Archive for Jazz at Lincoln Center

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!”  Which he so brilliantly demonstrates in his majestic book “Stompin The Blues.”

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 by 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 Murray 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.


** 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  Dancers: Playthell G. Benjamin
*** Photo of the Basie and by: © Bettmann/CORBIS

NOTE: Double Click on link to hear the Basie band in Perform “Moton Swing,” a sound portrait of the sass, pizazz and elegance of Mr. Murray’s style.

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

Praise Songs for a Master Musician

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, You Tube Classics with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2014 by playthell
Louis Armstrong: His horn and voice changed the world of music

A Fitting Tribute to a Great Artist on the Centenary of his Birthday

On the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Armstrong a celebration in his honor was held at Columbia University, one of America’s most distinguished institutions of higher learning. Titled The Artistry of Pops: Louis Armstrong on his 100th Birthday,” three of the nation’s most outstanding intellectuals and artists – Robert O’Meely, Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis – conducted an ancestor veneration ritual in memory of Louis Armstrong, a great American original.

Robert O’Meely is a Professor of English at Columbia, Director of the Institute for Jazz Studies and a serious Jazz scholar who wrote an important book on Billy Holliday; Stanley Crouch is the nation’s premiere Jazz critic and biographer of Charlie Parker; and Wynton Marsalis is Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center – the most important Jazz performance and education venue in the world – and leader of the internationally renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, an aggregation of great musicians who can play every genre of jazz without accent.

It is a certainty that almost anyone who takes the time to view this video will be greatly enlightened by the experience.  My certainty lies in the fact that I was enlightened by it and I have been writing about Jazz for over 20 years and have published essays about the music in some of the most prestigious journals in the English language.  The video begins with an opening address by Dr. O’Meely, rich in eloquence and erudition, it paints a complex portrait of Louis Armstrong that demolished the stereotypical view of him as a simple minded entertainer and borderline clown.

What emerges from Professor O’Meely’s succinct but learned lecture is a compelling portrait of a great artist who changed western music and won devotees among musicians and music lovers all over the world.  We learn that the ability to play and instrument and also sing well enough to have a lasting influence on both arts is a very rare feat; the province of genius.  Yet, he tells us, this is precisely what Louis Armstrong did.

       Pop’s Armstrong Singing
                         Louis Armstrong singing
Recording with the magnificent Ella Fitzgerald

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitgerald

                    One of Pop’s many artistic “children”

In his professorial fashion Dr. O’Meely cited a scholarly text to provide evidence of the influence of Louis Armstrong on the major singers who dominated American jazz and pop music for most of the twentieth century and set the standards many singers still emulate. The Book, “Pops Children,” lets us hear it from the horses’ mouths through the author’s interviews.  Among those who pay homage to Pops as an artistic inspiration and guide are Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Lady Day, et al.

O’Meely’s lecture was the ideal introduction to Louis Armstrong, because he enumerates the many facets of Armstrong’s interests and talents and defines the elements that characterize his style and innovations in western music. Although he teases us with glimpses of Armstrong’s multi-faceted personality and varied interests, he reminds us they are laboring under the tyranny of the clock and thus must confine their discourse to the matter of music.

Despite the fact that he is a Professor of English Dr. O’Meely is a fine music critic.  Like Crouch and Marsalis he is a protégée of the novelist, essayist, musician Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray, the recently departed Harlem sage and blues philosopher whose masterpiece, “Stomping the Blues,” is a canonical text on Afro-American music…especially Jazz. Thus O’Meely’s analysis is well informed by a broad knowledge of the history and nature of artistic creation and innovation, and his discussion of Louis Armstrong is conducted within the comparative context of all great art.

As a literary man beguiled by the blues in its many splendored guises, Dr. O’Meeley conjures up the memory of Professor Sterling Brown, a Harvard educated pioneer blues poet and longtime Professor of English at Howard University in Washington, who had jazz musicians play for his class live and who is called out by name as the hippest intellectual in the nation’s capitol in Ledbelly’s famous song “Washington is a Bourgeois Town.”  

It was Professor O’Meely who was called upon to make the keynote speech at the dedication of the monumental statute “Invisible Man,” created by Elizabeth Catlett, outside of Ellison’s residence on Riverside Drive, not far from Columbia’s campus. Unlike Sterling Brown, O’ Meely does not need jazz musicians to play for his class because just a few blocks down Broadway from campus is Jazz at Lincoln Center, where the greatest Jazz musicians in the world perform nearly every night.  O’Meely is immersed in the Jazz milieu being centrally located in the Jazz capitol of the world he has seen it all, which makes him an ideal critic fully equipped to evaluate the place of Louis Armstrong in American music.

I got a taste of the depth of his erudition when we debated an essay on music and literature written by Albert Murray in a seminar at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Debating the Learned Professor O’Meely at the Sorbonne
        A Joint Meeting of the US and European Associations of American Studies  

At the conclusion of his learned commentary on the character and contributions of Pops Armstrong, Professor O’Meely turned the floor over to Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis after reading their impressive bonafides to the audience, calling them “two of the smartest people talking about Jazz.” Crouch was introduced first to tumultuous applause, but when Wynton walked on stage, trumpet in hand, the crowd went wild.

In an extended discussion Crouch compared the heroism of people who invent major movements in art or intellectual ideas to those in classical Greek mythology, and Wynton dazzled with his in-depth knowledge of the art of trumpet playing and the history of its development in the USA. As always, his lecture became a “show and tell” when he would demonstrate his point on the trumpet.

This video is a wonderful portrait of Pops which require no further comment, since we have the film. However it is impossible to overstate the importance of the work that O’Meely, Crouch and Marsalis are doing by institutionalizing Jazz in elite, well funded, American cultural and academic institutions such as Lincoln Center and Columbia University.

It is both fitting and proper that this effort should be led by Afro-American artists and intellectuals.  Jazz is, after all, Black America’s gift to the nation and America’s gift to world culture.  Look, listen and learn about one of the greatest artists and most interesting American men of the 20th century, the trumpet virtuoso that invented both the extended Jazz solo and a distinctly American approach to singing… the Jazz song.

Pops At Carnegie Hall with Kate Middleton 1947
                      A Sartorial Trend Setter Always sharp as a Tack
The Axe with Which Louis Conquored the World!
Louis Arnstrongs trumpet presented to him by King George V of England in 1933
This Trumpet was a gift from King George V in 1933
Double click on link to see the video Tribute 

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

April 4, 2014

The Blues Philosopher’s Last Chorus

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , on August 24, 2013 by playthell

Albert Murray

The Literary Lion in his Den

 Life as a Fully Orchestrated Blues Statement

Albert Murray was not only one of the most original thinkers in American letters during the 20th century, he was also a tutor to a couple of generations of American intellectuals trying to understand their country and its culture.  For many intellectuals and artist making the trek up to Mr. Murray’s apartment in Lennox Terrace, the experience was like a religious devotee making a pilgrimage to a sacred shrine to sit at the feet of a holy man, or like the seekers of wisdom and truth who sat at the feet of Plato in ancient Greece.

Some of the most illustrious names in Literature, Art, Music and cultural criticism have found their way to this book laden temple of learning.  Professor Murray was Harlem’s senior sage.  He was 97 years old when he danced to his last blues chorus, and his status was unassailable.  In fact, Mr. Murray’s shoes are so hard to fill we will probably have to dip them in gold, hang them in an honored spot on a wall of heroes, and leave the position of Senior Sage open for the foreseeable future.

While I am not certain that I could define a philosopher in language that would satisfy the academic guardians of the canon, like the Supreme Court Justice when asked to define pornography: “I know one when I see one.” Since the subject of this panegyric, Professor Murray, was a master of language who was also devoted to improvisation and therefore no slave to convention, I shall feel free to take liberties in defining what I mean by philosopher in reference to him.

For me a philosopher is one who contemplates the deeper meaning of things and finds hidden connections between phenomena that escape the rest of us, with the ultimate aim of defining reality.  While the common lot of us look upon the world and our obvious predicament and ask why?  Philosophers dream of things yet unseen and ask why not?  Albert Murray was always opening our eyes to hidden truths that revealed new possibilities.

I was first introduced to his ideas by Larry Neale – the distinguished poet, essayist, editor, and teacher of literature at Yale.  And it changed the way I saw the world in important ways.  I remember well the first time he mentioned Mr. Murray to me.  I was living in an apartment in midtown Manhattan, thirty two stories above Broadway.  I was a Professor on leave from the University of Massachusetts, and was managing the Great singer Jean Carn.

A friend of mine, Tanya, a tall fine blond lady who could bust some moves like a Soul Train hoofer, was grooving to Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People,” when Larry told her that she was not white.  He said her whiteness was a great American fiction, a superficial matter of pigment.  I was shocked at his announcement because the alabaster beauty was as white as any white person that I ever saw.   But Larry went on to explain that she was a cultural mulatto, and Omni-American!  And he held up a copy of Mr. Murray’s book.

Tanya: I thought she was white
Karen-picas editLarry Neal said she was a Cultural Mulatto…An Omni-American

Larry was such a serious intellectual and devoted teacher he died of a heart attack while presenting a lecture.  He was the sort of person who would slaughter his own sacred cows in deference to a greater truth.  This is what happened when he encountered the writing of Professor Murray.  A founding father and avatar of the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s, who along with Amiri Baraka, aka Leroi Jones, co-edited Black Fire, the seminal anthology of the early writings produced by the Black Arts movement, it was no easy task for Larry to accommodate the ideas in Mr. Murray’s book.

An unsentimental and uncompromising literary critic, Professor Murray cavalierly dismissed most of the writing produced by the Black Arts movement as aesthetic mediocrities….and some as literary atrocities.   And he irreverently referred to the lot of us black cultural revolutionaries  as “the bam bam boom boom Brillo Head Crowd.” In a startling commentary on a reading of works by some of the Black Arts luminaries that he attended in Greenwich Village, Mr. Murray denounced their works as little more than public temper tantrums devoted to ostentatious racial exhibitionism of questionable literary merit.  But he reserved his most caustic criticism for the largely white, affluent, artsy fartsy audience who applauded wildly and treated the performers as cultural heroes.

Mr. Murray concluded that with “friends” like these the black artist was doomed to mediocrity, and he placed them even lower on the scale of reliable friends than white boxing managers.  For even if one assumed that the rumors of financial exploitation of boxers under their management was true, Mr. Murray argued: “at least they were trying to produce world champions!”  The profound truth of this revelation hit me like a ton of bricks and I carefully devoured the rest of the essays in his remarkably wide ranging eclectic collection of essays, “The Omni-Americans,” his first book.

I was hooked on Mr. Murray’s learned, unique, and insightful commentaries on life, literature, the essence of artistic creation and its implications for society, as well as his penetrating iconoclastic views on politics: cultural and otherwise.  But what I loved most about Mr. Murray was his quiet assumption that Afro-Americans were the hippest and most stylish people on earth.

This is the Black America Mr. Murray Referenced


“Duke Ellington’s “Satin Doll”

This is most apparent in his discussion of the “fakelore of black pathology,” and “the folklore of white supremacy,” a bogus intellectual construction that compelled white editors to privilege any story of black pathology over a tale of black heroism.  This rule is still all too true, as is evidenced by the muted attention being given to Antoinette Tuff, a black female bookkeeper who talked down a white male armed with an AK 47 and 500 rounds of ammunition that had begun to shoot up an elementary school in Georgia.  Ms. Tuff talked the gunman into laying down his weapon and lie on the floor until the police came to arrest him.  An although not one person lost their life, Ms. Tuff has yet to receive the kind of media adulation a white woman who had talked down a black gunman would have received.

Mr. Murray was an indefatigable defender of Afro-Americans against those who would attempt to play us cheap by portraying us as something less than what we are.  He constantly pointed out that humanity is no less complex and fascinating in a black skin than in a white skin.  Disproving that myth was a major impetus for his novels: Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree and Seven League Boots. 

One of the most interesting aspects of Mr. Murray’s critique of the study of Afro-Americans is his dismissal of the way sociologist have approached the subject.  Referencing them as mere “statistical survey technicians” he has called their method “an elaborate fraud.”  In order to demonstrate his point he critiques two studies that were considered the state of the art, one by a white social scientist and one by a black.  An American Dilemma, a massive study conducted by the distinguished Swedish social economist, Dr. Gunnar Myrdal, and Dark Ghetto, written by Afro-American Social Psychologist Dr. Kenneth B. Clarke.

Both of these scholars were prominent in their field. Kenneth Clarke, the first tenured Afro-American scholar in the City University of New York, was world famous as the result of his “Dolls” study.   This study was appended to the NAACP brief in the landmark Brown v. The Board of Education case in which the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools were “inherently unequal,” and it was credited by many with swaying the Judges’ decision.   Dr. Myrdal, who headed what was the most massive research project on Afro-Americans in history, was chosen not only because he was a distinguished social scientist – since there was no paucity of able social scientists here – but also because he came from Sweden, a country with no black/white racial problem.

They funders of the study reasoned that Myrdal would be more objective writing about the volatile race problem in the US than an American scholar by virtue of his background. The result was a text of nearly a thousand pages that was roundly hailed as the final word on black life in America. Professor Murray was unimpressed with the results of both studies and emphatically dismissed them.  He said the most obvious thing about Dark Ghetto was that it was “written by a Negro who hates himself.”

Murray observed that things in Harlem could not be as grim as Clarke described them “even if half the residents robbed the other half every night.”  He took a similar position on Claude Brown’s bestselling novel “Manchild in the Promised Land,” which was being widely acclaimed as the real story of what life was like in Harlem.  Mr. Murray said it was no such thing!  He said it was merely the story of what it was like for one Negro who grew up in Harlem “and evidently had a hard time doing so.” The book told you nothing about “what it was like to be the Society Editor of the Amsterdam News,” or “one of the people who ran the most complex mass transportation system in the world.”

As for Mr. Myrdal’s “landmark study,” Murray thought it had been a great waste of money if the objective was to help us understand black life in America.  His indictment of the study was spurred by the fact that nowhere in those hundreds of pages filled with numbers and sociological jargon did anyone ask what was the meaning of the blues among black Americans, who invented the art form and based the great American art of Jazz on its deeply moving changes?

This question reflected Mr. Murray’s conception of art and its function in human society.  His view was summed up in his contention that “an art style is the refinement and elaboration of a lifestyle.”  If this assumption was true, then the question of the meaning of the blues in Afro-American culture was no picayune consideration. Mr. Murray thought it was critical to understanding the amazing grace that Afro-Americans had shown during the long night of racial oppression.  He would go on to answer this question in the text that I consider his magnum opus: Stomping the Blues; which many critics believe is the best book ever written on Afro-American music –this writer included.

Bill “Count” Basie
Count Basies Band-singer JimmyRushing1943
Master of the Fully Orchestrated Blues Statement

In this text Mr. Murray waxes philosophical about the meaning of the blues and corrects some widely held misconceptions.  The most pervasive of which is that the blues is sad music.  He skillfully dispels this myth by exploring the origins of the concept of blues by dividing his quest into “The Blues as Such” and the “Blues as Music.”  Mr. Murray shows that while the blues as such is a feeling of sadness and melancholy, and can be traced back to the idea of “blue devils” in Elizabethan England, the blues as music is the antidote to the blues as such.  Hence when viewed in its proper cultural context, the “down home Saturday night function” i.e. a dance party held among Afro-Americans in the south, the blues becomes a music of celebration.

Black musicians played the blues to chase away the blues as such; they “stomped the blues.” This is the meaning of the title of Mr. Murray’s text: Stomping the Blues.  He pointed out that there are several ways of dealing with the blues as such.  One could commit suicide, turn to alcohol  and drugs, or get sharp and go out dancing to a blues band.  His central point throughout this amazing text is that contrary to conventional wisdom the blues is a music of affirmation not resignation – as both the Black Nationalist activist/intellectual Mualana Karenga and the revolutionary black psychiatrist Franz Fanon had concluded.

This was the basis of his criticism of both the portrayal of black life in Richard Wright’s Native Son and the nihilism that characterized so much of the rhetoric of black radicals in the 1960’s.   Murray thought we relied far too much on the grim pessimism of the sociologists – who were mostly square white boys that knew little of real life and could be taken off for everything they had by “any fourth rate Harlem hustler” once they stepped outside their class rooms – rather than rely on the wisdom of the blues.  He pointed out that the blues sensibility was the antithesis of the “sack cloth and ashes” view of life.  While the blues admits “life is a low down dirty shame” we have to keep on swinging.

Through his eyes musicians became heroes and “blues idiom dancing,” his description of typical Afro-American popular dance, was a heroic exercise.  For Mr. Murray, the ability to dance gracefully is a core value of Afro-American culture; it is so widely shared that it is “disgraceful to be awkward on the dance floor.”  The importance he placed on this as a signature of ones integration into the Afro-American cultural idiom is clearly demonstrated in his essay on Gordon Parks, a brilliant multi-talented Afro-American contemporary.

In his description of Gordon Parks upon their first meeting as young men he describes Park’s talents and concludes with the comment “and he was graceful on the dance floor.”   But when he describes Gordon Parks later in life, after he had become enormously successful and was lionized by white society, Murray notes his many successes then comments wryly: “But he was no longer graceful on the dance floor.”

Albert Murray’s writing was a revelation to me, and many other black intellectuals who took the time to carefully read him.  He offered new perspectives on many levels and prompted us to rethink a lot of our ideas.  For instance he considered the description of Harlem and other black communities as “ghettos” to be erroneous, the result of “too much pillow talk between black intellectuals and their Jewish lovers.”

He thought that Malcolm X’s preachment about the white man convincing Afro-Americans to  hate our looks  was nonsense, and said all one had to do was watch “American Negroes” on the dance floor to see that it wasn’t true.  He said that Afro-Americans who were good looking knew that they looked good, and those who thought they were ugly probably were.

Blues Idiom Dancers
Jazz Dancers The Elegance Albert Murray Witnessed

He also thought Malcolm’s contention that house slaves were more impressed with the master than field slaves ignored the fact that it was the house slaves who saw the masters for the flawed creatures that they were, because they were all up in their business i.e. no man is a hero to his butler.  And he pointed out that it is déclassé intellectuals that lead revolutions because ordinary working people don’t spend their time thinking about the things one has to think about in order to organize a revolution.  That is the province of the intellectual.

Although I would come to have my disagreements with Mr. Murray, sometimes about culture but mostly about politics, and even argued with him personally on the value of sociology, accusing him of throwing the baby out with the bathwater….I regard his presence among us as a blessing, and his literary legacy a benefaction.

His collaboration with Count Basie on his autobiography “Good Morning Blues” provides us a look into the world of the Jazz musician and the evolution of the big band that is unprecedented, and his intellectual repartee with the great visual artist Romare Beardon, even naming some of his master works, along with his critical role in the founding of Jazz At Lincoln Center – a seminal event in the history of American culture, is further evidence of Mr. Murray’s widespread influence on American civilization.  Mr. Murray has been justly showered with many accolades in recognition of his singular contribution. I believe we are not likely to see his kind again. For the elements so blended in him that such a man may come along once in a century.

A career Air-Force officer and a refined gentleman, an intellectual of great depth, a prolific writer and iconoclastic thinker, a professor and philosopher, an epicure, elegant dresser and graceful dancer, a devoted husband and good father, and pater-familias to a tribe of intellectuals and artists who are shaping the culture of the world.  When one considers that he taught literature and military aviation, was a novelist and essayist of distinction, an equally able and insightful critic of literature, music and the visual arts – all of which he wrote highly original treatises on – we are compelled to place him among the modern renaissance men.

Mr. Murray was an exemplar of a type of black southern gentleman that is fast fading from the scene.  He was cut from the same cloth as my Uncle Jimmy Strawder, who also danced and joined the honored ancestors just days before Mr. Murray played his out chorus.  Both were men from small southern towns, Mr. Murray from Nkomis Alabama, Uncle Jimmy from St. Augustine  Florida.  Both men grew up during the era of American apartheid, when the ruling ideology was white supremacy, and although life in their birthplace was really a low down dirty shame they kept on swinging for a nearly a century – Jimmy Strawder for 90 years Albert Murray for 97!

One could say their lives were like “fully orchestrated blues statements,” a term Mr. Murray coined, in that they were complete and left nothing to be desired.  They were “Killer Dillers;” handsome hep-cats who dressed to the nines and strutted their stuff like peacocks on the dance floors of elegant ball rooms that were all the rage in their youth; places with names like the Savoy Ballroom, Grand Terrace and Paradise Lounge.  This is where the fabulous big bands like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Cab Calloway, Chick Webb, and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm played the fully orchestrated blues statements Mr Murray wrote so insightfully about, music played at “the velocity of celebration.”

Duke Ellington and his Orchestra
“America as She Was Swung!

The fact that one gets no hint that “Fatha” Hines and his great orchestra was playing for dancers at the elegantly appointed Grand Terrace, a scene so hip Al Capone came by to dance to the music, in Richard Wright’s wildly acclaimed novel Native Son, which was set in Chicago during this era, is one of Mr. Murray’s most potent grievances against the text.

Mr. Murray would become a military officer and a writer, Uncle Jimmy became a military officer and would have become a writer if Columbia University – to their everlasting shame – had not turned him away after congratulating him on his distinguished war record as a decorated combat officer, and his outstanding performance on the entrance exam, part of which he took in Latin, with the cold announcement” ‘Columbia College already has its quota of Negros.”

As I noted in my eulogy to Uncle Jimmy: “If white Americans who survived the Great Depression and fought World War II can be considered “The Greatest Generation,” men like Uncle Jimmy and Professor Murray” are the greatest of The Greatest Generation!   Thus I bid these good men… officers and gentlemen, hail and farewell.

Playthell and Professor Robert O’Meely of Columbia at Sorbonne

Me and Robert O'Mealy

Analyzing the influence of Mr. Murray on Wynton Marsalis, Virtuoso trumpeter
 Double Click to see the Basie Orchestra Swing!
A fully Orchestrated Blues Statement
Double Click to Hear Duke Ellington and his Orchestra!
Duke plays his classic compositions
Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
August 23, 2013









Jazz Meets Clave!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on November 29, 2010 by playthell

The Original CuBoppers

Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody And Cuban Congero Chano Pozo


The JALC Orchestra

Maestro Marsalis Strikes Up the Band!

The concert at Lincoln Center last Saturday night was aptly name Jazz Meets Clave; it was like a replay of that halcyon era in the 1940’s, when Dizzy Gillespie and Mario Bauza – Afro-American and Afro-Cuban master musicians – put their heads together and decided to experiment with a new sound that has become world famous as “Latin Jazz,” a distinct genre in the lexicon of Jazz music.  Since this music was a mixture of the musical traditions of the two cultures, the Son Montuno and Jazz, and was concocted by Afro-Americans and Afro-Latin’s in Manhattan when the Bebop style invented by Bird and Diz was au courant, this new synthesis became known as Cubop. The music played in Jazz at Lincoln Center’s beautiful Rose Hall by the great orchestra that resides there, on last Saturday night, can be considered an extension of that experiment.


Machito and his Afro-Cubans

The Cuban Side Of Bop

One of the highlights of the evening was a composition by Carlos Enriquez, the bassist in the Lincoln Center Orchestra, who is Puerto-Rican, or more accurately Nuyorican.  The piece was inspired by the Orchestra’s recent trip to Cuba. In his introduction of the composition Carlos explained how the trip to that culturally rich Caribbean isle was a musical and cultural revelation.  He was first of all surprised to discover the high level of musicianship displayed by the young musicians of Cuba, as well as the educational system that trains them.

Frankly I was astonished by his surprise, because all one need do is look at the musicians who have migrated from that Island to New York City, or simply come here to perform – like Chucho Valdez, whom I consider the greatest pianist in the world, to know that something rare and exciting is going on musically in Cuba.  Chucho is not alone at the top of his game; the same argument can be made for the contrabassist Carlos Del Pino, the multi-reed virtuoso Paquito de Rivera, or the trumpeter Autoro Sandoval – the only trumpeter in the world who can potentially rival Wynton Marsalis in his multi-lingual virtuosity. And there are so many great Cuban percussionists they defy tabulation.

In an eloquent and erudite monologue Carlos told us how the different movements of his composition were based on various rhythms and song forms that are integral to the Afro-Cuban style, and explained how they would alternate with the swing of Jazz.  Unlike some ill fated attempts to synthesize musical genres, this composition was a rousing success.  The result was a performance of great drama, as the musicians interpreted this inspired and original score constructed on complex poly-rhythms and poignant blues voicing’s of various shades. This composition also featured an extended solo on the timbales, and instrument that offers far less to work with than the drum set preferred by jazz drummers; yet it is critical to the Afro-Cuban rhythm section. Consisting of only two tom toms on a stand, with two cowbells mounted on it, plus a ride cymbal, the Timbales are a minimalist version of the Jazz drum kit.


David Hernandez Of Zon Del Barrio!

The Art of Timbales


The Jazz drum set is the most complex percussion instrument in the world, and by far the most difficult to play when performing in the modern jazz context.  While I am not prepared to say who played this instrument first, African American drummers in the United States created the great virtuoso tradition and are its greatest artists.

To understand the complexity of the jazz drummer’s art, let’s examine the art of precision rudimental trap drumming alone.  Here I am referring of the art of the snare, or trap drum.  This kind of drumming is common to military style marching bands, including high-school and especially the great college marching bands.  The rhythmic compositions to which the band marches called “cadences’ are constructed on twenty eight “rudiments.’  These rhythmic exercises, such as five stroke rolls, seven stroke rolls, flams, ratamacues, paradiddles, flam paradiddles, etc are very precise rhythmic statements, sort of like etudes for drums. A wonderful recreation of what it was like to try and make the great Florida A&M drum section can be seen it the movie Drumline.


A Grand Master of The Drum Set

Max Roach Playing Five Drums and Four Cymbals

Most jazz drummers had the benefit of this kind of rudimental training on the snare drum, having grown up playing in marching bands, but in the set the snare is only one of four or five drums, depending on the drummer’s taste.  It is however the lead drum from which all rhythmic configurations is initiated. The standard set is snare, small tom tom, and floor tom tom, plus the bass drum.  In terms of the human voice it would be like soprano, tenor, baritone and basso; if they were viols it would be violin, viola, cello and conta-bass.  When the jazz drummer tunes these drums – and some fine tune them to the pitch of the piano – a variety of percussive voices are possible.

That’s why the great Jazz drummers with musical imaginations – like Max Roach, Art Blakey or Jack De Johnette -sound as if they are playing melodically.  Aside from the drums however there are at least three cymbals.  Two are mounted on stands – some drummers prefer three – and the sock cymbal is played with the foot.  The essence of the art of playing the drum set is to be able to play a different rhythm with each hand and foot.  Hence the Jazz drummer creates a complex polyrhythmic statement by his lonesome.

The timbales are sparse in comparison, but unlike the jazz set the timbale player is not expected to carry the percussion rhythm alone; timbaleros are  accompanied by the conga and bongo drummers, guido or clave and the big cow bell.  When each instrument is in the groove they produce a poly-rhythmic sound that compels the listener to dance. Thus the timbalero usually has help from other percussionist while the Jazz drummer is expected to supply all the percussion functions in the band.  On this occasion the timbalero was a true master of his instrument and rendered an electrifying solo!   When I first saw Afro-Cuban musicians play at Florida A&M I wasn’t at all impressed with the timbales.  But that would change once I began to understand the nature of the instrument and the skill required to play them.  And when I started to study the congas I came to admire, respect, and even love them.  Part of the genius of the art of timbale playing is that they do so much with so little equipment.

Conga, Timbales and Guido

The Heart of the Afro Cuban Rhythm Section


The Bongo Player

The bongolero also doubles on the big cow bell

The Cow Bell Anchors the Rhythm

Everybody Plays Off The Big Cow Bell


Every part of the timbales can be played.  Whereas jazz drummers play only on the skins of the drums – with the occasional rim shots – the timbalero plays all over the drums; the rims and the sides too.  The skins are used accent the rhythms that are steadily played on the sides or the cowbells, and for dynamic solos.  The Afro-Cuban rhythm section is so precisely worked out that every rhythm fits perfectly in its “pocket.” Which is another way of saying each man to his station in the rhythmic jig saw.

JALC Bassist Carlos Enrique


After a swinging interlude in which Ali – the trap drummer with the JALC – announced his presence like rolling thunder,  Marcus Printup gave a solo of great sensual beauty, playing with a wide vibrato; the influence of his Cuban sojourn could clearly be heard as he conjured up memories of the great Afro-Cuban trumpeter Chaputin. The composition, and the set, ended with an impressive solo from Carlos on the bass.




The second set began with the audience being shown how to clap the clave rhythm, and Ali soloed on the drum set as they clapped in time.  Then Carlos started walking the bass and Ali began swinging hard.  The music is a movement from Wynton’s Third American Symphony, and it is very modern.  Moving at the frantic pace of rush hour traffic on the West Side Highway, which is clearly visible from the piano where Wynton composed it, the influence of environment on the way musicians imagine music is very clear.  In any case it’s clear to me; I don’t know if Wynton thinks of it that way, which is to say that he is conscious of the influence…but it is there.

Ali Jackson

All around Musician and Virtuoso of the Drum Set


As in all of the performances the solo work was marvelous.  First there was a kind of rapid fire interplay between Wynton and the trombonist.  Wynton played magnificently, even though he had just been back in his dressing room suffering with aching eyes.  Walter Blanding Jr, my favorite tenor prayer of the younger generation, gave a spellbinding solo on the soprano sax.  Obviously by his choice of horns he is following in the footsteps of John the Prophet.

The next composition was also written by Carlos, who was obviously smitten with the great musical tradition of Afro-Cubans.  This composition is based on the Songo form created by the Cuban master musician Chungito. The tune utilized the 6/8 time signature which is the rhythm of the most sacred of Afro-Cuban religions societies like Santeria.  However being afro-Latin raised in New York he hears both traditions in a marvelous way. His orchestrations were fresh and highly inventive.


The Great Gerald Wilson Conducting His Music

The JALC Orchestra Saxophone Section

Carlos is extremely fortunate to be in a musical organization like JALC, because it allows him to fully exercise his musical imagination as a composer. Like the Ellington Orchestra, the gifted musicians around whom he is surrounded are capable of playing anything he can invent.  This gives all the members on the band an added incentive to write, thus contributing to the bands book of original compositions.  Again the solo work by the trombonist was breathtaking.  Surely when John Phillip Sousa chose trombonists for his band he never imagined anybody playing the instrument with such lyricism and imagination.

The next tune was a Cuban Standard – the Peanut Vender.  However Carlos explained the history of the tune then delighted the audience with the announcement that this particular arrangement was done by the great Duke Ellington. This further establishes the long standing  interest Afro-American musicians had in Cuban music.  To listen to the JALC perform this music with the standard Afro-Cuban Rhythm section was a wonder.  You could not tell they were not a Cuban orchestra.  Another trumpeter took an extended solo that captured the flavor of the tune. The Latin percussionists were right in the pocket all night. Dukes arrangement was intoxicating, with those unique Ellington voicing’s for the different sections.

The trombonist Vincent Gardner – a former member of the FAMU marching band – wrote the next composition titled “Afro and Cubans.”  A somewhat strange title, which made me wonder if it was a reference to the fact that race conscience black Cubans do not consider themselves “Hispanic,” which they see as the proper designation for those Cubans who descended from the Spaniards.  They are quite aware of the fact that they are neo-Africans of the west.  When I asked Vincent hom much is composition was influenced by the cultural redefinition that is occurring among black Cubans, which is rife among Cuban hip hop artists, he said it was this Afro-Cuban perspective that inspired the work.

The Conga drummer was featured in an extended solo on this tune. He was playing three congas, all tuned to different keys, and he sounded like he had six hands!!!  He was accompanied  only by other rhythm instruments. His solo was followed by an extended solo on the timbales.  It was an impressive demonstration of the art of Afro-Cuban percussion. I continue to be amazed by the level of virtuosity achieved by performers on these percussion instruments.

The final tune of this historic concert came from the song book of the late great Tito Rodriquez.  While its rhythms were typical Afro-Cuban and it was dance music, the horn arrangements display the advanced knowledge of blues harmonies and jazz ensemble arranging that is the hallmark of the New York Salsa sound in its big band Latin /Jazz expression begun by Machito and elaborated on by Nuyoricans.  Wynton soloed on this tune and he used a mute, which allowed him to scream, laugh and cry on his trumpet.  His sound was majestic!

The rhythm was an up-tempo Mambo of the sort made famous at places like the Palladium and all those fantastic nights at the Village Gate.  The bongo drummer got his moment on this tune and he thrilled the crowd with his virtuosity on those two little drums that look like toys.  I have watched bongo players for years – including the best ever, Mongo Santamaria – and it remains a mystery to me how they do what they do.  When the last note was sounded the audience rose to its feet in a prolonged and boisterous ovation!   Viva la musica!


Hangin With The Master Drummers!

Their Timbale and Conga Drumming Fired The Band




Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

November 29, 2010

Double Click to cee the Jazz ay Lincoln Center in Cuba, featuring the Cuban flautist Michel Herrera soloing.  The artist of traditional Cuban percussion instrunebts are also native Cubans.


Double Click to See The JALC Orchestra  at “Jazz Meets Clave” Concert


Double Click to hear Machito and his Afro-Cubans playing Cu-bop

Double Click for Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra play Cubop

This performance is at Lincoln Center in 1982,

Almost four decades  after he and Mario Bauza invented Cubop

The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra!

Posted in Music Reviews with tags , , on September 23, 2009 by playthell

The Great Gerald Wilson!


A Swinging Octogenarian  Leads the Band!


 Avatars of a Great Cultural Tradition

 Born in a period when the last radio station devoted to  programming classic acoustic Jazz, WRVR, had unceremoniously gone off the air  and replaced with Country Music here in the Big Apple – the jazz capitol of the world – and the art form itself seemed in danger of going the way of the dinosaurs, the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra has been the vehicle by which the Jazz department at Lincoln Center assumed it’s place as the pacesetter and savior of this quintessentially American art form. 

Thus it is no exaggeration to say that this aggregation of virtuoso musicians have served as the avant garde in the effort to rescue American culture from drowning in a sea of esthetic mediocrity and commercial banalities.  From the outset the mission of the orchestra was to breathe new life into a grand musical tradition that had evolved to a stage where it could rightfully take its place among the great art music of the world; but, alas, was being slowly starved to death by a lack of institutional support from the American cultural establishment. Who were far too busy genuflecting before the cultural artifacts of Europe to notice the impending death of the great American contribution to the classical culture of mankind.

Not only dose Jazz music require the highest standards of technical virtuosity from those musicians who aspire to master the form, but unlike the symphonic musician, who plays musical ideas notated by their composer, the jazz musician must also create the score as he conceives it at the time.  Hence the musician that would master the art of Jazz must be prepared to conjure up complex musical ideas – “blues and the abstract truth” as the great arranger Oliver Nelson called it – at the speed of thought. 

Furthermore, Jazz is the only arena of American culture that embodies the fundamental values of American civilization.  Jazz is democratic, values individual freedom, promotes innovation and invention, swings to the clockwork rhythms of a machine age world, and is infused with a sensibility shaped by the tragi/comic sensibility of the blues; that most American of musical modes.  Such a marvelous art is certainly worth preserving and taking its place as an integral part of the heritage of all mankind. 

There are special moments in the history of art when the birth of an important aesthetic movement can be traced to a specific time and place.  For instance Da Da, which emerged in the aftermath of the disaster of World War I and reflected the disillusionment of the European intelligentsia with modern technological civilization and the way it resolves international conflict, was born in the Café Voltaire in Zurich Switzerland.  And New York will surely be remembered in the history of art as the City in which Jazz was reborn.  Jazz at Lincoln Center will be remembered as the venue in which this act of cultural heroism occurred, and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra will be duly noted as the band of cultural warriors who rescued American culture from ignominy with their swinging axes.                                             

The Greatest!!


 Master Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis

At the opening ceremonies of Jazz at Lincoln Center Manhattan Congressman Jerome Nadler celebrated the importance of the occasion with the pronouncement: “If Yankee Stadium can be called “The House that Ruth built, Jazz At Lincoln Center shall henceforth be known as: The House That Wynton Built!”   And the centerpiece of Wynton’s handiwork is the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, of which the great  multi-Grammy wining bi-lingual trumpeter and Pulitzer Prize winning composer is Artistic Director and Conductor. 

 Wynton Conducting The Boys In The Band


 The Lincoln Center Orchestra and Ghanaian Percussionist


Deep In the Groove Soul to Soul!

 This band of peerless jazz virtuosi are the reigning masters of what the great cultural historian, theorist and musical critic Albert Murray -author of the seminal study “Stomping the Blues” and a artistic consultant to JALC at its inception – called “The fully orchestrated blues statement.”  From the outset the mission of this band of cultural warriors was not only to make great music, but also to do battle in defense of the art of jazzing by institutionalizing the mysterious alchemy by which the Jazz tradition has been able to produce world class musicians in the absence of musical conservatories. 

After correctly analyzing the process of educating the novice jazz musician by placing them under the tutelage of masters of the genre, much as master craftsman tutored apprentices in medieval guilds, they created an institution to accomplish this: the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra.  Aside from its incomparable musicianship this Orchestra is distinguished by its ability to play Jazz music from any era or style with authenticity.  I heard the Ellington Orchestra many times, and Basie too, and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, to name a select few.  But none played this music better than the JALC Orchestra.  For my money they are the best ever:  the Muhammad Ali of Jazz bands: The Greatest!


Playthell  Benjamin

Winter Season, 2009

 * Photos – by Frank Stewart