Celebrating One Year of ‘Alternate Takes’

The first milestone!  One year ago this month, Alternate Takes was launched.  After going over it in my head, waiting for timing to meet opportunity, I finally decided to add my voice to the much needed conversation about musical, social and political ideas, with jazz as the nexus.  One year ago, I would not have imagined how well it would be received (thank you!), and how many lessons I would learn from my generous subjects.  In honor of Alternate Takes’ first anniversary, I’d love to share some highlights, and favorite moments thus far.

Ahmir & Angelika

My first interview for Alternate Takes was with Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson of The Roots (can’t beat that inauguration, huh?) My main objective was to speak with him about the Grammy category cuts, which had just occurred.  Although this was the focus of the interview, Ahmir is a person who has so much knowledge and wisdom that you just want to have your listening ears on all of the time, or you’re sure to miss something edifying.  One of the great music minds of a generation.

Speaking of wisdom, the interview which author and scholar Robin D.G. Kelley graciously granted me about his Thelonious Monk biography is one of my favorites.  A lot of that certainly has to do with inescapable Monk sentimentality on my part, but so much of it has to do with Kelley’s brilliance in bringing Nellie Monk to the conscience of anyone who claims to be a jazz scholar, with his re-imagining of what it means to be a woman in jazz.  On my quest to write critically about jazz, there is no shortage of seasoned writers to model after.  However, I want to model after the great ones, and Kelley is a leader of that esteemed and very small pack.  Geri Allen speaks about the importance of a broader spectrum of writers in our interview also.

Trumpeter Nicholas Payton has emerged as one of the most important voices off of his instrument.  I was privileged to talk to him last May for Alternate Takes.  This was pre-Black American Music (BAM) movement, of which he is at the helm.  It is my feeling that it’s very special to capture a person’s mind at the burgeoning stage of whatever they are producing, and I was able to do that with Nicholas, so I really cherish this interview.

I’ve spoken several times about the significance my mom has had in my life as the first female jazz enthusiast I’d been exposed to, and it was nothing short of an honor to interview her for the Growing Up Jazz series, along with Dara Roach.  It was also really fun doing the Mother’s Day playlist for her, which I think will be an annual thing.  You guys seemed to really enjoy that.

The Drummers Who Compose series was one of the most enlightening journeys for me.  As open and exposed as I like to think I am, it was most eye-opening to learn about the process of composition from master drummers Adam Cruz, Kendrick Scott, E.J. Strickland, Ari Hoenig, Eric Harland and Johnathan Blake.  I received a lot of great feedback from this series, and even some requests of other drummers you all would like to see covered.  The next instrument in the series is going to be bass, by the way, so look for that in the months to come!

Photo by Gianina Ferreyra

A big part of the goal with Alternate Takes was to showcase the younger generation of movers and shakers in the business.  For this reason, interviews with Ambrose Akinmusire, Gretchen Parlato, Marcus Strickland, Kenneth Whalum III and Kris Bowers were a joy.  Their ideas, passion and commitment are powerful forces in this music, and I hope you will continue to support them.  They are game-changing, inspiring artists.  If you missed their stories, please check them out.

If you’re a true hip hop head, it does not get any better than talking to a member of A Tribe Called Quest.  Last year, their seminal The Low End Theory hit its twenty year milestone, and I had the honor of talking to Ali Shaheed Muhammad about this and a whole lot of other subjects, like the group working with Ron Carter.  What a gracious interviewee.

This year kicked off with A Message In Our Music, and having Jason Moran and Christian McBride to talk to about socially conscious jazz was honestly a dream come true.  The level of intellect and accessibility these men displayed turned my blog into an amazing classroom.  I learned so much, and I think a lot of you did also.

With so much to talk about from over the last year, it’s daunting to think about matching it, but it’s my promise to all of you (and myself) to do so this year.  2012 has started off just grand, and this month I’ve ventured into the scholarly world, guest speaking at the University of Pennsylvania, at the invitation of the brilliant Dr. Guthrie Ramsey.  I spoke with both he and the mind-mezmerizing Dr. Shalamishah Tillet during their Jazz Is a Woman course.  What a thrill!  The inspiration of the students is something I can’t put into words…yet.  I’ll be looking to do more of this type of work, and I’ll be keeping you posted on it.  You can still find me over at Nextbop as part of their talented team, as well as other jazz publications, contributing stories. For Alternate Takes, sending you all a huge thanks for your readership, involvement and support.  Onward!

Truly,

Angelika

Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Last Holiday’

“One of the things that was evident to me way back when I’d gotten into John Coltrane’s music was that you had to keep reaching.  I think when you stop reaching, you die.”  Gil Scott-Heron’s words are powerful when you think about the impact of the poet, author, musician and activist, (who would have been 63 years old this month), which produces a list as extensive in range as the profound gifts he shared with the world.  His social anthems “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, “The Bottle” and “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” not only elucidated the plights and resilience of Black Americans, but were progenitorial inspiration for hip-hop’s modern messengers like Public Enemy, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and fellow Chicago native, Common.  That his impact is perhaps even greater than we may have understood during his lifetime is what is most resounding in his posthumous memoir, The Last Holiday (Grove Press).  The book’s title refers to Scott-Heron’s experiences as the opening act of Stevie Wonder’s 1980 tour which primarily served as a vehicle to create awareness and garner support of a national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King.  The first and only federal holiday honoring an African American, Scott-Heron gives a touching and vulnerable account of the experience, as well a reminder of the integrality of Wonder’s work. “Somehow it seems that Stevie’s efforts as the leader of this campaign has been forgotten,” he says.  “But it is something that we should all remember.”

Scott-Heron devotes much of the text to his 20s and the women who greatly impelled him.  Raised by his fiercely confident grandmother in the Jim Crow South, Scott-Heron was one of three Black students to integrate his junior high school, and broke similar barriers in high school when he and his mother moved from Jackson, Tennessee to New York in the mid 60s.  His views of America undoubtedly shaped by these experiences, they also gave young Scott-Heron tremendous insight to what was possible, evidenced by his becoming a critically acclaimed novelist and recording artist before his college graduation.

Throughout the book, he seems to purposely clarify that his first and greatest love is writing.  The words on each page make a perfect argument for his passion as a mix of prose, poems, alliterations and vibrant analogies make for total assimilation.  His words glide right off the page as he describes highly inspiring accounts of time spent at Lincoln University, turning down his first book publishing offer, and his ingenious method of gaining a writing fellowship at John Hopkins.  We see his earliest signs of activism his freshman year at Lincoln, when a bandmate of his future longtime collaborator, Brian Jackson, died an avoidable death when the ill-equipped and poorly run campus medical facility failed to aid the student who was suffering from an asthma attack.  Scott-Heron led a school standoff which subsequently shut the school down until a list of personally crafted administrative requests had been met.

Fans of Scott-Heron’s music will appreciate details shared about his relationship with Jackson, whom he credits throughout the book, describing him as both friend, and essential and talented partner.  Recalling the studio session to record “John Coltrane and Lady Day” he writes, “All I’d had for that song at first was a bass line and a chord thing with it.  I never would have been able to really hook up that progression properly if Brian wasn’t there…I didn’t know anything about suspended fourths and all that.”

Although appropriately credited for his influence on hip-hop,  Scott-Heron seems most purely connected to jazz.  “I had an affinity for jazz and syncopation, and the poetry came from the music.”  His mentions of Miles Davis are noteworthy, and there is a definite sense of adoration for him as a cultural figure.  His words are boyishly charming as he tells stories about first hearing a Fender rhodes on Miles in the Sky, or how meeting Michael Jackson some years before he would make a surprise appearance on the MLK tour was “not as electric” as meeting the trumpeter icon. Scott-Heron also must have admired Davis’ band.  Asked who he wanted to work with on what would become the seminal Pieces of a Man, by veteran producer Bob Thiele, Scott-Heron’s wish list of Ron Carter, (along with Hubert Laws and Bernard Purdie) was materialized.

There are a few frustrating points in the book in terms of resolution.  Readers may be left wondering what happened to his relationship with Brian Jackson, or why he grazes over the last 20 some-odd years of his life, making little to no mention about his personal, yet public struggles.  It’s hard to tell if this is a matter of editing, or Scott-Heron exercising his right to let the reader in on as much as he is willing to divulge.  Either way, the areas that he chooses to delve deep are well worth the read, and diminish any gaping.  Though Gil Scott-Heron died last May, he will be remembered as one who never stopped reaching, and through this memoir, for the man who “didn’t want to get stuck doing just one thing”, that reach may become longer than ever. ♦

Jazz Community Responds to Trayvon Martin Tragedy

Trayvon Martin

Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Danroy Henry. Ramarley Graham. Orlando Barlow. Aaron Campbell. Timothy Stansbury. Oscar Grant. In the land of freedom and opportunity, the possibilities for these names to become household ones should be endless, and are what fundamentally define for what America stands, at its core. Instead, these names represent a reality which has been carved out specifically for Black males of this country. Sadly, we add 17-year-old Trayvon Martin to this list of people who will never reach the potential on which America thrives in theory, but fails in practice.

The story of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, Black teenage boy who was stalked and subsequently murdered last month by a crime watch volunteer who deemed him “suspicious” as he walked home from a convenience store, has been elevated to an international one, largely in part by social and Black media outlets.  President Obama has called for  Americans to do some “soul searching”, personalizing the tragedy in a statement last week.  Nationwide rallies and public statements from influential figures in politics, entertainment and elsewhere have taken over mainstream media, which initially all but bypassed this story.  As a mother of a young son, as a journalist, and as a part of the jazz community, it remains a priority for me to do my part in keeping this story in the forefront of the American conscious.  It was also important that sentiments within the jazz community be well represented alongside those of the rest of the world.

Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, (who was not part of a registered watch group, and who has a record for previously assaulting a police officer), has yet to be arrested; protected by one of the scariest laws in the nation. “It’s this backward, unjust, NRA- driven law that has let Zimmerman go free,” says pianist Vijay Iyer of the “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law which is currently in place in 24 states. “[President Obama’s] choice to step into this firestorm was courageous, and also strategic. All the focus has been on the 3-second-long ‘If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon’ quote, but he said some other very important things, too.” Iyer points out that as President, Barack Obama cannot override the law, which was passed in Florida in 2005, but says his statement that ‘we examine the laws and context for what happened’ is a ‘clear reference’ to “Stand Your Ground”.

The following is courtesy of Al Jezeera:

Here is a full explanation of the “Stand Your Ground” bill, as explained by Josh Horwitz, Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (“Arming Zimmerman”).  The first prong of the law explicitly removes an individual’s duty to retreat from a conflict when he/she can safely do so . The second prong explicitly protects killers acting under the first prong:

“A person who uses force as permitted in s. 776.012, s. 776.013, or s. 776.031 is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force … A law enforcement agency … may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.” [emphasis added.]

Despite the racial divide which this story has illuminated, President Obama’s imploring of the nation and its parents to have basic empathy in this case is something drummer Otis Brown III is relating to and coping with. “I explained the whole case and we talked about it,” says Brown who has two sons under ten years old.  “It’s like, do I really have to have a talk with them now about how some people are not going to like them or immediately treat them a certain way  because of the way they look?  We did, and they understood it, but as a parent, it’s kind of disheartening when you see a look come over their face… you see their mind working and I saw it when I was talking to them.  It was definitely a teaching moment. It’s the reality of how we live that you have to talk to your kids, especially Black males and for me, it was a crazy juxtaposition because we were just featured in [Esperanza Spalding’s] “Black Gold” video, and I’m explaining that concept to them… understanding and knowing your worth, and no more than a year later I have to, on the other hand, explain that some people think you’re worthless.”
Like so many others, Brown used his social media platform to denounce the notion that Trayvon’s hoodie sweatshirt somehow led him to a death sentence.  “The stats of how violent Black youth may be or how they dress is an ad hominem argument to the Trayvon Martin case,” says trumpeter Nicholas Payton.  “Zimmerman killed that boy in cold blood. He pursued a young man who was clearly more scared than he. You mean to tell me I need to modify my behavior or style of dress to thwart the danger of being shot by a pathological killer?”

Saxophonist and educator Wade Fulton Dean adds, “Let me be clear, a hoodie or any article of clothing for that matter, is not a catalyst for suspicion or a prediction of criminal activity.  Let’s be real, brothers Malcolm and Martin were struck down in suits.”

Saxophonist Marcus Strickland recounts “one of many” reminders that no matter how Black males may try to appear less “threatening”, (which is a poisonous ideology to begin with) they are not exempt from racial profiling.  “At 19 years old I had the great honor to play with Wynton Marsalis at a very exclusive event.  People of all races were very generous to us with their kind words after the performance.  I felt great!  Then as I walked home from the train that night, still dressed in a tuxedo, with an instrument that was appraised to be $5,000 at that time, strapped to my back, an elderly lady looked back at me and proceeded to walk much faster and get her keys out so she could quickly enter the safety of her apartment building (she also yanked at the door to close it faster).   I thought to myself, ‘No matter what I do, where I go, or how I dress my skin color will always conjure up the same image in the mind of people like this woman.’  Trayvon could have easily been me or anybody else of color, and as you see, a hoodie has nothing at all to do with it.”

“There is nothing we as Black people need to do to stop people from committing hate crimes against us,” says Payton.   “What needs to stop is the idea that the killing of another person based on prejudice is ever justifiable, no matter the race. The notion that we as Blacks have somehow brought this on ourselves is the same red herring they’ve been trying to sell us for centuries. I ain’t buying.”

“A hoodie is worn by people of all colors, not exclusively by dangerous Black males,” adds Strickland.  “Furthermore, not all Black males are dangerous.  The hoodie is not the issue, bigotry is the issue.  Although I deeply appreciate the many pros of the The Post Civil Rights era it is not an era of Post Racism, it is merely the spawn of more excuses and more subtle ways to carry out racism. The Sanford Police Department is full of it, Geraldo is full of it, and Zimmerman should have been arrested by now.  Given George Zimmerman’s history of violence, his racial slur in the 911 call, Zimmerman’s agressive pursuit of Trayvon, and the eye-witnesses’ accounts of no reason for the shooting there is already enough reason to make an arrest.  The tragedy has garnered a response from the President of the United States and the FBI  – shouldn’t that, in addition to the evidence, be enough warning that it’s time for an arrest and trial?  Furthermore, if Trayvon were not Black with a hoodie on would he be shot by Zimmerman?  If Trayvon were were not Black would it take this long for the Sanford Police to realize there is not enough evidence to prove Zimmerman’s innocence?  Has Trayvon’s skin color influenced the Sanford Police departments benefit of the doubt for Zimmerman?  Should the benefit of doubt rule over due process and evidence against Zimmerman?”

The questions posed are deserving of answers, especially to Trayvon’s parents.  Iyer is optimistic, but also calls out the silence and ignorance of right-wing media. “The nationwide grassroots protest movement formed around [this case] has been inspiring.  The national conversation about this incident has been characterized by typical racism and hotheaded ignorance that has become commonplace in the FOX News era, as television commentators continually weigh in without any factual knowledge or expertise.  This has created an ongoing atmosphere of hostility that validates prejudice over justice, righteous indignation over compassion, and divisiveness over community.”

Community has been a big part of this story, and it seems the Black community’s reaction is being put to the test, with a sort of call to action for how Blacks should respond to Black on Black crime.  Spiritual advisor and life coach Iyanla Vanzant spoke this past Sunday on Washington Watch With Roland Martin about the pathology of Black on Black crime, and that by devaluing life, it leaves the community vulnerable to these types of horrific crimes.

Brown points out the nation’s overall blind eye to Trayvon and how devaluing of African American lives is well beyond a Black issue.  “Just a couple of weeks ago, there were millions of people  trying to get Joseph Kony… White, Black, whatever. Retweeting stuff, posting stuff, and now that it’s an American kid that gets killed… it’s real lopsided that we have mostly people of color protesting. You don’t really see other races galvanizing in the same way, but Joseph Kony, it’s like, ‘Oh he’s a war criminal.’  So are African kids more valuable than African America kids?  It shouldn’t be the case the either way, but there should be the same amount of uproar for this case.”

“It angers me that America still is hell-bent on painting blackness with this wide, uninformed, mono-chromatic brush,” says Dean. “Blackness is not a stereotype; blackness is not a mystery. Blackness is a narrative of complexity and triumph. Professor Henry Louis Gates said, ‘If there are forty million black Americans, then there are forty million ways to be black.’ We are indeed a nuanced people. We are equal participants in this brilliant enterprise called America. The suspicions and misconceptions do harm and tarry from participating in celebration which is Black culture. And so I say to all of America, do not label your brown skinned brother and sister. For the label that you attempt to place on them can easily be placed on yourself.”

I cannot say that Trayvon Martin was a “typical kid”.  Black males in America do not have the luxury of such a general, fair and balanced terminology.  Personally, I don’t know a Black male who has not been profiled in some way or another.  “To be honest, I feel like I’m profiled very often,” says saxophonist Jaleel Shaw.  “There have been many times that I’ve been pulled over by the police, double checked at an airport, or watched in stores. Although I can say there are many times that I haven’t, the times that I have definitely stick out. Today, when a cop car is behind me, or before I even walk into some places, I sometimes feel uncomfortable.”

Cards as stacked against us as they are, I cannot help but look at Trayvon Martin as a regular kid; a kid who loved the outdoors, had aspirations of a career in aviation, and had a girlfriend he was crazy about.  He doesn’t just look like President Obama’s potential son, but my own actual one.  Which leaves me breathless.  I have come to grips with the fact that my son’s life lessons, and those of his non-Black friends will be very different.  Teaching my son how to deal with overwhelming racism within law enforcement, and raising him to be a kid who stays out of trouble in the first place, is something I am ready for.  To explain how something like this can happen to a kid who did all of the right things is what I’m not.

**A special thank you to all of the musicians who took time out of their busy schedules to let their voices be heard on this matter.

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.”♦

For Your Consideration: Gregory Porter’s ‘Be Good’

With the sudden and astounding success of singer Gregory Porter’s Grammy-nominated debut album, Water, just fifteen months ago, there’s presumable pressure for his follow up, out this month, to do just as its title states. All can rest assured that there’s no Sophomore Slump Syndrome here; Porter’s Be Good, is. A collection of prismatic originals and hard-to-pull-off standards, Be Good (Motéma) once again displays Porter’s deftness with a pen, and his sentimental inclinations, both romantic and social. This time, the songs appear more personal, and the singer seems to abide even deeper in his own skin. The title track, a melancholy waltz channels the aura of Sammy Davis Jr.’s version of “Mr. Bojangles”, evoking a similar musical juxtaposition of joy and sorrow. “Real Good Hands” is a soul standard in the making, as Porter croons his way into the hearts of hope-to-be in-laws, professing both his unwavering love for their daughter and the realizations of his own developing manhood. Beyond a mere love song, Porter paints a socially imperative picture of Black family values and patriarchal homage between Black men.
Papa, don’t you frettin’
Don’t forget that one day
You was in my shoes
Somehow you paid your dues
Now you’re the picture of the man that I someday wanna be

Porter’s social commentary is somewhat of a theme throughout, with songs like Cannonball Adderley’s “Work Song”, the rarely-utilized heartbreaker, “Imitation of Life”, and his original “On My Way To Harlem” — a song as visual as those written during the Renaissance era in which Porter transports his listener.  Be Good showcases Porter within various levels of accompaniment, with the latter proving that while an unmistakable frontman, Porter is just as comfortable with the band being out front as well. Chip Crawford on piano, Aaron James on bass, Yosuke Sato on alto saxophone, and Emanuel Harrold on drums make up the formidable ensemble, with Tivon Pennicott on tenor, and the sensational Keyon Harrold (brother to Emanuel) on trumpet, as featured guests.

Porter and Crawford perform a gorgeous stripped down rendition of the poignant “Imitation of Life” and “The Way You Want To Live”, showcasing Porter’s vocal dexterity as he flirts with various areas of his vocal range, most notably his unforgettable airiness at the end of his phrases on the more soul-leaning, back-beat ballad. The swinging “Bling Bling” proves that Porter cannot be pegged as just a crooner, as many masterful singers of his ilk often have been. The album closes with Porter singing unaccompanied and unabashedly on “God Bless The Child”. Fascinatingly, he manages to bring a sense of originality and freshness to the standard, and although you can hear a direct influence of Nat Cole here, it comes across as an endearing ode that you want to hear more.

Porter’s ascension is just beginning, and I predict his will be one of the most defining and relevant voices of this generation. By the looks of things (he’s touring extensively and his “Real Good Hands” has already been touted as iTunes’ “Song of the Week”) Be Good will take him right back to the Grammys; as it should.

Growing Up Jazz Part 1: The Biggest Lesson

The first time I sat down with Dara Roach, I walked out on her. I returned to the bar and grill in our Brooklyn neighborhood, but only after a much needed 30-second breather to digest the bomb she dropped on me, most casually between sips of her white wine. Up until this moment, I knew that Dara was a bright, beautiful woman with a magnetic smile. I knew she was, like me, a new mom looking to connect with like-minded local families, with a goal to further enrich our young toddlers’ social activity; the mission which brought us together that evening. All of this was more than enough for me to know she was a special person. That Max Roach was her dad…well, now, for this I wasn’t prepared.

Photo Credit: Kelley Vollmer Bruso

Misunderstand me not, this information did not lend itself to superficial surmising, or anything ridiculous like that.  But we’re talking about Max Roach, who happens to be one of my biggest cultural heroes.  Though I had not known Max Roach personally, he was close to my heart, symbolically.  The social and political underpinnings of his artistic expression and his inventiveness as a modern jazz pioneer, place him as one of the most significant African American figures of the last century.  I, like so many others, had attended his memorial service at the Riverside Church in Harlem three years earlier, and shared in the huge sense of loss and love the world felt with his passing.

Dara forgave, understood and found the humor in my sudden departure, and it opened up a wonderful discussion about family, and all of the dynamics and nuances that only a jazz kid can relate to.  The daughter and niece of jazz musicians myself, I felt a bond with Dara which propelled our neighborly association into an instant kinship.  Jazz’ll do that to you.

Growing up with such a distinctive patriarch is one thing, but Dara’s mother is a beacon all on her own; an Emmy award winning journalist, author and historian, with the nation’s first graduate degree in Black Studies, to be more specific.  Abundant fruits of such a parental powerhouse’s labor seem inevitable, and evidenced by Dara’s impressive resume, they are.  In addition to having spent years as a television producer for CBS News, TVOne, and BET News, Dara is the co-founder of Mosaic Digital Media.  She also, along with her four siblings (including her twin sister, Ayo) handles her father’s estate.  The saying, “To whom much is given, much is expected” comes to mind when I think about the massiveness of the latter.  Dara’s admirable level-headedness about it all seemed rooted in her very upbringing.

“My father is a musician with a very intense social political perspective on everything; his music, his life,” says Dara.  “[Yet] we grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut.  We were born in the City, then quickly moved to Massachusetts.  And then when I was a little kid, we moved to Greenwich, pretty much during a time when we couldn’t even go to the Greenwich Country Club because we were Black.  So you’re in this environment where you really are a kid [who’s like a] fish out of water.  I used to call us The Addams Family, because outside of my bedroom door in this huge mansion was a picture of Malcolm X…and that was the kids’ wing [laughs];  Malcolm X and all of these important figures in African American history.  So it was interesting.  I was walking between two worlds very early on.”

Dara with her parents and twin sister (courtesy of Dara Roach)

I’m not easily surprised to hear stories or experience incidents of modern-day racism, but I have to admit, I was taken aback that this type of legal, brazen bigotry had happened to someone in my peer group. And yet, it is Dara’s aforementioned calm demeanor about it which floored me once again.

“Because of who [my parents] were, so culturally identified, they realized this was something that has to change, and that bit of racism that we did feel was something they immediately discussed with us,” Dara explained.  “And even went as far as classism and racism within our own culture.  We weren’t allowed to be in Jack and Jill [of America].  And yes, we lived in the biggest house on the block, and [were] invited into these organizations…and nothing against Jack and Jill at all, but there were other Black families who were not invited because of their economic status.”  Being a child and dealing with such adult principals wasn’t always easy.  “Growing up with parents like that was kind of frustrating because every answer was no,” Dara reminisces with laughter.  “I wasn’t allowed to watch most TV shows, and thank God for The Cosby Show because that was about it!  But at the same time, they were trying to let us understand that we are who we are, we don’t tolerate discrimination, [and] we don’t tolerate any kind of generalizations…we just don’t tolerate it.”

The instilling of the level of fearlessness and confidence Dara describes, put the world at her fingertips, but professionally, Dara decided initially, she didn’t want any parts of entertainment. “It’s funny when you grow up around artists and musicians,” says Dara. “I remember when I first got into media, I was doing PA on film sets, and the question of whether or not I wanted to be in entertainment came up. But I wanted to keep my entertainment entertaining, and as long as you know these people and are behind the scenes, it’s not. I want be in a seat, in the orchestra, enjoying the show [laughs]. So I mean I love musicians, love my friends and family but sometimes you just wanna show up and be that wide eyed audience member, and not know that, ‘Well, this wasn’t supposed to be that way.’ So I said I’m going into news, which I did for many, many years… which is entertainment somewhat. It was a lot of fun, and now I don’t have a problem with it. I like the business of anything, whether it be music…. but at first I felt like I didn’t even want to be near it. I want to have fun, I want to enjoy it.”

However, having such a paramount figure like Max Roach for a father doesn’t quite give one a choice when it comes to being “on the scene”, especially in the wake of their passing.  As Dara explains, an understanding of the business and a solid, impermeable family foundation make it easier to deal with being responsible for the legacy a parent leaves behind.

Dara & Dad (courtesy of Dara Roach)

“It’s important to know that the responsibility of your legacy is the artist himself. If you do not make plans for your legacy, and you just leave it in your children’s hands to figure out, you are in trouble. Going through this process, which we haven’t even started, is a lot, if you haven’t made plans. And this is sort of like a PSA to musicians. There are people out there to help you figure it out. All artists, do it now. My father kept every piece of paper, and he has an amazing collection. He said he wanted to keep it together. We are doing that.” In terms of how these insurmountable tasks are divvied up, Dara says, “He put my older sister, Maxine, in charge of that and she’s been diligent in documenting everything that he held on to. We all participate in different ways, but she’s been very diligent and helpful. She’s also been very hands on in terms of preserving my father’s archives. You can also find someone who can help you through the process but you always want to be informed, and I think we’ve gotten really well informed, and we work together as a team.”

Among the many ways Dara and I relate, I have also felt the pain of losing a parent.  My father was a musician revered for his brilliance as a trumpeter.  The dichotomy between parent or human being, and legend can be a difficult one to process, especially once they have left us.  However, the carrying on of a legacy, which is probably the greatest responsibility a child can have, can also be one of the most healing tasks.

“Always keep our institutions in mind.  I think we should always keep our institutions in the loop,” Dara says regarding the sharing of jazz musicians’ tangible history.  “Some of them are newer, or not as well endowed but figure it out, I think that’s really important.  You want to make sure that you keep them in the loop despite experts who may not say this because they want everything to stay together — but if we don’t support our own institutions, who will?”  Dara is making good on this imperative philosophy, working with, for example, the Smithsonian, whose National Museum of African American History and Culture is slated to open in 2015.

“As well, I’m personally working on his digital legacy,” Dara announces. “So we are working on a website that’s going to honor him and keep his name and legacy out there. I realize, [for example], how twitter has exploded. Now, through the digital world, you can bring in and aggregate everything on Max Roach, so people are doing YouTube posts, or around his birthday, you always see a Twitter or Facebook, or Pandora spike. So we’re working on a site that is going to feed all of that in, and be like a living legacy. So everyday, we’re going to feed it by letting people see what you wouldn’t normally see from his collection. I’m really excited about that specifically, because I feel that’s another way that families can keep the legacies alive.”

Dara’s active participation is not only out of love for her father, and those who loved him, but a fierce protection as well. “You want to have a system for dealing with the fact that people are going to need certain things, whether it is photographs, book requests… people want interviews, people are writing books, they want this and that, and it’s important to have that public space, because one of the things that we’ve realized is that we have a responsibility to help people understand who he was and be accurate and if we’re not accessible, if no one even knows who to contact….like the Smithsonian contacted me through Facebook, which is great, but you want to be able to make that accessible so that people don’t have to look so hard and so that he can participate in things like the African American Museum at the Smithsonian. So that his legacy is involved when they are doing a book on jazz and bebop. You want to make sure that, even though he’s not here, he’s represented, and represented accurately. That’s a part that is really important to us — to keep his memory alive, and keep it accurate.”

Though I never had the honor of knowing Max Roach personally, who he was as a man had always shown brilliantly through his music.  Now, I can see through the beaming light of Dara Roach, who he was as a father.  “The biggest lesson learned from my father was to never underestimate your value.  Never pigeon hole yourself.  Embrace who you are and what your potential is.  My father is a person who believed in me and my ability to do anything, and I think that’s because he believed in himself and his ability to do anything.  He didn’t become “Max Roach” because he decided that he was going to let anybody tell him what to do.  We didn’t live in Greenwich, Connecticut because he decided that he was going to take whatever you want to give him.  So that idea of not compromising and knowing your value is the biggest lesson that he gave me, hands down.”♦

Read about one of Max Roach’s most significant albums, We Insist!, in my discussion with Christian McBride for the “Message In Our Music” series.

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.