The Independent Ear

The best Billie read of her centennial year

Billie
Lots of inertia surrounding 2015 as the centennial year of the birth of American music immortal Billie Holiday. The tributes have included several recordings, most notably Cassandra Wilson and Jose James separate re-imaginings of Lady Day. From the literary perspective on Billie comes John Szwed’s very worthwhile new book Billie Holiday: The Musician and The Myth (Viking). John Szwed is a longtime professor (notably director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, one of the more unique jazz studies programs, with its focus on the academic rather than the pedagogical side of jazz studies), jazz critic, and author of exceptional biographies of Sun Ra, Miles Davis, and the intrepid oral historian Alan Lomax.
Billie-Szwed
Two recent prints bore wildly divergent viewpoints on Szwed’s treatment of Billie. In his monthly JazzTimes magazine column, The Gig, New York Times critic Nate Chinen (multiple JJA Awards winner for jazz journalism), after listing some of this centennial year’s recorded homages to Lady Day, writes this” “She was a fount of swinging ebullience and a doyenne of dirges: Our Lady of Sorrows. She was vulnerable and flinty, a tragic case with little use for your pity. “All those who have attempted to write about her have discovered that there are many Billie Holidays, ” John Szwed writes in the introduction to his slim but illuminating book Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth (Viking), the most rewarding bit of Billieana to surface in any form this year.”

Meanwhile in the May 22 edition of the Washington Post (Style section), Matt Schudel’s rather churlish review includes the following: “Holiday, who was often called “Lady Day,” would seem to be a natural subject for a first-rate biography, but for some reason that has not been the case. The best of a mediocre lot is perhaps Donald Clarke’s “Wishing on the Moon,” published in 1994.” So in one fell swoop Schudel dismisses at least two very worthy treatments of La Holiday, notably by two of Szwed’s Columbia colleagues: Robert O’Meally’s Lady Day: The Many Faces of Billie Holiday (1991, Arcade), and Farah Jasmine Griffin’s If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday (2001, Simon & Schuster)! Or perhaps he slept those fine editions to the Holiday bibliography.
Billie-O'Meally
Billie-Farah
Schudel goes on to say: “In a sense, Holiday’s life was one long spiral toward tragedy, but Szwed seldom takes biographical advantage of the rich documentary material he finds.” One must assume by that passage that Mr. Schudel would have preferred heaps more lurid details, dirt, and a chronicle of Holiday’s long slide down the degradation tunnel of drug addiction, poor spousal choices, and new sexual affairs revelations. Later Schudel declares: “The most interesting sections of this diffuse and poorly conceived book are two chapters in which Szwed analyzes Holiday’s singing style.” Frankly, that level and depth of analysis is one of the real hallmarks of Szwed’s approach to Billie, and the author’s central purpose! One wonders if Schudel ever got far enough in Szwed’s treatment to read this end game Szwed declaration on p. 197 of his 219 page treatment: “I set out to write a book that cast new light on the extraordinary artist who was Billie Holiday. My intention was not to deny or gainsay the tribulations and tragedy of her life, but to shift the focus to her art. The consistency and taste she brought to nearly every performance, even those when her body was failing her, display a discipline, an artist’s complete devotion to her work, and a refusal to surrender to the demands of an insatiable world.” That pretty much says it all about John Szwed’s approach to his subject, particularly when one considers that the lurid details of her life are at this point so much ad nauseam, which is one reason this writer found Szwed’s take both refreshing and illuminating.

Instead of chapters on, perhaps the initial dabble with heroin spiraling into addiction, or her various affairs and assorted smarmy details, Szwed chose to write detailed chapters on a re-examination of the often dismissed William Dufty co-authored autobiography Lady Sings the Blues, in which Dufty himself is treated more kindly than previous examinations of the book that led to Berry Gordy’s entertaining but hack film of the same name. Holiday’s arc as a singer and a musician are explored, with very real delineations between those two sides of her artistry. Perhaps the most exhaustive Szwed chronicle of all is the songs Billie chose and why she chose those vehicles. Above all his is a sensitive, intelligent, and musicological detailing of this most unique of all singers, and as such is highly recommended.

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Exit 0 Jazz Festival

For folks living in the Northeast Corridor, Cape May on the Jersey Shore offers many pleasures, including a pristine beachfront. Located 90 miles from the Philly area, those folks certainly know the numbers, as substantiated by a local who informed that about 90% of the resort town’s visitors come from the Philadelphia area. As for those from points south, like the DMV, you can slice the driving time significantly by traveling there via Lewes, Delaware and the Cape May/Lewes ferry, which is a particular bargain if you choose to leave your vehicle at the ferry boat lot in Lewes (free parking!). To enjoy Cape May one needn’t ever drive its relatively compact confines. And we all know how those beach towns make their capital from parking enforcement!

But if its jazz you’re after, why on earth go to Cape May? Producer Michael Kline has conjured up two separate reasons on the calendar for the journey: his eminently agreeable, bi-seasonal Exit Zero Jazz Festival. The Exit 0 Jazz Festival (which derives its name from the fact that Cape May is precisely at Exit 0 of the Garden State Parkway) represents a happy resurrection of the former Cape May Jazz Festival, celebrating two festival seasons – late-spring and mid-fall. Presenting a varied lineup with a significant young, emerging artist quotient, Exit 0 literally plays all over Cape May – from its beachfront Convention Center, with its inviting porch and beckoning rocking chairs overlooking the sea – to the outdoor happenings at the Estate (spring session), the new waterfront stage at the Lobster House, to clubs and bars along Beach Drive.

Cape May being a beach resort town there is no shortage of lodging options, from inviting B&Bs like Buttonwood Estate operated by my friends from the Akwaaba B&B in Brooklyn, to beachfront inns – but hold the chains, that’s not what Cape May is about. One of the beauties of the place is its total absence of big box retail and chain establishments of any kind. So if you need those hotel points or that fast food fix, better look to adjacent towns like Wildwood.

On this occasion we stayed at the Inn at Cape May, right on the heart of Beach Avenue across the street from the Convention Center. This is an Inn that epitomizes quaint, with many antique touches, including its 105 year old elevator, reputedly the oldest elevator in the Northeast. The place has an inviting porch with rockers and small tables suitable for those summer cocktail hours served by its busy bar. The Inn at Cape May is also home to Alethea’s, one of Exit 0’s prime festival venues. The place also boasts a trusty chef; order the Grouper, or the Thai Bowl, or perhaps the blackened mani-mahi sandwich; you’ll thank me later!
Inn at Cape May
Alethea’s is where we caught some exceptional performances, starting with vibist Joe Locke‘s Love is a Pendulum project on Friday evening. With the indomitable powerhouse Jeff “Tain” Watts on drums the pots were guaranteed to be on boil. Locke’s 4-mallet mastery was augmented by the consistently sparkling piano artistry of Robert Rodriguez, with Ricardo Rodriguez (no relation) on bass. Locke is an ebullient artist who dances with the music and communicates fully with his audience, a thoroughly creative crowd-pleaser in that respect. The musical subject of the evening was Locke’s composerly recent recording for the Motema label, titled Love is a Pendulum, exploring several shades of love’s complications, joys and lessons, as the leader detailed it, in vivid poetic exposition.
Joe Locke
Joe Locke Group
Saturday afternoon was spent on the grounds of the Emlen Physick Estate, with crafts vendors and food merchants on hand for libations and retail speculations; certainly a great setting for a lineup ranging from tenorist Melissa Aldana‘s telepathic trio, to New Orleans brass band cum funk standard-bearers Rebirth Brass Band. The closing Saturday afternoon set debuted vocalist Charenee Wade‘s new Motema Records project Offering: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron & Brian Jackson. Bringing great wells of intensity to each of her solo turns was the kinetic alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, another Motema Records artist who grows more powerful and assertive with each sighting. To her credit Ms. Wade was completely collegial in encouraging the inspiring Benjamin, who never failed to bring hoots of pleasure from the crowd at each solo turn. Of all the younger singers out here, Charenee Wade seems to have most substantially inherited the mantle of Betty Carter; you feel it in her delivery and you see it in her onstage mannerisms, in how she physically inhabits her songs. Due out June 23, Charenee’s re-imagining of Gil and Brian’s music brings new pleasures in its reinterpretations, further substantiating what an exceptional body of musical poetics those two Afrocentrics crafted in the late 70s and 80s. Added to Giacomo Gates‘ successful earlier exploration of the Scott-Heron/Jackson axis, clearly there is a wealth of material in that songbook that deserves re-examination and refreshment, as Charenee Wade surely has achieved.
Charenee Wade
Charenee Wade 1
A quick jaunt to the waterfront Lobster House – which also promised all manner of succulent fruits de mar – yielded French chanteuse Cyrille Aimee‘s agreeable 21st century Hot Club stylings. She, like Ms. Wade is another example of the wealth of jazz vocal talent currently in play. Blessed with an alluring voice not immune to playfulness, and a deeply complementary relationship with her French sidemen, Ms. Aimee promises to operate from a somewhat different vantage point than her vocal peers, one which owes much to the whole Django Reinhardt/Stephane Grappelli side of French jazz expression.

Rounding out our Saturday night was two infectious sets by trumpeter Sean Jones. There are few, if any, playing more horn these days than Sean Jones, as he proved throughout both sets. Buoyed by his longtime partner, the always resourceful Orrin Evans on piano, Ben Williams on bass, and his first engagement of young Mark Whitfield, Jr. on drums, Sean’s crew proved incendiary from the jump. Young Whitfield proved to be a definite powerhouse. One of the beauties of Jones’ playing is not only his big, roomy sound but the way he spins tales and craftily builds his solos. Having watched his evolution from high school player to first class professional, it is an increasing delight to experience Sean Jones’ ongoing development. And the connection he has with his bandmates is deeply infectious, particularly the brotherhood with the crafty energy source that is Orrin Evans.
Sean Jones

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DCJF’s jazz education program

DCJF_2015Lock-up_0

One of the hallmarks of the annual DC Jazz Festival (DCJF) is our ongoing jazz education program engagement with the Jazzin’ At Sitar program, under the leadership of distinguished DC bassist Herman Burney. Jessica Boykin-Settles, herself an aspiring jazz vocalist, heads up the DCJF jazz education program and here’s a view inside that program.

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Ain’t But a Few of Us… on the publishing side as well

The number of black publication efforts on behalf of jazz has been quite modest when one considers the number of jazz publications in the aggregate sense. Currently the most notable – and noble – effort in that regard is Jo Ann Cheatham’s valiant, virtually one-woman effort at continuing to publish her Pure Jazz magazine out of Brooklyn. One recalls such valiant efforts as The Soul & Jazz Record back in the 70s. The 70s and 80s also saw Jim Harrison’s extensive tabloid, the Jazz Spotlite News with its decidedly New York-centric gaze, or the largely regional orientation of Strictly Jazz coming from Atlanta in the early 90s, and Be-Bop And Beyond in the late 80s. Full confession, this writer is most familiar with those publications from both a reader and an eager contributor’s viewpoint.

In the 90s, at the encouragement of the late KPFA (the Pacifica network’s Berkeley, CA flagship station) programmer Doug Edwards and the magazine’s publisher Haybert Houston, I became a regular contributor to Houston’s Bay Area based magazine, Jazz Now. For the most part our ongoing Ain’t But a Few of Us dialogues have focused on the relatively spare number of African American jazz writers, from freelancers to columnists, regular contributors, and authors. An exception was our dialogue with Jo Ann Cheatham, which focused primarily on her Pure Jazz magazine, an installment which will post later this summer. In the meantime I recently re-connected with Haybert Houston by telephone for the following dialogue on the subject of his decidedly grassroots – in every sense of that term! – efforts at publishing Jazz Now, a dialogue which absolutely revealed yet another side of the Ain’t But a Few of Us coin.

Jazz Now

HAYBERT HOUSTON (Jazz Now magazine founder)

Independent Ear: When did you start Jazz Now magazine?

Haybert Houston: I started the magazine in May of 1991. It was just [wife] Stella and I and we actually started working towards publishing the magazine in 1987.

IE: What happened in the ensuing years?

HH: The print edition was first [published] in May of 1991. In 1994 we introduced the first interactive jazz magazine on the internet. We were the first, and it ran simultaneously with the print edition until the print edition stopped in March 2000. The electronic edition continued until ’06. We were actually publishing from ’91 to 2006.

IE: What was your original motivation for beginning the magazine?

HH: I looked around at the jazz magazines we had, and you know DownBeat was the model because it had been around for so long. And what I found was the magazines like JazzTimes and even DownBeat, they talked about the big names all the time; they talked about the names that people all over the world would recognize, the “leaders” of the jazz world. But I knew – just from being here in the [SF] Bay Area – there were millions of jazz musicians making a contribution to the art form that were not being recognized and some of them were older than DownBeat!

IE: In addition to closing that disparity was there a desire on your part to address any racial or cultural disparities in jazz magazine publishing?

HH: I knew that black [musicians] were making major, major contributions to the art form, and a lot of these people… like Robert Porter for example, a trumpeter here in the Bay Area who was a very active organizer of all kinds of musicians in general, and this guy had never been recognized by anybody outside of our area, and he was a black man. I knew his chances of getting in DownBeat or JazzTImes was almost nil; that would never happen no matter what he contributed. So the racial issue was very strong.

I never told anybody [writers] to highlight black people, but I was looking at the cultural contributions, as a publisher, and I wanted to remind the people of that – that these were the people laying the ground work who had made the major contributions and were heads of organizations throughout the country, and the people hadn’t heard of the organizations let alone the musicians.

IE: In addition to feeling that certain musicians’ contributions had been underserved in the jazz media, you felt compelled by the fact that certain black musicians contributions had been ignored?

HH: Exactly! And that was obvious to anybody that you talked to. If you talked to people around the world about that – just asking them who’s making jazz contributions in their area – 99.9% of those people were black. But you had to be a Monterey Jazz Festival performer, or something along those lines, in order for you to get mentioned [in the mainstream jazz publications].

IE: Before you started the magazine, had you written about jazz previously?

HH: No, I had not written anything, so we were real amateurs and that was very difficult, but we managed.

Jazz Now3

IE: So how did a couple like you and Stella, who had no particular journalistic experience, how did you motivate yourselves to develop a magazine?

IE: When I decided to go for it I started looking for basic ways to publish a magazine. We’ve got colleges and universities all over the world, but I could not find a thing about what you do to publish a magazine; there were no instructions anywhere, nothing that said if you want to publish a magazine this is what you do, I couldn’t find that [information] anywhere. So I had to go from scratch, to figure out how to publish. And not only that, at the time we started in 1991 we were in a transition period, the world was moving from the pre-computer stage to everything going to desktop [publishing].

So we went to the College of Alameda, took a course in computer technology. After we learned how to use the computer I told the instructor what we wanted to do, I told him the reason we were there was because I was planning to publish a magazine. I asked him what did he suggest I do using the computer sciences and equipment? He said, the first thing I needed to do was start on Apple, to use MacIntosh. So I went back to college to Laney, which is here in Oakland, and I took desktop publishing on Apple MacIntosh. We bought the equipment and we were off and running. We were setting ouR own rules, but I got a lot of help.

I reached out to everybody I knew. My cousin lives in Chicago and I knew that Johnson Publications was there in Chicago and we met with a lady there. I told her what I was gonna do and asked for her help. She suggested that I contact Playboy, because Playboy was the master of magazine distribution. I knew that they distributed their own magazine, but they had a network that distributed most magazines. So that’s how I got the magazine distribution, and it was so helpful because not only did [Playboy] get the magazine out in this country but they hooked me up with Tower Records, which was worldwide and Tower got my magazine in Taiwan and other places that there was no way I could have gotten the magazine otherwise. That’s how – seeking and asking and begging for help – I managed to do that, and we took off.

IE: At its peak what were Jazz Now’s publishing numbers?

HH: They were not where I felt they should have been, but they were sufficient to get us around the world. We had about 20,000 subscribers; by the time we got to that point the internet was taking off and I can’t remember how we tracked the internet numbers, which was a very big issue also.

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IE: How did you go about attracting subscribers?

HH: In the various areas that we covered, I would ask people where did they purchase their magazines, where do you get DownBeat, etc. to find out how those people were connected to the jazz world. And we had questionnaires in the early editions that helped a bit, but it was mostly word of mouth that helped with Jazz Now.

IE: Were you aware at the time that you were the only African American publishing a monthly jazz magazine?

HH: I wasn’t when I started; I kept hearing that, but I wasn’t aware because I had no way of checking that out and I didn’t want to make that claim and have somebody say ‘oh, I’ve been publishing my little newsletter for a hundred years…’ So we never made that claim. Others made that claim for me very often, but I never made that claim because I couldn’t verify it.

IE: How did you go about recruiting writers for the magazine?

HH: I’ll give you an example. I went to most of the jazz shows in my area and there was a lady that I would see at every one of those events. She was a white lady who would be sitting up front, very clean, very sharp, blond hair with a bun in the back looking very conservative. But she was nodding her head with all the music, so I thought ‘this lady is really into the music, she’s always here.’ I found out who she was and I talked with her and I found out that she had been taking pictures at all these different events, so I asked her had she ever considered writing. She said ‘no, I’ve never thought about writing [about the music], this is just for me.’ I finally convinced her. Then I found out about people in the [jazz] community and asked if they knew of anybody writing about jazz and whether they could recommend anybody, and some people would, but it was just kind of a hit & miss, word of mouth thing, it was very basic, we didn’t have headhunters or anything like that.

IE: Did you find in your early experience starting this magazine, in trying to find writers, did you find that there were a number of African Americans writing about jazz?

HH: No, I didn’t find that there were a lot, but I did find some and some of the [black writers] that were writing about it didn’t think that we would last, so they were not interested. So I would have to work really hard to convince somebody that I wanted to write for the magazine. Doug Edwards, a radio broadcaster at KPFA, really helped me a lot; in fact he was with the magazine right up until he died. One of the first articles that we published was about Pearl – of Jazz at Pearls club in San Francisco… I got this guy, a young black guy, to do that article on Pearl for the first issue, and I think he charged me something like $600, which was way more than I could afford, but I had no way of finding out how much people were getting paid until I met with that woman at Ebony.

So the guy over-charged me and I thought ‘wow, I’ve gotta find a better way to do this.’ Doug Edwards told me to tell people that we were a poor magazine, that we would pay them $25 an article; I did that and people agreed because most of the people wanted to write and it wasn’t really about the money.

IE: So as soon as you were able to you did pay writers?

HH: Oh yeah, I paid writers from that time forward, but I just couldn’t pay them very much. I paid them $25 an article and they were happy with that. I was surprised that they were happy with that because for $25 you can’t buy a pack of cigarettes!

Jazz Now2

IE: Were you able to attract other black writers to the magazine?

HH: Yes I was and I was so pleased with that. We attracted some really good writers; I think of Elizabeth Goodwin, who was writing for somebody else before I got her. She was a very conservative young woman, but very smart and articulate and had some writing experience. She did a number of interviews throughout the history of the magazine. When I would find somebody that was a writer, I would try to convince them to write for us and in most cases they would.

IE: Did you find an openness, as far as black writers being willing to contribute because of who you were as far as publishing this magazine?

HH: Yes, I was happy about that. A lot of [black writers] said ‘I see where you’re going, don’t worry about trying to pay me,’ and that was very helpful, that made me feel good that I was getting some help. It was very difficult to do what we were doing because #1 I had to pay the printer and I did. I finally got this guy who was going to generate some revenue through advertising and that lasted for a few years but it never really generated enough to cover the cost, so it was really hard to get the advertising support that the magazine demanded and required. So it was hard, but I got a lot of help, and sometimes individuals would give me money for the magazine.

IE: Were these donors black people?

HH: These were primarily black people, but some of them were white. I worked for a company called United States Leasing International. The guy I worked for in that organization, who was a vice president, he gave me about $9,000 [for the magazine], which was just wonderful.

IE: Before you started Jazz Now magazine were you at all aware that there were few African Americans writing about jazz?

HH: I didn’t know who they were, I knew that there had to have been [black writers] but I couldn’t identify anybody. These [black writers] would be introduced to me or referred to me, but I didn’t know a lot of jazz writers at that time.

IE: Why do you suppose its always been such a glaring disparity where you have so many black musicians contributing to the music but so few black people writing about it and black folks in the media in general dealing with the music?

HH: If you look at the publishing industry as a whole, I think that’s where the disparity arises; that’s why I went to Ebony because they had been publishing for years, and they helped me so much. I just chose to go to where I knew there were black writers because I didn’t know of black jazz writers, not just writers but publishers. She didn’t make too many writer recommendations to me, but she helped me in many other ways.

I didn’t know how to find black writers unless they came to me. After the magazine came out, black writers would come to me saying they wanted to write. Most of our writers were new people in the industry who hadn’t written for magazines before but they wanted to and they wanted to make a contribution, or they knew something. Like that lady I mentioned, I would recruit them based on what I thought they could do.

IE: As you sought to provide coverage to underserved jazz musicians, did you think the dearth of African American jazz writers contributed to how the music was covered?

HH: My first answer to that is no, because those writers that were writing on jazz at that time – editors decide what goes in and what does not – a lot of writers had run into [reluctant editors]. They would submit articles and they would get turned down, unless they were huge names. Editors would tell writers that their writing about Joe Blow from Wilson Creek, nobody’s going to buy the magazine, and the writers would tell me about that!

IE: So once you got into publishing, those issues that motivated you as far as your feeling so many contributing jazz musicians were not getting magazine coverage, did it ever occur to you that the way the music was covered had anything to do with the fact that there weren’t a lot of black writers covering the music?

HH: Without a doubt, very strongly! The writers told me that, and when I say the writers I’m only talking about professional writers. Some of them, they wouldn’t even bother, saying ‘no man, I can’t tie up my energies in something that isn’t going to go anywhere [meaning Jazz Now]. That was shocking and it made it very difficult, but that’s what I was trying to overcome, to change all of that. I felt that to a degree we did gather some recognition and we did change some of that. We had some [black] writers that started with me, they grew up with me, and then they started to go over to other magazines and radio broadcasting but they always kept us in mind and knew that [Jazz Now] was where they came from.

Jazz Now1

IE: So you got a sense that to a certain degree Jazz Now served as a bit of an incubator?

HH: Oh absolutely, I could see it. We made a difference in the publishing world, I could see that, and I could hear that people recognized what we were trying to do, and we got a lot of support along those lines.

IE: What difference do you feel Jazz Now made?

HH: There was an organization in Germany, the Jazz Institute [in Darmstadt], and this guy was so thrilled that I started the magazine that he helped in any way he could. I had a relationship with him and he told me about the struggle that he had, but he was very, very helpful to me. I got a lot of information from them and also learned a lot.

IE: What is your sense of the indifference of so many African American publications towards jazz music, despite the historic origins of the music?

HH: Not everybody appreciates the art form for what it has contributed. A lot of black folks were church-oriented and the way jazz was originally introduced, where it played out, at one point jazz was looked down upon as a dirty music, it was thought of as just bawdy house music. I’m not sure why we didn’t have more coverage in black publications.

IE: As you continued to cover the music in Jazz Now, what were some of your most rewarding encounters?

HH: When we would get recognition from places like the Monterey Jazz Festival. I got to know those people really well, they supported us and would give us heads-up notice about whatever was going on, and asked us to cover it and go to their shows. From most of the jazz community we were welcomed.

IE: Not only were you the rare African American publishing a jazz magazine, but you were rare geographically [California-base] because there weren’t a lot of jazz publications coming out of the West.

HH: That’s true.

IE: Was that also part of your motivation for publishing?

HH: Oh yes it was. You might remember, the magazine used to say California Jazz Now, the West Coast jazz world, and that was because we knew there was no jazz magazine out here. DownBeat was in [Chicago} and any coverage of the guys in the West was limited.

IE: Did you find a sense of openness from black musicians wanting to assist or be more open to your publishing venture?

HH: I’m happy to say that I did find that. There was a bass player here named Harley White who had an organization that recognized Jazz Now many times. Harley White played bass for Earl “Fatha” Hines. His organization was called Jazz Preservation Society and he gave me an award. His recording secretary was Ed Kelly, one of the most admired piano players on this side of the country, he’s no longer with us but he was great.

IE: So there was some expression of pride amongst black people in the music for the fact that you were doing this.

HH: Yes, there was, and they knew what a struggle it was. People in the jazz community tried to support Jazz Now as best they could.

IE: As you look back on what you were able to achieve with the magazine, what would you say about the whole experience?

HH: It was a very enlightening and rewarding experience, and we’re not talking monetary rewards here. But it was very rewarding; I got to find out that what I’d imagined was true – and that is that there are some truly remarkable musicians who weren’t being covered, and when we got somebody to cover them they were elated to know that we were around – and I’m talking about white musicians in Sweden, or white musicians in Australia – it wasn’t just the black musicians that recognized what we were doing about accentuating those musicians who had been around but had gotten no recognition. People really thought that was a great idea; it never turned around monetarily but we got a lot of praise.

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IE: What was your level of commercial success, in sustaining the magazine financially?

HH: We never publicized this and never talked about it at all – but at one point Stella and I had to declare bankruptcy because I was going overboard in my support and I wasn’t getting the kind of return in order to make it viable. So it was never really a monetary success, most of the time it maintained its own, but then there was a time when it was very, very difficult.

IE: At what point did you evolve Jazz Now into purely an online presence?

HH: When we first got into the 20,000 subscriber range it became much more difficult to publish hard copy, so we reverted to the electronic issue, which we had going at the same time as the [hard copy issue], but the printed issue required a lot of time and money.

IE: Did you say you were the first jazz magazine to publish online?

HH: Yes, we were.

IE: How was it that you became an early adapter to what is now common practice?

HH: I found out that no matter what medium I was using, where I was lacking was a professional advertising person who knew how to generate the revenue. One time my editor, Bob Tate, said ‘you need to pay the advertising guys more. When he made that statement I knew that he didn’t know any more . The advertising guy was supposed to generate the revenue for [Bob] to get paid and he didn’t understand that.

IE: Did you have advertising in your online publication?

HH: Oh yes, I had ads there, and subscriptions, and we had a catalogue of releases there and we would get the musicians to advertise their releases. That helped a lot but not enough to sustain the magazine. It made me feel so good to publish the magazine, to know that I had done something for the art form; I would do it again at the drop of a hat.

Jazz Now6

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Celebrating Harlem & U Street jazz… with a side order of go-go

The historic Harlem community of New York City and U Street of Washington, DC are two of the most storied crossroads of the black experience in America. And there is more than a little shared history and more than a few common personalities that link the two communities. That was precisely the sentiment of Houston-born Jason Moran, the 20+ year Harlem resident pianist-composer and artistic advisor to jazz at the Kennedy Center. Through his sharp curatorial mind, the Kennedy Center and the Apollo Theatre have partnered for this Mother’s Day weekend of what are bound to be two exceptional nights of music. Yes, you read that right… in this age of artistic collaboration, a partnership between the Apollo and the Kennedy Center!

Tonight, Saturday, May 9 this richly promising program – curated by Moran and co-music directed by he and DC-native pianist Marc Cary (who’ll bring the go-go element, along with several vets of the form) – launches at the Apollo Theatre. The following night, Sunday, May 10 (and what a Mother’s Day gift this could be!) the entire caravan will touch down at the Kennedy Center for a free program at 6:00pm on the Millennium Stage and a ticketed blow-out upstairs on the Terrace level in the Crossroads Club.

I was honored to have been commissioned by the Apollo to do an onstage interview with Moran some weeks back at the Apollo Cafe, and subsequently write the program notes for both venues. For those who cannot make either evening, the program notes are here courtesy of the Independent Ear. Hopefully these notes shed some light on the clear artistic connections between Harlem and U Street. Harlem has historically been the more celebrated and well-chronicled of these two crossroads of black America. An excellent source of further illustration of the glories of DC’s U Street environs can be found in the book Washington’s U Street (A biography) by Blair Ruble (Woodrow Wilson Center Press/The Johns Hopkins University Press).

Apollo

Celebrating the rich Harlem & U Street Jazz traditions
By Willard Jenkins

The Harlem Nights/U Street Lights project – a collaboration of the Apollo Theater and the Kennedy Center – represents a beautiful synergy. This project being curated by pianist-composer Jason Moran, a Harlem resident and Artistic Advisor for Jazz at the Kennedy Center is apropos on many levels. There is such a rich history of interchange between these two crossroads of African American history that enriches this presentation in myriad respects. The simpatico between these two communities – Harlem and DC’s U Street corridor – represents linkages dating back to the early 20th century.

The Apollo evening, Saturday, May 9, which will be followed on Sunday, May 10 at the Kennedy Center, is part of the historic 81-year old theater’s annual Harlem Jazz Shrines partnership with Harlem Stage, Jazzmobile, and Columbia University. This celebration of venues and crossroads important to the development of jazz music recognizes the deep jazz history of the Harlem community. The Harlem/U Street links, which include the legendary “chittlin’ circuit” connections between the Apollo Theater and DC’s Howard Theatre, cut across African American history beyond the music.

The Harlem Renaissance was the socio-cultural, artistic flowering that ignited Harlem and the black world from the end of World War 1 to the mid-1930s. That fabled period was a creative hothouse for a legion of black men and women of arts & letters. This era and beyond also saw the development of both the Harlem and U Street communities as essential centers of jazz advancements, including the fabled Harlem stride piano sounds of Fats Waller, Willie “The Lion” Smith, and DC native son Duke Ellington.
Harlem crossroads
Alain Locke, the first African American Rhodes scholar, in 1912 took an assistant professorship at Howard University, which looms a stone’s throw north of the U Street corridor in the Shaw neighborhood of DC. It was Locke, along with literary artists Georgia Douglas Johnson, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, and Horace Gregory who plotted the Harlem Renaissance in Shaw environs around Howard. Other leading figures of that cultural revolution included poet Angelika Grimke, a DC public school teacher, and Howard University librarian Edward Christopher Williams, who had written critical, anonymous screeds detailing the foibles of DC’s “talented tenth” and their exclusive community around U Street.

The U Street community, which thrived across the 20s, 30s and 40s as a center of black life in DC, grew such a bustling nightlife that it was bestowed the grand sobriquet “Black Broadway” during the period, frequented by a diverse cross-section of the populace. Much like Harlem, U Street is where all of DC’s first-class black entertainment – whether of the theatrical variety, or that found in cabarets and nightclubs – found welcome stages and vibrant audiences, from the Howard, Dunbar, Republic and Lincoln theaters, to the Lincoln Colonnade (located in the lower level of the Lincoln Theater), and the Crystal Caverns. The Lincoln Colonnade, along with the Scottish Rite Temple down on R St., and the Murray Palace Casino were the home of DC’s happy feet, much akin to the high times of the Savoy Ballroom. However, like Harlem, one need only venture a block or two away from the U Street highlife to experience the deprivation of scant opportunity and sheer poverty. High times on U Street abruptly gave way to urban flight, boarded-up storefronts and decay following the outrage and insurrection that filled U Street in reaction to Martin Luther King’s 1968 assassination.

Proto jazz pioneer bandleader James Reese Europe, born in Mobile, AL in 1881, moved with his family to DC at age 10, attending public school and beginning his music lessons in the city. Towards the end of 1904 he relocated to New York. There he founded the Clef Club, a precursor to the black musicians union locals. In 1917 Europe organized the 369th Infantry Regiment military band for the war effort, a band that became known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.” Post-war many of the Harlem Hellfighters, black men from across the U.S. and Puerto Rico, continued their careers in Harlem. Members of that band included composer-lyricist and drum major Noble Sissle and pianist Eubie Blake, who together produced Broadway’s first African American musical, “Shuffle Along.” Many other veterans of Europe’s campaign became regulars at Harlem’s swing & dance shrine the Savoy Ballroom.
U Street
HISTORIC U STREET

The U Street entertainment hub, the fabled Howard Theatre, which preceded the Apollo by 23 years, staged plays by Alain Locke’s Howard University Players. Duke Ellington, who became one of the jazz kings of Harlem when he relocated to New York, made some of his earliest appearances as leader of his Serenaders at Howard Theatre band competitions. In 1923 young Ellington made the move to New York City on the advice of Fats Waller, along with banjoist Elmer Snowden’s Washingtonians band. Not long after the move the band grew restless over scarcity of gigs, ousted Snowden and installed Duke as their leader.
Howard Theater then
THE HOWARD THEATER THEN
Howard Theater now
THE HOWARD THEATER NOW

Among the Washingtonians band members who also made the move from the U Street highlife to New York were saxophonist Otto “Toby” Hardwick, Ellington’s original drummer, Sonny Greer, who had played in the Howard Theatre Orchestra before joining Duke in 1919, and trumpeter Arthur Whetsol; all were part of Duke’s first New York recording, for the Victor label. Eventually Duke settled in Harlem’s fabled “Sugar Hill,” After establishing his band and sound in New York, the Duke Ellington Orchestra became king of the historic Harlem shrine at the corner of Lenox Avenue and 142nd Street, the Cotton Club. Another who made a similar move, only from the clubs of Harlem to the U Street hothouse in 1935, was New Orleans self-designated “inventor” of jazz, pianist Jelly Roll Morton. Morton established residence at the Jungle Inn at 1211 U Street.

In later years, post-Harlem Renaissance and U Street’s 1930s-40s Black Broadway heydays, DC and Harlem musicians regularly traded licks and cut heads at such uptown modern jazz shrines as Minton’s Playhouse and Monroe’s Uptown House, and U Street’s Club Crystal Cavern, which later became the Bohemian Caverns. These included the erudite pianist Dr. Billy Taylor, DC native, Harlem broadcaster, founder of Harlem’s longest-enduring jazz institution Jazzmobile, and the catalyst behind Jazz at the Kennedy Center. Bohemian Caverns, thriving today as U Street’s jazz pillar was, in its Crystal Caverns days, home to many of the same artists who brought the modern jazz sounds to the Apollo stage, including Ramsey Lewis, Cannonball Adderley, Les McCann, Nancy Wilson, Oscar Brown, Jr., Miles Davis, and John Coltrane.

Fast forward to 2015 and the vibrant Harlem Nights/U Street Lights and its brilliant cast of artists and we find further synergy, with Harlemites, Harlem transplants (including the curator and the music director), artists who’ve graced Harlem and U Street stages, and some of DC’s finest. For project curator Jason Moran, that relationship begins with two of what he characterizes as “pivotal pianists: Duke Ellington and his relationship between DC and Harlem, Billy Taylor and his relationship between DC and especially [his founding] Jazzmobile [as] a way to keep the music in the “community”, and now with Marc Cary and Ben Williams being in Harlem [while] continuing to represent their relative DC generations. These [Harlem and U Street] neighborhoods still strive to keep the music embedded in the community. So why not put together some of the great musicians from the local scenes in DC and Harlem, and think about our sonic histories,” Moran muses. “It’s really a party about two neighborhoods, and how the music helps us tell these stories.”
U Street Duke
COURTESY OF THIS MURAL THE DISTINCTIVE VISAGE OF DUKE ELLINGTON IS A PERMANENT FIXTURE ON U STREET

Music director, pianist-keyboardist Marc Cary, will bring the distinctive funk dynamic of go-go rhythms to the project. A Duke Ellington School for the Arts grad, Cary grew up playing on DC’s go-go scene, a sound so ubiquitous in mid-70s through 80s Washington that you could hear it from dancehalls and clubs in DC’s black community, to buskers regaling Metro stations. Cary will honor that sound and the late, esteemed DC bandleader Chuck Brown, the Godfather of go-go. “Chuck Brown taught us jazz songs through go-go music,” as Marc tells it. “Brown educated an entire generation of audience members through his choice of jazz standards,” says Moran, standards into which Brown injected new energy through go-go rhythms. In addition to Cary, the go-go tradition will be royally represented by two of the rhythm kings of that sound – hand drummer Milton “Go Go Mickey” Freeman, and drummer Kenneth “Kwick” Gross.

A born and raised Harlemite, saxophonist Bill Saxton, known as “Harlem’s Jazz King,” is proprietor of Bill’s Place, located in a former speakeasy on “Swing Street,” a stretch of 133rd Street between Lenox and Seventh Avenues. What is now Bill’s Place was once a nightlife haunt of Ellington, Fats Waller, and Langston Hughes, dating back to the Harlem Renaissance. Another saxophonist on the program is DC native Brian Settles. An Ellington School grad, Settles studied in NYC at the New School as well as at Howard, and is currently one of Washington’s most advanced players.

Harlem Nights/U Street Lights vocalists include Howard University’s renowned Afro Blue; Queen Esther, who has lately been featured at the refurbished Minton’s; and Brianna Thomas. Ms. Thomas won the Jazzmobile Competition and was a Betty Carter Jazz Ahead student at the Kennedy Center.

Duke Ellington School grads trumpeter Donvonte McCoy and bassist Ben Williams, will join seasoned pianist Bertha Hope – whose late husband Elmo Hope caressed the ivories in Harlem shrines – pianist Gerald Clayton, saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, who crosses freely between jazz, hip hop and neo soul, pianist Federico Pena, and special guest trumpeter Roy Hargrove. Rounding out this auspicious cast on drums is NEA Jazz Master and DC native Jimmy Cobb in what promises to be the jazz weekend of the season!

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