Archive for the Photo-Essays Category

Celebrating Kwanzaa at the Apollo!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays, Theater with tags , , on January 2, 2017 by playthell
apollo-at-kwanzaa-iii Forces of Nature

             Greeting the New Year With Forces of Nature 

In over thirty years of writing about the performing arts in New York City, the cultural center and arts mecca of the world, I have never witnessed a show as spectacular as the Kwanza performance put on by the “Forces of Nature Dance Theater” at Harlem’s venerable Apollo, which correctly bills itself as “The Soul of Black Culture.” Founded and directed by Abdel Salaam, whose sharp intellect and fecund imagination appears to know no limits; the company enjoys an embarrassment of riches in regard to gifted choreographers and dancers.

The company’s dance vocabulary ranges from traditional African dance to Modern, Post Modern, to Afro-American vernacular dance – the creative well from which all original American dance flows – to its latest expression such as Hip hop. The elements of great dance theater include music, costumes, lights, gifted attractive dancers, and daring imaginative choreographers who believe in the gifts of their dancers and are not afraid to challenge them with works of great complexity.

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Real Black Magic!

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A Complexity of Vision

The work was both old and new, innovative yet preserving the best of pan-African dance traditions recast and polished for theatrical performance. One of the highlights of an evening with many incandescent moments was when Forces of Nature was joined onstage by a Native American dance troupe. It was a revelation, the thoughtful observer is compelled to beg the question as to how Europeans, escaping the squalor to which the working poor were confined in European cities, could ever have denounced such magnificent people as mere “savages.

Afro-Indio

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Homage to a forgotten Relationship

The performance was serious political commentary and fun; it employed pathos and bathos – tragedy and comedy – without restraint. The works gave free rein to the most voluptuous creative impulses of the choreographers, who produced works that made maximum use of the fabulously sculpted black, brown and beige bodies that were the vehicles for their ideas. The wide range of musical styles to which the dances are set reveal the unfettered scope of the choreographers imagination.  The Drum Choir that accompanies some of the dances has reached a level of virtuosity that I have rarely witnessed in percussion ensembles – despite the fact that I have ben a drummer and student of drumming for over half a century!  It was Black Magic! A splendid exercise in rhythm and movement as alchemy; that hoodoo that we do so well.

The Drums Speak!

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Their conversation was superb

I am convinced if I spent a thousand and one nights in the theater my chances of catching a better show than this are about equal to a snowflakes chances of survival in a pizza oven. Rare and marvelous events such as this is the reason why I live in the Big Apple. At the bottom of this essay is an interview with the founder and creative genius Abdel Salaam, who along with his gifted wife Dyane Harvey Salaam, are the artistic inspiration and guiding hands that steer the course of Forces of Nature. 

Inside the Beautiful Apollo Theater

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The most famous theater in New York

The ornately beautiful theater with it’s elegant gold leafing forming intricate patterns around the stage and balcolnies, was packed to the rafters and we could feel the good vibes as the highly regarded radio host Imhotep Gary Byrd, who was celebrating his 50th year on the air, controlled the mike like a Bronx B-Boy.

Imhotep Gary Byrd

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A Neo-African Griot Anointing the audience with glorious tales

Bedecked in flowing African robes Imhotep was more than a concert M.C. beguiling the audience from the stage where more world class stars were born than any other in this city of great theaters; he was a Neo-African Griot droppin soulful science about the meaning and history of Kwanzaa, the restoration of the Apollo by the late Percy Sutton, and our destiny as a people, as we grooved to the beats of Pan-African rhythms welcoming the new year.  And the magnificent show concluded early enough for people to make it to their Watch Night services in their churches…that sacred Afro-American ritual commenrating the abolition of the enslavement of Africans and their ancestors in the United States, which, curiously, was never mentioned during the Kwanzaa celebrations.

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Forces of Nature in Concert!

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These two videos capture the broad eclecticism of their Repotoire

An Interview with Abdel Salaam

An Revealing Discussion of the Sources of his Electic Art

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
January 2, 2016

 

African Beauties

Posted in Brown and Beige Beauties, Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays with tags , on September 18, 2016 by playthell
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Godesses from the Breast of the Earth!

As I select the images for these photo-essays on the beauty of black women – this is the second in a series of four covering the US, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean – I am constantly struck by two things: what an amazing treasure trove I have to choose from, and how Europeans manage to convince so many people of the superior beauty of white women.

Of course the answer to this riddle lies in the fact that by virtue of their dominence in the military, economic and technological spheres Europeans have been able to impose their cultural values on the rest of the world.   In fact, mastery of a major European language has until the last fifty years been essential in order to gain access to the tools a nation needed to achieve modernity.  Simply put, the learned texts that contained the scientific knowledge that is the gateway to the modern world were written in those languages – which also produced a prolific literature that was employed to indoctrinate the colonized populations in the ideas and values of their oppressors including notions of vice and virtue, beauty and ugliness.

The knowledge of modern science was not to be found in Sanscrit, Arabic, Japanese, Chinese, or Yoruba. Even our concept of time and place had been defined by Europeans.  The ancient wisdom of the great empires of Africa, Asia and Latin America proved impotent weapons against the onslaught of modern Europe.  This was not because Europeans were inherently superior, as they would claim, rather it was a function of the fact that “The Enlightenment,” an intellectual movement which separated the functions of church and state, priviledging reason over religion, science over mysticism, physics over metaphysics, ushered in the scientific revolution and the Industrial revolution which followed in its wake.

These dynamic developments in European society provided them with the technology to devestate the armies of the Third World and resulted in European conquest of the globe.  In the early twentieth century the little Island of Britian – whose King, George III, had been rebuffed by the Emperor of China as a “Barbarian” in an official rejection of his bid to establish trade relations around the time of the American Revolution in the 18th century – could boast that “The Sun never sets on the British empire” and had the audacity to call itself “Great Britian.”

The parts of the globe that was not controlled by the “conquoring Anglo-Saxons” were controlled by the other major nations of Europe, which exported their surplus populations all over the Third World, changing the physical characteriscs of the indigenous “natives” and implanting their language, literature and religious beliefs among them.  As a result of these historical events European values dominated the psyche of the subject peoples and convinced many of them that Europeans were superior in all things and and thus it was “a white man’s world” and the white woman became the ideal of feminine beauty.

The anti-colonial revolutions that burst out all over the non-white world in the aftermath of the second world war, was spurred by the fact these subject peoples had fought in the armies of their colonial master’s in two global conflicts within a generation and discovered that Europeans were not invincible and could be killed just like them.  Hence it is no surprise that the leaders of the anti-colonial movements in Afica and Asia, as well as the black liberation struggle in the US, were largely led by ex-military men.  This was true whether we are talkig about Franz Fanon and Abdel Gamel Nasser in Africa or Medgar Evers and Robert Williams in the US.

A major part of the liberation struggles of oppressed peoples of color, as the revolutionary psychaitrist Franz Fanon described so poignantly in hyis writings was to reclaim their personalities, their sense of self.  Nowhere was this process more in evidence than among the black peoples of the world – especially in the USA with the rise of a militant black conciousness that inspired the “Black Arts Movement” which challanged European standards of beauty.  I came of age amidst that movement and was an avid participant in promoting it’s ideas.

I was on the scene when the African Jazz Art Society – founded by a collaboration between visual artists and Jazz – that boldly promoted an “Afrocentric” esthetic view that celebrated au naturel hair styles and African inspired dress which accentuated the beauty of African women.  The four cultural visionaries that created AJASS were musicians Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln, along with the Braithwaite Brothers: Photographer Kwame and graphic artist/illustrator  Elombe.

The major vehicle through which they promoted the celebration black beauty was the Grandossa Models, who were presented in a series of cutural happenings in which Jazz, especially the Africa concious revolutionary music of the founders Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln – see video clip at the bottom of this essay – Visual Arts, and Poetry readings were also on display.

The Grandossa Models

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Setting an Afro-Centric Standard of Beauty

Max and Abbey

Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln
Kwame Braithwaite: Photographer of the Movement

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Elombe!
All Creator’s of the “Black is Beautiful” Slogan

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A Pan African soldier welcoming Nelson and Winnie to Harlem!

A statement explaining the raison d’etre for the show  billed as “Naturally 62,” held in that year proclaimed it was “created to show Black women (and the world) that our Black skin, kinky hair and full lips were a thing of beauty, not something to be ashamed of.  This photo-essay was created as an extension of that spirit!

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Vanity!

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A Regal Beauty

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The Source: Where Big Bootys Come From!
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Elegante

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 Academy Award Winning Actress

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Miss Ghana!

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Click on link to view Max and Abbey perform “All Africa”

 Compiled by: Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
October 17, 2016

The Most Beautiful Girls in the World!!!

Posted in Brown and Beige Beauties, Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays with tags on September 10, 2016 by playthell

Sakeenah Nzinga Kinard

A Reality Check!

Harlem Sweeties
Have you dug the spill/ Of Sugar Hill?
Cast your gims/On this sepia thrill:
Brown sugar lassie, Caramel treat, Honey-gold baby
Sweet enough to eat./Peach-skinned girlie,
Coffee and cream, / Chocolate darling
Out of a dream. /Walnut tinted / Or cocoa brown,
Pomegranate-lipped / Pride of the town.
Rich cream-colored /To plum-tinted black,
Feminine sweetness /In Harlem’s no lack.
Glow of the quince /To blush of the rose.
Persimmon bronze /To cinnamon toes.
Blackberry cordial, Virginia Dare wine—
All those sweet colors /Flavor Harlem of mine!
Walnut or cocoa, Let me repeat:
Caramel, brown sugar, A chocolate treat.
Molasses taffy, Coffee and cream,
Licorice, clove, cinnamon/ To a honey-brown dream.
Ginger, wine-gold, Persimmon, blackberry,
All through the spectrum/ Harlem girls vary—
So if you want to know beauty’s / Rainbow-sweet thrill,
Stroll down luscious, 
Delicious, fine Sugar Hill.
By: Langston Hughes, Poet Laureate of Harlem

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 13: Tennis Player Serena Williams arrives at The 2011 ESPY Awards at Nokia Theatre L.A. Live on July 13, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

Serena Williams: Ebony Goddess

I am absolutely certain that I speak for most Afro-Americans…and some other folks of different ethnicities when I say that I am sick of witnessing the tyranny of the Caucasian female Image ad nauseum!   Ever since I can remember I have been inundated with images of white girls. In my forthcoming novel “Tall Tales from the Life and Times of Sugarcane Hancock: The Phallocentric Memoirs of a Sweet Colored Man,” The central character remembers the experience this way:

“White Girls….they seemed to be everywhere.  They beckoned to me from billboards beside the highways, and smiled from he pages of Sears and Roebuck catalogues inviting me to sample their wares.  They attempted to seduce my mind with carnal desire with their scantily clad bodies in girlie magazines, and attempted to infect me with a high heel and garter belt fetish on the covers of calendars and pin up posters.  They sashayed aroud our sunny Florida town in high heels and short shorts exposing tanned alabaster flesh thay I was forbidden to look upon let alone touch. They winked at me and hungrily licked their lips from the giant silver screens in dark movie palaces on Saturday afternoons; they even descended from the walls and stained glass windows of grand cathedrals and churches on Sundays….even black churches; blond blue eyed angels pointing the way to heaven!”

However even back in the day, when beautiful black female images were banished from the mass media, only overweight Black Mammy’s  – like Hattie McDaniel in the lavishly produced but sappy white plantation fantasy, “Gone with the Wind’ – got the nod.   Yet all of us who had eyes could easily see that it wasn’t so.  But given that the mass media was owned and controlled by white folks the beauties we saw in our daily lives – which were as common as water in black communities EVERYWHERE in America – were never celebrated in the images beamed into the psyches of millions of Americans.

This is the only plausible explanation for why white women are so widely promoted as the universal standard of beauty.  But I never bought the hype….as was the case with most of the black men I knew.  When I was a teenager the White folks said that Elizabeth Taylor was “The Most beautiful woman in the world; I thought Liz was pretty, but she paled like a fading flower when compared to Dorothy Dandridge.  And I also thought that Dorothy Dandridge looked a lot like my girlfriend Harriet Phoenix and was in a dead heat with my mamma…THE REAL QUEEN ELIZABETH!

Liz Taylor

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 Dottie Dandrige
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What was especially grievous about the comparisons of Dorothy Dandridge to Liz Taylor is that Dottie was so much more talented.  In the golden age of Hollywood, when film production was dominated by a few mammoth studios run by corporate dictators popularly called Moguls, every performer longed to be a “Triple Threat,” talented at acting, singing and dancing.  Dorothy was a Triple Threat par excellence.   She was a good actor, a moving singer and a spectacular dancer, who was good enough to appear in Hollywood films dancing with the Nicholas Brothers, the most spectacular dance team to ever appear in movies…the best in the world!   The only reason that she did not become the biggest star in American show business, including Hollywood is because of white racism!

It is amusing – in the sense of laughing to keep from crying – to witness these same attitudes expressed on the part of white Americans today, albeit far less than in my youth, when they seek to compare our beautiful, elegant, First Lady to Jackie Kennedy. Demonstrating yet again the bogusness of white feminist intellectuals who claim that racism is a male malady, that wicked witch of the reactionary right, Anorexic Annie Coulter, drew an invidious comparison between Jackie and Michelle and suggested that any attempt to compare the two in style, elegance and beauty was absurd: Jackie had it all around….hands down.

As is often the case with the pronouncements of this silly skinny amoral skank, when I heard what she said “I got tha ass” as the old folks would say down home in Florida.  And since one of my favorite sports is unmasking charlatans and chastising pretentious white sophist…especially the pugnacious ones, I responded to Crazy Annie with a photo-essay that demolishes her vulgar and tasteless claim.  She should be the last one to speak on this anyway, since she is a skinny booga bear who looks like she was in a gang fight and everybody had a hatchet or a ball and chain but her!  See: “The Best Looking first Lady Ever!” at www.

Michelle….Oh Well!

Portraits of our Stunning First Lady

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Raphsody In Blue

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Need I say More?

A Study in Elegance

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Day or Night….She’s the One!
***See Video on the elements of hers her Style below)
https://youtu.be/UzrvKIHWfDk

Jackie O

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 At the White House Ball
Jackie had Style 

First Lady Jackie Kennedy standing on the grounds of the Taj Mahal during visit to India. (Photo by Art Rickerby/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

But she literally pales beside Michelle

The essential point here is that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and to my eyes Michelle is a far more strunning figure than Jackie Kennedy.  I love her colorful style which has a special flare when contrasted with her beautiful chocolate complexion.  What ever color Michelle chooses to wear including Jackie’s favorite white, will look better than when it adorns Jackie’s pale skin.  Furthermore, whereas Jackie was a slave to fashion dictators Michelle is a trend setter who chooses clothes from a far wider range of designers…making reputations instead of seeking the safety of choices from the trendy houses of fashion.

Left to my own devices I wouldn’t be engaged in this exercise because I see beauty in all of the world’s women, but some white folks made this an important issue that must be addressed.  The beauty and taste of black women has been disparaged far too often, and like white Americans have always done, they just declare that it is true without presenting any evidence, or even defining a clear standard.

Having consorted with beautiful and refined women of various races and ethnicities, I believe that middle class and upper class black American women are the most stylish ladies in the world.  And I also believe black women, with their myriad complexions descibed so deliciously by Langston Hughes – a task only an able poet with a fertile imagination could hope to pull off  – exotic eye shapes, widely varied facial features, endlessly inventive hair styles, and spectacular bodies  are the most beautiful women in the world!

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Black, Brown and Beige Beauties!

The Girls of Sugar Hill Today

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Makeda Voletta
 Sports Scientist and Former Athlete
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Dancer
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 Photographer’s Model

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A Magical Moon Dance comjuring the spirit of Oshun
Queen Makeda!
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Actress/Producer Michele Turner
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A Sophisticated Lady
Satin Doll
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Sizziling in her Sixties!
Black don’t Crack!

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A Sexy Senior Citizen pushing 70!

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Light Bright to Ebony Black and All the Shades in Between!

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Lovely Leana Horn: Triple Threat!
Pick yo Flava

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Beautiful Bodacious Bootys
A Chocolate Delight 

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Oshun’s Daughter
A Pecan Tan Brivk House!

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 High Yellow

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Teasing Brown

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The Queen B!

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The Blacker the Berry

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The Goddess Oshun

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 A Movable Feast of Many Flavas!

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Dangerous Curves!

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Actress Meagan Goode

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A Stunning Bronze Afro-Amazon!

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Cafe Au lait

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 Mahogony Fine II

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Cinnamon

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Poet Jessica Care Moore
Black And Fantasies

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Our women are like a flower garden/You can Choose any color you like”
My Grand Daddy, George Benjamin Sr.
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Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
Fall 2016

Bravo Samori! Good Show My Boy

Posted in Photo-Essays, Samori Graduates from SUNY with tags , on June 21, 2016 by playthell

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Chillin by the Fountain at Lincoln Center

A Joyous Baccalaureate at The Lincoln Center

There were many special things about the graduation ceremony for SUNY’s Empire State College class of 2016, but it was extra special for my son Playthell Samori Benjamin. Like many other students he was completing his degree as an older student who had to work while finishing his studies, and like all of these persistent students he deserves hearty applause for his tenacity.  Beyond these things that he has in common with his classmates however, Samori has a special relationship with this part of Manhattan and the Lincoln Center which is unique.

A Native New Yorker and lifetime resident of Manhattan Samori went to elementary school about twenty blocks away; he went to Junior High school – the unique “Museum Science School” – about ten blocks away, where he had a staff pass at the world renowned Museum of Natural History and he graduated from the Beacon High School which was even closer to the Lincoln Center where he was now graduating from college.  Furthermore, upon his first graduation from elementary school I took him and his twin sister Makeda to a concert in this very hall.

The great trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra was performing.  Since Wynton was a good friend of mine and I was a passionate supporter of the Jazz at Lincoln Center project in my newspaper columns and feature stories as well as my weekly radio show, I had the run of the place and took Samori up into the sound and lighting booth because he was curious about how it all worked.  The lighting technician was very gracious to him and allowed Samori to operate the lighting board; he then pressed the wrong button and plunged the entire auditorium into darkness while Wynton was soloing.

It was a hairy moment but quickly corrected by the technician.  Afterward we had a big laugh about it hanging out with Wynton.  I lost the photographs of Samori and Wynton from that night, which is why I am determined to preserve the images from this special night.  Fortunately I dis preserve a photograph we took at home just before departing for the Lincoln Center.

Samori’s First Graduation Night
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Just before leaving for the Lincoln Center

 Hence the graduation ceremony at Lincoln Center was something like coming home to a very familiar place, the return to scenes in which he had lived out the various stages of his development – the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  It was this reality that made this graduation, already a high point in his life, extra special for Samori as he donned his cap and gown and marched down the ailse to receive his sheepskin.

There had been many important stops along the way:  Norfolk State University; Sports Editor and broadcaster at WBAI FM; maintaining a website featuring his interviews with top athletes and articles on various aspects of sport; researching and writing a soon to be published book on baseball.  And finally back to the Upper West side and Lincoln Center to receive his Bachelor of Science Degree.  BRAVO SON! BRAVO!! And big ups to the class of 2016: THE WORLD IS YOURS AS MUCH AS ANYONE’S!

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A Contemplative Moment Reflecting on the Gravitas of the Event
As the Students Marched In

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We Witnessed a the “Gorgeous human Mosaic” that People New York City

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All Races, Ethnicities, and Genders were Representin!

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Some Calmly Pondered their Programs
While Others Stood Awaiting the Call

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To Proudly March Down the Asile

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Of the Grand Auditorium in Geffin Hall
After Much Pomp and Curcumstance

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The Newly Degreed Students Marched out Triumphantly

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TheDeans and Professors bade them a Fond Farewell 

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As they Walked into the arms of Friends, Family and Loved Ones

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Samori with hsi Mother June and Twin Makeda
Samori and Aunt Adjuwa

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She watched him grow up
Samori and Makeda

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The Twins and a Good Friend

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Chillin with Mom and Dad

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Samori and Mom Joyously preserving Memories of Magic Moments

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Playthell G Benjamin and Playthell S. Benjamin
The food and drinks were delicious and plentiful

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A Token of Appreciation for the Graduates

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The Student’s faces reflected Determination
And Hope

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And Joi de Vivre!

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Plus Lots of Love, Optimism and Good Wishes !

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And the Shutter Bugs were Documenting it all for Posterity!

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Text and Photos by: Playthell G. Benjamin – excepting those in which he appears.
June 19m 2006
New York City

On The Elegance of Afro-America!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Photo-Essays with tags , , on March 19, 2016 by playthell

Jazz Dancers

Scrapple from the Apple: Bebop Dancers in Charlie Parker Park

Black Style as a Weapon of Liberation

A Multi-Media Photographic Exhibition and lecture

The exhibition which opened at the beautiful Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem on March 6, 2016 consist of a gallery showing select portraits I shot in Miami, Los Angeles, Atlanta and New York of  Afro-Americans just going about their business – some of whom are quite prominant persons.  I call these photographs “living fashion,” as opposed to a staged event or “fashion show.”  The gallery exhibit was accompanied by a lecture explaining how the traditional Afro-American penchant for elegance grew out of our struggle for human rights and personal dignity against the anti-black racism of white Americans; a set of beliefs that promoted white supremacy while subjugating Afro-Americans institutionally and ideologically.

The expression of elegance in self decoration over time is illustrated in the images shot by photographers from the 19th and 20th centuries.  Following the lecture “The Evolution of Afro-American Style as a Weapon of Liberation,” a slide show accompained by music was presented comprised of 275 photographs.  The exhibition is divided into three parts: Sophisticated Ladies, Duets and Old School Cool Rules!

The Afro-American tradition of high style cannot be understood aside from the racist history of the United States.  The most powerful theme in American history is the persistence of white racism.  It ebbs and flows with the tenor of the times but it always returns like the nightmarish melody of a bad song.  One could argue with convincing evidence that the main reason for this persistence is the need to justify a history of racist policies that include some of the most odious crimes against humanity in world history.

The white settler colonialists from Europe who landed in the America’s fleeing myriad oppressions – religious, ethnic, political and “racial” – disregarded the rights of the original inhabitants, Native American “Indians,” and stole millions of acres of fertile lands at gunpoint. When the Indians resisted, as any people would, they were slaughtered as the whites adopted a policy of genocide killing men, women, children and the elderly.  No one was safe from the ravages of this land hungry flotsam of European Society.  This was America’s Original Sin, and it was central to the birth of the United States.

When the Native Americans proved inept at performing hard labor for long hours in the hot climates that the system of plantation production required, these planter / capitalists bought African workers from international slave traders, the greatest of which were the pious New Englanders with their swift Yankee clipper ships; despite their praising the virtues of freedom ad nauseum.

The requirements of the labor intensive plantation system meant that atrocities were standard fare; an essential element in the relations between the planters and slaves. Horrendous acts that were common practices for 250 years in the US -such as denying Afo-Americans the right to marry and selling our children as if they were piglets – are now viewed with such horror that white Americans are engaged in a wholsale denial of their blood stained history as oppressors in favor of myths like “American Exceptionalism.”  Texas, one of the nation’s largest states, is trying to write the slave era out of their history textbooks altogether. Yet this and legal caste oppression based on skin color cover two thirds of American history!

This presented a serious problem for the emerging American nation, which claimed to be a “Christian Nation” that cherished the Ten Commandments and followed the teachings of Jesus Christ.  In a desperate attempt to camouflage this glaring contradiction between the lofty ideals of the nation and the realities of their sinful inhumane policies, they denied the humanity of black people with pathological theology and pseudo-scientific theories of white superiority. And they created a racist iconography to give visual expression to their bogus claims.

For Black Americans, suffering under the oppression of white supremacy in law and custom, statute and etiquette, subjected to constant psychological warfare by a barrage of racist imagery from the media of white America – which reached its apogee in the black face minstrel show – the style in which we decorated ourselves became a weapon in the struggle for liberation.

We dressed for success long before this idea became au courant here in the 21st century.  As was revealed in the exhibition “Reflections in Black: Smithsonian African-American Photography,” curated by photography historian Deborah Willis and mounted at the Studio Museum in Harlem,  almost from the moment Afro-American photographer Jules Lion introduced the art of daguerreotypes in 1840, black photography shops began to pop up all across North America.  Among these were Augustus Washington in Connecticut; Daniel Freeman in Washington, D.C.; Harry Shepherd in Minnesota; and James Presley Ball in Cincinnati Ohio and Helena Montana.

A major reason why black photographers flourished in in 19th century America is due to the advocacy of Frederick Douglass – the great abolitionist orator, writer, publisher and premiere spokesman for what Dr. DuBois would later call the “Spiritual Strivings” of Afro-Americans. Douglass quickly recognized the power of this new art form as a potent weapon in the fight against the racist and degrading caricatures of Afro-Americans designed to deny our humanity by painting us as animalistic brutes.   Douglass, arguably the 19th century’s most insightful and prescient observer of socio-political developments, as well as the most powerful voice advocating the abolition of slavery, was also “the most photographed American of the 19th century according to the authors of the seminal book “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography of the Nineteenth Century’s Most Photographed American.” 

Pretty Fred: The Patron Saint of Black Cool

A Photo II-Frederick Douglass 1848 - Gift to Susan B. Anthony

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Frederick douglass III

The Best Dressed Man in 19th Century America?
Frederick_Douglass_by_Samuel_J_Miller,_1847-52 (1)
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The  authors tell us “Frederick Douglas was in love with photography, during the four years of the Civil War, he wrote more extensively on photography than any other American, even while recognizing that his audiences were “riveted” to the war and wanted a speech ‘only on this mighty struggle.’  He frequented photographer’s studios and sat for his portrait whenever he could.  As a result of this passion, he also became the most photographed American of the 19th century.”  This was not mere vanity, but a planned offensive in the protracted psychological war white Americans was waging against Afro-Americans, a war in which racist propaganda was their most powerful weapon

Douglass understood their strategy well, for instance he pointed out that whites always put forth the most attractive images of themselves and urged Afro-Americans to follow their example by dressing up in their finery, have themselves photographed, and whenever possible make those photographs public.  This is why Douglass looks like a fashion plate every time we see him. He set the example by practicing what he preached!

It is in that spirit of self-celebration, and the ancestral imperative of celebrating the insightful and intrepid photographers that captured that tradition of elegance and preserved it for us, that this exhibition was mounted.  I believe must now preserve images of this tradition in our time to inspire generations yet unborn.  Note: This is a multimedia presentation, see video and sound links at the end of the essay.

Playthell Lecturing at the Opening of the Exhibition
Playthell lectuting at his Pfoto Exhibition 3 -6-16
“On Black Style as a Weapon of Liberation”

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A Black, Brown and Beige Fantasy

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The Grandest Lady in the Easter Parade
Big John at the Living Legends Awards in LA

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CEO Warner-Chappell Worldwide
The Word Sorceress!

Jessica Care Moore (2)

Poet Jessica Care Moore at the National Black Theater in Harlem
Jessica Care reciting - great side shot- (2) Mesmerizing the Audience with her Verbal Alchemy
The Best Dressed Man in Congress!
Photo I- Charlie Rangel
The Honorable Charles Rangel Hanging Out in Harlem
Abiodun's Tribute 115
Classic Harlem Style before the Hip Hop Fashion Disaster
Thespians at the Audelco Awards

Seasoned Beauties

At the Mecca of Black Theater in New York

Perla Negras!

Photo XIII- Perla Negras

Hot Chocolates
A Sophisticated Lady

Photo XII-Michelle

Actress/Producer Michel Turner

Michele Edit XIII

Conjured from the Golden Age of Black Atlantic City
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 A Seasoned Hottie
The Maestro!
Wynton in Berkley
Wynton Marsalis: The World’s Greatest Trumpeter
Artistic Director, Jazz at Lincoln Center
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The Songbird
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We were Mesmerized  as Celestial Blues filled the Room
An Evening at the Theater
Holder and Scott
Award Winning Historical Playwrite Laurence Holder and Jazz Diva Cynthia Scott
Dr. Logan Westbrooks and Wife Gerry at Living Legends
Dr. Westbrooks
 The Businessman/philanthropist and his Educator wife Arrive in their Bently
 President of the Oakland City Council

At the University Of California at Berkley to Hear Wynton and the JALC Orchestra
A Woman of Elegance and Gravitas
Harlem’s State Senator  

Senator Perkins

The Honorale Bill Perkins, setting the Sartorial Standards for the Empire State
Lady Lana Turner: Harlem fashionista
Photo XI- Lana
Businesswoman, Dancer, Bon Vivant
A Swinging Centarian
A Centarians Birthday
Celebrating her 100th Birthday!
Big Ups to the Dwyer Cultural Center!
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Harold Thomas adds an Expert Eye
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The Opening was a Smash!

The Audience was as Elegant as the portraits on the Walls
A Seasoned Brown Fox
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A Vintage Beauty Edit III
A Sizzling Senior Citizen 
 The Don!
Don Raphael -Edit I The Essence of Old School Cool
Poet /singer Don Raphel with Actor / Director Rome Neal
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Killer Dillers!
A Statuesque Beauty 
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Kil and Poet -Edit VII
The Opening was a Sold out Affair!
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One of three Theaters that are linked by Video Ccreens
Renowned Photographer Lisa Dubois was there…..

Lisa Edit I

With her inimitable Style
Lisa and Lana
Lana and Lisa Edit II
Made quite the Dynamic Visual Duo
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The Gallery Was Packed!
 Keeping the Tradition of Frederick Douglass Alive!
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Sunday at the Horse Show
A Public Intellectual Defending President Obama’s Achievements
Droppin Science at Springfield College
Explicating Complex Problems of Politics and Policy at Springfield College
Professor Benjamin Lecturing on Jazz  at Conference on American Studies 

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At the Sorbonne in Paris
Photo by: Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Professor of Humanities at Harvard

LIVE ON WBAI NEW YORK!

At WBAI Jpeg

An Award Winning Producer Reading Commentaries on the Times for Thirty Years!
A Master Percussionist in Performance

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At Red’s Java House in Sanfrancisco
Making a Super Match in the Boxing Business
scan0002 Sugar Ray Leonard and Marvelous Marvin Hagler for Middle Weight Championship!
 A Newly Wed
 Playthell&June - picasa edit
 Playthell and June Benjamin Circa 1977

Easter Sunday circa 1984

Lisa's Edit on Family Pic

Playthell, June and their twins Samori and Makeda Hangin out in New York
The Twins All Grown Up
Playthell&Samori II
 Playthell and Samori
Playthell and Makeda

Playthell and Makeda

These last three photographs of Playthell and Children were shot by:

Hakim Mutlak

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https://youtu.be/_8LLfFY9pQg?list=RD_8LLfFY9pQg
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, Spring 2016

 

Round Bout Midnight at Berta’s Place

Posted in Photo-Essays with tags , on January 9, 2016 by playthell
Cover Pic
 The Watchman Counts down to 2016

Swinging in the New Year at Berta’s

 New York City is the most exciting place in the world on New Year’s Eve.  People come from all over the world to ring in the New Year, and every musician worth is song has a gig.  In the decades that I have resided in this marvelous city I have attended many fine parties in different parts of the city – although I was always in Manhattan when the clock struck midnight – and for several years I gave some pretty exciting parties that attracted interesting people from all over.

I have even swung the New Year in down at Dizzy’s Coca Cola Club nestled in Jazz at Lincoln Center – see “Swinging in the New Year at Dizzy’s Club.” But for the last few years I have swung in the New Year at Berta’s Place on Riverside Drive in Harlem, where a stylish crowd of black New Yorkers that include business people, artist, thespians, and esthetes gather to be serenaded by some of New York City’s finest musicians…..and they play straight ahead Jazz!

It is a wonderful communal effort where once the rhythm section begins to swing, any instrumentalists can contribute to the fun.  On this evening there was a variety of singers and instrumentalist that took their turn, but the highlight was the performance of two of Harlem’s Jazz Kings: tenor saxophonists Patience Higgins and Bill Saxon, who owns a Jazz club in Harlem.

Berta’s daughter, co-host of the fete, is a wonderful singer; decked out in passionate red, she looked like an ebony goddess as she took the mike, struck up the band, and anointed us with a soul serenade.  We swung in the New Year with pizazz!  Here are some of my visual impressions of that beautiful bash.

It was all Blues!
At Berta's Party - Daughter
She Sings Real Jazz!
Tenor Madness!

At Berta's Paty III

They really got Down!

A Piano Man

This Piano Man always makes the Party!
The Congero was in the Pocket

At Berta's Party II

The lively Rhythms…
Made folks face the Music…

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…..and do a Jazz Dance!
Others made beautiful Music

At Bertha's Party with Melodica

On Exotic Instruments
And the band Played On
Cover III -Saxson
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 Some folks were Clean as the Board of Health!

A elegant Man at Berta's II

Le Chic!

Whether they were Fly….

 At Bertha's [arty couple

Or Chic…
A Brown Fox at berta's
Folks were decked Out

At Bertha's part gele

Some wore Afro-Centic Styles
Old School Cool

A Sharp Couple

Ruled!
  There were lovely, stylish Women Evertwhere

A Silver focx at Berta's

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At Berta's Party redbone

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Cover Beauty

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Cover Black Beauty

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A pianist at Berta's

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At Berta's Party IV

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At Bertha and Daughter

Like Mother….Like Daughter!

 It was a great place to greet the New Year

At Berta's Party

It has great Atmosphere
And you get to hang with out with Stars….

Admola at Berta's

Like the Internationall Renowned Artist / enterprenuer Ademola

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Click on link to see Bill Saxon

Patience Higgins at Harlem’s famous Lennox Lounge
https://youtu.be/qHgLK8bnj84
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
New Years, 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……

Edit

…..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