Denise Sullivan

Author, Journalist, Culture Worker

Remembering The Outlaw: Eugene McDaniels

A portion of this post originally appeared here as an obituary in July, 2011.8765 It has been updated and amended as a remembrance.

Rare groove chasers know well the name Eugene McDaniels; his 1971 album for Atlantic, Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse is a standard-bearer for psychedelic soul/funk/jazz rhythms and is borrowed frequently for its samples (most famously by A Tribe Called Quest and the Beastie Boys). The album is a fierce statement of Black pride, anger, and frustration, equally powered by a super-soul fever, a yearning for world peace, and ultimately love. A showcase for McDaniels’s breadth as a composer, from folky singer-songwriter styles (“Susan Jane”) to proto-rap (“Supermarket Blues”), his strongest words are demonstrations of righteous indignation (“The Lord is Black, his mood is in the rain…he’s coming to make corrections”).  His reward for creating such a unique piece of work was to have it recalled from the shelves and suppressed by Nixon’s White House; it remains a lost classic and is a story waiting to be told.

McDaniels is also the composer of “Compared to What,” the jazz-soul wartime protest made famous by Les McCann and Eddie Harris, a worldwide hit in 1969.

Born in Kansas City in 1935, McDaniels studied at the Omaha Conservatory of Music, and graduated from Omaha University. After forming a band in the 1950s, and singing with the McCann trio, he signed with Liberty Records and hit in 1961 with “A Hundred Pounds of Clay,” followed by five more Top 40 hits, including “Tower of Strength.” With six hit records to his credit, McDaniels turned his focus to writing (he worked closely with Roberta Flack and ultimately wrote her hit “Feel Like Making Love,” among others). Following the success of “Compared to What,” by the time he attempted to relaunch his solo career as a singing and songwriting artist with his 1970 album The Outlaw, McDaniels had developed an intensely personal and pointed new style and direction. Fearless with his melodies and in his verses, the instrumentation on his early ’70s companion albums was a wild combination of folk-funk: electric and acoustic bass brushed against guitar, drums, and piano. The arrangements combined with the lyrics to strike inner chords of deep recognition, touching places in the heart  only music can reach. McDaniels injects each song with theatrical and emotional soul power, delivering the verses with a fascist-fighting folker’s impeccable style of oration.  Incensed and confused by injustice, his notes echo and stretch, like the sound of someone losing his mind. His elegy for the genocide of America’s indigenous population, “The Parasite (For Buffy),” dedicated to Native American and folksinger Buffy Sainte-Marie, is a shining example of his dramaturgical song style that places his subjects in a social, political. and psychological context. But McDaniels’s revolution of the mind is a peaceful one; though he paints pictures of hell and all hell breaking loose, his narrator does not advocate use of violence as a solution. Rather, violence is portrayed as the problem.

In Keep on Pushing: Black Power Music From Blues to Hip Hop, I touched on McDaniels’s status as one of Nixon’s Enemies. It was in fact his story that in part inspired me to probe 50 years of freedom singing, and how resistance in song is received (or not) by a mass audience.  I remain deeply curious on the subject, but when my faith in music and in people is lagging, I pull out Headless Heroes of the Apocalypse and find it restores and inspires me. Whatever darkness he’s describing, the McDaniels point of view remains poised and unique; his higher consciousness and keep-on-pushing spirit bleeds between the notes of each slyly rendered gospel-laced track. Years later, the Beastie Boys would turn to McDaniels, nicknamed the Left Rev McD, for a sample, as would the Afro-centric, conscious hip-hoppers, A Tribe Called Quest who used a piece of “Jagger The Dagger” throughout People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. John Legend and the Roots brought back a version of “Compared to What,” which was most recently updated by the trumpet player and bandleader Terence Blanchard (with E-Collective featuring PJ Morton).

Eugene McDaniels made it real—no comparison. Listen below to “Supermarket Blues,” his musical statement from 1971 on racial profiling, police violence, and white supremacy: It sounds as fresh as the day it was recorded.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, Eugene McDaniels, Folk, Jazz, Keep On Pushing, Protest Songs, Roots of Rock'n'Soul, , ,

Song For My Father

I have an image of him in the late ’50s: Still underage, he sneaks through the curtains at the front door of the hungry i, the Keystone Korner, or the Purple Onion, slinks into one of the seats in back, and gets lost in music.

He must’ve told me of the nights as a teenager, he went to hear Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and the Mastersounds, with Wes Montgomery. But it wasn’t until he died that I understood what it meant to be there in North Beach, San Francisco, Saturday night, 1958 or ’59: The Beats had arrived, and Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg passed through, but my dad was from across town—the Sunset, Ocean Beach, a Catholic boy—and the cleanest cut kid in the joint. Lenny Bruce worked in the area and would’ve called him “Jim,” the comedian’s nickname for a stiff-necked straight, but my father was no square: I like to imagine the neighborhood regulars welcoming him, an innocent among hipsters for the night.

As a child, I didn’t grasp that my dad was a jazz fan, though his stack of interesting looking records were his only possessions I ever admired. I realize now that his was a modest-sized collection, though it was very tidy, very specific and very, very cool. It was Cool Jazz, also known as West Coast, that he favored and he had every recording by the Modern Jazz Quartet featuring Milt Jackson. I guess he liked Jackson’s vibraphone because Cal Tjader’s records were also well represented, along with MJQ sound-a-likes the Mastersounds with Buddy Montgomery on vibes, and his brother Monk on bass, and sometimes Wes on guitar. Piano jazz also rated on his scale–Brubeck was a hero, as was iconoclast Ahmad Jamal. And there were even stranger sounding names to this kid–Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Laurindo Almeida–with their pronunciations that confounded me, and their breezy bossa nova guitars that captured the scene at Ipanema Beach. And then there were the Stans: Getz and Kenton, alongside tenor sax man, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was still just Roland back then). Flipping through the stacks, I felt like I knew these jazzmen, in a way others tell me they’ve known Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia; they were like fathers, a part of the family. 


It was the colorful, modern art-inspired album covers on the Verve, Prestige, Argo, and Fantasy labels that first drew me in, long before I knew anything about musical shapes, colors or subtleties, and all the shades they could throw. I think of putting one of those records on the turntable now, pouring over the liner notes and getting lost myself, while holding an actual Blue Note or Impulse! sleeve, instead of a reissued imitation. Sure, I could pick up a copy of one or two at a vintage vinyl store but it’s my dad’s records I really want, caked with his energy, accompanied by the stories of their purchase, and a recounting of the historic gigs where the songs came alive for him. I also want his approval and enthusiasm for my taste in the avant-garde and for own small, tidy, and very cool stack of Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. But even if he were here to sit with me, I don’t know that he’d be all that interested in talking jazz. Somewhere along the way, he left behind his passion for it.

By the mid ‘60s, more and more fans of Cool Jazz had turned to hard bop and rock’n’roll. Times changed, and the City, as we call it, had been psychedelicized.  My dad was a young suburban family man, a periodic drinker who put down the bottle long enough to regain his vision and become a health food nut, a jogger and a tennis bum, long before those things helped define leisure styles in the laidback ‘70s. “Over-committed,” is how he referred to the house, the yard, the two kids and three cars— and his life between jobs just outside San Francisco. Music didn’t figure into that picture. There was no nightlife to pursue there and no trips to town to hear the jams; most all the old clubs had gone dark though North Beach was becoming home to the next generation of outsiders, the art students and punk rockers of my generation. Not yet 40 years old, a suspended driver’s license kept my dad unemployable and housebound, his wife at work on the swing shift. By day, he slept in the hammock or sat at the kitchen table, pouring filtered coffee through a cone. He stayed occupied, typing mysterious reports and letters on the Royal and watering the lawn, but he never reached for the stack of vinyl or the phonograph, adjacent to the patio, just on the other side of the sliding glass door, in the family room of our California ranch-style home. It was as if getting up, the simple act of putting a needle to a record, was just too much for him: He had entered the no-jazz zone.

Though occasionally he’d ignite the old flame:  He took me to see Cal Tjader locally, though teenage me couldn’t understand why a so-called legend should be playing at St. Francis High School. I heard he rousted my brother and took him to see Milt Jackson at the grand opening of the Mayfield Mall.  Other times, if ever he dug the music in the air, he’d partake of that jazzer’s strange custom, finger-clicking (shoulders hunched). And sometimes while driving, he’d tune into the jazz spot and bop to the radio, occasionally gesturing with an air-cymbal crash. These efforts were simultaneously embarrassing and ethereal for me: Jazz made life bearable, if only for a moment, as we floated off to another land, returning refreshed, for a couple of bars or beats. 

When my dad moved out of the house at the end of the ’70s, my mom gave his records to a young jazz enthusiast, a boy she thought would appreciate them.  I moved back to San Francisco, and I’d heard so did my dad, after he’d done some rambling.  Eventually we got together for lunch, often at St. Francis Creamery in the Mission, and other times at Mama’s or Vanessi’s in North Beach; on those days he was feeling more flush and would spread the wealth. We never spoke of the past—it wasn’t in our repertoire—but the memory of his LPs, their covers, their vibraphone, horn and piano sounds, and their spiraling liner notes occupied a large space in my heart, lighting a space in the darkness of the holy here and now. I wonder, had he lived, if we’d ever get back to jazz, if he would’ve rediscovered his passion for it, or if he would share mine for Mingus and Monk. If only it had occurred to me to have played some Louis Armstrong at his funeral.  What if he’d lived to see his 50s?  Would he have succumbed to the Quiet Storm or held strong?  For sure we’d agree Duke is king, and we most certainly would’ve gone to see Ahmad Jamal at his most recent appearance in town.  But would he still put on that ridiculous posture as he be-bopped down the hall, and would I still reflexively roll my eyes at him?  I will never know, though whatever his style and taste in his 70s and whether we agreed wouldn’t matter, if only he was here, right now.  Because what I really need to ask him, what I really want to know, is if he can remember the moment he stopped listening.  

Filed under: Arts and Culture, California, Jazz, North Beach, video, , , , , ,

Stolen Legacy of Marcus Books Must Be Returned To Owners & The Community

In February: Mayor Ed Lee (center) of San Francisco signs the historic landmark designation for 1712-1716 Fillmore Street, former home of Marcus Books and Greg and Karen Johnson (also pictured).

Since the May eviction of Marcus Books in San Francisco, the speculators who purchased the property have waged a hateful campaign against the historic, landmarked Jimbo’s Bop City building that housed the oldest black bookstore in the US and the Richardson-Johnson family, its longtime proprietors. Theft of valuable store inventory and business tools, destruction of irreplaceable cultural artifacts, displacement of four generations, and most recently a slander campaign against the family who ran the store for 50 years are the contributions made by new owners, the Sweises, to 1712-1716 Fillmore Street. That the City of San Francisco has done little to prevent the attacks, aside from rubber-stamping the building and business as a community and cultural resource with a landmark designation earlier this year, isn’t that surprising: Since the 2009 Mayor’s Task Force Report on African American Out-Migration, few of the recommendations for education, economic development, and cultural and social life have been implemented.  But the City’s negligence and complicity in this recent act of cultural genocide in the black community was so shocking, it must not be allowed to stand unchecked.

The continual and unrestrained despoiling of predominately black and brown neighborhood resources is not a newsflash:  There has been a concerted effort toward black neighborhood “redevelopment” since at least the early ’60s. Certainly evictions overall have been unprecedented on Mayor Ed Lee’s watch, but the way in which the dismantling of the Marcus Bookstore was carried out was particularly aggressive. Small business owners, especially those of color, know well the lack of protections for their tenant and human rights, but the Marcus Books story was under-reported by local media and the details remained largely a mystery to those outside the community until this response by the Johnsons was published on Friday.

In May: Contents of the Marcus Bookstore in process of being dumped and prepared for hauling away.

Following the store’s eviction, the new owners broke several moving dates, then took hostage the store’s books, art work and equipment. Said to be put in storage, to date the materials have not been returned. Community members suspect most all of what was contained in the bookstore—including 50 years of history and ephemera documenting black San Francisco—was either stolen or destroyed, hauled away in a landscaping truck by day workers. That the historic Marcus Bookstore should be physically dismantled in broad daylight as District Supervisors, various commissioners, Mayor’s Office and the NAACP leadership who supported the motion to preserve the property stood by and did nothing to prevent it is the question that remains shamefully unanswered. That passerby were allowed to rifle through the dump truck and take what they liked is simply further evidence of the uncivil and unjust treatment of a community’s history, co-signed by the City.

As a native San Franciscan, an author, and community advocate for the preservation of our most valuable cultural assets—in this case books and literacy—I support the campaign to return the Marcus Bookstore to its Fillmore location. As witness to the community meetings, in store events, Board of Supervisors and Historic Preservation Commission proceedings, and desecration of the property, I have observed and documented with astonishment the trail of broken promises and lies told by District supervisors, Mayor’s Office appointees, and the African American community’s own faith leaders about the bookstore and its proprietors. These erroneous claims–that a bookstore is an unsustainable model for 21st Century business–entirely misses the point. The campaign to support Marcus Books goes beyond keeping open the doors of a mom and pop bookshop: It is an attempt to shine a light on and preserve African American culture, community and literacy, particularly for readers of the future.  The removal of Marcus Books on the block could once and for all to erase the rich cultural heritage African Americans created in San Francisco—through art, music, literature, civic engagement and action and replace it with a whitewashed version of history that does not include black contributions. Further, it negates the interests of the wider community of black and other interested folks who relied on the Marcus Bookstore’s products, services, warmth, and humanity.

In July: The vacant and vulnerable historic landmark at 1712 Fillmore Street.

I am curious how the City officials and employees who reportedly bought their first books at the store, who sat at the owners feet as teenagers and said they were in support of the store can now step back and refuse to take notice or phone calls and deny their previous public statements of support. But I’m not surprised that the landmarking of Marcus Books was insincere and just another photo op: The City’s allegiance to money and power is well known: Given an opportunity, I can imagine Mayor Lee selling his own ancestors down the river. Expecting him and his regime to understand the struggle waged by Marcus Books as a cultural one was a non-starter from the gate. But there is no doubt Lee and Co. failed to “Provide full support of the Fillmore Jazz Heritage District and to make sure that African American culture is fully respected and highlighted in the effort” according to Out-migration Report recommendations.

Despite the setbacks, the original owners of 1712 Fillmore and its family of supporters continue to fight injustice in their community and reclaim justice for all. We have not heard the last from the Marcus Bookstore.

 

If you are interested in expressing support and solidarity with the owners of Marcus Books San Francisco, please contact the Support Marcus Books site directly. If you are a bookseller, author, or publishing professional interested in joining a new alliance of Bay Area independent bookstores, please contact keepon.keepon.pushing@gmail.com and you will be added to an email list.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Book news, Books, Civil Rights, Editorial, Jazz, new article, , , , ,

For National Poetry and Jazz Appreciation Month: Langston Hughes

Chronicling the New Negro Movement of the 1920s and 1930s, Langston Hughes was a leading figure in the Harlem Renaissance.  Writing about life in a familiar and authentic vernacular, he incorporated the sound of music into his prose and poems:  “Take Harlem’s heartbeat, Make it a drumbeat, Put it on a record, Let it whirl.”  Originally a midwesterner with a family history that included mixed-race people and abolitionists, Hughes’ ability to distill truth and outrage while maintaining an uncommon faith in humankind made a deep impression on the voices of the Freedom Movement in the ’60s. His style was a breakthrough in modern literature and its lyricism translated into the development of blacker voices in music, too.  Nina Simone, Len Chandler, Richie Havens and Gil Scott-Heron are among the musical artists who say they were profoundly influenced by Hughes’ jazz-inspired work.  As decades wore on, his imprint resounded in the work of poets Amiri Baraka, Al Young, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and many more.  Decades later, Hughes remains a continuous source of inspiration and influence, his words impacting the work of artists and scholars diverse as Cambio and Dr. Cornel West.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Freedom Now, Gil Scott-Heron, Greenwich Village, Harlem, Jazz, Poetry, Richie Havens, video, , , , ,

Malcolm X: Malcolm, Malcolm–Semper Malcolm

On this day in 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated, shot mulitiple times at the podium of the Audubon Ballroom where he was about to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity.  Thousands flocked to Harlem over a three-day period to view his body before the burial.

Malcolm Little was born in Omaha, Nebraska in 1925 into a Baptist family; his father was a follower of Marcus Garvey and educated his son on all matters of black pride. While serving a prison sentence in the 1950s, he  learned about the Nation of Islam and began a correspondence with Elijah Muhammed; by the time of his release he’d joined the organization and changed his name to Malcolm X. An immediately charismatic leader at Temples one, 10, 12, and seven, his musician following included  Etta JamesJohnny Otis and saxophonist Archie Shepp. In 1964, he left the NOI and made his way to Mecca. As a Sunni Muslim, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz  came to believe that Islam was the way toward racial harmony.

Twenty years after his death, the legacy of Malcolm X had largely not been passed down to the next generation; certainly, his contribution to the black liberation cause had not been fully incorporated into history texts despite the perennial popularity  of the considered classic, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, a collaboration with Alex Hayley. But leave it to music—in particular Public Enemy—to recognize and close the gap. The New York hip hop collective began to use Malcolm X’s teachings and speeches in concert with their videos and recordings (Boogie Down Productions and KRS-One and Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X, also played a major role in the comeback; the efforts were not without controversy at the time).

Chuck D has said Public Enemy was partly founded on the idea of “connecting the dots” for those unfamiliar with the depth of black history; hard information is tightly packed into their raps that raise a fist in the name of consciousness. Of course this all happened back in the highwater era of Reagan and Bush, or what you might call the beginning of the middle of the end:  As the nation enjoyed its boom-time and Michael Jackson paid a visit to the White House,  the holiday for Dr. King was still left unrecognized by all 50 states, and the disconnect had only just begun. This year, smack dab in the middle of black history month, Nikki Minaj misappropriated the famous image of Malcolm X holding a gun, in defense of his family; Black media voiced its concern, the Shabazz family threatened legal action and Minaj rethought her plan. Hip hop is generally removed from its mission to educate and there is still no holiday in the name of Malcolm X. Instead, his civil and human rights works are officially recognized by films, speeches, books and songs. In addition to the Hayley book, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable is the considered definitive biography. James Cone’s Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or A Nightmare is a comparison study of the pair’s liberation strategies.  This musical tribute from musician, poet and educator, Archie Shepp, taken from his 1965 album, Fire Music, was recorded as an elegy soon after the assassination.  A reading from Keep on Pushing follows.

Filed under: Archie Shepp, Arts and Culture, Civil Rights, film, Hip Hop, Jazz, Malcolm X, Poetry, video, , , , , , , ,

Marcus Books: Keep It Lit in the Fillmore District

If buildings could talk, the Marcus Books property on San Francisco’s Fillmore Street, the onetime “Harlem of the West,” would tell a tale of two cities for over 50 years. Once the jazz club Bop City (where John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Billie Holiday performed), the purple Victorian structure is central to a neighborhood that has survived the internment and return of its Japanese American residents, an urban renewal project that resulted in the permanent exodus of African Americans when promises for new homes never materialized, and a blueprint for a  “Jazz District” that failed to launch. Now, the neighborhood faces a final act as Marcus Books, the oldest seller of books “by and about black people” in the entire US, attempts to uphold black history and culture, a part of which its founders helped create, while the mayor’s office and for-profit developers look instead to the influx of tech companies and their workers as the City’s future.

It’s taken decades, but the Mahattanization of San Francisco is nearly complete: The immigrants, artists and native-born who built the City and gave it its unique flavor can no longer afford to live here; with San Francisco’s African American population largely banished to Oakland and points beyond, alongside the working and artists classes, the freethinking lifestyle that attracted so many people to the Bay Area in the first place has largely been and gone. “What is crucial, is whether or not the country, the people of the country, the citizenry, is able to recognize that there is no moral distance between the facts of life in San Francisco, and the facts of life in Birmingham,” said James Baldwin on a fact-finding trip to San Francisco in 1963 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, a time at which he would have also visited Marcus Books.

Every black writer and intellectual in the US and throughout the African Diaspora knows the store; Celebrities, activists, athletes and literary giants, from Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Muhammad Ali, Walter Mosely, Alice Walker, Oprah Winfrey and Toni Morrison have all passed through the doors of the San Francisco or Oakland stores. Founded by Drs. Julian and Raye Richardson in 1960, their leadership and the store itself served as sanctuary for thinkers, authors and community members during every watershed of black cultural and political movement, from the Voting Rights Act, through the Black Power Movement and historic student strike at SF State in 1968 (resulting in the establishment of multicultural study programs which still exist at universities today).  Many of San Francisco’s African American faith, civic, arts and culture leaders were educated through the program at State, either by the Richardsons themselves or the books they stocked at Marcus; 50 years later, the Richardsons’ daughter, granddaughter and extended family remain in San Francisco, providing black children with their very first books, as well as a safe community space where elders and organizers may engage in discussions on their journeys, from Jim Crow to the first black president. Yet for the past year, Marcus Books, one of those rare brick and mortar stores that operates in the black, has been waging a program for its own survival: The City’s community activists, elected supervisors and appointed commissioners achieved landmark status for the historic building, attorneys brokered a buyback after the property was sold at auction, and the store’s fund drive with a deadline at the end of Black History month is in its final stretch.  But Marcus is not the only community-serving destination that’s been diverted from its core mission to enlighten and educate: If a city’s bookstores are any indication of its cultural diversity and intellectual health, San Francisco is on the critical list. With City Lights the only vestige of the town’s Beat Generation past, the City’s last gay bookstore was laid to rest three years ago; it’s most progressive political book outlet in the Mission District is on the brink. A similar fate for Marcus Books would mean the end to longstanding black-owned businesses in the Fillmore, the so-called “heart and soul of the city,” a neighborhood once so diverse it was dubbed the “Little United Nations.” Seems The City That Knows How has forgotten where it came from and San Francisco is no longer the most progressive place on earth. Baldwin’s 1963 quote may’ve been specifically about Jim Crow ways and law, but a blow to Marcus Books could mean his message remains the same:  San Francisco’s reputation as a kindly city of love, tolerance and diversity will be forever tarnished; in fact, it may have been false advertising all along.

Marcus Books will be holding a hackathon on Saturday afternoon in San Francisco.

Donate directly to Marcus Books 

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Books, Civil Rights, Harry Belafonte, James Baldwin, Jazz, Malcolm X, new article, San Francisco News, , ,

Rest in Power, Amiri Baraka

Nobody sings anymore.

And then last night, I tiptoed upamiribw

To my daughter’s room and heard her

Talking to someone, and when I opened

The door, there was no one there …

Only she on her knees, peeking into

Her own clasped hands.

-LeRoi Jones, excerpt from Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note… 1961

“Never settle for the given.  What is it that hasn’t been mentioned? What is beyond that?” These are the words of activist, actor, poet, playwright, director, and music critic Amiri Baraka. He passed today in Newark, NJ at the age of 79.  “Art is supposed to unlock you, make the world more available to you,” he said.  It was the way he felt when he heard Thelonious Monk for the first time. I heard Baraka speak at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles two years ago this month,  in conversation with his daughter, Kellie Jones, curator of the wildly successful exhibit, Now Dig This! Art and Black Los Angeles 1960—1980, discussing art and family, though the conversation inevitably turned to Baraka’s recurrent theme, surviving America. “Do you understand the world?…What do you think?… What is important to you?…What is it you want to say?…How do you say what the world is?…How do you tell us who lives on this planet?…How do you make something speak to the world?…” These are the questions he asked of himself and of other artists, for over 50 years.

Born Everett Leroy Jones in 1934 in Newark, NJ, where he lived until the end, he changed his name to LeRoi and chronicled the birth of free jazz as a journalist; he wrote an Obie award-winning play, The Dutchman, and he is the author of Blues People, one of the first books to make connections between music and social history. Equally informed by the poetry of Langston Hughes, the politics of Malcolm X and the Black Mountain College poets, Allen Ginsberg and the Beat movement, in the mid-‘60s, Baraka founded the Black Arts Repertory Theater/School (BARTS) in Harlem which contributed to the development of a new, unapologetically black style of writing, its creation dovetailing with the Black Power movement’s cultural agenda. By the late ’60s he’d changed his name to Baraka; his album It’s Nation Time—African Visionary Music, for Motown’s Black Forum label, features his Black Nationalist poetry set to music.

Stirring it up for 50 years, in 2002, Baraka was named Poet Laureate of New Jersey and of the Newark Public Schools amidst controversy over his poem, “Somebody Blew Up America” (who? who?  who?). That same year, The Roots accompanied him on “Something in the Way of Things (In Town),” on their album, Phrenology. Condolences to the surviving members of the Jones and Baraka families.

(More on Amiri Baraka, the Black Arts Movement, and his connections to music, from blues to hip hop in Keep on Pushing) 

Filed under: Book news, Books, cross cultural musical experimentation, Jazz, Obituary, , ,

We Still Insist: Freedom Now!

Good Morning, Happy New Year, and Happy Birthday to the Emancipation Proclamation, 151 years old today. Back in ’63, when the document intended to free all slaves was just a spry 100-year-old memory, We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite, was conceived as a performance piece to celebrate that centennial. Freedom Now, as it is more commonly known, is credited for fusing the politics of black liberation with the sound of freedom, much the way Sonny Rollins and his Freedom Suite of 1958 was  the first experiment in liberation sound.

freedomnow

Max Roach was born in rural North Carolina for the record on January 10, 1924 (though by his family’s recollection it was the January 8) and raised in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. But Roach was not only an innovative drummer who revolutionized jazz rhythms, he was actively engaged as a civil rights advocate, and he spoke and performed frequently for the cause.  Roach’s epic recorded suite, with vocals by his then-wife Abbey Lincoln (with Coleman Hawkins on sax, Olatunji on congas and lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr.) sounds as radical as the ’60s revolution in words and sound it helped to launch.

The cover art, rendered in bold black and white, was groundbreaking graphically and imagery-wise:  Its depiction of three African American men at a lunch counter, a white waiter standing by, is of course a reference to the sit-in on February 1, 1960 at a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s store that became a pivotal action in the non-violent fight for civil rights. But inside the cardboard sleeve, the vinyl grooves were an assault on the senses, capturing as they did the sound of exploitation, degradation, and ultimately, freedom. A sonically and politically strong statement, the Freedom Now Suite is a cornerstone recording in the history of contemporary black liberation music and remains a challenging, invigorating, and inspiring listen.

Making a link between the oppression of negroes in the US to blacks throughout the world, Roach and other politically motivated American artists like Harry Belafonte and Nina Simone sought to parallel the civil rights movement in the US with the unfolding liberation of Kenya, Ghana, Congo, and Algeria. Dubbed the Year of Africa, 1960 held hope for the continent for independence from France, Britain, and Belgium and the promise that human rights, dignity, and economic health would be restored throughout the land.  Fifty-four years later, the people here and there continue the fight for human rights, and the chance to be emancipated from the conditions of poverty, ill-health, environmental crisis, and violence that defines both our lands, while Freedom Now Suite still pounds out the sound of impending liberation.

The following clip depicts black power couple Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln with their band (Clifford Jordan, tenor sax; Coleridge Perkinson, piano; Eddie Khan, bass) performing the suite’s “Triptych (Prayer/Protest/Peace)” on Belgian television in 1964. Roach passed in 2007, though in his lifetime he he’d been a recipient of the USA’s MacArthur genius award, a commandeur in France’s Ordre des Artes et les Lettres, and a RIAA (Grammy) honoree. Read more on both Rollins, Roach, and their respective Freedom Suites in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Arts and Culture, Concerts, Freedom Now, Jazz, Keep On Pushing, Max Roach, Now Playing, video, , , , ,

For Father’s Day: Kind of Blue

I have an image of him in the late ’50s: Still underage, he sneaks through the curtains at the front door of the hungry i, the Keystone Korner or the Purple Onion, slinks into one of the seats in back, and gets lost in music.

He must’ve told me of the nights he went to hear Dave Brubeck, Gil Evans, Gerry Mulligan, and The Mastersounds, with Wes Montgomery. But it wasn’t until he died that I understood what it meant to be there at that time: North Beach, San Francisco, probably 1958 or ’59.  The Beats had arrived by then–outlaw heroes like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg passed through as did my dad, the cleanest cut kid in the joint. Lenny Bruce would’ve called him “Jim,” the comedian’s nickname for a straight, but my dad was no square: I like to think of the original hipsters welcoming him in, an innocent among them for the night.

As a child, I didn’t grasp that my dad was a jazz fan, though his stack of interesting looking records were his only possessions I ever admired. I realize now that his was a modest-sized collection, though it was very tidy, very specific and literally very, very cool. It was Cool Jazz, also known as West Coast, that my dad favored. He had every recording by the Modern Jazz Quartet featuring Milt Jackson. I guess he liked Jackson’s vibraphone because Cal Tjader’s records were also well represented, as were MJQ sound-a-likes the Mastersounds with Buddy Montgomery on vibes, and his brother Monk on bass, and sometimes Wes on guitar. Piano jazz also rated on his scale–Brubeck was a hero, as was iconoclast Ahmad Jamal. And there were even stranger sounding names to this kid–Joao Gilberto, Antonio Carlos Jobim and Laurindo Almeida–with their pronunciations that confounded me, and their breezy bossa nova guitars that captured the scene at Ipanema Beach. And then there were the Stans: Getz and Kenton, alongside tenor sax man, Rahsaan Roland Kirk (who was still just Roland back then). Flipping through the stacks, I felt like I knew these jazzmen, in a way other kids might’ve known Frank Sinatra or Bob Dylan; they were a part of the family. 


It was the colorful, modern art-inspired album covers on the Verve, Prestige, Argo, and Fantasy labels that first drew me in, long before I knew anything about musical shapes, colors or subtleties, and all the shades they could throw. I think of putting one of those records on the turntable now, pouring over the liner notes and getting lost myself, while holding an actual Blue Note or Impulse! sleeve, instead of a reissued imitation. And yes, I could pick up a copy of one or two at a vintage vinyl store but it’s my dad’s records I want, with his energy, the stories of their purchase, and a recounting of the historic gigs where the songs came alive for him. I also want his enthusiasm for my taste for the avant-garde and for my similarly small, tidy and very cool stack of Alice Coltrane, Ornette Coleman and Sun Ra. But even if he were here to sit with me, I don’t know that he’d be all that interested in talking jazz because somewhere along the way he left behind his passion for it.

By the mid ‘60s, more and more fans of Cool Jazz had turned to hard bop and rock’n’roll. Times had changed, The City, as it’s known, had been psychedelicized.  My dad was now living as a young suburban family man.  A periodic drinker who put down the bottle long enough to regain his vision from time to time, he became a health food nut, a jogger and a tennis bum, long before all three things helped define the laidback ‘70s. “Over-committed,” is how he referred to the house, the yard, the two kids and three cars— his life, between jobs, outside San Francisco. Naturally there was no nightlife to pursue, no trips to town to hear music; most of the old clubs had gone dark by then anyway. And so he spent a fair share of time at home, sleeping in the hammock, sitting at the kitchen table, pouring coffee, typing mysterious reports and letters on the old Royal, watering the lawn, but never touching the stack of vinyl or the phonograph, even though it was positioned to be within easy reach of the California-style kitchen-family room-patio. It was as if the simple act of putting a needle to a record was too much trouble.

Occasionally, he’d ignite the old jazz flame: He once took me to see Cal Tjader locally, though teenage me couldn’t understand why a so-called legend should be playing in the St. Francis High School gym. My brother has a similar story: Was it Milt Jackson at the Grand Opening of the Mayfield Mall? I don’t know, I have to ask him. And if dad ever dug the music in the air, he’d partake of that strange jazzer’s custom, the finger click (shoulders hunched). Sometimes while driving, he’d find the jazz spot on the radio and start bopping, gesturing with an occasional air-cymbal crash. For me, these small acts were simultaneously embarrassing and ethereal: Jazz made life bearable for a moment as we floated, refreshed, for a couple of beats or bars.

When my dad moved out of the house at the end of the ‘70s my mom gave his records to a young jazz enthusiast, a boy she thought would appreciate them; our jazz days were over and so was our family. And yet the LPs—their covers, their vibraphone, horn and piano sounds, and their longwinded notes on the people who played  them—occupy a significant space in my heart and light my way in the darkness.  Sometimes I wonder had he lived, if my dad would’ve rediscovered his passion for jazz. And if only it had occurred to me when he died in the ‘80s to have played a little Louis Armstrong at his funeral. If he was with us today, would he have succumbed to the Quiet Storm? Or would he hold strong and enjoy classic Mingus and Monk with me? For sure we would agree that Duke is the king, and we certainly would’ve gone to see Ahmad Jamal when he rolled through town last week. But would he still put on that ridiculous posture as he be-bopped down the hall, and would I reflexively roll my eyes like I did as a teenager when he paused by my bedroom door, approving of the horn charts of Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago? Hard to say. I’ll never know. Though whatever the mood, and  whether we agreed or not, it would all be ok by me—if only he was here right now. Because what I really need to ask him, what I really want to know, is if he can remember the moment he stopped listening.

Filed under: Jazz, , , ,

For National Poetry and Jazz Appreciation Month: Gil Scott-Heron

April marks National Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month. This month’s posts will attempt to shine a light on great moments and people in jazz and poetry history, as well as the places where the two forms meet.

In 1970, Gil Scott-Heron was barely 21 when his first novel, The Vulture, was published and his startling, spoken-word record, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, caught his incisive cool on tape. “I consider myself neither poet, composer, or musician. These are merely tools used by sensitive men to carve out a piece of beauty or truth that they hope may lead to peace and salvation,” he wrote in the album’s liner notes. Accompanied only by conga drums and percussion, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox featured a reading of  “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Scott-Heron’s most enduring work and an early masterpiece, its flow combining elements of both poetry and jazz.

“The revolution will not be brought to you by Xerox

In four parts without commercial interruptions.”

Excoriating the media and marketing, the song’s structure burrowed its way into the collective consciousness of musicians—both mainstream and underground—and listeners alike; it is referenced throughout music, and rather un-ironically the title phrase has been repurposed to advertise consumer goods, from sneakers to television itself. The piece is also, of course, foundational to hip-hop, its words potent and direct, even if some of the allusions and references may be lost on those uneducated in ‘60s or ‘70s culture. It also sounds great, which explains why it’s a standard-bearer for all music, whether it be politicized rock’n’soul, funk or jazz. Pulsing throughout the piece is Scott-Heron’s projection, a foreshadowing of the realities of global connectivity and the pacifying effect on the brain produced by viewing from a small screen. Heron’s vision was a word to the wise:

“The revolution will not give your mouth sex appeal…
The revolution will not make you look five pounds
thinner, because the revolution will not be televised.”

Positing a necessary parsing of media-generated “reality” from truth and setting his poem to music on his 1971 album, Pieces of a Man, Scott-Heron was caught in the chasm between jazz and soul, poetry and rock, and few knew just what to do with the new poet and big bass voice on the scene, though time would reveal his impact:  As the years rolled by, this poet of vision would weigh in on matters environmental and racial, as well as political and social. Though Scott-Heron’s voice was too often a cry in wilderness, it served as a clarion for future generations of conscious writers and thinkers.

Scott-Heron was raised in Tennessee by his grandmother, until he and his single mother, a librarian, eventually moved north to New York City. As a teenager, he excelled at writing and earned enrollment at Fieldston, a progressive Ivy League preparatory school. Upon graduation, he chose to attend Lincoln University in Philadelphia, quite simply because it was the alma mater of poet Langston Hughes. As a musician, Scott-Heron’s style was conjoined with the word styles of Hughes, as well as those of talkers like Malcolm X and Huey Newton. But it was “musicians more than writers” who inspired him, and he used the rhythms of folk, blues, soul, and jazz to fulfill the intensity of his emotion. “Richie Havens—what he does with the images and themes, Coltrane—the time defiant nature and thrust of his work. Otis Redding—the way he sings lyrics so that they come through as sounds. You can really appreciate how close a saxophone is to the human voice when you hear Otis singing. I sometimes write poetry, in a way, like Otis sings. The sounds form shapes. Like clouds banging into each other. That’s how I get loud sounds in my poetry,” said Scott-Heron to Jazz and Pop‘s Nat Hentoff.

Read: More on Gil Scott-Heron in Keep on Pushing.

Filed under: Gil Scott-Heron, Jazz, Poetry, , , ,

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