Me and my First Wife Dorothy as Newly Weds in 1966
Reflections On The Way We Were
I owe the existence of this essay to my Facebook Friends, whose moving heart felt sentiments in response to a brief notice in memory of my first wife Dorothy – which I posted on my face book wall along with a picture of me and her together – caused me to reflect on the extraordinary times in which we lived. I began to dissect the political /cultural forces that shaped us and brought us together and wound up putting my thoughts in writing. The result is this remembrance of that halcyon era of struggle and hope when black Americans redifined themselves and changed America forever.
Dorothy was a victim of the great terrorist attack on down town Manhattan by Islamic Jihadist ten years ago. I posted the memorial because I wanted to put a face on one of the victims; to show that these were real lives that were lost that day. The numbers don’t tell the whole story – as horrendous and awe inspiring as they are. I wanted to remind folks that somebody loved them, and that some of these victims were the best and brightest among us…the tallest trees in our forest.
Dorothy was one of those great souls. When I met her she was on a “Freedom High” just like me. She was Afro-Cuban and I was Afro-American but we were Pan-Africanist and saw our union as proof that Neo-African cultures in the Diaspora had definite spiritual and historical affinities. She dug Jazz and could boogie down to James Brown, and I thought I was the Mambo King, whether playing the Congas or dancing!
Playing with the great Mongo Santa Maria’s Orchestra 1966
I loved Afro-Cuban culture and Dorothy Loved Afro-America culture
Like me Dorothy was also a fan of European classical music. She was a graduate of Music and Art, a special New York high school that recruited the most artistically gifted students in New York City. And exacting standard for sure. The television series “Fame,” starring Debbie Allen was based on that High School. Dorothy was admitted and studied piano and cello. But her experience with white cultural chauvinism and racism turned Dorothy off to the world of European classical music, an alienation that heightened when the great trumpeter Donald Bird came to the school to create a Jazz department.
Trumpet Virtuoso Donald Bird
He blew Dorothy’s mind and changed her Life!
On his first meeting with the students to announce the aims of his department Donald, a master musician in every respect, decided to tackle the conceits about the superiority of European classical music to the great art music of America – which is an invention of Afro-Americans. To accomplish this he introduced the students to a young, bespeckled, soft spoken black pianist. The 18 year old sat down at the Steinway Grand and first played one of the Concert Etudes composed by the great Franz Liszt, which are known to piano aficionados as the “Transcendental Etudes.”
This is one of the most difficult works for solo piano ever composed. Like all etudes it is a complex technical exercise and thus the pianist must have monster skills to even think about playing it. Herbie played it flawlessly, and then he performed variations on the oeuvre of the eccentric Afro-American genius Theolonius Monk, who grew up just blocks away from where Dorothy grew up. She never got over it, and she became good friends with “Herbie and Donald.” To her it was a demonstration of Black Genius!
Piano Virtuoso Herbie Hancock
Herbie displayed genius at an early age
It changed her life. After that it was like… “Roll over Beethoven;” all she wanted to do was swing: Do Bird and Dizzy’s thing! However she would discover that if you are completely steeped in the vocabulary and technique of European Classical music it is virtually impossible to master the vocabulary, rhythms and technique required in order to perform the great Afro-American classic art of Jazz. That’s why musicians like Wynton, Herbie, Chucho Valdez, Hubert Laws, Paquito d’ Rivera, Valerie Capers, Nina Simone, Dorothy Donnegan, Benny Goodman, Ron Carter, et al who can perform in both genres without accent are geniuses of a rare order!
In any case, the love of clasical music was something unique that we shared. But I was exposed to European art music by Afro-American musicians. The first time I heard a Liszt etude it was performed by my aunt Marie in her parlor. She could play Professor Thomas Dorsey’s Gospel music and Scott Joplin’s Ragtime compositions too. And naturally she turned me on to music at an early age. After she handed me over to one of her most talented students to be instructed, a beautiful college student named Miss Brown, I became perhaps the only nine year old boy in America who could not wait to spend Saturday mornings taking piano lessons.
I practiced diligently during the week in preparation for my classes with Miss Brown and developed a passionate crush on her. When she would stand behind me and place my hands properly upon the keyboard my heart skipped beats, and when she sat next to me on the piano bench my spirit took flight. When she played a dreamy Chopin Polanaise she seemed to become an angel with supernatural powers. I was totally smitten! But, alas, she graduated, got married and split town. I felt heartbroken and betrayed, And I couldn’t stand the sound of the piano for a couple of years!
After that traumatic experience I lost all desire to play the piano and decided to take up the trumpet. I found a new love…until I heard Clifford Brown and switched to the drums! But since I chose Max Roach as my artistic role model I had adopted a standard of achievement that would take the most gifted percussionist a lifetime of study and practice to master! When the black liberation movement erupted in this country I was swept up by it and my ambitions changed. Malcolm X replaced Miles Davis as my idea of a cool black rebel, and after meeting Queen Mother Moore I decided to become a professional revolutionary!
So Dorothy and I had both given up playing an instrument, and like all failed musicians, we became great fans! When we met she had graduated from City College with a degree in Psychology, and I was a college dropout who was teaching a twenty week seminar on African and Afro-American history at the Labor Institute at Rutgers under a grant from one of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society Programs. ” I also had a regular gig as the Director of the “Minority History Project” for the Opportunities Industrial Centers” -a national jobs training program founded by the Reverend Doctor Leon Sullivan: One of the greatest men to live in America during the twentieth century! Minister Farrakhan calls him: “The Lion of Zion!”
The night I met Dorothy I had just left from presenting a lecture on the African liberation movement. As was always the case after presenting a good lecture I was on a high, bouyed by the electricity that’s generated when an orator really connects with the audience. Since I was speaking to a large group in a auditorium filled with adminstrators in community action agencies that were in the front lines of the “War on Poverty,” listening to an hour and a half lecture was not part of their normal routine. So I had to work to get their attention. Hence when things went really well I got an adreneline high.
As soon as I arrived in the Big Apple I would take the A Train straight to Harlem and drop by my man Pablo’s crib. An Afro-Cuban who grew up in New York like Dorothy, Pab was a master of the Conga drums and always had the latest latin sounds – from Cuba and the New York Salsa scene. That was not the only thing that attracted me to his crib however: Pablo alwas had the high grade killer herb! He was the drummer with a very hip group of Black Americans who played Afro-Cuban music, “Pucho and his Latin Soul Brother’s,” and I checked them out whenever they were performing.
Since “Pab” lived in a plush pad in Lennox Terrace, he was right around the corner from “The Truth” Coffee House. So I charged up my head at Pablo’s pad and headed for “The Truth.” A couple of hours earlier I had listend to Frank Sinatra’s hit record “That Was A Very Good Year” while waitin on the New York train in a bar. I thought he was singing my song.
The Truth Coffe House was where the hip black activist, artists and movement intellectuals congregated to see and be seen, make connections, listen to poets spout revolutionary verse, and Jazzmen playing straight ahead in the tradition and beyond to the avant garde. Everybody was listening to John Coltrane and Miles Davis, but cats like Byard Lancaster, Don Pullin, Milford Graves and Archie Sheep were already headed out in space. They were following Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra, who said “space is the place!” You could see anybody in the movement drop by The Truth – from Muhammad Ali to James Meredith; whom I saw in The Truth a few days after he was shot in Mississippi. One of our favorite tunes on the juke box was a song by a young Muslim Minister named Louis X from Boston.
He played the violin with a deep lush tone and a wide vibrato that gave it a mysterious “Eastern” sound. And he sang with a beautiful tenor voice, the effect was such that it fed the imagination of those attracted to stories about the ancient glories of the Moors. He had a record that was a big hit with the revolutionary nationalist crowd: “The white Man’s Heaven is the Black Man’s Hell!” On the night that Dorthy and I met I was sitting at a table with the African historian John Hendrik Clarke and the great poet Larry Neal, who along with Amiri Baraka, Yusef Rachman, Askia Muhammad Toure, Calvin Hernton, Ishmael Reed, et al invented the “new black esthetic” in literature. When Dorothy walked in she atrracted quite a bit of attention because she had her hair in a huge curly Afro and was my idea of what an Ethiopian Queen must have looked like in bliblical times.
It was a magical time and it seemed anything was possible. We met when she sat down at the table next to us with her girlfriends and soon boldly interjected herself into our conversation, directly challenging something I said. Bewitched by her beauty and facinated by her spunk, I surrended and conceded the argument without a fight. I wanted to get on with this woman and I was not interested in winning any battles that might lose the war! We talked, bewitched each other, and I walked her home….only to discover that she lived with her parents. Since I was living in Philadelphia at the time it began as a weekend romance, but our passion for each other soon grew to such intensity we could no longer bear it and was married six weeks later!
Such was the culturally rich fascinating world in which Dorothy and I met and fell in love. Things were changing, the Third world was in revolution, Africa was rising, and we were all on a “Freedom High.” We viewed ourselves as Pan-African revolutionaries on a mission to uplift the race! A hip New Yorker deep into the cultural scene, and outrageously fine to boot – about 5/9 in her stocking feet with dangerous curves — Dorothy knew everybody and more than a few of the intellectuals and artist had a crush on her.
Harold Cruse: The Master Teacher
An original thinker who enlightened a generation
She introduced me to Clayton Reilly, a wonderful writer and cosmopolite who was writing theater criticism for the New York Times, and the peerless polymath Harold Cruse, when he was working on his Magnum Opus “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual,” which the great historian Christopher Lash calls “A masterpiece of 20th century American historical and cultural criticism!” Lash said it would have taken him 20 years to cover and interpret all of the information and ideas Cruse deals with in this book.
Well, it took Harold 28 years to write it! Because of Dorothy I got to spend many evenings arguing with Harold – and being intellectually brutalized by Cruse, who resented me at first me because he had a crush on Dorothy but she chose me! I was so dazzled by Harold’s unique brilliance I viewed his ridicule of my half-baked ideas, and his shameless showing off by droppin science on my ignorant ass, as just the price I had to pay for sitting at the feet of a major American thinker!
The education I got on politics and culture, as well as the science of revolution and what that meant in the American context, has served me so well that it is undoubtly a great reason why I have never lost a debate in almost half a century! Many of the things we talked about on those occasions were ideas that appear in Cruse’s great book. That’s how hanging out in the Big Apple with the beautiful, brilliant, gracious; gifted Dorothy Bannister open doors for me that I might otherwise have found closed.
Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln
Dorothy and I thought they were the epitome of cool!
We were married amidst the flowering of the Black Arts Movement; as hip asethetes and cultural nationalists, we chose the first couple of that movement – the greatest improvisational percussionist of the twentieth century: bandleader/composer Max Roach, and his beautiful singer /songwriter /actress wife Abbey Lincoln as our role models. Queen Mother Moore loved and tutored her, and my good friend Mongo Santamaria adored her as a sterling example of Afro-Cuban womanhood. It is this rich and unique experience that Dorothy brought to the college students she inspired as a director of councelling. They will miss her dearly….. and so shall I.
Four Who Made A Revolution circa 2011
During the 1960’s Dorothy was Close Comrades with Three!
Playthell, Prof. John Bracy, Dr. Muhammad Ahmed, Poet Askia Muhammad
Founders: Revolutionary Action Movement, Black Arts Movement and Black Studies
Harlem, New York
September 11, 2011