Growing Up Jazz: To The Roots

Photo by Angelika Beener

March is Women’s History Month, and personally, there isn’t a more fitting honor than talking to my mother for Alternate Takes’ Growing Up Jazz series.  As many of you now know, jazz has been my lifelong soundtrack.  There aren’t many things (if any) that have influenced me more than the artists and recorded music I grew up listening to.  For this series, I wanted to dig deeper — beyond my own experiences — to the source of my influence.  Through this candid interview with my mom, I’m able to have a greater appreciation for the gifts that have shaped my world, and hers.  From her culturally rich neighborhood, to the musicians who would have everlasting effects on her life, to her close relationship with her uncle, Thelonious Monk, my mother sat down for a rare interview to discuss the roots that are still impacting us, generation after generation.

Lyman Place…

Courtesy of Robert Gumbs

“Lyman Place was a very unique block,” Mom says of the one street long block, which she grew up on, in the Bronx, New York.  “There was so much talent.  You had people like Elmo Hope and Leo Mitchell. You had rock ‘n roll writers like Genie Kemp, who wrote ‘Church Bells May Ring’.  You had Larry Locke, who wrote a tune for Little Anthony and the Imperials, and producer Phil Spector was in my sixth grade class.  And we had lots of music venues in the neighborhood.  The two neighboring streets were Freeman Street and 169th Street.  On 169th Street there was Goodson’s Town and Thelonious played there. Shirley Scott, Jimmy Smith… they all used to play there.  A few blocks away, there was The Blue Morocco, where Nancy Wilson and Gloria Lynn and a lot of folks used to perform.  Then there was the 845 Club on Prospect Avenue, which was about four blocks up.  Everything was within walking distance.  Miles Davis played at the 845.  Thelonious would come by, but I think it was kind of a joke that he would never sit down and play, but he would participate as far as his presence, and it was a hang.  My friend Robert Gumbs, who was about the age of 17 at the time, and a couple of his friends were actually responsible for having regular jazz performances there.  They convinced the manager to bring in this type of music.  So the neighborhood was pretty rich.  And then Maxine Sullivan…”  Pausing, as though not to go on and on, mom seemed to be having her own revelation about just how much history ran through this four or five block radius.  “Tina Brooks grew up not far from me, on Boston Road, a few blocks up the street,” she continued.  “Then there was my junior high school, Junior High 40. A lot of musicians went there like Jimmy Owens and Larry Gales.  [General] Colin Powell went there, too.”

Growing Up Jazz (With Monk)

“That was my normal with Nellie and Thelonious,” she says of growing up under the love and direction of a jazz icon. “I didn’t spend a lot of time in other children’s houses, either. That wasn’t really allowed, so I didn’t start seeing any differences until the rare occasion when I would, and their houses just seemed… strange…. boring.  They didn’t seem very lively.  There was no house that I preferred to be in besides my own.  Most children want to go here or there, but everybody wanted to come to our house.  I can still remember seeing Nina Simone coming down the hall and sitting on the couch and my father making some of his smothered onions.  He could take the simplest food and make it so tasty.  I remember the laughter.  It was very normal, until people would speak to me in the street, and people would say, “How’s Monk?!”  Then we would see him in the newspaper.  But even going to the clubs, it was just Uncle Thelonious playing.  I can still remember my sisters and brothers and I, all seated there, and I can still see Coltrane in the kitchen area eating a peanut butter sandwich, and not really having very much to say.  But being the niece of Thelonious, it was always like it was their pleasure to meet us.  We always felt like we were somebody.  We were on equal par in that way.  Family was everything, and he made sure that everyone knew that.”

Monk’s Music

“One of my fondest memories is of “Played Twice”.  There are some [songs of Monk’s] that make me feel a bit melancholy.  When I would play that song, I would ‘play it twice’ and many more times.  And I used to like to dance to it, and one day — we very rarely asked him to play anything, he would just sit to the piano and we would enjoy — I asked him to play that for me, and then I started dancing to it. After he saw that I was enjoying the dance, he just took it out!  He just kept playing it, and he just started laughing and I started laughing… that was a real fun moment.

 

Timing Is Everything

“I had cooked some fried chicken livers, rice and gravy, and it must have been one o’clock in the morning.  There was no real schedule for anything… we didn’t do clocks [laughs].  But I’ll never forget it was the very next morning, which was really just about five or six hours later, and the food was still on the stove, and I threw it out.  And Thelonious came out of the room looking for the food, and I said, ‘I threw it out; it was out all night.’  And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well I figured it went bad.’  So he said, ‘So you make a turkey on Thanksgiving and you make all that food early in the morning…you eat that all day long, don’t you?’  I said, ‘Yeah.’  So he said, ‘Well, because it was nightfall you thought it needed to go in the garbage???’  And by the time he finished with that I felt silly [laughs].  Because we were actually talking about a few hours, and I had never thought about that.  I thought once you go to sleep and wake up… but when you think about time. He said, “Because timing is everything.”  And timing is everything.

Life Lessons

At a time where misogyny in jazz was so rampant,  Monk was a great admirer of women in jazz.  He also had a great reverence for the women in his personal life.  Musically, he paid endearing homage to his wife (“Crepuscule With Nellie”), his sister-in-law (“Skippy”) and his niece (“Jackie-ing”).  As part of the village who raised my mother, he also took great pride in this role. “He respected women musically, as mothers, teachers, guidance counselors, if you will, and he also respected their musical ear, which a lot of musicians for some reason, didn’t do,” Mom explains.  “I guess just like in sports.  This was before my time, but it carried on to where I would witness it: Whenever he would write a tune, he always took it to my mother for her thoughts.  That’s what he thought of her musical ear.  And so he respected women on every level.  He was also a great protector, and you always felt the security, which is very important in a woman’s upbringing.  It gave me a great sense of security and I always felt that I was somebody. Even in public, the way we would be addressed when we were with him, and without him.  And he carried himself in such a way that he could demand that kind of respect for us in his absence.  So I was always very proud.  He and Nellie would also explain his life to us as children and over and over again as we got older, so even though you didn’t totally understand what they were saying on some levels, when you heard it again… he was constantly feeding.  Because I guess he knew that we would hear a lot of conflicting stories, so no matter what came at us, we were bulletproof… I wouldn’t care what it was.  And even if it had validity to it, it didn’t affect us at all.  The negativity never affected us.  Thinking about it now, that was really something.  But… we were one.  We were strong, and it was like an unconditional love relationship to protect him as he protected us, and it’s just amazing to accomplish that.  They did a hell of a job in our grooming in that way.  And we stood very strong, and we still do to this day.  Through his teaching, we had an understanding of what money was, and what you should and shouldn’t do for it.  He would always say, ‘In life, be careful what you compromise.’  Always know in all directions.  Always, meaning forever and in all ways.  And had he not lived by those rules, he, of course, would not be who he is.  And so he could have made money many, many years before he started making money, but by not compromising, you really win in the end.  So, money comes when it’s right and for the right reasons.  And so in that kind of teaching, people have come to us — not just me, but my other brothers and sisters — with all kinds of ideas to write about him, [or ask about] “family secrets” and all the things they don’t know, which is a lot.  And it’s never been appealing, it’s never been a question or a waver.  It’s almost offensive for you to ask.  To this day, if someone asks a question about him, we’re reluctant to what we give up.  And so that’s in stone.”♦

A Message In Our Music Part 2: Christian McBride

Simply put, there are bassists, and then there’s Christian McBride.

With a career as a musician, composer, arranger, and producer, which began two decades ago, McBride has since set thee standard and captivated fellow musicians and audiences alike with his astounding technical superiority, his inventive, demiurgic vocabulary, and a sound which is as tremendous as the Philly native’s outgoing presence and infectious charm.  McBride is the most significant bassist to come along in the last twenty years, and is inarguably, one of the greatest to ever play the instrument.

In and outside of the jazz genre, McBride has collaborated, recorded, arranged for and performed with many of the most essential artists in the business: Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, McCoy Tyner, Roy Haynes, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Isaac Hayes, Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, Lalah Hathaway, Sting, Carly Simon, Bruce Hornsby, The Roots, D’Angelo, Queen Latifah, and Kathleen Battle.  You can also add the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, to this royal roll call.  (McBride is a self-proclaimed James Brown connoisseur and avid footage collector.  Don’t go there with the man.)

McBride has an illustrious recording career, with over ten albums as a leader, and his latest album, The Good Feeling (Mack Avenue), earned him a Grammy award this past week.  His first big band recording, McBride rallied an array of dynamic musicians including Steve Wilson, Ron Blake, Nicholas Payton, and Xavier Davis.

 McBride has a long history of making bold statements away from his instrument, an attribute which has resulted in the imploring of so many esteemed organizations and initiatives.  He spoke on former President Bill Clinton’s town hall meeting “Racism in the Performing Arts”.  His four movement suite, “The Movement, Revisited”, which is dedicated to civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was commissioned by the Portland (ME) Arts Society and the National Endowment for the Arts.  In 2005, he was also named co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.  Reminiscent of the protagonism of James Brown, McBride has an uncanny ability to use his musical stature to foster social awareness.  It was an honor to sit with him, especially for this particular occasion.

Check out our discussion about three of McBride’s most essential politically-influenced albums.

Sonny Rollins Freedom Suite

“Well you know, Sonny has been a master of his instrument and craft for so long,” says McBride.  “Particularly if you listen to Sonny in the 50s.  His sound, his vibe… everything about him was pure Harlem.  I bought this record when I was in high school… maybe 9th or 10th grade. The reason why I love the freedom suite so much [is because]…if you ask most Black folks our age, and maybe even a generation before, what the greatest protest album, or politically aware album is, they’ll almost always say [Marvin Gaye’s] What’s Going On.  And I don’t have a problem with that.  We all know that it’s an absolute masterpiece…an unquestionable masterpiece.  But I find that’s the only album most people know.  That was 1971.  Freedom Suite is 1958, and the jazz musicians have been ahead of the political/musical curve for a very, very long time.  The Birmingham bus boycott was only three years old, and to my knowledge, Sonny Rollins and Max Roach were the only two musicians from that generation really overtly dealing with it.  Even in Sonny’s liner notes, where he talks about the “American Negro”.  To think that Sonny was that aware, or jazz musicians were that aware and would make a record about it in 1958…that really says a lot.  And so we know that he was obviously very socially and politically aware and active but then the music, the piece itself…the Freedom Suite…man, that’s some of the greatest music ever.”

As likely with many of my readers, I have felt a sense of social and political abandonment in Black popular music and other artistic mediums, which is quite disheartening.  To think that we’ve “arrived” in any way, is a sadly misguided ideology, and one I believe to be very dangerous.  Struggle is not akin to weakness.  In fact, it is quite the contrary.  To me, struggle is action.  I asked McBride about this expression in jazz and whether or not this is something that has, as in popular music, been wiped from the musical dialogue.

“I think there are a lot of cats out there who are making some very serious music that is politically and culturally aware,” says McBride.  “It might not have the same impact as it might have in the 50s when it was still, relatively, an unheard of thing.  But I think there are some musicians now whose creativity is fueled by what goes on in our culture and our world.  People like Orrin Evans, Russell Gunn…I myself have written an opus which will hopefully be released this year on Mack Avenue.  I think there are a lot of cats out there who really know what’s going on.  How it would be accepted is another thing.  Because I think we’ve all gotten too comfortable.  And I don’t mean that in the sense that to be politically and socially aware, that necessarily means that you have to be angry, but you gotta at least speak up for what you believe needs to happen.  Like Nicholas [Payton] starting people talking again about Black American Music…and I whole heartedly agree with him 100%.  Especially with the part [about the] resistance anytime Black people want to claim something.  We take different approaches to how we convey the message, but the sentiment is exactly on the same page.”

 Max Roach We Insist!

I was really happy that Christian picked this album to discuss, particularly because of the presence of Abbey Lincoln.  As discussed with Jason Moran in Part 1, anytime a woman’s perspective can be added to the discussion of social justice in America, it is to the benefit of everyone.

“I got to play that piece once with Branford Marsalis; it was me, Branford and Brian Blade,” McBride reminisces.   “That was so much fun.  But anyway, Max is on the Freedom Suite, and Sonny of course, was in Max’s group with Clifford Brown in the 50s.  Once the movement really did become “The Movement”, Max Roach was there early.  Max was very outspoken; he was very politically active in the movement before it caught fire.  He and Abbey.  When you hear Abbey Lincoln singing “Driver Man”…she’s another one.  When it comes to the civil rights era, music and black females, sadly, I think she unfairly gets overshadowed by Nina Simone.  But Abbey…you’ve got to give her her props.  What she and Max did together for many, many, many years — not just on We Insist! either — was very much ahead of its time and very influential on a broad scale because we all know Max was tight with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, and Dr. King, and the Black Panthers later on.  Max Roach was actually part of J.Edgar Hoover’s file cabinet; somebody did a story about that a few years ago.  He was being followed by the FBI.  Max was deep, deep in it.  So an album like We Insist! really puts it in perspective.”

Duke Ellington Black, Brown and Beige

Since Black folks came to this country, I suppose the issue of approach to our freedom has been a debated one.  During the civil rights era, the level of militancy neccesary was a constant debate, and what is deemed “militant” was another.  Even in music, this has been and still is, a point of contention.  Here, McBride illustrates how.

“There was an interview that Duke did for a Black newspaper in the late 60s, and the writer asked Duke, ‘Well how come you don’t write music for the people?’  The arrogance of youth, [laughs]!  And Duke, in his usual, classy, elegant and sophisticated style says, ‘Well I think I address those issues with Black, Brown and Beige’, and the guy says, ‘Well, what is that?!’

I have a hard time believing anything considered modern or…when you look at how we’ve evolved allegedly as a people, it’s hard to think that we made strides that Duke Ellington hadn’t already made long before anybody was even thinking about stuff like that.  You look at Duke Ellington’s music from the 20s, through the 30s, through the 40s…Duke was always addressing the beauties, the victories and the pains of Black folk.  Always been there, always.  So Duke was very much a role model and an example of someone who understood that he had a greater responsibility than to just write good music for his band.  He was always about the cry of his people.

Duke was always somehow able to express and convey the feelings of Black folk without being angry.  You could feel the sadness, pain, angst, but it was always done through this filter, this lens of triumph in the end… or hope.  I think that’s what separated Duke from the rest of the pack.

Now, speaking of this album specifically, you’ve got Mahalia Jackson.  These are two titans arguably at the peak of their powers collaborating together.  When you talk about fusion, to my knowledge, I can think of no greater example of one of the earliest collaborations of jazz and gospel. I know Milt Jackson and Ray Brown did it with Marion Williams in the 60s, but Duke and Mahalia…it gets no better than that.”♦

Listen to Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson, and Dianne Reeves sing “Freedom Day” in honor of Abbey Lincoln on JazzSet live at The Kennedy Center.

Orrin Evans: On Big Band and Taking Bigger Stands

Photo by Angelika Beener

Last week, I caught up with Orrin Evans for an interview for Alternate Takes.  The pianist, composer and band leader was in town for a gig at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village with his much-buzzed-about big band.  A couple of songs into the second set, Evans turns his famously hospitable energy toward the audience, as he introduces the band.  “Welcome to Captain Black Big Band.  For those of you who have read my recent Facebook rants, Captain Black is the tobacco my Dad used to smoke,” Evans defends.  “…but I am wearing a dashiki, so it can mean whatever you want it to!”

He proceeds to introduce the tune the band just played – “Captain Black.”  He then jokes encouragingly to his predominately White audience. “Come on guys, you can take it,” speaking of all of the “Black” references being tossed in their laps at lightning speed.  It is classic Orrin Evans fashion to make his audience laugh, think and cringe, all at the same time.  His honesty, though sometimes tough to hear (depending on where you’re coming from) is distinctively wrapped in warmth and convincingly well-intentioned.

Evans’ recent “Facebook rants” about Blacks mobilizing in the jazz industry in terms of an increased level of participation and ownership on the business side, among some other topics, have received some heated backlash from a few, and even apprehension to concede from some of his Black contemporaries.  For Evans, his philosophies are ingrained; the result of a household filled with robust cultural awareness and exposure, education, and a fierce intention to raise a child who was keenly aware, and secure with his identity.  “My father was Professor of African American Studies for 30 years at Trenton State College, and Professor of English at Princeton University, and I grew up in the Black arts movement because he was also a playwright.  Then I grew up with my mom who was an opera singer who came through Opera Ebony and Opera North which was the Black opera company, so in my house it was constantly ‘hold you head high.’”  When it came to the cruel names his dark-complexioned sister was taunted by, Evans reflects on his parents’ response, citing just one of the countless teachable moments that they would take advantage of throughout his upbringing.  “My father would grab all the kids in the neighborhood, and sit them on the steps and say ‘Check this out.  This is Africa and this is why there are different complexions…’  So that’s how I grew up.  So I can’t do anything different.”

Orrin Evans grew up in Philadelphia, PA, and emerged on the New York City jazz scene in the mid-90s after attending the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. A flourishing time for young jazz musicians, he was quickly recognized as an exceptional talent, and released his first album as a leader in 1994, and has at least ten more albums under his belt, to date.  He has dozens of recording credits, and has played with an array of jazz and popular artists like Bobby Watson, Pharoah Sanders, Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove, Mos Def, Common, Dave Douglas, Brandford Marsalis, Sean Jones, Ravi Coltrane, and The Mingus Big Band.  He is a label executive, producer, arranger, educator and most recently, a big band director.

Posi-Tone Records

Captain Black Big Band is comprised of a combination of local and renowned jazz musicians from the Philadelphia and New York area and has included Ralph Bowen, Wayne Escoffery, Tia Fuller, Jaleel Shaw, Tatum Greenblatt, Brian Kilpatrick, Tim Warfield, Stafford Hunter, Frank Lacy, Brent White, Todd Marcus, Luques Curtis, Anwar Marshall, Gene Jackson, and Donald Edwards – – to name some.  The album, which bears the same name as the band, is comprised of original tunes by Evans, Ralph Peterson, Gianluca Renzi and Todd Marcus.  It is a joyous and meaningful assemblage of music, life and love, captured via live recording dates in both NYC and Philly.  I was caught off guard when Evans explained the genesis of such an ambitious project.  “The idea behind it was just boredom,” says Evans.  “That’s the truth.  Sometimes living in Philly, and that two hour commute to New York…I just wanted to do something.  And I had just gotten back from Portugal where I led this big band of college students, and I thought, wow, that was kind of fun, and I said well maybe I’ll do this during my down time in Philly. Nothing more.  But then when it started, I said this is really coming together.  And I have to admit, I married the right partner.  My wife was like alright, you’re bullshitting, we’re gonna do a record; gotta do the record.  I just did this to be doing it, and it kinda grew into something.  I called on other friends to fill in where some of the college students who were in Philly couldn’t handle.  I called Gene Jackson and Donald Edwards, and a lot of other people.  And I’ve never arranged for a big band.  And the thing is, people think that I did all these arrangements.  Charles Mingus didn’t do a lot of arrangements for his big band.  I wrote the tunes and then I was blessed to have Todd Bashore do a pile of arrangements and so the band started coming together.  And my thing is, what I’ve realized was like, New York…actually the industry…they want something to talk about.  So, here it is; Orrin Evans’ next thing.”

If you’re trying to keep up with Evans — good luck.  High on energy and ideas, he’s already working on the next big band album, as well as a new release from his group Tar Baby; a trio that includes bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits.  Based on a concept from African-American folklore, Tar Baby represents a powerful message.  “I grew up with Uncle Remus.  My father, like I said, was a playwright and used to read Uncle Remus stories.  The story of the tar baby is pretty much that Br’er Rabbit wanted to trick everybody and you can grab the tar baby and you’re stuck on what is real.  So we all got into a thing that tar baby is jazz. These other musicians — black, white, purple, green — don’t wanna grab onto.  They don’t wanna get stuck on the concept that this is Black music.  So there it is, and Tar Baby was born.”

Last year, Evans also released Faith In Action, which received critical acclaim.  The album is a tribute to one of his most important mentors, Bobby Watson.  A bold and inspiring homage, Faith In Action is a strong argument for playing the music of the living; a seemingly lost tradition in jazz today.  “I’ve recorded Duane Eubanks tunes, a Chris Beck (a 20-something year old drummer from Philly) tune on my last record.  A big part of it is that I have never forgotten where I came from.  Everybody came through Bobby Watson, I don’t care who you are.  If you’re in the same age range as me — between 32 and 55 – you came up through Bobby Watson.  Frank Lacy came through Bobby Watson, Chris McBride.  Roy Hargrove; his first recording date was with Bobby Watson.  Benny Green.  I mean, I can go down the list.  Regardless of what people may think.  People may say ‘Bobby’s cool…’ and Bobby is cool.  Bobby may not be John Coltrane.  Bobby may not be Kenny Garrett; I don’t really care.  The point is, how did I get in the door?  The problem is a lot of us forget where we came from.  I remember being in the Metronome, and I was playing with Rodney Whitaker and Ralph Bowen.  And remember seeing Bilal, Robert Glasper…all of them were there checking out the music.  They’ve always been checking out the music.  They will always talk about that time.  That time meant something to them.  The problem now is a lot of younger musicians are like ‘I’m just here,’ like they’re in Star Trek and they pressed a button and they morphed here.  I cannot deny that I got in the door through Bobby Watson. He opened the door and let me in. That’s all that record was about.  Let me play his music.”

From L-R: David Gibson, Bruce Williams, Orrin Evans, Conrad Herwig, Andy Hunter, Tim Green. Photo by A. Beener

Like so many before him, Evans has kept with the tradition of not just paying homage to those pivotal figures in his life, but utilizing jazz music’s vital role as a means of social commentary with his stirring composition, “Jena 6.”  Songs like Ambrose Akinmusire’s “My Name is Oscar” and “Jena 6” are unfortunate reminders of the world we live in.  I asked about the importance of telling these stories in jazz.   “Now it’s important to tell the story through the music and dot-dot-dot…whatever medium that is.  And when you get the microphone and on Facebook and on Twitter, ‘cuz others need to hear that story.  You never know.  Like today is my mother’s birthday.  But that’s important for me to tell tonight because I’m 36 years old and don’t have either one of my parents.  But I still feel empowered.  So, I tell that story because someone in that audience that I’m gonna play for tonight might have lost their mother, or may have lost their father.   So it’s important for me to play “Jena 6,” because I’m telling a story just like Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.”  Just like Max, or Miles, but I can’t let it stop with playing a song.  Because sometimes you play the song and nobody knows who Orval Faubes was.  Nobody knows that he’s the dude who prevented desegregation in schools, so you have to say it, too.”

It is perhaps the “saying” that many of today’s musicians are struggling with, especially in the shrinking music industry climate.  “There’s tons of people that come to mind that are really willing to speak up.  But there’s also a lot of people that are scared.  They’re really scared because they’re all grabbing for the same thing.  There’s four booking agents, there’s four managers, and those people are in control of… you look at the top jazz people who I love and respect.  They’re like, if I wanna play there, I need to be cool with this person, so everyone is holding on to the little bit that they have.  That’s number one.  They don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

For reasons understandable, Evans takes the relationships with his band mates seriously; especially off of the bandstand.  The social climate seems to suggest that bringing up truthful points — not opinion — is enough for an artist to be labeled with unfair and assumed agendas or platforms.  For Evans’ supporters (or supporters of any other Black jazz musician that dare have a mind to speak), there is an understanding that there may be consequence for any level of an agreeable attitude.  To illustrate, two artists (whose names will not be mentioned here) have had their record labels contacted, and were specifically asked not to comment on Evans’ Facebook comments.  Though Evans’ fans and supporters far outweigh the few who are taking issue, the horror of what that kind of action symbolizes in the grand scheme of things is worthy of the dedication of an entirely separate post.  But for Evans, it is quite simple.  “My lead alto player calls me an hour before you got here and couldn’t make it [for the Zinc Bar gig tonight].  So I’m thinking, is there a shortage of lead alto players in New York?  No.  Is there a shortage of lead alto players that are comfortable with my rants on Facebook?  That have known me, known my wife, are familiar with my kids, and know where I’m coming from?  Yes.  So I’m like, shit.”  Of course, Evans gets his altoist before the end of our time together, but his point is well taken.  “I just need family around me.  I wanna look at every person on that bandstand, and they know me.  They know my family.  That’s really important to me.  Not just ‘cuz you the baddest cat.  I can call the baddest cat.  We all can.”

On his way back from Texas to New York to meet me for this interview, Evans’ described his appreciation for the flood of phone calls and text messages he received from an array of jazz industry figures as he walked through Newark airport.  For Evans, the abundance of messages of hopes that he’ll continue to do this all important — if sometimes unpopular — enlightening, is motivation enough.

In terms of music, Evans is proving to be more prolific than ever.  Recently placing in this year’s DownBeat Critics Poll in the Big Band category, and releasing the gorgeous and relentlessly swinging Freedom (Posi-Tone) and several projects coming down the pike, Evans is still one of jazz music’s top contenders. ♦

Nellie & Thelonious — A Love Supreme

In the recent and definitive biography of Thelonious Monk, author Robin D.G. Kelley describes the jazz icon’s’ relationship to his wife Nellie as true love personified; something that is seemingly rare between Black folks, if you let jazz “historians” tell it.  Black love, and Black women in particular, have been calculatingly omitted from the history of jazz as lovers, wives, caregivers, and backbones of the art form.  Mrs. Monk is no exception…that is until now.  In Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, Kelley seems to purposely set out to straighten the record.  “There would be no Thelonious Monk without Nellie,” he plainly stated in our recent conversation.  “That is the most important fact I took away from the decade and a half I spent working on Monk’s biography.” 

In Thelonious Monk, Kelley debunks, and clarifies several myths that have been perpetuated about Monk, his music, his mental condition, and his capabilities as a musician.  But perhaps most intriguing is the amount of care and depth he takes in re-introducing Nellie Monk to the history of jazz.  Further, describing Thelonious as a “committed father and family man”, Kelley expounds upon the nature of their relationship which included a romance of over forty years, marriage, children, family and one of the most unique bonds in jazz.

I could not have been happier and more thankful for Kelley’s emendation.  While the media and implausible journalism have gone above and beyond to place Mrs. Monk in the shadows of Pannonica de Koenigswarter, (“Jazz Baroness” and close friend of the Monks), Kelley deflates the fantasy that Thelonious and Pannonica were ever romantically involved or that she was a savior or sorts.  I still find it curious that writers and critics devote so much ink to the support Monk enjoyed from the Baroness and yet barely mention Nellie.”

It is my feeling that we can chalk this attempt and so many others up to America’s incessant need to display the relationship between Blacks as anything but coherent, most devastatingly, on the subject of love and romance between man and woman.  Throughout history, we have seen Black men forced to fight to legitimize not only their own manhood, but also their love for their women.  In music, we see one of the greatest examples of this in Miles Davis’ beautifully audacious move to insist that the women who would grace his album covers be Black, in a time where Black women were not only fighting to be a recognized standard of beauty, but also fighting against a stigma that said they were not even desired by their own men, but second best to White women.  However, it is clear that Thelonious not only adored Nellie, but if we let the music speak, he certainly thought highly of Black women, and cherished his family.  In addition to “Crepuscule With Nellie”, his love ballad to his wife, Thelonious endeared his music to his sister-in-law, niece, and daughter with tunes like “Skippy”, “Jackie-ing” and “Boo Boo’s Birthday”.

Overall, the lack of Black female presence in jazz is still a problem today.  The purposeful divide that puts Black women in a precarious position to defend their role is still evident.  Other than the images of entertainer or addict, Black women are not well documented in the overall jazz landscape.  Any role of power or leadership is almost always attempted to be obliterated from the fabric of America’s original art.  But they were there, and many of jazz music’s biggest names would not be, without these unsung heroines.  “She was so much more than a ‘helpmate’ or ‘backbone’ or any of the other adjectives often bandied about to describe Nellie,” Kelley proclaims.  “Besides being an incredibly supportive wife and devoted mother, she was his very best friend, at times his business manager, road manager, accountant, breadwinner, critic, sage, confidant, nurse, protector, and lover, among other things.  I’m convinced that theirs was one of the great romances in jazz; unlike the stereotypical image of Nellie as the submissive helpmate.  She was Monk’s equal with a mind of her own and aspirations to match.”

This public and purposeful correction about Mrs. Monk is such a prolific stride in Black history, because it informs the much larger issue of the importance of Black women in America. It also proves the importance of having a broader spectrum of historians writing about jazz.  (But that’s a topic for another post – and will be).

Thanks Dr. Kelley.  Finally, another deserving Black woman has emerged a hero.

Gil Noble: Jazz, Journalism, Lessons and Legacy

Rest in peace to the GREAT Gil Noble.  A last name such as yours could not be more befitting.  A great debt is owed you from not only the Black community, but the world.  What would journalism be without you?

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Originally posted October, 2011

After 43 years on the air, last Sunday, ABC’s Like It Is came to a sudden and saddening end.  Emmy award winning producer and host Gil Noble suffered a stroke this past July, and the fate of the program had been subsequently undetermined.  The last episode, which re-aired yesterday, was hosted by ABC newscaster Lori Stokes and featured Noble’s daughter Lisa, Bill Cosby, Danny Glover, Al Sharpton, journalists Bill McCreary and Les Payne, and New York City Councilman Charles Barron, who praised Noble’s maverick style of journalism, having profiled political prisoners like Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu Jamal.  Noble, who has interviewed some of the most prolific figures in American history, from Adam Clayton Powell, to Muhammad Ali, to Bob Marley, is known for being one of the most provocative journalists of our time.  With Noble ultimately becoming unable to return to the public affairs program, ABC has created a replacement called Here and Now, which is receiving push back from the Black community for its seemingly half-hearted development.  There is also concern that the new program, while promising to pay particular interest to topics relevant to the Black community, will not be in the same raw spirit, which is Noble’s legacy.  If that’s to be so, it’s a real shame.  There has been no other program that has given voice to the totality of Black America — politics, current and public affairs, arts, culture and more — than Like It Is.  Further, I can’t think of a journalist more progressive, introspective, and passionate than Gil Noble.  He was also the first image of a Black journalist that I had ever seen, which made an indelible impression on my conscious and subconscious young mind. Growing up watching Like It Is every Sunday was as routine as afternoon football, church, or any other traditional Sunday activity.  Being part of a household which nurtured both the arts, and social and cultural awareness, Like It Is was a reflection of my real life lessons and experiences, particularly as it pertained to jazz.

Noble, an accomplished pianist who initially pursued a career in music, is an avid jazz lover.  He has been on the Board of Directors and involved with Jazz Foundation of America for many years, and he frequently showcased jazz musicians on his program. Unlike the comically short and incomprehensive interview segments that are so typical when it comes to jazz profiles on television, Noble would dedicate his entire program to the likes of Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Abbey Lincoln, Dr. Billy Taylor, Lena Horne, Max Roach, Carmen McRae, Erroll Garner, and Wynton Marsalis.  His narratives, in-depth and introspective, helped develop my broad view of how jazz musicians could be perceived beyond my own personal understanding.  Noble presented jazz in journalism from a vantage unlike anyone else.  He was not only a student and lover of jazz music but a strong advocate for young people having a solid education on the subject.

During his interview with jazz pioneer Sarah Vaughan, she takes him on a tour of her Newark, New Jersey home town, which included a stop by her elementary school.  The children playing in the school yard of the building gravitate toward the cameras, and chat it up with the host and his subject.  As they begin to walk away, Noble stops in his tracks and addresses the students through the school’s gate.  “Do you know who this lady is?,” he asks.  He then responds to the rounds of flat “No’s” with, “No?  That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?” Noble’s blunt yet eloquent scrutiny was his signature.  As he walks away he underscores, “If you don’t know who she is, when you go back to class, ask your music teacher who she is, and why she never told you about her.”

I may have been fortunate to have been exposed to the arts and jazz from a child, therefore enjoying the reinforcement on television, but it was not until adulthood that I realized how immensely crucial and precious this program was for that one example alone.  That the likes of this type of education was reaching a network television audience every week remains monumental.  So you can understand my elation to make his acquaintance about five years ago.

When trumpeter Charles Tolliver was preparing to release his big band album, With Love, he had a distinct vision for his project, down to the liner notes, which he implored Gil Noble to write.  Tolliver, who got his professional start through his friend and mentor, saxophonist Jackie McLean, wanted to pay homage in a personal way.  Noble grew up with McLean in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, and they were best friends from childhood on.  Tolliver thought it would be most fitting and honorable if Noble would pen the notes for his Blue Note debut (which he did, beautifully).

Working on this album with Tolliver, I remember that blustery day, trekking up to ABC in the Lincoln Center vicinity to talk details with Mr. Noble and Mr. Tolliver.  There were full circle moments to go around that day, for both Tolliver and myself.  For me, meeting the man who inspired my perspective about jazz coverage in mainstream media, would prove life-changing.

We sat in a waiting area initially, and then we were brought into Noble’s office.  We waited about ten minutes for him to join us, during which time I timidly perused his immense library of books.  The room was adorned with African artifacts, artwork and posters, including the famed photo of 52nd Street nightlife in New York City, which was the hub for bebop in the 1940s.  When he entered the room, my stomach dropped.  He is a tall man, but his presence was ten times that of his height, though his demeanor is intensely quiet, similar to his on-air persona.  He sat disarmingly relaxed behind his desk, and Tolliver and I opened the conversation.

We talked about music, and Charles’ project, but mostly about Jackie.  J-Mac, as he was nicknamed, had just passed away, and I could see the sadness in Noble’s eyes as he spoke of him.  The loss of his best friend was obviously hard, and the vacancy in Noble’s heart was transparent.  Noble talked about their childhood, their adventures together as teenagers, and he spoke specifically about the way drugs plagued the lives and careers of so many jazz musicians, and how McLean, who suffered from and conquered drug addiction, educated him about the music industry, as it related to the fragility of growing up Black in that era.  It was a conversation that I will never, ever, ever forget.  Getting a one-one-one education from someone as brilliant and wise as Noble, in the presence of a jazz master in Charles Tolliver, discussing a jazz giant in Jackie McLean was an experience I don’t think many are fortunate to have.  Yet now more than ever, these experiences are crucial. The climate of mainstream jazz journalism (and especially criticism) today is not only broadly monochromatic and misguidedly audacious, as usual, but technological advances give voice to virtually anyone who feels like being an authority on jazz, which isn’t always a good thing.  (Examples: Writers who haven’t lived as many years as some artists have had professional careers making proclamations about who is and isn’t innovative, or telling off the Black community of jazz musicians, blaming them for why they are being left out of the dialogue.)

[Taking a deep breath].

Additionally, writers seem to be writing for other writers, rather than using their platforms to work in tandem with the music and nurture a community at large which — fathom this — actually gives a damn.  The dangerous duo of ego and lack of diversity remains the affliction that keeps journalism in jazz from reaching full potential.  Too many journalists in jazz have traditionally put themselves in front of the artists, and ahead of the music. Moreover, there is still a severe lack of proportion when it comes to editorial and coverage of African American jazz musicians.  This subject itself highlights the unfortunate division within jazz as it pertains to race, with Blacks and Whites largely on total opposite ends on the matter. However, if the spectrum of journalists reflected the diversity of the musicians playing this music, we would have a much better representation of the music overall. Balance is crucial, and autonomy in jazz journalism is ridiculous.

What watching Gil Noble all of these years, and having that candid and personal conversation with him has taught me is infinite.  But in more specific terms, what it taught me is that as a writer, especially a writer of color, I have to be passionate about truth.

Your allowance of my elaboration, please.

Tim Soter/WireImage

The beauty of being a writer, or of performing any artistic expression, is freedom.  In that freedom, there is the allowance to see, hear, feel and interpret things as one wishes.  It is truly liberating, and as a writer, I am the last one to impose the gall that I so detest in journalism on other writers.  In other words, “Do you.”  But what I am saying is that as a Black person, writing about a Black art form, which is mainly analyzed, critiqued and examined through the scope of White men, I have a duty beyond being poetic or incitable. There is another level of responsibility, and here lies the essence of Noble’s genius.  His depictions of artists were always supported with a social contextualization (let’s go back to his doubling-back to those students with that message about Sarah Vaughan).  Jazz is one art form that cannot be written about it a bubble, because it is distinctively intertwined with a culture.  Why this is a concept that is resisted and resented in journalism is bewildering to me.

But thank goodness for Gil Noble.  He is my hero.  Acutely informed, with an immense amount of integrity and creativity, he has laid the groundwork that I can only hope to aspire to build upon.  His passion for jazz and politics, and his ability to create a television program which successfully married these subjects for all audiences, for decades, is most inspiring.  Most importantly, his convictions spoke through his journalism, but his journalism did not speak through his convictions.  He didn’t have to spend time identifying who he is to his audience…it’s eloquently obvious in everything he produced.  That’s class.

It is my hope that Like It Is will remain on the air somehow (perhaps through syndication, a-hem, a-hem, BET and TV1, step up).  Most importantly, I hope his wish for the program’s archives to be utilized in schools comes to fruition. It is a sorely needed narrative.

Interestingly, Like It Is debuted just two months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and was largely inspired by this event.  The last broadcast of Like It Is aired on the same day as Dr. King’s memorial dedication.