Open Sky principals Suzan Jenkins and Willard Jenkins have amassed over thirty years experience as industry leaders in various facets of the jazz, arts, the recording business, and jazz media. With Open Sky Jazz, the possibilities are endless, just like the music.
If you missed Part 1 of our oral history interview with Rusty Hassan, just scroll down. Part 2 picks up at the dawn of Rusty’s now 50-year stint as a jazz radio programmer.
Willard Jenkins: After this guy you met at the bar … With the records. What prompted him to say, “Why don’t you come over and do some radio.”
Rusty Hassan: It was our conversation about the music. I don’t remember the guy’s name. I never saw him again. He went and did his class, but he got me into doing the radio.
So, when he said that, “Why don’t you come do radio?” What’d you do about that?
I went that following Monday, he showed me what to do, and at that time they had somebody engineering the show and you were behind a booth. You’d give the engineer the records. I had records to bring, but then there was a library. They had jazz albums as a part of the station’s library.
So this guy actually trained you?
Yeah. Well, he did one show with me and said, “You’re on your own.” There was that initial nervousness when you think about people out there listening and stuff like that.
How did you become a permanent part of the station, it’s not like you can walk in off the street and do a radio program.
Well, I took over the spot that he had. He said, “This is my successor here. He’s doing my show.”
So that’s how he introduced you to the station management?
Yeah, and they said, “Fine.”
Did you have to be a Georgetown student to produce a show?
At that time, yes, but there was a transformation that occurs with GTB, which is why it went off the air, and I’ll get to that. But at that time, it was a student-run station and it was off the air in the summer time. I had graduated from Georgetown and I had no vision of doing radio anymore in 1967, but when John Coltrane died, there was no WGTB on the airwaves. I didn’t even have a working record player at that time, so I went over to a friend’s house to listen to all my Coltrane stuff. At that time, WGTB had a jazz show every afternoon from about 4:30 to 6:30, called Emphasis on Jazz.
So this is how you got started in radio?
Yeah. I did mine [show] on Monday, somebody else was doing the other days. So I started my Junior year, and I went back to it when school started my Senior year.
What was the duration of your program?
Two hours. When I graduated in ’67, oh God … 1967 was an incredible time. Vietnam War was at its height. I had been living off-campus, so there was a mixed group of people, students, people who’re involved with SNCC, older African Americans who lived in the neighborhood. These were my circle of friends in ’66, ’67. The summer right after graduation, a friend of mine, John Reddy had been involved in SNCC, a white guy working in Southwest Georgia in the Summer of ’66. He had met Mrs. Fanny Lou Hamer. He said, “Look, me and another friend of ours, Ed Seizer, we’ll be in Louisville. Can you drive down? We got clothing and other articles [to donate].” One of the friends in the circle of friends was this guy named Willy Kretcher. He’s in his 50’s at that time. Real street person, you know. He and I were gonna drive down to Louisville, and then John’s father had been a writer for the Reader’s Digest. He ghost-wrote Jack Paar’s books and stuff like that. So the other person going to Louisville with me and Willy, was Randy Paar, Jack Paar’s daughter.
We drove from DC to Mississippi, stopping in Chattanooga to hang out. We were drinking. We had a stash of liquor. We stopped and got some more along the way, and Willy liked to press the needle, so it was the scariest ride I’ve ever had. But in Louisville, Mrs. Hamer was still registering people to vote. Conversations in her living room were things like, “Well, you know I know why Stokley saying what he’s saying in terms about Black Power and the revolution, but that’s not gonna happen here. What we have to do is register people to vote, and vote these other people out. We gotta do this for the long haul. It’s not gonna be any quick transformation.” Stuff like that. Gave me a perspective. It was one of the most telling moments of my life to meet someone like Mrs. Fanny Lou Hamer.
We rode back after a couple weeks of knocking on doors and stuff like that. Registering voters and doing some things. Back in DC that summer … ‘67, when John Coltrane dies and I’m not on the radio. Wondering if I’m gonna get drafted, because I was 1A. By the end of that summer, a friend of mine, one of the SNCC folks, said, “Well, you know the National Student Association’s got this program called Campus Community Organizers. Talk to them.” So I did. I became involved in the Vista Program that would involve students in community programs, still tied to Georgetown University. So when the semester started in the Fall, and I was in this Vista program, which was kind of screwed up because I wasn’t getting money yet, but I stumbled back into doing my radio show. I’m a graduate, WGTB’s back on the air, well here I am. They said, “Okay. Keep doing your show.” So I kept doing the show as a Vista Volunteer.
One of the community organizations that I hooked up with as a Vista Volunteer was called the New Thing Art and Architecture Center. Its Director was a guy named Topper Carew. He later did a TV show and a Hollywood movie called DC Cab. I interviewed him on my ‘GTB radio show. I’m a Vista Volunteer doing radio. I interviewed [saxophonist] Noah Howard, who I met up in New York. I started getting into the more avant-garde music of that era.
Were you programming the so-called avant garde on WGTB at that point?
Talk about a typical program that you’d do on WGTB.
A typical show on GTB would be playing albums that I was really into at the time. John Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland” with Afro Blue, Willis “Gator Tail” Jackson, with stuff that he was doing. Then I discovered an album called “As If It Were The Seasons” by Joseph Jarman. So I’m getting into the AACM Recordings, also playing those on the air. Older stuff, Lester Young, Count Basie, I’d do a variety of those.
Did you have any particular influences on your programming style?
I don’t think so, quite honestly. Symphony Sid and that type were more personality driven. I was listening to Felix Grant on the radio here, but I was sort of counter. Felix would talk after every tune. I would segue stuff. I’d play way out stuff that he would never touch, because I’m able to do this. No program directors telling me not to do it. The legendary Symphony Sid
There was no program director at WGTB?
Well there was, but he didn’t tell me what to do. Then when WAMU came up with the airtime in ’69, it was called the New Thing Root Music Show. Simultaneous to doing the radio, being a Vista Volunteer at the New Thing, I met Sandy Barrett. Sandy was teaching African dance. She was part of Melvin Deal’s African Heritage dancers and drummers, so she was part of the New Thing. One of her close friends at that time was [ancestor poet] Gaston Neal. So we had kind of a rocky introduction, and then we became very close friends after a while, but it was a testing period for all of us.
So that’s when you met Sandy, in ’68?
Another guy friend of mine, Will Majors from New York, was an African-American who was really into music, and for a while there, Will and I’d be going back and forth between DC and New York to catch acts up there and down here. We all went out to see The Graduate, and then Sandy and I just went together after that.
What did you study at Georgetown?
I was an English major. Yeah. It makes me very literate and able to talk well on the radio, I guess, but it worked well. I graduated from Georgetown, met Sandy with Vista Volunteer. In ’68, we have the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the insurrection here in DC, we’re living through that. Sandy got involved with the founding of the Drum and Spear Bookstore with her friends who were involved with SNCC, and I’m on the edge of that. I’m kind of the white outsider, but then [I was] finally gradually being pulled in.
Then we got married in August of ’69, and we went to Europe. Went first to England and stayed with my English roommate and his then wife. We bought an old van, we went and drove down to Dover, took a ferry to Dunkirk, and visited Amsterdam. Then we got to Paris. I had an address for Ambrose Jackson. This is at a time before cell phones, people in Paris were on a waiting list for telephones. You didn’t have a phone. Carolyn said, “No, he doesn’t have a phone, but here’s his address.” Five floor walk-up. We walk up, knocked on the door and nobody was home. We’re sitting there atop the steps, and we hear somebody coming up, and it’s Ambrose. We just hit it off. He just said, “Well, the Art Ensemble’s playing at the Museum of Modern Art. Come on up, I’ll take you there.” He introduced us to all the musicians. It was like an entree in many ways. While there, I borrowed a tape recorder from a reporter from TIME Magazine. I don’t remember how we met him, and I interviewed Anthony Braxton, Leroy Jenkins …
On your GTB radio station, you mentioned interviewing Noah Howard.
Did you interview other musicians on your show?
Not frequently, but one of the other first interviews I had was [saxophonist] Byron Morris, and he had performed at the New Thing. In fact, I interviewed Byron before I interviewed Noah. We started the New Thing Root Music Show, and Sandy and I went to Europe. While we were in Europe, Art Ensemble, Anthony Braxton – there was the Actuelle Jazz Festival that mixed rock with avant-garde jazz – GrachanMoncur, Archie Shepp was there. But also, while we were there, on a double bill presented by George Wein, were Miles Davis and CecilTaylor. Miles had Dave Holland on bass, I think Wayne Shorter was still with him, and Cecil… At a time when Miles was putting down Cecil [Taylor], but they were on tour together! So I got to see this.
Back at this jazz festival in a circus tent in Belgium, I met a guy, an American who was writing for Jazz Journal and doing advertising copy in London. His name was Fred Bouchard. Fred gave me his address in London… We were there with hardly any money, this old Bedford van. It was December driving from Paris back to London, and my friend Andy was in the process of buying a house or whatever. When I tried to make a collect call to find Andy, his father refused to accept the call, and when we got to London running out of gas, I got ahold of Fred. He answered the phone and he said, “Well, take a cab if you don’t have no money, and we’ll cover it” and Fred put us up.
While I was staying with Fred, we saw Duke Ellington, his orchestra at the big concert hall over there, and when he took us to Ronnie Scott’s, I saw Bill Evans on a double bill. So, musically, with all the other stuff that was going on in our lives at that time, musically, it was incredible. We got back to the states in 1970, looking to get a job.
What were you doing professionally at the time?
Vista Volunteer carried me into ’69. Then we came back to the states, stayed with Sandy’s parents for a little bit. That was not too comfortable. We found an apartment at 18th and Columbia Road. Other than that, I’d be at a friend’s apartment on Florida Avenue. He would listen to me on the radio, he’d say, “Well, it was a pretty good show, but I didn’t like that thing of John Coltrane in Seattle, Washington.” He wasn’t into the way out stuff. I took the Federal Employee entrance exam, and I got a job with the Redevelopment Land Agency, the Urban Renewal Agency for the city. It was a federal agency transferred in DC government. I worked as a family relocation counselor in the ’70s. I became active in the union at the job, became the local president and by 1978, when an opening came on the staff I applied for it and got a job with the Union. All that time in the ’70s I’m doing radio on Sunday afternoon, doing the New Thing Root Music Show at a time when things were really happening in many ways.
This is still at WGTB?
No. This is WAMU.
Let’s go back to WGTB for a moment. Talk about some of your more memorable experiences programming at WGTB.
I’m interviewing Noah Howard, interviewing Topper Carew, playing the music. It’s when I get onto WAMU in the early ’70s, and I have friends who are doing things elsewhere. This guy named Yale Lewis and a guy named Ron Sutton –
What kind of station was WGTB, otherwise?
WGTB was in the ’60s a mix of jazz, classical music, some talk stuff. Pretty rigid…
Besides yours, how many other jazz shows were there on WGTB at the time?
Every day 4:30 to 6:30 with emphasis on Jazz. In the ’70s, after I left the station, it became really radicalized. During the ’70s, Royal Stokes was doing a show there called “I thought I heard Buddy Bolden Say” doing traditional jazz. I was doing bebop and beyond. There was sort of radical programming on WGTB in the ’70s. They had a show called “Friends”. It’s the ’70s and they had a gay show on a Catholic station! They had PSA’s supporting the Georgetown Free Clinic. This drove the Jesuits up the wall! By the late ’70s, they give away the [broadcast] license to the University of the District of Columbia.
WHUR [Howard University Radio] came on the air around 1972; Yale Lewis was one of their first announcers and I visited him with my infant toddler daughter, Aisha in a stroller. Then my other friend Ron Sutton started a show there, and we used to trade off on Charlie Parker specials on each other’s shows. We were very wide open, in terms of not competition, but sharing. WHUR’s playing Jazz… Out of a basement or back room in a record store, [Ira] Sabin’s Discount Records, I received a paper called Radio Free Jazz [ed. Note: the early incarnation of JazzTimes magazine].
So how did you get on WAMU?
Topper Carew’s New Thing Root Music Show, putting a show on the air for him…
And what year was that?
It’s like July of ’69. Sandy and I got married in August, and in September we’re gone. I come back, there’s a guy named Ralph Higgs doing the show, Brother Ralph. He was teaching karate at the New Thing. Ralph started another show, like a midnight show. He said, “Why don’t you do the afternoon show, because I’m gonna do the midnight show” and the station management had no problem with it, because it was an organization doing the air time.
What kind of station was WAMU at that time?
WAMU at that time was very eclectic. There was a Black collective show on Saturday afternoons, same time slot, called “Spirits Known and Unknown”. They had a Latin show, they had a variety of music. Bluegrass was really big on the station at that time.
Were you free to play whatever you wanted to do within that jazz context?
Absolutely. I could play free jazz and [John Coltrane’s] “Ascension” back to back. So, on WAMU in the ’70s, I had about four hours of airtime on a Sunday afternoon, play whatever I want, and things happened. It was really great stuff, personally. When I had these ladies on the show for an interview about their event, they said, “Well, do you wanna come to the dinner dance?” I said, “Sure, it’s my birthday.” So, Sandy and I go to this evening at the Shore Hotel, Count Basie and his orchestra playing. So many empty seats, it’s the night before Thanksgiving, I guess the timing wasn’t all that good.
So at that concert, during the intermission, I’m out in the lobby talking to Hollie West who was then the critic for the Washington Post. We’re out there talking and Sandy comes out, “You’re missing it, you’re missing it.” Count Basie’s orchestra played Happy Birthday for me. Well, at the after party, I had my cigar. You could be obnoxious back then, 45 years ago. When we were leaving, Basie’s sitting by himself in the lobby, they were about to take the bus up to Boston. They had another show, a Thanksgiving Day show or whatever. We go up and talk to Basie. Now, I noticed he had a cigar in his hand, and I said, “Mr. Basie, you wouldn’t happen to have a light, would you? My cigar went out.” He pulls out this big Ronson, lights my cigar, looks at his, and said, “Well, this damn thing’s useless. It’s broken.” So I reach in my pocket, I said, “Here, have one of mine” and gave him the other cigar that I had gotten for my birthday. His eyes lit up and he said, “Boy, do you have great taste.” My best birthday… giving away a cigar to Count Basie!
So what were you doing professionally at the time that you were affiliated with WAMU?
I was working for the Redevelopment Land Agency as a relocation counselor, while I’m doing the show on Sundays.
Relocation counselor; what did that involve?
It involved people being displaced either by overcrowded conditions from the code enforcement section, or by urban renewal of the 14th Street Corridor. That whole area right now that’s been gentrified, big malls with the Target. That was all desolate area in the 1970’s. So I’m doing that during the day to make a living, and raising two girls, and doing the radio on Sunday. Interviewing people like Dexter Gordon, ArtBlakey, all these folks on Sunday afternoons.
What time of day were you on?
In the afternoon from like noon to four. One time, it was five when they were shifting. I had a whole afternoon, really stretching it, and had everybody come through. It was great. I mean Dexter Gordon coming in when the Homecoming album was just coming out…
Where was Dexter playing in town at the time?
Blues Alley, primarily.
Was there much of a jazz concert scene in DC back then?
The Kennedy Center was presenting jazz, but it was very sporadic. It wasn’t until Billy Taylor, who really solidified that jazz program there. Sometimes there were concerts at the Lisner Auditorium or [Howard University’s] Crampton Auditorium. I saw Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan playing at Crampton in ’71. That was just an incredible concert, sponsored by the Left Bank Jazz Society.
WAMU was a student station?
No. It was a station run by the University… with actually, very little student involvement. Lee, and Russell Williams were Black students involved, and they did workshops. They had people coming through to do training and stuff like that, so that was one of the student components on that [station]. Otherwise, they’d have the Diane Rehm [talk] show, and predecessors to that. While I was there, Rob Bamberger came on the air with his Hot Jazz Saturday Night.
Did societal elements influence your programming at WAMU?
Yeah, yeah… Playing music that expressed the civil rights and Black power struggles and things along those lines. Playing the music of Archie Shepp would be a part of it. Then having the opportunity to meet my heroes. Things were wide open. I already mentioned, WHUR played jazz during this time. There were meetings to set up WPFW. I participated in those. After ‘PFW went on the air, I participated in events, but I didn’t wanna leave the airtime on WAMU. I felt that more stations playing this music was better for the music. Why would I give up WAMU to go to WPFW?
WAMU… where you have four hours.
…in the afternoon. WAMU expanded the jazz programming around 1980,’81, to do an overnight jazz show.
Did you do that?
They offered it to me, and I was already working. I shifted to work for the Union, and the pay was so awful, it was a no-brainer. I said, “I’ll do Sundays. I’m fine with Sundays. I got a career, I got a job paying the bills and stuff like that.”
Were you paid at WAMU?
Yeah. Ultimately, I was given a quarterly stipend.
What was that like?
Rusty Hassan: A couple hundred bucks a couple months… It was beyond volunteer, it was some money.
Where’d that money come from?
The University. I wanna get into another aspect of my jazz life, because long after I left Georgetown, they offered a course and I could have gotten an A. At Georgetown I took a music appreciation course with the music critic Paul Hume and I didn’t get a very good grade in the course. What happened was that he had a gazillion students and he decided to make it real hard. He was really pissed, and I deserved the D+ that I got, but years later when I’m on a music panel with Billy Taylor for National Public Radio, there’s Paul Hume. I told him how I took Music Appreciation at Georgetown when I was there, but I didn’t tell him what kind of grade I got. He said, “Oh, yeah, well you know Paul Anthony also took that course.”
Somebody started teaching Jazz History at Georgetown, and I said, “Well, I’m gonna go check this out.” The guy was a bassist with the National Symphony. His name was Dick Webster. I had just got a bass, and so he gave me a lesson. I checked out the class, so we developed kind of a friendship. At some point he said, “Look, Rusty, I’m in a bind. The symphony’s going on tour. Can you do the class for me?” He said, “By the way, if you like it, the Continued Education Program is looking for someone to do a class at night. My day job’s at night and I can’t do it. We’ll do a proposal.” So I did his class, and I did the proposal, and I started teaching at Georgetown School for Continuing Education, a non-credit class. A couple of months, eight weeks maybe, I started teaching Jazz History.
Who was taking this course?
Adults. Adults wanted to take something. They’re even taking a Shakespeare class, you can take this, take Jazz Appreciation …
So it was like Continuing Education?
It was Continuing Education. Georgetown School..
This year marks the 50th year in jazz radio for a true jazz warrior, DC’s own Rusty Hassan. Currently heard regularly on WPFW 89.3FM in the DMV, the Washington metro region’s Pacifica station, on his Thursday Late Night Jazz show 10:00pm-midnight (full disclosure: this writer is heard on the same time slot on Wednesday nights with Ancient/Future Radio). Rusty Hassan is a distinguished fixture on the DC jazz scene, known by musicians and fans far & wide, someone who has contributed immeasurably to this community since landing here as an undergrad at Georgetown University.
In 2017-18 DC JazzFest conducted an oral history project through funding from the DC Oral History Collaborative, ultimately for oral history interviews that will be available through the DC Public Library system. Rusty and this writer collaborated on several of these oral history interviews, but the first in our series of interviews was my one-on-one with Rusty himself. In celebration of his 50 years in jazz radio, here is Part One of an edited version of our oral history interview.
Willard Jenkins: Please give us your full given name.
Rusty Hassan: My full given name is Hugh Joseph Hassan lll. Right after I was born my aunt, when she saw my bright red hair at birth, she tagged me with the nickname Rusty because she didn’t want me to be called Red.
How did the name Rusty stick with you all these years?
It just stuck. I was just Rusty with my family and my friends.
So as a kid you were known as Rusty among your peers?
Absolutely. It was only the nuns in my grade school who would call me Hugh to be proper.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in Bound Brook, NJ but I grew up in various parts of Greenwich, CT. The reason I was born in Bound Brook, NJ is because my mother was from New Jersey and she met my father who lived in Connecticut. I lived in Connecticut until I went to Georgetown University and Washington, DC became my home.
Where did you spend the majority of your childhood?
The majority of my childhood was in Greenwich. Right after I was born my parents lived in a section of Greenwich called Glenville, where my father had a tavern and his sisters and brother-in-law had a liquor store. It was a multi-family home in the Italian section of Glenville and in 1950 after my twin brother & sister were born in 1948 they moved to public housing in Riverside, which is part of Greenwich also, called Adams Gardens. This is Greenwich, CT so the projects are not the projects; it was very nice public housing to say the least. I loved that because there were lots of kids there to play with. When I was 11 we moved to a single family home. I lived there until I graduated from college; I spent the summers there in Greenwich.
Where are your mother & father’s respective families from?
My mother’s family is primarily German Catholic, but part of the family came from Luxembourg and that was always a trip to the map to find out this little country in Europe where parts of the family came from. And my father’s family was Irish Catholic – in spite of the Arab-sounding last name. His mother, Hannah Dailey, came from County Cork so he was on his mother’s side first generation Irish American.
Did either of your parents have an interest in music?
My dad’s interest in music was primarily things like Mitch Miller Sing Along With Mitch, or even though he was very Catholic, listening to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir; he was not hip in any way.
My mother however… I discovered when I got into jazz around the 8th grade I discovered an album of some 78 rpm records in a book form, and it was Jazz at the Philharmonic playing “Body & Soul” and “Rosetta.” It listed Illinois Jacquet, and the pianist was listed as Shorty Nadine, who I later discovered was Nat “King” Cole. So my mother in her youth certainly had an interest in jazz. One of the 78s was Woody Herman’s “Woodchopper’s Ball.” It was like a gold mine for me to discover these 78s! But it wasn’t the music being played in the house.
Are there any musicians in your family?
My father had a violin, he took violin lessons as a kid, but he never played in the house, he just showed it off. There was music in the house because we had radios. In the 50s it was fascinating because the diversity of music that you’d get on AM radio was mind-boggling.
Greenwich is a suburb of New York City, so we had the New York stations: we had WMCA, WNEW, WABC, all of them playing Rock & Roll and Top 40 radio at the time. In the mix along with Elvis Presley singing “Don’t Be Cruel” could be Fats Domino doing “Blueberry Hill” or Louis Armstrong doing “Mack The Knife,” or something along those lines. So I was listening to radio and listening to music and I was drawn to a lot of instrumental music. Around that time instrumental things would make their way to Top 40 also, so I’d be drawn to that.
During that same time I was into model airplanes, so I would make particularly World War ll fighter planes and bombers and things like that. New Year’s Day 1958 I’m making a model airplane, twisting the radio dial around and somebody played the entire Benny Goodman 1938 Carnegie Hall concert and I just got drawn into that! Hearing the jam session on “Honeysuckle Rose”, hearing Johnny Hodges and Lester Young… I didn’t know who I was listening to, unless they announced it, but I said ‘wow, this is something!’ And I discovered the records at Woolworth’s. I went right out and bought the 2 volumes of the LPs of this 1938 Carnegie Hall concert.
Was there any music influence on you outside of your home?
I had a classmate in 8th grade – we went to high school together 9th grade through the 12th grade – his name was Norman Fettig, his nickname was Butch, he had an interest in jazz also. His older brother was in the Air Force and left behind jazz albums. Among the jazz albums was “For Musicians Only,” Dizzy Gillespie with Sonny Stitt; “Ellington Indigo,” “Ellington Jazz Party” with Dizzy Gillespie as a guest artist… So we’d be listening to those records at his house and I’d say “oh, I’ve gotta find this one, or I’ve gotta buy that one…”
So between me and Butch we fed on each other in terms of our interest in jazz and as we got into high school and got a little older Butch was like the plotter in many ways… “Come on, let’s do this,” so went to what was called the Daily News Jazz Festival at Madison Square Garden, it had to be 1962. On the bill was Dave Brubeck –who was really big at that time, with “Take Five” being a hit record – Carmen McRae, Sonny Rollins performed with Jim Hall [on guitar] right around the time “The Bridge” album came out, Maynard Ferguson – who had an album that was really hot at that time called “Maynard ‘61” with a tune on it called “Ole” that Slide Hampton arranged. Chris Connor sang with him. That really expanded my horizon with all these artists!
When we got our driver’s license that year we would drive into the city a lot, we were two white kids in Small’s Paradise checking out the music there. In 1963 we told our parents we were going to spend the weekend at each other’s house and we drove my ’54 Studebaker across Connecticut to Newport, so we were at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1963.
Herbie Mann performed with a very eclectic rhythm section – he was into Brazilian and Cuban music. I remember [Carlos] Patato Valdes was in that group as a percussionist. In the evening concert they announced that John Coltrane would be recording, but Jimmy Smith performed before that and Jimmy had people dancing on their chairs and he didn’t want to stop, he was cookin’! And when he was finished they brought on John Coltrane and he came on performing “My Favorite Things” with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Roy Haynes. My friend Butch was pulling on me saying we had to leave, but I didn’t want to leave listening to Coltrane, I was just transfixed, it just grabbed me.
How old were you at the time?
I was 17.
Were you conscious of segregation and discrimination growing up in Greenwich?
No, I was really oblivious because there were maybe one or two black families in the housing project. The Catholic schools were all white. I became more conscious of race through the music. Getting into jazz, delving into the history of this music as an African American art form… We were blessed with a great public library in Greenwich that had a music section where you could check out albums, so I was able to get “Relaxin’ With Miles Davis,” Modern Jazz Quartet “European Concert” at the library, and books on jazz. So I’m reading up on the music while listening to it; beyond the liner notes I was able to read books like Jazz, It’s Evolution and It’s Essence by Andre Hodier and it questioned whether Art Tatum was a genius. I said to myself “wait a minute, with people like Teddy Wilson and Fats Waller around, who sets the standards for genius?
Many years later when I was at a luncheon with Dr. Billy Taylor when he was doing a lecture at Georgetown University, and I’m talking to somebody on my left, I’m overhearing Billy talking about that very same article and how the musicians all pulled his coat. My education about this music that was created by black Americans, and seeking out the music to hear these artists, made me conscious of race – and through the news media reporting on the Civil Rights movement and stuff like that in the late 50s and early 60s.
My buddy and I contemplated whether we could come down to the March on Washington in August. But I knew a couple of weeks later I was going to Washington to go to Georgetown University. It wasn’t until I got to Washington that I really became more aware of race and racism and segregation and on a more personal level.
You mentioned that you and your friend slipped into New York to go to the jazz festival at Madison Square Garden, then you mentioned Newport. During that same general time frame were there other opportunities that you took advantage of to hear live music?
Yes. In fact, in 1960 or ’61 – one of our classmates father was principle at Stamford High School, I went to a Jesuit high school – Fairfield College Preparatory High School in Fairfield, CT, about 20 minutes away from Greenwich. This guy’s dad had his son at the Catholic school because he didn’t want his son attending the school he was principle at. But when they presented the Dave Brubeck Quartet he said ‘bring your friends.’ Dave Brubeck lived in Wilton, CT at that time. So I got to see the quartet, with Paul Desmond, Joe Morello, and Eugene Wright… I was 13 or 14 and this was prior to those festivals. Backtracking even further, when I discovered my mom’s 78s I was 12 and she saw my interest in music so she took me to see Lionel Hampton at a local junior high school, playing all of the instruments that he did!
Was that your first experience with live music?
What effect did that experience have on you?
It was great, it was fascinating, I told myself I had to have more of this! It stoked the fire. Hearing the Benny Goodman concert on radio sparked me to really search out the radio dial.
What age were you when you heard that Benny Goodman broadcast?
I had to have been 12, New Year’s Day 1958. I discovered Symphony Sid’s show, and he was playing things like “Maynard Ferguson 1961” and Stan Getz “Focus” with “I’m Late, I’m Late”… these are things I was discovering at the time. The third album I bought was a Royal Roost album called “Diz and Bird” and I found out later that it was a live recording of a concert, with no identification of the musicians – which really upset me at the time! I knew it was Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker and just what Parker and Gillespie were doing cut through to me; it was like the ‘wow’ moment! It was like ‘what are these guys doing!’ They were playing “Groovin’ High” and “Night in Tunisia” and just Parker’s work was fascinating. I discovered that one of his key recordings – his first as a leader – doing “Now’s The Time,” “Ko-Ko,” “Billie’s Bounce”… was recorded on the day I was born!
Would you characterize yourself as a bit different from your peers in wanting to know the background of these things and discovering these various jazz facts?
In high school there was a coterie of us that were really into jazz and during the lunch break we would talk about jazz. There was a nightly radio show by a guy who just talked, his name was Jean Shepherd and he talked about jazz sometimes. He actually did a narration on a Charles Mingus album called “The Clown.” He would narrate stories and philosophize. So there was a group of us who would ask ‘what did Jean Shepherd talk about last night?’ Somebody would talk about checking out Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers with Thelonious Monk, with Monk as a sideman on an Art Blakey record, and it sounded pretty way out, but… wow! So we’d go back and check out these recordings.
During those times were you and your jazz-loving peers viewed as being different by the rest of your peers?
Yeah, I would say so; most of the rest of our peers were listening to rock & roll.
So how did you high school jazz lovers come together?
Talking outside of class, about a dozen of us. I had this Maynard Ferguson Hollywood Party album with Shelly Manne playing drums, it was a West Coast album but it was cookin’. Playing that for one of my other friends who weren’t really into the music and the response was ‘I don’t really like music without words’, just couldn’t get into it at all. And then there was the progression of some of the folks that were into jazz when Coltrane became a fixation for me…. When I was in college and home for the summer I’d play Coltrane’s “Live at Birdland” and “Afro Blue” just blew me away, and some of my friends would say ‘no, that’s too way out for me, I can’t get into that.’
Were you considered oddballs?
This is the time when Jack Kerouac’s book On The Road had been out for a few years and that was about the Beats. We were considered hipsters, the beatniks. This was before hippies, this was ’61-’63. We missed the Beat Generation but we were identified as the hipsters of the school.
Did you guys consider yourselves advanced musically for that time?
Absolutely, and so much so the perception of us that came through was… When I graduated from high school the yearbook had captions under our pictures and the caption under my yearbook photo went something like this: ‘Prep’s angry young man, rides in an out of this world Studebaker, disciple of Kerouac, wastes his time reading dirty books, and it’s all pseudo.’
So what were the dirty books you were accused of reading?
[Laughs] I have no idea, maybe Jack Kerouac’s On the Road or something. One of the guys who were into jazz who I wasn’t really that tight with, when I saw him at the 50th anniversary I asked him whether it was he who wrote that caption, because when my mother read that she had a little fit, ‘oh, how embarrassing…’ I thought my mother had tossed my yearbook, and then many years later when I’m home visiting as an adult, she said ‘guess what I found, our neighbor when she was moving found your yearbook, you’d left it up there for 30 years’! For years I was blaming my mother for tossing it!
As a kid were you active or interested in any of the other arts besides music?
Yeah, I got active in the drama society in high school and I was doing mostly stage work, but I acted in one of the plays in a very bit part. I was not athletic enough to play baseball or football, so I ran cross country and got my high school letter doing cross country, I was able to run rather well back then.
Considering what you said about the influence of radio and listening to Jean Shepherd, Symphony Sid and others, what kinds of radio programs did you enjoy and what was it about those programs that you enjoyed?
Jean Shepherd with his narrations and his story telling, and his sense of humor I really enjoyed. But even more so discovering jazz radio through Symphony Sid, and also Mort Fega had a jazz radio show in New York and I got to meet him at jazz conferences and that was a thrill. And then discovering Billy Taylor, who was at WLIB doing an incredible show.
So you pulled in all of those shows from Greenwich?
Yeah, listening to New York radio, and then becoming a friend of Billy Taylor later on in my adult life; discovering the music through radio was really a joy to me. Frequently going through Caldor’s or other department stores and just flipping through the record bins. I think beyond hearing the “Relaxin’ With Miles” from the library, I’m flipping through and I find “Birth of the Cool” and it was fascinating, but a little bit too subtle for me at the time, I guess it was an acquired taste for an adolescent.
But then going back and picking up [Miles Davis] “Friday Night at the Blackhawk,” from his hard bop phase, and really getting into that album, playing with Hank Mobley, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. I would play that one over and over again, and then seeking out “Saturday Night at the Blackhawk” when I had the money. Eighth grade… Benny Goodman’s Carnegie Hall concert, then Diz & Bird…
How did those records stoke your interest in actually collecting records?
I’d play those over and over then I’d say ‘I need something else now.’ I’m trying to figure out how did I discover Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie… it must have been something I heard on the radio, “Diz & Bird,” got me into bebop. Then it was about what’s coming out new at that time, from hearing it on the radio. Symphony Sid would play “Ole”… well that’s Maynard Ferguson ’61, so I’d get that – I was about 15. Buying records supplanted buying model airplanes very quickly!
Did you have a job as a kid or did you have an allowance that enabled you to buy records?
In the summertime I was a caddy at a golf course, when I was 13 or 14, I started earning money, not a whole lot but it was enough to buy records.
How much were those records at that time?
$3.98 for mono, $4.98 for stereo.
How old were you when it became clear that this was an obsession?
I guess when I was about 14 or 15. Last year of high school, first year of college was really when Motown was beginning to breakthrough in terms of pop music… with Afro-American music being played on Top 40 radio, the Motown sound… And I really got into what became called the Soul sound – Otis Redding… So by the time I’m in college I’m listening to other genres that are interconnected with jazz and enjoying it also.
When you started collecting records, what were you playing them on?
A little portable stereo, and my parents had one of those consoles about the size of a table, so I’d come out there and play them sometimes. When I was in high school I had a little portable stereo in my bedroom, listening to records while doing my homework. I focused more on that than the Latin I was supposed to be studying. I graduated from high school in 1963, from Fairfield Prep, a Jesuit high school. I applied to Boston College, Georgetown, and University of Connecticut. I got into Georgetown.
What was your next step after high school?
After high school, I got accepted to Georgetown University in Washington, DC. I came down to Washington in the Fall of 1963, took my albums with me. At first, I didn’t even have a record player in the room. Gradually, I started checking out the jazz scene in Washington. I didn’t go there at first, but I saw an ad for an unusual sounding name for a group, the JFK Quintet [ed. Note: saxophonist and tireless John Coltrane transcriber Andrew White was a member of that band] at the Bohemian Caverns. Ultimately, I would discover that club. In 1965, my roommate Toby Mason and I, went to go see Ramsey Lewis at the Bohemian Caverns. There was a big truck outside. We went in and they were recording, and Ramsey did this R&B tune called “The In Crowd”. That got released the following summer …
So you were there for that classic recording.
I’m clapping on The In-Crowd! But what really, really sticks with me from the Bohemian Caverns, was when I went by myself to see the John Coltrane Quartet with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison, and Elvin Jones.
What year was that?
’65; the performance was so intense… And when Coltrane finished, he was walking by and he had that expression that’s like on the cover of a Love Supreme… I let him walk by me. I couldn’t say anything I was tongue-tied. Later on, as I got to know McCoy Tyner and I told him that story, he laughed. He said, “John was really friendly. He would have talked to you all night just about music. Don’t talk about sports.” My freshman year I didn’t get out to hear too much music. My sophomore year, I did.
When you got to DC, how would you describe the jazz scene when you arrived to attend Georgetown?
It was exciting in many ways. Going to the Caverns and see John Coltrane… There was actually a bar that I went to. It was 18 drinking age for beer at that time in DC, and there was a bar that had a jazz jukebox. It had Coltrane on the jukebox, it had Modern Jazz Quartet, the Crusaders. It had a crusty bartender who owned the bar, named Joe Cohen. That was sort of the hang out.
I referred to you as an artist manager, you prefer Artist Development Mentor and Rights Activist. Please detail your work in that regard.
I officially became an artist manager in 2003, when I was working as a festival programmer in Detroit for Movement (Detroit’s Electronic Music Festival). I met a number of incredible artists who needed help getting their music out there to international markets, and as I worked internationally most of the time, I could provide a good route to markets outside the US for a number of artists. When I came back to the UK, I brought the artists’ demos and albums, then eventually got them out there. Amp Fiddler was my first bonafide management client, who I was with for 12 years, and over the years I worked with a number of artists across soul, hip hop and jazz, including Amp, Incognito, Tortured Soul, Stephanie Mckay, John Arnold, Ayro, Sixto Rodriguez, Shuggie Otis, Marc Cary, and KING, to name a few. Prior to that, my background had been in live event production and booking, and cataloguing reissue labels intent on documenting the black roots of modern dance music and marketing it to a dance generation. I worked on notable reissues for Strut records as well as working on curated presentations and tours with artists as wide ranging as Marlena Shaw, Martha Reeves, Hypnotic Brass Ensemble, The Detroit Experiment, Rakim, Big Daddy Kane, Sly and Robbie, Grandmaster Flash, Leon Ware and more. I got into all of this when I was finishing up my PhD in the mid 1990s, and supplemented my research by DJing and running clubs in Scotland centered around jazz (where we would bring artists like Weldon Irvine, Charles Earland, Wilton Felder, Reuben Wilson, Gil Scott Heron, JalalThe Poet,and more). I also worked extensively for the Scottish Jazz promoter Assembly Direct managing their festivals and regional tours, as well as working in the booking and marketing departments of London’s infamous Jazz Cafe.
In all manifestations of my career, I came across rights issues for the artists. Whether it was unpaid royalties, copyright infringements or basic bad deals.
There’s been a trend over the past few years for the manager to effectively be the dumping ground for all roles that don’t fit into a traditional industry bracket, and as an independent manager, I realized I could only ever really effectively help one or two artists at a time. But because I have spent a lot of time over the years helping a number of artists sort out royalty and copyright issues, and I also work with more and more entirely independent artists, I see a bigger problem at play. When an artist brings a piece of music to the world, many different copyright revenue streams are created, but our industry is still woefully backward in recognizing what this means to the artists. When I can talk to an 18 year old artist and they have nearly identical issues as an 80 year old artist, there’s still a few issues we need to address as an industry. So I felt I needed to make a very deliberate shift away from the traditional idea of a manager and move to a more service based artist development model, while advocating for clear and transparent rights management in our industry.
Right now, I have more than 25 consultancies in place, some pro bono, some paid, but already in 12 months, I have managed to reunite, maintain or register 20 plus artists and counting effectively where they need to be, as well as get rights and equity back for some more seasoned artists with multiple releases.
You’ve apparently identified rampant disparities in rights issues where jazz artists are concerned. What disparities have you determined to remedy?
I could literally write a thesis on this, but I will try here to give you the broad strokes. There is still an inherent lack of understanding with a lot of artists who record their own works, how they actually access their mechanical income. Every day, I can talk to a US Jazz or hip hop artist who will tell me “BMI collects my mechanical income, I am a publisher there” – this is not what BMI, ASCAP or any other performing rights society does. This is the most fundamental building block of a musician/composer accessing their income. Next you have the age old problem of neighboring rights. This issue for 50 plus years has hit US artists and in particular US Jazz artists the most. The lack of America being part of the Rome Convention, and it taking the US over 100 years to join the Berne Convention that gave international performers moral rights in other countries have hit the musicians here hard. A lot of the practices that are common in the US music industry are prohibited by European Copyright law, and across the industry here (but I find it rife in Black American music). It is frequently exploited by independent and major labels who negotiate these rights away from the performer. In the rest of the world, these rights are unalienable, and can only be transferred away in death and bankruptcy. I’ve been living in New York six years now, and I find that a lot of my colleagues in Jazz either don’t understand this stuff, or think it doesn’t affect them. But given the historical predominance of physical product and European sales in Jazz, it affects our beloved US jazz musicians even more! This will be more and more problematic as the new laws come in in 2020. There will be more than 6 PROS, numerous mechanical intermediaries, and more and more digital steaming platforms offering direct access and generating new rights for the artists. We need to address this now. It’s not streaming that has ” killed” the jazz markets, it is all of the above.
With the US having a very different Rights system, unless you know how to navigate clearly around registering your data, or what societies to join and which mandates for which markets you should sign, it’s easy to leave money sitting on the table. In addition, many of our jazz artists young and old have money sitting in industry black boxes, generated from performances and other digital rights. For instance, AFM, SAG, AFTRA frequently have money that the artists are owed for performances. This fund deals with royalties generated by non-featured artists which are paid through to them via Sound Exchange. Problem is, they don’t have an efficient mechanism for connecting the non-featured artist to the performance. A lot of artists leave it sitting there because they either don’t know about it, or they are not given the correct information when they get to the union to pickup an unclaimed check.
The more controversial aspect is the type of deals that artists are still frequently seeing in jazz from “reputable” independent labels, that are more akin to the deals which were getting done between the 1950s and 1990s – many artists old and new are still suffering because of exploitative deals from labels who either simply don’t know or don’t want to know better, or ones who simply don’t care. As we have an aging group of professionals as well as artists in jazz, a lot of the same people who were making bad deals in the 1990s are still making bad deals today. There’s been a big outcry this week about Tommy Boy Records hitting De La Soul with a 90/10 deal, and an entire industry has stood up in De La Soul’s defense, including major streaming platforms such as Tidal. In Jazz, we frequently see 80/20 even 90/10 deals for perpetuity, and worse, like labels insisting upon taking an artists publishing or performance generated income on top. These are barbaric deals and a huge part of the reason artists are starting to abandon traditional labels and platforms to do it themselves. As an industry, we need to talk about this.
What is your sense of artist’s need to record their work and what is necessary to maximize the potential benefits of recording their work?
I think it is so important for artists to document their work by recording, both in the studio and the live arena. The liner notes, the credits… This stuff is so important.
Also stuff like where you record. Like every US artist would instantly make more performance income if they didn’t record in the US, but recorded in a territory governed by the Convention of Rome.
We have more and more technology at our disposal to manage recordings and meta data efficiently.. I also don’t think this necessarily means having to move away from th expertise of producers and high quality studios and such, but we do also live in a time now, where you can literally record an album at your kitchen table, and be nominated against Beyonce for a Grammy!
The key to maximizing and generating revenue from these endeavors is meta data and knowing where income is generated and how you collect it. There are both traditional and new ways to do this but it has never been easier to input metadata correctly and get it where it needs to be, and get transparent reporting as it is all binary driven electronic information.
DIY platforms these days have tech that far out strips anything a label can do for an artist directly. One of the biggest problems for signed artists is that often the responsibility for registering metadata is with the label, and as most labels are entirely self-serving, they are not going to care as much as the artist about the other revenue streams they cannot collect. The more unscrupulous will also take advantage of this. I am currently battling one label right now. We discovered that label had registered one clients’ copyrights with the US copyright office with themselves as the exclusive copyright claimant, despite the fact it was a license deal and not a buyout. This is hugely problematic, even if it initially stemmed from a place of ignorance rather than exploitation by the label. The hardest thing in a copyright claim is to prove someone doesn’t own something, rather than proving that you do.
We have many established artists who struggle with all of this, and we have a growing number of new artists, some even coming out of music school who struggle too. Something is wrong with this picture.
The other key factor is acknowledging that release cycles are no longer a 3-month game based around coordinated release of product and formats. Modern day release cycles are long-lead with sales and promotion a continuous flow, not the purchase driven model that we have become accustomed to.
With or without the labels, the artists can now drive plays from virtually every fan interaction. Record labels need to be working hand in hand with their artists to understand this data and grow from it. If we invest in this as a community, we foster creativity and gain traction from the intel we amass.
Labels need to stop thinking like companies selling music and start thinking about their agency in nurturing an artist’s creativity and help them streamline their meta data so they can gain every revenue stream available to them.
Music discovery and consumption have never been more immediate or closer to each other. In the US Jazz industry, there is still a tendency to work to an 8-12 week release cycle (which is partly why more and more artists move away from this practice.) When you work this way, you fail to benefit from the fact that you can now monetize engagement as much as the consumption of music.
Is it your sense that artists benefit more readily from recording their own product, or would a more equitable relationship with a recording company be more in their favor?
I love that you asked this question. Yes yes and yes. This is the very same question Arthur Taylor posed to many of his peers in Notes and Tones – artists we all love, like Ron Carter, Randy Weston, Charles Tolliver, Hazel Scott, Betty Carter and more were discussing exactly this at that time around 1969-1971 because of the disparity between fair record deals and getting their music out there.
What a lot of people may not realize these days is a lot of artists even signed to labels are not just having to walk in with a demo to get a deal – they are already a lot of the time front-ending the recording costs and taking finished masters to labels in a hope the label will take it. But yet they still often get faced by these outdated and unfair deals. They get told “now you have to pay for radio and PR” and then after all that, if it doesn’t work, the artist becomes the perfect scapegoat for why it didn’t work. We get told such things as “no one buys jazz anymore” Which is completely untrue, but we have to trust people who think this way to sell the music. We also get told “radio needs CDs” or “send 500 cds to press”, but the sales cycle has changed, digital nearly always comes first these days, and the opportunities in the US for coverage in jazz media and radio are diminishing every day. But we have other areas of growth, and we have artists’ apps which now help us monitor just what our labels are doing, so there is definitely a movement to going where the love is.
I know some people will think that my views are anti industry but I strongly believe in all the good that has come from traditional areas like A&R, production, label and publishing culture, and I hope the independent sector doesn’t get too detached from being able to access these areas of expertise. But you’d be hard pushed to find a jazz label in the Mecca of New York, which still upholds these values themselves, or are even capable of bringing them to an artist.
The model has to shift to a license-driven cooperative model of artist development, where artists retain their rights, in order for labels to remain viable, otherwise we just perpetuate a highly flawed system which no one is taking responsibility for.
Talk about some examples of artists who have taken necessary steps to remedy this recording connundrum.
My company, Intrinsic Artists, set up a project called We Roar, which is currently Fiscally Sponsored by Fractured Atlas. We have been offering pro-bono services to some of our most beloved jazz artists to help them rectify collection issues, particularly on neighboring rights. In partnership with a company in the UK called Traxploitation, we have commenced working with notable names such as Gary Bartz, Reggie Workman, Roy Ayers, Tarus Mateen, Marc Cary, Cheick Tidiane Seck, Marlena Shaw and Jimmy Cobb to reconnect them with missing income. Thus far between Gary Bartz and Reggie Workman alone, we have registered in excess of 1000 featured, sideman and sampled performances in the international markets, as well as assisting them reclaim missing payments sitting at the various US unions. With Roy, there are over 1500 titles we are in the process of registering and the list keeps getting longer of artists who need this type of help. The work we have done to date gets them into the distribution cycle for June internationally, so a lot of them will see royalties going back 6 years for music they have never seen income on. We are working to have even more fully registered for the winter distributions. Each year that gets missed, the artists lose a year of money. For someone 6 decades deep in the industry, that’s a lot of money!
We are also working closely with many established and up and coming artists such as Canadian Harlem-based drummer Curtis Nowosad, vocalists Emily Braden and Jackie Gage and our collaborative recordings borne from The Harlem Sessions. Truth be told, none of these artists are cutting corners- they are renting recording studios, paying their musicians, and trying to raise funds constantly to pay for Pr and marketing. Some who are more adept to other digital techniques use them in the home studio. Some sample their live recordings. The possibilities are endless, but the investment is huge, which is why the issues and obstacles truly need to be addressed.
Finally, we are in the process of helping certain artists get their masters back from deals which have either expired, or where the labels have stopped accounting to the artists (which should never happen). We recently got Marc Cary’s first album back, which we are slating for a remastered issue in 2020, and we are working on many many more. There’s nothing worse than hearing multiple jazz artists every day who you love from every decade tell you a tale of a label who stopped accounting to them, or someone who got in the way of them getting their money or did a bad deal which they couldn’t afford a lawyer to look at. A lot of the same labels still exist today and they are still doing the same thing. A lot of them are indies. Difference is now, we have technology and user-generated forums which help the artists measure the extent of the problem better, before wading in with lawyers and auditors. I have to stress, I speak from very specific artist experiences, rather than approximately an average idea that every label operates this way. But many do, and that’s another piece of the puzzle we are trying to help resolve so our artists don’t suffer so needlessly in later life.
For this year’s edition of the annual Washington Women in Jazz Festival (http://washingtonwomeninjazz.com/ March 10-31), trombonist Shannon Gunn, a native of Richmond, VA and graduate of George Mason University recognized as one of the DMV’s finest exemplars of her instrument, is producing a wonderful new component: Jazz Girls Day DC. Clearly the program begged some questions, to which Shannon Gunn graciously agreed to respond.
What would you say is the overall mission of Jazz Girls Day DC?
Jazz Girls Day DC, in partnership with the Washington Women in Jazz Festival, empowers young girls and non-binary gender students to have the skills needed for self-confidence in the performance of jazz.
Kevin Allen, Music Director at John Calvin Presbyterian Church, approached me with the idea in the late summer of 2018. “I was looking for a way to expand our Jazz in the Sanctuary concerts at John Calvin Presbyterian Church. After reading Shannon Gunn and the Bullettes’ purpose, “…uplifts women in jazz, creates networking opportunities, and provides a positive role model for aspiring jazz musicians in the DC area,” I thought it was a perfect idea. It also aligns with our church’s goal to be a part of the surrounding community.”
Jazz Girls Day DC will take place on Saturday, March 30th, at John Calvin Presbyterian Church at 6531 Columbia Pike, Annandale, VA 22003, starting at 11:00 am for the workshops. There is ample free parking on site.
What can participants expect from the workshop experiences?
Jazz Girls Day DC is open to Middle and High School students who identify as women or gender non-binary.
We will start with a listening session and mixer where everyone can meet each other and eat snacks. Then we will have workshops on improvisation, vocabulary, and scales, a student-only jam session, and a free culminating concert open to the public. Students will have the opportunity to network and meet other students like themselves. Stacey Williams, the “Jazz Cat Herder,” will also give a brief workshop on building confidence in the business of music. We have a stellar line up of faculty this year, including:
Amy K. Bormet, Piano Karine Chapdelaine, Bass Tina Raymond, Drums Charmaine Michelle, Trumpet Shannon Gunn, Trombone
The final concert at 4:00 pm will feature the faculty and any of the students who wish to perform.The concert is free and open to the public.
For more information, contact Shannon Gunn at 571-318-6278 or jazztothebone [at] gmail.com.
What’s the overall history and purpose of the Washington Women in Jazz Festival?
Created by Amy K Bormet in 2011, Washington Women in Jazz hosts an annual festival (WWJF) each March to celebrate the women of the DC jazz community. Bormet and her colleagues develop, promote and lead a wide array of concerts, jam sessions, lectures, panels, discussions, and masterclasses. A highlight of the festival is the Young Artist Showcase, where high school and college women are given a platform to perform and connect with professional jazz artists.
Check out other happenings with the Washington Women in Jazz Festival here: http://washingtonwomeninjazz.com/
Do you see these activities as dovetailing with the renewed efforts at achieving gender equity and gender justice in jazz?
I have learned from my research on women in jazz that middle school jazz bands typically have 50% women, then in high school it drops to 14% women; and then at the college level there are only 9% women in the school big band. I am not sure of the reason for the drop off, but I want to make sure that gender does not play a part in it. I feel like the best way to help this is to instill self confidence in the youngest students who wish to pursue jazz. Jazz is just as much a “mind set” game, like golf; by instilling a strong foundation in skills, they can strive for excellence without boundaries.
Don’t miss Shannon Gunn and the Bullettes, Friday, June 7, 6:00pm (free) at the Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian National Museum of Art, part of the 15th annual DC JazzFest (complete information: www.dcjazzfest.org).
Back in 2010/2011 when I was engaged in an oral history interview project for the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, accompanied by Weeksville’s resident cultural anthropologist Jennifer Scott (now director of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum in Chicago), and Kaitlyn Greenidge, I conducted a raft of oral history interviews with men and women in the jazz community and beyond. Our territory was Central Brooklyn, specifically the Bedford-Stuyvesant community. [Here it should be noted that among previous interviews from this project published in the Independent Ear were illuminating conversations with the late Dickie Haversham-Bey, proprietor of the legendary Brooklyn jazz club the Blue Cornet, and more recently some of the principles behind the legendary performance/live Blue Note recording session Night of the Cookers, all available in our Archives section.]
For those not familiar with Weeksville, historically it was the first African American settlement in the borough of Brooklyn; some of the historic homes have been preserved on the Weeksville grounds. Among the musicians, arts & social community activists we interviewed for that oral history project, one of the most colorful was Joe Long, proprietor of the classic independent record store Birdel’s. Can you name another community record store whose clientele ranged from Randy Weston and Miles Davis, to Biggie Smalls and Jay Z? Birdel’s was the place. Here’s our conversation with Joe Long.
Willard Jenkins: We read about your record store, Birdel’s, in the New York Times.
Joe Long: That was the second piece about our closing.
WJ: When I read that piece it reminded me of record stores I used to frequent as a kid, before there was any Tower Records; the kind of record store in the neighborhood where the records would be behind the counter on the walls. Talk about the history of Birdel’s.
JL: I came to New York from North Carolina in 1954. The reason I came to New York was to better myself with a decent job to help my mother prolong the education of my sister that was in North Carolina College in Durham. She had won a 2-year scholarship, she was valedictorian. I came out of high school at the tender age of 16 and I said I would work to help her to get through her junior and senior year of college. That’s what prompted me to leave North Carolina to come to New York.
In 1954 my sister that lived here worked at Rands Dry Cleaners and she had a position for me when I left North Carolina. I came straight to Brooklyn and we lived on Quincy Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant at that time. I worked at Rands on the line sorting clothes and I learned that quickly, and then I did maintenance [work] with them. I was always an enthusiastic person for music, I really loved music. In my sophomore year at home I bought a Victrola called Airline from Montgomery Ward. Remember those big boxes with AM and FM radio, shortwave and everything? Airline was the brand.
I bought that radio so we would have music in the house and in the community. Victrola, they called them at that time, cost me close to $200 and I paid down like $25 then $5 a week until I was able to pay for it; back then they wouldn’t give it to you until you finished paying for it.
Everybody would come to my house and we would party on the weekends because I had the only Victrola in the community. I was working at the 5 & 10 cent store H.H. Kress, and by me working there I had access to the music – it was 78s during those days and I would bring home these 78s and we would have our little thing. My father was a janitor and after his [work] day finished they would always give us the popcorn and we would distribute it in the community… the cookies and things… So we used to have a good time.
When I came to Rand Dry Cleaners, they had 155 stores across the metropolitan area – Brooklyn, Long Island, Queens, and Staten Island. I would always come down to Birdel’s and buy my music. During that time they were located on Fulton and Throop next to the Apollo Theatre; we had an Apollo Theatre here in Brooklyn too that had acts and music and things. During those days I would come in evenings after work and buy music. Birdel’s relocated down on Fulton & Nostrand.
During those days – this was in 1956-57 – the groups were making records and the entertainers that were a part of those groups would come by the store. The bass singer from the Heartbeats, Wally Roker, we became close. Wally used to say to me “Joe you know music, why don’t you ask Birdel for a job.” I would tell him I already have a job, why do I need another job? During those days the record stores were open until midnight. You had the junkies out there and the drugs and all, but it wasn’t like today, you could feel more safe.
We had the Bickfords during those days, something like Chock Full ‘o’ Nuts [coffee shop]… We had a Bickfords two doors down from Birdel’s on Fulton Street and I used to go down there. Wally would say come on down there and we would talk and he would say ‘I’m gonna tell Birdel to hire you and maybe you’ll like it…’ I said ‘well ok, I’ll give it a try.’ So I spoke with Benjamin Steiner, the owner, and his wife was named Birdie Steiner and they had a guy named Lefty and another fella named Shorty that used to work full time. So I would come in the evenings, and I started to work there and I liked it.
So then I went to Rand after two years and I tell them I’m gonna quit. They didn’t want me to quit because I had learned all the locations of the stores throughout Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and Staten Island, so they really needed someone with the trucks to help get around. So I told them I’ll give you a coupla weeks notice and then I’m going to leave you, and then I told Birdel’s that I would come with him full-time. I really liked the [Birdel’s] job. I worked part-time at Birdel’s in the evening and that gave me an idea of whether I would want to get into the music business. I liked it so much I told him I would work with him and I would give him ten years; I’m a young man, I said I’ll give you ten years.
He was talking about retiring so I said if you don’t want to sell me the store in ten years I’ll go ahead and get my own business. So he says ‘ok, we’ll see.’ I worked with him and I really liked it. He saw the head I had on me… during those days you bought records by numbers. Once I saw a number I was just like a computer, the number would stick. Right now I can call off numbers from 1954-55 on record labels that we ordered by, and he liked that.
So he would say to me ‘you’re gonna get this store, I’m gonna sell you this store…’ In 1963 I told him I was ready [to buy the store]. In ’64 blacks at that time were a little more on the edge of wanting to do things for self; you had the Black Panther party, the radical Brooklyn guys that really would do things to get attention. God rest Sonny Carson’s soul, he was one of the guys that really was out front. So Birdel’s got a little leery during that time and he was saying that he might have to sell before.
So when the time came and Martin Luther King got killed and the riots came, that really was the icing on the cake; he said I’m gonna sell and get out. During those days SBA small business loan was loaning minority people money and it wasn’t that you had to have a good foundation or background or good bankroll… if they saw the potential in you and you were able to take the business they didn’t mind loaning. That was one of the reasons I was able to get a loan for the business. Birdel had quoted me a price and I went to SBA and they offered me the money so quickly that when I went back and told [Birdel] I had the money that’s when he wanted to up the price $10,000.
I told him ‘Ben you promised me the store and you promised me a price. I worked for you over ten years and never stole a penny from you because my mother didn’t raise no thieves in North Carolina, and I’ve been honest. I had a tendency of working with fellas that would always be stealing and I used to tell them ‘man, you don’t steal the man’s money because one day you might need the man for reference, but if he fires you for stealing you won’t get good references.’ So I said I’m gonna tell you to quit stealing and if you don’t stop stealing I’m going to the boss because I don’t want to work around thieves and I don’t want him to think that I’m part of what you’re doing.’
So at that time he says to me ‘ok I’ll talk to my wife and see if we want to stick to the original price.’ The drugs are flourishing in Bedford-Stuyvesant, especially on Fulton Street and there was a guy who had a store on Fulton Street who was dealing drugs and he wanted the location on Nostrand Avenue and he was the one who offered [Steiner] the $10,000 more than I would pay – because I knew what he wanted to do.
I told Ben, you go home and talk to Birdie because I’ve worked with you you all these years and I’m not looking to just walk away; I put my blood, sweat and tears here and if you don’t sell me this store I’m gonna burn it down. Its just that simple, I said I’ll burn it down, you won’t have it and I won’t have it, you’ll get the little money from your insurance or whatever, but I will burn it down. He went back and talked to his wife; he knew that I was serious. He knew that I wasn’t playing.
During those days I had two fellas – a guy named Mitch and a guy named Jeff, we had a little social club together. I told them once I buy the store I’ll bring you all in. During those days when black folks were on the other side of Fulton Street you didn’t have the idea of coming across Atlantic Avenue to say that you wanted to be a part of Crown Heights.
After he went back and talked to his wife they finally made the deal to sell me the business. When I took on Mitch I said my whole vision was to have a chain of independent retail [record] stores. One of the reasons I saw that change I knew that during those days music was popular with the blacks and you had good radio stations that played this music and it wasn’t a thing of wherein you were selling tickets for different programs – gospel programs… all these programs were a help to build Birdel’s up. So when I finally bought the store and we closed the deal, Birdel said to me ‘Joe, you’ll make a lot of money here.’ I said to him ‘Ben, I might not make no money because you made the money, I worked for you and I know you made good money and when we as a race of people find out that one of us own it they tend to not purchase and support like they should.’ I told him that but I wasn’t worried about survival out here because I knew what it took to survive.
When I took on Mitch I said ‘Mitch I want to do a chain and we got as far as three stores. The only people that were competitive to independent [record] retail at that time was E.J. Corvettes, Mays Department store, and Sam Goodies; but Goodies was a part of the record clan that could sell records out of town, so they could sell [at] list prices, they didn’t have to give you a discount.
So as I would build up a store I would put my partner Mitch in there and he had a head and wanted to be Mr. Big Stuff and he didn’t want to work and every time he would go out and hang out, I’d put the workers to work and he’s gone. I told him ‘we can’t achieve a good business if you’re not there, because these people we’re putting in here are gonna be stealing.’ I knew they weren’t gonna take it all, but at least give me the majority, don’t take 60/40 – give me 70/30 or 80/20, but they weren’t doing that so I kept him on, I told him I would give him five years to learn the business, but I kept him on another three years and he still didn’t learn the business.
So then I sat down with him and I said ‘look, we’re gonna have to [end] our partnership. He didn’t want to give it up because now he didn’t have nowhere to go. We had three stores so I told him, I’ll keep Birdel’s on Nostrand Avenue, I’ll give you the tape center on Fulton Street, and we had another store on Flatbush and Prospect, and I said we’ll sell that to my brothers, because I had two brothers working here. That way we’ll all have a store, you can do what you want and I’ll do what I want. But if you want to keep the Birdel’s name for the Birdel’s Tape Center you’ll have to pay me because the name was incorporated, and I told my brothers the same.
My brothers didn’t want to give up their jobs; one worked for the transit authority, the other one worked for an insurance company. They didn’t want to quit their jobs and they put their wives in there to run [the store] and I knew it was gonna be a failure. Women have come a long way from those days, but during that time I could see they weren’t the people to have in your business to carry the load – and I’m being honest, this is what I saw. They hung on for about 3 years and I said [to his brothers] ‘if you don’t want to give up your jobs I’m gonna have to take the store back. If you don’t want to give up your jobs I’ll sell it.’ Eventually I took it back.
I was trying to let Mitch know that I carried him for eight years – I promised you five – and now I want out. I’m divorced now, but during that time my wife said to me to get rid of him and pay him, so I paid him. When I finished paying him [his store] lasted about a year then he went out [of business]. We had a rider in the contract that said if he was to go out, he head to come back to me and see if I wanted to buy the business back. He didn’t do that, but it was alright with me.
Right then and there I started building Birdel’s internationally because I knew the Japanese clientele liked vinyl, people from Germany liked vinyl, and all these people were tourists that would be coming into New York. Harlem was a little more well-known than Bedford-Stuyvesant and they would go up to Harlem – they had the Record Shack, Bobby Robinson with Bobby’s Happy House, and then Rainbow; we all worked together, we were like a network. So when they would come up to Harlem they would tell [record tourists] ‘you need to go over to Birdel’s in Brooklyn.’ And all you had to do is get one [tourist] to see what you do and what you had, and it became like wildfire and [tourists] started to come into Brooklyn. And then we became internationally known because the Japanese would come and they would tell somebody, and England would tell somebody… and they’d say ‘go to Birdel’s’, they forgot about Harlem [laughs].
That’s how I became really popular. It took years to do this, it didn’t happen overnight because vinyl took a decline; when I came into the business it was vinyl, then it became mono/stereo with records and stereo was an elevation of the sound that was better, then it was 8-tracks, then cassettes. All of these trends I grew up in with the different modifications in the music business.
All of that modification with vinyl (mono-stereo), the record manufacturers felt as though now there was a decline in the music as vinyl. They would put out a vinyl album and they would tell the public that it was going gold. During that time gold was if you sold 10,000 units; 100,000 units would be platinum. They weren’t really selling that amount because it was all a number game; they would ship the amount to these stores and in essence if they didn’t sell them they would get them back in return.
So we had a cutout house in Philadelphia that I would go to and buy this product on vinyl. I could buy that same album for $1 from the cutout house and I could in turn sell it for $1.98 or $2.98 – most of the time I would put $2.98 on it – and this is how I built it up, because now the record is only 6 months or a year old and people still want it. So that’s how I started building up the vinyl trade, and this is how the word got around to go to Birdel’s, get the music in vinyl because one thing about it was if I didn’t have it, nobody had it because I would order for people all over… You have to build a customer relationship and it wasn’t about the money with me, it was about the commitment that I had to my customers. Our motto would be “if Birdel’s don’t have it, ain’t nobody got it…’ They would depend on me because I was like their bible. But it took a lot of work.
When we would have those big conferences, like Jack The Rapper, and the Urban Network, I would go because we got record companies to support us and the independent stores were always the foundation of the record business. If we didn’t build the music during those days – when you had the disc jockeys… before Frankie Crocker you had Eddie O’Jay, you had the Jack Walkers, WLIB, WNJR in Newark, Jocko… These guys were disc jockeys, they made the music… That was before the Frankie Crockers came along and the Gary Byrds… [Deejays] would make the music and we would have them, wherein the big boys wouldn’t carry it because they didn’t know nothin’ about it. They [big chains] would only carry it after we broke the record, so the manufacturers and these companies knew that the independent store was the foundation of the business to build it up, so they had to support us.
We had corporations together; we had Mirror, independent stores coalitions throughout the country and we would meet at these conventions and we would voice our choice. So then they said ‘we gotta do something else now’ and they came up with digital tapes and that was taking away from cassettes, so then they said they had to come up with another configuration, which brought in the CD. They didn’t know that the CD would really be a thorn in their side to the music business. Because what happened was everybody that had a CD could copy it. At these big conferences when the presidents of all these companies would come in they would always call me the troublemaker because I would always be on their ass. You couldn’t butter me up… a lot of these presidents of these coalitions would come in and say I’ll take care of you, but you don’t have to take care of your group. But they couldn’t say that to me, I would say to them ‘you know what, if you all continue to make CDs and worry about bootlegs and get the RIAA and the FBI to work with you to combat this you all will have to quit making the [CD burner] machines. Now if you’re making the machine and these people are buying the machine, what did you expect them to do? This was one of the downfalls – the copying of product.
Then they tried to put labels about $10,000 fines for CD burning… people didn’t pay that no mind and it became widespread. I told them when you come to us about a bootleg we are only the ones who can sell it, you’ve gotta hit the manufacturers where these people are making 100,000 units at a time. So they busted a couple of them – one in Philadelphia, one in Florida and they took 100,000 records, but that didn’t stop it.
One day we were talking at one of those meetings, I said ‘you know what, ya’ll let the horse out of the barn now and you’re trying to get him back in. You have destroyed independent music labels because now everything is geared to the big boys, the artists are going along with them now. You’ve got Burger King, McDonalds and all these companies telling these artists we can give you X amount of dollars and we will book you about ten cities and you’ll be able to make more money, so that cut out the independent.
Then the same thing when the radio stations combined; they got rid of all the little radio stations and they made a big network, and KISS went all over the country and bought up all these stations – forgot about the independent disc jockeys they had, brought in artists that don’t know nothing about the record business and they put them in position that they shouldn’t have been, and the disc jockey that went to school to learn the business was no longer a part of that. Through it all [Birdel’s was] were surviving and they couldn’t understand it. They used to tell me all the time, ‘you know, you don’t ask for nothin’, how you makin’ it’? I said ‘with the master upstairs’, I used to quote scriptures on them in a minute. As long as I’ve got my health, got my strength, I’m gonna make a dollar – and this is what I’d tell them all the time. All of this time that we worked as a coalition to build the [record] manufacturers up, they were always looking to tear us down.
Then they began to like me and they started doing things for me all the time. I was reading an article from 1973 that Nelson George wrote for Billboard; I knew his mother, his mother’s best friend was one of my bookkeepers. I watched Nelson grow up and every time he’d write an article he’d mention Birdel’s.
WJ: You mentioned that you sold tickets to events…
JL: We sold tickets for events all over the metropolitan area – New York, New Jersey… we were like a ticket outlet. Before Ticketron first started this is what we were doing. When Ticketron came I wanted to be a Ticketron outlet. I bought a building on Nostrand Avenue – the old Chase Manhattan building and I got an architect to come in and do a layout for me; I wanted to do three levels, something like Tower Records was on Broadway, a 3-level [record store] with Ticketron. When he laid out the plan for me it would cost close to a million dollars to do the construction and everything. I went to Freedom Bank, I went to Carver’s Bank, Citi Bank… and all of these banks refused to loan me money. It really deterred me about elevating my game because now I can’t get no backing.
They would always say to me ‘what is your equity’ and all of that. I said ‘hell, if I had something I wouldn’t be here! If I’ve got $300,000 I don’t need you! I’m here to borrow money and if I fail you’ve got whatever it is…’ but they couldn’t see it. It was the same thing in 1978; I could have bought that corner on Fulton Street where I was with [Birdel’s] and I couldn’t get no money. When you talk about politics, political people and how they help the independent, grassroots people… it ain’t there. They might talk about it but believe me its not there. I should have been bigger than J&R; I knew those people, Jimmy & Rachel, those are the people that own J&R, I knew those two little people when they were nobody. Nobody came to bat for us, and that is the saddest part. Now that corner on Nostrand Avenue & Fulton Street you can’t buy that for $3M, guy is asking for $10M for that corner now.
ON THE DAY IN 2014 WHEN A STRETCH OF NOSTRAND AVENUE WAS NAMED IN HONOR OF BIRDEL’S
WJ: Did you have other people working for you who went on to have their own record stores?
Perched on the flat summit of a large butte composed largely of rock formed by volcanic ash sits the lovely town of Orvieto, located in the southwestern side of the Italian Umbria region. Normally home to roughly 21,000 inhabitants, for the last 26 years, the week after Christmas Orvieto becomes Italy’s ground zero for great jazz, home to Umbria Jazz’s Winter edition.
In 1973 when Carlo Pagnotta, the enduring force behind Umbria Jazz, and Adriano Mazzoletti founded Umbria Jazz, the festival started in the Umbrian town of Todi, eventually settling in Perugia, the picturesque hilltop capital of the Umbria region. Pagnotta and company proved quite prescient in naming the festival for its home region as it led to a natural transition to the winter edition in Orvieto. As journalist and festival official Enzo Capua told us one evening over dinner, the success of Umbria Jazz has led to other Umbrian towns clamoring for their own Umbria Jazz editions.
THE STREETS OF ORVIETO ARE ALIVE DURING UMBRIA JAZZ WINTER
Further, Capua authoritatively informed that Umbria Jazz – like many jazz festivals across the globe – has served as a significant economic development tool for Orvieto. It seems that prior to the festival growing it’s winter event the city had actually experienced dormant hotels and a generally sleepy business atmosphere during typical post-Christmas weeks. That’s certainly not the case these days as Umbria Jazz Winter transforms Orvieto into a vibrant, carnivalesque environment, its main streets and byways bustling with enticing retail action and a happy holidays mode in its many cafes and restaurants. That’s especially the case in the lively plaza surrounding the city’s most imposing architectural wonder, the beautiful Duomo, Orvieto Cathedral, which is reputedly the country’s second only in size to St. Peters in Rome.
The music of this 2018/19 edition of Umbria Jazz Winter (the festival closes on New Year’s Day) was yet another apt reflection of the International Language of Jazz. Jazz history tells us that this uniquely American art form has morphed into a true world music as jazz education has expanded globally. Practically every major country in the world now boasts its own community of impressive jazz musicians and Italy is certainly a contender.
As one who endeavors to assiduously avoid playing what I refer to as the lineup game – as in ‘let’s check the lineup before we commit to attend the [insert name here] Jazz Festival’, while planning this Orvieto trip, I paid little attention to who was actually playing. Past experiences have developed a high level of trust in the programming instincts and acumen of such first class jazz festival curators as Umbria Jazz’s Carlo Pagnotta, making the lineup game an unnecessary exercise. One goes to such festivals armed with a sense of trust in their respective curatorial instincts, assured that whatever plays those stages will be a rewarding mix of master and emerging level talent.
Arriving in Orvieto sans more than a cursory advance sense of the Umbria Jazz Winter #26 lineup, notice was quickly taken of the robust prevalence of Italian jazz artists on the bill for the next five days & nights. After the 9-hour flight from JFK to Rome, and a pleasant 90-minute drive to Orvieto, settling down in the Grand Hotel Italia to check the festival schedule it quickly occurred that this would be one European jazz festival experience that leaned heavily on its own country’s impressive community of jazz musicians and bands for the bulk of its lineup. And what’s the sense in traveling 10+ hours to a beautiful country just to see a succession of American artists? Of course there’s always the food and bonhomie of such a welcoming country as Italy, with it’s renowned cuisine traditions and inviting retail; on the other hand, take a simple vacation to enjoy those pleasures. When you travel that distance for a jazz festival, experiencing great music is goal #1.
That first evening began with traversing Orvieto’s central byway for the first of each day’s Street Parades featuring the raucous band Funk Off, reprising its daily role in past Umbria Jazz summer festivals in Perugia. Strolling through town, destination Teatro Mancinelli, clarified that on this Italian holiday week, one could scarcely do better than this lovely town, with its hilly vistas and rolling green valleys. That evening’s doublebill featured the intensely interactive partnership of the animated trumpeter Paolo Fresu, accordion master Richard Galliano, and the Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren. The brooding presence of one of Italy’s most renowned jazz masters, the trumpeter Enrico Rava, in a quartet performance with bassist Giovanni Tommaso, pianist Danilo Rea, and drummer Roberto Gatto followed them. The opening trio proved the most compelling of this bill, with particularly Fresu and Galliano communicating brilliantly, with a keen sense of humor.
Saturday afternoon commenced with a noontime performance at the museum space Museo Emilio Greco by one of the festival’s standout performers, the Cinema Italia project led by the authoritative alto saxophonist Rosario Giuliani. The presence of another accordionist, Luciano Biondini greatly enhanced their program of music by the distinctive Italian film composer Nino Rota, best known in this country for scoring The Godfather and Godfather 2, and for scoring Fellini films. Drummer Michele Rabbia was quite the animated presence, what with his use of live electronics, and assorted sound enhancements, such as engaging a small cymbal to rake across the drumheads with requisite madcap. Rosario is above all an eminent melodist, which lent itself beautifully to this interpretation of Rota’s scores.
Later that evening was the first of several of the 26th annual festival’s signature offerings at Teatro Mancinelli, “Bud Powell In the 21st Century, a program that commissioned the pianist Ethan Iverson, late of the Bad Plus, to re-imagine the music of Bud for the Umbria Jazz Orchestra. Opening the program was slated to be the bebop survivor NEA Jazz Master Barry Harris, in trio with bassist Ben Street and the great drummer Lewis Nash. However a Harris’ health challenge curbed his Orvieto experience and Iverson was thrust into double duty. For his impromptu set with Street, with whom the pianist has plenty of experience from their trio with drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath and his first time hook-up with Nash, Iverson chose the music of Thelonious Monk based upon his close kinship with Powell. Nash, coming from the same school of high-class drumming good taste as Heath, proved once again to be a most agreeable collaborator in this setting.
Iverson’s Bud Powell program, at the helm of the full big band instrumentation of the Umbria Jazz Orchestra, Nash and Street in the rhythm section, commenced with an Iverson chart of Bud’s composition “Celia.” Sandwiched between big band Bud charts, the scene next morphed into a most agreeable quintet setting, with Umbria Jazz Orchestra guests Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, and Dayna Stephens on tenor sax smartly reprising three pieces from Bud’s classic quintet date “The Amazing Bud Powell Vol.1,” which had featured Sonny Rollins and Fats Navarro on the frontline. The band closed with “Un Poco Loco,” each horn section member cleverly trading a chorus each, then coming together for spirited collective improvisations. Iverson and the band encored with the pianist’s own “Paradise Mobile,” which he explained would be played in the spirit of Duke Ellington’s counterpoint, skillfully using the chordal platform of “All The Things You Are”.
This proved to be the first of three sightings of this program on succeeding nights, each revealing it’s own charms. The next two encounters featured the opulent swing of one of Italy’s enduring masters, pianist Dado Moroni for the opening set trio, more than ably sitting in for the lamented absence of Barry Harris with Nash and Street. Later that week a sumptuous dinner in a delightful cavern restaurant with Iverson, Street, Nash and Maroni’s family introduced us to the pianist’s lively red headed son Oscar (named for Peterson) in all his 4-year old glory, and Dado’s charming wife Ada. Maroni’s presence was yet more positive testimony coming from the robust community of Italy’s jazz musicians.
New Year’s Day we closed our Orvieto experience with a second helping of the delicious duo of trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso and pianist Julian Oliver Mazzariello. Bosso is an artist of prodigious chops and vivid imagination, a veritable supernova who cleverly manipulates various mutes and live electronics to further enliven his resourceful approach. The duo played “Misty” like a cashmere scarf on a blustery day. Bosso clearly has a trumpet virtuosity that exhibits an attractive audacity leavened with warm humility, clearly coming out of a successful post-Wynton bag.
One of the charms of Umbria Jazz Winter was the opportunity to catch each of the above acts more than once. And in the jazz realm that certainly invites opportunities to experience the sound of surprise as each repeat performance did indeed turn out to be different. Fabrizio Bosso, who has clearly emerged as one of the world’s great jazz trumpeters, in his second duo performance with the wonderfully skilled Mazzariello, elected to close the set with some New Orleans flavored audacity – strolling the hall while blowing a beautiful “In a Sentimental Mood” for an enraptured audience.
But the hardest working men in Orvieto were undoubtedly the rich baritone voice and storytelling élan of Allan Harris, and the diminutive soul man Wee Willie Walker, who hit with the volatile The Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra. Walker performed daily, including dinner sets at the gastronomic delight Ristorante Al San Francesco (where musicians, journalists and festival guests dined upstairs daily to their collective delight for lunch & dinner). Meanwhile Harris was all over the place, dipping liberally into the American songbook, including Nat Cole nods, varying his sets with selections from his riveting saga of Blue, a composite character of Black cowboy/Buffalo Soldier legend. Of particular note in Allan Harris’ crew was the drummer Shirazette Tinin, particularly when she sat down to the cojone. I can’t think of a better place to experience off-season jazz festival ambiance than Orvieto for Umbria Jazz Winter.
Just returning from the annual NYC January performing arts conference zone, in my case that would be primarily Jazz Congress and secondarily the huge Association of Performing Arts Professionals conferences, inevitably leads to thoughts and meditations on the ongoing evolution of the jazz presenter. The current core of that sector is the jazz festival presenter, of which this writer is a proud member. Thinking back to earlier times when jazz presentation was largely confined to the club scene, brings to mind those independent operators who strove to present their own sense of the music on those smaller stages. One such indy stalwart is my old friend and colleague Jim Harrison.
Besides presenting jazz in the NYC club scene, Jim Harrison also once published one of the few African American oriented jazz periodicals, The Jazz Spotlite News. That particular vehicle provided me with byline opportunities when few others would, granting invaluable opportunities to hone my craft. You’ll read more about Jim Harrison’s publishing side, and the odyssey of the Jazz Spotlite News in the forthcoming book Ain’t But a Few of Us. Here another contributor to the Ain’t But a Few of Us series dialogues – which first appeared in the Independent Ear in 2010 (check our Archives section) – Amsterdam News jazz writer Ron Scott, a periodic Independent Ear contributor, writes about Jim Harrison.
THE QUIET JAZZ WARRIOR
By Ron Scott
Jim Harrison (middle) flanked by vocalist George V. Johnson Jr. and trumpeter Charles Tolliver
He is the unassuming gentleman who is greeted warmly by all the musicians, including such greats as Jimmy Heath, Barry Harris, Jimmy Owens, Rene McLean and Roy Haynes. Those on the jazz landscape periphery only know him as that cool guy always on the scene, who everybody seems to know. But what exactly does Jim Harrison do, you might ask?
Jim Harrison is a jazz promoter, extraordinaire. He should be instructing a course in jazz promotion: Its’ history and significance. Even technology with its e-mail, speed dial, and iPhones has not depreciated the importance of Harrison’s contributions or discouraged musicians who seek him out for his crucial promotion savvy. “My clients also use e-mail blasts and we have a mailing list,” said Harrison.
Back in the day before computers and smart phones Harrison’s job was to get the word out. “We got to people on the streets with flyers, and posters,” said Harrison “There were spots in Harlem where I left flyers like the Lenox Terrace, Showmans’ Cafe, restaurants, community centers, Penn Station and Grand Central Station.”
Currently, Harrison has a choice client list that includes jazz vocalist Antoinette Montague, pianist Lisle Atkinson, and Jazzmobile. “Over the years I’ve had an extensive client list but at 86 years old, I have cut back the fast-paced life for something a little more manageable,” laughed Harrison.
At the height of the Black Power movement in Harlem, the pianist, composer, and educator Dr. Billy Taylor co-founded Jazzmobile in 1965, to bring live jazz to the city’s five boroughs. The person he hired to promote this fledgling project was Harrison. Today Harrison is still a consultant for Jazzmobile’s summer concerts. “Robin Bell-Stevens, the director of Jazzmobile, has been very supportive. She’s the best of the organizations’ directors and I worked with all of them,” says Harrison.
A native of Harlem, Harrison started a fan club for Jackie McLean in 1961. McLean had been stripped of his cabaret card and couldn’t perform in New York clubs. Harrison’s fan club held “listening parties” with McLean.
He decided to promote McLean in non-traditional jazz settings where a cabaret card was not needed, so he promoted a McLean concert at Judson Hall (originally across the street from Carnegie Hall). After being terminated from his job in Queens (1962), Harrison realized promotion was his ideal job and moved back to Manhattan to become a full-time promoter.
He later promoted McLean’s concert at Town Hall in 1963 and continued working with him until 1965. McLean hooked Harrison up with Slug’s, the legendary club formerly in the East Village, where he was the promoter from 1965-1972. He also promoted concerts for LeeMorgan in Staten Island and the Bronx before the trumpeter was fatally shot at Slugs in 1972.
Harrison did promotions for the late trombonist Benny Powell in 1963. “Benny was a big help to me,” said Harrison. “I wanted to get a full time job but Benny said, we need you out here.” For Powell’s Ben G Enterprises Harrison also did concert productions at Club Ruby in Queens. “Jim has done a lot for musicians,” said Powell. He’s the greatest underground publicist I’ve ever met. He would go out at night and put up posters. If you stood still long enough, he would put a poster on your back. He was very effective.”
Maxine Gordon and Hattie Gossett’s Ms. Management hired Harrison, and he was the promoter of record for noted jazz clubs Boomer’s and Sweet Basil’s (1976-1981). He became a publisher (1979-1982) with his jazz publication Jazz Spotlight News that included listings, reviews and features.
“Black writers weren’t getting published in DownBeat Magazine,” the jazz magazine of record at the time, said Harrison. “After reading a concert review by the New York Times and other dailies it was the great review by John Sanders, jazz writer for the Amsterdam News, that made it clear we needed black writers to have a voice in jazz, our music, so I started Jazz Spotlight News.” The paper started with 12 pages and before it closed boasted 144 pages and 60 black freelance writers. The closest resemblance to Spotlight News is today’s Hot House and AllAboutJazz.
Harrison ran an ad in the paper thanking his wife Fannie for her support; paraphrased it read, “Thank you Fannie Harrison for allowing me to blow the rent money, food money and everything to allow me to become a jazz promoter.” Harrison was married to Fannie for 44 years before she died in 2006. She worked at the door for his many jazz events and helped type up the flyers. He didn’t blow all the money because he managed to keep her happy and raise two children. “She was an incredible woman,” he said.
Harrison stopped publishing the paper when he joined Barry Harris and Larry Ridley at the Jazz Cultural Theater (1982-1987). “That was a good experience but it was hard work,” said Harrison.
He also worked with Ridley at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. promoting concerts, and continues to work on the bassist’s projects at the Schomburg Center. “Jim has been like a big brother to me,” said Ridley. “I can’t think of anyone that has been more dedicated to jazz who’s not a musician.”
These days Jim Harrison lives with his daughter and grandchildren in Brooklyn but make no mistake, he is still a low-key gentleman, who is greeted by all the great jazz musicians and those in the know. He is our elder living jazz legend.
The great promoter has worked with jazz royalty such as Kenny Durham, Elmo Hope, Eddie Jefferson, Milt Jackson, and Walter Davis, Jr. among others. “It’s been a very interesting life and delightful journey,” says Harrison.
Interviewed: Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Duke Ellington School for the Arts Talk about the Ellington School’s unique relationship to the DC Public Schools.
What it’s actually called is a hybrid program, where we have the obligation to ensure that the kids coming here have the full compliment of high school academic education; on top of that we have a full arts development program as well, so we’re called dual curriculum. We have several disciplines: instrumental music, vocal music, literary media, dance, visual arts… we have the only museum studies major in the nation, and we have theater.
How does a student enter Ellington?
We have an audition process, but again we’re a unique school, we’re even a unique arts school because the majority of arts schools application process is highly affected by the academic prowess of the students. This school is purely motivated to the development of artists, so we have the task also of – if they are not academically sound when they come in, that we will remediate them because we are a college prep school. We have been successful historically, and I’ve been here as a band director since 1986; I came in as an attendance counselor in 1984, but my tenure here has witnessed the consistent graduation rate being in the 90s and up.
What you said initially suggests that if a student is prolific in one of those arts disciplines, but has issues academically, the school is willing to uplift the academic side?
I guess the caveat is where they may not even be proficient in their art field, their interview dictates – in terms of the aptitude and the attitude.
Where and under whom did you study jazz?
[Laughs] You need a book! My first exposure actually came from my family, not as artists but as listeners. My parents had a good record collection [he grew up in DC; parents from North Carolina]. The listening bug hit me hard when we would go away in the summer. I have an aunt who had a record player and records in her room. So when she would leave for school I’d go in her room and listen to her records.
She came back and caught me one day and said she didn’t want me to mess up her records but she saw that I liked them so much. So RCA put out the first stereophonic album, and it was called “Sounds in Space,” and on this record was every genre you could think of, it was a sampler. She gave me that record – which I still have today – and I wore it out and it’s hanging in the inspiration room in my house, along with the other things that inspired me to do what I’m doing. She gave me that record and said ‘you can play my record player anytime you want, and here’s your own record.’ I played that record until it turned white! It had orchestra, Dakota Staton, classical, pop… the various mediums.
At school they used to take us to Constitution Hall on field trips every couple of months to watch the National Symphony rehearse, so I got to hear Benjamin Britten’s listening guide to orchestra and found that very fascinating because I got a chance to really hear them talk about the various instruments. That got my ear. So by the third grade I knew that I wanted to be an artist.
My family wasn’t necessarily gung ho about my pursuing a career as a musician, as with most parents, and I don’t fault them for that because they wanted what they thought was the best for me. But if you stick to your guns you can prove whatever it is you are dreaming to be.
Where did you go to college?
Federal City College, UDC, and Howard.
Did you study with DC legend Calvin Jones at Federal City College?
Yeah, that’s my man. But before him, Bobby Felder brought what was called the Entertainment Package, the first big band I had ever seen perform. I was seriously fascinated and at the end of the performance he said “if are there any seniors who are interested in going to college, come up and talk.”
I had a pretty good ear, I wore out a lot of records, and I started out on clarinet. But when I got to high school my clarinet sorta disappeared – long story. My father said “well, I bought one instrument, but you’re gonna buy the next one.” So I worked at Arby’s for $1.10 an hour all summer and at the end of the summer I had $400, but the saxophone that I wanted [points to it in his band room] cost $425! So my dad loaned me $25. And I still have that saxophone, an alto; it’s like the baby. Later I was sort of forced to buy a tenor sax. I got into a R&B band called The Delusion, and recorded with a group called The Loveations, a record called “I Can’t Forget About You,” we had a vocal and an instrumental version. So I was big time, I was in high school and I was recording, but I couldn’t read a lick [laughs].”
When I got a scholarship from Federal City College without having to sight read, it was cool. They said “play something for me,” then they said “yeah, we’ll get you in.” So I got in and ran into Dr. Arthur C.Dawkins for my saxophone lessons. He put some pieces of music in front of me and that was the end of it for me [laughs]! But he said, “you’re in, and you’re in on scholarship” because my grades were good. “But you got grades, but you’ve got one semester to prove to me that you’re gonna be able to step up.”
A senior named James Palmore took me under his wing, and when I wasn’t taking lessons from Dawkins I was playing duets with [Palmore], who was very instrumental in helping me learn to read. He was doing John Coltrane transcriptions and all kinda stuff. At the end of that first semester he told me that, “the good news is you can maintain your scholarship and you can keep going, but we don’t have a saxophone major, so you’re now a flute major… go get one!
So I went to the pawn shop and found an Armstrong closed hole flute for $90 and that was my flute for three years. When I got ready to graduate, Dawkins said “you’ve gotta get yourself a real instrument, because if you’re going to play with anyone they’re going to expect you to play on a quality instrument.” He had a William Haynes flute and he was getting ready to unload because he had ordered another flute. I paid way under the value but I paid $3500 for that flute, in payments. He still wants that flute back [laughs], but I still have it, so I went from there.
I got my associates degree from Federal City and then it became UDC and I was convinced by Bobby Felder, because I got my associates degree and I figured I had satisfied my parents, went to college, and I wanted to get out on the road and play, I thought I was done with school. Bobby pulled me into his office and said “you tell me what you can do with an associates degree that you couldn’t already do with a high school diploma. You’re halfway through a Bachelor’s degree and with that all kinds of other doors will open for you. You’re on scholarship, on the dean’s list…” So of course I couldn’t answer the question so I thought ‘two more years.’
Right after that he said “what are you going to major in?” I said Performance, of course. He said “we don’t have a performance major, but we do have an education degree.” When I was in high school, Jessie Adams my band director pulled me aside one day when I was cuttin’ up and said “one of these days you’re going to be sitting here dealing with students just like you” [laughs]. And at that point I said “oh no, I will not teach.” I went from that point on all the way up to that conversation with Bobby I said I don’t want to teach. He said “hold up, just because you got an education degree doesn’t mean that you have to teach, it’s a bachelor’s degree, you can get a bachelor’s in basket weaving if you want.”
The bottom line is that was the standard up to that point. So he said “just get the degree, you love music, you’re playing, just go on and get the degree and you can do anything that you want to do.” Boy, he conned me good! So I took a practicum at Jefferson Junior High under Winston Hall, a piano player and a good band director. I did the practicum – just going in and observing a band director – he gave me a couple of flutes and gave me three or four little flute players and he said “you work with them, and that’s your teaching, and of course you watch how I deal with the band and how I deal with the rest of the kids,” and he would grade me on that.
So I’m working with these kids, and you’ve gotta work with them individually, and I turned my back on one and I heard this loud BAM, and I turned back around and a flute was sorta bent over the chair. I said “what happened?” The student said “I don’t know.” I said “come on man…” He said “I couldn’t do what you were telling me and I just got mad.” About a month later this guy comes in grinning from ear to ear. He had had a breakthrough and seeing that face, hearing that kid go from prune faced to the happiest kid in the world… that got me good! That’s where I decided that it was ok to teach.
What was your first teaching position?
That’s where Calvin Jones comes in. I was in a summer youth employment program under Mayor Barry and my first job was emptying trashcans at the government print office and I still have nightmares about that. Lillian Hough and Yvette Holt had a program over at Backus, an arts program – dance, and Calvin Jones was the band director for that program. When I got there for this summer job they put me with Calvin Jones. He took me on the first day to a couple of the elementary schools to pick up instruments. While we were picking up the instruments he had AM radio on in his car and I’m listening to big band jazz. He started telling me about the artists. He was a trombone, piano, and bass player and all of this was having a serious impact on me. At the time he was teaching at Cardozo High School.
He left Cardozo and came to UDC and that’s when he became the jazz band director. When I was there he had a septet, a sextet, and the big band and I played in all three. I have a history with pawn shops, I used to build stereo systems from components at the pawn shop and sell them to my friends. One day I was in the pawn shop and there was a soprano sax there and it was gorgeous to me, so a stereo I had just built paid $110 for that saxophone.
So I brought it to school and Calvin got excited! He started writing soprano sax parts for the big band; by that time I was playing lead alto. He liked the combination of soprano and trumpet so he started writing for the sextet. Judith Korey is the one that taught me music theory. She gave me a key to her office so that when she left I could go in and use the piano and practice. So I would stay there until it was time to go to the nightclub where I was working. So I would get there at 8:00am, go to class and study theory, then I would go to her office and practice until time to go to the nightclub; back then I played with a lot of different people. There was a place called Moore’s Love and Peace, which was probably my first real steady job. I had met [wife] Esther [Williams] by then. Dawkins sent me on one of his gigs as a sub, we played the gig together, we exchanged numbers afterwards. She said, “yeah, if we need another saxophone player we’ll call.” By then she was touring with her first record.
A couple of weeks later she calls me and she’s playing with Charlie Hampton, doing a gig at the church, and she said, “we need a saxophone player,” so I went there. Then about three or four months later she called and said “Charlie is getting ready to get rid of his saxophone player and I suggested you, he remembered you,” and so I got that gig. We ended up playing at that club for about eleven years! What was your first teaching position?
Ernest Dyson taught jazz history and business of music courses at Federal City College and he worked at the Washington Community School of Music over in Northeast DC in a church and he offered me a job teaching flute there. So I walked into Dawkins office all proud and said “hey Doc, I got a job teaching music!” He said “you can’t have that job, because what’s gonna happen is you’re going to start earning that steady money and the next thing you know you’ll drop out, you’ll never get your degree, and it’s too early for you to leave [college], you’ve got enough to do just getting through college.” He went to Ernest and said “don’t give him this job.”
When I graduated with my associates degree Ernest called me back and said “do you still want that job?” So that was my first teaching job and I really enjoyed doing that, I was just a private flute teacher. In ’78 when I graduated UDC I was engaged to Esther and after my senior recital I announced that I was engaged. Bobby and Doc they all knew Esther, but they looked at me like “you’re gonna get married now? Before, you were talking about how you wanted to go out on the road, and now you’re going to come straight out of college and get married, don’t you understand what that’s about?” I said, “yeah, I do – and I did.” Once I let the cat out of the bag I don’t think there was a professor in the building that didn’t call me in and say “why are you going to get married as soon as you graduate?” But I did, and my first job after I graduated was at Wilson High School as a Drivers’ Education instructor. I got hired here at Ellington in May of ’78 for September, because I did my student teaching here under Wallace Clark and Mickey Bass.
Wallace and Antoine Roney were here then, but you couldn’t study jazz during the school day, you had to do it after school. Mickey would come down two days a week after school and teach the kids who were interested in jazz. Not that it was forbidden, just not yet established. So I was offered the band director’s job, but that year the government cut teacher’s salaries, so I got fired before I got a chance to work. So I went over to Wilson HS and taught Driver’s Ed because there was a trombone player there who was teaching Driver’s Ed and one of the Driver’s Ed teachers had fallen and was on disability, so it was a temporary job.
The band director at Wilson was elderly and about ready to retire, so they said come on over here for about a year or so and he’ll probably retire so you can slip into his job. He didn’t leave [laughs]. And also the Driver’s Ed program had some financial problems and I ended up getting Rifed from that, so I sold pianos at Jordan Kitts in Columbia, MD for a year. I came back and got a job at Carter G. Woodson Junior High. Robert Sands had retired. On my first day the principle told me about him, said he had a 300-piece marching band, etc.; I wasn’t about marching bands… but it was a job.
So I went by Robert’s house and he said “look, I’m a saxophone player, don’t let this teaching thing stop you from playing.” And I said “right,” not really understanding what he was saying, but then I realized that because you are putting your energy into these young people and there’s only a certain amount of time in a day, I could see how that could happen, but I never gave up playing. Dawkins had got me into playing in theater productions, so I was doing some of the theater jobs, and then I was still doing the nightclub thing. I did Woodson for a year and decided at that point that I didn’t need this. When they handed me my evaluation – outstanding evaluation – I handed them my letter of resignation.
A saxophone position came up at UDC, so I went over there part time. Then I started thinking if you do music round the clock guys burn out. So I took a job as an attendance counselor at the School Without Walls, and I did that for almost two years. I had taught Floretta McKenzie’s daughter driver’s education at Wilson and she started following me; she knew I played and she would show up places where I was playing. One day she walked into the building here at Ellington, walked up to the principle, Maurice Eldridge – who had seen me playing with Joe Williams and Bobby Blue Bland at Fort Dupont, [pianist] John Malachi was in that band. So Maurice is onstage giving Joe Williams an award, he looks down in the pit and says “what are you doing here?”
So just about a month later, Floretta McKenzie said she wanted me to run the music program at McKinley HS. Maurice said “he’s here [at Ellington] and if he’s going to go back into music education, I want him here because I need another saxophone teacher.’ I had been here for awhile and I knew some of the faculty members and students, so I picked Ellington.
What month and year did you start at Ellington?
March of 1984 as the attendance counselor, and then in September of ’86 I became the band director.
When you started teaching at Ellington, what did you teach?
Saxophone, and they allowed me to start the big band. They put me in a small room – one third the size of this current band room – and it had steps and some chairs in there, and a couple of music stands. But where’s the equipment? And I was also told by a faculty member that if you teach some classes make sure you schedule them before 3:00 because these students aren’t going to stay until 5:00, even though they’re supposed to. Another teacher said “well, the equipment was here, but it sorta walked out.” So there was no band equipment there. So come my first class, I had my drummers play air drums… I said you set up and act like this is your snare drum, your floor tom… and I got some music and I had a little keyboard that was there, and the horn players had their horns, so we just did what we did to get started. Lo and behold one day the door opens and a CNN camera crew walked in the room and they’re filming this and asking “where’s the drumset?” I said, “we don’t have any,” and just as I was explaining this to them, Maurice Elders the principle walked in and they turned the cameras around to him, and a little while later I had a couple of drumsets. I don’t even know if he knew whether the equipment was there or not, but after that I got some equipment.
Then Joe Williams, Wynton Marsalis donated, they were the first contributors, and I went around Georgetown asking for whatever types of donations I could get for the equipment that I really needed, and that was the first wave of equipment. Wynton gave me $5,000 and Joe gave the same amount and that got us off the ground. From then I learned how to write grants, because I was writing letters to airlines… anybody that I thought would donate. I got enough to do what I needed from that point on.
What sense of Duke Ellington’s music have you given your students here?
First it was imparted to me. I was working with [bassist] Keter Betts, because of Dawkins, I worked with Bill Harris’ band, Rick Henderson’s band, all these things resulted from Dawkins and Bobby Felder connecting me. I ended up with Bill Harris at Wolftrap and that’s where he introduced me to Sarah Vaughan, Keter Betts… Bill took me to the concert and there were other musicians that he introduced me to. Keter asked me to come play with his band and I played with that band for about five years. I met Roland Hanna playing with Keter. When I got the Ellington job, Keter called and wanted me to come by his house. So I went over, sat in the kitchen, and he started asking me about Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and I was already shocked that I got the job because a whole lot of veteran band directors wanted that job, and he could see that there was a little bit of tension behind that.
So Keter said “what do you know about Duke?” I told him the little I knew – and it was a little – and he said “well that’s not enough because your job now is to enlighten those kids at that school, especially the ones that are playing.” So he went down to his basement and he pulled out a book called “Ellingtonia” and he started showing me all of the songs, the writing, the photography… everything – to the point of overload. I said to myself ‘how am I going to deal with this?’ That’s when Keter volunteered to come to Ellington before school. We had a program called Paying Your Dues that I ended up getting a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts to do. I brought in Steve Novosel… whatever artists that I could find I would give them a little stipend to come at 7am and teach the kids who wanted to learn jazz. John Malachi would come in; as a matter of fact the week he passed he came and did a rehearsal and a workshop.
The program Paying Your Dues allowed me to take the kids to the East Coast Jazz Festival (Ronnie Wells’ predecessor to Paul & Karmen Carr’s current Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival), and we’d do fundraising that enabled us to get to France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and some of the other tours we did; grantwriting and fundraising enabled us to take the band out.
What’s been your ensemble focus here at Ellington?
Everything that I can! Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell came here, which demonstrated to the students the duo form, that you don’t have to play big band music all the time… jazz is jazz, I don’t care what instrument it’s played on. One of the things I had to do with the student body here is say, come out of that tunnel people have you in; if you hear [jazz] and you like it, you can do anything.
Currently I have my 7:15-8:15am class for kids who come in who don’t get into the jazz orchestra, or don’t get into my in-curricular combo. And I’m still teaching saxophone as well. Right now I’ve got about 8 of those students, and then 6th period Monday-Tuesday-Thursday I have a 5-piece combo and we work on anything from Go Bop – to ease them into bebop I would take bebop tunes and I brought John Buchannan here once and he was one of the founders of go-go an we went to Federal City College together. So I wanted them to get the true Washington art form of go-go, which they had been listening to, but I wanted them to see the evolution of that and make sure they had the genuine stuff.
We would take tunes like “Yardbird Suite” or “All Blues,” which we took
out of three and put it in four, and put it into the go-go beat. They even have what they call “Take the Metro”, which uses “Take the A Train.” They have a medley where they come out of “Nica’s Dream” and go into a go-go groove and do “Take the A Train.” So we have that, but we also visit the Herbie Hancocks, who whenever the genres change he adapts, just like Miles did. The idea is we want to produce artists. So I teach just as much of the European classical repertoire for my saxophonists. As the saxophone teacher I want them to understand that..
With the melancholy recent passing on to ancestry of trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and amidst all the many recollections of Roy’s tireless will to jam, I was reminded of one of the last times I saw Roy, engaged in a friendly trumpet “battle” with Sean Jones at the 2017 Monterey Jazz Festival. Both were guests of the great Kenny Barron as part of his Dizzy Gillespie Centennial tribute on the Jimmy Lyons Stage. That trumpet confab brought to mind one of the most celebrated trumpet battle royales in the history of recorded jazz – the performance that begat the now-classic Blue Note recording aptly titled The Night of the Cookers, a fabled evening that found Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan squaring off on the bandstand.
Several years ago, as part of a series of Brooklyn-centric jazz oral history interviews I conducted for the Weeksville Heritage Center, a project directed by my good friend and cultural anthropologist Jennifer Scott, we sought some insights into one of the most famous jazz recordings ever made in Brooklyn. (Historically, Weeksville was the first African American settlement in Brooklyn.) There are likely some who sleep the fact that The Night of the Cookers happened in Brooklyn, at a long defunct club called La Marchal, proving once again that one never knows where jazz history will take place! For insights on that momentous evening, we interviewed two of the sole surviving musicians who played that date, pianist Harold Mabern, and bassist Larry Ridley. In the customary manner of oral history interviews, we started with some background.
Where did each of you receive your music training?
Harold Mabern: I got my training from what I call from the university of the streets of Chicago. I hung out, made all the jam sessions; Frank Strozier, Booker Little and I spent a lot of time together and we stayed there until ’59. We formed a group with Walter Perkins called the MJT+3, with BobCranshaw, yours truly, Willie Thomas, Frank Strozier. They had two other [MJT+3] groups, with George Coleman, Booker Little, Paul Serrano, and MuhalRichard Abrams; but the group we had was the most successful one. So we stayed there until ’59, then we left and all headed to New York City.
Larry Ridley: I started playing the violin when I was five years old back in Indianapolis. I came up in a family that was very much involved with jazz. My uncle, Ben Holloman, was a good friend of Eubie Blake, so I got turned onto jazz at a very early age. I started playing and Freddie Hubbard, VirgilJones, Mel Rhyne and a whole bunch of us started playing together as teenagers and my first group was called the Jazz Contemporaries, and Freddie played trumpet, Jimmy Spaulding played alto, tenor and flute, and Paul Parker was the drummer, along with first Walt Miller then Al Plank on piano.
I came to New York in 1959 after going to the Lenox School of Jazz, studying with Percy Heath, Max Roach and all the guys that were there. Then I moved to New York to play with Slide Hampton’s octet in 1960. Max Roach schooling students at the Lenox School of Jazz
Leading up to this  date “The Night of the Cookers”, what had you each been doing?
HM: Before then – I don’t remember what time we joined Freddie Hubbard’s band, because we were working with Freddie’s band at the time of that The Night of the Cookers. When I came to New York the first place I went to was Birdland, and Cannonball Adderley was out front. He knew me from Chicago and he said ‘you want a gig’? I said yeah, so he brought me downstairs; Pee Wee Marquette [Birdland’s legendary doorman] tried to bar me, but Cannonball said I was with him. Harry “Sweets” Edison was working there that night, and every night at Birdland was like New Year’s Eve, as Larry will tell you. Tommy Flanagan was getting ready to leave with J.J. Johnson, so Sweets said ‘you wanna play?’ I said yeah, and I sat in and played and Sweets called a song, he said “Habit”, 8 bar introduction in A flat. I didn’t know what the heck “Habit” was, so I fumbled through the first course and by the second course I had it and he said ‘you got the gig’; I was being auditioned on the spot, I got the gig right there and went right back to Chicago.
That was my first gig, I stayed with Sweets then I came back in 1960 and sat in with Lionel Hampton, stayed with him for about a year. Cedar Walton invited me down to Birdland to sit in because he was leaving the Jazztet to go with Art Blakey’s group, so I sat in with Art Farmer-Benny Golson [the Jazztet leaders] and they didn’t make any promises, but they said if we hear anything we’ll call you. They called me the next morning and I got the gig with the Jazztet, stayed there for awhile then I joined J.J. Johnson in 1963, right before I played with Miles Davis. I went on a tour with Miles on the west coast in 1963, with George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb and myself. Before then I had been doing things with Betty Carter. I don’t know if Larry Ridley remembers this, but we went out with Roy Haynes‘ Quartet. After that I just kept doing different things.
LR: I came to New York with a gig; I joined Slide Hampton’s Octet in Pittsburgh and then we came into New York. I ended up working with Slide at different places, like the Half Note and many other different clubs in New York. It was doing that time playing at Birdland that Philly Joe Jones took me under his wing and I started doing a lot of things with him, then I ended up working a lot with Lou Donaldson, Art Farmer, and a whole bunch of folks. As Harold was saying, we were working with Freddie’s band and we always enjoyed playing with each other, [with] Pete LaRoca [on drums]. I think [drummer] Clifford Jarvis played with us for a minute and then Pete came in. Also I was working some gigs with Lee [Morgan]; George Coleman was the tenor player, Louis Hayes was the drummer, Cedar Walton [piano], so we were doing some gigs.
We all were playing a lot and interchanging with a lot of people; I guess we were the young Turks arriving on the scene so we would get a lot of different gigs. It was like a little fraternal situation with all of us because we knew each other, we loved playing with each other; it was great, it was really a fantastic period.
Before this session that led to The Night of the Cookers, had either of you been playing anywhere in Brooklyn?
HM: Larry probably had played [Brooklyn] more than I had. I think I played at the Turbo Village one time and I played [in Brooklyn] mostly at the Blue Coronet at the time a few times, sat in with Dexter Gordon, Blue Mitchell, and Jackie McLean.
LR: When I first came to New York in 1959 I went by the Turbo Village and sat in, that’s where I met Tommy Williams and Andrew Cyrille. Then when I moved permanently to New York I ended up working a lot… Harold and I did a lot of things together; I was working with Barry Harris… that was really a hot spot in Brooklyn, the Blue Coronet. I ended up working with Jackie McLean, when he had Tony Williams playing drums.
We were working with a lot of different people. In Brooklyn there was a lot of stuff going on; there was the Club Baby Grand where some of the guys worked. Rector Bailey used to get a lot of gigs [in Brooklyn].
Were there any differences in the audiences in Brooklyn from when you worked in Manhattan, in terms of the response or just the overall feeling?
HM: I’m sure Larry and I come to the same conclusion, but my first thought is yes and no. The people in Brooklyn were hip, if you played for the people – which didn’t mean you had to downplay your talent. The places [in Brooklyn] were packed and there were clubs everywhere. For me, once I left Brooklyn no matter where you went, you’d always end up at the jazz corner of the world; when you get through doing whatever you were doing, Birdland was the icing on the cake.
LR: The whole scene really was an extension between all the boroughs. Working uptown [Harlem] was always hip, working at Count Basie’s, the Club Baron, the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn, up in the Bronx there was the Club 845; so we were all working at all of these different clubs. So my impression was, yeah there were hip people in Brooklyn – naturally people from each of the boroughs had their own parochial chauvinism going on, but it was basically all the same; particularly being someone who was – for lack of a better expression – an expatriate coming from Indianapolis, Indiana to New York it was all one big thing to me in terms of the places we could work. There were all kinds of jam sessions going on that we could play at, there was a lot of good stuff happening during that particular time.
Would either of you say there was more of an African American audience in Brooklyn?
LR: Harlem was the same, and even in the Bronx. That’s what I mean by the African American [audience] thing, it was pretty extensive during that time. I worked with Randy Weston during that time, with Booker Ervin and Scoby Strohman,
This place where “The Night of the Cookers” was recorded, Club La Marchal, was that a place that was presenting a lot of jazz, or was this just a one-shot deal?
HM: Larry can speak more about that as far as the club itself, because up until that night I had never even heard of it before.
LR: It was a club that wasn’t really noted for presenting a lot of jazz. But how that came about was several of the musicians that were living in Brooklyn, like Bobby Timmons’ wife Stella, and Freddie Hubbard’s wife at the time Brenda, and Cedar Walton’s wife, they had a [social] club — and CharlesDavis’ wife, I think she was involved as well – they had formed a club called the Club Jest Us. They were musicians’ wives who wanted to do something to promote their husband’s careers and so they rented the Club La Marchal in order to present this evening, which ended up being called “The Night of the Cookers” and that recording. Freddie had the foresight to record that; Orville Bryant did the recording and then what came out on the recording was Rudy Van Gelder remastered it from the original tapes [Orville] had put together. I thought at first that the early mastering of it by Rudy, to me it lost some of the fidelity that Orville had gotten, but Rudy remastered it later.
From what you’re saying this is not the kind of thing that happened at Club La Marchal regularly.
HM: Not from what I know, because if it had been I would have known about it. So as Larry said this was kind of a one time thing that they decided to put together, with the musicians’ wives.
Who owned this place?
HM: I have no idea.
LR: Neither do I. Again, I think this was a venue they [the social club Jest Us] scouted out and found that it was a place they wanted to produce this concert.
Can either of you recall Club La Marchal physically?
HM: The only thing I remember about it was that it was very small, it wasn’t that big.
LR: I don’t remember any real specifics about it; all I remember is that we had a good time.
How many people do you think were there that night?
HM: It was filled to capacity, if you had 100 people it was a packed house. It was a real small place right on the corner.
Talk about the audience participation that night.
HM: The audience was great, and I would say you probably had 98% African American people in the place that night. Audience participation was great; during that time all audiences were great, but there were a lot more black people involved because what we played they could relate to. When that free stuff came in we drove the people away; like Lou Donaldson said, you gotta play the blues for the people. Anything you play can be bluesy if you’re doing it within the right context.
The audience at Club La Marchal that night for “The Night of the Cookers” was that kind of a typical Brooklyn audience or was it different from what you had experienced at other Brooklyn establishments?
LR: There were a lot of Brooklyn fans that would hang around all of us, and they supported us, which was beautiful at the time. They were very receptive and they were into all of us as musicians, they had the records, there were even some of these guys that had listening clubs. There was a group that Jim Harrison was involved with – some transit workers, Nat White and all those guys – and they would follow whatever was going on in town and they used to have listening sessions at each of their houses where they would just listen to records and get into the music. They were just one among many that were always supportive, always on the scene supporting us, which was beautiful.
That performance “The Night of the Cookers” was so exceptional that it made a memorable record. What role did the audience play in inspiring those performances that are on that record?
HM: For me, it may sound like a contradiction, we were glad that the audience was there but it wouldn’t have mattered if nobody had been there because I motivate myself. The fact that they [the audience] was there was good but I didn’t really need the audience to motivate me. A lot of the musicians need that, a lot of musicians if it’s not a packed house they can’t play. I’m self-motivated, if there’s nobody there but me I’m gonna play as though I have a thousand people [in attendance].
LR: I totally agree with that Harold because we were all self-motivated, that’s why were involved in the music. We came to New York and we were around the giants, it was such a fertile period. We were having a ball just playing with each other, so whatever transferred to the audience… they were there but that wasn’t the primary motivating factor of what was going on, we enjoyed playing with each other. With having Freddie [Hubbard] and Lee [Morgan] together, as well as Jimmy Spaulding, and Big Black was there laying it down… we were just having a ball!
Not every live recording is as memorable as that one. What was it that made The Night of the Cookers work so well, as both a live experience and a subsequent recording?
HM: Two things: you had two of the most talented, most charismatic musicians that ever lived [Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan]; they had charisma but they were musical geniuses on their horns. Freddie said in DownBeat that he used to follow Lee around just to get his overflow with the ladies. Like Art Blakey used to say, when you walk on the bandstand they see you before they hear you. The minute that Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan walked on the bandstand, we had the audience [full attention] then. The audience loved the way we looked; we had a dress code, we always looked good with shirt & tie…
LR: Our main focus was just making the music happen and swinging. [Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan] were two of the young Turks who were setting the pace. In looking back in hindsight I reflect back because Booker Little was right there, but he passed. It would have been nice for The Night of the Cookers if Booker had been there as well, because we would have really taken off! Each of those guys had their own style and approach, but they all could swing and play their butt off.
HM: And they all respected each other.
Since Lee Morgan and Big Black were in a sense guests on this date because you guys were part of Freddie Hubbard’s regular group, how did Lee Morgan and Big Black come to make this date?
HM: Freddie invited Lee to play. If memory serves me right Lee had just finished recording The Rumproller [Blue Note], that’s how that came about. Freddie always loved drums so it’s no surprise that he would have Big Black on the date. Then again when he invited Lee to come on and play none of us had any idea this would be a historical date.
Big Black brought another dimension to that date.
LR: Big Black was a very strong character. I met Big Black through Randy Weston. He was on the scene and he was going around making his thing, then he wound up moving to California.
I ask that because back then having a hand percussionist on an otherwise straight ahead date was kind of unusual.
LR: He was on the scene and we all knew him, we had played with him on other circumstances. He was just a welcome addition to the thing, I don’t really remember what motivated Freddie to include him, but it worked. He just added that special touch. At that same time the Palladium was going – Machito and Tito Puente – it was that whole amalgam of what was happening with that whole thing, as Randy Weston always refers to that Mother Africa influenced all of that. So there was a lot of interplay with many of the Latin cats – Armando Peraza, Patato [Valdes], Tito Puente – it was all still a part of the whole mix of what was going on musically, the whole environment that was happening.
Harold, you played with Freddie Hubbard at the point “The Night of the Cookers” date was made. Was it that particular date that led to your later playing with Lee Morgan?
HM: Probably so, because I think during that time a lot of musicians were in and out of day jobs. I think after that I got a job at Alexander’s department store, and shortly after that I got a call from Lee Morgan, so I’m sure [The Night of the Cookers] had something to do with it. Plus Larry and I were on a date with Hank Mobley called Dippin’ and Lee always loved piano players, no matter who they were… I’m sure being on Freddie’s gig enhanced it for me to get a chance to play with Lee because I joined Lee shortly after that. I tell the kids ‘don’t leave the job, let the job leave you’, I’ve never left a job, and I always stay with the job and ride it all the way.
Who determined the set list for “The Night of the Cookers”?
HM: Freddie called the tunes because it was his band. Those tunes we had been playing a little bit before, “Pensativa” and “Jodo” and all those; Lee jumped in with both feet and did a wonderful job.
LR: Freddie controlled the compositions that we performed, the order and all that.
Did this combination of musicians ever work together again?
LR: I don’t think we ever did anything together again, particularly with having both Lee and Freddie; that was a one-time event. That was just a special occasion; Freddie came up with that whole idea of having Lee and I have to give the boy credit, he pulled it off.
Its not often that you find two trumpet players working together like that. Was there any clash of egos or any rivalry between Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan at the time?
HM: It was called friendly rivalry; then it was competition without animosity. Nowadays it’s competition with animosity, and those cats with their thousand dollar suits couldn’t play “Here Comes the Bride.” All the musicians felt the same way about each other. It was rivalry, but it was friendly rivalry. They learned from each other, they loved each other.
LR: I agree with Harold. There were so many guys that could play their butt off, and they respected each other. One of the things that each of these guys had – it’s not like today with the clones playing each other’s licks and whatnot – each one of them had their own stylistic parameters they would work from, we all do. We never looked at each other as rivals. We just respected each other and everybody was going for their own individual signature, and that’s what made each of those guys so great. Freddie sounded like Freddie, Lee sounded like Lee, on and on…
Back to The Night of the Cookers, I’d like each of you to reflect on that and tell me what are each of your most lasting memories.
HM: I feel very fortunate and blessed to have been part of something, since it wasn’t really planned. Having a chance to work with two of the finest musicians on the planet… and they both were very supportive of me, they always did everything they could to encourage me; and that’s what you don’t find nowadays with the younger generation, not all of them.
The following recollections of several memorable connections Randy Weston made with the legendary Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti are excerpted from Chapter 8 of African Rhythms, the autobiography of Randy Weston (Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins; 2010, Duke University Press).
Fela Ransome Kuti
Fela is the bravest, most courageous musician I’ve ever met in my life. He lived in a country which was controlled at that time by the military government, and military rule is always hard core. As I mentioned, I’d actually met Fela on that first 1961 trip and was happy to see him this time; but by this time he was becoming an increasingly larger figure in Nigerian life. Remember, 1961 was right after many of these African nations had just gained their independence from colonial rule, and we had met President Azikiwe that first trip. He was a hero of the Nigerian liberation from the British. He was a beautiful man, very cultured, very educated. When we had that dinner at his house on that ’61 trip they served a ton of food. At one point Azikwe said to me “Mr. Weston, I don’t think you’ve had this kind of food before.” I said “I’m sorry sir, but I grew up with this kind of food.” And I told him about my father being from Jamaica, Panama, and about the okra, yam, peas & rice and all that stuff I had grown up on which is straight out of Africa. After Azikiwe came the military government and they had all those coups and killings and Nigeria just went crazy. Nigerian President Nnamdi Azikiwe
Fela was also an educated man, who was forever in opposition to these military governments, so he became a thorn in their sides because the people really loved his music; and as a result he became a global superstar. I don’t know how Fela got such power, but I do know his mother was a very famous politician, a real revolutionary. By the time I returned to Nigeria in 1977 Fela had developed his own village right in the city of Lagos. Also by this time Fela was making recordings and he had formed his own organization called Afro Beat. That band Afro Beat was the most popular group in all of Africa, except for the Congo because in Congo they have the strongest rhythms on the continent.
Fela was growing ever more powerful among the people, saying stuff like he wanted to be president of Nigeria. He was constantly insulting the military government: calling them fascists, murderers, assassins, writing songs about them… They put him in jail a number of times. When I visited him and went through his village there were brothers all around with stands full of reefer smoke. When Fela walked through there he was the chief.
Fela’s mother was also quite an impressive woman. An illustration of that was an incident I heard about where she organized some opposition to one of the Nigerian chiefs. Somehow this cat wasn’t doing the right thing; I don’t remember all the details. But whatever the case, what he was doing wasn’t correct with the women. Fela’s mother was so powerful that she gathered a thousand women to march on this chief’s palace. And if you can picture this, they stood in front of this chief and began disrobing. This scene was too strong for that chief and he split right outta there. Can you imagine that, standing there looking at a thousand naked women. Whatcha gonna do behind that?
FESTAC ’77… hanging with Fela again
Another great trip to Africa came after I had my first opportunity to tour the continent with my band, but that’s another story entirely. In 1977 I traveled there on my own to join a delegation of artists and great thinkers at the FESTAC event. FESTAC ’77 was actually the second Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. The organizer’s idea was to bring over black representatives of the global arts and culture community from across Africa and the diaspora, including places as far away as Australia, which sent some Aborigine artists.
Once again I traveled to Lagos, which by that time was a bit different place than it was when I was there in the 1960s. For one thing cars had literally taken over the place and the traffic was horrendous around the clock. The ancient country of Ethiopia, which I still haven’t visited, is much older than Nigeria and except for an incursion by the Italians Ethiopia basically remained free of colonialism. Ethiopia was the host of Festac ’77, even though Nigeria was the site. The Nigerian government reportedly put up huge amounts of oil money to stage this event. The whole idea is that we are one African people, that was the goal of FESTAC. No matter if we’re in Mississippi or Havana, or Australia, or wherever; that was the whole point of the event.
They invited about 20,000 artists from across the globe. I never counted them but that was the official number. I only wound up playing once, at least officially, though I did jam with Fela; but we’ll get to that in a minute. Sun Ra was there and he played once. There was so much great artistry at this conference that you didn’t need to play more than once. Representatives from the entire black world organized this thing. They hosted colloquiums throughout FESTAC on every thing from education to health to music, all things involved with African people. It was designed to develop a sense of global unity. FESTAC lasted one month, throughout January. Each country sent groups and usually the groups would stay one or two weeks, then other groups would come. I stayed most of the month because I had come individually on my own; I didn’t come with the American delegation because I was living in France at the time.
One of the artists there was a dancer named Percy Boyd from Trinidad, the husband of the great dancer Pearl Primus. He was a fantastic artist himself and a very brilliant guy. The scene was kind of chaotic in a way, with a lot of confusion over transportation. But Percy was hooked up; he had a bus and a chauffer. Once he did his two weeks with his dance company and was ready to split he said “Randy, do you want this bus. I’ll give you this bus and this is your chauffer, he’ll do whatever you want him to do.” So I had this big bus and a chauffer like some kind of big shot – and meanwhile some of these visiting ministers couldn’t even find any transportation!
They had houses for the artists, not hotels. Each country had its own housing: Ethiopia is here, Mali is here, Brazil is over there, Cuba is there, Libya is there, Tunisia, Morocco… it was an amazing scene. Plus you can imagine all the music; it was so powerful it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.
The array of folks there was also incredible. For example I’d have breakfast and my tablemates might be Louis Farrakhan, Stevie Wonder, Queen Mother Moore, and a heavy Sufi master named Mahi Ismail. Imagine me hanging out with those cats! Stevie and I actually managed to stay in a hotel. When he arrived Stevie came into the hotel with his guitar, walked in the lobby, sat down and started singing and playing his guitar; that’s the first thing he did when he got there!
The Nigerians had built a special theatre for this event, but the two brand new Steinway pianos and one Bosendorfer they had purchased were waiting at the airport hung up in customs apparently. Long story short the pianos didn’t arrive until the day of the concert. I was supposed to play first opposite some Ethiopian musicians. But they were late getting the piano there and I wound up playing second, on a new piano that had never been touched before!
Fela was one of the main people I wanted to see while there, and like many African musicians he had his own club called The Shrine, just opposite his village in Lagos. Fela’s club was really big, it must have held about 1,000 people and the night I went there it was packed. When I got to Fela’s village he was sitting in a corner, holding court and eating away. I’m stepping through all kinds of women, all surrounding this dude. It was quite a scene. He saw me and said “Randy, come on and have some food.” We talked awhile then it was time for him to perform, so he put on his stage costume and we were stepping around all these women to get outside. As we’re walking through his village it was obvious Fela was like a king to these people.
We entered the Shrine and this place, along with Bobby Benson’s joint, really became my inspiration for wanting to open up my own club. Fela got his band together for the performance and he calls me over and says “Randy, you sit there.” He had an English film crew capturing his every move. He started by playing this little rhythm on the piano, then the band came in and he grabbed his saxophone. The rhythm was totally infectious, but you have to hear it live, you have to be where people are dancing to this band to fully appreciate this groove. At one point in his performance Fela grabbed the mike and said “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to meet my brother from America,” and they brought me onstage. So we jammed a bit. Next thing I know he’s talking on the mike again and he’s got me by the hand and he’s cursing out the military – and there were military guys in the club! I wanted to get the hell off that stage with a quickness ‘cause those cats don’t play! Man, Fela was fearless, but I was sweatin’… what this guy didn’t call the government… and he wouldn’t let go of my hand! The people were cheering him on!
One week later, after we had all left, the soldiers raided Fela’s village and destroyed the place. They threw his mother out of a window, beat him up and took him to prison, and raped all his girls. But when he came out of jail Fela was the same, still defiant. He said “I’m the president of Africa;” he was against all that stuff that was in opposition to the true Africa, he was incredible.