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. ♦

A Playlist From My Mother

My Mum

When people get to know about me and about my passion for music, they usually think it stems from the influence of my father being a jazz musician, or because I had a jazz icon for an uncle.  While these are facts, and while there is no doubt that these fortunate circumstances informed and infused my life and DNA, it is my mother who was perhaps my most important musical influence, and largely in part, the reason I do what I do.

My first recollections of any music are songs my mother played on the record player.  Growing up in the Bronx in that big apartment with unparalleled acoustics, those songs would permeate my soul and literally hit me right in the gut in the best way imaginable.  My mom is a very spirited lady to say the least, and music was her outlet and her love.  She would dance and sing all of the ins and outs to every tune.  So much so that I would always know which parts of a particular song would tickle or move her the most, and I think she got a kick out of the fact that I studied her.  Whether it was the first line of the B section of Monk’s “Little Rootie Tootie”, or when Marvin Gaye’s “Save the Children” would brilliantly segue into “God Is Love”, I knew all of her favorite little spots and would tease her predictability, much to her delight.

It was my mother who was the first woman jazz enthusiast I knew, which was probably the single most impactful part of her persona on my life.  She could scat, and she could sing, and she is the funniest mimicker of some of jazz  music’s rarest personalities.  She is also a great debater.  She and my step-dad would have a never-ending argument over who “won the battle” between Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane on “Tenor Madness”.  She voted Trane, and would quote the various aspects of nastiness in his solo to make her case. (She loves Sonny too, just for the record.)

She had a very vast album collection, and she would play an array of Black music.  From Aretha Franklin to Ray Charles to Stevie Wonder to Joe Williams to Michael Jackson to Bobby Womack to Dinah Washington, we heard lots of music.  I remember her talking about a “young cat”, Wynton Marsalis, who was taking the jazz scene by storm when I was a little girl.  It’s also one of the most vivid album covers I can remember her owning.  Growing up in such a lively, musical household was of great benefit to my siblings and I.  We were steeped in our African-American heritage in a way that many of our peers were not.  My mom always let us know that this was music that we should be proud of, not by making some big jazz history speech, but by the sheer joy it brought her.  It was completely infectious.  I immediately loved this music, and she nurtured that love.  I’m certain that the gift of passing down this tradition is what made me want to pursue a career in jazz, which was always cool with her.  Starting out in this industry meant paying a lot of dues (which included sometimes earning little money) but the sacrifice never concerned her.  She was down for the cause, and I will always be grateful to her for that.  And for the music.

In honor of my Mom, I’d like to share a playlist I’ve dedicated to my mom with all of you.  This is the list of albums that most vividly speak to my formative years.

Mom’s Playlist

Aretha Franklin – Young, Gifted and Black (Atlantic)
John Coltrane – Ballads (Impluse!)
Ray Charles – The Genius of Ray Charles (Atlantic)
Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (Motown)
Sonny Rollins – Tenor Madness (Riverside)
Stevie Wonder – Talking Book (Motown)
Thelonious Monk – We See (Dreyfus)
Lena Horne – The Lady and Her Music (Warner Bros.)
The Jacksons – Destiny (Epic)
Dinah Washington – Dinah ‘62 (Roulette)
Wynton Marsalis – Think of One (Columbia)
John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman (Impulse!)
Michael Jackson – Thriller (Epic)

This one’s for you, Mom!