The Independent Ear

Who shot Miles redux

A recent review of the new Miles Davis motion picture Miles Ahead made reference to and included a link to our 2011 interview with the late Dickie Habersham-Bey, owner of the former Brooklyn jazz club the Blue Coronet. The significance of our interview with Habersham-Bey related to the gunplay in Miles Ahead and the irony of Miles well-noted (at the time) shooting, which followed a gig by Miles’ second great quintet (Herbie, Wayne, Ron and Tony). So we thought it might be apropos to reprise our interview with the proprietor of the Blue Coronet and his vivid remembrance of that notorious night in Miles Davis’ life.
Don Cheadle

Who shot Miles?
From 1965-1985 one of the New York metro area’s hotspots for live jazz was the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn – the Bedford-Stuyvesant community to be exact. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps Brooklyn should be labeled the Second City instead of Chicago, given the backseat that storied borough so often takes to its little sister Manhattan (Brooklyn being by far the bigger land mass). Case in point, while surfing the web in search of additional background on the Blue Coronet, consistently the only listing that shows up in a Google search is reference to a bootleg recording made there in 1969, about which more in a minute. The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz has a generally reliable series of pages under its Nightclubs entry that provides handy thumbnail sketches of various and sundry jazz clubs around the country, in major cities as well as smaller burghs… except for Brooklyn, where none of the borough’s jazz clubs are mentioned. And this is despite the fact that during a period in the 50s and 60s Brooklyn was alive with jazz clubs, particularly in the Bed-Stuy, an area that was home to a significant number of great jazz masters, including Eubie Blake, Max Roach, Randy Weston and Cecil Payne, and also including a certain trumpet player who spent many nights at the Blue Coronet and who as a younger man had lived in Bed-Stuy with the mother of his first child.

That Brooklyn disparity is one reason we’ve embarked on a research project of discovery into jazz in Bed-Stuy, essentially Central Brooklyn, for the Weeksville Heritage Center. In recent months The Independent Ear has excerpted lively interviews with some of the principles behind such legendary Brooklyn jazz venues as the East, and the current bastion known as Sista’s Place. However one joint preceded both of those homes to the music; the Blue Coronet has consistently been mentioned by both musicians, activists and fans alike as a home of great sounds. So we sought out Dickie Habersham-Bey, the owner-proprietor of the now-shuttered Blue Coronet. Though somewhat frail of health recently, Mr. Habersham-Bey gave some lively commentary on the Blue Coronet, including shedding some light on one of the more notorious nights in Miles Davis‘ storied odyssey. Read on…

Willard Jenkins: How did you come to own The Blue Coronet?

Dickie Habersham-Bey: The [original] Coronet closed down in 1965, it was in the same building at 1200 Fulton Street. I bought it about ’66 and opened it as The Blue Coronet. The first musician I opened up with was [pianist] Wynton Kelly, with Jimmy Cobb on drums and Paul Chambers on bass.

The Wynton Kelly Trio, one of Miles’ greatest rhythm sections, was an early staple at the Blue Coronet; Wynton actually lived in the neighborhood.

WJ: When you were hiring musicians at that time, how long was their typical run at the club?

HB: When I hired Wynton Kelly that was for two weeks. My grand opening, in 1967, was Max Roach with Abbey Lincoln, Charles Tolliver on trumpet… I forget who else he had, he had a dynamite group. Then I started booking musicians for a week, and every week I had a different musician for 15 years. The week would begin on Tuesday and last until Sunday, they played three sets a night starting about 8:00 and ending about 3 or 4am.

WJ: What were the audiences like when you first opened?

HB: Very accepting. When I first opened up it was a big thing.

WJ: How was it in terms of steady business?

HB: With jazz [the audience] is not real big money spenders – at least not at that time – so I had to charge a door price, which kept a lot of riff-raff away because at the time there was a big drug problem going around. One of the reasons why the original proprietors [of the Coronet] closed up is because there were a lot of drugs in the area and I scrutinized whoever came in.

WJ: And how would you scrutinize them?

HB: By charging at the door. At the time it was $2 during the week, $5 on weekends.

WJ: What was the capacity of the Blue Coronet?

HB: The capacity was small… about 100… with 150 people it was packed.

WJ: That was 150 sitting at tables?

HB: No, about 100 sitting at tables, the rest sitting at the bar or standing up.

WJ: Describe the Blue Coronet physical space.

HB: When you came in there was a foyer, a standing room that amounted to about 10 feet before you got to the bar. To the right was the bar, which was about 35-40 feet long and held about 18-19 stools and then you had the standing room, then you had the back. It was open and you could see the stage anyplace in the bar. The stage set up around 5-feet [high]. And I opened up a [new] kitchen [from the former Coronet]. I did maybe $100,000 [renovation] job on it.

WJ: So there were good sightlines throughout the place?

HB: Yes, that’s a good way to put it.

WJ: On an average week you would present someone from Tuesday-Sunday. What were your biggest nights?

HB: Our biggest nights were of course Friday & Saturday, and if we had a good act Thursday as well.

WJ: Who were some of the more successful people who played your club in terms of your audience?

HB: To tell you the truth, the bigger act at that time, the heavy jazz boys: of course Miles [Davis], Max [Roach], [Thelonious] Monk… those would get you crowds. We had a lotta local Brooklyn boys, seemed like everybody in the world came out of Brooklyn… maybe because of cheaper living, but we had our crowd [of musicians] come out of Brooklyn: Kenny Dorham… I could go all down the line; but you get what you pay for. I remember every New Year for a long time we used to have double acts, for New Year’s Eve I would have like Freddie Hubbard and his quintet and Lee Morgan and his quintet… a battle of the trumpets. We had a lotta repeats: Mongo Santamaria…, I’ve got lists of names… but everybody you could name, you name ‘em they played there, every jazz musician of note: Hugh Masakela… you name ‘em, big and small.

Master conguero-bandleader Mongo Santamaria brought Afro-Cubana to the Blue Coronet.

WJ: Was your audience an all-black audience?

HB: It was 95% black. You gotta remember, the Village was going strong then – the Village Gate, Village Vanguard… and I was doing just as much as they were doing. I had a few singers, but mostly instrumentalists.

WJ: What singers did you present?

HB: Local singers… No real big singers, mostly local. Abbey Lincoln came in with Max, Etta Jones played there many, many times with Houston Person.

Brooklyn had the biggest conglomeration of jazz musicians living there… Randy Weston did a lot of shows for me, Kenny Dorham, Cecil Payne all the time… [Laughs] You name ‘em, they played…

Kenny Dorham was another of the greats who lived in Brooklyn and played the Blue Coronet.

WJ: Did you have other places at the time?

HB: 1985 – twenty years… or better. I had four other bars at the time, all in Brooklyn – Dickie’s Monterey; the New World on Flatbush Avenue; the Uptown Lounge on Sterling Street… I had my brother working with me too.

WJ: Did you maintain the same policy at the Blue Coronet for all that time?

HB: Sure… One of the reasons I did cut out, or left it alone, was because it wasn’t attractive anymore, we had a drought… and I couldn’t maintain it.

WJ: When did the drought begin?

HB: After about 25 years. There were a number of things, big drugs in the neighborhood, high unemployment, lack of concern for jazz fractured the musicians… all those factors. Sonny Stitt used to be my very good friend, and it got to a point where I payed him $1500-1600 a week, which was not too bad for a small place, I could live with that… I would give him a week there and a week at Count Basie’s [club]. Miles Davis, I would pay him $5,000 a week – but look who he came with! A lotta guys would play the club and the [musicians] union would supply them with local [rhythm sections], but Miles came in with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams… so when he came in he had his regular group.

The Miles Davis Quintet recording “Complete live at the Blue Coronet 1969” is the only known live recording made at the club; this widely available bootleg featured the band that followed the disbanding of Miles’ second great quintet, with Wayne Shorter as the lone holdover, joined by Chick Corea on electric piano, Dave Holland on bass, and Jack DeJohnette on drums. Buyer beware: the poor-to-mediocre sound quality of this 2-CD set – likely recorded surreptitiously from underneath some patron’s table or trench coat pocket makes it purely for Miles Davis completists.

The Night Miles Davis was shot…
WJ: Speaking of Miles, there’s the famous story of his being shot after a Blue Coronet engagement.

HB: [Chuckles] There’s always been guys that want to take over the business when they see you doing good business. The week I had Miles… he was working for me regularly; anytime he had a week off he would call and say ‘hey Dick, I’ll bring [the band] in. This guy who was monopolizing the business – he’s dead now, he got shot on Flatbush Avenue… the name is not important. I booked Miles that week [the week Miles was shot in an altercation in Manhattan after a gig at The Blue Coronet], the Village Gate had Gloria Lynne. Now he made a deal with me to have Gloria Lynne at my place, I told him I couldn’t, so he told Miles ‘don’t show up’ [at The Blue Coronet]; certain people tried to bulldoze musicians at that time.

I looked in the paper and it said Gloria Lynne was gonna be at the Village Gate. This guy said ‘no, Gloria Lynne gonna be at your place…’ There were some threats passed and Miles lawyer – Harold Lovette… that bastard [laughs] knew there was tension. Harold called [this guy] and told him what to kiss… See Harold started everything. They weren’t consulting me because I knew Miles was going to be at my place, and not Gloria Lynne. Then Harold told that guy what to kiss and said Miles was coming over [to the Blue Coronet] anyway. So over Harold’s BS, this guy wanted to make a point, to show you how bad he was.

When Miles played I had to keep two parking spaces out front of the Blue Coronet to keep Miles and his red Ferarri out front because there were no designated parking spaces. So when Miles left the club they put the boys on him. You know in Brooklyn it’s very easy to get shooters, even at that time, and they drove up and shot Miles’ car up. When I went down to see the car, if Miles hadn’t had that heavy [car] door, he would have been dead. They arrested Miles for having a couple of reefers on him. Miles said he was never coming to Brooklyn again.

WJ: Were you there that night, and how did you find out what had happened?

HB: In the papers, on the radio. They shot him in Lower Manhattan after he left the club [date: October 9, 1969]; they followed him to Manhattan. Right after that Miles started playing that off-beat [electric] jazz.

WJ: Did you have any kind of stylistic policy in terms of who you brought into the club?

HB: Not really, I didn’t have any real… I wasn’t opinionated about the type of music they played. Avant garde stuff like Randy [Weston] plays… Randy would get on that piano and play two months… I love Randy, that’s my man, but somewhat avant garde. Another one was McCoy Tyner, the same way…

WJ: What makes you refer to your place as a community place?

HB: It was all black for one – the Coronet had a white owner – I made the Blue Coronet a black atmosphere; I gave all the locals a shot, I gave everybody a shot.

WJ: How would you compare your policy at The Blue Coronet with the policy of other clubs in Brooklyn at the time?

HB: They didn’t have many. They had Town Hill at the time; that was a variety place, mine was strictly jazz. They had Sam Cooke up there, Dinah Washington… and that was a huge place, mostly singers. Turbo Village was just live music at the time; no one compared with what I was doing at the time.

WJ: So your place from 1965-1985 was, at least in your estimation, THE jazz club in Brooklyn.

HB: Right.

WJ: Was your audience strictly Brooklynites, or did people come over from Manhattan and other places?

HB: I never took no census, but I advertised in the New York Times, the Post, the Daily News… advertising was a big part of it… I did radio [advertising]; a good part of my money went out for advertising, posters… mostly in Brooklyn. I advertised in the Amsterdam News… I got my play in the newspapers; when they [listed] jazz spots, the Blue Coronet was there. I got a big picture in the Daily News, me and Sonny Stitt… They gave me my play… I advertised every week.

Sonny Stitt was a Blue Coronet regular and personal friend of owner Habersham-Bey.

WJ: Did you have MCs at the Blue Coronet?

HB: Yeah, we had Irvin C. Watson… he was from Brooklyn, he was a friend. And Jimmy Morton.

WJ: Were you on good terms with the musicians?

HB: Yeah, very good terms, ‘cause I was a fair guy and I knew how hard it is being a black musician, especially a jazz musician. I was discriminating about what I wanted in the club; if it was going to be a jazz club, be a jazz club.

? Announcing the death of jazzWe’re Tweeting ?
4 Responses to Who shot Miles?
John Chappell says:
June 28, 2011 at 3:42 pm
Thanks! You always have the best jazz articles on the web. Be blessed, Peace
Valerie Bishop says:
June 29, 2011 at 5:27 pm
oh, what fun to read about one of my favorite clubs from ’65 to late ’69! obviously, they had the best music imaginable. i traveled from Manhattan and heard some of the greatest of the day, including the up-and-comers, especially sessions with Freddie Hubbard (i think that’s when i fell in love with “Pensitiva”!!), Cedar, Kenny Barron, Curtis Fuller, Joe Henderson, etc., etc. thanks, Willard, for bringing back some very sweet memories!
K. Leander Williams says:
September 10, 2014 at 9:09 am
Bill Lee, Spike Lee’s father, once told me a hilarious self-deprecating story about one of his gigs at the Blue Coronet. One night he had the unenviable task of being the bass sub for Paul Chambers in Wynton Kelly’s band. It was a last-minute thing. Bill said Kelly kept asking, “Where’s Paul?” after several tunes, a not-so-subtle indication of disappointment. Normally I wouldn’t share a story like this, but Lee was laughing pretty hard when he told me about it (the memory still cracked him up), so clearly there were no hard feelings…
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Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment

Randy & Langston

In celebration of Randy Weston‘s 90th birthday, Wednesday, April 6 – which included a joyous surprise birthday party at a restaurant in Brooklyn – and in recognition of April as National Poetry Month, we remember Langston Hughes. Randy and Langston Hughes had a longstanding friendship and professional interaction that actually started in the Berkshires in the late 1950s when they met after one of Marshall Stearns roundtable programs at what became the legendary Music Inn. In commemoration of both Randy’s 90th and Langston Hughes, the quintessential American poet, here’s an excerpt from Randy’s recollections of their relationship, including an excerpt from the liner notes Langston wrote for Randy’s classic album Uhuru Afrika, and a humorous anecdote from Langston’s funeral service, that is taken from African Rhythms, The Autobiography of Randy Weston (Duke University Press; now available in paperback edition) that I had the great honor of serving as Randy’s collaborator.

African Rhythms cover

Enter: Langston Hughes
Over the years since we first met in the Berkshires, the great poet and writer Langston Hughes and I had become friends. Marshall Stearns brought Langston up there to speak at one of his programs, which is how we first became acquainted. Langston eventually wound up participating in our history of jazz presentations a few times as narrator, the same concept that first came from Marshall Stearns. These programs were structured so that we would play different pieces to illustrate the various evolutionary steps in jazz history and Langston would do the reading. We took the music on a trip from Africa to the Caribbean, then the black church, the 1920s and people like Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith, then on to the swing era. I particularly remember once when we performed it at City College with Booker Ervin on tenor sax and Langston.

Years later Langston eventually introduced me to two women who assisted us in the development of our black musicians’ organization, which we called the African American Musicians Society. These women were Ramona Lowe and Adele Glasgow and they worked with Langston, though I think it would be unfair and somewhat belittle them if I were to refer to them as his secretaries. These two sisters, who lived downtown at the time I met them, had a strong desire to move to Harlem, and eventually they opened a place in Harlem called the Marketplace Gallery on 135th Street and 7th Avenue, near where the famous club Small’s used to be. But before moving to Harlem they enabled me to lease their apartment in a building on 13th Street and Third Avenue, which was my first time living in Manhattan. This apartment was pretty impressive, with six huge rooms for only $76 a month rent. In this apartment they had one room loaded with nothing but books. These were two very literate women and through their many contacts they helped us organize the African American Musicians Society, and the Marketplace Gallery became our meeting place.
Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes was important to us in many ways, including in the formation of the AAMS. He used to attend some of our meetings as well and was very interested in our cause as musicians. But back to the development of Uhuru Afrika: I went to Langston and asked him to write a freedom poem for the introduction to the suite, which would have four parts. He was as excited as I was by the prospects for this suite, so he eagerly agreed to write the poem. The poem which we later had translated – a point I’ll get to in a minute – became a sort of invocation for “Uhuru Afrika.” It was a key element in the “Uhuru Kwanza” movement of the suite. I also asked Langston to write lyrics for a section I wrote for African women called “African Lady,” which became the eventual second movement of the suite. Langston’s poem set an absolutely wonderful tone for that recording session. Remember, the whole point of “Uhuru Afrika” was to talk about the freedom of a continent; a continent that has been invaded and had its children taken away, the continent of the creation of humanity. And Langston felt that, he knew it deep down in his soul.

“Piano music is as old as the piano which as an instrument,
in variations of its present form, dates back some 250 years.
Millions of fingers have rippled the keys since then.
But not until Randy Weston put the enormous hands of
his 6’7” frame to the piano did exactly what happens in his
playing emerge from that ancient instrument.
When Randy plays, a combination of strength and gentleness,
virility and velvet emerges from the keys in an ebb and flow
of sound seemingly as natural as the waves of the sea.”
— Langston Hughes (from the original liner notes for
Uhuru Afrika)

After “Uhuru Afrika” Langston and I stayed close. In fact when he died in 1967 at a French hospital in New York his secretary called and said “Randy, in Langston’s will he wants you to play his funeral with a trio.” I thought ‘man, Langston is too much!’ They had some kind of religious ceremony someplace else, which I was unable to attend. But the ceremony Langston really wanted and had specified in his will was at a funeral home in Harlem. It was a big funeral home that seated over 200 people with chairs on one side of the place. In the other room was Langston’s body, laid out in a coffin with his arms crossed. The band was Ed Blackwell, Bill Wood and me. They had arranged for us to play in front of the area of the funeral home where the guests sat, surrounded by two big wreaths. Ed Blackwell got very New Orleans, very superstitious about the setting. He said “man, I’m not gonna touch those flowers. It’s weird enough we’re here in the first place.” So we had some guys move the flowers so we could set up the band.

The people filed in and had a processional to view Langston’s body. Lena Horne was there, so were Dr. Ralph Bunche, Arna Bontempts and a whole lot of dignitaries. We set up the band and I went outside for a minute to get a breath of fresh air. Langston’s secretary came out and said “OK Randy, its time to start.” I said “where’s the minister?” He said “there’s no minister, you guys start the service!” I stayed up all night the night Langston died and wrote a piece called “Blues for Langston” because I knew he loved the blues more than anything else in the world. He and Jimmy Rushing, those two guys really made an impact on me about the importance of the blues and what the blues really meant.

Before we played I stood up and said “well folks, I wrote this blues for Langston Hughes since he loved the blues so much, so we’re going to play the blues.” We played one hour of all different kinds of blues and in between selections Arna Bontempts read some of Langston’s poetry. The funniest thing I remember about it was that Lena Horne told me later “ya know, I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t know whether to pat my foot or not…” But the story is that Langston put us all on. Two weeks later I got a phone call from his secretary, who said “Randy, I forgot to tell you, Langston said to be sure the musicians are paid union scale.”

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The Voice of Jazz gets downright indignant!

Extraordinary how potent cheap music is…
— Noel Coward

No truer words have ever been spoken (and thanks to WBGO deejay Sheila Anderson for that one, taken from her valuable book The Quotable Musician (Allworth Press). If jazz could only speak for itself. Ever wonder what the art form would say for itself in light of current conditions? Jazz writer Ron Scott, a regular contributor to the Amsterdam News and a contributor to our series of dialogues with African American music writers, Ain’t But a Few of Us, recently heard from the voice of jazz and here’s what the elder statesman of American music had to say about this year’s Grammy Awards.

By Ron Scott
Ron Scott
This year’s 58th Grammy Award song of the year was “Thinking Out Loud” by Ed Sheeran. The song title is apropos for the following thoughts the voice of “jazz” was pondering during this year’s awards ceremony. As jazz was heard to remark afterwards…

The host was the multi-Grammy winner, actor and rapper LL Cool J. No doubt he deserved to host the show, but what about my shine in primetime media? Why don’t I get no hosting gig ever, no on-stage gig (well, maybe a few times), no Grammy presenting gig, and no Grammy presentation in primetime… except for maybe a few crumbs here and there… (Herbie Hancock comes to mind).

Sure the music world folks often say, “Jazz is America’s national treasure.” Right… then when the Grammys come around I’m treated like the girl who only gets a date on the staircase in the projects!

Yeah, I’m America’s original music alright. Similar to my little brother hip hop, who also came out of the ghetto. Everybody laughed at him at first, said he was just a fad. They said he’s too flamboyant, too disrespectful to ladies, uses profanity and does drugs. He’s too gangster… multiple arrests and even convictions. Regardless, he kept rappin’ and here we are years later… millions of record sales, and movie contracts, and I’m still in the shade!

Make note, I’m not hatin’ or complaining’… just sayin’. They gave big props to “Hamilton” for winning “Best Musical Theater Album.” Okay, cool the first major hip hop Broadway production.

Yeah, I know it’s all about the paper. Little bro hip hop is making millions, getting all that media attention. While little ole’ jazz, by comparison is just making short money and that doesn’t warrant the Grammy stage during primetime.

But dude, you know I was swinging in the first Black Broadway production Shuffle Along, way back in 1921, and that was written by the jazz musician songwriters Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake. Their songs from the play “I’m Just Wild About Harry and “Love Will Find A Way” are now a part of the Great American Songbook.”

In 1912 when the jazz bandleader, composer and arranger James Reese Europe formed the Clef Club Orchestra and became the first jazz orchestra to perform at Carnegie Hall, that was me in the house swinging along. Bam! That was 21 years before Benny Goodman’s debut at Carnegie Hall, you dig.

I was there during World War I with Lt. Europe, leading the 369th Infantry Regiment (the Harlem Hellfighters) in France, when they gave those swinging jazz concerts for the British, French and American troops.

Yo, when those cats came home and marched through Harlem, stepping proud, playing some mean tune… that was me, daddio. Just thinking out loud, no complainin, no hatin’ just sayin’.

During those horrendous terrorist days of lynchings, I witnessed that strange fruit hanging from the sycamore tree.

Being in “Alabama” with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was no joke, just ask John Coltrane, he wrote the tune. When Nina Simone sang “Mississippi Goddam” and “Old Jim Crow” I was all up in the mix jamming in the trenches.

We were bebopping with Dizzy Gillespie swinging low in his sweet Cadillac as folks jammed to Lou Donaldson’s “Alligator Boogaloo,” long before you got gangsta and spit hip hop.

Hell, baby we started it all coming from Africa; the drum persisted, call and response resisted, the preacher was sweatin’, and Negro hymns from the gospel choir praised the lawd.

While down the block the devil was dancin to the blues, ragtime and jazz. Yeah it all came through me; doo wop, R&B, soul, funk, and rap via Jocko Henderson, Jack the Rapper and Frankie Crocker “the chief rocker.”

Yes, I am America’s treasure sure sounds good, but all of my family is enjoying primetime, and I’m still being treated like a booty call. What is wrong with this scenario?
Hey no complainin’, no hatin’, just saying.

Did you see Kendrick Lamar layin’ down that rap? He’s a hardcore kid, and that big youngster on the saxophone… damn! Those dancers in their African gear… and the drums!, now that was a statement, a musical journey.

That young 12- year old pianist Joey Alexander held down the jazz front with his dazzling performance of Thelonious Monk’s composition, “I Mean You,” and at least Ruth Brown’s posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award was heart-warming. After all she crossed over from jazz to blues and R&B.

Anything else related to Grammy jazz winners was relegated to online views. Here are a few of the winners; Cecile McLarin Salvant Best Jazz Vocal Album, For One to Love, ”Christian McBride “Best Improvised Jazz Solo,” Eliane Elias “Best Latin Jazz Album “Made in Brazil,” and the Afro Latin Jazz Suite featuring Rudresh Mahanthappa under the category “Instrumental Composition.”

Those special tributes to Maurice White, B.B. King and that spectacular Lady Gaga performance for David Bowie were cool, but what happened to the Natalie Cole tribute? Like her father Nat King Cole, her voice is unforgettable and she deserved a tribute.

After all it was Miles Davis who explained the “Seven Steps to Heaven.” Granted, afterwards he was “On the Corner,” drinking “Bitches Brew,” and got involved with those “Water Babies,” but should that disqualify jazz from having some Grammy prime time status?

No, it shouldn’t. “no complainin’, no hatin’, I’m just saying!,” said an indignant jazz.

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Lifting the Boats?

Kamasi Washington

No question saxophonist Kamasi Washington is the current “it” man in jazz. Its not often that an unabashed jazz musician like the L.A. based tenor man garners the level of mainstream prints Washington has enjoyed. Certainly we recognize that the measure of ink and digital notice Kamasi has accrued since the release of his aptly-titled, 3-CD debut opus “The Epic” (Brainfeeder), has as much, likely more, to do with his key contributions to hip hop man of the year Kendrick Lamar‘s much-lauded, multiple Grammy winning album “To Pimp a Butterfly” as it does with any sense that “The Epic” is somehow a ground-breaking record; though in some ways it is! After all, when was the last time an artist debuted with that much music on such an expansive canvas: double drums, robust horn section, strings, and voices? I can’t recall a debut of similar depth & breadth.

Just when we thought that perhaps Kamasi Washington had climbed the print media summit with last month’s expansive take-out in the Sunday New York Times Magazine no less, along comes a new piece in Esquire Magazine’s digital realm. See for yourself here:

Its not surprising that Kamasi Washington has proven to be quite the phenomenon in the social media realm as well. Last week when notice of the Esquire piece hit Facebook, I read with interest the many responses from various posters. And isn’t it marvelous that in this age of instant communications gratification, we no longer need wait for our erstwhile Letter to the Editor in response to some piece or other to be published in next day/week/month/quarter’s issue. Nowadays we can express our approval or displeasure instantly; though hitting SEND too hastily can be a deadly sin. So it was with interest that I scrolled through the various responses to the Kamasi piece, significantly including a cautionary ‘here we go again’ from Revive Music producer Meghan Stabile; as in here they go again, anointing another savior of jazz – as if the music required periodic “saving,” or at least that was my cursory interpretation of Meghan’s quite reasonable admonishments.

Although Ms. Stabile is certainly not in that camp, there were more than a few haters in those response posts; a sense in some corners that here’s another example of an unworthy musician being prematurely anointed by the mainstream press as Mr. Jazz of the day, savior of our great art form. How dare they!

Having been around for a minute, this observer has witnessed more than a few such anointments from the mainstream. Consider the overheated press notices that arrived in the early ’80s in response to a bespectacled, impeccably dressed, deeply opinionated, erudite young trumpet player named Wynton Marsalis (including a Time Magazine cover no less!); then emerging from the cooking school cauldron of Art Blakey‘s Jazz Messengers. In Wynton’s case there was an equally talented, even more deeply opinionated older brother Branford Marsalis operating as Messengers sidekick and essential member of the youngster’s first band; a deep-rooted jazz family tree stemming from his father, and his father’s teachings, which yielded still more promising young “saviors of jazz.” Throw in the romantic New Orleans as birthplace-of-jazz background and the mainstream press had more than enough hooks to attract reader interest in a mere jazz musician. And then suddenly there was a legion, an entire generation of academy buffed, shirt & tie sporting “neo-boppers” that inspired a contagious moniker; and viola! the Young Lions generation dominated the jazz prints and began crossing over into the mainstream.

Let’s backtrack a few years and we find a gritty, harder core coterie of adventurers garnering more than the usual press for their restless explorations; attention that had almost as much to do with then-neglected/now gilded New York real estate as their musical contributions. Remember the Loft Jazz scene? A growing generation of urban artists-as-homesteaders, lacking mainline jazz venue gigs, determined to plot their own course, either in their personal living spaces (ala Studio Rivbea) or other rustic Lower Manhattan dens that had somehow escaped the gentrification greed of the city’s real estate speculators. Thus the press’ momentary fascination with a generation of forward motion jazz explorers, stoked by feverish reports in the Village Voice.
Arthur Blythe

Eventually that Loft Jazz scene (often posed as if that was some style of music or other, when historic examination reveals musicians operating from a variety of expressions) provided some measure of impetus to an unprecedented raft of Columbia Records signings of uncompromising artists, including an alto saxophonist straight out of the L.A. camp of Horace Tapscott (whose influence continues ironically through Kamasi Washington and his West Coast Get Down crew), charismatically known as Black Arthur Blythe. Another ex-Messenger, trumpeter Woody Shaw, rode that CBS Records wave, expressing arguably the most original trumpet approach since Don Cherry arrived in New York in ’59. Further examples of Bruce Lundvall’s high talent scouting acumen came with the resurrection of the recording career of yet another true original on his instrument, Bobby Hutcherson, providing his mastery its most stable platform since pre-Lundvall Blue Note Records had unaccountably given him the axe. Elsewhere, the prolific tenor saxophonist David Murray was expanding his rich discography on the heels of the Loft wave.
Woody Shaw

But in reality, as much as the atmosphere engendered by the press reaction to the whole Loft Jazz scene and the steady climb out of jazz music’s 1970s stasis, the underlying force behind those hopeful CBS signings was – God bless him – the enormous fiscal success of Michael Jackson‘s recordings, which gave Lundvall unprecedented access to sign such uncompromising artists pretty much as veritable loss leaders. ‘The coffers are full, so let’s give old Bruce over there in the Jazz Corner what he wants,’ and Lundvall took full advantage, much to the benefit of the jazz music of those times. In this case Michael Jackson lifted the jazz boats. Others have aptly chronicled how that entire roster of jazz mastery was summarily dumped by CBS once the bean counters took full measure of what all that great artistry meant at the cash register.

So the mainstream attention Kamasi Washington is enjoying is far from without modern precedence. And the haters should look beyond their noses and bald assertions of ‘who’s this guy Kamasi Washington think he is… savior of jazz… hogwash, I/we’ve been laboring in the trenches for all these years and how’s this unproven guy gonna come in and steal all the attention I/we so richly deserve?’ Let’s take this for what it is, ride the waves of this small measure of mainstream attention to the art form, and view it exactly for what it is – a very pleasant, essential, but alas temporary, lifting of the jazz boats. You go Kamasi!

While we’re on the subject, perhaps a deeper examination of Kamasi Washington’s whole West Coast Get Down crew is in order, looking beyond the tenor man’s obvious artistry. In some quarters there’s been a kind of ‘how dare he’ attitude towards Washington having the perceived ‘audacity’ to release a 3-CD debut recording. A closer examination of Kamasi Washington’s background (look no further than the NYT Sunday magazine piece; thus far the definitive examination of his rise) reveals the kind of collective effort that has assisted more than a few non-compromisers (AACM anyone?) to make exceptional music of their own choosing, sans market reality restrictions. Kamasi and his crew pooled their resources, holed up in a recording studio for an extended period, and laid down mountains of original tracks; the first result is “The Epic,” with a promise of more coming, both from he and his cohorts. Proving once again that the collective approach can work both musically and in terms of identity, leading to the kind of increased attention the lonely, isolated artiste can only dream of. This is not the only current example of productive collectivity in today’s jazz firmament. Let’s focus purely on New York for a moment and consider Revive Music and its coterie of youngish musicians with stylistic feet in multiple genres, striving mightily to refresh the jazz audience; then there’s the collective of women who’ve worked with the stylish, commanding saxophonist Tia Fuller, notably the bassist Mimi Jones and her Hot Tone Records platform for several worthy women players; uptown there’s the scene pianist-keyboardist Marc Cary is building as he revives shades of the Loft Scene with his weekly series of presentations; cross the East River and we find the Brooklyn Jazz Underground. I’d say its high time more musicians need to take cues and invest collectively.
Brooklyn Jazz Underground
Mimi Jones

Full disclosure: Kamasi Washington, the Igmar Thomas-led Revive Big Band, drummer E.J. Strickland‘s Transient Beings, and saxman Fred FossJackie McLean Tribute band will play the DC Jazz Festival June 19

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Introducing a new jazz-on-TV paradigm

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Producer LeRoy Downs interviewing Terence Blanchard for the premier edition of “The Jazz Creative” on the Aspire network

Over the last few years a fixture at Dizzy’s Den on the grounds of the Monterey Jazz Festival, has been the hip, aware, and informative voice of venue MC LeRoy Downs. The Cali-based jazz broadcaster has developed a promising 21st century jazz television format that recently launched on Magic Johnson’s Aspire network. Having worked intimately with the most recent jazz-on-television hopeful to emanate from an African-American network myself, BET Jazz, news of LeRoy’s project is quite hopeful, so we sought him out for a few questions. But first, exactly who is LeRoy Downs?

LeRoy Downs is a person deeply entrenched in the music and driven by passion! Currently he is a jazz broadcaster in Los Angeles on several stations including KJazz 88.1 FM, KPFK 90.7 FM, KCRW 89.9 FM. He has also broadcasted on KXLU 88.9 FM and 94.7 FM & 1410 AM KRML in Carmel located in the Monterey area. He has been the host of the Monterey Jazz Festival for 15 years as well as The Jazz Cruise, The Playboy Jazz Cruise, KPFK’s Hero Awards Tribute to Billy Higgins, The Angel City Jazz Festival, Terranea Resorts Jazz Through the Generations, The Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz West Coast competitions, Producer of The World Stage 25th Anniversary Concert, Curator for Jazz for the Holidays series with Arts Brooksfield, Jazz Curator of the Steven James Buchanan Jazz Collection at the Mayme Clayton Jazz Library and Museum, owner and journalist for the website, producer of the made for television pilot “Hangin’ with the Jazzcats” and The Brand New Show on airing on the Aspire TV Network called “The Jazz Creative”

Independent Ear: How and why did you make the leap from radio to this new television show?

Well, not a leap but more like an addition! I have always believed for many years that jazz needs more that one sensibility for your average layman to pay attention to the music. Those of us who get it, have it in our blood! For the others, I thought that if we could enter their homes through the common platform of television they could listen, learn and experience the human behind the music. Once that human became their friend, so would the music!

Talk about the overall design of the show. When viewers tune in what exactly will they experience?

“The Jazz Creative” is a conversation and performance platform. We will have the opportunity to speak with the contemporaries of our time in different relaxed environments, listen to their interesting life in the music and see some live performance. On our Premier segment of “The Jazz Creative”, viewers will have the opportunity to hear from Grammy Winning/ Nominated Jazz Artists Terence Blanchard, Christian McBride and Jason Moran as well as live performance by DVRK Funk trumpeter Theo Croker and the Planetary Prince, Cameron Graves.

Terence will talk about scoring some of the 46 films that he has scored as well as how real life and life in the music “Breathe” together. Jason Moran speaks about his experience scoring “Selma” and show how life and inspirational thought spark language through music. Christian McBride talks about growing up in Philly, his influence of Gamble and Huff and how “Grease” is a major ingredient in his sound! Theo Croker shows how the “New Millennials” get down and let’s everyone know that, “It’s Gonna Be Alright” and “West Coast Get Down” pianist Cameron Graves, “the Planetary Prince” offers some new dimensions in sound!

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Downs with pianist-composer Jason Moran from the premier edition of “The Jazz Creative”

How will “The Jazz Creative” differ from past efforts at jazz television?

Well, when you say the word “Jazz”, people immediately go to whatever the first reference is in their minds. There is usually not any common ground until there is further conversation or clarification of what exactly is being talked about. We just want to offer some fresh perspectives in the present tense. Let folks know how well the music is “LIVING”, where they can see, hear and feel what is happening right now in the music.

Having been a host, producer, and writer at the former BET Jazz for over 10 years, and witnessing that once-promising entity dissolve slowly down the drain of corporate disinterest and neglect, what gives you confidence that this is a new day and you have a new jazz/television concept, and that Aspire is a welcoming host for The Jazz Creative?

Well, we live in a new day! Music in general is a struggle but, is a viable part of everyone’s life. This concept of “free and instant gratification” is not in the best interest of the artists and musicians who dedicate their lives to creating music and content for all to enjoy. There is not much in terms of original music on television. If you hear it, chances are you are hearing something popular that you have been hearing for most of your life and it has become a routine sound wave. We think that there are people out there who want more than they are generally offered: something new, something original, something different. Knowledge is king and although you don’t get a chance to learn too many new things when you flip through hundreds of channels of reality tv, it is our hope that music, presented in an appealing environment, from artists who speak the truth through their sound will captivate and encourage people to be delighted and seek more through the sounds of JAZZ!

Give us a sense of the first couple of episodes of The Jazz Creative.

Hopefully I have given you a great sense of our first episode. We have lots in the can. Interviews with Russell Malone, Tierney Sutton, Ashley Khan, David Gilmore, Luis Perdomo, Peter Erskine, Joe Sanders, Ben Williams and a few others. We would like to do something really special for our next show which airs on Friday March 25, 2016. We are connecting with some of the folks who have another brand new film coming out in April and if we can swing it, I think “The Jazz Creative” will be miles ahead of its time!

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