Archive for the Music Reviews Category

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 

Jazz Around The World!

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

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Swings Berkeley

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

 

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Maestro Marsilis conducts the Boys in the Band

 An Evening of Gilded Memories and Divine Music

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

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

The Square outside Zellenboch Hall
First Choice

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

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

Me and the Mathematician

Playthell and Rose

Dr. Fine: My Sanfrancisco Guide

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Like Heidi Moore-Reynolds
Maestro Marsalis

Edited Version

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

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

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

Ali edit

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

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

 Edit III

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

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

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

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

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

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And listened closely
So did Professor Israel

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

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

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

Fronting for Uncle Charlie

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

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Promoter Darryl Anderson  and Mayor Todd Strange

This Could be the Start of Something Big!

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

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

A Fabulous Venue for a Concert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What a Place for a Show!

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

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

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

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

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Take Your Choice
And then there’s Charlie!

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

Large and in Charge

And El Debarge

El 5- EL DEBARGE

Driving the Ladies Crazy with his Soulful Tenor Voice
Kwaku Lays out the Master Plan
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Guiding them through Step by Step 
Its no Wonder the Mighty Three are Laughing
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They know they bout to rock da park with a hellified show!
The Promoter expresses gratitude to the Mayor and Montgomery’s Fans
DSCN8236 And promises many more to follow

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This is a multi-media Presentation, click on links below to see Artist
https://youtu.be/kCiRaZXe7AY
Charlie Wilson Live in Europe
 El DeBarge Live:  “All This Love
https://youtu.be/AXZ5HvjkaJ4
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Text and photos by: Playthell Benjamin
*** Except for Photos of Charlie Wilson and El Debarge
  • Charlie Wilson’s photo was shot by Steven Cohen
** El Debarge Photo was supplied by his management.

A Living Legend!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Logan Westbrooks: Living Legend, Music Reviews, Photo-Essays with tags , on October 25, 2015 by playthell

llf awards logan brenda (1)

Dr. Logan Westbrooks  recieves Vanguard Award from Brenda A. King

Living Legend foundation honors Logan Westbrooks

From the moment I heard that Logan Westbrooks had been chosen for the Vanguard Award by the Living Legends Foundation I decided to attend the ceremony.  Given the pioneering role he had played in advancing the position of black professionals at major companies by virtue of his success, I felt such recognition from his peers was long overdue.  Logan and I have been buddies for forty years and during that time I have witnessed his remarkable career from a front row seat.  It is a rare opportunity to watch somebody accomplish something that hasn’t been done before; to set out on a journey filled with obstacles without a map or compass yet successfully navigate their way.  When I first met Logan he was already at the top of his game as the Director of Special Markets for CBS Records, which, at the time, was the most iconic entertainment company in the business.

I remember that his office had a carnival like atmosphere with colorful streamers hanging from the ceiling and people running to and fro grooving to The Sound of Philadelphia; it seemed that everybody was having fun while they took care of business.  Logan had an open door policy where one could pretty much walk in and ask to speak with him.  And if they sounded like they had a good idea they could get an audience.  That’s how the Senegalese promoter Johnny Sekka convinced him to come to Senegal to attend a music festival featuring the Jacksons.  It was a marvelous model for conducting business and the proof of Logan’s methods was the steady string of hits that issued from his department that generated millions of dollars.

Among the acts that fell under the purview of Logan’s department were Earth, Wind and Fire, Sly Stone and especially the acts on the Philadelphia International label whose records were written and produced by Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and their gifted associates like Tommy Bell and Linda Creed.  Clive Davis, the Harvard trained music loving lawyer who headed the CBS Records Group, tells us in his book that Gamble and Huff started turning out hit records before the ink was dry on their contract with CBS.  The acts in Logan’s department would dominate the charts during the 1970’s; Gamble and Huff went on to induction into the Rock & Roll Songwriters Hall of Fame. 

Logan’s performance at CBS exceeded all expectations and set a benchmark that opened the corporate doors for all who followed. Although we don’t hear it much nowadays, when we were coming up it was conventional wisdom that if you were the “first” black person to walk through the doors of opportunity you should try and be “twice as good” as your white counterparts in order to make it easier for other Afro-Americans to enter.

Although this may sound like he was walking into a pressure cooker Logan didn’t experience it that way.  By the time he arrived at CBS Logan had learned the business of marketing music from the ground up, and knew exactly what he wanted to do.  Although it has become conventional wisdom that the now famous Harvard Business School Case Study supplied him with the blueprint for success, Logan told me that it only confirmed what he had already learned from working the field for years with several companies.

What he did learn from the study had more to do with organizational structure and management than the marketing of black music, which is what he was tasked with by CBS, after Clive accidentally discovered how much money was in it.    Once they decided to get in the Black Music business CBS conducted a nationwide search; big multi-national corporations do not select people for top executive positions and put them in charge of million dollar budgets with final decisions on how it is spent without thoroughly checking them out – which was especially true for their first black executive!  So obviously Logan was a star in the records business before he went to CBS; they just gave him the resources to shine brighter.  And he became a Supernova!

When we used to hang out back in the seventies the record business was in a golden age that’s gone with the wind and will never return. This was a time when record companies made stars of anonymous performers…sometimes overnight sensations.  Thus top executives had virtually unlimited expense accounts so long as they were doing company business.  But in the business of music the difference between work and play is sometimes hard for the untutored eye to distinguish. I got my first taste of that opulent lifestyle when a CBS act was performing in Atlantic City and Logan asked me if I wanted to join him in a trip down to the Shore from Manhattan to see the show.

He and I were living in the same building at the time , One Sherman Square at 70th and Broadway; which was about twenty blocks from the “Black Rock,” a sobriquet for the CBS headquarters building at 50th Street and Avenue of the Americas.  Logan ordered a limo and we were chauffeured down to Atlantic City, sipping Champaign and imbibing exotic spices of life along the way.  During the show we dined on splendid gourmet fare fit for kings.  When I marveled at the plushness of it all Logan just smiled and said “this is how the game is played in the major Leagues.”

But he didn’t start in the big leagues and had done his time in the minors, learning the tricks of his trade down on the ground where the action is.  By the time he was recruited by CBS Logan says “I knew everything there was to know about marketing records because I had done it.”  In fact, when Logan went to CBS to market Black Music he was always the most knowledgeable exec in the room; CBS had the wherewithal but Logan had the know how.

It proved to be a perfect marriage and produced millions in revenue.  Logan was innovative in his approach to building his promotion team and this accounted for much of his success.  He understood that the key to the success of an act was good record production, air play and publicity.

In Gamble & Huff, Sly Stone and Earth, wind and Fire he was provided excellent products; his job was to sell them, which nobody at CBS had any idea how to do.  The first thing that Logan did was to assemble a crack promotion team.  Unlike most people, who would have hired people they like, Logan polled the Jocks that made decisions about which records got on the air in major markets and asked them to recommend promotion men.

He figured if the Jocks picked the promotion men they would have the best chance of getting his records played: it proved a stroke of genius!   He also demonstrated great insight and vision by insisting that his promotion men attend important events in the markets they worked in, thereby becoming a part of the life of the the community.  All of these practices were innovations introduced by logan to the business of marketing music.

His next step was to hire Afro-American publicists for the first time ever at CBS and he bought large ads in black publications which was also a first.  He hired Howard Bingham, Muhammad Ali’s personal photographer, to shoot album covers – another first at CBS.   And when his good friend, the Chi-Town jock Don Cornelius, launched his television dance show, “Soul Train,” Logan got Gamble & Huff to write the theme song.  Once the show was established Logan used it as a major venue for the promotion of his acts.

The Hit Maker!

Logan Westbrooks, hit maker

Back in the Day: Logan displaying some of his many hit records

Logan’s entire approach to the marketing of black music was a marvelous combination of art and science. And when he left CBS and started his own label, Source Records, in LA, his first release, “Bustin Loose,” by Chuck Brown and the Soul Searchers, went to # 1 on the Billboard R&B charts. With the great success of this record Logan took a local Washington DC sound, Go Go music, and made it world famous The rhythm track was later sampled by the rapper “Nellie” for his Grammy winning mega hit “It’s Getting Hot in Here,” which continues to pay handsome publishing royalties. 

After experiencing great success as the founder and Director of the Special Markets Division, Logan transferred to the International Division.  When he was selected to head a joint venture with African businessmen to produce and market African music from a base in Nigeria, he again set a precedent by engaging this writer as a consultant.  At the time I was still a Professor in the University of Massachusetts, at Amherst where I taught a course on African history and politics.   Logan assembled a group of executives from CBS international and I conducted a seminar on the history, economy, culture, ethnic divisions and politics of Nigeria.  I also recommended a select bibliography for further study.  At the top of this list were the novels of Chinua Achebe, especially “Things Fall Apart” and No Longer at Ease.”

I chose Achebe because his novels present the reader who is untutored in African affairs with a comprehensive and penetrating view into the realities of African life and cultural values, and like all great novelists Achebe allows the reader to enter that world and see events through African eyes.  Logan would later tell me after his Nigerian sojourn – which he abruptly terminated after witnessing the 1976 assassination of General Murtala Muhammad, the military ruler of the country, while riding in a motorcade with him! – that he understood everything which was going on around him after reading Achebe.

Logan left the country as soon as possible because many Nigerians suspected CIA involvement in the Assassination;which made all Americans in the country suspect, and therefore in danger.  He had remained calm throughout this incident because although he has a humble demeanor, Logan is in fact a former US Army paratrooper who had completed officer training….hence he was trained for trouble!

Logan is the ideal student that every professor wishes for…a student who loves to read and is anxious to learn something new.  After I conducted the seminar at CBS headquarters and left them speechless, Logan would later laugh cynically and observe with a sense of pride: “These white folks up in here never think that we might know anybody black that can teach them something about the world…”

Logan has left an indelible mark on this business of music; hence I can think of no one more deserving of the Vanguard Award than Logan Westbrooks.  Since this essay is a multi-media presentation the reader can learn more of the details of Logan’s career by simply clicking on the link from the University of Indiana Archives – where all of his records from his years in business are housed and catalogued by Dr. Portia Maultsby – located at the bottom of this text.

A Note on Logan’s Life After the Record Business

Although it is not as well-known Logan’s life after he left the record business is just as fascinating and in some respects even more important.  While there is a plethora of examples I could cite, one in particular stands above all the others: his work with young black boys who had run afoul of the law i.e. having committed serious crimes that led to incarceration.  I think his work in this regard is especially important to mention here because endangered black boys was a persistent theme in the Living Legends event under discussion, but more importantly because of what it reveals about the relationship between Logan and his beloved wife Gerry.

Having witnessed their relationship from a pretty good vantage point over four decades, the first thing that comes to mind in any attempt to characterize it is to say that it is a great love story…the kind of love story that is extraordinary even by the exaggerated standards of a romance novel.   As evidence for my claim it is quite enough to note that they have been married for 50 years!

Alas, anyone who is vaguely familiar with the many temptations and pit falls a life in show business presents will recognize this as something of a miracle.  Yet they appear to still be really in love; as is evidenced by Logan ending his speech at the Awards ceremony with a love poem to his wife. It was so moving that the next inductee openly acknowledged that he had learned from Logan’s example and would incorporate his style in order to improve his own game on the home front!

However I discovered the true depth of their relationship and what a magnificent team they are working together – and since Logan was just starting out in life and was like a snake without a pit to hiss in when they hooked up, everything that he has accomplished Gerry was right by his side….not behind him – around the issue of these dangerous juvenile delinquents that virtually everybody else had written off as dead end thugs destined to go nowhere in life.

At first that’s how Logan saw them too, and so did I when I heard that Gerri was teaching a group of young LA gang bangers, all of whom had committed serious felonies – more often than not involving violent assault.   However in 1981 Sidney Miller, the publisher of Black Radio Exclusive – an important trade journal in the industry at the time -engaged Logan to produce his annual convention and he selected Rev. Jesse Jackson and myself as keynote speakers.

When I came to LA I had conceived of my task as composing a speech for rich black people in a period of Republican resurgence; which was difficult enough, given the notorious lack of political consciousness among the well-to-do.   So I composed a speech titled “On the Role of the Black Elite in the Age of Reagan, and proceeded to the conference certain that I had the situation in hand.  The speech was published in the next issue of Black Radio Exclusive and can be read there.

But not long after I got in town I was confronted by Gerry, who told me in no uncertain terms that her boys needed to hear some inspiring words from me far more than some rich fat cats at the Hyatt House in downtown LA.   And it was abundantly clear she was not taking no for an answer; Logan warned me “Gerry is a Tushie from way back,” which is an old southern way of describing a woman with an iron will that is determined to have her way once she sets her mind on something.   Unable to envision an honorable way out, I set my mind to composing a speech suitable for a group of Bloods and Crips who posed such a menace to society that they were locked up in a real prison – the fact that it was designed for youths made it no less a prison.

I decided that my first, and most important, task was to construct a speech that would “keep hope alive,” as the Righteous Reverend Jessie L. Jackson preached.  Alas, this was no easy task.  Yet I was inspired to press on by the admonition from our enduring Poet Laurate Langston Hughes “Hold fast to dreams /for if dreams die / life becomes like a bird with broken wings / and cannot fly.”

Once having defined my purpose and theme, I began to contemplate the content of my speech with the objective of selecting examples that could help me achieve my goal of giving these incarcerated youths a reason to hope for a better future.  I decided that the most powerful presentation I could offer would be to introduce them to a number of men who had served time in prison yet went on to accomplish great things later in life.

I chose two playwrights – the Frenchman Jean Genet and the New York Puerto Rican writer Miguel Pinero, a bad boy from the hood whose prison play “Short Eyes” had recently won the prestigious New York Drama Critics Circle prize for Best Play.  I included the great Jazz saxophonists Jimmy Heath, Businessman/boxing promoter Don King, World Heavyweight champion Sonny Liston and California writer/ activist Eldridge Cleaver, whose book of essays “Soul on Ice” was largely written while he was incarcerated in the California prison system and had captured readers world-wide.  And I concluded with a discussion of Malcolm X, who went to prison a dope dealing thug but emerged one of the greatest spokesmen for the oppressed in the 20th century!

I was satisfied that I would touch their souls with this speech…unless they had deep holes in their souls that could not be repaired, in which case my words would just seep through as if in a sifter.   However from the moment that Gerry began to address the class in this grim heartbreaking place – the misery of which was amplified by the fact that it was situated amidst the vulgar opulence of Malibu Beach – I began to see them in a wholly different light.

This is because, as she would later explain to me: “I never saw them as dangerous thugs; I saw them as lost little boys in need of love and guidance.”  She spoke to them the way a kind and wise parent would speak to their children.  Her love and concern for them was palpable, and they responded to her in kind.

It was a transcendent moment the likes of which I have never witnessed in a classroom before or since….and I come from four generations of teachers, have lectured to many diverse audiences of students and remain something of a compulsive pedagogue even now.  After a generous introduction from Gerry, I instantly gained their attention and trust.

It was easy work from that point on and my speech went very well.  Yet if they gained inspiration from my talk, I was also inspired by their response into believing that many of them could be salvaged, and I could see that their chances of salvation were immeasurably increased by having Gerry Westbrooks in their lives.  For she was much more than a teacher: she was a savior.

I had often wondered why she took on the job of teaching those whom the rest of society had condemmend as the worst kids in America – especially when she didn’t need to work at all for financial reasons. When I asked her one day if she was so dedicated to teaching why she didn’t choose to teach in better schools; she said simply: “Those kids don’t need me, they already have everything.  These kids need me.”

It is impossible to understand this kind of commitment unless you understand the commandment of Jesus Christ to serve “the least among us.”  Gerry is a real Christian that practices what she preaches.  It is the kind of rare and amazing grace that can move the heart of even an unchurched wretch like me.  I felt honored to have participated in her program; it was the kind of experience that even the memory can make your spirit dance.

Through Gerry’s prodding Logan would also have a change of heart and great things happened as a result.  From her close work with these troubled young men Gerry came to the conclusion that they needed different kinds of male role models; so she convinced Logan to polish up his Rolls Royce, dress to the nines, cock his hat duece tray  and come out to visit the boys so that they could see a hip black man who had acquired those material things without being a gangster, athlete, or entertainer.

Once Logan met her boys he fell in love with them too.  And working together they made a great difference in the lives of many of them.  By the time I went out to speak with them Logan was firmly in their corner and to witness the way these young gang bangers related to them as parental figures was a marvel to behold!

As a result of their work with these troubled young men the Westbrooks bought the fabulous mansion built by Lucy Hauerwass – the wife of the widow of the wealthy German immigrant businessman John A. Hauerwass – in 1914. They converted this house into the Helping Hands Home for Boys in the early 1980’s and maintained it for a decade before selling it to Boys town in 1998.

Gerri Westbrooks was honored by the City of Los Angeles for her devoted work on behalf of at risk boys, which she carried out with Logan’s support.  Hence while all of the eleven honores who received a Living Legend’s Award have made outstanding contributions, none was more deserving than Logan Westbrooks.

The Awards celebrations were outstanding by any measure.  Covering several days, the formal ceremonies began with a tribute from the Los Angeles City Council, and reached its apex with the evening banquet; then everybody had a ball at the Sunday Picnic.  My photographic impressions of each phase of the ceremonies are exhibited below.  This is a multi-media presentation;  with text, photos and videos.

The subject matter in the video clips are clearly labeled and the reader can view them by double clicking on the links at the bottom of this page.  All of the details on the honorees and the foundations work can be found on the first video clip titled “On the Living Legend Foundation Awards.” For maximum viewing of the photos, expand your screen to 150%.

The Helping Hand Home for Boys
Logan Westbrooks - Home for Boys II
Logan and Gerry Westbrooks Refuge for Boys at Risk
**********************
Gerri Westbrooks Honored by City of Los Angeles

Gerri Westbrooks Honored by city

********************

Visual vingettes from the Celebration

At the City Council

Logan and Councilman

Logan Westbrooks with City Councilman

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Dr. Westbrooks with Conference organizer

Logan and Organizer

Sunshine smiles beamed all around

******************

Record Industry Icons Rap

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About the golden days of the Music Business

*******************

Which they remember as a whole lotta fun 

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Turning out the hits that brought Joy to Millions

******************

Representatives of the Living Legends Foundation

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Kept a Watchful Eye over the Proceedings

*******************

Councilman addressing the Honorees before entering the Chamber

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He spoke knowledgebly about the recording Industry

******************

Living Legends display their Citations
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 Recognition for their role in bringing us good music

********************

It was a Marvelous Moment
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Radiant Smiles told the Story

*********************

Logan and Wife Gerry Leaving the Council Chamber
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 Logan was deeply moved by the ceremony
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 At the Banquet

 Edited VersionA A Motown Legend

******************

It Was Star Time
 Edited II
As Logan and his elegant wife Gerry arrive in their Bentley

********************* 

It was all the way Live!

Edit III

Classic Hollywood Glamor

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There was even a Red Carpet!

Edit IV

Where the entrance of the Stars was filmed

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Lights, Camera, Action!

Edit V

It was Strictly Hollywood……

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Noted Movie Critic Gil Robertson was there…..

Edit VI

Checking things out with a critical eye

********************

And so many Stars!

VII

Ruben Rodriguez and his lovely Lady

********************

Elegant Eye Candy was on Prominent display

Edit VIII

Like this chocolate Delight!

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Or this Butterscotch Beauty Colleen Wilson

Edit IX

Elegance and Class…Fine as Vintage Wine

*******************

Powerful full Figured Foxes

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A Living Legend and her Tribune

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The Full range of Black Beauty was on Display

Edit X

Dark and Lovely like the Night

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They were Masters not slaves to fashion… 

Edit XI

High Style and Great Taste were Common Fare

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Clean as a Mississippi Sissiy on Easter Sunday!

Edit XII

He looks like he stepped off the cover of GQ

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It was a Bootylicious Affair!

EDit XIV

J-L0 ain’t got Nothin on Her!

********************

The Outside Gardens were Lush

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In an LA sort of Way

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And Inside Everything was Plush

Edit XVI

Todd Kalman: Vice-President at Marketron

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The Awards Ceremony

Honoring Living Legends
The Main Ballroom was da bomb!

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Nothing was spared on the Grandeur of the Fete

*******************************

Pater-Familias of All Black Record Executives in the Fortune 500 

XVII

Logan Westbrooks Recipient of the Vanguard Award
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Reed Shannon, Star of the Musical “Motown,”   sang our National Anthem
Edit XVIII
 The depth of emotion of his performance was astonishing from one so young

*********************

 The Audience Rose to its Feet….

Edit XIX

Lifted Every Voice and Sang!

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As the Living Legends were introduced by their Presenters

XXI

The Vanguard Award winner dropped some science his many progeny

***********************

Logan Graciously Shared treasured Memories of a Life Well Lived
Logan Westbrooks II
And implored the audience: “We must tell our own stories

**********************

The Living Legends that followed

XXII

Gave Shout Outs to Dr. Westbrooks

***********************

This Young Lady

XXIII

Accepted the Award for her Parents

********************

Cee Cee was presented an award for her work with the Foundation

DSCN7674

It really caught her by surprise

************************

Big John was in tha House!

DSCN7670

The New CEO: Warner/Chappell Worldwide Operations

*******************************

But he had come to sing the praises of a Legendary Young Entrepreneur
Edit XXIV
And was just one of tha Boyz

*********************

It was the kind of fabulous affair where people came to see…..

DSCN7603

…….and be seen

**********************

But mostly it was an occasion for old friends……

DSCN7531

……..to get together and reminisce about good times past

Honorees and Foundation Board Members

Logan Westbrooks in group Photo - honorees and Foundation board

Los Angeles October 2015

At the Picnic!

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Ain’t Nothin but a Partay!

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She’s Down wit it…….

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………and can’t quit it!

*****************************

Big Party over here!
DSCN7786
P Funk in da Hooouse!

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Rico Suave was Layin Down da Beats!
DSCN7817
And Pumpin uo da Funk! 

************************

Some folks just sat around looking outrageously fine….

DSCN7823

……..Like Jackie Rinehardt!

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And it was all about the Record Business

DSCN7730

The Real Deal!

****************

Double click on links below to view videos. 
On the Living Legends Awarda
http://www.eurweb.com/2015/10/living-legends-foundations-19th-annual-awards-dinner-gala-is-huge-success-videophotos/
Videos on the Career of Logan Westbrooks
Double click on links below to view
A Short documentary on Logan from the University of Indiana  Archives
https://youtu.be/WnWKjBxfbWU
To View Logan’s Comments on Chuck Brown’s #1 hit record
https://youtu.be/kr1-wYuQcU4
To hear reording of “Bustin Loose
https://youtu.be/wwHi10qX8u8
On the Assassination of General Muhammad
https://youtu.be/PRYOiszzDtE
**************************
Text and Photos by: Playthell G. Benjamin
*****Except for the following Photos.
*The Cover and the group ph0to of the Honorees
*The Mansion
*Gerri Westbrooks receiving Award from City
October 25th, 2015

Fallen Angel: Self-Destructing before the World  

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism, Movie Reviews, Music Reviews with tags , on July 7, 2015 by playthell

amy-winehouse

Amy during better days
 The Short and Tragic Life of Amy Winehouse

The new documentary film on the British singer Amy Winehouse now playing at the Sunset Theater in the East Village is beautifully produced and directed by Asif Kapadia. Over the course of two hours and eight minutes we are provided a remarkable look into the life of this six time Grammy winner who rose up from the London working class and captured a world-wide audience writing and singing songs based on the vicissitudes of the high times and bizarre episodes that mark the rise and fall of her short but remarkable life.  Watching the movie I got the impression that we were witnessing the human equivalent of a shooting star that blazes across the night skies in a bright flash of light and then flames out before our eyes.

The film is thoughtfully constructed from video clips of her life; some of it is finely produced footage from her live performances in the UK and the USA, but most of the footage comes from family and friends.  Thus we see her in a wide variety of settings.  Some of the film has sound, and thus we can observe her speaking, but other footage is accompanied by voice overs of Amy speaking.  Hence we hear a lot of her story in her own words. And what we see is a young person of considerable creative talent who appears to understand little in life except making music, and cannot overcome the deep seated emotional problems caused by the lasting trauma of her father abandoning her and her mother at an early age.

This leaves her with a deep need to be loved by men, or at least win their approval, and her emotional neediness drives her into a destructive relationship with a guy who is also emotionally damaged because of a screwed up relationship with his parents.    He promises to be her rock and help Amy cope and instead he introduces her to crack cocaine and heroin.  Abuse of these drugs along with excessive alcohol consumption final did her in at the tender age of 27.  However in the meantime she managed to become an international superstar who could have become fabulously rich if she had been able to stay sober.

Although Amy’s particular experience is unique, the basic narrative is an old story: old wine in a new bottle.  In many ways her saga is so familiar she comes across at times as a cliché, depending upon who is watching it.  For those who know something of music business history and inside lore it is easy to place Amy’s self-destructiveness within a tradition of music history in the 20th century. Creative geniuses like Charlie Parker and Jimmy Hendrix self-destructed on drugs, and there is a long line of singers whose fame and fortune couldn’t rescue them from self-destruction: Billy Holiday, Judy Garland, Elvis Pressley, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, Phyllis Hyman, Whitney Houston, et al.  However none of them acted their destruction on stages with a million people watching.

Under Asif Karpadia’s direction we are provided glimpses of Amy’s life before she became a star, when she was a passably pretty girl who was more sensuous that beautiful; her best feature being full pouty lips –DSL’s that forced one’s mind into the gutter –and her long black hair, which she often wore in “big hair” styles resembling the popular “beehive” styles of the 1960’s.  She reminded me of one of those smart mouth delinquent working class English girls in the British movie “To Sir with Love,” starring an unusually stiff and priggish Sidney Portier.

But after all is said and done the raison d’etre for this documentary film is Amy Winehouse’s talent and importance as a musical artist.  On this issue the movie becomes an extended panegyric that degenerates into special pleading.   While there is no doubt that Ms. Winehouse had talent, it is a gross exaggeration to call her “The Queen of Soul,” while the real queen, Ms. Aretha Franklin, was alive and well – not to mention her numerous Afro-American progeny such as Whitney Houston, Alicia Keyes, Beyoncé et al who are singing their asses off in the tradition.  And Tony Bennet’s claim that she was “one of the purest jazz singer I ever heard….if she had lived she would have been on the same level with Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday,” is shameless hyperbole.

Perhaps Tony Bennet’s assessment of Ms. Winehouse’s talent was influenced by the fact that she constantly cites him as her artistic “hero,” along with Sarah Vaugh, Billy Holliday, Thelonious Monk, and other Afro-American Jazz greats.  Testimony from black American artists in the film like the drummer/leader of “Da Roots,” an innovative hip hop band from Philly, revealed that she was a serious student of the Jazz tradition that was constantly recommending records for him to study.

However most of the music selected for the film – which one presumes was a representative sample of her work – was Rhythm & Blues and her band was rocking!  There were excerpts from some of her Jazz performances, the most extensive being a recording date she did with Tony Bennett, where she was scared to death and nearly walked out of the studio when she kept screwing up on take after take.  It was clear that Amy and Tony have a mutual admiration thing going; that accounts for the dreamy things they say about each other.  But reality is not so easy to conceal.

Amy Winehouse was just the latest white singer to study the black vocal style and brazenly imitate her idols.  Here too her story is an oft told tale.  It was true of Elvis Pressley, Mick Jagger, Joe cocker, Billy Joel. Janet Joplin, et al.  It was also true of white instrumentalists too.  And in each of these cases once the white performer became competent in the genre they were crowned “The King of Jazz” aka Paul Whiteman; the “king of Swing” aka Benny Goodman; the “King of Rock and Roll” aka Elvis Pressley; the “King of Hip Hop” aka M&M; the “Queen of Rap” aka Iggy Azalia.

According to this film Amy Winehouse was both “The Queen of Soul” and was on the way to rivaling the great Ella Fitzgerald and the incomparable Billy Holliday as a Jazz singer.  Yet each of these art forms are Afro-American inventions, and only black artists and audiences can decide who is boss because they set the standards of excellence.  The resulting product has captured the imagination and created devotees among musicians all over the world…since the turn of the twentieth century Afro-American musicians have been the most infventive and imitated artists on earth. It is obvious that white folks need to chill, get over themselves.

Aside for these gross exaggerations regarding the magnitude of Ms. Winehouse’ talent; this is a pretty good flick about a very troubled performer who literally decomposes before our eyes.  We watch her go from a healthy, perky, quite attractive girl, to a bulimic sack of bones who seem to be knocking on death’s door – one foot in the coffin and the other on a banana peel.

Lost in Space?
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High off everything ….but life

Yet nobody cold reason with her; not her closet girlfriends who had been at her side since childhood, nor the Afro-American rapper/actor  Mos Def, who she evidently admired and pops up throughout the movie at various stages of her career like Banquo’s ghost, warning Amy to turn away from her self-destructive path. Finally, on a hot July day in 2011, she finally killed herself; the autopsy said she died of “alcohol poisoning.”

In the end the filmmaker managed to produce a poignant portrait of a self-destructive artist who turned her pain into song poetry and allowed the world to witness her self-immolation even as she tried to hide out in plain sight.

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Double Click on links to see Amy Perform

https://youtu.be/3XKYZRuJEnU

Live in London 2007

https://youtu.be/UNkuQQ3FJ8U

Amy’s last tragic Concert

https://youtu.be/x4j95dHfB04

CLICK TO SEE THE REAL QUEENS OF SOUL!

Aretha Franklin

https://youtu.be/fgRyh9f5cOE

Whitney Houston

https://youtu.be/E849UUqNe3g?list=RDE849UUqNe3g

Fanfares for a Culture Hero!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on June 14, 2015 by playthell

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Senator Bill Perkins, Rome Neal and Producer Woody King
 An Evening of Banana Puddin, Panegyrics and Jazz

It was yet another wonderful evening of performing art at the Nuyorican Theater. But on this occasion it was the indefatigable impresario Rome Neal that was the raison d’etre for the festivities, as the performers turned out to honor a man that has done so much to advance their careers by providing a space and opportunity to perform in New York City.   For the performing artists the Big Apple is a Darwinian milieu, red of tooth and claw, where only the strong and persistent even if talented and gifted will survive. Rome Neal personifies that intrepid spirit.

With little more than spit, grit and mother wit Rome has not only made a place for himself as an actor and director in the theater, but has become an important independent producer of Jazz performances.  In his role as Jazz impresario he has presented such unique shows as “Women in Jazz” and “LGBT Jazz Greats,” in which he has introduced these Jazz musicians to a wider audience than they might otherwise have had an opportunity to play for.

His “Banana Puddin” Jazz concerts have featured a wide variety of musicians such as “A Night of Legends Featuring Barry Harris, Randy Weston and  Danny Mixon.”  His “Young and the Jazzy” series has also uncovered obscure gems whose prodigious talents might have gone unrecognized.  Rome’s “Japanese Jazz Connections” concerts showcased many of the outstanding Japanese Jazz musicians who migrate to New York in search of the source of their art the way Muslims go to Mecca.  He is continuing the tradition begun by Dr. Billy Taylor, the late great Jazz pianist/composer/bandleader .

From his base at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Lower East Side, Rome has produced both innovative theater and cutting edge Jazz performances.  As the Director of Theater in this landmark East Village cultural emporium Rome has produced the plays of Laurence Holder – the Dean of playwrights that mine the treasure trove of Afro-American history and employ its riches as the basis for their dramas – and has single handedly kept the dramatic voice of the great Oakland California based novelist/dramatist/poet/essayist Ishmael Reed alive in New York.

An iconoclastic satirists who wields his pen like the sword of an avenging angel, Reed – whom English Professor and insightful critic Leslie Fiedler has called “a highbrow Ironist” and The Nation has declared the most important American satirist since Mark Twain –  has been practically banished by a Euro-American cultural establishment that ought to be celebrating him for enriching American literature and thought.  Rome has come repeatedly to Reed’s rescue by producing his plays in New York; if this were the sum total of his activities as a cultural impresario it would be a worthy legacy.  But he has done so much more, especially in the realm of music.

The liveliest and most spiritually moving of the arts, it is not unusual for people working in other art forms to become mesmerized by the power of music and wish to become involved with this intoxicating medium of expression, but few have managed to make this transition on the level of Neal….Ishmael Reed’s conquest of the piano being the exception that proves the rule.  Reed has become so proficient a pianist that Rome produced a concert featuring the great writer as a pianist.

Rome’s metamorphosis from actor/director to singer and Jazz impresario seems to really take off with his riveting performance of Thelonious Monk, in an insightful one man play written by Lawrence Holder. (See, Monk: the Play on this blog)   Rome’s performance as the enigmatic Jazz piano virtuoso Thelonious Monk is a marvel to behold, a tour de force.  Like all great acting performances we witness Rome morph into his character until we are unable to separate the actor from his role and we forget that he is acting. Which, after all, is the essence of the thespian’s art.

Rome Neal in his signature role
Rome Neal, actor performs in his award winning play "Monk"

Rome Neal, actor performs in his award winning play “Monk”

 A remarkable transformation

Witnessing Rome’s actions since he began playing Monk it sometimes appears that he too could not distinguish the difference between himself and the role.  For instance he began taking music lessons with the great Jazz pianist Barry Harris at the Jazz Cultural Center, a unique learning and performance venue in Tribeca where apprentice where tutored by master musicians in a collegial environment, and he learned to sing.  I confess that I was skeptical of Rome’s new venture, having grown up surrounded by great singers – my next door neighbor Blanch Hammond won a national talent competition singing an extremely difficult passage from Wagner – and had once served as bandleader for Jean Carn, one of the outstanding singers of the twentieth century, I have exacting standards for singers.

Hence I thought Rome’s chances of succeeding at becoming a singer were less than a snowball’s chances in a steel furnace.  Furthermore I did not hestitate to make my feelings known in unambiguous language; willing to risk brusisng his feelings in order to rescue my friend from embarking on a fool’s errand. I was vocal  critic. But he proved me wrong when he played the lead part in Laurence Holder’s play about a Jazz singer: “The Crooner.”

Despite the fact that he would probably not been cast in this role if he were not the producer/director of the play, Rome held his own in the production.  Again I was a first hand witness to his incredible tenacity and his willingness to risk failure in order to realize his artistic aims.  Many of the people who turned out to celebrate Rome’s 12th year as producer of the Banana Pudding Jazz Series at the Nuyorican have benefited by his tireless efforts in behalf of Jazz artists and thespians; efforts fueled by a heroic optimism that come what may great art will find a way.

It was a grand celebration, an outpouring of love and appreciation as one artist after another took the stage and offered musical libations to a respected elder of their community.  Most of the performers were instrumentalists because Jazz is a complex instrumental music that prizes virtuosity and spontaneus innovation, but the singers chimed in too and had their say.  It was an evening of cookers, straight ahead swing, Duke and Dizzy’s thing. They swung so hard the hoofers got up and got down; tapping out complicated rhythms of the sort that inspired the best drummers in the Jazz tradition until tap went the way of the dinosaurs – crushed by changing public taste and the imperatives of the marketplace.

Rome’s love of Jazz is extraordinary…one gets the impression that exposure to it enriches his life in a special way that few can share or even understand. However Rome also deeply believes that exposure to Jazz music can enrich the life of anyone; I believe it is what inspires his efforts as a Jazz impresario.  The extent of this belief was dramatically revealed during his recuperation from a bad fall off a ladder while working on a set at the Nuyorican.  When he began his rehabilitation from the serious injuries resulting from the fall at Governeur Health clinic, the therapist asked him what kind of music he liked; as music is increasingly recognized by medical practitioners for having therapeutic powers.

Rome told the physical therapist, a young white woman, that he loved Thelonious Monk. Although she had never heard of him, through the magic of the internet she found Monk’s music and put it on.   As they began the workout Rome started to tell her Monk’s story and she was amazed at his knowledge of this obscure musician whose existence she had never heard of a few moments ago.

When she asked him how he knew so much about Monk, Rome told her that he had played Monk in an award winning one man play.  Then he began to recite poignant passages from Holder’s play.  And when Round bout Midnight came on – a canonical composition in Jazz – Rome sang the lyrics to her.  He watched a change come over her as the soulful blues and abstract truth of Monk’s musical revelations began to mess with her mind….at the end of the session she left wanting to hear more of Monk’s music.

From his description of the experience, I was reminded of some lines from “The Ballad of Thelonious Monk,” written by Jimmy Rowles, made famous by Carmen McCrea, but most convinvingly recorded by a male country and western singer – my favorite version: “I used to think cowboy music/ was the only thing there was….and then I heard Thelonious Monk.”  The song goes on to explain the marvelous effect monks music had on his life, explaining that his horse wouldn’t go to sleep unless he played “Ruby My Dear.”

The word got around the hospital that they had a great actor and Jazz impresario as a patient.  Before he was done Rome produced a special women’s jazz concert and dedicated it to his female doctor and therapist.  They attended as honored guest and it was a great moment for them.  He later produced a Jazz concert for his team of orthopedic surgeons and they all came out.  Many were introduced to the art of jazzing for the first time, and they have come back for more. This, in essence, is Rome at his best.  He is ever the Jazz Impresario.

One of the grandest moments in an evening of magic moments was when Harlem state Senator Bill Perkins presented a Proclamation from the New York Senate commending Rome for his contribution to the arts, an honor he exuberantly shared with his grandchildren, Delano and Jolie.  Perkins had made the arduous journey from the Capitol, which is upstate in Albany, after the morning session in the Senate in order to make the tribute and present the Proclamation in person.  Rome, in turn, surprised Senator Perkins with a Shekere Award; which he bestows on outstanding lovers and supporters of the arts.  It was an enchanted evening….one befitting a devoted Eulyptian and fearless cultural warrior.  

Senator Perkins reading the Prolamation
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As grandaughter boldly looks to the heavens
Rome with Senator Bill Perkins
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 Presenting the Proclamation to Rome’s Grand Daughter Joile
Rome presenting the Shekere to Senator Perkins
DSCN0026 A Special Award for Eulypians
Showing the Senator how to shake that thang
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Tapping out a rhythm on a stringed gourd with Cowry shells
Woody King Jr.
DSCN0019Offering up praise songs to the man of the hour
The Jazz Impresario Anoints the Audience
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 Droppin Science big time
 Rome and Songstress Rosanna Vitro

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Musicians came from everywhere
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Yoichi Uzeki all the way from Japan
 And Fredrika Krier came from Germany

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Alto Saxophonist T.K. Blue

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Trumpeter and Congero: Michael C. Lewis and Steve Kroon

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Tenor man Arthur Green added a grand voice

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Pianist and Bassist: Andre Chez Lewis and Corcoran Holt

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Patience Higgins and the Boys

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 Hoofer Hank Smith took the Floor
Third Choice
Tapping out Complex Jazz Rhythms

 First Choice

Trading twelves with the Drummer

 

 The Singers!

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Eric FraizerSwinging the Blues
You Don’t Know What Love Is……

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 ……Until You Know the Meaning of the Blues
 
Like a beautiful Bird of Paradise
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Leziie Harrison thrilled audience and musicians alike
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 Rusannah Swung Blue Monk with a whole lotta soul!

Wailing!

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Steve Cromity wasAll Blues!
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 The Man of the Hour!

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Expresses his gratitude to the artists and audience

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Double Click on link to see video
https://youtu.be/L_UeWKMbL0I
 
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