The Independent Ear

Night of the Cookers

With the melancholy recent passing on to ancestry of trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and amidst all the many recollections of Roy’s tireless will to jam, I was reminded of one of the last times I saw Roy, engaged in a friendly trumpet “battle” with Sean Jones at the 2017 Monterey Jazz Festival. Both were guests of the great Kenny Barron as part of his Dizzy Gillespie Centennial tribute on the Jimmy Lyons Stage. That trumpet confab brought to mind one of the most celebrated trumpet battle royales in the history of recorded jazz – the performance that begat the now-classic Blue Note recording aptly titled The Night of the Cookers, a fabled evening that found Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan squaring off on the bandstand.

Several years ago, as part of a series of Brooklyn-centric jazz oral history interviews I conducted for the Weeksville Heritage Center, a project directed by my good friend and cultural anthropologist Jennifer Scott, we sought some insights into one of the most famous jazz recordings ever made in Brooklyn. (Historically, Weeksville was the first African American settlement in Brooklyn.) There are likely some who sleep the fact that The Night of the Cookers happened in Brooklyn, at a long defunct club called La Marchal, proving once again that one never knows where jazz history will take place! For insights on that momentous evening, we interviewed two of the sole surviving musicians who played that date, pianist Harold Mabern, and bassist Larry Ridley. In the customary manner of oral history interviews, we started with some background.

Where did each of you receive your music training?

Harold Mabern: I got my training from what I call from the university of the streets of Chicago. I hung out, made all the jam sessions; Frank Strozier, Booker Little and I spent a lot of time together and we stayed there until ’59. We formed a group with Walter Perkins called the MJT+3, with Bob Cranshaw, yours truly, Willie Thomas, Frank Strozier. They had two other [MJT+3] groups, with George Coleman, Booker Little, Paul Serrano, and Muhal Richard Abrams; but the group we had was the most successful one. So we stayed there until ’59, then we left and all headed to New York City.

Larry Ridley: I started playing the violin when I was five years old back in Indianapolis. I came up in a family that was very much involved with jazz. My uncle, Ben Holloman, was a good friend of Eubie Blake, so I got turned onto jazz at a very early age. I started playing and Freddie Hubbard, Virgil Jones, Mel Rhyne and a whole bunch of us started playing together as teenagers and my first group was called the Jazz Contemporaries, and Freddie played trumpet, Jimmy Spaulding played alto, tenor and flute, and Paul Parker was the drummer, along with first Walt Miller then Al Plank on piano.

I came to New York in 1959 after going to the Lenox School of Jazz, studying with Percy Heath, Max Roach and all the guys that were there. Then I moved to New York to play with Slide Hampton’s octet in 1960.

Max Roach schooling students at the Lenox School of Jazz

Leading up to this [1965] date “The Night of the Cookers”, what had you each been doing?

HM: Before then – I don’t remember what time we joined Freddie Hubbard’s band, because we were working with Freddie’s band at the time of that The Night of the Cookers. When I came to New York the first place I went to was Birdland, and Cannonball Adderley was out front. He knew me from Chicago and he said ‘you want a gig’? I said yeah, so he brought me downstairs; Pee Wee Marquette [Birdland’s legendary doorman] tried to bar me, but Cannonball said I was with him. Harry “Sweets” Edison was working there that night, and every night at Birdland was like New Year’s Eve, as Larry will tell you. Tommy Flanagan was getting ready to leave with J.J. Johnson, so Sweets said ‘you wanna play?’ I said yeah, and I sat in and played and Sweets called a song, he said “Habit”, 8 bar introduction in A flat. I didn’t know what the heck “Habit” was, so I fumbled through the first course and by the second course I had it and he said ‘you got the gig’; I was being auditioned on the spot, I got the gig right there and went right back to Chicago.

That was my first gig, I stayed with Sweets then I came back in 1960 and sat in with Lionel Hampton, stayed with him for about a year. Cedar Walton invited me down to Birdland to sit in because he was leaving the Jazztet to go with Art Blakey’s group, so I sat in with Art Farmer-Benny Golson [the Jazztet leaders] and they didn’t make any promises, but they said if we hear anything we’ll call you. They called me the next morning and I got the gig with the Jazztet, stayed there for awhile then I joined J.J. Johnson in 1963, right before I played with Miles Davis. I went on a tour with Miles on the west coast in 1963, with George Coleman, Frank Strozier, Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb and myself. Before then I had been doing things with Betty Carter. I don’t know if Larry Ridley remembers this, but we went out with Roy Haynes‘ Quartet. After that I just kept doing different things.

LR: I came to New York with a gig; I joined Slide Hampton’s Octet in Pittsburgh and then we came into New York. I ended up working with Slide at different places, like the Half Note and many other different clubs in New York. It was doing that time playing at Birdland that Philly Joe Jones took me under his wing and I started doing a lot of things with him, then I ended up working a lot with Lou Donaldson, Art Farmer, and a whole bunch of folks. As Harold was saying, we were working with Freddie’s band and we always enjoyed playing with each other, [with] Pete LaRoca [on drums]. I think [drummer] Clifford Jarvis played with us for a minute and then Pete came in. Also I was working some gigs with Lee [Morgan]; George Coleman was the tenor player, Louis Hayes was the drummer, Cedar Walton [piano], so we were doing some gigs.

We all were playing a lot and interchanging with a lot of people; I guess we were the young Turks arriving on the scene so we would get a lot of different gigs. It was like a little fraternal situation with all of us because we knew each other, we loved playing with each other; it was great, it was really a fantastic period.

Before this session that led to The Night of the Cookers, had either of you been playing anywhere in Brooklyn?

HM: Larry probably had played [Brooklyn] more than I had. I think I played at the Turbo Village one time and I played [in Brooklyn] mostly at the Blue Coronet at the time a few times, sat in with Dexter Gordon, Blue Mitchell, and Jackie McLean.

LR: When I first came to New York in 1959 I went by the Turbo Village and sat in, that’s where I met Tommy Williams and Andrew Cyrille. Then when I moved permanently to New York I ended up working a lot… Harold and I did a lot of things together; I was working with Barry Harris… that was really a hot spot in Brooklyn, the Blue Coronet. I ended up working with Jackie McLean, when he had Tony Williams playing drums.

We were working with a lot of different people. In Brooklyn there was a lot of stuff going on; there was the Club Baby Grand where some of the guys worked. Rector Bailey used to get a lot of gigs [in Brooklyn].

Were there any differences in the audiences in Brooklyn from when you worked in Manhattan, in terms of the response or just the overall feeling?

HM: I’m sure Larry and I come to the same conclusion, but my first thought is yes and no. The people in Brooklyn were hip, if you played for the people – which didn’t mean you had to downplay your talent. The places [in Brooklyn] were packed and there were clubs everywhere. For me, once I left Brooklyn no matter where you went, you’d always end up at the jazz corner of the world; when you get through doing whatever you were doing, Birdland was the icing on the cake.

LR: The whole scene really was an extension between all the boroughs. Working uptown [Harlem] was always hip, working at Count Basie’s, the Club Baron, the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn, up in the Bronx there was the Club 845; so we were all working at all of these different clubs. So my impression was, yeah there were hip people in Brooklyn – naturally people from each of the boroughs had their own parochial chauvinism going on, but it was basically all the same; particularly being someone who was – for lack of a better expression – an expatriate coming from Indianapolis, Indiana to New York it was all one big thing to me in terms of the places we could work. There were all kinds of jam sessions going on that we could play at, there was a lot of good stuff happening during that particular time.

Would either of you say there was more of an African American audience in Brooklyn?

LR: Harlem was the same, and even in the Bronx. That’s what I mean by the African American [audience] thing, it was pretty extensive during that time. I worked with Randy Weston during that time, with Booker Ervin and Scoby Strohman,

This place where “The Night of the Cookers” was recorded, Club La Marchal, was that a place that was presenting a lot of jazz, or was this just a one-shot deal?

HM: Larry can speak more about that as far as the club itself, because up until that night I had never even heard of it before.

LR: It was a club that wasn’t really noted for presenting a lot of jazz. But how that came about was several of the musicians that were living in Brooklyn, like Bobby Timmons’ wife Stella, and Freddie Hubbard’s wife at the time Brenda, and Cedar Walton’s wife, they had a [social] club — and Charles Davis’ wife, I think she was involved as well – they had formed a club called the Club Jest Us. They were musicians’ wives who wanted to do something to promote their husband’s careers and so they rented the Club La Marchal in order to present this evening, which ended up being called “The Night of the Cookers” and that recording. Freddie had the foresight to record that; Orville Bryant did the recording and then what came out on the recording was Rudy Van Gelder remastered it from the original tapes [Orville] had put together. I thought at first that the early mastering of it by Rudy, to me it lost some of the fidelity that Orville had gotten, but Rudy remastered it later.

From what you’re saying this is not the kind of thing that happened at Club La Marchal regularly.

HM: Not from what I know, because if it had been I would have known about it. So as Larry said this was kind of a one time thing that they decided to put together, with the musicians’ wives.

Who owned this place?

HM: I have no idea.

LR: Neither do I. Again, I think this was a venue they [the social club Jest Us] scouted out and found that it was a place they wanted to produce this concert.

Can either of you recall Club La Marchal physically?

HM: The only thing I remember about it was that it was very small, it wasn’t that big.

LR: I don’t remember any real specifics about it; all I remember is that we had a good time.

How many people do you think were there that night?

HM: It was filled to capacity, if you had 100 people it was a packed house. It was a real small place right on the corner.

Talk about the audience participation that night.

HM: The audience was great, and I would say you probably had 98% African American people in the place that night. Audience participation was great; during that time all audiences were great, but there were a lot more black people involved because what we played they could relate to. When that free stuff came in we drove the people away; like Lou Donaldson said, you gotta play the blues for the people. Anything you play can be bluesy if you’re doing it within the right context.

The audience at Club La Marchal that night for “The Night of the Cookers” was that kind of a typical Brooklyn audience or was it different from what you had experienced at other Brooklyn establishments?

LR: There were a lot of Brooklyn fans that would hang around all of us, and they supported us, which was beautiful at the time. They were very receptive and they were into all of us as musicians, they had the records, there were even some of these guys that had listening clubs. There was a group that Jim Harrison was involved with – some transit workers, Nat White and all those guys – and they would follow whatever was going on in town and they used to have listening sessions at each of their houses where they would just listen to records and get into the music. They were just one among many that were always supportive, always on the scene supporting us, which was beautiful.

That performance “The Night of the Cookers” was so exceptional that it made a memorable record. What role did the audience play in inspiring those performances that are on that record?

HM: For me, it may sound like a contradiction, we were glad that the audience was there but it wouldn’t have mattered if nobody had been there because I motivate myself. The fact that they [the audience] was there was good but I didn’t really need the audience to motivate me. A lot of the musicians need that, a lot of musicians if it’s not a packed house they can’t play. I’m self-motivated, if there’s nobody there but me I’m gonna play as though I have a thousand people [in attendance].

LR: I totally agree with that Harold because we were all self-motivated, that’s why were involved in the music. We came to New York and we were around the giants, it was such a fertile period. We were having a ball just playing with each other, so whatever transferred to the audience… they were there but that wasn’t the primary motivating factor of what was going on, we enjoyed playing with each other. With having Freddie [Hubbard] and Lee [Morgan] together, as well as Jimmy Spaulding, and Big Black was there laying it down… we were just having a ball!

Not every live recording is as memorable as that one. What was it that made The Night of the Cookers work so well, as both a live experience and a subsequent recording?

HM: Two things: you had two of the most talented, most charismatic musicians that ever lived [Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan]; they had charisma but they were musical geniuses on their horns. Freddie said in DownBeat that he used to follow Lee around just to get his overflow with the ladies. Like Art Blakey used to say, when you walk on the bandstand they see you before they hear you. The minute that Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan walked on the bandstand, we had the audience [full attention] then. The audience loved the way we looked; we had a dress code, we always looked good with shirt & tie…

LR: Our main focus was just making the music happen and swinging. [Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan] were two of the young Turks who were setting the pace. In looking back in hindsight I reflect back because Booker Little was right there, but he passed. It would have been nice for The Night of the Cookers if Booker had been there as well, because we would have really taken off! Each of those guys had their own style and approach, but they all could swing and play their butt off.

HM: And they all respected each other.

Since Lee Morgan and Big Black were in a sense guests on this date because you guys were part of Freddie Hubbard’s regular group, how did Lee Morgan and Big Black come to make this date?

HM: Freddie invited Lee to play. If memory serves me right Lee had just finished recording The Rumproller [Blue Note], that’s how that came about. Freddie always loved drums so it’s no surprise that he would have Big Black on the date. Then again when he invited Lee to come on and play none of us had any idea this would be a historical date.

Big Black brought another dimension to that date.

LR: Big Black was a very strong character. I met Big Black through Randy Weston. He was on the scene and he was going around making his thing, then he wound up moving to California.

I ask that because back then having a hand percussionist on an otherwise straight ahead date was kind of unusual.

LR: He was on the scene and we all knew him, we had played with him on other circumstances. He was just a welcome addition to the thing, I don’t really remember what motivated Freddie to include him, but it worked. He just added that special touch. At that same time the Palladium was going – Machito and Tito Puente – it was that whole amalgam of what was happening with that whole thing, as Randy Weston always refers to that Mother Africa influenced all of that. So there was a lot of interplay with many of the Latin cats – Armando Peraza, Patato [Valdes], Tito Puente – it was all still a part of the whole mix of what was going on musically, the whole environment that was happening.

Harold, you played with Freddie Hubbard at the point “The Night of the Cookers” date was made. Was it that particular date that led to your later playing with Lee Morgan?

HM: Probably so, because I think during that time a lot of musicians were in and out of day jobs. I think after that I got a job at Alexander’s department store, and shortly after that I got a call from Lee Morgan, so I’m sure [The Night of the Cookers] had something to do with it. Plus Larry and I were on a date with Hank Mobley called Dippin’ and Lee always loved piano players, no matter who they were… I’m sure being on Freddie’s gig enhanced it for me to get a chance to play with Lee because I joined Lee shortly after that. I tell the kids ‘don’t leave the job, let the job leave you’, I’ve never left a job, and I always stay with the job and ride it all the way.

Who determined the set list for “The Night of the Cookers”?

HM: Freddie called the tunes because it was his band. Those tunes we had been playing a little bit before, “Pensativa” and “Jodo” and all those; Lee jumped in with both feet and did a wonderful job.

LR: Freddie controlled the compositions that we performed, the order and all that.

Did this combination of musicians ever work together again?

LR: I don’t think we ever did anything together again, particularly with having both Lee and Freddie; that was a one-time event. That was just a special occasion; Freddie came up with that whole idea of having Lee and I have to give the boy credit, he pulled it off.

Its not often that you find two trumpet players working together like that. Was there any clash of egos or any rivalry between Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan at the time?

HM: It was called friendly rivalry; then it was competition without animosity. Nowadays it’s competition with animosity, and those cats with their thousand dollar suits couldn’t play “Here Comes the Bride.” All the musicians felt the same way about each other. It was rivalry, but it was friendly rivalry. They learned from each other, they loved each other.

LR: I agree with Harold. There were so many guys that could play their butt off, and they respected each other. One of the things that each of these guys had – it’s not like today with the clones playing each other’s licks and whatnot – each one of them had their own stylistic parameters they would work from, we all do. We never looked at each other as rivals. We just respected each other and everybody was going for their own individual signature, and that’s what made each of those guys so great. Freddie sounded like Freddie, Lee sounded like Lee, on and on…

Back to The Night of the Cookers, I’d like each of you to reflect on that and tell me what are each of your most lasting memories.

HM: I feel very fortunate and blessed to have been part of something, since it wasn’t really planned. Having a chance to work with two of the finest musicians on the planet… and they both were very supportive of me, they always did everything they could to encourage me; and that’s what you don’t find nowadays with the younger generation, not all of them.

LR: I agree, I feel very blessed about it. You can’t really predict a lot of things that happened; the thing I remember most generationally about coming up at that time was that we were very fortunate that we had so many masters who would take us under their wing.

Do either of you have any particular thoughts in closing on why The Night of the Cookers has remained so resonant?

HM: Not to be redundant, but it was about the quality of the music and the wholesomeness of the people who were involved.

LR: Sometimes some of the people that write about the music have not been able to ascertain some of the esoteric aspects of it. I feel that you have a charge that’s ordained to make sure that our perspective is included… As Randy always says, it begins with Mother Africa through the African American experience and the African diaspora… and that’s the legacy and heritage of this music; not taking anything away from any other ethnic group, but it’s just a matter of people understanding the roots that led to the fruits.

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Randy and Fela

The following recollections of several memorable connections Randy Weston made with the legendary Nigerian bandleader Fela Kuti are excerpted from Chapter 8 of African Rhythms, the autobiography of Randy Weston (Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins; 2010, Duke University Press).

Fela Ransome Kuti

Fela is the bravest, most courageous musician I’ve ever met in my life. He lived in a country which was controlled at that time by the military government, and military rule is always hard core. As I mentioned, I’d actually met Fela on that first 1961 trip and was happy to see him this time; but by this time he was becoming an increasingly larger figure in Nigerian life. Remember, 1961 was right after many of these African nations had just gained their independence from colonial rule, and we had met President Azikiwe that first trip. He was a hero of the Nigerian liberation from the British. He was a beautiful man, very cultured, very educated. When we had that dinner at his house on that ’61 trip they served a ton of food. At one point Azikwe said to me “Mr. Weston, I don’t think you’ve had this kind of food before.” I said “I’m sorry sir, but I grew up with this kind of food.” And I told him about my father being from Jamaica, Panama, and about the okra, yam, peas & rice and all that stuff I had grown up on which is straight out of Africa. After Azikiwe came the military government and they had all those coups and killings and Nigeria just went crazy.

Nigerian President Nnamdi Azikiwe

Fela was also an educated man, who was forever in opposition to these military governments, so he became a thorn in their sides because the people really loved his music; and as a result he became a global superstar. I don’t know how Fela got such power, but I do know his mother was a very famous politician, a real revolutionary. By the time I returned to Nigeria in 1977 Fela had developed his own village right in the city of Lagos. Also by this time Fela was making recordings and he had formed his own organization called Afro Beat. That band Afro Beat was the most popular group in all of Africa, except for the Congo because in Congo they have the strongest rhythms on the continent.

Fela was growing ever more powerful among the people, saying stuff like he wanted to be president of Nigeria. He was constantly insulting the military government: calling them fascists, murderers, assassins, writing songs about them… They put him in jail a number of times. When I visited him and went through his village there were brothers all around with stands full of reefer smoke. When Fela walked through there he was the chief.

Fela’s mother was also quite an impressive woman. An illustration of that was an incident I heard about where she organized some opposition to one of the Nigerian chiefs. Somehow this cat wasn’t doing the right thing; I don’t remember all the details. But whatever the case, what he was doing wasn’t correct with the women. Fela’s mother was so powerful that she gathered a thousand women to march on this chief’s palace. And if you can picture this, they stood in front of this chief and began disrobing. This scene was too strong for that chief and he split right outta there. Can you imagine that, standing there looking at a thousand naked women. Whatcha gonna do behind that?

FESTAC ’77… hanging with Fela again
Another great trip to Africa came after I had my first opportunity to tour the continent with my band, but that’s another story entirely. In 1977 I traveled there on my own to join a delegation of artists and great thinkers at the FESTAC event. FESTAC ’77 was actually the second Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture. The organizer’s idea was to bring over black representatives of the global arts and culture community from across Africa and the diaspora, including places as far away as Australia, which sent some Aborigine artists.

Once again I traveled to Lagos, which by that time was a bit different place than it was when I was there in the 1960s. For one thing cars had literally taken over the place and the traffic was horrendous around the clock. The ancient country of Ethiopia, which I still haven’t visited, is much older than Nigeria and except for an incursion by the Italians Ethiopia basically remained free of colonialism. Ethiopia was the host of Festac ’77, even though Nigeria was the site. The Nigerian government reportedly put up huge amounts of oil money to stage this event. The whole idea is that we are one African people, that was the goal of FESTAC. No matter if we’re in Mississippi or Havana, or Australia, or wherever; that was the whole point of the event.

They invited about 20,000 artists from across the globe. I never counted them but that was the official number. I only wound up playing once, at least officially, though I did jam with Fela; but we’ll get to that in a minute. Sun Ra was there and he played once. There was so much great artistry at this conference that you didn’t need to play more than once. Representatives from the entire black world organized this thing. They hosted colloquiums throughout FESTAC on every thing from education to health to music, all things involved with African people. It was designed to develop a sense of global unity. FESTAC lasted one month, throughout January. Each country sent groups and usually the groups would stay one or two weeks, then other groups would come. I stayed most of the month because I had come individually on my own; I didn’t come with the American delegation because I was living in France at the time.

One of the artists there was a dancer named Percy Boyd from Trinidad, the husband of the great dancer Pearl Primus. He was a fantastic artist himself and a very brilliant guy. The scene was kind of chaotic in a way, with a lot of confusion over transportation. But Percy was hooked up; he had a bus and a chauffer. Once he did his two weeks with his dance company and was ready to split he said “Randy, do you want this bus. I’ll give you this bus and this is your chauffer, he’ll do whatever you want him to do.” So I had this big bus and a chauffer like some kind of big shot – and meanwhile some of these visiting ministers couldn’t even find any transportation!

They had houses for the artists, not hotels. Each country had its own housing: Ethiopia is here, Mali is here, Brazil is over there, Cuba is there, Libya is there, Tunisia, Morocco… it was an amazing scene. Plus you can imagine all the music; it was so powerful it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life.

The array of folks there was also incredible. For example I’d have breakfast and my tablemates might be Louis Farrakhan, Stevie Wonder, Queen Mother Moore, and a heavy Sufi master named Mahi Ismail. Imagine me hanging out with those cats! Stevie and I actually managed to stay in a hotel. When he arrived Stevie came into the hotel with his guitar, walked in the lobby, sat down and started singing and playing his guitar; that’s the first thing he did when he got there!

The Nigerians had built a special theatre for this event, but the two brand new Steinway pianos and one Bosendorfer they had purchased were waiting at the airport hung up in customs apparently. Long story short the pianos didn’t arrive until the day of the concert. I was supposed to play first opposite some Ethiopian musicians. But they were late getting the piano there and I wound up playing second, on a new piano that had never been touched before!

Fela was one of the main people I wanted to see while there, and like many African musicians he had his own club called The Shrine, just opposite his village in Lagos. Fela’s club was really big, it must have held about 1,000 people and the night I went there it was packed. When I got to Fela’s village he was sitting in a corner, holding court and eating away. I’m stepping through all kinds of women, all surrounding this dude. It was quite a scene. He saw me and said “Randy, come on and have some food.” We talked awhile then it was time for him to perform, so he put on his stage costume and we were stepping around all these women to get outside. As we’re walking through his village it was obvious Fela was like a king to these people.

We entered the Shrine and this place, along with Bobby Benson’s joint, really became my inspiration for wanting to open up my own club. Fela got his band together for the performance and he calls me over and says “Randy, you sit there.” He had an English film crew capturing his every move. He started by playing this little rhythm on the piano, then the band came in and he grabbed his saxophone. The rhythm was totally infectious, but you have to hear it live, you have to be where people are dancing to this band to fully appreciate this groove. At one point in his performance Fela grabbed the mike and said “Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to meet my brother from America,” and they brought me onstage. So we jammed a bit. Next thing I know he’s talking on the mike again and he’s got me by the hand and he’s cursing out the military – and there were military guys in the club! I wanted to get the hell off that stage with a quickness ‘cause those cats don’t play! Man, Fela was fearless, but I was sweatin’… what this guy didn’t call the government… and he wouldn’t let go of my hand! The people were cheering him on!

One week later, after we had all left, the soldiers raided Fela’s village and destroyed the place. They threw his mother out of a window, beat him up and took him to prison, and raped all his girls. But when he came out of jail Fela was the same, still defiant. He said “I’m the president of Africa;” he was against all that stuff that was in opposition to the true Africa, he was incredible.

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Ron Scott on Umbria ’18

Amsterdam News jazz journalist Ron Scott had the enviable assignment of covering the 45th anniversary edition of Umbria Jazz last summer. Here are Ron’s impressions of one of the world’s great festivals.

BY Ron Scott
Most recently, Umbria Jazz 18 celebrated its 45th anniversary as one of the most popular jazz festivals in the world. Aside from its wealth of participating musicians the picturesque Perugia is the capital city of both the region of Umbria in central Italy, crossed by the river Tiber, and the province of Perugia (that dates back to 310 B.C.).

It covers a high hilltop 1,617 ft. ((493 m) and part of the valleys around the area. The top of the hill with its cobblestone streets (watch your step when walking or dancing) is where the action takes on the piazza in the midst of a historical museum and churches with its string of cafes serving wonderful food, a host of delicious gelato shops, local crafts people; and street musicians from dancers, to trios, puppeteers and jazz singers.

The music venues were located in this joyful madness including the de Cesarino, where the nightly jam sessions played on until after 4am each night (causing me to miss that free breakfast). However, the main outdoor arena Santa Giuliana is located at the bottom of the hill.

This is where the 10-day festival opened celebrating the 85 Birthday of the impresario Quincy Jones. His special guests and friends, who have worked with him in the past included; the distinct voices of Dee Dee Bridgewater, Patti Austin, Noa with Gil Dor (one of Jones’ favorite performers of Brazilian music), Take 6, the Brazilian singer/composer Ivan Lins. From Cuba, the pianist Alfredo Rodriguez and percussionist Pedrito Martinez. Italy’s most prominent trumpeter and composer Paolo Fresu and was also a guest. The Umbria Jazz Orchestra conducted by John Clayton and Jones with bass guitarist Nathan East and the always vibrant drummer Harvey Mason played from the original arrangements of Jones.

The orchestra opened with Jones’ theme song from the popular television series “Sanford and Son” followed by “Ironside.” Jones’ music bought a new hipness to television something that hadn’t existed since the theme to the “Peter Gunn series (1950s).

The acappella sextet Take 6 performed “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” a reflection of Jones’ friendship with Ray Charles. Ivan Lins swung the Bossa Nova and Gil Dor more than represented that Brazilian flavor. “Brazilian music is my favorite it has a combination of Cuban, Brazilian and African roots,” said Jones. He sat on stage for the celebration answering questions on his various musical stages and introducing his guests.

Jones noted Erroll Garner gave him the composition “Misty” at the airport in Paris in 1958. When he gave it to Sarah Vaughan to perform it was the song’s debut outing. He introduced his Goddaughter Patti Austin, who sang “Misty” but not before her reputed “Razzmatazz” from Jones’ album The Dude which put the audience in joyful bliss. Her rendition of “Misty” made it evident why she has never been placed in one of those confining genre categories. She swings jazz from up-tempo to ballads with the same essence as a pop or R&B tune.

Jones’ big band connection with Ella Fitzgerald and the Count Basie Orchestra was reflected in Dee Dee Bridgewater’s rendition of “Honey Suckle Rose,” singing and scatting high as the moon in the sky.

Just when it seemed the best of the Cuban pianists had already been seen Jones introduces Alfredo Rodriguez, a young man he befriended and assisted in getting him to the United States some years ago. He played the popular hit “Manteca” as he ran through classical licks and Cuban-Latin jazz flavors along with his countryman Pedrito Martinez, a fine young conguero, who is forging his own path acknowledging the ground work of the great Candido.

Jones spoke briefly about his active involvement with Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela and his fifteen minutes with Pope Paul III. Bridgewater, Austin and Take 6 went into R&B mode with a nod to Marin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” and “Moody’s Mood for Love” with Austin and Take 6’s Mark Kibble singing lead followed with the party song from the Jackson-Jones collaboration “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’.” Music was also dedicated to his many film scores and love of Italian films inspired by one of Jones’ mentor Joseph Marconi.

A special moment came that evening when Jones was presented with the first “Umbria Jazz Award.” Jones thanked the festival officials and discussed his long love affair with Italy. All the special guests and orchestra came together on “Let the Good Times Roll,” conducted by Jones. “Performing with these great musicians in celebration of Quincy was surreal,” said Mark kibble of Take 6. Some felt the show was a little long considering it started at 9pm and ended at 1am.

This was a celebration for Quincy Delight Jones born March 14, 1933. Within in his six-decade career his roles encompass; a composer, arranger, conductor, instrumentalist, record company executive, magazine founder, multi-media entrepreneur, humanitarian, investor, and record, film, and TV producer. He has a record 79 Grammy Award nominations, and 27 Grammys, including a Grammy Legend Award in 1991.

Ideally, a celebration or tribute to the genius of Jones would have to be a recorded radio or television (PBS) series that would run-over a month duration, at best.

At the after party Jones joined friends like Take 6 and Patti Austin. At this point it was 3am and he ws still hanging tough. I asked him what does this night mean to you. His response, “It makes my soul smile.”

Over the days that followed one of my favorite performers was the R&B group the New Orleans Mystics. One morning at breakfast one of the group’s co-founders Michael “Soul Man” Baptiste humbly mentioned to me they were a group doing music from the 1960s, the Temptations and Motown sound. The description was more than an understatement.

The Mystics hit the stage in that Temptations, Four Tops, Smokey Robinson and the Miracles gear, the red suits with sequins, or yellow sequined sports jackets with tan pants and the boots. Hey, having seen all those groups at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, I had to stand right at the stage and pay attention to make sure they weren’t perpetrating.

They had me singing the words to hits like “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” “I Know I’m Losing You,” and “Same Old Song.” The audience danced frantically and sang the English lyrics, considering most didn’t speak English but they were familiar with these blasts from the past.

The high-energy New Orleans Mystics have the routines perfect but they aren’t carbon copies of the past. “We have a diversity in talent and we exploit it,” said Baptiste. “We have over 60 songs we haven’t even performed yet and a wardrobe as long as our repertoire.” These are the songs of Motown deep-rooted in some New Orleans funk that ignites folks of all ages to dance. They cover Jackie Wilson’s “Work Out” now that’s going back but folks loved it. When Freddie Johnson took the lead for “Hey There Lonely Girl,” it was pandemonium. His high falsetto stroke a chord. The other group members include; William “Billy” Sims and Lee Barnes.

To keep that New Orleans funk thumpin’ they are backed by the Real Soul Band that features the conga player and host Bobbie Parker, drummer Brenman Williams, keyboardist Rick McQuillis, bassist John Ragas, and guitarist Shammika Ernest. Whether &B acts should be billed at a jazz festival is a discussion for other time but R&B, jazz, blues, and soul is all black music that energizes people of the world and the New Orleans Mystics is pat of that explosive connection!

Billy Hart the steadfast drummer blazed the Teatro Morlacchi with his quartet that featured the pianist Ethan Iverson, bassist Ben Street and saxophonist Joshua Redman. They started off with two compositions by Iverson adding their own personal definition of jazz from there. The tune “Dedicated to all Grandmother’s” had a mid-tempo swing with everyone in an intuitive mode. Hart’s roaring drums filtered in and out with a definitive swing that inspired intense solos from Redman’s deep colored riffs to Street’s bellowing bass.

During an interview following the show Hart stated, “I always wanted to be an improvising drummer”. Well, he doesn’t seem to have a problem with that at all.

More to come from th Umbria jazz Festival.

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Randy Weston’s Duke Ellington Connection

In my research phase of writing Randy Weston‘s as-told-to autobiography, African Rhythms, and in his playing, it was quite clear that he held a deep reverence for the grandmaster Duke Ellington. However it wasn’t until we were into our exhaustive interview process that I learned of the depth of his love for Ellington, and his subsequent relationship with Duke’s only sister Ruth. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 14, titled Post-Morocco And The Ellington Collection that details those unique relationships.

My connection to Duke Ellington was equal parts musical and spiritual, long before I met the man himself. Duke was everything, going way, way back. Duke was always such a classy gentleman and his music was so powerful. Duke and Basie were alike in that those two giants were totally a part of the black community they never forgot their roots even though both achieved worldwide fame. I loved Duke’s music – Ben Webster, Harry Carney, Sonny Greer, Jimmy Blanton and all those masters he employed had a huge impact on me. When I first heard the Gnawa in Morocco and heard them play that guimbre I heard echoes of Jimmy Blanton’s bass and where that sound came from ancestrally. If I had to pick one giant of our music over all others I’d pick Duke Ellington because he was so complete and like Coleman Hawkins he stayed forever young; he recorded with artists ranging from Louis Armstrong to John Coltrane. He recorded with Max Roach and Charlie Mingus, so people like he and Hawk covered the whole spectrum of our music, they stayed young and always advanced.

In the 60s we used to give rent parties at my apartment on 13th Street to benefit the Afro American Musicians Society. One particular night we featured my good friend pianist Ray Bryant. Big Black and I cooked food all day long: ribs, stew, and all that stuff; we sold liquor and food at the party to raise money. On this occasion Reverend John Gensel, who started the jazz vespers at St. Peters and was an all-around jazz clergyman, brought Ruth Ellington, Duke’s sister, to the party. It was a really soulful party, people were all over the apartment, we jammed maybe 100-150 people in this apartment and everybody was having a ball. That’s when I met Ruth Ellington. I always laugh about it but she swore Big Black had spiked the food because she felt mighty high, even though she didn’t mess with any drugs at all.

Eventually Ruth and I got to be very close. Duke had given Ruth and his son Mercer beautiful homes on Riverside Drive and 106th St., but Ruth also had an apartment on 59th St. I went there once and played some piano for her and she got excited and said I was the next Duke; she used to tell me that all the time. Even after I moved to Morocco whenever I came back to New York I would visit Ruth; at one point she actually wanted to marry me, but I was afraid of marriage, I didn’t want to get married, no way, no how. She only wanted me to play solo piano and she was very critical of my recordings because I wouldn’t play much piano, I’d just feature the other musicians in my band. We even gave a big birthday party for my mother and father at Duke’s house.

Ruth always called Duke “Edward”, and one day while I was there she said “Edward’s got to hear you,” and she was intent on arranging that. Duke did a concert of his “Night Creature” with the New York Philharmonic, with his trio, and Ruth arranged for me to play the reception, myself and Peck Morrison on bass. After the concert they had the reception in a bar in Philharmonic Hall and we were playing at one end of the bar when up walked His Majesty, the Duke. He checked us out and gave me a great look, an approving look, a look as if to say ‘everything is OK.’

Later on Duke called Ruth one night while I was in the house and she said “you must hear Randy Weston.” So she played “Blue Moses” on the phone for Duke. At that time she was running Duke’s publishing company, Tempo Music. When I finally met Duke, we talked and he told me he wanted to start another publishing company with just my compositions and his compositions. I was blown away! So I put 20 of my compositions in his publishing company, Tempo Music. Duke had started a small recording company called Piano Records and he wanted to record Bobby Short, Earl Hines, Abdullah Ibrahim and myself. That wound up being the record date I did which was later sold to Arista Records, titled “Berkshire Blues.”

Sometime later I encouraged Ruth to set up a big concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to raise money for the seven West African countries of the Sahel Region because they were experiencing a terrible drought. The great dancer-choreographer Geoffrey Holder was the producer of the concert. We had the Symphony of the New World, we put together a big band with Melba Liston conducting, we had the Joffrey Ballet and we raised about $7,000, which was basically just symbolic, and presented it to the President of Mali. I must admit I had an ulterior motive in my relationship with Ruth and that was to encourage her to establish a house of African American culture and music. She had a friend who had the ideal house for this purpose up on the Hudson. We were kinda playing games with one another; she wanted to get married first, I wanted to get the house first.

Duke treated Ruth like a queen, and she was only surrounded by certain kinds of people, for me very bourgeois kind of people. I’m still basically a street dude and for awhile it was OK being around these people, but I got bored with that stuff, all that pretense. Once I talked her into having a party for Josephine Baker because recently the King of Morocco had given Josephine a large sum of money for a research project she was spearheading. At the same time I was trying to establish that dream cultural center in Morocco and I wanted to reach the king, which I thought I might be able to do through Josephine, thinking that perhaps this party might be a step towards that.

So we had this party at Ruth’s house the night after Josephine’s last appearance in New York, in the late 1970s. I hired Danny Mixon to play the piano so that I could co-host the party with Ruth and mingle freely among the guests, but my real motive was to connect with Josephine Baker. Unfortunately even though I met her I could never get to talk to her that night because throughout the evening she was surrounded by these ex-chorus girl friends of hers. It was almost like they were protecting Josephine.

Ruth had a big heart and we really became like family; my daughters Cheryl and Pamela, my father, we’d be at her house all the time. But she lived such a sheltered life and it seemed there were few people she could trust. She was a wonderful, wonderful person; very kind, very generous. We might have possibly married but she never wanted to go anywhere by herself, you always had to go with her, she was really sheltered. Whenever she would go out she had to be decked out, had to have her jewelry, her rings, had to wear her furs; she was an Ellington lady after all. She’d always feel better having a strong man by her side; eventually she married McHenry Boatwright.

Through Ruth I got to know a lot of the guys in the Ellington band. Reverend Gensel started the original jazz vespers services back when his church was on Broadway at 93rd St. I actually played the first jazz vespers and played Billy Strayhorn’s piano, which Billy had given to Gensel for his church. It was as a result of that connection that I wound up playing at Strayhorn’s funeral.

Ruth actually felt that I could be the next Ellington; she wanted me to take over the orchestra after the master passed in ‘74. But the orchestra was Mercer’s, and Ruth handled Duke’s compositions. There was always a kind of friction between her and Mercer because Duke had given Ruth everything. He was like a father to Ruth. You’d go to her house and in her bedroom there’d be maybe 25 different kinds of crosses, which Duke would send her from the road; silver crosses, gold crosses, wooden crosses, all kinds. She took care of business for Duke’s publishing company, Tempo. Our relationship was romantic, but for me it was more about the culture than about Ruth as a woman. During that time we also gave a benefit for my club in Tangier where we had 25 pianists play at the Ellington devotee Brooks Kerr’s mother’s house, an East Side townhouse. Ruth and I were very close and the core was Duke himself.

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Randy Weston African Rhythms, Chapter 1

In light of the September 1, 2018 passing on to ancestry of the great NEA Jazz Master pianist-composer-bandleader, and tireless seeker of the Spirits of Our Ancestors, RANDY WESTON, here for your reading pleasure – and to facilitate some catch-up on the part of those unfamiliar with Mr. Weston’s rich legacy – is Chapter 1, a sampler from the book African Rhythms, the autobiography of Randy Weston… Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins.

African Rhythms
The Autobiography of Randy Weston
Composed by Randy Weston
Arranged by Willard Jenkins

© Willard Jenkins


I come to be a story teller; I’m not a jazz musician, I’m really a storyteller in music, and I’ve had tremendous, unique experiences. My quest is always about considering these experiences together – in the spirit of our ancestors. Whether it’s when I hung out as a green piano player with one of my Brooklyn homies, the grandmaster drummer Max Roach , or the first time I played for the great Charlie “Yardbird” Parker; whether it was being in the black church on Sundays for that wonderful music that shaped me; whether it was playing in a little Army band during the war trying to dodge the bullets, or hanging with Thelonious Monk and being part of his vast sphere of influence… or being mesmerized by Sufi masters. I’m constantly assembling these forces to create a message, a message which comes directly through me passed down from the ancestors and ultimately the Creator.

In 2006 I passed the milestone of 80 years on the planet, so I’ve been on this path a long time. You know how life is… something that happened to you 30-40 years ago you don’t necessarily carry in your conscious mind, but it’s always there, buried in the deepest recesses of your mind, but influential nonetheless. Sometimes you can’t properly value what transpired at a particular time until many years later; then what I like to think of as your cultural memory kicks in. But the constant theme of my life that came directly from my mom & pop and our neighborhood in Brooklyn… was to fight for black people, for the liberation of our minds and spirits. Black people are in a constant struggle on this planet; we’re not completely respected for our enormous contributions, we are globally downtrodden and that must change. In order to change we must remember the greatness our ancestors, we must open up our creative minds, open that door that we’ve sealed as a result of slavery and being taken away from our Motherland. Additionally, we must celebrate our own diversity as a people because we are a very great people with unlimited spiritual resources.

I have always striven to be a part of that uplifting. I grew up in a truly vibrant time in the 20th century when such peerless giants as Paul Robeson, Adam Clayton Powell, Sugar Ray Robinson, Langston Hughes, Joe Louis, Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Hazel Scott, Jimmy Lunceford and other great black masters walked the earth; all very powerful, proud black men and women.

My very existence dictates that even before the importance of music in my life comes pride as a black man; even if I didn’t play music I’d still be fighting and striving for the black man. Music has been a way for me to convey that struggle; I’ve been blessed, gifted by the Creator with the power of music. But before the music comes tremendous black pride, coupled with anger at what racism has done to my people. That foundation of dignity and strength comes from growing up in a segregated, racist society; growing up alongside people who were considered a “minority.” I was endowed with the belief that ‘I know these so-called majority people are not better than me,’ so as a result we grew up spiritual but angry. I use the music as a way to unite our people. I use the music as a vehicle to say that we can develop a unique language and way of being that you cannot steal, because when we go back to our tradition you can’t steal the spirituality of African people. Africa is so deep that no matter how many times I return there I never fail to be educated and further immersed.

I’ve followed this path naturally. I don’t think it was a master plan in my head, but I think it stems from my father’s insistence and teachings that I am an African born and living in America; therefore I must take a broader examination of myself. I have to recognize that my ancestors did not begin with my grandfather or my great grandfather; my ancestors go all the way back to those remarkable people who built ancient civilizations. This music is my way of continuing the struggle of James Reese Europe, Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Dr. King, Cheikh Anta Diop… all of our great men and women; my quest is to try and continue in their footsteps, to use my music to enrich our people.

Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, surrounded by revolutionary Panamanians, Jamaicans, and African Americans; people like Langston Hughes, and J.A. Rogers… we had our own institutions like the black-owned Paragon Bank inspired by the Marcus Garvey movement in Brooklyn… the list is endless. Out of that incredible Brooklyn environment comes Max Roach, Randy Weston… Our people were fighters and in the ensuing years we’ve acquired a soft underbelly that has made us extremely vulnerable. When people say to me ‘man, what you’re doing is fantastic,’ I say ‘man, you don’t know your history’. If you knew what our people were doing in the 20s… Ellington and all those people wrote powerful music about black people. And that’s what I’m trying to do: write and play music celebrating the spirits of our ancestors, music about the historic greatness of our people, music to uplift us all: black, brown, beige, red, yellow, white… God is the real musician. I’m an instrument and the piano is another instrument. Africa taught me that.

My dad, Frank Edward Weston, came from a Jamaican family that was descended from the Maroons, a fierce and legendary people who never surrendered to the English during colonization. The Maroons were ferocious fighters, they escaped the Spanish and preferred freedom in the Blue Mountains over bondage, and that spirit was deep in my dad’s blood, but he was actually born and grew up in Panama. My paternal grandmother, who I never knew, had a bakery near the Panama Canal. My dad and his cousin Frisco, the famous entertainer and bon vivant Frisco of Europe who I’ll get to later, grew up together as kids and they used to take the train across the canal all the time. According to dad, Frisco was forever the clown, always the actor, the singer, and the dancer… obviously a budding showman even as a child. On this train Frisco would dance and perform for the passenger’s amusement and my father and another young guy would come behind him and collect the money. My dad was a true West Indian man, through and through, he had a potent combination of Panama and Jamaica, Spanish and Caribbean.

Dad and Frisco left Panama as teenagers and my father spent the next seven years living in Cuba. Then he came up to Brooklyn where he eventually met my mother, Vivian Moore, a wise but unassuming woman who was from Meredithville, Virginia. They got together, eventually got married, and they produced me. I was born April 6, 1926 at Peck Memorial Hospital in Brooklyn. My dad used to claim I was just about the first black baby born in that hospital. Remember, segregation was real deep back then. My mother and father separated when I was just 3 years old, and I went to live with my dad, though my mother and I remained close and were often together. Eventually my dad remarried two more times, but my mother never did. You would think my parents separating would have been a traumatic experience for such a young kid, but to tell you the truth it really wasn’t. In retrospect their separation and eventual divorce was probably a good thing because my dad was such a powerhouse, such a thoroughly domineering man; he was a real strong, totally macho Caribbean brother. On the other hand, my mother was this quiet, demure southern sister from Virginia; a very peaceful, spiritual lady who never once asked me for anything in my entire life. Whatever I wanted to do she supported me 100%. I don’t want to suggest that my father was physically abusive towards mom, but he was a powerful and all-consuming presence. Luckily my mother and father always loved each other in such a way that they never said a disparaging word about each other, at least not around me. That was a relief because they had such thoroughly different personalities.

My mother was a very small woman who was very tender, but at the same time she was quite strong and independent in her own sweet way. She was a domestic worker. When I wrote “African Lady” for my 1960 suite “Uhuru Afrika” she was my inspiration, she and all those strong sisters like her who had to toil and scrub folks’ floors to make that measly $15 a week, and they would never complain, never beg; such dignity I can’t even begin to describe. Mom was always kinda laid back, but she had a great sense of humor. She and my sister always had me cracking up. I found out later, from my sister, that mom used to go dancing at the Savoy Ballroom when she was young, but that part of my mother I never knew, she never talked about that.

My dad was about 6’2”, which in those days was really tall. I guess my eventual 6’7” would have been circus material back then! He was a clean shaven, handsome, dignified man, always dressed sharp and sort of a ladies man. My dad raised me from the time I was 3 years old, and my sister Gladys lived with my mother. I would go and stay with mom and Gladys every weekend, at my father’s insistence. My dad and I lived at several locations in Brooklyn, mainly in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area. Our first place was on Albany Avenue, where my mother, father and sister were living when I was born. Then we moved to Pacific Avenue, and then after that we moved over to Putnam Avenue. My mother, who always lived in Brooklyn too after they split, lived on Decatur Street, on Eastern Parkway near Prospect Place for awhile, and her last home was on Empire Avenue. Every weekend I’d be with my mother and my sister, and they’d have me in church every Sunday; that was the law! That church experience proved very important to my music later in life.

My dad loved to cook, and I think one of the reasons I’m so big is because he was such a wonderful cook. Between my dads’ African-Caribbean style cooking, and my mother’s down-home Virginia cooking, I was blessed with great food. Man, we were economically poor but we never felt that, we lived like kings & queens. My dad always had his women, a variety of different ladies, but no matter whatever woman he was seeing or married, the first thing he insisted upon is that they had better take good care of his only son! He spoiled me like you would not believe; spoiled me with love, not with material things, so I wasn’t corrupted in that way. I never had a whole lot of clothes; I would get one new suit a year, at Easter, that was it… and I’d better keep that suit looking good for the rest of the year. If I ever got a hole in my sneakers, I’d put paper in those sneakers ‘till time to get a new pair, and that might not be for awhile. We once, thank goodness only temporarily, lived in an apartment with no steam heat and no hot water; we’d have to heat the water on the stove. And remember, I’m not talking about Mississippi or Georgia; I’m talking about winter time up north in Brooklyn, New York!

But we were so culturally rich and had so much love, so much discipline… Like all kids we didn’t appreciate it at the time, but getting older we sure recognized the beauty of all that love and discipline. My dad was a very political guy, always reading the newspaper and various books, always quick to share his opinions on things. There was a spiritual side of him that he never talked about, but you could sure sense it. People from the Caribbean islands have this deep connection to Africa and sometimes they tell their children who grew up in the U.S. about that, but they don’t always tell you everything. My dad was like that. As a result there was a mystery and magic about this man, to the point that during the time he was dying in the hospital from cancer, at age 87, I went to see him and he told me something incredible; this was after I had traveled a bit as a musician. He said ‘you go all around the world talking about freedom.’ I said ‘yes sir, that comes from you and your teachings.’ He said ‘well, since you talk about freedom so much, I want my freedom, get me the hell outta this hospital!’ I laughed, but he also told me something else, he said ‘you are protected.’ I never really probed him for what he meant by that, but when I look at my life, I have been protected, by some spirit; by some ancestor that has guided me to the right people, to the right places. I’ve fallen down and been able to right myself, so obviously what he meant by protection was a combination of these things.

Dad always preached about being independent, he always emphasized how black people should strive to own their own businesses, work for themselves, be independent of the white man. That’s why he appreciated Marcus Garvey’s black empowerment movement so much because that’s what Dad stood for. Dad was a very proud man. Like I said, he was always very sharply dressed and cut an impressive figure. He used to drive his Cadillac wearing beaver hats and spats. Guys were sharp in his day; they knew how to dress, not like so many guys today. But when he’d get in that car, you’d better beware! Dad loved to drive fast; he’d put the pedal to the metal and bam, he was gone. One day while driving in his Cadillac he actually hit this white pedestrian crossing the street and as he described the scene to me later, this guy flew way up in the air on impact. They had to call an ambulance and take this poor guy to the hospital, he was messed up. So my father ran home, went into the kitchen and made a big pot of soup, then he went down to the hospital and took this guy some homemade soup! Nowadays he’d be sued for everything he owned. What are you gonna do with a man like that?

He loved to cook and he loved children. Every child in that community was his child. If he saw a kid getting out of line, he’d grab them in a minute and say ‘straighten up’… and the kids all listened. And every kid in the neighborhood was like his kid. He didn’t care whether you were black, Italian or Irish, if he saw you doing something wrong he would grab you in a minute and straighten you out. He was very straight ahead, the kind of person who would speak whatever was on his mind; whatever he was thinking he’d tell you to your face. That’s the way we grew up. He was all those things. But in essence he gave me Africa; he gave me music… so he gave me everything.

My mother was kinda small in stature, with short dark hair; I remember she had unusually long arms. She was one of those very quiet, unassuming, modest, Sunday go-to-meetin’ kinda sisters; just a quiet southern sister from Virginia. After mom and dad broke up, during the week I would stay with my father, but I had to go stay with my mother and sister every weekend, my father would make sure of that. After mom and dad separated I never saw her with another man the rest of her life. I didn’t really appreciate how great she was until after she died. She was a church lady through and through; worked hard every day, but she was very independent and very sweet-natured. She wasn’t nearly the disciplinarian my father was, so I always looked forward to staying with her those weekends, that was freedom!

My sister Gladys was wonderful. During school days she was my body guard. She’s five years older than me and in those days we had some pretty tough people out there in our neighborhood, which was a predominantly black neighborhood of African Americans and African Caribbean people, with a few folks straight from the African continent. My sister protected me, she would whip somebody’s butt in a minute; you better not mess with her little brother! Sometimes I’d get in trouble and I’d call her. I’d tell people, ‘you mess with me, I’ll get my sister on you’, and the cats would back off. My sister used to tell me how our mother would discipline her, but I never really saw that side of mom. That’s when I realized how strong my mother was.

My mother may have been a staunch church lady, but my dad never went to church because he didn’t trust certain ministers. He felt like all they were doing was jiving, conning, and ripping off black people. He thought some of them were nothing but fried chicken eating frauds that saved the best for themselves and threw the bones to their congregation. Unfortunately this was true sometimes. But my mother was always devoted to the church, she gave me that wonderful spirituality, and despite his personal objections to those ministers, my dad saw the value in it and really wanted me to go to church, so there was no conflict there. My mother worked everyday, doing domestic work, taking care of folk’s children, washing, cleaning, that kinda thing. She was a real queen in every sense of the word, never complained for a moment.

I got a lot of my spirituality from dad as well. Though he had no use for those ministers and didn’t go to church, he would always read the bible and quote the scriptures. My dad came up in that period in time when black people were really active in the struggle for freedom and independence, so he was very aggressive in making sure I had pride in my people. He made sure I knew about Paul Robeson, all the great black artists, and that I knew who our illustrious leaders were; he always made real sure of that. Dad was always in tune with the news and the sports pages.

As a kid I was very shy despite my size; in many ways I was insecure because my dad was such a powerhouse, so fast, so formidable, and he wanted me to be likewise. But it just wasn’t in me. I was very nervous growing up because Dad was such a strong presence. He was forever trying to challenge and quiz me on various things. He’d say “how much is 145 times 10, or he would put a clock in front of me when I was 10 years old or so and if I didn’t have the right answer as quickly as he wanted it, he would whoop me. I got a whole lotta whippings, so I grew up very, very insecure because I wasn’t fast or a quick learner like he was. My father was a very physical man; he’d kick my butt, either with his hands, or it could be a belt, a club, could be anything. At the time that was just how it was, very typical of how kids were raised in my neighborhood. That’s particularly how those Caribbean people were, they didn’t spare the rod. I may have felt abused and nowadays they’d probably call it that, but at the time they didn’t call it abuse, they just thought of it as proper parenting. One time he whooped me so bad I got dramatic and stuck my head outta the window screaming for the police, the fire department, my buddies, the neighbors… just about ANYBODY who might help me! “Somebody please come rescue me!” But everybody’s parents did it! So we didn’t call it abuse back then that was just the way it was. All the guys I grew up with were later very grateful for that kind of upbringing because the streets were really tough in those days and it was so easy for us kids to get outta line. But despite that rather harsh discipline, at the same time he gave me love, so it was kind of paradoxical.

We really didn’t have much in the way of material goods growing up. I used to tell my own children, “we grew up with no TV; no hot water… that kinda lack didn’t just happen in the South.” No matter what our financial situation was my daddy could take the smallest, most insignificant piece of meat and make a delicious feast out of it. So I really didn’t care if I didn’t have a lot of things, we made do with what little we had, it was all we knew. We had so much love in our family that we didn’t really care about material things.

Bed-Stuy, as its known, was a really vibrant community at the time, with a wonderful mix of black people from the South, from the Caribbean, and even a few from Africa. There were many Jewish-owned stores in the area, and there were a few Italians and Irish in the neighborhood. You had the black folks in one area, the Irish in another, the Italians in their area, the Germans in their space and the Jews had their own separate blocks. Sometimes when we’d come in contact with each other in school there would be fights between ethnic groups. We had our gangs in the community, though not as violent as gang life today, and these ethnic gangs would control certain territory. If you stumbled into the wrong territory you might get your butt kicked, or at the very least be run outta there unless you knew somebody. But one thing we all pretty much had in common at least among black folks was music; and back then there was lots of opportunity to learn music in school. Plus there was music coming out of every window and musicians living all over the neighborhood. There were several ballrooms in the area, including the Sonia Ballroom, and there would be big band rehearsals there at 11:00 a.m. or 12:00 noon. There were also lots of blues groups playing at various bars in Brooklyn, which at that time in the 30s and 40s had way more bars and clubs than Manhattan.

By the time I got to high school I was only beginning to immerse myself in all this music. My interests were mainly like any normal kid at that age, playing ball, going to the movies, that kind of thing. We’d go to school and study during the week and if we stayed out of trouble our parents would allow us to go to the movies every Saturday, for about 25 cents we would stay all afternoon. At first I would always have to go to the movies with my sister Gladys because I was too young to go by myself. When I went to the movies with Gladys she would bring a pot of greens and a fork with her. When we got inside the theatre, I’d split from her and go sit with my boys. She’d sit there by herself and eat those aromatic greens with that fork, but nobody better not say nothin’ to her!

After my parents broke up, my dad ended up marrying two more times. He had girlfriends in between wives and no matter who they were he insisted they all had to take good care of me. Our house was always open and my dad’s friends from Jamaica, Barbados, and other island people would come over and play cards. He was so exceptionally generous with his friends and even with total strangers, I’ve never known anybody else like him in that respect. If he saw somebody out in the street down on their luck, they could be unkempt with raggedy clothes, needin’ a bath or whatever. He’d bring them into our apartment, draw them a hot bath, and give them a suit of clothes. Granted, sometimes they would rip him off, steal his watch or something, but he’d just shrug it off and say ‘it’s OK, don’t make no difference to me, you give and you get back.” That’s the kind of person he was.

Unfortunately my dad’s two other marriages didn’t last. One wife was a woman from North Carolina named Cherry, she was really beautiful. Being from the old school, what my Dad would do is get in his big Buick and drive down South to meet women, which is how he met Cherry. Somehow he figured that women from the South made better wives. Unfortunately Cherry died prematurely. Another woman he married was an actress and singer named Clarisse. She had a talent agency on 125th Street in Harlem. My dad wanted both me and Clarisse to work with him in his restaurant business. But she wasn’t into that kind of work; she wanted to be with show folks, so they broke up. Neither of those marriages lasted very long. There was one woman who stuck around him for awhile, but they never got married. Her name was Mildred Pettigrew. She was from Virginia and man could she ever cook! At my dad’s restaurant, which I’ll get into later, he would do the Caribbean-style cooking and she would take care of the Southern-style cooking. Dad would insist that all of these women take care of me. If they didn’t take care of me, they were in trouble with him!

As far as my extended family goes, I never saw my grandparents on either my mother or my father’s side. I had one uncle on my father’s side, but he was very quiet, very shy. He was one of those henpecked husbands, which my father couldn’t stand and he was always angry with him because of it. My cousin June Masters, on my father’s side, ran a bed & breakfast in Jamaica. Her mother was a pharmacist who came from Jamaica; June and I have stayed in touch through the years. My cousin Frisco, on my father’s side, was the most powerful relative of all. His given name was Joselyn Bingham. He and my father grew up together and left Panama around the same time. Frisco was an all-around entertainer, kinda like an earlier Sammy Davis Jr.-type.

After Frisco and my father left Panama, Frisco eventually migrated to San Francisco and performed there, which is where he got his name. Frisco later took work on a freighter and traveled to China and other foreign ports; he learned to speak six or seven languages along the way. He eventually wound up in London, where he owned the very first black nightclub in town. Later he owned the first bebop club in Paris. Frisco was very popular and eventually was decorated by the French. He knew everybody from Louis Armstrong and Joe Louis to Bricktop and Kwame Nkrumah. I found out just a couple of years ago that he was in the first talking film in England, singing two songs. A director from the Italian television network RAI once told me that Frisco was the first man to bring jazz to Italy; so he was a real black entertainment pioneer in Europe, in league with people like Josephine Baker and Bricktop, but not as celebrated. I still have his 1927 Selmer saxophone, a classical drum that he brought from Italy, and some photographs of him. This guy was incredible!
Finding Frisco

Allow me to jump ahead a bit here. I finally met Frisco when he was about 83 or 84 years old, in 1968. At the time I met Frisco I was very good friends with a woman named Suzanne Cloutier, who played opposite Orson Welles in Othello. She was married to the actor Peter Ustinov. I met Suzanne in Paris but ironically we later discovered that we went to the same doctor in New York. Suzanne and Peter were going through some marital changes when we met. She had met Frisco and become very close to him. When I met Frisco his son was managing a little club in Paris called the Living Room. Back during the Second World War my father and Frisco corresponded with each other through letters. My father would occasionally send him food, cigarettes, chocolates, things they couldn’t get in England because of the blitz. There was a lot of rationing going on at the time. Then somehow they lost contact with each other after the war.

The first time I went to Paris, in 1968, my father said “why don’t you see if you can find Frisco, I’ve lost contact with him. I know he’s in Paris, he ended up marrying a French woman and they live in a big villa right outside Paris.” Suzanne had asked me to bring her some vitamins from this doctor we shared in New York. She had a villa in Paris and she invited me to stay there when I visited, with her and her two children. Suzanne was tight friends with an Iranian woman who worked as an advance travel person for the Shah of Iran. One night this Iranian woman was over at Suzanne’s place and I said “let’s go hear some jazz, at a club called the Living Room,” not knowing at the time that Frisco’s son managed this nightclub. I had been there before on this trip and had sat in with the house band. On this particular night a musician named Art Williams invited me to sit in. So I’m playing the piano and the spirit was good that night. It was so good that the actress Ava Gardner, who was in the club that evening with some friends came up to me after the set to tell me how much she loved my playing. She kissed my hand and that was quite a thrill because of all the Hollywood actresses of that time, she was my favorite.

After the set Suzanne asked the pianist Art Williams about Frisco. Art said “Frisco’s son owns this place.” Overhearing that I jumped up, and Art said “yeah, in fact there’s his son right over there.” I ran over to Frisco’s son, introduced myself, and asked him if his father was still alive, which he was. I told him about my father and said “aw man, I really want to see Frisco.” His son said he’d arrange it, to come back the following night and he’d have his father there. So the next night I went back and there’s Frisco, as always quite dapper and debonair, with a fresh carnation in his lapel, a real distinguished looking gent with jet black complexion and silver gray hair. I got so excited I called my father in New York immediately and said “Pop, I’ve found him, I’ve found Frisco!” I put dad on the phone and these two cousins, who hadn’t talked in years, were thrilled to speak with each other!

Later I brought my father over to Paris and Maurice Culoz, the jazz critic, and his wife Vonette took us all to dinner with Frisco. These two cousins argued all night long! Frisco was one of the most famous men in Europe; he had nightclubs, the royalty all knew him. When the American ambassador to France, Ambassador Bolling, retired later that year, they had a reception for him at the embassy. Suzanne, Frisco and I went to the reception together and everybody was grabbing Frisco all night long. He was the most famous relative in the family.

Enterprising Dad
My dad always believed in business, in being self-reliant, so he eventually opened a barber shop on Pacific Street and Kingston Avenue in 1940. Since he was Panamanian and spoke fluent Spanish, a lot of the barbers he hired were guys who had just arrived from Puerto Rico and Cuba, guys who really knew how to cut hair beautifully. We lived right across the street from the barber shop. I remember when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor the Americans were so shook up they panicked, and since they needed all the workers they could get for the war effort for the first time they allowed blacks to work in the defense plants. They stepped up production and building of armaments to fight Japan. Before that all black folks were allowed to do was sweep floors and be servants, they weren’t even allowed to drive a truck; and I’m talking about New York, not Mississippi or Georgia. All of a sudden all of dad’s barbers left and went to work in the defense plants where they could make some steady money.

When they left the barbershop my father felt he had no choice; he put on a barber coat and tried cutting hair himself. He was messin’ up folks’ heads royally until he finally learned to do it right. He must have messed up about 25 heads! I used to laugh because the customers would look at their haircuts in the mirror after he’d messed them up, and before they could even start complaining my dad would say “what are you talking about, you got a great haircut, and you look good man!” He was so strong that they dare not talk back. He did that until he really learned how to cut hair. As a teenager he’d have me helping out in the shop; that was back in the days of conkolene, the chemical they used to process black men’s hair. So I used to conk the young guy’s hair and sometimes I’d forget to put the Vaseline on them and their heads would be burnin’ from that harsh chemical. It was a wild scene in that shop; before they split the Puerto Rican barbers were drinking the hair tonic to get a buzz, and everybody was taking and playing numbers to get by.

Numbers, or what they called back then the policy game, was illegal, so sometimes the police would be sitting out in front of the barbershop in their squad cars watching to see who was doing what, who was going in and coming out. Guys were collecting numbers outta the barbershop. One day my dad was cutting somebody’s hair, and I’m in the shop shining shoes. These two detectives are sitting outside the shop in a plain car. My dad had apparently had enough of this surveillance, so he starts fussing, “what them guys doing out there… watching this shop like that.” At one point he put down his scissors and comb, strode across the street and confronted these two detectives, cussing them out the whole time. I couldn’t believe it, but the detectives actually drove off! I never saw my dad fight physically, but his voice was so powerful, his voice alone was enough to shake folks up. So I guess those detectives got an earful!

After that, during the Second World War, dad opened up a restaurant called Trios because he loved to cook. It was the kind of place they called a luncheonette back then, which also sold newspapers, candy, cigarettes, and things like that. Guys would come in sometime and ask to buy some cigarette papers. Boy oh boy, why’d they do that!? He knew they wanted the papers to roll some marijuana. He’d lay into them; “whatcha’ wanna do that for… you smokin’ that shit!” But everybody in the neighborhood loved him. He treated everybody’s child like they were his child, and he was hospitable to a fault. Even as an adult I might call him and say “Pop, I’m with so and so, his wife and daughter, and we’re hungry.” He’d say “come on over,” Even up until he was 84 years old he’d get out of bed, go downstairs and cook: fish, chicken, bake biscuits, pie, everything… Then he’d feed you and while you’re eating he’d be watching you, trying to figure out what kind of person you are. After your stomach was full, that’s when he’d pounce. He might say “so, you’re a” – asking about whatever profession you were – “what about so and so.” That was my dad, a real character.

© Willard Jenkins

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