The Independent Ear

Rahsaan Roland Kirk documentary

Rahsaan Roland Kirk is one of the most singular, thoroughly unique musicians – and characters – in the annals of 20th century music. His story stands in vivid relief as one of triumph over tragedy, laced with enormous wells of humor and pathos. Filmmaker Adam Kahan has produced a remarkable documentary on Kirk, “The Case of the Three-Sided Dream” and I was fortunate to catch a screening last spring during the DC Film Festival. “The Case of the Three-Sided Dream” is slated to be released on May 31, and I’ll let Adam tell you more about that and his motivation for chronicling this one-of-a-kind figure.

We are about to make the film available commercially through Vimeo on Demand (streaming and download, May 1), itunes (streaming and download, May 31) and on DVD through Amazon in the fall. If you can mention that, that would be great. Here is a link to Vimeo-

What motivated you to produce a documentary on Rahsaan Roland Kirk?
First and foremost, Rahsaan spoke to me on an emotional level.

I knew nothing about jazz (liked music, but had a pretty limited view – weaned on classic rock, moved on to punk rock, didn’t know much more). I knew I wanted to get into jazz, so I decided to pick up a few records at a garage sale (this was in San Francisco, 1989). I picked up a Louis Armstrong record, one by Count Basie, and The Best of Rahsaan Roland Kirk on Atlantic records. The record just had a head shot of him on the cover, no visuals cuing the three horns or anything else. I was in for a surprise… I still don’t think I’ve listened to those other two records… I ended up playing that Rahsaan record until the needle wore out the grooves. I had just broken up with my girlfriend, had moved out, and was living alone in a dismal apartment on the bad side of town. I just kept playing that record, and I remember specifically – Lady’s Blues, which was a Rahsaan with strings arrangement, with him on the flute. In a way, he got me through a rough time. And I was hooked.

His music is so emotional, really comes from the guts and hits you in that same place. Then on top of that, he has this super-human, virtuosic ability as a player. Then, on top of that – when I started reading about his life story, and all the obstacles he faced, and overcame, well that’s when I decided to make the film. He is so rich on so many levels – musically, visually, life story… Just so far beyond. A film on Rahsaan seemed not only like a no-brainer, but a MUST.

I am still trying to get enough momentum up to do a bio-pic on Rahsaan and do have a script (my momentum isn’t the problem actually, it is the need for an executive producer and $$). That is a conversation I’d still like to have with someone… As I am sure you know, his story is just so rich, there is so much material there. It’s a field day for a filmmaker/writer/producer.

How long did it take for this documentary project to be completed?
This project took a long time… It’s a little tricky to say. I actually started in 1999 when I moved back to New York form France. I was talking about Rahsaan to my friend Reed Anderson, and saying how someone should make a film on him, and then my friend says – YOU should make a film on him. So I opened a phone book (remember those?!) and found the phone number for Joel Dorn -the legendary Atlantic Records producer and Rahsaan’s partner in crime for so many years. (Joel’s liner notes were also a huge inspiration for me to do this film.) Joel was a great guy and very open and into the project. We did some interviews. He introduced me to Dorthaan. He introduced me to Steve Turre. John Kruth was just finishing his book on Rahsaan at the time and he was gracious enough to share all of his Rahsaan contacts with me, so I got to Ron Burton, Walter Perkins, Hilton Ruiz, and then even [first wife] Edith Kirk and of course [son] Rory Kirk, and so many more. It took me about 5 years to get a pretty much finished version of the film done. But then it just sat on the shelf, largely because I could not get funding to license all of the music and archival material. Years passed (8 to be precise) and I picked it back up in 2012 and decided I had to push it through to finish. But after all that time, the old interviews looked really dated and the production quality was not good at all. They were really unacceptable from a visual quality standpoint, and I think that is why the film in its original version did not gain enough traction. So I decided to remake the film entirely. I re-shot all the interviews, but the problem was – some of the people had passed away, notably – Joel Dorn, Edith Kirk, Hilton Ruiz, Trudy Pitts, Frank Foster Walter Perkins and Bruce Woody. So these people are not in the film! It was a tough choice, but again, I felt (and still feel) that the film was not being taken seriously because of the low-quality of these interviews, so I had to take them out. I re-shot with all who were still around (Dorthaan, Rory, Steve Turre, Ron Burton…) and the film started to have “legs” as they say. I finished it in 2014. It took me two years to remake it (of course then I knew exactly what the story was, what clips I wanted to use, etc.) I should also mention that we will include Joel in the DVD extras.

What was your process for putting this film together, from start to finish?
It really started with finding and engaging all of the people from Rahsaan’s world, starting with Joel and then all of the others. Simultaneously I had to unearth the archival footage of him. Now, on the internet, it is pretty easy to find stuff. But when I started (again – ’99), it wasn’t so easy. So every new piece of footage was a jewel. I also found some stuff that is still not on the internet and I don’t think will ever be – it’s only in my film! Some really rare stuff like – well for one – home movies that Dorthaan Kirk gave me, also a post-stroke performance on Ken Kesey’s farm in 1977, and the biggie – his performance on the Ed Sullivan show with an all star band… (you’ll have to see the film to find out who… though I can tell you – one of the guys in the clip starts with a Charles and ends with a Mingus… but there are other giants with him on that date too…) Then it became about putting the puzzle together. Also, I had some audio recordings of Rahsaan talking on stage I wanted to use (because his stage persona was such a big part of what he did). But I didn’t know what to do for these segments for video, for what we would actually see in the film while we hear Rahsaan talking. The obvious would have been (like most documentaries) to do some slow pans into still pictures of Rahsaan, a la Ken Burns, or every other filmmaker. But because Rahsaan was anything but obvious, because he would never do the conventional, or what is expected, or what was easy, I wanted the film to take the same approach. So panning in to photos was out of the question. After much thought and many unsuccessful ideas/tries, I found a great animator/artist, (named Mans Swanberg) who really “got” Rahsaan. So we have these wonderful cosmic animated passages in the film that he created (one reviewer describes them as Fat Albert meets Yellow Submarine…) The rest was a lot of editing, massaging… Above all – I wanted to show Rahsaan in the film. So we include long passages of music and of him talking. After all, he is the star of the show.
Rahsaan film

What new facets did you discover about Rahsaan as you were researching for this project?
I read a lot about Rahsaan. All the liner notes, the book by John Kruth, another book by a French writer named Guy Cosson, and… there is a guy name George Bonifacio… Joel Dorn connected me to him in the early goings. George is the self-appointed (I believe) archivist for an ambitious collection of Rahsaan stuff, so to speak – newspaper clippings, dates, photos, recordings… He has a dense pile of articles on Rahsaan that he made available to me. There are so many great stories about Rahsaan that I discovered, and just could not get in the film unfortunately. Things like – Rahsaan driving a car (yes he was blind and drove a car), getting arrested for hijacking a plane (no he didn’t do that, but was arrested as a suspect because someone thought he as going to), Rahsaan breathing under water, and through his ears, his anger and outrage about the way the musicians and his music (Jazz, what he called – Black Classical Music) were treated in this country. So many things… the practical joker side of him (he had one of those hand buzzers that would shock you when you shook hands with him), and all the deep and sincere love that his fellow musicians, family and friends had for him. They really loved him. After making this film, I also realized that, at the very core of his being, this man was a pure Blues musician.

Given what you learned about him throughout this process, did your perception of Rahsaan Roland Kirk and his impact change at all from start to finish?
My perception grew deeper, because Rahsaan was so very deep. And my appreciation grew deeper. Impact is a tough one. He definitely had an impact on what Joel Dorn called “a small core of lunatics”, but I still think he is largely under appreciated, and not known nearly as widely as he really should be. Knowledge of him and his legacy is always growing. Is it enough? I don’t think so. I still think he has not gotten his “just due” so to speak. Most or all of the people in the film agree. His friend Mark Davis told me – “part of my image of fairness in the world, was that Rahsaan was going to get the recognition he so deserved… [and when that did not happen]… it was a message that – life sucks and it doesn’t matter what you do, who you are…” Mark is not necessarily a pessimistic guy, he is in fact a beautiful human being, but he, like most of the people from the Rahsaan world, and certainly Rahsaan himself, were really perplexed and deeply bothered by the fact that Rahsaan did not achieve wider acclaim. Someone once mentioned Rahsaan and Buddy Rich to Edith Kirk in the same breath, and she responded – “Oh Buddy Rich, we can beat him any day!” I think she was right! And then I think of all the recognition for some of the jazz giants like Miles, Trane, Monk, Duke Ellington… these guys are “A list” jazzers for sure. And their names are widely known outside of jazz. Yes – they deserve to be at the top of the pile by all means, but most of us (and now I’m talking about those in the Rahsaan world, the small core of lunatics who Joel also described as “a box of broken cookies”), we feel that Rahsaan should be there too. And he is not.

Ultimately what impressions are you striving to convey to those who experience The Case of the Three-Sided Dream?
This is a guy not to be missed. Don’t fall asleep on this guy. He is a beautiful, spiritual, unique individual with a one of a kind legacy. He is someone you want to check out.

Rahsaan RK animated still

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment

Mary Lou would’ve been proud

Mary Lou Williams
This year’s annual Mary Lou Williams Festival at the Kennedy Center must have been a thing of great pride for the matriarch beaming down from her heavenly position. Friday evening’s performance was dedicated to the marvelous production A Conversation with Mary Lou Williams. Directed by award-winning actress Epatha Merkerson (described that evening as one of television’s longest-running actors), and written by the distinguished Columbia University Professor Farah Jasmine Griffin, the production bore a similar one-towering-figure flavor to the long-running Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill, its legs are that sturdy! The setting was spare and beautifully tasteful – Geri Allen‘s sumptuous trio, with Kenny Davis bulwark bass excelling all evening, young Kassa Overall on drums, and the always-striking vocalist Carmen Lundy, magnificently clad in a black gown – that was it, no further props necessary for that level of artistry.

Geri Allen
Carmen Lundy
These two figurative Mary Lou’s granddaughters did the great lady proud, superbly bringing enormous meaning to the various transitions in MLW’s life, from jobbing musician, to ace arranger, to mentor to the greats (from Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk to Randy Weston), to Duke University professor, to Catholic spiritual mother; certainly a life well-lived! MLW lived through Carmen’s rich storytelling and song lyrics, Geri inhabiting her pianistic oeuvre, and still projections of various phases of the maestro’s life as backdrop. In this its 21st edition, the Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival (with Dee Dee Bridgewater as its affable, ever-humorous host) came alive with the spirit of MLW through this production as none other of its exceptional predecessor festivals; Mary Lou Williams in full rhythm & tune.
Allison Miller
Saturday evening’s session featured the customary 3-band billing, opening with drummer Allison Miller‘s brilliant Boom Tic Boom ensemble, featuring crafty cornetist Kirk Knuffke, the adventurous pianist Myra Melford, violinist Jenny Scheinman, bassist Todd Sickafoose, and clarinetist Ben Goldberg, whose bottom sonorities on contrabass clarinet were a revelation. Coming at the end of their monthlong tour, Boom Tic Boom was a finely balanced unit, blessed with a broad harmonic pallet as they wound their way through the band’s deeply satisfying arrangements.
Jane Bunnett & Maqueque
The drum was deep in the house on this evening as Boom Tic Boom’s set was followed by saxophonist-flutist Jane Bunnett‘s womanly, Afro-Cuban ensemble Maqueque, whose bata drumming conguero (and vocalist) was a riveting figure all set, as was Jane’s rambunctious young trap drummer Ms. Garcia. The Toronto-based Ms. Bunnett, whose immersion in Afro-Cuban music and culture has few precedents among North Americans, has assembled the all-woman Maqueque not as gimmick, but as a real contributor to the contemporary scene, even breathing fresh life into the Bill Withers classic “Ain’t No Sunshine”.

The spirit of the drum closed the evening as well, with Terri Lyne Carrington‘s Mosaic Project, this time with the estimable Oleta Adams‘ vocal-piano cameo. That TLC has become one of the more perceptive bandleaders in this business goes without saying, a skill set on vivid display as she maneuvered her Mosaic vehicle through through the lush boulevards of this set. As for the evening’s featured singer, Suzan nailed it afterwards, declaring that Oleta Adams could read the phone book and make it sound biblical, she’s so thoroughly immersed in the gospel spirit. Tia Fuller and Ingrid Jensen provided Carrington an adept horn section to be sure. This was certainly a memorable Mary Lou Williams Jazz Festival, befitting its 21st running.

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment

Creative Originality, Controlled Surprise… Free Jazz

Robert Fleming
My friendship with author-educator Robert Fleming dates back over 40 years. We both grew up in an area of the East side of Cleveland known as Mt. Pleasant and as budding writers we bonded over our mutual passion for jazz music. As 20-somethings we spent many hours immersing ourselves in the latest jazz releases in his 3rd floor walk-up; his thirst for and knowledge of the music a constant source of inspiration. Equally inspiring was our mutual interest in writing, and in my case that was particularly writing about jazz music. One afternoon in 1974 we spent an unforgettable afternoon picking Miles Davis‘ brain for interview insights from the master. Miles was playing a weeklong stint at the former Cleveland jazz haunt known as the Smiling Dog Saloon, learning ground for not only the two of us as jazz aficionados and jazz writers, but also for our Cleveland contemporaries drummer Greg Bandy (long known as “The Mayor of Harlem” and Joe Lovano. (This was the Miles unit featuring Sonny Fortune, Mtume, Michael Henderson, Al Foster, Reggie Lucas, and he had just flown in a young French guitarist named Dominique Gaumont for an acid test tryout.) The Dog was the site of endless jazz discovery for both of us, from the earliest versions of Weather Report and Return to Forever, to my initial experiences with Charles Mingus, Miles, and many others, including an incredible 3-week residency by the Sun Ra Arkestra!

Robert made his exit from Cleveland years ahead of me, encamping in uptown New York in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Columbia University. We’ve kept up through the years, and have both continued to write traveling down admittedly divergent paths; still sharing the common denominator of jazz music. Recently Robert added the jazz listening guide “Free Jazz (Creative Originality, Controlled Surprise)” to his impressive list of book contributions. Obviously some questions were in order, but first some bio insights on my old friend & colleague.

Robert Fleming, a freelance journalist and editor, formerly worked as a writer-consultant with ex-CBS News president Fred Friendly, boss of the legendary Edward R. Morrow for the PBS TV show, Media and Society, after graduating from Columbia University’s Journalism school. Employed throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, he served as a reporter for the New York Daily News, earning several honors including a New York Press Club award and a Revson Fellowship in 1990. He worked as a freelance editor and book doctor at Random House’s imprint, One World. He taught courses in film and journalism at Manhattan’s prestigious The New School. His articles and reviews have appeared in many publications such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, U.S. News and World Report, Essence, Black Enterprise, Omni, Black Issues Book Review, Quarterly Black Review, and Publishers Weekly. He has written several non-fiction books such as Rescuing A Neighborhood, The Success of Caroline Jones Inc., The Wisdom of the Elders, and The African-American Writer’s Handbook. His fiction consists of such works as Fever In The Blood, Havoc After Dark: Tales of Terror, Gift of Faith, Gift of Truth, and Gift of Revelation. He edited three anthologies, After Hours, Intimacy, and the Muntu Poets Anthology Volume 2 – 47 Years Later with Russell Atkins

Anything you want to add of a biographical nature?
There are several entries that should be included: the three-book series of the Gift novels; the in-the-works book on Project Innocence; a short fiction collection, and an upcoming memoir, “Driving In The Wrong Lane,” which will include my early New York days, my news magazine job with Nikki Giovanni and Ida Lewis, among others.

Robert Fleming Free Jazz
Of all your efforts as an author, would it be correct to characterize this as your first total jazz effort, and as a true buyer’s guide for the genre?
Yes, this is my first jazz effort. Currently, I’m talking to a Scottish publisher to publish a collection of author and musician interviews from 1972-2013. These are the guys who published my blues anthology, “Too Much Boogie” years ago. As a buyer’s guide for free jazz, I only wish I had something like this when I was coming up. I used to spend my paper route money for albums by Bird, Bud Powell, Monk, Mingus, Miles and Fats Navarro. Some times it was guess work, for I didn’t know the personnel. I’d buy them at Giant Tiger or Woolworth’s back in Cleveland. Some of these albums I still have from back during that time.

What was your original motivation for contributing this book?
It was very important to feature the original artwork from the albums. There was so much history there. After the essay which leads off the book, those images are critical to the enjoyment of the music. Like I said earlier, a buyer’s guide like this would have been a much treasured gift to me as a young jazz fan. In fact, we’re preparing a similar guide of reggae, complete with a long essay, interviews from the legends, and artwork of the quality that is featured in the free jazz book. Thank you, Brother K. Kelly McElroy, who is my partner on these jazz and reggae projects. That will be out at the end of the year.

There are some who might tend to split hairs with some of the selections you’ve made as not necessarily falling under the category of various academic definitions of free or avant garde jazz. How would you respond to such a criticism?
I know haters will hate. Just joking. I remember the late sax man Julius Hemphill saying to me one night that there is no difference between Sun Ra and Aretha Franklin. I never forgot that. That was the same thing the pianist Ahmad Jamal said to me when I did an magazine profile on him. He stressed this Black Classical Music is a part of a musical and cultural continuum, one continuous organic process. I heard this in the music of Mingus, Art Ensemble of Chicago, World Saxophone Quartet, even the electric fusion of Miles the Sorcerer. I tried to do honor to this aspect in this book.

What was your process for making the record selections to highlight in this volume?
I didn’t take the selections lightly. I anguished over the entries. First, I made long lists of the music under the categories, often playing them repeatedly to see if they would fit under the labels. Choosing the music was very, very, very difficult.

Ultimately what do you sense will be the benefit to reader’s exploring Free Jazz?
Free Jazz, as I wrote in the introduction, is the most challenging, demanding,but ultimately rewarding of the most original of American music, jazz. So many choices, so many possibilities, so many options. All I wanted to do with this guide was to make the buyer’s choices easier and more significant. In this current economy, every dollar counts. I wanted to give the buyer more bang for their buck.

Given your career as a professor, if you were to teach a course on Free Jazz, what elements would you emphasize?
When I taught film at The New School years ago, it was the aesthetics of the art form that held me in a trance. Similarly, the history of our music still remains fascinating to me. I can’t get enough of the intriguing characters who pioneered this music, often at great personal sacrifice. As you know, it was the personalities that captured my attention when I start writing on jazz back in the 1970s. Also, there is a sense of freedom, adventure, and excitement in the music, keeping up the traditions while venturing out into new explorations. Honestly, I have trouble keeping abreast of the young innovators and their sounds. That’s why Independent Ear is so special.

If stranded on a desert island, which five of the recordings featured in Free Jazz would you choose?
If I was stranded on Gilligan’s Island or some such thing, I’d chose the following: Free Jazz – Ornette Coleman, Out To Lunch – Eric Dolphy, Ascension – John Coltrane, Point of Departure – Andrew Hill, and Tanjah – Randy Weston. Really quality listening.

Robert Fleming book

Robert Fleming book2

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment

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…
Pingback: Interview with Roy McCurdy by Scott K Fish Pt. 2 | Scott K Fish
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *
Email *



April 2016
March 2016
February 2016
January 2016
December 2015
November 2015
October 2015
September 2015
August 2015
July 2015
June 2015
May 2015
April 2015
March 2015
February 2015
January 2015
December 2014
November 2014
October 2014
September 2014
August 2014
July 2014
June 2014
May 2014
April 2014
March 2014
February 2014
January 2014
December 2013
November 2013
October 2013
September 2013
August 2013
July 2013
June 2013
May 2013
April 2013
March 2013
February 2013
January 2013
December 2012
November 2012
October 2012
September 2012
August 2012
July 2012
June 2012
May 2012
April 2012
March 2012
February 2012
January 2012
December 2011
November 2011
October 2011
September 2011
August 2011
July 2011
June 2011
May 2011
April 2011
March 2011
February 2011
January 2011
December 2010
November 2010
October 2010
September 2010
August 2010
July 2010
June 2010
May 2010
April 2010
March 2010
February 2010
January 2010
December 2009
November 2009
October 2009
September 2009
August 2009
July 2009
June 2009
May 2009
April 2009
March 2009
February 2009
January 2009
December 2008
November 2008
October 2008
August 2008
July 2008
June 2008
May 2008
April 2008
March 2008
February 2008
January 2008
December 2007
November 2007
July 2007

Ain’t But a Few of Us (2)
Artist’s P.O.V. (32)
Book Review (4)
Crate Digging (5)
Events (2)
General Discussion (391)
Indy Record Company P.O.V. (4)
Jazz Ed (2)
NEA Jazz Masters (1)
Playlists (27)
Radio (3)
Records (25)
Release (1)
Songs (2)
SoundViews (1)
Tech Side (1)
That’s What They Heard (13)
The Audience (3)
The Presenter’s P.O.V. (15)
The Tip (8)
Video (1)
Weston Chronicles (2)
Wondering Aloud (2)

A Blog Supreme
All About Jazz
Alternate Takes
Do The Math
Doug Ramsey
Dusty Groove
Howard Mandel
Jazz Academy of Music
Jazz Wax
Larry Blumenfeld
Matana Roberts
Nate Chinen
Open Sky Jazz
Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland

Log in
Entries RSS
Comments RSS

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.”

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment