – whose name suggest that he was born to play the saxophone and thus presages his destiny – is a graduate of the prestiegous New England Conservatory of Music.

Bill was annoyed by the fact that most of the Jazz clubs were located down town. Yet uptown Harlem was a major incubator of this quintessential American art, invented and bequeathed to the world by black musicians in the United States; the most imitated performing artists in the world! Hence, along with his lovely wife Dr. Saxon, they opened Bill’s Place with the objective of providing a place for Jazz afficianados – performers and fans – to enjoy an authenic evening of real Jazz in an intimate friendly environment devoted to unabridged performance of this modern complex instrumental  art music.

The photographs below capture some magic musical moments from a typical Saturday night at Bill’s Place. The images show a mixed group of performers and fans comprising men and women representing the “gorgeous human mosaic of New York,” as former Mayor par excellence David Dinkins put it. It is a visual representation of the inclusive democratic character of the art form; which promotes individual liberty and improvisation that by nature assaults conventional wisdom. At the bottom of my Photographs is a video link showing Bill and friends jammin at Bill’s Place.

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The Sax Sorceror and his Apprentices

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Trading Twelves

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Groovin High

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Talkin Back

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The Rhythm Section was Swinging Hard

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The Songbirds Swooped By

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They Were Singing Bebops!

I Mean Rebopped Bebops

They Were Rightously Wailing

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Mesmerized by the Muslc…

The Audience Came from Everwhere

They Came All the Way from Sweden

And Amsterdam

In Search of an Authentic Harlem Jazz Experience

Lydia and Samaad….

A Sunday Kinda Love…that Lasts Past Saturday Night

 

Internationally Renowned Artist Artist Ademola Was There

Cultural Entreprenuer and Co-Owner of Harlem’s Dwyer Cultural Center

She Came Up From Baltimore

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The Joint Was Jumpin

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Old School Cool

Chillin On Hot Jazz Vibes

Baptized in Blues and Swing!

By the Jazz King of Harlem

Bewitched by a Conjour Man

We Were AnointedWith Soul!

 The Wind Beneath his Wings

Dr. Theda Saxon: Manager of Bill’s Place

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Listen to Bill and other Muscians discuss the history of Harlem Jazz

Listen to Bill and Friends Perform Monk’s Music at Bill’s Place

“Evidence,” Composed by Theolonius Monk

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Sunday Arts Feaure

10/7/18

Text and Photographs by: Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York

 

The Amazing Carlos del Pino Plays Paganini

Posted in Music Reviews, The Art of Carlos del Pino with tags , , , on December 31, 2017 by playthell
The Virtuoso Contemplates the  Score

A Classically Cuban Concert for the Ages

It is no exaggeration to say that every time the virtuoso Bassist Carlos del Pino and his quartet – the pianist and violinist he has played with for years and are so tight they appear to read each others minds – performs in concert it is a history making event.  This was certainly true of the recent concert held at the elegant Christ and St. Stephens Church on the Upper West side, sponsored by the Cuban Cultural Center of New York, in collaboration with the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and the New York State Council of the Arts.

The eclectic programs performed by this quartet are made possible by the extraordinary musicians in the band, whose virtuosity span three major musical genres encompassing the most complex in the western tradition – European Classical, Classic Jazz and the Afro-Cuban Son Montuno.  On this occasion the quartet played a program of mostly Cuban composers, hence the title “Classically Cuban.”

However, the unequalled performance by Carlos del Pino of Niccolo Paganini’s solo violin compositions stole the show. Carlos’ comments on his aspirations as an instrumentalist provides us a glimpse of the twin ambitions that fuel his pathbreaking artistry. First, like all greats in any field, he is constantly trying to get better.  “Through time,” says Carlos, “man has always taken on goals and challenges to improve himself.  Music has been no exception.” And secondly, he seeks to expand the range of the double bass violin.  He tells us: “Due to its large size, the doubled bass has posed a challenge for musicians who wish to interpret works composed for other instruments.”

Since he is on a mission to prove the contra-bass is capable of performing compositions conceived for the lead violin, Carlos chooses some of the most difficult literature to perform. For instance, Paganini’s 24th Caprice is considered by violinists to be one of the most difficult pieces to perform ever written for solo violin. The performer must successfully negotiate such obstacles as Parallel octaves and rapid shifting covering several intervals. Plus, extremely fast scales and arpeggios including minor scales in thirds and tenths, left hand Pizzicato, high positions, and quick string crossings.  These compositions, written and performed by the peerless Paganini, are so difficult that his contemporaries believed his mother – like Dr. Faust – made a deal with the devil bartering her son’s soul in exchange for Paganini’s musical gifts.  Yet, Carlos never missed a note!

As if he intends to really stick it to the naysayers, Carlos performs these compositions pizzicato rather than bowing.  He explained the challenge he has undertaken in the present concert as “the interpretation of three Caprices by Paganini written specifically for the violin, played in pizzicato something never before accomplished with the double bass, which entails a double challenge – the technical and the musical…My interpretation will remain for future generations.”

For the musically tutored observer it was breathtaking to watch, the performance was flawless, Carlos performed this historic feat with the apparent effortlessness of the true virtuoso that can make the exceedingly difficult look easy. To observe how difficult this work is to play for a violinist with a bow, see the video at the end of this essay.  It will give the reader some idea of the magnitude of Carlos’ extraordinary achievement.

The marvelous versatility of his quartet enables Carlos to explore his ideas with a multi-lingual musical approach. Whereas the great majority of musicians spend a lifetime trying to master one musical idiom, Carlos and his collaborators roam across idioms at will, smashing musical barriers and ignoring the conventional wisdom regarding the limits musical performance.

This is no picayune feat because the demands that Classical European music and classical Jazz makes upon the instrumentalists are very different due to the philosophy, organization and performance technique required by the two musical idioms.  For instance, European Classical music evolved in a rigidly hierarchical society where the written text reigns supreme. Hence every note is dictated by the composer’s score, and if they are members of an orchestra the instrumentalist is also subjected to the tyranny of Conductors, who impose their vision of the score weilding a baton.

Classical Jazz is a creation of Afro-Americans in the 20th century; it is the product of what Professor Bernard Bell calls “a residually oral culture where written text competes with the spoken word,” in his seminal study “The Afro-American Novel and its Tradition.”   Hence it is more important to be able to hear musical ideas than to read music, because often the idea cannot be fully expressed in notation.  Jazz also embodies the continuous Afro-American quest for freedom, and as the quintessentially American Art Jazz is democratic, values individual liberty and promotes innovation.  It also swings to the poly-rhythms of a modern machine age society.

Hence, in Jazz the written score serves to set the theme and parameters of the musical conversation not dictate what the instrumentalist plays. And whereas performance styles in European music is dictated by rigid convention, the Jazz musician has been free to create new instrumental techniques to better express their musical innovations.  This is most apparent in the way the double bass is played in the two idioms.

In European music the contra-bass is the bottom voice of the violin section and played with a bow, in Jazz it becomes a member of the rhythm section and is played pizzicato – a technique which Afro-American musicians raised to a high art. In Jazz bowing is ornamental, and in European concert music the pizzicato is an ornament.  Hence in European Music virtuosity on the bass is achieved by bowing; the great innovation of Carlos del Pino is his performance of European masterworks pizzicato.

Given the undeniable brilliance of his artistry, one is compelled to ask why Carlos is not a featured virtuoso with the world’s great symphony orchestras?  Although I can only guess at the answer to this riddle, I suspect it is due to predjudices against the instrument he plays.  As absurd as this may sound to the layman, classical musicians are very exacting in adherence to conventional wisdom. The essence of the problem is that Carlos plays an upright electric bass while they hold the acoustic bass sacred.

But, alas, like Shakespeare, Carlos is forced to combine great artistry with commercial considerations.  The son of a leather tanner Shakespeare, like contemporary rappers, wanted to get paid for his verse.*  And as literary critic Leslie Fiedler tells us in his thoughtful euridite essay “On Literature and Lucre,” Shakespeare solved the problem of sustaining himself economically as an actor/playwrite by becoming a theater owner.

And Carlos makes a living with his instrument by playing lucrative gigs which riquire an electric bass.   And when I offered to remove this impediment  to the full recognition of Carlos’ genius by the omniscient arbiters of European classical music by starting a crusade to acquire an acustic bass of Carlos’choice, he thoughtfully responded:

“Playing pizzicato with my upright bass, I have been able to unify different schools and techniques into one. Creating new styles and presenting an upright bass instead of an acoustic bass will always present some challenges and encounter little acceptance. But I continue to be better and better at my chosen instrument, and I know I will succeed because I believe in myself. I study very hard every day and I am very happy with what I have accomplished.” 

The musicianship of the quartet, like the music they make, is beyond Category.  Pianist Chimi Nakai plays with the same technical brilliance and emotional power regardless of the idiom. And she is equally superb as soloist or accompanist to Carlos. Although a native of Osaka Japan Chemi holds a Masters Degree in Jazz performance from The Aaron Copeland School of Music at Queen’s College in New York, and has won distinction as a recording artist with her own band.

David Eure teaches Jazz violin at the New England Conservatory of Music, and is a master of the instrument whose passionate and innovative playing appears to push it to the limits of its capability.  Renowned for its voice like qualities, the violin is capable of expressing a wide rage of emotions through its tonal colors and lyrical phrasings.  David makes the most of them as his violin sings, cries and soars over the rhythm section.  He is an artist of rare gifts a virtuoso of the highest rank, as you can witness in the videos below.

Percussionist Thomas Estrada, a native of Santiago de Cuba, who like Carlos was trained at the distinguished Instituto Superior de Arte is a marvel who routinely does things with traditional Cuban percussion instruments that I would not have believed possible if I had not witnessed it.  I have been playing these instruments for 50 years, saw all the greats – Francisco “Mongo” Santamaria, Carlos “Potato” Valdez, Armando Paraza, Ta Ta  Guiness, Francisco Aquabella, et al – but Estrada remains unique.  When I closed my eyes, it sounded like three people playing.

Edgar Sanfeliz Botta was the featured vocalist with the fabulous four.  He is the kind of electrifying singer on whom Latin musicians confer the honorific “El Gran Sonoro,” and like the rest of the band it was clear that he can sing in a variety of styles.  He has performed with a number of groups in Cuba, and holds an honors degree in vocal performance from Florida International University.  In January 2012 he had the honor of singing for Pope Benedict XVI.

By any measure this was an all-star cast, fully up to the challenge of pathbreaking performance.  They belong to that rare class of gifted versatile musicians such as Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, Hubert Laws, and Carlos’ Afro-Cuban countrymen Chucho Valdez, Arturo Sandoval and Piquito d’Rivera who speak various musical languages without accent.   It was an affair to remember.

* (See: “Sweet Willie and the Rappers” on this blog.)

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The Instrumentalists

Pianist Chimi Nakai

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Voilinist David Eurie

Tomas Estrada: Master Percussionist

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Edgar Sanfeli Botta: El Grand Sonoro!

The Fabulous Four Takes a Bow

Every Performance is Unique…Historic!

The Wind Beneath their Wings!

Mercedes!  She is the Engine that Enables Carlos to Soar

The Impersario!

From the Cuban Cultural Foundation

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The Audience Hailed from Far and Near

And Watched Spellbound!

 

These Music Lovers came from Boston and the High Sierras of California
There are always Cultural Luminaries at Carlos’ Concerts

With Internationally Reknown Painter and Gallery Owner Ademola Olugbefola

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It’s a Family Affair…..

A Sunday Kinda Love

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A Virtuoso Beyond Category

In a Latin Jazz Mood

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This is one of the solo violin compositions performed by Carlos

 

Pianist Chimi Nkai 

Performing her original composition

Chimi plays her arrangement of a Jazz Standard

David Eurie

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Edgar Sanfeliz Botta

Tenor Soloist with Choir and Orchestra performing Vivaldi’s “Gloria

Havana Cuba 2010

 

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Text and Photos by:
Playthell G.Benjamin
Videos from You Tube

How Rap Records First Got Made and Played

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, Vingnettes From a Remarkable Life with tags , , , , , , , , on February 28, 2017 by playthell
sylvia-robinson
Sylvia Robinson: Godmother of Hip Hop
 On Political Players, Black Revolutionaries, and the Business of Music

The beautiful, shrewd businesswoman and former recording artist Sylvia Robinson is often referred to as “The Godmother” of Hip Hop.  True enough, but that was made possible because her husband Joe Robinson had been a big-time gangster before settling down as a music mogul! Although soft spoken with a bright smile, and always stylishly dressed with excellent taste, Joe was the kind of fearless tough guy who gave the impression that he would spit in a cracker sheriff’s face in Mississippi and tell him: “Kiss my rich black ass you cracker mother!” While he was in handcuffs and surrounded by a possee.

Joe was good friends with a close friend of mine, Clarence “Mooke” Jackson, who owned the premier black gangster hangout spot in New York during the 1970’s, “MISS LACY’S,” which was right next door to Carnegie Hall! These were for real gangsters: not play play hip hop gangsters. For them being a gangster was not a life style but a business!

Joe and Mookie were gentlemen gangsters, elegant of style and manners who wished a different and better life for the kids –  like the kind described by Drs. St. Claire Drake and Horace Cayton in their classic two volume sociological treatise on Chicago “Black Metropolis” – especially the chapter titled “The Upper Shadies,” in which they describe black gangsters who sent their kids to Europe for study.

In his historical masterpiece, When Harlem Was In Vogue,  David Leverling Lewis introduced us to an earlier example of the old school Black Gentleman Gangster, Casper Holstien.  Lewis, a Professor of History at Ruters University and a two times winner of the coveted Pulitzer Prize for History, paints a poignant portrait of Holstein – a west Indian immigrant who served as the model for the character Dr. Narssice, in the HBO series “Boardwalk Empire. ”  

Casper Holstien Circa 1928

casper-holstein

Policy King, Philanthropist, Patron of Harlem Renaissance Artists

Professor Lewis recounts the fact that Holstien put up the money for the prizes in the high brow Urban League’s annual Harlem literary  competitions; held under the direction of the highly educated urbane scholar Dr. Charles Johnson, who published the winners in  Opportunity – a nationally distributed magazine he edited – published by the Urban League.

Gus Greenlee of Pittsburg, was another of this fraternity.  An elegant dresser and shrewd businessman, Greenlee was one of the most powerful team owners  in the Negro Baseball League.  He led the ressurrection of the National Negro League in 1933, and his team, the Homestead Greys, was one of the strongest franchises in the league.

Greenlee was a “Policy King;” which means that he ran a successful lottery in the black community based on illegal betting called playing the numbers or “Policy”  – the same business that Joe and Casper Holstien had made their fortunes in.  Greenlee was a prominent and much admired figure in the black community, and commanded respect from everyone, he had spent a few years in college and was a well spoken Gentlemen.  The two black managers of Heavy-Weight Champion, Joe Louis, who was at one point the biggest star in the world, were also Policy Kings from Detroit and Chicago.

The classic American memoir “Really The Blues” by the Chi Town Jewish gangster and Al Capone strong arm man Milton “Mezz” Mezzrow, who became a jazz musician while serving time with black musicians in Illinois’ Joliet prison and got good enough on the clarinet to play with the great Louis Armstrong,we again encounter these black gentlemen gangsters. In Really the Blues Mezz compares the black gangsters he knew, especially in Harlem, with the top white gangsters he associated with – and he knew them all.  Mezz describes the black gangsters as being far superior in intellect and style to the whites. He said that in a racially just society they would have been lawyers, doctors and Captains of industry!

Mezz could have been describing Mookie and Joe. Although I only met Sylvia in passing, always looking stunning, I knew Joe fairly well.  I met him just as he  was completing work on the building that would house the record company. Mookie told me how Joe took a numbers district from the Mafia! The word on the street was that’s how he got the money to start the record company.

Mookie was the founder of the Fair Play Committee, a group of mostly black gangsters who were inspired by the Black Power Movement and RAM.  In fact, it was movement activist like the chemist and SNCC organizer George Ware, who also be a key figure in organizing the Black Music Association in the 1970’s, that advised Mookie on how to organize the FPC.

That’s how I met Mookie, as a result of movement activity.  After some of the leaders of the Revolutionary Action Movement began reading the writings of Dr. Franz Fanon, the French West Indian Psychaitrist who became the central theoritician of the great Algerian Revolution, and then saw the movie “The Battle of Algiers,” where the revolutionaries in the Algerian FLN recruited the Casbar gangsters into the movement, black ghetto gangsters all began to look like potential Malcolm X’s to us.

Thus, we made an effort to convert and recruit gangsters into the movement. We used to call Mookie and his associates “Political Players” because they wanted to do things that would advance eonomic development in the Black Community.  Hence they could relate to our Black Power message and was influenced by it.  We thought of them as “Economic Nationalist.”   Mookie also knew Malcolm X well when he was in the streets, first in Detroit and later in Harlem; he used to say with a chuckle: “It’s a damn good thing he became a political leader cause Malcolm couldn’t hustle his way across the George Washington Bridge!”

When the revolutionary activist H. “Rap” Brown – who along with Stokely Carmichael aka “Kwame Touré, founded the original Black Panther Party in Loundes County Alabama, the Oakland Black Panthers were an offshoot that came along later – and coined the “Black Power” slogan – was running from the FBI as a fugitive on their Top Ten Most Wanted List, remaining at large for years:  It was Mookie and his associates that hid him from the G-Men! Although he had virtually no formal education, coming from racist apartheid Alabama and growing up dirt poor: Mookie was one of the smartest people I ever met! And I have lectured at Harvard and the Sorbonne in Paris!

Stokely Carmichael and H. “Rap” Brown

stokeley-carmichael-h-rap-brown-meet-press1

The True Founders of the Black Panther Party

Mookie and I became dear friends until he died a natural death at 85!  If you read my fictional story “Lush Life” in the seminal anthology “Brotherman,” which includes 66 black male writers – everybody who was anybody –  compiled and edited by Dr. Harris, Senior Editor of the Black Scholar, and the prolific writer and venerable Public intellectual Herb Boyd, who also knew Mookie from Detroit – the black gangsters sitting around the table planning how to break into the record business are based on Mookie and his associates. The character “Boogie Woogie” is based on Mookie and “Beautiful Cody Jones” is based on Joe Robinson.

 Joe and Sylvia Robinson

joe-and-sylvaia-robinson

They Put Rap on Records

Me and Mookie were thick as thieves.  I taught Mookie’s son Michael, and his main enforcer “Tabby” – a former member of the US Marine Corps and a world class boxer who was an inter-service Champion and the most feared “gorilla” in the Apple  – to ride horses!  I was there on the scene, that’s how I know Fair Play were the ones who got independent black music labels like All Platinum Records,  the original company founded by Joe and Sylvia in 1968, played on the air. They also were responsible for getting Bob Law, the great nationally broadcast talk show host, on the radio.

Back in the Day

playthell-horse-2

Tabby’s facination with horses aparked a friendship between us

Joe Robinson and his beautiful brilliant wife Sylvia – who had a big hit when I was in high school during the 1950’s titled “Love is Strange” with a male partner under the stage name “Mickey and Sylvia” – would record the first Rap record ever – “Rappers Delight.” The artists were a local group in Inglewood New Jersey called “The Sugar Hill Gang.”

Joe and Sylvia first heard rap music on a visit to Harlem World as Mookie’s guest, as he was a part owner of the club, which “Puffy” talks about as one of the incubators of Rap.  On the night of Joe and Sylvia’s visit DJ Hollywood and Curtis Blow were controlling the mikes.  They immediately recognized the commercial value of this new black vernacular art form and began taking steps to record it.

I had failed to recognize the commercial value of Rap Music on an earlier visit to the club after Logan Westbrooks, Director of Special Markets for the CBS Records Group, had hooked me up with CBS staff producer Hank Crosby, who had been recruited from the Mo-Town stable.  I was trying to interest him in a demo recorded by Jade, the touring Band for Philadelphia International recording artist Jean Carn – who was distributed by CBS Records and marketed by Logan Westrooks’s department.  I was the leader and manager of Jade, and it was at the height of the disco craze, so we were aiming for that market.  But Disco music was becoming stale; with everybody beginning to sound alike.

Logan Westbrooks: HITMAKER!

Logan Westbrooks, hit maker

Chillin in his CBS Office with a Wall Covered With Gold and Platnam
Me and the Great Songtress Jean Carn circa 1977

Jean Carn

On the terrace of my Manhattan Apartment before performing at Linclon Center

Crosby was looking for the next big thing, and he told me he thought the rhythm section was very funky, and that I was “A clever lyricist.”   But he wasn’t interested in that record, which was titled “Just Keep on Dancing!” Crosby told me “If you write a few more stanzas to the song, then get one of those DJ’s in the clubs to recite them over just the rhythm section, I would be interested in hearing that.”

This was the mid 1970’s and the rap scene was well underway in the South Bronx – the true birthplace of Hip hop poets where newly minted MC’s like Grand Master Caz and Cool Herc, were already spittin def rhymes to the Bongo Band’s break beats,’ which were later incorperated into the  first Rap record.- and Rap was also beginning to make some noise in Harlem, but I had never heard of it.   And despite the fact that future music mogul Russell Simmons was beginning to promote hip hop concerts around town, I didn’t know what tha fuck Hank Crosby was talking about!

But when I mentioned it to Mookie he said “Oh he talking bout them rappers…sheet, we got tha best DJ’s in town doing that rap stuff up at the club!  Although Mookie was a Jazz fan, who dug Charlie Parker so much he once took Bird’s alto-saxophone back from a heroin dealer at gun point so Bird could make a gig.  Bird, who was badly strung out, had pawned his horn for dope and owed the dealer money, so he was keeping the horn as collateral.

But Mookie wanted to hear Bird wail at Minton’s Playhouse, the birth place of that extremely complex modern jazz genre called Bebop, so he strong armed his ax from the dealer.  Yet, despite his bias for jazz, Mookie, posessed an impressive gift for gab and might have become a rapper had he grown up in a Hip hop cultural milieu, could hear that something was happening with this “Rap thing,” by just watching the way it grooved the crowds in Harlem World.   So he told me: “Come on by and check em out; if you like em I’ll git em to do yo record and it won’t cost ya nothin…I’ll take care of it.”

Billboard for Forthcoming Movie on “Mookie” Jackson

mookie-jackson

Founder Of The Fair Play Committee

I went up to Harlem World, checked them out, and couldn’t believe that THIS was what Crosby was so excited about.  I told Mookie, “Man this shit ain’t goin nowhere.  We been reciting them kind of rhymes on street corners for years…why would anybody pay to hear that?”  Just like that I missed the chance to make history and a lot of money because I had a closed mind. The next big thing in popular music was staring me in the face and I slept on it, jussed played pass it.  I didn’t understand at the time that what the rappers were doing was a different art form from the kind of rhyming we had been doing.

We were reciting of verses from folk sagas like “The Signifying Monkey,”  “Shine on the Titanic” and The Dirty Dozens – verse that had been fashioned on the smithy of black folk culture.   These risque rhymes and been handed down for  generations and many black underground bards had contributed to their authorship. But what the Rappers were doing, I would later realize, is real artifice; the same kind of thing that poets do.

The major difference is that Rappers must flow over a preordained beat that is dance friendly; poets have absolute freedom over the rhythm of there verse, which is in the word itself and can become quite complex…it all depends upon the caliber of the poet!  Me and my writing partner Shelman Johnson, pianist and music director of the band, were trying to write clever elegant songs like Tommy Bell and Linda Creed – who wrote songs like “Betcha By Golly wow!”

Joe and Sylvia were not so precious in their taste.  While I was trying to be “an artist” first, believing the business side would take care of itself if we wrote good strong songs, Joe and Sylvia were business people who left the art to the artists but had good ears for a hit sound!  Plus, they had a complete record company, they not only had a studio but a record pressing plant. All they needed was distribution and especially air play. That was what killed independent record companies: They couldn’t get their records on the air, and they couldn’t collect all their money from Independent Distributors: The Fair Play Committee solved both problems!

There was a dramatic event that convinced black DJ’s, who decided what records they wanted to put on the air, to play the products from independent black labels.  Back in the day, before the rise of dictatorial Program Directors who alone decide the play list for the entire station, the “Personality Jocks,” who were larger than life characters, controlled playlist because their audiences were loyal to them.They had dramatic and grandiose radio monikers like: “Georgie Woods, The Guy with the Goods;” “Chatty Hattie;” “Daddyo Daley;” “Sir Lancelot;” “Jocko” “Johnny Shaw, The Devil’s Son-In-Law” et al.

In any instances this made them bigger than the station – especially if they were in a competitive market with more than one station.  These Jocks were represented by a professional organization known as NAFTRA – The National Association of Radio and Television Announcers – and it as at their annual convention held in Miami that their policy toward small independent black labels dramatically changed.

It was the smoldering Dog Days of August in1968, and the city of Miami had experienced a “race riot” just before the convention came to town.   Knowing this Mookie saw a unique opportunity.  Armed with what sociologists called He traveled down to Miami with 15 associates from the Fair Play Committee, all dressed like Wall street investment bankers,  and went straight to the sheriff’s office. Mookie was one of the most charming and persuasive men the God’s ever blew breath in, and he really turned it on with this southern cracker Sheriff.

A master bunko artist, Mookie understood the two basic elements of the con: Make your mark think he is smarter than you, and convince they are going to get something for nothing.  In fact, Mookie once told me: “You can’t con an honest person, because in order to get conned you have to have larceny I your heart.”

In this case the situation was perfect, and Mookie played that Peckerwood Sheriff like Bird played the alto-sax.   He told the sheriff that they were a private security team that came down to police the convention so that there wouldn’t be any more violent racial outbreaks, which was a real possibility with of of the wild show business Negroes coming to town.  And he convinced the Sheriff that if he deputized them they would assure him that there would be no incidents!

By the time Mookie was finished with his rap the Sheriff was convinced that he was getting the deal of the century and deputized these New York Gangsters.  Once they got their badges the Fair Play Committee went over to the convention and systematically terrorized the key players.  They hung some of them out of hotel windows by their feet – in fact, I believe that scene in the movie The five Heartbeats was taken from that incident.

Logan Westbrooks and his wife Jerry were there, although he was a salesman with Mercury Records at the time; he had had yet to become the head of black music markeing at CBS Records.  “I went down to the convention because it was an important event for anybody trying to sell black records,” says Logan.  However when he got there he found out that he was not properly registered,”I was trapped outside and could only attend events open to the public.  But I had a suite in the hotel where the conference was going on and knew all of the big players.  So although I wasn’t in the room when a lot of stuff went down, I heard about what was going on from my contacts”

Suddenly these Jocks began to play independent black labels.  As for the independent distributors, who rumor had it were all Jewish and Italian gangsters, they paid what they wanted when they wanted.   But that also changed after one of the biggest distributors  got thrown out of a four story window into a fireman’s net, held by some stragglers who they paid handsomely to  catch the flying body.  The dude had a heart attack, and everybody else got the message. Thus when Joe and Sylvia released ‘Rappers Delight,’ they got it played on the radio, no problem, and the got their money from the distributors.  And the rest made history.

This record literally came out of nowhere, since the Sugarhill Gang was from New Jersey, and the real artists, the creaters of this new and uniqe genre of Afro-American popular music, had never even heard of them until they dug the record on the radio.  And to make matters worse it was a smash!  Russell Simmons, who would emerge as the premiere Hip Hop producer and impersario, says he was distraigh when he heard the recoed because “I thought there was only going to be one Rap Record made.”

However Russel would go on to make hundreds of millions of dollars from producing Rap records on his Def Jam label.  And in time, all Hip Hop artists and entreprenuers that got rich from rap recognized that the release of “Rapper’s Delight” initiated the growth of the billion dollar Hip Hop industry.  And thus Sylvia Robinson, who produced Rapper’s Delight, well derserves the honorific “God Mother of Hip Hop.”

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Click on Link to hear the original Recording of Rappers Delight

The Record that Started it All!!
Watch the Sugarhill Gang Perform Rappers Delight

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Black History Month
February 27, 2017

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 conductors. Hence in European concert music the creativity of the instrumentalist is severely circumscribed. Everything from tempo, intonation and interpretation of the music is dictated by 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 Jordan 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!  The great Harvard scientist Dr. S. Allen Counter once told me “On the frontier of scientific inquiry the distinctions between art and science disappear.” This is most evident in the playing of Wynton, for here art and science converge  into artistic alchemy. 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 on link to see: CHEROKEE

https://youtu.be/3blL4v-cY18

Boroque Duets: Wynton and Kathleen Battle

Watch Wynton Accompany Jazz Great Sarah Vaughn

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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