The Independent Ear

Reggie Workman 2020 NEA Jazz Master

As part of the jazz oral history project I embarked upon in 2010, along with Jennifer Scott and Kaitlyn Greenidge of the Brooklyn-based Weeksville Heritage Center, we interviewed numerous jazz and jazz-connected Brookynites, focusing on those who had been active in Central Brooklyn, ranging from Jitu Weusi and Mensah Wali of the now-legendary movement that gave birth to The East jazz & cultural center, to political activists Viola Plummer and Roger Wareham, whose coalition eventually begat one of Brooklyn’s most consistent grassroots jazz spots Sista’s Place, to such scene makers as photographer Jimmy Morton and hip hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy. Included also were a number of great activist musicians, including bassist-educator Reggie Workman, who has a significant Central Brooklyn history. On October 8, 2010 we interviewed Reggie Workman at his office at The New School, where he has taught for many years.

Our primary focus was Reggie Workman’s history at The New Muse, a grassroots teaching institution akin to what Jitu Weusi established with The East. Knowing his deep history in the music, and after hearing his responses to my questions, after we concluded I asked Reggie if he had ever been nominated for a NEA Jazz Masters award. In his typical humility he told me he didn’t think so in a manner that suggested that (A) he wasn’t sure if he even qualified for such an honor, and (B) that he would certainly welcome such a designation. Well at long last that happened, and Reggie Workman has happily been named to the 2020 class of NEA Jazz Masters, he will be recognized at the annual NEAJM honors concert next spring at SF Jazz. In recognition of that well-deserved designation, here’s our interview with Reggie Workman.

Willard Jenkins: You’re from Philadelphia; when did you first come to New York?
Reggie Workman: Right out of high school, 1957-58.

Did you come to Brooklyn first?
No, you came to Brooklyn because there was a lot of music going on there, and if you wanted to hear so and so you had to come to Brooklyn. When I first came to New York my first living area was up around where the Harlem School of the Arts is now on St. Nicholas Place because I was working with [vocalist-pianist] Freddy Cole and Freddy Cole had Walter and Louis Williams with him and they were around St. Nicholas Place. They were the ones who kind of took me in and made sure I didn’t go off on the wrong path; they were like my family, so they adopted me and I lived up that way at first.

Then after that as you grow when you first come to New York you go to the areas that suit your purpose. So from there I went to various hotels – the Flanders and all of those kinds of places that all of the musicians have to go to, where the buses used to pull in with Illinois Jacquet’s band, Dizzy’s band, etc. with kitchenettes. And Skinny Bergen would cook food for everybody and that was the way that it was. The Flanders Hotel had kitchenettes for $47 dollars a week at that time, so naturally that was a place where we all gravitated. From there we would go to Brooklyn or wherever we could find a room that we could afford. So that’s the way it was back in those days.

Was there a certain point at which you moved to Brooklyn?
Yeah, I lived in Brooklyn for a while – at the front end of my being in New York, around Nostrand and Bedford but it was a small street that I forget the name of right now. So I stayed there for a while – we’re talking about maybe around ’59.

So that’s close to the time when you were playing with John Coltrane?
No, I didn’t get to Trane until 1960; of course I knew Trane from high school because we grew up in the same area, his mother’s pad was right near and we used to cross paths a lot.

So how long did you live in Brooklyn?
When I came back the second time… there was a guy who had a dynamite place on Dean St. who used to work with me on my bass and he said ‘I’m moving Reggie, so you’ve got to take this apartment, so I took that place until around 1972.

When you first got to New York you mentioned the fact that Brooklyn was a place you came for music. What was the scene like in Brooklyn then?
You had the Blue Coronet, the Baby Grand, and the Continental different clubs, which I won’t try to name all of them; there was live music every night somewhere in Brooklyn, and of course on the weekends. There was one club where the poets and the comedy people went, there was one club where the organ trios went, there was the Blue Coronet where they had the jazz and all the popular groups, there was another club where neighborhood groups worked; so it was a real viable music scene where you could go from one place to the other and not even have to go to New York [Manhattan] to hear the music.

So this scene was pretty much in Bed-Stuy then?

Mostly Bed-Stuy. Of course there on the periphery [of Bed-Stuy] you had all the places where the cabarets were, where the dancers and the parties and things happened, that was all music too. What I’d like to emphasize here is that almost everything that happened had some live music involved with it. If it was a wedding… live music; a party… live music; a cabaret… live music; a parade… live music; a celebration of your daughter or son graduating from high school… live music. Those were the days where it was very apparent that the music was a part of our life’s fiber and of course that all the musicians rolled up their sleeves and made sure that they honed their craft in that arena made it work.

Some of the things you just said could lead one to believe that during a certain point – we’re talking the late ‘50s and the 60s – its more apparent that there was a livelier live jazz music scene in Brooklyn than there even was in Manhattan.
I’m not suggesting that. You hear the brothers talking about the Republic of Brooklyn – a certain kind of architecture, a certain kind of rent level, and a certain kind of scene… There are a lot of people who were in Brooklyn during the time I came here [who would say] ‘well I’ve never been to New York before…’ There were people who were so satisfied with being in Brooklyn that they wouldn’t even come to New York because they didn’t have to, everything they needed was [in Brooklyn], you name it, it was there for them. New York was another life style, different kind of people, different neighborhoods and everything. All the boroughs have their own character.

It’s interesting that you characterize Brooklyn on one hand and New York on the other hand, because to those of us who don’t live here, and who have never lived here it’s all just New York. But you’re saying that people would refer to Manhattan as New York, and Brooklyn as Brooklyn.
That’s very true. Even with the students around [the New School] here, they come here for awhile and we put them in the dormitories here in New York and they experience that and go through that for a time then they realize that there’s another area over in Brooklyn where they can get cheaper rent, more space, the feeling is different, they can move close to Prospect Park vis a vis Central Park if you try to move close to, you go straight to the poor house. You can find music in Brooklyn, clubs where you can work as well as the clubs on the Lower East Side. Still [Brooklyn] is the same today, but not as viable as it was years ago.

What you characterize as “years ago”, essentially the 1960s or so, you’re talking about a black scene right?
That’s me, naturally I’m talking about a black scene but I would like not to have a parameter like that.

Understood, but it strikes me that as far as African Americans were concerned at the time you could pretty much find in Brooklyn what you could find in Harlem.
That’s quite true… almost. What was happening in New York was a different scene, there was no Metropole in Brooklyn, where you might go see John Bubbles; there was no Local 802 in Brooklyn… there was no Beefsteak Charlies in Brooklyn, where all the cats hung out looking for a gig, there was no building in Brooklyn where all the publishing houses were, there was no Turf Cheesecake in Brooklyn – eventually there was one on Flatbush Avenue that became known for its cheesecake… So each place had their differences. There was no Bottle & Cork where you might go hear John Coltrane in New York, but there was in Queens. Every borough had something different to offer and of course in what people call “Stagnant Island”, in Staten Island you even had something different, there was stuff going on over there that you wouldn’t find in other places.

Why do you think that amongst those who grew up in Brooklyn and lived there as adults as well, why do you think there’s this fierce pride?
I like to call it welcome pride, and I know why you call it fierce because its really part of our survival syndrome. We have a group of people who migrated – you know about the situation with the Navy Yard and immigration and all that – you had people from different islands that migrated to Brooklyn because of the situation with the boats that happened at the Navy Yard and so forth. You had a situation where the board of the directors at the Muse were doing a study and Jitu Weusi and the East started the festival, I became pretty close to the brothers at the East. That was something that was the result of a community that was in touch with one another. Albert Shanker was trying to get [teachers] fired, and Al Vann was trying to get into office at that time and all that motion was happening in Brooklyn. And when Jitu started the East, the conservatory for young people’s alternative education that became something that folks from different islands and different cultures could relate to and it grew and grew. We said we needed to do this at the New Muse. When I came from Queens and moved into Brooklyn I naturally was in tune with that sort of thing and eventually I took Chris White’s place at the New Muse and Bill Barron was in charge. We looked at what the East was doing and it was like a template for me, it was very important. Now it has grown into the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, but still the same direction, the same motivations, same inspirations.

When they hired me [at Muse] I immediately tuned into what Jitu and the East were doing and said we needed to do that at the Muse. That was the reason we started our festival. We called it the Crow’s Hill Festival. Why the Crow’s Hill Festival? Because most people when you say Crow’s Hill think ‘those niggers…’? No, we’re not saying that about Crow’s Hill. Its Crow’s Hill because the black people who were working for the wealthier white people up on the hill – it was all farmland many years ago – those people became independent and became property owners as vis a vis the Harlem community and the Dutch.

So you had the Crow’s Hill Music Festival that grew up out of the East annual festival. So every year we would have a festival and on the heels of the East festival we would go right into the Crow’s Hill Festival and use some of their carpenters to help us build the stage and they’d teach us how to do the sound and whatever we couldn’t do ourselves, so we had a community that was constantly going on and the board of directors was busy raising more money, running back and forth to Albany to get money for this institution and we had enough resource to put us into the political arena. We had somebody who supported us at the New York State Council on the Arts, and we were able to do more things because of this viable black community that’s happening in Brooklyn.

Tell us about the Muse, when it began, what was its mission and the motivation behind how it came to be.
There was a place, which has been rebuilt called the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. The Brooklyn Children’s Museum moved into this auto showroom on Bedford and Eastern Parkway and that became their temporary home. Slowly the musicians began to become involved with the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Then the construction was completed and it left a big place they had taken over on Bedford. The powers that be moved in there and said ‘OK, we can start an African American cultural center here [in the now-vacated auto showroom-former home of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum]. That group of people moved into that former home of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, taking advantage of the menagerie. A young man that was running the planetarium stayed with us so therefore we had a planetarium as a part of the other program.

The artistic part of [the Muse] developed step-by-step, so they solicited for funds and I think that Bill Barron and Chris White, Rudy Collins and folks like that approached the board and said ‘we would like to start a music program here’ and began to put together the same type of thing. There were various factions in the area. Don’t forget what I said about folks from the islands. The Haitians for example were some of the strongest factions in the area; they’re in very close contact with one another, they have a particular cultural aspect – the music is unique – so that was incorporated into the growth of the school, different things that were needed for the children to continue [studying] their culture. If you don’t work on it yourself you’ll be talking about HIStory, not YOUR story.

So the New Muse was really important for the artistic part as well as the other part that the kids would not have an opportunity to experience [for themselves], it’s still there for them. It was called the New Muse Community Museum.

Why was it called the New Muse?
Probably because there was a Muse at one time, so in order to make it in tune with the mission they called it the New Muse Community Museum, and the word community was really important because it was a focal point for the politicians and the community to really get in touch with all the parents who were around in this neighborhood; it went all the way over into Crown Heights, with a great and strong African American population.

So I was out there with my bullhorn not only getting support for whatever politician but also getting them to come to our weekly concerts, because you didn’t have the same kind of media that you might have in Manhattan. Seems like because of my family I’ve always been involved with the arts, trying to give something back, to try to make sure that we are in touch with the new people coming up. And that’s one of the things we’re doing with the African American Legacy Project.

In what capacity did you become part of the New Muse?
At first I was just teaching bass and substituting for Chris White when he couldn’t make it, when he’d be out with Nina Simone or somebody. Then I began to start dealing with more assignments to work there as time went on. When Bill Barron got sick and died from a heart attack, they needed a director for the music department and they asked me to do it, so I got more involved.

When you say more involved, in addition to teaching what else were you doing there?
I was going out and meeting with factions who might bring some energy to the Muse. I was involved with the politicians getting people to support us, and a lot of hands-on, bootstrap type stuff; working to build this institution to what it could be.

I’ve talked with some young musicians who were involved with the Muse and they have pointed to you as one of the key people there.
I was one of those people, but not by myself. When I did get really involved like that I began to pull in everybody I could. And again I always go back to fact that Alex Etienne, a politically active Haitian trumpet player – he’s still around, he’s been sickly lately but whenever I’m working at Sista’s Place Alex is going to be there. He was the one who went into the Haitian community and made sure that those youngsters got involved with that music program [at the New Muse].

We were trying to reach out to everybody, not just those who could afford it, and we put our prices down to a place where folks could reach it – where they couldn’t afford not to come.

In addition to the music classes, what kind of other offerings did the New Muse have?
It had art classes, photography classes, astronomy classes from the young brother who ran the planetarium, we had zoology, dance classes, bi-weekly concerts, writing classes. There was quite a bit of education going on and that was after-school education.

How old were the students?
The students were from 7-70 so there was no bar line; we had some folks with canes struggling up there to take their [music] theory lessons, piano lessons or whatever the case may be, and they were really serious. We had 7 year olds who were dropped off by their parents and their parents knew it wasn’t just a baby-sitting situation. It was real learning. We started at 3:30 after school and we went until around 9:30pm. I left the New Muse around 1984.

During the time you were at the New Muse were you performing around Brooklyn a lot?
Somewhat, but not a lot. During the era of the 60s things were happening, but that was why the East took off because things were tapering off [in Brooklyn in the 70s]. I won’t say the New Muse preceded the East, but its physical building may have been more luminous, [it preceded] 10 Claver Place [the East’s building]. When they moved into the Armory folks began to say ‘hey, these folks are serious’, and then the festival began to grow and there was action going on and people began to see the folks who were dealing with the East. The New Muse was still going on, the building was happening and they began to put money into it as a banner, but the banner became more diverse when Claver Place began to develop their thing, even though the New Muse was still happening. I don’t want to say either/or because both [the New Muse and the East] were important at the time.

There seems to have been a sense of cooperation between the two places because even though the New Muse preceded the East you did suggest that the New Muse learned a few things from the East.
Definitely. I used to go to the East to see a lot of music. I was inspired and encouraged to do more after having that experience, and that experience came as a result of being invited to the East on those dates when they had those special concerts. When performance was incorporated into the New Muse I never forgot all that stuff, all the things they were doing to grow, the techniques they had to present their concerts. So I said I was going to try to do all I could somewhat the same thing at the New Muse as much as I can. When I was incorporated into the New Muse I began to see all of the valuable parts of that and where I needed to expend my energy, and I also began to see that some of it was good and some not, so I navigated myself through the waters and did what I could during the time I was there.

You mentioned that one of the things the New Muse learned from the East was the benefits of having a festival. How did that Crow’s Hill Festival come about?
It started with just a bandstand outdoors and a block party, and my vision was much bigger, having seen what the East did with their festival, which also started as a block party. So I would talk to my superiors about expanding [Crow’s Hill], so instead of being right outside Bedford Avenue on the corner of Lincoln Place, it grew all the way down to Franklin. We solicited the cooperation of the neighbors for the music and the police department for the permits, we put a big banner across the street. We had a center stage, a stage down the block, etc. The Crow’s Hill Festival lasted about 10 years [until the demise of the New Muse]. The institution [New Muse] went out.

I went on the road with Max Roach, and when we left everything was intact. When I came back people had been paid to break into the building [the New Muse], because part of our mission was to collect names of citizens for the political people to vote and go to Albany to try to raise money to try to keep the institution alive. So I guess somebody who didn’t want us there… the factions began to fight one another. They destroyed the building, destroyed a lot of the records, a lot of the music, trashed the planetarium – just broke into the building and destroyed everything, somewhere around ’83-’84.

During the time that you were at the New Muse, what was your performing career like?
Good question, because when you have jobs like this [his current employment at The New School] and like that you cannot go out and perform as much as you would like to. I’ve got tenure here [The New School] now, therefore I’m able to go out and do some things, but the career of anybody who takes on a job in academia is compromised because you have to be there, you can’t have students and not be there for them when the time comes. So you have to submit to sacrificing some of your performing career. But always my situation was like, I am a performer and musician first; education is just as important but that’s not what I do, my life has been about performing and I have to continue to do that. So I’ve always tried to keep somewhat of a balance. There was a lot of pressure to keep the scales balanced.

Have you found teaching to be an enriching experience?
Yeah, I always say teaching reverses itself – you get as much out of teaching and out of the students who are coming up with new ideas as they do.

In addition to your days at the New Muse, what other memories do you have of your time in Brooklyn?
When I would have a job with Gigi Gryce at the Continental, I would be able to hang out at Fulton and Nostrand where the clubs were – between Bedford and Fulton on Nostrand I would be able to go from club to club to meet different people. I would be able to go from house to house for lessons or whatever I could do to get in tune with the music of the time, a little cheaper than I could live in New York City; just a general feeling [in Brooklyn] of community that was closer to home for me. Knowing what I learned then, New York is the place where your career is going to stem from because they don’t get out into the boroughs until they find out what they’re going to do and where the work is, how they’re going to make their work happen, how they’re going to do their networking. Then people stretch out after they get to that, in recognition of some people who just start out in Brooklyn and they just reach over into New York and say ‘ok, I’ll deal with that too…’ That’s a whole lot of people. You can’t come to New York and not experience Brooklyn. I was shocked at people in New York who feel like they just don’t need to come to Brooklyn.

Reggie Workman on bass with John Coltrane.

What year did you start working with Coltrane? Did you have any experiences playing with him in Brooklyn?
At the beginning of 1960. No, I’m sure that he played in Brooklyn, but I never played with him there. I played with John Coltrane back in Philadelphia, before I left home. We used to have sessions at my home and one time I looked up and there was John Coltrane unpacking his horn. If he knew there was something happening, he would be there. He walked from South Philadelphia with his sneakers on and his horn over his shoulder, all the way up to Germantown when he heard that there was going to be a session at the house. That’s the kind of inspiration people would have when they knew that there was some music going on.

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Kenyatta Beasley honors Frank Foster

Trumpeter Kenyatta Beasley has released a record project he’s been considering for more than a minute, an exploration of the compositions of one of his mentors, the late saxophonist-composer Frank Foster. Known as one of Count Basie’s #1 sons, the late NEA Jazz Master Frank Foster, who took over leadership of the Basie band for a time after the Chief’s passing, Foster was an underrated composer whose book will likely yield many gems for musician contemplation and performance as time passes, but Kenyatta Beasley got there first with a full-length presentation of the music of the man some called Papa Fos. Kenyatta’s new recording was captured in performance at one of New York’s liveliest weekly music scenes, the Friday night happenings at Jazz 966, at 966 Fulton Street in Brooklyn, in the heart of the historic Bedford Stuyvesant community. Here’s how he arrived at this project…

Why did you choose to pay homage to Frank Foster’s book?
The idea for the Frank Foster Songbook was conceived while I was a Professor of Jazz Studies at Ohio State University. At Ohio State, like most research universities, certain professors have to fulfill a research requirement in conjunction with teaching there. For musicians the research usually consists of recording a record, writing a book and having it published or variety of other things.

One of my teaching assignments was to teach Arranging for Jazz Ensemble, a class that most musicians that enter jazz school/conservatories have to take. Mind you, I didn’t know how to teach arranging or know much about arranging. I played in quite a few big bands and got the point. So here I am, thrown in front of a bunch of students that are expecting to be taught how to write for a big band. Rather than panic, I kept my cool and remembered that Frank Foster wrote one of my recommendation letters for Ohio State. I got on the phone and asked him for his help. If anyone would know anything about arranging for big band, it would be him.

After getting numerous consultations from him over the telephone (He must have liked me a lot because he always took my calls), I felt like I got a Doctoral degree in jazz arranging. He sent all of the material that he was using to teach arranging at Jazzmobile in New York City. Then it hit me; Why doesn’t Frank Foster have his own jazz arranging textbook that can be used in colleges around the world? He’s one of the defining voices of the art form and has some of the material already put together. So, I told Dr. Ted McDaniel (Director of Jazz Studies at Ohio State) that I wanted to help Frank Foster write a definitive jazz arranging textbook. we both thought that it was a great idea and I set off to do my research.

Since Frank’s health was starting to decline, I felt as if I needed to get down there immediately. Research required flying from either New York City or Columbus, Ohio to Chesapeake, Virginia, which is where Frank was spending his later years with his manager/wife Cecilia. After traveling down there a few times, I started to realize that I wasn’t going to have enough time to get all the information that I was going to need to get a textbook. Frank gave me the idea to just record some of his lesser known songs; with the stipulation that I rearrange the songs and do something “different” with them. Since Frank is more known for “Shiny Stockings” and the other songs that he contributed to the Count Basie repertoire, he gave me some songs that were a bit more progressive. In the end, we didn’t touch “Shiny Stockings”! I’m happy that we recorded these songs, he because Frank’s genius as a composer is terribly overlooked. Hopefully this recording will get more people to check out his larger body of work.

In what specific ways has Frank Foster impacted and inspired you?
Frank Foster gave me my first gig in New York City. He was my first ensemble teacher at the New School in New York City. Funny thing was that I had no idea who he was when I first got to New York City. The founder of the New School jazz program, Arnie Lawrence pulled me aside and gave me a thorough schooling about the history of Frank Foster.

He was just starting his retirement from directing the Count Basie Orchestra for 12 years. When he heard me play, I guess that he heard and saw something. I remember him telling me, “Hey Kid, you’re gonna play in my band.” Frank put me in his Loud Minority Big Band and in his smaller ensembles. I was fortunate to play music and tour the world with him. Since he was such a huge presence in the jazz world, playing with him gave me instant street cred amongst the musicians. At 19 years old, I found myself playing with Slide Hampton, Frank Wess, Joe Williams, Clark Terry and many other jazz legends. At the time, I thought that this kind of thing happened all of the time in New York City.

Frank and Cecilia Foster treated me like a son. No matter what I needed, he would always call me back and ask what I needed. I didn’t realize how truly fortunate that I was to have worked and learned from such a master. Recording and putting out this record was the least that I could do to honor such a great human being and his work.

Talk about the personnel on new this release of Frank Foster compositions.
I was fortunate to amass such great talent for two nights of recordings plus rehearsals. It’s as if Frank was looking down from the heavens and engineering the project himself.

I needed a band that really understood Frank’s music. Frank is one of the rare composers that could write really sophisticated, yet simple music at the same time. In addition, I needed people that were still tied to the dance element of jazz. Most importantly, I just wanted to play with people that could have a good time. Everyone that plays on the recording is considered to be a “first call” musician in New York and it’s extremely rare that everyone’s schedule allowed them to be in one place at one time. Tenor/Soprano saxophonist Keith Loftis and trombonist Vincent Gardner all joined the Loud Minority Big Band at the same time that I did. Frank considered all three of us to be his “children.” They were already familiar with the tunes and understood how Frank conceptualized his music. Mark Gross has always been one of my favorite alto saxophonists out here and I needed his big sound to fill out the front line.

The rhythm section, consisting of bassist Dezron Douglas, drummer Alvester Garnett and pianist Anthony Wonsey collectively give the music the pulse and vibe that it needed. They are truly the heartbeat of this recording.

In addition, we were fortunate that Wynton Marsalis was able to come out and perform on the session. He left his daughter’s birthday party and came right over to participate in the proceedings. His energy brought the recording to a higher level.

I’ve been to Jazz 966, interviewed the founder Sam Pinn, and recognize that scene as analogous to other African American jazz scenes, like the Friday night tradition at Westminster Church in DC. Why was that an important place for you to play that project, and why were you encouraged to make your album there?

The main objective of this recording was to capture a live celebration of Frank Foster’s music. I thought that Frank would have liked it that way. I remember Fos’ telling me that his favorite gigs weren’t the more serious gigs at concert halls but rather dance gigs. He was from the generation that still believed in jazz is a dance music. So, the energy, vibe and people of the room where the live recording was going to be critical to the success of the record. Jazz 966 is one of those places where people feed off the musicians and the musicians get energy from the people. Jazz 966 is the only place in New York City that reminds me of my hometown, New Orleans. In short, recording this record at your typical Manhattan venue simply wouldn’t work because we needed a place with some soul

Jazz 966 is really a senior center in Fort Greene, Brooklyn that has a weekly jazz series held on Friday nights. It’s a social gathering of jazz connoisseurs that have a great ear for music but love to get up and dance to some swing and blues. Many of the patrons in Brooklyn had lived around Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton, Thelonious Monk and a plethora of other musicians who either lived or played frequently in Brooklyn. They’ll tell you stories of how Brooklyn used to have dozens of happening jazz clubs and was home to its own thriving music scene. So when you play at Jazz 966 you have to come correct or get out.

So, the energy, vibe and people of the room where the live recording was happening were going to be critical to the success of the record. The late Dr. Sam Pinn made everything happen. I told him that I’d probably need a second night to record things (better to have a choice of takes) and he made everything possible. It’s as if the skies parted.

Beyond this recording, what are your plans for playing this music going forward?

I’m looking forward to taking this band on the road and festival circuit to bring more awareness to Dr. Foster’s repertoire and legend. Ideally, I would love to perform some of the Loud Minority Big Band material and the smaller ensemble stuff that we recorded on this release.


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Curator’s Roundtable

As one might imagine, the volume of communication – whether written, expressed in conversation, or merely uttered in brief passings which reach jazz festival artistic directors (or curators) on a regular basis is constant and sometimes dizzying. One of the more interesting elements of those communications is the fact that only a relatively modest percentage of those pitching for performance opportunities (and here I’m speaking not only of artists, but also booking agents, artist managers, and publicists) appear to have a grasp on the relative presenting philosophy, desires, or thematic designs of given festival presenters they communicate with. So with that in mind I decided to conduct a virtual jazz festival artistic director/curator’s roundtable discussion. The goal was to achieve some admittedly small sample size collective sense of how artistic directors/curators make their choices and what factors drive their decision.

The participants in this virtual roundtable include master drummer-educator, artistic director of Berklee College of Music’s pioneering Institute for Jazz and Gender Justice, and curator of Berklee’s former annual Beantown Jazz Festival (and artist-in-residence at last month’s DC JazzFest) Terri Lyne Carrington. Earlier this year it was announced that due to irreversible physical alterations to it’s park/street site, Beantown Jazz Festival was ending, and joining the (June) Boston Art & Music Soul Festival (BAMS), where Carrington now serves as co-curator. Terri Lyne is joined by Paul Carr, tenor saxophonist-educator and artistic director of the DMV’s annual mid-winter Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival; John Gilbreath the director of Seattle’s year-round presenter Earshot Jazz, and curator of their annual Earshot Jazz Festival; Tim Jackson of the Monterey Jazz Festival; Danny Melnick of Absolutely Live Entertainment who curates the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, and formerly the Newport Jazz Festival; and Janis Burley Wilson of the fast-growing Pittsburgh Jazz Festival. I posed the following two questions:

What are the factors that guide your artistic choices?
Terri Lyne Carrington: Creating value, creating awareness, creating impact. Along with honesty, authenticity and quality.

Paul Carr: There are a lot of things/factors which shape my artistic choices. We espouse a mantra of real jazz at Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, so (A) I try to consider artists that have a history of playing or have played classic jazz in their career. (B) I take into account the artist’s marquee value as it pertains to ticket sales, however many of our patrons trust our programming, so I have built up some credibility in that area, I hope. (C) At MAJF, jazz education is a huge part of our event, so I also consider artists who would resonate with the many High School and College jazz bands that perform at the festival. I also book artists that I think they [student musicians] NEED to see as well.

John Gilbreath: Service to the art form. Honoring the heritage and the creative legacy of jazz as a primarily Black American cultural treasure. Showcasing emerging and lesser-known artists who are notable in the field. Highlighting the constant global expansion of the music as well as its intersections with other cultural expressions. Striving for racial and gender equity. Supporting tours in our region by working cooperatively with other presenters [ed. note: Gilbreath is a founding member of the Western Jazz Presenter’s network which meets to discuss ideas and collective tour opportunities]. Keeping abreast of developments in the field through print media, recordings, and peer consortia. Presenting our own resident artists and student ensembles in a world-class festival setting. Showcasing returns to our community by artists who came up here and have established themselves in New York and beyond. Finding relevant collaborations with other presenting and educational organizations in our community. Developing special projects and commissions with our own local artists. Finding promotional harmony with local jazz radio and other media. Input. Input. Input.

Tim Jackson: First and foremost I look to curate a joyful event that reflects what is currently happening in jazz as well as honoring the legacy of the music with the intention to inspire, thrill and create moments of reflection for our audience. On a practical level, a festival of our size (40,000) needs strong headliners as well as a compelling arc to the weekend’s narrative that will create the interest and excitement that will generate ticket sales. A well-balanced, stylistically diverse program works better for us than an annual “theme” to the festival, although it is inevitable that several smaller themes emerge each year, sometimes by design and sometimes by happy coincidence.

Danny Melnick: There are numerous factors that go into my programming work, but the primary issue is to make sure the artist(s) and their music appropriately fit into the series/festival/venue, etc. For example, I can’t and won’t book an artist who can’t/won’t sell tickets in a theater of a certain size. When programming a benefit event, which will draw a certain audience, I have to make sure the artist is someone who might be related to (or at least has an appreciation and respect for) the cause, whom the audience wants to see and hear, who is affordable, cooperative, etc.

Janis Burley Wilson: Style, professionalism, respect for jazz tradition with commitment to innovation. I try to curate with a well-rounded approach. Straight ahead, global links, fusion, r&b… I try to give my audience music they can feel, that feels familiar, but also to expose them to what is new and fresh on the jazz scene.

Is your market the biggest factor in determining your artistic menu, or is it the overall design of your event (or series) and the mission/artistic philosophy (guiding principles/history) of your organization?

Carrington: I consider the market, but it is not the most important thing because it is an opportunity to stretch peoples imaginations and penetrate their psyche with provocative thought. The event or series matters of course, especially if themed. I am partial to themed events as it creates a border of sorts that can be expanded. Freedom and boundaries can create something interesting. And of course an organization’s mission statement or guiding principles should be considered. I would hope that if I am involved then I am in alignment with those anyway…

Carr: I would say our market is our biggest factor in determining our artist menu. We receive very little subsidy to produce our event. Therefore our market has to come first. This is not entirely a bad thing because it forces you to exercise objectivity in booking artists that appeal to your audience.

Gilbreath: Service to the art form. We see our mission and guiding principles as inseparable from the cultural fabric of our city. Like jazz, Seattle builds on its cultural foundation with a focus on innovation, expansion, hard work, self-expression, and a social structure that recognizes individual accomplishment in the context of the whole. Within its remarkable overall music and arts scene, Seattle has a long-standing value system around jazz; from award-winning high school jazz programs to a diversity of regular performance venues, and an enduring respect for its own established masters. Yes, there are struggles, but in a city like this, it seems that a forward-looking annual jazz festival that stretches its own definitions each year is the only way to go.

Last year, our 30th festival, we put up 70 concerts over 30 days, in 22 different venues all around the city. This year’s [Earshot Jazz] Festival will be October 4-November 6. Get out here!!

Jackson: I start with our mission which is, in part, to celebrate the legacy of jazz and expand its boundaries. As we are a festival I like to keep the word “festive” foremost in the conceptualization of our event. MJF is also unique in that it is the world’s longest-running jazz festival and to me that instills both a historical imperative to celebrate and a sense of adventure for the future to explore. Unique programming is important to me and I try each year through our commissioning program, artists-in-residence, and showcase artists to create special moments that will evoke that “Monterey Magic” and leave our audience with a special feeling and a sense of discovery that invites a long-term commitment to the Monterey peninsula every September.

Melnick: It depends on the event, but for the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival, which started in 1978 and I have been programming since 1999, the overall design of the festival and the guiding principles/history are equally important factors into how I program the festival. This festival has a deep history of presenting a diverse lineup, including numerous musical styles so that it attracts a wide audience. We do not attempt to define what Jazz, or any other musical style, is. We seek to entertain, illuminate, and educate.

We have two stages: a 5200 seat amphitheater and a smaller stage on the festival grounds, so the programming must fit those two stages properly and must be balanced between the two stages, each stage in itself, and throughout the weekend.

I have always looked at programming a festival like a jigsaw puzzle. Each piece has to stand on its own and fit into the rest of the picture.

Wilson: My market is important in my decision to book an artist, booking the artists that have a connection and respect for my audience, but I try to expand their jazz palate with new sounds. Our mission is to stay true to jazz roots while exploring jazz influenced music, so we will always be (at least while I’m around) a true jazz festival, not an R&B fest with a jazz tent.

So what’s your take? Please leave a Comment…

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Fab 5 Freddy – rap & hip hop pioneer with a jazz pedigree

With the recent news of early hip hop and scenester Fab 5 Freddy’s collection going to the Schomburg Center, Fred Braithwaite Jr. had once again struck a pioneering chord, by helping to establish hip hop and rap as an archival pursuit for future generations. Several years ago as part of a Central Brooklyn-focused jazz oral history project for the Weeksville Heritage Center, cultural anthropologist Jennifer Scott and I visited a loft space in Soho to interview one Fred Braithwaite Jr. Mr. Braithwaite, better known to the world as Fab Five Freddy, was the first man to deliver hip hop to the television airways via his then-revolutionary program “Yo! MTV Raps”. Fab Five Freddy is the definition of a scenemaker, not only as the man who delivered “You! MTV Raps” to the television airways via the then nascent MTV music video channel, but also through his graffiti-based visual arts activities, and hanging out with figures such as Jean Michel Basquiat, and Fab’s influence in bringing the hip hop sound to crossover figures like Debbie Harry (aka Blondie).

Our interest in including the legendary Fab Five Freddy as part of a series of jazz-based oral history interviews was based largely on his upbringing in the home of a devoted Brooklyn jazz activist and scene maker, his father Fred Brathwaite Sr. The elder Brathwaite had been an ongoing figure in my interview sessions with Randy Weston for the grandmaster’s autobiography African Rhythms (Duke University Press, 2010) whenever the subject turned to Brooklyn, Randy’s development, and specifically the powerful influence of his friendship with another great jazz master, the immortal drummer-bandleader Max Roach. Max, Fred Brathwaite, Jimmy Morton and other jazz enthusiasts and scene makers often gathered at Max’s and other of their homes to play chess and talk jazz. Max Roach is the godfather of Fred Brathwaite Jr. (aka Fab Five Freddy), and it was Fab who first introduced Max to the burgeoning hip hop scene. The prescient Roach instantly saw connections between the development of hip hop and the development of modern jazz, having been one of the pioneers of what was labeled bebop.

Our conversation began with Fab displaying photos of his dad, Fred Braithwaite Sr.

Fred Brathwaite: This is one of a collection of about 20 photos that were given to me by a man named Jimmy Morton. This is part of a series of photos of my dad in Chicago about 1953 at the Beehive. My dad was real close to Max Roach, so this was the trip to Chicago – my dad was accompanying the Max Roach-Clifford Brown Quintet and this was the trip before the next trip, which was the fatal trip where Richie Powell and Clifford [Brown] died. This was way before I was even an idea. Here’s a shot of my dad at my aunt’s wedding in the late 40s, that Brooklyn-West Indian thing.

Since your father was so heavily involved in jazz, what was your earliest recollection of jazz music?

FB: My earliest recollections were jazz being played all the time in the house, along with fiery discussions about everything affecting us as a people – in America and globally – my dad was a big fan of shortwave radio and he would tune in literally to what was going on around the world. I was an early adapter of the Internet and all that stuff and I knew he would have been all over this digital information thing. I continue to understand more and more about what they did as young men, I’m working on the pieces for my memoirs, and I realize what was going on then.

I’ve got vivid memories of jazz being played in the house going way, way back. The jazz station that I can recall was WRVR with Ed Beach, which was the radio station for jazz at this time. Ed Beach was a hipster with a massive collection of the music. I remember as a young kid wondering how could they know whom a guy was just by the instrument that was playing; I would later learn to do that myself. My dad and Max Roach were friends from teen years at Boys High School. Max played in drum & bugle corps, as a kid and then he became this young whiz kid drummer playing with big bands. He quickly rose in the 40s and Max rose to be one of the architects, and my dad was right along with him. There was a group of friends who had formed a little social group that referred to itself as the Chessmen; they developed a love of chess during World War 11 so when the war ended they were avid chess players. And they would gather and hang out a lot.

Max lived in a big, kind of old mansion at 212 Gates Avenue. This house, I understand, had a huge living room and a huge baby grand piano and they would give these sets. As Max became prominent he would bring other Brooklyn jazz guys to come and hang with my dad and his friends. Hence that became a scene of jazz hipsters and frontrunners in Brooklyn, a little known slice.

Was it your sense that this group of guys, the Chessmen, was hanging in clubs in Brooklyn?

FB: Yeah, they were hanging at clubs in Brooklyn. There was the Putnam Central, which I heard a lot about and had been a really big establishment, kind of a premier venue for dances and stuff. Along with having these gatherings – sets as they called them – at the house on Gates Avenue, there was a period of time where my dad and his friends were promoting their own things at this place called Tony’s Grand Dean, which was on Grand and Dean Streets in Brooklyn. I’ve got a series of photos, which I let Robin Kelley use for his Thelonious Monk book, which document that scene.

The interesting thing about these pictures, as with this one – which was in color – it was [using] one of the first 35mm slide cameras, the beginning of that technology and Jimmy Morton had one. It’s very rare to see color shots of jazz guys from the early 50s, everything is always black & white. These slides that Jimmy has given me over the last 20 years document this scene, which I’d heard stories about countless times when the vibe would hit the right pitch at our house and the music was right, my dad and his friends would always go back to things that happened at Tony’s. It was always exciting to hear these guys get really geeked up talking about what happened and I would often times be a little kid playing in the room with my toys and things but would tune in to those stories.

During a critical period for Monk when they had taken away his cabaret license, which as you know was his ability and legal right to play in clubs, so he couldn’t feed his family. So these particular gigs were gigs that helped keep Monk alive during a period when they had taken away his legal right to play [in Manhattan clubs]. Robin even found a little ad in the Amsterdam News archives of one of those gigs at Tony’s that Jimmy Morton blew up and I framed.

A few years ago when I caught back up to Robin as he was about to release the [Monk] book he was telling me all these stories about my dad and I hadn’t recalled telling Robin all this stuff about what happened at Tony’s and my dad’s whole group of friends, later when I asked him he said that Randy Weston had told him all those stories. Randy is still really lucid and remembers everything. Robin was asking me… he said ‘damn Fab, its funny’ – because the photo in the book, which is the greatest of the photos I have [from collection Jimmy Morton gave him] is a photo of Monk in the foreground, Miles, Max, Mingus on bass…

Yeah, I’ve seen that photo from Jimmy’s collection; he has that hanging on his wall and he showed it to us when we visited him, and the original is in color.

FB: People that are aficionados – I’ve got one buddy who is a Miles fanatic – say ‘man, I’ve seen every photo of Miles, what the hell is this?’ Of course I’ve got all these heavy stories… What we found out, which is an extension of the great work that Robin Kelley did, was the reason Robin couldn’t find an ad for the performance that the photo depicts… the reason was because what Robin and Jimmy Morton figured out is that they didn’t take out an ad because it wasn’t to be public knowledge that Monk was performing this gig. Having your cabaret card taken away was like driving a car without a license; if the cops found out you were going to jail.

Having heard the stories about Tony’s and Monk and just dozens of different stories growing up, Robin went in deeper because he interviewed one of Monk’s siblings about the fight that almost broke out between Miles and Monk or Monk’s brother. They were rehearsing for this gig at Tony’s and Miles was trying to tell Monk how to play it and in the book Robin writes about how Monk had to check Miles, it was about to go to fisticuffs [laughs].

You talked about these sessions these guys used to have at the house at 212 Gates Avenue; what were they like?

FB: That was more like jam sessions, the musicians would come and play, and it was just like a scene… I guess the thing that was infectious to me was the enthusiasm and the energy they would have when they would get into those conversations. Jimmy Gittens, who I should say was such a huge, huge influence on me and what I even do now, Jimmy was like a big brother/uncle to me… It was Jimmy Gittens, Lefty Morris, my dad, Willie Jones (the drummer; a major activist)… It was Willie Jones, my dad and them that were together when they assassinated Malcolm X at the Audubon Ballroom. Willie Jones was very active in community politics in Brooklyn and also in Harlem at that time and Willie would always have – the reel-to-reel [tape recorder] was what real jazz aficionados had back then, which I always remember in the house; but Willie Jones had a small portable one, which I thought was really cool.

He would record Malcolm’s speeches, because Willie had a relationship with Malcolm at that critical point in his life. I remember Willie would record those speeches and give a copy to Malcolm, and these speeches would also be circulated amongst their friends so I’d hear a lot of those as a little boy. When Malcolm was killed Willie was recording. One of the first bullets went through the microphone of Willie Jones’ tape recorder and the microphone activated the recorder. I remember them many times playing that over and over and discussing that tragedy; you literally hear Malcolm coming into the room and [greeting] the crowd, and then you hear a commotion in the distance, and then you hear somebody stand up and yell “get your hands out my pocket…” and that was the diversion and the other guys got up and shot Malcolm. My dad and Willie saw this go down, panicked and ran to the back of the room to hide.

I should also point out that along with all this music being played, and this energy around this music which was always being played around the house — the jazz stations, the music, the tapes, a whole span of music — a discussion of world politics, where we were as a people was also of paramount importance.

Were musicians part of those discussions?

FB: From time to time; Willie [Jones] was always there, and Willie was an activist… He was at my house three days of every week until I was an early teenager; he was like a fixture at my house, along with at least three other guys.

At what point would you say that you became more conscious of what they were about?

FB: I was always conscious, as a little boy I was aware of these things and I would hear these tapes, but I was pretty much still a kid and playing with army men and stuff that kids would do. As I think back to a lot of those things I realize I was more aware than I probably was at the time; I can remember things very vividly and can understand in a broader sense what their main concerns were. I’m a kid with all my issues being taken care of by my parents, so I didn’t get to experience what they knew as a black man you had to experience at that time. Especially when musicians went on the road and how they had to live, the situations these young, intelligent men were forced to deal with when they went out into these different environments and were very actively concerned with making change.

I’m saying all that to say that I also realized later in life that my dad was a big part of Max [Roach]’s consciousness and awareness at that time.

How so?

FB: You hear it in music, it was all further explained to me more when I grew up and as an adult Max would explain these things to me himself. One of my earliest remembrances of a Max Roach record is the “Freedom Now” suite, “We Insist”, that record. One of those records has a photo on the corner of Max and some men sitting at a lunch counter and as a very small boy I always wanted to know what this was about. My dad and them would explain this to me. I destroyed a lot of my parents’ records as a kid playing with them, but the images on those records – there was great photography at that time, abstract art, etc. I would later see those records and I’d be like ‘oh my God’…

My mother had all the jazz singers – Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, etc., etc., and my dad had a nice collection of a lot of the bebop records and they would listen to them both. But my mother was always into the singers. My mother hung out a little bit with Dinah [Washington], she hung out a little bit with Etta Jones, and I remember the imagery from these records. So if I see them now I’m like ‘Oh my God, I’ve seen this, I know this’. I have a little collection of photos and I think I was developing my visual sense at that time through looking at and playing with these records, but particularly the “Freedom Now” suite. As I grew up and got to understand a little bit more about Max I realized that was one of the first protest records; the beginning of the 60s, the beginning of anti-war protests, the whole cultural revolution that transpired at that time. I realize that Max was at the forefront and my dad’s influence, because when they came to my house my dad pretty much held court. He had read the complete works of Mao, Marx, and Lenin, all of this stuff… He got onto this stuff while he studied economics to be an accountant.

As a black man realizing that we’re not getting a fair shake, nor have we gotten one, he was exploring and looking at these other possibilities before they became the foundations for these other movements. He had absorbed and had an understanding of all this ahead of the curve.

When you say that your dad had an influence on Max Roach as far as his consciousness about movements, explain that.

FB: As I said, my dad had read all the works of Mao, Marx, Lenin, also African nationalists – my dad wanted my middle name to be Lumumba, but my mother wasn’t going for it [laughs], but I later learned who Lumumba was and how incredible these guys were and how a lot of my dad’s ideas were right in terms of alternatives that were much more viable – whether they worked or not in other countries, 30 or 40 years later we can see that those things didn’t pan out as they were sketched out in those books… But that’s what went on at my house. These guys would roll up and do their thing, listen to music, and have these intense discussions and debates. Often my dad would have the most insight because he had read the most and had this kind of broader understanding of what was going on in Africa, what was going on in China… as all these African countries were getting their independence… I guess it was a really buoyant, exciting time if you were an intelligent person who was aware and concerned. If your father had been down with Garvey and that whole [sensibility]…

What is your sense of how the music interacted and spurred some of that discussion?

FB: My sense of it was this… I spent a lot of time sitting around the kitchen table where a lot of these discussions would happen…

…Because the music was obviously more than a soundtrack…

FB: Yes, absolutely… My dad’s den/study was in the basement, where the real shit would go down. Thelonious Monk – as I’m growing and becoming a young teen – I’m beginning to now discern whom the musicians are that I like, that I’ve been hearing forever and ever. Monk becomes that musician; I became fascinated about this whole thing with Thelonious. One day I looked in my father’s phone book and I see Thelonious’ phone number and I call his house and I speak to Nellie [Monk, Thelonious’ wife]…

How old were you?

FB: Twelve, maybe a little younger, I’m not much older than that. Remember, I’m still kinda little boyish because when I think back to that I think ‘God, that’s such a kid thing to do…’ She could tell it was a little boy calling and I said ‘hi, I’m Freddie Braithwaite’s son and I want to talk to Monk, I know my dad knows you.’ She was really sweet and I started talking to her and I guess I was telling her that Monk was a musician that I really liked and in the course of discussing that she said ‘you know Freddie, jazz is like a conversation, and in the beginning of the conversation somebody makes a point and then they go on to explain this point.’ That’s the main thing I remember from this conversation.

I’d been listening to this music all the time and from that I now get what’s going on: the song starts off, the theme is stated, and then these guys all go off and do their own interpretation and you could still hear the theme going through there, like that’s the point. And I got it now, this became really apparent to me and I was like ‘wow, yes…’ and now when I’m hearing songs I could understand them and see how different guys do their thing as they get into the improvisation and all that stuff. But I guess I also began to understand that the guys making this music were really intelligent and really smart and they were really aware of their times, so the music was a reflection of this, therefore the music was an articulation of the intelligence and the point of view of these very sophisticated and modern musicians.

I knew that Max and my dad were in synch with a lot of the same thoughts and the same stuff, and then once I got older I figured out a lot of these things for myself. You just realize that these are very intelligent men and they’re very concerned – although the music wasn’t always about the lyrics, the feelings and the vibes that you could get – I’m not trying to say that all jazz music had this protest, let’s make revolution thing, but it clearly was an affirmation of us as these modern individuals, which I guess is the thing that had the most impact on me because I always saw them in that light. Those conversations that went on, I realize that these particular individuals had a lot of conversations like this. It wasn’t just my dad and his friends, which was happening with a lot of other guys at that level.

I remember later, when I would become a young man and spent a lot of time with Max and things that we would do together, I remember Max telling me how when Olatunji first came over [from Nigeria] how him and Dizzy were so excited about this new thing going on. And I remember Max explaining this to me because Max was a very big, early supporter of me being involved in hip-hop music and culture. So Max essentially instigated us having gigs together.

The way I read it is that some of Max’s early consciousness of what was going on in early hip hop culture was from you.

FB: Oh yeah. One day Max came to visit my dad and asked what I’m into and my dad said ‘oh, he’s into some rapping thing…’ This was before [hip hop] blew up, this was the early 80s when we were having street block parties and what not. I was already making my moves on the arts scene and I was never trying to be a rapper but I had a few rhymes that I could get on the mic at a block party and do my thing. I was not trying to be a rapper. There was a DJ across the street that had built a nice system in his crib so I would go over there and rap a little bit. So my dad was aware of this, unbeknownst to me – and my father was never into much, if any, contemporary music – with the exception of James Brown.

So one day I came home and my father said Max had been there and “I told him you’ve been doing this rap thing with your man across the street…” Right away I get kind of nervous because I never at that point considered anything music with the developing rap scene. I knew we weren’t playing instruments, we were making sounds and we were energetic and I knew this was a new thing that I dived into full speed ahead, but I didn’t consider it music – as in musicians. My father said Max wants to check it out, so I said OK. So we arranged a time a week or two later and he came through, on my block on Hancock Street between Lewis and Sumner – which is now Marcus Garvey Blvd. which is very appropriate.

I prepped my DJ and we worked out a little routine… Once again the music is not formulated – the four-minute rap song is not developed, it’s just in the streets equivalent to just jamming, no real structure. Max comes by and I’m rhyming and my DJ is cutting up, he’s scratching. Max just peeped it. We did a little 20-minute thing and when we’re walking back to the house I’m thinking ‘what the hell is Max gonna think of this shit.’ Max said ‘Let me tell you guys something, that shit that you and your man were doing was as incredible as anything that me, Bird, Dizzy and any of us were doing…’ I’m thinking to myself [skeptically], ‘that’s so nice, trying to placate a young teenager…’ But that’s how Max was, always very encouraging, but I’m thinking to myself ‘yeah, right…’ because I’m not seeing this as music, this hip hop thing…

“Rapper’s Delight” was probably out as a big record at that point, nothing really breaking crazy like it is now. It wasn’t long after that through me now making moves on the art scene and people knowing that I’m doing my thing on the downtown scene in New York, with graffiti, introducing people to the beginnings of this hip hop culture that a guy who promotes a lot of things with performance artists says ‘man, I found out that Max Roach is your godfather… We were talking with him with this M’Boom group…’ And he says, ‘man I feel like why don’t you do something with Max together…’ And I’m like thinking ‘huh, how the hell?
MUNICH/GERMANY – JANUARY 19: Torsten Schmidt (Red Bull Music Academy, l.) talks with Fred Brathwaite aka Fab Five Freddy (Creator) on the podium during the DLD15 (Digital-Life-Design) Conference at the HVB Forum on January 19, 2015 in Munich, Germany.

Next thing I knew Max says ‘yeah, let’s do it…’ So then I started to have these conversations with Max and Max says ‘yeah, you’re in charge, put this stuff together…’ This is the kind of enthusiasm and how eager they were to check out something new, which is the point that Max made to me. He explained how Bird and the guys were about checking out new things, about how when Olatunji came around they all jumped into the African thing and they were the first [generation] to take African names. He was saying this also to explain how a lot of cats wanted him to continue playing the stuff that they architected back in the 40s and 50s but Max was always saying ‘I’m always about checking out that new thing…’ Obviously Miles was able to put that in full effect. Max had hipped Miles to my show “Yo MTV Raps” and he was checking it out. This was an extension of how Max would always bring me up when the hip-hop thing came up.

Another key thing that Max said to me after I gave him that demonstration with DJ Spy, Max said “…you know music, western music, has for a long period of time been a balancing of three different things: melody, harmony and rhythm in equal ways. As black folks have been involved in music we’re added an increasing emphasis on the rhythm element throughout the development of this music.” And Max, when he would have a conversation like that would always say ‘from Louis Armstrong up until…’ He said ‘what you guys are doing is just totally rhythm…’ Now that’s one thing that when he broke it down I said ‘…oh shit, yeah…’ just grabbing different sounds and cutting & scratching, just grabbing a piece of the music and having a way to manually manipulate the record to have this extended rhythm was something Max heard clearly. He also told me ‘man, if you don’t know it this is so big what you guys are doing…’ I’m like ‘yeah Max, great…’

It wasn’t until like 10 years later when I’m hosting “Yo MTV Raps”… this was ’92 now, and it was the early 80s when I had this conversation with Max. By 1988 I’m the host of the first nationally televised show to focus on this rap music and go around the country interviewing the different people who were defining this culture, everybody from Tupac and Snoop to Will Smith and Run DMC, etc., etc. It would all become so much bigger than I ever, ever could have imagined… I’m talking like on a global basis… where people who speak other languages could adopt this thing and make it theirs in a unique way.

I thought back to what Max had said and how he was right, and how when we get into it we were just gonna embrace this whole rhythm thing, and how just the verbal, this whole rapping thing was interesting.

At what point did the light go on and you realized that this was part of a continuum – that what your father and Max and these guys were into, there was a straight-line continuum to what you and your contemporaries were getting into?

FB: It was during the time that it blew up. I’m hosting “Yo MTV Raps”, which just came out of nowhere, that was never an intention of mine to be on camera doing things, I always wanted to do things culturally to help stir it up and create these bigger platforms… A lot of my ability and understanding of that were things that I absorbed around my dad and his friends; knowing that Max Roach and these musicians were loved more so around the world than here… The fact that I knew people who were big in Paris, and Italy, and Japan was just amazing to me, it gave me a sense of the world as a very young kid.

Hence key things that I would make happen or launch or instigate in hip hop were motivated by those ideas – knowing that, wait a minute, this stuff that we’re doing in the hood, in the Bronx or Brooklyn, is not happening anywhere else in the world. To me that was interesting and I knew it would be at least accepted in other places around the world because these people had embraced and understood the music we were making and put musicians like Max and them on a pedestal on a par with the greatest European musicians ever and I felt that these people would at least appreciate the things that we were doing, because at that time it was not in any way appreciated by mainstream culture here in America. And that led me to then do things which would become very significant.

The first film on hip hop culture, “Wild Style”, I star in, I do all the music for, I collaborate with a guy named Charlie Ahearn on the film… The initial idea I had was to make a film that showed that there was a link between this music, this rapping and DJ’ing, this break dancing and this graffiti art… there were no links prior. I felt they were all very similar and if we could put it together in a movie in a story that depicted it as such, it would create a much more cohesive cultural picture and a look at what we were doing in the streets and the ghettos of New York. There was no positive press or mentions of a young kid with sneakers on and his hat to the side… you were made to look like you were one of those criminals that was destroying the city. So “Wild Style” the movie became this first look that many people around the world had and a spark that ignited them to get busy, and I’m proud of that. Those ideas come directly from the experiences I had being around those kind of individuals [like Max Roach] and knowing that they made global moves.

OK, you were sitting around as a young kid doing your thing and these elders were doing their thing, what was it about what you heard or experienced that inspired you?

FB: I don’t know the specifics, but I just attribute it to… Jimmy Gittens had a huge influence on a lot of that because he was an artist, he was a sculptor and he started this program called the Sculpture Workshop that was a community organization that you could work as a kid and teach people sculpture in the Bed-Stuy area, and Jimmy just loved doing that. So these are my beginning feelings…taking a big chunk of clay and seeing Jimmy carve busts of Malcolm, and King Tut, and just making amazing images of us and things, and then me making something and anything I did Jimmy and all those guys were just encouraging and enthusiastic about. There was no idea or no kind of thing that was beyond at least discussing in my household. Not so much with my father, but with Jimmy and those guys that were kind of an extension of [his dad].

It was Jimmy who taught me how to play chess when I was 8 or 9 years old. I felt like their little think tank if you will. They would be talking about big moves the same way I’m sure Obama and his cabinet talk. They were just the most intelligent men… they were very articulate, they were very hip, they were very slick, they were street, all these things and I guess as those things synthesized in me it was just how I thought. It wasn’t always apparent how connected these thoughts were to what I grew up around, but as I grew older I would realize… and I would constantly think of what I was around as a kid and realize what effect these things had on me. Just knowing that Max was there…

I can remember when I first began to put two and two together and to figure out what I wanted to be a part of, which was the mainstream pop art world, where there was no real precedent of black folks being key in those spaces… It was really like ‘how do I do this…?’ As I began to make inroads and began to get a little exposure… The first art show that I would have… because that was the main thing, not trying to be a musician, but really became the main thing significant for me… I wanted to be a painter… Like the work of Andy Warhol that I had seen as a little kid in a magazine, he looked cool to me… I would find some stuff in art books that made me realize that these guys were inspired by the same stuff that inspired graffiti artists, a lot of us that were painting on the trains… so what’s the difference? I mean we’re getting stuff from comic books and ads just like they did, so what’s the difference? I just had to figure a way to get into the galleries so that people could see me on the same walls they would see like a Warhol or [Roy] Lichtenstein and what not, I wanted to do that the same way that they did.

Through this whole period whenever I would have meetings with Max I would download all this stuff and he would be so encouraging and enthusiastic. The first show that we had, the first press, was at a real prestigious gallery in Rome in ’79. I’m like 19 or 20… it’s crazy.

Did you and Max collaborate onstage?

FB: Yeah, this story I told you about earlier where the guy put us together, that happened at The Kitchen [NYC]. If you go on YouTube you can find a little clip of it, just a piece of it. I’m like, I’m no musician and Max Roach was one of the biggest figures in my life, he’s a musician, how do I even talk music with him? I’m not a musician, but I could make sounds with my mouth. I was so nervous about giving Max instructions, like how do you tell this great master musician how and what to play. I remember at one point we had a conversation after we were rehearsing some stuff. He said ‘man listen, I know its kind of difficult for you to be able to tell me what to play, but man don’t even worry about that, you’re in charge.’ It was unbelievable that he would say some shit like that! I’d have to get my shit together and then figure out how to express it to him.

The one regret was… there’s a recording that I’ll dig up, one of the things that we recorded, and I wrote a rap… You see it was hard for me to instruct Max how to keep like one beat as simply as the backbeat for any one of a million rap records that have been made since then. How do you tell a guy that plays the drums and makes it sound like there are three people playing at once [vocalizes a basic backbeat]… I don’t even know how to do that, it just seemed awkward to say just to do that. What I thought about doing, which we did and I found a recording of that… And this was before sampling was a big thing. I said well what we’ll do is we’ll record and then we’ll loop a recording of what I hear from what you played and I’ll get the engineers to loop that up and make a track of that, and from that track I made a rap over that, which I totally had forgotten that I made this rap: “Max Roach he’s an architect, a pioneer, on the drums he’s an architect, an engineer…” I had fly shit that I just wrote up about Max. When I played it back recently I was like “Oh my God, that’s nice… yeah! But once again it was just unstructured, because the whole song structure [of rap] hadn’t developed and it was just me rapping and Max playing. I think it had a hook and it would have been very interesting had we released it.

It’s hip hop in the sense that… Hip-hop is more like… I mean people call Kenny G jazz, but you know and you would have a problem saying that, right?

WJ: Yep…

FB: Good, me too. Along that line we could differentiate between… like Blondie, something else that I helped make happen, Deborah Harry making “Rapture”, which was the first rap record to go #1 pop, she’s rapping, but that’s not hip hop. Hip-hop bespeaks many things, particularly being part of the culture, adhering to all those things that are just… you know what I’m saying? Like there’s white cats… not to dismiss Kenny G because he’s a white boy, but there’s Gene Krupa, there are a lotta white dudes that you could just feel by how they articulate what they do on their instrument, you’re like OK, dude gets a pass…

I used to love hearing my father and them listening, when I was a young boy… ‘aw man no, that’s so and so, no that’s not him, that sounds like blah, blah, blah… no, that’s an ofay…’ They weren’t dissin’ white people, but it really meant most of the time that they weren’t as up to snuff as most of the official cats. I know that Gene Krupa got some love and there were some white musicians that my father and them would OK, but not that many…

What we did you could say it was hip hop, but yeah I was just rappin’, because it’s me because anything I do is officially hip hop because I’m one of the creators of the brand and what not [chuckles].

One of the things that Max always said about the development of rapping relates to yours being the first generation that was denied the opportunity to pick up any instrument they wanted to learn in school, as a result kids created rap and hip hop.

FB: Great point, key point, yes Max would bring that up, instruments are gone from the schools… Its funny I do a lot of work with VH1 and they have this big initiative called “Save the Music” which is a big charitable initiative where they raise all this money to put instruments back in the schools because kids from this generation are not aware for many generations that [the availability of instruments to learn] was a standard thing in schools, almost a requisite. So you’re right, Max and them would speak to that. It is in a roundabout way one of the things that gives birth to hip hop, this form, this new thing was because kids were not able to develop and become proficient on instruments like many would have wanted to or would have dabbled in to a certain extent. That would be a discussion we would have with Max. He was very aware of things going on as they connected to a historical lineage. A lot of this shit didn’t click then, but I’m glad I remembered it because it all fit into place as the years went by.

Jimmy Morton told us that you have a lot of photographs from back in the day when your father and his friends were active in Brooklyn jazz.

FB: He gave me the actual slides of his color transparencies, and from those I’ve made a few prints; none have been published except for what’s in Robin’s book [Thelonious Monk bio].

What memorabilia do you have from your dad?

FB: I’ve got a lot of his books and stuff, not a lot of stuff. Unfortunately we were not great memorabilia keepers, but I’ve got some things. I actually got to visit Shanghai, China last year and I often tell people to sum it up that Mao was like Jesus Christ in my house, the symbol of him, what he would later mean for a lot of people looking for alternatives… When I went to the big tourist souvenir places where they make everything look old… there was a period after Mao’s demise after the Gang of Four. It was ironic after going to China and seeing that China was able to adapt capitalism while still remaining a communist country, a buddy of mine gave me a BBC documentary and I was able to see the whole story, so it almost took it back to where my dad was still following it. To be there and be able to buy some of the red books and some of the posters that my dad and them had all those years ago, thirty years later, was just incredible for me, it was like coming full circle.

Is there any chance of getting a look at those photos?

FB: Sure, there is only a small grouping of photos, I’ll show them to you, I didn’t know you guys wanted to see them. There are only about twenty and I’m just glad over all those years they still survive. I always thought of something along the lines of what you guys are doing, to kind of tell this story for cats in Brooklyn that most people don’t know about. My dad and his friends were very Brooklyn-centric. It was a campaign about how bad Brooklyn was.

When I was coming up, living in Brooklyn and coming into the city doing the shit that I did was literally no different, except for the living space and Miles of course, than going to California, Manhattan was literally that far away. When you grow up 100% Brooklyn, you might make a couple of forays into the city, or New York – which is how people would call [Manhattan] back then – to see a movie, go to Times Square, or to the Village, was like literally a big deal, that’s how it was when I was growing up.

When I branched off and ventured into the city and connected with the Blondies and the punk rockers and began to set my shit on fire I was one of the few people on the scene who were literally New Yorkers. Most of the people on the downtown scene were from everywhere, like on the art scene; they would come to New York to make it. Me and Jean Michel Basquiat were the only two people that were New Yorkers, which was really cool. When you really know the history Brooklyn was at one time quite a prominent, full on city – a much bigger landmass than the rest of the city. Fulton Street used to mirror 125th Street [in Manhattan]. There a lot of clubs on Fulton Street, which was like our 125th Street; we had the Baby Grand, the Blue Coronet…

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Celebrating Randy Weston

Sunday, June 9th, 8:00pm at the Kennedy Center Family Theatre promises to be a very special evening as part of the 15th annual DC JazzFest. Celebrating Randy Weston will honor the rich and peerless legacy of the man for whom the African essence of jazz music was absolutely paramount in his approach to the piano, to band leading, and to his recording session exploits. For what promises to be an amazing evening we have assembled a trio of distinctive pianists, each of whom count Randy Weston as an absolute influence and inspiration on their work: Marc Cary, Vijay Iyer, and Rodney Kendrick. They will join, be accompanied by, and interact with a trio of musicians from Randy Weston’s African Rhythms ensembles, each of whom spent over two decades as members of Randy’s various bands: bassist Alex Blake (who can forget his unforgettable solos on Randy’s band performances!), saxophonist-flutist TK Blue, who spent 38 years as Randy Weston’s music director; and African percussionist Neil Clarke.

In response to Randy Weston’s ascension to ancestry on Saturday, September 1, 2018, at the age of 92, the classic French jazz magazine Jazz Hot solicited an incredible array of artists to testify in print on the meaning of Randy Weston, his artistry and his enormously underrated influence. Here’s what the participants in this stellar June 9th Celebrating Randy Weston concert contributed to that beautiful memorial dialogue.


We always in the group said playing with Randy was not just a journey but an adventure.
His music and his writing was amazing. I loved working with him.

I met Randy when I was working with Dizzy Gillespie. I was either 16 or 17 years old. So I’ve known Randy for many, many years.
Randy was very consistent about his beliefs about the contribution to the world of African American Classical music that we have given the title “Jazz” to, and the influence of the music of Africa and its once past great civilizations the many rhythms of Africa in so much of the music we hear today, such as Latin, samba, rock, reggae, calypso, blues, and so on; and how it’s influenced so many great musicians, such as Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and many others.

Randy was a giant as well as a historian when he talked about the music to his audiences. He never talk down to them. He drew them in, in the sense that when he finished he made you think and you wanted to go and possibly research what he was talking about, like when he would talk about James Reese Europe, the first African American to introduce jazz to France in the early years of World War I, back in the early 1900s with his infantry, the 369th, and others that came after him. So he would get your curiosity going to find out about the different people that had a very heavy impact historically and development in the history of this music, and many times people you may never have heard of.
I would recommend getting his autobiography, African Rhythms, very much to tell you whom Randy Weston was and his incredible life and musical journey.

Randy’s music touched everyone. It didn’t matter where you were from or who you were.
Myself and members of the group traveled the world with Randy and everyone loved his music.
Yes, Randy was an incredible person. He left a lasting impression on whomever he met around the world.
I feel I’ve been very blessed to have work with him and known him. A person that I will very much miss.

May the Great Spirit bless him always. Thank you Randy for the musical journey


On Saturday Sept 1, 2018, we lost a true musical giant, innovator, NEA Jazz Master, and a warrior for the elevation of African-American pride and culture. His compositions disseminating the richness and beauty of the African aesthetic are unparalleled. Randy was born during the era of extreme racism, segregation, and discrimination in the United States. His life’s mission was one of unfolding the curtain that concealed the wonderful greatness and extraordinary accomplishments inherent on the African continent.

I am super blessed and honored to have been a member of his band for 38 years. Baba Randy was a spiritual father and mentor for myself, and so many people. Our last public performances were in Rome, Italy, July 19th, and Nice, France, July 21st, with Billy Harper (ts), Alex Blake (b), Neil Clarke (perc) and T.K. Blue (as, fl).

I will always remember his extreme kindness and generosity. My first four impressions of Dr. Weston reveled who he was and what he cherished:
– Early 1970’s, Randy in performance at the East in Brooklyn with his son Azzedin on African percussion (a clear demonstration of his love and mentorship for his children. I also remember Randy inviting the great James Spaulding to sit in on flute)
– Late 1970’s, I performed with South African legend pianist Abdullah Ibrahim at Ornette Coleman’s Artist House Loft in Soho, NYC. Randy attended this show with his father Frank Edward Weston and his manager Colette (his profound love, respect, and reverence for the elders and his admiration for other artists, especially from the continent of Africa)
– Late 1970’s, I had the first opportunity to perform with Randy at a fundraiser for SWAPO and to raise funds for support against Apartheid in South Africa (another demonstration of his commitment to struggle for civil and human rights world-wide)
– During the summer of 1980, I was overjoyed having my first hired performance with Randy and his African Rhythms group at the House of the Lord Church in Brooklyn, which again displayed his support and commitment to keep jazz alive in black community and his in-depth love for the African-American church.

Lastly when my mom Lois Marie Rhynie passed in 2014, there was a last minute issue with the church piano. Dr. Weston paid for the rental of a beautiful baby grand piano and performed gratis.

Randy Weston is the last pianistic link between Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk. His forays into improvisation are clearly a manifestation of the highest tier regarding a creative genius with astounding originality. His compositions are in the pantheon of renowned jazz standards.

Words are inadequate to express my love, admiration, appreciation, and gratitude for such an incredible human being.
May his spirit rest in paradise for eternity. We will miss you Baba Randy!


I was impacted by Randy Weston’s artistry from the first time I heard Little Niles. Randy’s work gave me access to Africa and inspired my own adventure and exploration into the west African rhythms . Randy was also deep into the understanding of the business and spoke heavily about ownership of Intelectual property.
I give thank for the times I spent with him in Senegal at the music festival where they honored Randy and all the Black or African American artists as well as offered an apology for their part in the slave trade.


In seeking to speak of Mr., Dr., “Chief” Randy Weston, as we referred to him, words seem to fail me as never before. Not so much regarding the emotional impact of his departure from this physical plane, which is enormous to say the least, but rather the absence of the expanse of his presence, like a great Baobab tree on the landscape of our lives musically, culturally, socially and spiritually, that is now definitively barren. Hopefully as a global community we will come to terms with Randy Weston’s physical departure and nurture the seeds that he planted, looking toward a better world for everyone. He left so much behind to which we can continue to refer. Randy Weston was/is a “Font from which one’s Soul is continually nourished”.


Randy Weston showed us all how an artist could take action with one’s community in mind, carry oneself with dignity and self-respect, and remain true to one’s art – all for an entire lifetime. Mr. Weston’s consistent, self-assured vision of music in the world emphasized the African roots OF music in the West, the folk roots of all art, and the human truths that communicate across geographies, cultures, and generations. He was a legend, hero, and king to many of us, and yet he was also a supportive elder who genuinely cared about us all as human beings. And he was a truly visionary pianist and composer, whose musical language must be studied and discussed in the years to come.

There was great power and subtle mystery in his rhythms, melodies, harmonies, timbres, and textures. His artistry has served as a tremendous inspiration to me since I first heard him perform in the mid-1990s. His influence is clear in much of my work, including my album Tirtha, which was essentially an Indian version of his African Rhythms Trio!

The music world has lost a giant, and it is time for us all to meditate on his legacy. I am fortunate to have the chance to work with my colleague at Harvard University, Professor Ingrid Monson, to study his personal archive, which he donated to the Harvard Library in 2016. We invite music scholars around the world to join us in this important endeavor.


I have been blessed to be exposed to the masters of my time – Barry Harris, Gilly Coggins, Chris Anderson and others – and I learned countless musical secrets from them. In the early days, they had all been trying to teach me a specific approach to improvisation – the approach that Duke, Monk, and Bud Powell had implemented – but it wasn’t until I took a lesson with Randy and listened to him play for 2 1/2 hours that I understood what they all had been trying to teach me and it changed my life. Randy’s approach to the music had no limits.

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