Archive for Dwyer Cultural Center

Jazz Monday’s at the Dwyer!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, Photo-Essays with tags , on November 20, 2011 by playthell

        Craig Harris: Trombonist/Bandleader/Composer

 The Joint be Really Jumpin!!

 Every other Monday night at the Dwyer Cultural Center in Harlem you can hear some real Jazz.  Since most of the Jazz venues are downtown and charge hefty prices to see a show, the Dwyer has broken the pattern with excellent Jazz performance at a pittance: ten bucks!  The vibe is informal, the acoustics great, the room intimate.  It other words, it’s just the right atmosphere for Jazz Performance. And if you love Jazz you more than get your money’s worth.  In fact, it is no exaggeration to say it’s the best entertainment value in the Apple!

The Dwyer is a unique cultural institution that caters to the cultural needs of the Harlem community, and in a relatively short time it has become a new Mecca for a wide range of cultural activities.  Recently Esther Armah, playwright and host of WBAI’s morning drive time show Wake-Up Call, debuted a play that candidly explored the issues of racism, sexism and economic mobility in American society, and Visual alchemist Ademola Olugbefola is exhibiting a retrospective from his half century as a working artist in their gallery.  Every kind of creative activity can be found it this temple to art.

But Mondays are devoted to the art of Jazz, the classical art music of Afro-Americans and the quintessential American art that embodies in its philosophy and practice the most cherished ideals of American civilization.  The shows are held every other week and they have the atmosphere of an open workshop where new musical concepts are being explored.

Hence there is much experimentation and free expression within the organized ensemble concept.  When master musicians come together in this kind of environment magical things can happen, and there was much sonic alchemy produced in the Dwyer on the night I attended.  While I have long believed that no one loves their job more than musicians, there is a special joy in making music that allows for the maximum creative contribution of each player.  That’s why musicians like Bennie Goodman, Ron Carter, Hubert Laws and Wynton Marsalis gave up prestigious careers in European Classical Mucis to play jazz.

For dedicated musical virtuosos the joy of performance in collaboration with other masters is a natural high that no material reward can match.  That’s why serious musicians continue to play music when other career paths may offer more lucrative rewards.  While money has its virtues, it enables us to satisfy the material needs of life, creating great art elevates the soul.  Making music is feeling more addictive than dope, and nobody personifies this joy more exuberantly than Craig Harris.

With a broad smile that never seems to abandon his face, even Ray Charles could see the pure ecstasy that appears to engulf Harris as he strikes up the band  and swings his trombone like a magic wand.  He prances, dances, and plays all over the seven positions of the slide trombone making kinetic music that appeal to the eye as well as the ear, and thrills the musically tutored and untutored alike.

The other musicians in the band seem to catch the vibe and it inspires them to explore new ideas and attempt daring things.  One need only peruse the great variety of instruments on the band stand to recognize that they have come to explore new concepts of ensemble playing and expand the horizons of the small ensemble.  Unlike a lot on Jazz musicians Harris is no purist; like such master instrumentalists as Hubert Laws, Herbie Hancock and Branford Marsalis Harris appears to get off playing music whether in the spirit of James, Brown, John Coltrane or Sun Ra.

He is Master of all genres of Afro-American music, and slips from one to the other as easily as an actor changes costumes between scenes.  Thus Harris’ expansive concept of music making is an invitation to innovation, and the boys in the band make the most of it. Blending unique combinations of instrumental voices – alto and tenor saxophones blend with baritone sax, bass clarinet, trumpets and trombone – the musical performances at the Dwyer take on the aura of a revival meeting and you can feel it in yo soul.

When one listens to Harris talk about his conception of music and its purpose, it becomes clear that the deep spirituality one hears in the music is no accident. Harris is a profoundly spiritual guy and views music as a healing force that can shield one against life’s adversities; a balm to heal the sin sick soul.  He attributes the healing properties of instrumental music to the fact that it is pure sound, unencumbered by the specific concerns imposed upon it by adding lyrics.  Hence he believes that instrumental music can transcend the concerns of politics, philosophy, ideology and religion and provide a spiritual experience that is unique to each individual that hears it.

Yet on the other hand Harris also has a clear understanding of the power of music to enhance a lyric as well as inspire dancers.  He sums up this concept in the term “Total Artistic Integration,” and one can see it come together in his musical devoted to James Weldon Johnson’s classic text “God’s Trombones,” a series of epic poems based on the sermons of “old time southern Negro preachers” in the words of Johnson.  You can actually see the performance of Harris’s masterpiece by clicking the link at the bottom of this essay.

I was fascinated by the fact that Harris had chosen this work as a vehicle for his music because so few people make reference to this canonical text in Afro-American literature. In his explanation of what attracted him to this work we get a glimpse of a deeply spiritual man who views the integration of arts as a means of elevating the human condition. I can envision no nobler mission for art.

From the enthusiastic response of the audience, which ranged from open celebration and animated participation, to deep spiritual contemplation allowing the music to take your mind astral travelling, the evening was a joyous uplifting experience.  Our spirits danced to the vibes of magnificent   complex instrumental art music.  As I testified in the beginning, if you love great Afro-American music: Jazz Monday’s at the Dwyer is the best deal in town!!!!


 Portraits of the Band


Swinging the Bone


 Keepin it Funky!
Stomping the Blues

 Baritone Sax and Trumpet sing in Harmony




Tenor Madness!


 Echoes of John the Prophet

And Fast Johnny Griffin Too!


 The Alto-Sang as the Tenor Thundered


 No Nightingale Can Sing So Pretty
These Cats are Master Musicians
Who Can Read Around Corners


 The Trumpeter Filled the Room


With Staccato Fanfare


 Dizzy’s Progeny


The Evidence is in the bell of the Horn


 Flutes Chirped…..


 Like Euphoric Birds


 As the Saxophonists Switched Axes

And Serenaded us With Their Flutes


 Where the Swing Comes From!

Pushing the Band to the Outer Limits


 The Piano Man!


An imaginative Soloist and Great Accompanist


The Funk Meister!

360 Degrees of Rhythm: From Bootsy Collins to Charlie Mingus!



The Congregants


 In a Contemplative Mood


Astral Traveling: Bewitched by the Groove


 Great Musicians came out to hear the Band


Hammit Blueitt: Grand Master of the Baritone Saxophone


  Cultural Alchemists Lifting us Higher!
 Artist / Cultural Entrepreneur Ademola Embraces Music Makers



Double click To see Graig Harris’s “God’s Trombones.”

Text and Photos by Playthell Benjamin
Harlem,  New York
November, 20, 2011

Esther Armah’s Savior

Posted in Cultural Matters, Theater with tags , , , on October 24, 2011 by playthell

Panelist Lynn Nottage, Producer Voza Rivers,  Esther Armah

Pulling the Covers off Liberal Racism

Witnessing  Esther Armah’s new and timely play “Savior” reminds us why the theater is still relevant.  Of the myriad virtues of independent black theater is the fact that it is the only dramatic forum in which black folk actually control their image.  And when good actors get a worthy scrip something magical can happen.  In Ms. Armah’s play we are treated to an embarrassment of riches.  Possessed with the sharp eye of the good reporter, the language of a poet and a skilled sophisticated playwright’s understanding of the role of conflict as the engine of drama, Ms. Armah is well suited to her chosen craft.

 Savior’s appeal partly lies in it’s wit and humor and in the insightful way in which the play handles a variety of complex issues involving race, class and gender that allow Ms. Armah to give full reign to both her irreverent imagination –in that she dares to imagine the unimaginable – sharp intellect, and wide ranging knowledge of the world.  The lady is a true cosmopolite.  This is clearly apparent from her elegantly written memoir “Can I Be Me?”

A Black Brit of Ghanaian parentage, Ms. Armah is a world traveler and has observed race relations between whites and blacks in Africa, Europe and the Americas.  And she has developed a fine eye for all the ways in which the melanin deprived sector of humanity exercise power and privilege based on nothing more than melanin deprivation. Most of these observations were made when she was working as a journalist and was therefore in position to get a bird’s eye view of human relations in various societies.  All the things she has learned from her journalistic experiences have found their way into this play.

This  is clearly evident in both her choice of subject and the manner in which she explored it.  The play centers around a the struggle of a well know white male liberal who has been very active in causes for racial and economic justice.  It has become his life’s work as an executive in community organizations, but he has just been passed over for the CEO position in favor of a black woman.  In his mind the white male is certain that there is no way the black woman could be better qualified than him and was not awarded the position on merit; hence he views himself as a victim of reverse discrimination and decides to hire a lawyer to sue the organization.

Unable to get the high powered white lawyer he wanted he is assigned a black male lawyer who appears anxious to get the case because it is the kind of case that could make him famous.  He reasoned that although he has been doing brilliant legal work for years as a supporting player, white lawyers with less talent are always appointed to argue the cases in court.  He does the work but they take the bows.  At first the aggrieved white male doesn’t want the black lawyer, and only reluctantly accepts him as counsel after the lawyer convinces him that he is willing to resort to unprincipled gutter tactics to win.

The Cast and Director 

 The story is told with two actors Michael Green and Jimmy Aquino; who play Billy Hall the white plaintiff and Michael Jamal Williams III his black lawyer.  The brilliantly written dialogue between the two men explores all of the issues of sex, race and power in the contemporary American workplace in the age of our first black President.  Which many believe has moved US society into a post black phase.

The two men eventually hatch a diabolical plot to bring down the black female CEO by attacking her judgment in hiring another black woman as her assistant who is a deranged home wrecking ho, that is trying to break up the white male’s family with bogus charges of sexual harassment after he rejected her advances.  At first the white male is reluctant to pursue this course of action because, as it turns out, he and the woman he is about to attack has had a serious affair that ended badly.

The truth is that he has been stalking her to the extent of showing up at her house uninvited. The white male is obsessed with her but his estranged lover broke off the affair when she learned that he had lied to her about getting a divorce from his white wife, which he explains he had no intention of doing.  When he continues to stalk her she calls the cops and it gets in the press.

The white male finally agrees to throw his former lover under the bus when the black lawyer convinces him that this is a sure path to victory.  The upshot is that upon the direction of a callous overly ambitious black male lawyer they devise a plan to destroy the hard won success and wreck the careers of two highly qualified black women in order to maintain the structure of white male privilege.

During the course of the play we are confronted with all of the issues of racial and gender equity in the work place that presently plague American society but nobody wants to speak  about frankly.  It is the white elephant in the room that everybody pretends not to see.  What makes this play so explosive is that Ms. Armah does not present the typical white bigot who is the usual whipping boy in creative works about racism.  Rather Ms. Armah’s character is the kind of professional white liberal who is dedicated to eradicating racial inequality in America; the kind of know-it-all white guy who views himself as the Savior of black people.

Yet in the end the he is willing to destroy the careers of a longtime colleague and a former lover in order to preserve his privileged status as the boss.  The thought of working for a black woman was unbearable.  Yet he refused to see that his attitude was just as racist, and far more dangerous, as any redneck.  It is no accident that Ms. Armah chose such a character to tell this tale of racism, sexism, power and privilege; in fact her personal experience with liberal white males working as a journalist provided a unique perspective on the problem.

In her poignantly written memoir “Can I be Me” she reflects on her tenure as an Assistant Producer on “Panorama,” a current affairs program on the BBC in London.  When the question of racial equity in terms of hiring and promotion was broached a “senior colleague” who was white and male offered the following response.  “No one can accuse us of being racist, just look at the number of programs we’ve done on the far right.”

Ms. Armah was shocked that her white male colleague  saw racism “solely in crude and extreme terms. A truth dawned.” She recalls.  “So many white, middle class liberals defined racism in this fashion.  Their intention, it struck me, was to distance themselves from any possibility of being accused of displaying racism by defining it in such extreme terms.”  But, she concludes that their kind of racism was “far more poisonous, it had become a subtle, cancerous cloak that hovered and sheltered institutions: complex, dangerous, destroyer of dreams and much, much more difficult to actively fight.”

It is clear that the weapon Ms. Armah has chosen to fight this class of phenomenon – which she has observed in Africa and the US also – is the dramatist’s art.  She has put the whole mess on stage in a well-crafted highly intelligent play, and through the agency of two fine actors in a bravura performance engaged the audience, made us think about unpleasant problems some would rather avoid, held us in suspense, and completely fooled most of the audience – this writer included – with her surprise ending.

One of the surprising treats in this lay is the deep insight she provides into the machinations of the trained legal mind.  It is a unique view of how justice is arrived at in our legal system…or the appearance of justice.   One of the ways she achieves this is by her expert use of legal language and explanations of what they mean through the arguments of the lawyer.  This expertise, we would later learn in the panel discussion that followed the play, is because she grew up in a family of lawyers.  Under the insightful direction of Passion this is a splendid evening of theater at the Dwyer Cultural Center – a venue where cultural treasures are common fare.  Esther Armah’s Savior is at once an education and catharsis.  Bravo!

Director, Actor, Playwright

 Passion, Michael Green and Esther Armah 


Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

October, 2011