Archive for the Music Reviews Category

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 Renissance 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, 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 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

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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

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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

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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