The Independent Ear

Anatomy of an alternative space for jazz

When friend and colleague Gail Boyd recently established the Facebook group Alternative Venues for Jazz it got me thinking about a series of interviews I conducted in 2010. The interviews were part of a jazz oral history project for the Weeksville Heritage Center, which honors Brooklyn’s oldest African American homes settlement.

Back in the 50s and 60s Brooklyn had a rich, vibrant scene of jazz performance venues. In succeeding decades the borough experienced the development of several alternative venues for jazz performance, including the legendary The East, The Muse, Jazz 966, and most notably Sista’s Place. Our Weeksville oral history interview series, working in conjunction with my former Weeksville colleagues Jennifer Scott and Kaitlyn Greenidge, included several notables responsible for those spaces, including two of Sista’s Place founders Viola Plummer, Roger Wareham, and its music director, trumpeter-educator Ahmed Abdullah.

As food for thought in the ongoing discussion of alternative venues for jazz, this is the first of 3 interviews on the development of Sista’s Place, which continues to present exceptional Saturday evening concerts at its lively and inviting Nostrand Avenue converted storefront space, under Abdullah’s distinctive artistic direction.

How long have you been residing in Brooklyn.
I came to Brooklyn to live in 1970. But I had an uncle who lived on Macon Street from the time I was born, so I’ve had a close relationship with Brooklyn throughout most of my life. I lived in Crown Heights from 1970 until 1978.

Are you a native New Yorker?
I’m a native New Yorker, born in Harlem.

How did you happen to migrate to Brooklyn?
I was working at a day care center at 1310 Atlantic Avenue and I was commuting at that time from the Bronx to Brooklyn. The day care center was at 1310 Atlantic Avenue between Nostrand and New York, and I was living in the South Bronx and it was quite a commute. So we found a place in Brooklyn on Crown Street, it was just much more convenient.

Prior to moving to Brooklyn did you have any awareness of jazz in Brooklyn?
Not really, I don’t think I had an awareness per se of jazz in Brooklyn. But I shouldn’t say that because I was studying with Cal Massey and he lived in Brooklyn on Brooklyn Avenue, going way back in my memory. Certainly he was very much involved in the [jazz] history of Brooklyn. Actually I introduced him to the day care center I was working at and he wound up doing several benefits, one for the Black Panther Party in 1969, and one for the day care center. He had to do it for the day care center after doing it for the Black Panther Party because the donor to the center decided to take funds away from the center after he did the benefit for the Black Panther Party at the center. It was a great event, called Jazz on Brass, in Staten Island, as was the fundraiser for the Black Panther Party. If you know anything about Cal Massey, his events included a cast of thousands they would all come to perform for his benefits. I was able to bring him in to do that. So I did have some awareness of jazz in Brooklyn and was involved in it even before I moved here.

Once you moved to Brooklyn, in 1970, what was it like here for jazz at that time?
I came in on the decline of the golden era. I’ve talked to other people who were involved in the earlier jazz in Brooklyn when all the other clubs were around. During that time [1970] we had the Blue Coronet, there was Muse on Bedford Avenue near Lincoln Place; people like Bill Barron, Reggie Workman, Roland Alexander, and [poet] Louis Reyes Rivera [who passed on to ancestry in 2012] were all at The Muse. Bill Barron ran jam sessions there and it was one of the places that I got my roots in music because he was very gracious in allowing musicians to come and play. There were some great musicians who played there; Danny Mixon for example would come and play there all the time, all of the cats that were part of the [Muse] staff would also come and perform in these jam sessions. So the Muse was a very important cultural institution, and Reggie Workman was in fact the administrator of Muse at that time.

I got to play at the Blue Coronet as a young man, I was like 20-something years old at the time, studying with Cal Massey and playing at these places that are historic landmarks. The East came up right around that time; the East and this day care center I was working at were aligned together, they were both dealing with kind of a head start program for young black minds and trying to train them towards a cultural awareness at an early age. The day care center was called 1310 New Directions Day Care Center, and The East was just blocks away, so we worked together in a lot of different ventures.

Going back to the Blue Coronet, describe that place physically.
When you came in you came to a long room, there was a bar to the right, the bandstand was in the back, there were seats much like [restaurant booths] seats in front of the bandstand, and so you played out to either the bar if you were on the bandstand to the left, or you played to the row of seats that were situated right in front of the bandstand. I played there with Roger Blank, Ronnie Boykins, and an alto player named Bugs Dyer, that was my connection to Sun Ra.

We used to rehearse… in the 1970s many of the musicians lived around Williamsburg, around Broadway and Bedford. Rashied Ali had a group there called the Melodic Art-Tet, and the group actually consisted of Charles Brackeen, Ronnie Boykins, and Roger Blank and we used to rehearse at Rashied Ali’s place; he had a loft in Brooklyn. This was before he got his loft in Soho that became Ali’s Alley that was the mid-70s; this is early 70s [in Brooklyn]. Also there was Art Lewis, a drummer from San Francisco, they all lived right along Broadway in Williamsburg; Roger Blank, Daoud Haroun a trombonist; there were many musicians, there was a musicians’ enclave right there around Broadway [in Brooklyn].

Would you say those enclaves of musicians and subsequent performances in such spaces were kind of an outgrowth of the Black Arts Movement?
Oh definitely, because there was a lot of cultural awareness happening in the 1970s and we were definitely picking up on what had happened in the 1960s and in fact instituting some of those actions in institutions. The 70s was a realization of the activities of the 1960s in many ways. The East certainly was that and certainly what we were doing at 1310 Atlantic Avenue was that; it was a very rich time.

I played The East a number of different times; I played The East with a group called the Brotherhood of Sound, with a group called the Master Brotherhood, with the Melodic Art-Tet, and I played there with Sun Ra. My very first performance with Sun Ra was at The East, in April 1975. This is a very unusual thing: I played at The East, I’m now teaching a block away from The East at PS3, and a block away from that is Sista’s Place. So there’s this spiritual connection, I don’t know what it is and I’m not trying to figure it out right now, but I know it’s happening like that. I came to The East in 1975, to Sista’s Place in 1998, and I started teaching at PS3 in 2005. All of these things are stacked up in a row on that avenue.

In the 70s when all these things were happening, at The East, at the Blue Coronet, were there other places where the music was happening in Brooklyn at the time?
People would have music in apartments. There was a fellow named Joe Noble, he lived in South Brooklyn – it could have been Bergen or Dean Street – but he would have sessions in his apartment and we would go by and play. A lot of that activity was happening, where people would say ‘hey, I’ve got some cats coming over’ and we would play.

Was there an audience for these sessions?
Not usually an audience, it would just be the musicians working on their craft, a jam session basically. There were audiences at The Muse people would come to hear… The Muse was on Bedford Avenue and Lincoln Place; there were certainly audiences there.

Who would be playing at The Muse?
Any young person who wanted to learn how to play; Bill Barron would put charts up for the cats to play on and people would take their turns improvising on the songs, like that…

What was The Muse like physically?
It was a big loft building. Someone told me that there was another historical landmark that was there before The Muse. The Muse had several floors and jazz was on the second or third floor. Reggie Workman is one of the few people still around to talk about The Muse; he had a big band there as well. This was around the time of the Collective Black Artists, who had a relationship with The East. We would meet in Manhattan but we would have a relationship with The East. I was involved in The Collective Black Artists at the time, that’s how I met Roger Blank and Charles Brackeen, and the Melodic Art-Tet came out of that Collective Black Artists.

It was just a coalition of musicians who were trying to move the music along in some way. There was no locale that anybody belonged to, I was living in Brooklyn and other cats were living in other places. We would meet at Warren Smith’s loft on 21st Street in Manhattan, but we had a relationship with Long Island University; we would do performances at LIU, and we had a relationship with The East, so we were very much involved with The East as well. Jimmy Owens and Reggie Workman were the major instigators around the Collective Black Artists.

How would you compare the Collective Black Artists to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) in Chicago?
I don’t know much about the internal structure of the AACM, but the fact that it was an organization, and the fact that there is a real dire need for organization in the music… I would say they compare on that level. They (CBA) were musicians who decided that we needed to be organized, that we needed to do something for ourselves because it was obvious that nobody else was gonna do for us what we could do for ourselves. I wasn’t even aware of the AACM until much later. When the CBA was being created maybe some of the people who were spearheading the CBA did know about the AACM, but I was a much younger musician.

By that point of the CBA, hadn’t Muhal Richard Abrams, Lester Bowie and some of the AACM musicians relocated to New York?
They didn’t come to New York until the mid-1970s, in fact around the “Wildflower” series [of recordings] in 1976, that was really the initial time when many of them came to New York, but some of them didn’t stay. [AACM] People like Steve McCall and a few other people had been here, but there was a real influx of the AACM musicians around 1976.

Who was in the Melodic Art-Tet?
Roger Blank and Ronnie Boykin were former members, they were not in the Sun Ra Arkestra in the 1970s when we formed the Melodic Art-Tet; they were in the Sun Ra Arkestra in the 1960s. So they had formed this collective group we called the Melodic Art-Tet, which consisted of Charles Brackeen, Roger and Ronnie. In 1974 we went and played at Germantown Park in Philadelphia and it was at that point that I met Sun Ra. I had met him years before when I was a young kid, about 18 or 19 years old and full of myself. In fact I went up to him and gave him a record I had bought of his and gave the record back because I thought it wasn’t any good, with my young dumb ignorance. I tried to get my money back but he gave me a lesson then which was one of the shortest lessons he ever gave me; he said ‘it’s all in there,’ and that’s all he said. I needed to take my young, dumb ass back home and listen to it, which I did for many years.

I bought that record “Traveling the Spaceways” in 1966 but it had actually been recorded in 1956. When I heard him in 1966 he had been far advanced from where he had been in 1956, so what I heard on the record wasn’t indicative of what he was doing at the time. So I was saying ‘what is this’? This is not the adventurous music I heard. But he was right because the fundamental idea of his music philosophy was right there in that record, he just had moved beyond that but it was all right there. I just needed a clearing out of my ears to hear that it was all in there, and in time I did hear.

I saw Sun Ra first in the 1970s, when he had the dancers, the film, the light show and all that and it was mind-blowing. Was that the nature of the Arkestra when you were playing with Sun Ra?
Yes, absolutely, and just as it was mind blowing to you as a member of the audience, it was mind blowing to me as a young student coming in to perform with the band. I can remember very clearly the first [Sun Ra] concert I did at The East. I can remember just looking around and it was like wonderland, it was fantastic and absolutely amazing. He was doing things that I had never seen anybody do with music and nobody has ever done it since.

When I started playing with Sun Ra in ’75 he was still in Philadelphia, because I would make the commute. In fact my wife at the time looked at me like I was crazy, I was going down to Philadelphia to rehearse with him and she was 7 months pregnant. She was like “who is this Sun Ra? I’m pregnant!” That was the beginning of me understanding about the Sun Ra culture, and how folks really did follow him sometimes without questioning. It wasn’t really a very healthy thing to do; I don’t think it is any way healthy to follow anybody without questioning, because on that level it’s just a matter of intelligence.

How did you evolve from a musician to an activist musician?
That’s a good question and it goes back to my work with the Sun Ra band in fact. I lived in Manhattan from 1978-1988 on the Lower East Side, and I was involved in many organizations and a lot of self-determined efforts as far as the music was concerned at that time and I spent 10 years working with Sun Ra during that time; I worked with him from 1975-1978 almost consistently, I made every gig. And then from ’78-’88 the stuff that I had seen about just following the leader without really questioning, that stuff really got to me and I said I need to get out of here for a moment and find my own way, and I did, and developed some groups of my own. But then I came to understand that [Sun Ra] really was a great leader, and I needed to understand something about the leadership that he involved himself in, so I went back to the band and formed several groups along the way.

About 1988 I moved back to Brooklyn. In 1988 Brooklyn was very different from 1978 Brooklyn. In fact it was so different that I didn’t even spend any time in Brooklyn because there weren’t places to play in Brooklyn in 1988, at least that I knew of. And the places that had music, the music was like 1950s music. What I had seen in Brooklyn in the 1970s had retarded, it had gone way back, so I knew where the hip music was, so I’m going to the hip music.

Sun Ra passed in 1993 and before he left the planet, this problem that people had of following him became very obvious because he was not able to negotiate anything in life, he couldn’t get on and off the bus without someone carrying him; he was not able to deal with business at any kind of level. But these cats that were with him all those years, they believed that he still came from outer space and that somehow everything would be all right. I’m like ‘ya’ll better smell the coffee because this cat is leaving.’ And sure enough when he left the band went way down, we could hardly get a gig if we paid to play somewhere.

John Gilmore was leading the band and he was about to die, so at that point my wife and I had just gotten married in 1992 and my wife and I started producing gigs for the band, we had the task of resurrecting the Sun Ra Arkestra and making it the viable entity that it is today. We didn’t get any thanks for that by the way, but we did it anyway because at that point I knew that my life was completely bound up in that particular music. I had spent 22 years in the Sun Ra Arkestra, so I spent a lot of time in helping to build that institution, so I’ll be damned if I was going to let it fall and I didn’t care what anybody else said or felt, that was my commitment to make it work. So we did, and after we did that we got so much flack from the cats that were still stuck in the mud that we had to leave, so I left in 1997.

Meanwhile I’m still going out in Brooklyn trying to hear music and I’m saying ‘this music ain’t happenin’, but I began to write a book on my experiences with Sun Ra, my memoirs. Amiri Baraka suggested a poet, Louis Reyes-Rivera, as a person who could help me write the memoirs. Louis was involved with Sista’s Place at the time; he would do a thing called jazzoetry. So I went by there to work with Louis and he became my editor for the book. We would work out of Sista’s Place.

The people who run Sista’s Place, I had met them years before as the New York 8, they’d been arrested in 1986 [stemming from a civil insurrection case; stay tuned for our forthcoming Independent Ear interviews with Viola Plummer and Roger Wareham]. I had gone to their trial because I thought they were really amazing: Viola Plummer, Coltrane Chimurenga, Roger Wareham, Latifah Carter… the same people involved with Sista’s Place now. I took my son to see their trial because this was 1986 and there was a dearth of activity around anything black, but they were standing up and I thought they were amazing. I knew who they were, they didn’t know who I was. I came and worked with Louis on the memoirs and then they heard me play one day and they asked me if I would become the Music Director, that was 1998 and I’ve been doing that ever since.

A year after they made me the Music Director we went to Freedom Plaza [in DC], where I had played in 1999 on the 4th of July festival [produced by Bill Warrell of District Curators, for many years producers of jazz performances at alternative venues], 104 degrees, hot as hell. Craig Harris and I were headlining and I again met Paxton Baker [architect of BET Jazz]; I originally met Paxton Baker through Sun Ra. Sun Ra weaves through all of this stuff that’s happened in my life. Paxton Baker told me he was working at BET, I told him I was working at Sista’s Place, and he said ‘we’ve got some money for you.’ He actually gave us a stipend over 8 years, which helped Sista’s Place to do what it has been doing; no strings attached, just put down BET is supplying the money.

Out of being the music director of Sista’s Place, Viola Plummer and Torrie McCarthy, who started Jazz 966, had already started talking about combining the efforts of Jazz 966 with Sista’s Place. They had already made an agreement where Jazz 966 would happen on Friday and Sista’s Place would happen on Saturday, so there would be no conflict. It was just a matter of time before talks occurred around coming up with the idea of the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium. Viola had gone to some of the first meetings, but she’s very political and is a no nonsense person and she was like ‘Ahmed, you got it, I’m not doing this anymore.’

So I started going to the [Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium] meetings and from then on – 1998-1999 – we started building this organization. I stayed in it as long as I could, probably to 2006 or so, and then basically there were too many differences that I couldn’t reconcile so I moved on from there and I just do Sista’s Place now.

Talk about the performance policy at Sista’s Place.
When I started we were doing jazz every two weeks and from then we went to jazz every week, and then we added different forums; like a forum we called “Conversations with Artists”, where we would interview the artists before they came to play, or after they came to play so that there would be an outreach to the community, so that the people would know who these artists were. These were things that I saw as very important because of what I said earlier; I saw nothing adventurous in music in Brooklyn in the 1980s into the 1990s when I was at Sista’s Place and I come from musical adventure. So I said I wanted to bring some of this [adventurous] music into Sista’s Place, and I said ‘how could I do it’?

You gotta talk to black folks; if you don’ t talk to black folks… it’s a personal thing. ‘Do I know you’? If I know you, then I might come to see you, if I don’t know you then ‘later for you,’ I’ve got other things to do, I’ve got enough pressure on me.’ So that [the artists conversations] became a real forum to help us bridge the gap to do what we do in Brooklyn because basically we’ve never advertised. We get advertised, the New York Times will give us some play… any number of magazines will write a blurb on us. We’ve always been trying to tap into the community and get the community to support what it is that we’re doing; we call it ‘jazz is the music of the spirit’ and we believe that is the music – and this goes way back to The East and seeing the symbiotic relationship between the community and the artist that was there, and to know that was a very important part of really moving the music forward.

The music has to be rooted in the people in order to move the music forward. All of the things I was involved with in Manhattan never really had that. We were Bohemian artists, we weren’t people who – we may have been culturally aware but we weren’t involved in our culture in any way, except to play music. The difference in what we’re doing in Brooklyn now is that there is an understanding of the need – there is an active involvement with the community, there’s an active outreach to the community, and it’s making a difference. That’s been the real difference.

How many nights does Sista’s Place present jazz?
We only do it one night [per week], Saturdays. Usually we start in August when we start planning for September to December. Then in December we plan from January to March, and sometime in February we work on our festival – which runs April-June. We’re still trying to do things that we feel are adventurous, still cutting edge, on Saturday nights. And I do book myself in twice a year. I teach a class at the New School on Sun Ra, and I’m teaching the little kids Monday-Friday.

We have many different forums at Sista’s Place; I’m constantly trying to figure out ways to get people in the place. As you said, the music is still a mystery; we, artists, work at honing our craft for hours and hours… most people don’t do that with what it is that they do in life. So to expect that somebody’s gonna come and really be open to what you’re doing, when you’re doing something that they’re not necessarily involved with is absurd. You’ve gotta be able to bridge that gap, and if you are the smartest person in the room – or so you think – then you need to reach out and try to personalize what you do. I think that the artist onstage has to be able to talk the people through the music.

[Drummer] Andrew Cyrille, when he played there with the Haitian Fascination, was a classic example of that. He talked about his background, his parents coming from Haiti, talked about the musicians that were there and how he had a relationship with them, where they came from, where they met… All that is important stuff that makes you as a member of the audience feel a part of what it is that person is doing. This music requires an educational forum.

When I started working at the New School I realized that we didn’t have a lot of black kids coming there, we still don’t and probably never will because of the amount of money it takes to go there. So my thing is to start them at a young age with music. At PS3 we have instruments there, we have a very, very advanced elementary school music program and I pride myself in having done that for the last five years. I’m trying to get these kids to know; they know about Sun Ra, they know about Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, Benny Carter… right in Bedford-Stuyvesant, right down the street from Sista’s Place.

It is a very important thing, the educational part of the music. I’m going up now to Lehman College to teach a class on jazz, I call it Jazz a Music of the Spirit. I didn’t call it that until 2004 when a promoter in Milan asked us to bring what we were doing at Sista’s Place to his venue, Teatro Manzoni in Milan. He took five different groups; he wanted us to broker a relationship with the artists we have come to Sista’s Place to have them come to his larger stage, a 1,000 seat, beautiful venue in Milan. The first group we took over was one we had put together at Sista’s Place called One for Trane, with John Hicks, Reggie Workman, Sonny Fortune, Odean Pope, and Rashied Ali. And we had several other groups; my group went over, Hamiet Bluiett’s group…

One of the things that we realized was that they saw an opportunity in what we were doing, and what we had to do was name what we were doing; so that’s when the name Jazz a Music of the Spirit came about. So we say this is what you like so much about what we are doing at Sista’s Place; there has to be a relationship between the artist and the audience for that to happen.

How do you structure these “informances” or education sessions for your audience?
An artist who would be coming in, we would have them come in a week before and we would find as much information as we can on them and have them talk to the audience; we would do an interview with them in front of the (free) audience. We also tape these interviews so that we have them as historical records; or we do it in the middle of a show, we’ve done it different ways. [For example] We would have a first set and at intermission we would have a conversation, then the second set.

What kinds of residual effects have these artist conversations had?
Right now we get full houses for almost anybody that shows up [to perform]. Twelve years down the line, most everybody that comes [to perform] packs the house, and that wasn’t always the case. We’re doing that without a great deal of advertising; with Internet, fliers, etc.

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Meet The Artist interview with Jason Moran

…Just in case you missed it, here’s our interview with pianist-composer-conceptualist Jason Moran, part of our DC Jazz Festival Meet The Artist series:

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The future of jazz voice

Last night at the Kennedy Center Jazz Club was a special evening of jazz song. Vocalist Christie Dashiell, daughter of the master bassist and educator Carroll Dashiell, may be onto something when she cheerily speaks of she and her brothers becoming a “Dashiell jazz Dynasty,” at least based on last night’s evidence. Here in DC we’ve been fortunate to view Christie’s arc, from her outstanding work as part of Howard University’s award-winning vocal ensemble Afro Blue, her participation in the Kennedy Center’s annual Betty Carter Jazz Ahead invitational for outstanding young talent, to her occasional guest shots with others and various of her gigs around town, to her sparkling Fall ’16 release Time All Mine, to last night’s brilliant showcase at the KC. All along it was clear that this was a voice to watch, but beyond her lovely, rangy voice Christie Dashiell proved last night that she is definitely ready for prime time.

Working in a rhythm-based quintet of piano, bass (Romeir Mendez), drums, and hand percussion (Soloman Howard, on holiday from his primary pursuit as an opera singer!), and here we clearly delineate her participation as in her quintet, as opposed to with, alongside, or backed by because of the comfort, mutual respect and sheer joy with which she interacted completely with her unit. Significantly that unit included pianist Allyn Johnson, DC’s most accomplished keyboardist who is steadily evolving onto the world stage (just ask Russell Malone, who played with Allyin at the recent Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival and came away from the experience positively raving), and Christie’s brother Carroll, or C.V. Dashiell as he prefers professionally likely to delineate his own considerable identity from their Dad. C.V. was positively on fire last night, exhibiting a new level of passion driving and supporting, seeming to reach another level alongside his sister last evening.

As for Christie’s charms, she is quite cannily building her book of material, already displaying a fine balance of her own originals with her clever arrangements of standards, all of which highlight her prodigious vocal gifts. Those gifts include a fine range, a warmth of delivery and lovely tonality, blended with an appealing sense of vocal risk-taking and the ability to improvise and scat like a veritable demon. And as Suz remarked afterwards, she’s got the full package, including great poise and professionalism onstage, an ability to warmly engage her audience with a superb sense of stagecraft. Christie Dashiell is certainly one to watch, her considerable gifts are evolving at a carefully plotted, quite impressive pace. Don’t sleep this young woman!

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A fantastic New Orleans/Morocco connection

As festival season approaches (don’t sleep: DC Jazz Festival is June 9-18) we thought we’d reprise an incredible festival experience from 2009. I’m sure some of you agree that festival season truly kicks off with the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival APRIL 28-May 7, and perhaps we’ll see you down there the second weekend. From a global perspective there is no more colorful or soul-satisfying festival than the annual Gnaoua Festival in Essaouira, Morocco, which this year will be June 29-July 2. For this Independent Ear installment we take you back to 2009 for a fantastic experience that brought together two rich spiritual traditions, from the African American experience in Louisiana and the black Moroccan experience.

Our April 2009 installment of The Independent Ear detailed a then-forthcoming project to take Donald Harrison’s Congo Nation to Morocco for the 12th annual Gnaoua & World Music Festival.  Supported by a grant from USArtists International, the project which brought together Harrison’s Mardi Gras Indian (or Black Indian as he would likely prefer) traditions in collaboration with ensembles from the rich Gnaoua (or Gnawa) black Moroccan traditions (read more background on both in the April 2009 edition) came together beautifully during the recent festival, the weekend of June 25-28 in the lovely Moroccan seaside town of Essaouira on the shores of the Atlantic.  There are hopeful signs that a project is in the works to reverse the equation and bring a Gnawa ensemble to New Orleans for the 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and a second collaboration with Donald Harrison’s Congo Nation.  Stay tuned…  In the meantime, here’s what happened in Essaouira last month:

 

Through a grant from USArtists International that was arranged via Jason Patterson’s not-for-profit Jazz Centennial organization (Jason is the proprietor of New Orleans’ leading jazz club Snug Harbor) we facilitated a historic collaboration with deep ancestral roots between Donald Harrison’s Congo Nation and the master Gnaoua musicians of Morocco (or Gnawa as it is spelled in some references; as died-in-the-wool Africanist and frequent Gnawa collaborator, NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston has been known to chuckle, in Africa there are often multiple spellings of the same word, term or title).  The event was the 12th annual Gnaoua & World Music Festival (www.festival-gnaoua.net) June 25-28, 2009 in the seaside town of Essaouira, Morocco.  Each June that idyllic, tranquil town of 70,000 inhabitants is transformed by hundreds of thousands of festival goers who descend on the seaside for this unique free festival.  One interesting sidebar: the festival is produced by the A3 organization based in Casablanca — an all-woman production company!

 

 The opening of the Gnaoua & World Music Festival includes a grand parade of Gnawa ensembles through town which was the first of many epiphanies for Donald Harrison, who found this grand processional uncannily reminiscent of Black Indian and Second Line parades in New Orleans.

 

The Gnaoua & World Music Festival plays two massive outdoor plaza-stages; the most vibrant is on Moulay Hassan Square adjacent to the town’s bustling fishing boat docks.  Additionally the festival has a lively beachside stage that hosts all manner of deejay-powered electronica and world music hook-ups.  After the action concludes on the three outdoor stages, at approximately midnight or so, it moves indoors to two (ticketed) spaces which are converted to club settings for jams that run deep into the night.  Congo Nation arrived in Essaouira the Monday prior to the festival’s Thursday evening kick-off to necessitate what turned out to be congenial communal rehearsals with the Gnawa and to get acclimated.  Essaouira has a colorful history, having hosted the filming of Orson Welles’ version of Othello (there is an Orson Welles statue and square just off the medina or old city).  Additionally such counter-culture types as Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, and members of the Rolling Stones among others found the town to be a congenial 60s-70s era vacation haven.

 

One evening after one of our many communal dinners Donald Harrison, Congo Nation guitarist Detroit Brooks (blue cap), percussionist Gerald French (back turned in blue shirt) and other members of the band struck up an impromptu New Orleans rhythm & chant at a music store across the street from the restaurant; needless to say they soon drew a delighted and curious crowd of Moroccan onlookers with their organic Crescent City groove.  This impromptu stop included several instrument purchases; during the festival Essaouira also morphs into a fascinating retail haven.

 

After the revelations of Thursday evening’s opening festival processional (see first photo) had time to marinate with Congo Nation, Friday night’s first scheduled festival gig couldn’t arrive soon enough.  The first of their two performances was a midnight hit Friday night at one of the after-hours club spaces, Chez Kebir.  This was particularly apopos for Jason & Sylvia Patterson, serving as Congo Nation’s road managers for the journey, since they’re diehard club people.  Any trip to Africa is bound to be full of surprises and this night was no exception.  On their way to the club Congo Nation assumed they would hit with the Gnawa ensemble they’d been rehearsing with.  Instead this was slated as a real deal jam as they were paired instead with musicians they’d never met, a Gnawa ensemble from Agadir, a city down the coast from Essaouira.  The impromptu nature of this jam actually heightened the deeply spiritual aspect of the Congo Nation/Gnawa collaboration. 

 

Chez Kebir, with its thick stone walls and vaulted Moroccan archways, proved to be a natural acoustic treasure once the sound reinforcement issues were ironed out.  As Congo Nation checked sound Suzan and I received separate breathless text messages from our daughters that Michael Jackson had suffered his fatal heart attack (note: there’s a 7-hour time difference between the west coast and Morocco).  We spread the shocking news to Congo Nation and befitting the art of an improviser, Donald quickly put together a Michael Jackson medley for the band’s opening piece.  After their short opening set the Gnawa followed with a short set, then came the first of the two grand collaborations.  Sometimes such efforts at bringing different cultures together fail because one of the proposed partners defers too much to the other, or dominates the proceedings.  Congo Nation, totally respectful as guests, were able to comfortably lock into the Gnawa groove and inject some of their own folkloric chants and rhythms ("Big Chief" etc.), weaving their traditions seamlessly with the Gnawa.  They positively lifted the room for the next two hours; it was a truly magic moment. 

 

One of the keys to the Gnaoua Festival has long been their custom of inviting improvisers from the West (along with artists and bands from sub-Saharan Africa) to the festival to interact with Gnawa musicians.  These invited guests have included such notables as Archie Shepp, Wayne Shorter Quartet, Joe Zawinul Syndicate, Pat Metheny Trio and many others, including a host of soloists.  After their Chez Kebir hook-up the Gnawa musicians were effusive in excitedly informing Donald and the other members of Congo Nation that this evening marked what for them was their closest, most successful collaboration ever with Western musicians!

 

Jammin’ at Chez Kebir; from left: Congo Nation guitarist Detroit Brooks (hidden except for his axe), bass guitarists Max Moran, Donald on tambourine, Gerald French seated on tambourine, Shaka Zulu (vest) on tambourine), and the Gnawa from Agadir seated in front.

 

The next night was the grand collaboration with the Gnawa ensemble led by Maalem (or Master) Mohamed Kouyou on the big stage at Moulay Hassan before tens of thousands of celebrants as far as the eye could see all the way to the sea wall.  As detailed in our April 2009 preview of this project, a major part of this mission was to not only bring distinctive New Orleans rhythms and songs to this festival in collaboration with the Gnawa, but most specifically to bring Black Indian (or Mardi Gras Indian if you prefer) traditions to Morocco.  Take note of the colorful costuming of the Gnawa in photos above and later in this piece.  Clearly the injection of "masking" (as the rich Black Indian costuming traditions of New Orleans are referered to in NOLA) Indians in collaboration with the Gnawa presents at the very least the prospects of a grand and glorious mosaic of costumes.  When we were laying the groundwork for this project last fall over lunch one afternoon at Mothers on Canal Street, Big Chief Donald Harrison was very clear in his contention that he had long ago determined that masking and playing the saxophone were entirely too arduous to sustain for an entire performance, and never the twain shall meet, so Donald didn’t bring one of his Indian suits.  (Later he was mildly regretful of that omission when he experienced the opening festival parade.)  Instead the plan was for his two percussionists, Shaka Zulu and Gerald French, both members of separate Indian sects, to mask.  The best laid plans… on arrival in Morocco Gerald was deeply dismayed to find that Royal Air Maroc had lost his costume case!  Fortunately Shaka’s suit was recovered.

 

As had been the case at Chez Kebir the preceeding evening, Congo Nation (Harrison, Brooks, Shaka, French, and the brilliant, precocious young rhythm section of NOCCA grads, bassist Max Moran, keyboardist Conun Pappas, and drummer Joseph Dyson) opened the proceedings with a short set that evolved from Donald’s "Ain’t No Party Like a New Orleans Party", through a now-more refined Michael Jackson tribute to the Indian chant "Hu-Ta-Nay."  They remained in place as the Gnawa ensemble took the stage and played a couple of their traditional songs.  What followed was a kinetic collaboration that successfully melded the distinctive Gnawa rhythms and traditional songs seamlessly with New Orleans tradition, the likes of "Big Chief", "Hey Pocky Way," and assorted improvisations from Congo Nation.  The set reached an additional peak when Shaka strode offstage and got in costume, masking in vivid green. 

 

Shaka Zulu masking onstage with the Gnawa

 

In the ensuing days Donald Harrison was interviewed by all manner of print and electronic journalists from across the globe, including New Zealand, France, Spain, the BBC, sub-Saharan Africa and several parts of Morocco.  We’re working towards producing a radio documentary of this project once additonal funding is in place, to originate at WPFW in DC and be carried by fellow community radio stations WWOZ (New Orleans), and KFAI (Minneapolis-St. Paul).  As they say in radio parlance…  Stay tuned!

 

In true Crescent City spirit, Jason Patterson had the good sense to bring along a bag of Mardi Gras beads towards the end of the set; the Gnawa quickly got in the spirit and grabbed some beads to toss.  That’s yours truly, back turned in white with red hat tossing beads to a delighted crowd that soon got in the Mardi Gras spirit of "the catch", alongside members of the Gnawa ensemble and Shaka Zulu 

(All photos are by Suzan Jenkins.)

 

 

 

Donald Harrison (red jacket) and members of Congo Nation checking out the Gnawa set that followed their opening set, preceding the collaboration.

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Mr. PC pt 2

Here’s Part 2 of the collected wit & wisdom of Seattle-based pianist-composer-bandleader Bill Anschell.
For more of Mr. P.C.’s wisdom, visit his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mr-PCs-Guide-to-Jazz-Etiquette-and-Bandstand-Decorum/176989928575?v=wall
To receive each new post directly from Mr. P.C., or to send him your own etiquette question, email him at pcjazz1@gmail.com

Dear Mr. P.C.:

My group was playing in a remote South American town for people who had never heard jazz before. We were billed as a jazz trio, and after the show one of the audience members asked me, “Who is Jazz?” What should I have said?

— Howard In The Tropics
Dear HINT:

Jazz is slippery. It carries no passport or credit cards, and refuses to reveal its name at hotel check-in. Hiding from authorities, it can take on any physical form it chooses — from Wynton Marsalis to John Zorn, from Pat Metheny to Kenny G. Its diet is high in alcohol and THC, and it often smells rank. Jazz has no fixed name; it’s a psychopath, changing identities faster than you can say “harmolodic funk.”

So who is jazz? For the time being, apparently, it’s my next door neighbor Bob, a ruddy tugboat captain who keeps building weird additions to his house. Go figure.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

When people use big words to describe their music, is that supposed to make it better? Like I know a bassist who says he’s “contextualizing” his music. Why does he do that? — Bassist Uses Lofty Language

Dear BULL:

He’s practicing Grantspeak, of course. Here’s the story: A few decades ago, granting agencies grudgingly started funding jazz projects. But how can their panelists judge the applications when they know nothing about jazz music?

Well, what they ARE comfortable judging is intellect, so they depend on jazz artists to put it on full display. That’s why savvy applicants like your bassist friend keep their eye on the prize and practice at every opportunity. In fact, if you’d stuck around a little longer you might have even seen him go from contextualizing to “re-contextualizing.” Bank!

Although grantors were the original targets of Grantspeak, its use has become more widespread. Other people in positions of power in the jazz world — especially presenters and journalists — have proven equally susceptible to its charms. And it’s even starting to influence artists, not only in their music, but also in their interactions:

Andrew: “Hey, Bob, what’s happening?”
Bob: “You know, just shedding, trying to keep my chops up. How about you?”
Andrew: Actually, in my new multidisciplinary song cycle, based on a contemporary reading of recovered scripts from the earliest matriarchal societies, I’m re-examining the relationship between soloist and ensemble, looking for ways to evoke a more egalitarian, communal paradigm.”
Bob (embarrassed): “Cool. Um, guess I’ll go practice Stablemates.”
Andrew (silently): “Heh, heh, heh.”

People ask where jazz is heading, BULL, and I can answer definitively: Grantspeak is the future! Not only as a descriptive language, but as a quasi-paradigmatic, non-idiomatic re-contextualization of jazz itself. Buy your thesaurus now, before you and your music are left behind!

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I just went on YouTube and found out there’s a really crappy video of me playing with some lame musicians. I got pretty upset. Is there really nothing I can do about it? — Fred T., Boston

Dear Fred:

Of course there’s something you can do: Stop dwelling on the negative, and pay a visit to your happy place!

Mine is the memory of a special moment early in my career. I was playing a solo gig as a volunteer at the local psychiatric institution when a middle-aged woman ran into the room, her mouth sealed by duct tape. She sat close to me on the piano bench, fragrant with medication, and began furiously attempting to sing. Duct tape isn’t shed easily, but she was so moved by my playing that one side of her mouth eventually broke free. It turned out that she was improvising her own lyrics, a combination of the Gettysburg Address and the Book of Job. I went right there with her, bursting into passionate free improvisation that became her underscore.

Before I knew it, she tried to kiss me, and her mouth got stuck to the side of my face. It was the first time I’d ever seduced a woman with my playing, and I realized I was blessed with a powerful gift; one that I was obliged to share with man/womynkind. I didn’t even mind our eventual painful separation, though it did rip a layer of skin from my cheek.

How strange and enchanting that the two of us, both destined for groundbreaking careers, should meet in this chance encounter! I, of course, parlayed my interests in psychology and music to become the therapist so many of you depend on. She headed east with her duct tape, took the stage name of Thorazine, and was the toast of New York’s performance art community before a rehearsal mishap led to her untimely suffocation.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I was playing at a club in town, a pretty fancy place, the gig all the guys in town want. On the break a pretty woman in the audience came up to me and complimented my playing. So far so good! But then she asked if I play professionally — right in the middle of a gig! What should I have said? — John G., Denver

Dear John:

You should be flattered! Obviously she was attracted to you and just wanted to make sure you have some other, more viable source of income. Like being a realtor, or an insurance salesman, or whatever it is you actually do for a living.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I bought an acoustic bass guitar that you can also plug in and my son and I have been playing a lot of pop songs together taking turns on the bass and guitar. I know this is a stereotype that upsets bassists and I’m sure it’s hard to play really well, but… it does seem pretty f’ing easy to play the root or maybe a little more and sound okay. It’s also very fun. — Andrew

Dear Andrew:

Well, you’re half right. Playing simple roots on the downbeat can be easy, but it’s not fun. How can it be fun when almost anyone can do it?

Frankly, so called “simple pleasures” have no place in jazz bass, or in jazz itself, for that matter. What is more profoundly fun is playing busy lines of dizzying harmonic and rhythmic complexity. That’s what motivates bassists through a lifetime of desperate practicing, for they are the jazz world’s true hedonists.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

Did you ever say anything about people undercutting each other? There’s a gig where I live, and it used to pay $100 a man for three hours, and then a guy who doesn’t play very well offered the owner to do it for $60 a man. Seems like the bread will keep going down and never go up. How does that work? Are we doomed? — Undercut Player

Dear UP:

If lesser musicians didn’t offer to play for less money, everyone would be paid the same. While that achieves some admirable egalitarian ideals, it’s not really fair to the best players, is it? This “guy who doesn’t play very well” is showing amazing graciousness and humility by volunteering to play for less. You should be grateful to him, not only for knowing his place, but for helping establish a pay scale that recognizes and rewards excellence.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

On a recent trip into the city I attended a master class by a well-known jazz guitarist. At one point he claimed that it is our limitations that truly define us. I have read about this kind of thing before so the idea was not entirely new to me, yet hearing him say it so clearly was inspiring. I really would like your opinion on this as I have more limitations than most and feel ready to take advantage of that in a big way. I gave notice at the local middle school where I teach P.E. and have packed my drums but am now having doubts. Please help! — Walter “Sig” Mathews, Milepost 17, State Route 4, Tulelake, CA

Dear Sig:

Milepost 17 – I’ve totally been there! It wasn’t in Tulelake, but I remember it vividly. It was just outside of Eagle, Idaho, a few miles before the VFW hall where I had a gig. Inside the hall, in the men’s bathroom, they had decorated the urinal with a drawing of Jane Fonda’s face, so that each user had no choice but to direct the stream into her mouth. I remember wondering: Was her acting really so bad? Distracted by that thought, and rushing to make the downbeat, I started urinating before I realized what I was doing. Could I stop, mid-stream? Hardly — I don’t have superpowers! But I’ve never forgiven myself, to this day.

Why was I urinating so hurriedly? You see, my arrival at the Elks club — and with it, my subsequent defiling of Jane’s image—had been delayed at Milepost 17, where I struck a deer. Was it my fault or the deer’s? Oh, how I’d love to blame the deer! Then I’d at least have a partner in the blame for what I did to Jane. But, alas, I’ll never know.

The poor bloodied deer, involuntarily quivering in the harsh glare of my headlights. The crude, glistening drawing of Jane Fonda, desecrated by an endless procession of war-hardened veterans… That’s my Milepost 17, a nightmare that will haunt me to my dying day. Your Milepost 17 apparently involves some light wordplay about limitations and definitions. Forgive me, Sig, if I have trouble pretending to care.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I was in the audience at a jam session. My back was to the stage, and I couldn’t believe how long a solo the tenor player took. He played like watered down Coltrane, a sound I’m used to nowadays. Then I turned around and realized I’d heard three different tenor players who all sounded the same. Why do they all do that? — Roger Overandout

Dear Roger:

If tenor players didn’t all sound the same, how would they be able to find subs? This way, when a pianist who sounds like watered down McCoy needs a tenor player who sounds like watered down Trane, the bench is deep.

And “watered down” isn’t a negative — if Trane were still alive, at 88, he would sound like watered down Trane too. The sax players you heard value historical accuracy, while a player who sounds like Trane at the peak of his career is nothing but a thoughtless knock-off.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

What is meant by the term “Post-Bop”? Since “bop” ended in the 1950s, isn’t everything since then technically “post-bop”? — T.M. in Seattle

Dear T.M.:

It sure is, and that’s great news to anyone worried that jazz is becoming irrelevant. What better solution than to be massively inclusive, the biggest of all big tents!

Taylor Swift? Post-bop! Rice a Roni? Post-bop! Donald Trump? Post-bop! Post-modernism? Post-bop!

Sure, pop, rock and country outsell jazz fifty to one, but we know the post-bop truth — we own them.

The post-bop world belongs to jazz!

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I have heard the song “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing,” and have several questions:

Does the word “ain’t” have a place in such a musical masterpiece?
Why would a composer write such double negatives?
What does it mean if it does have that swing? — Stuck Wondering If Negatives Groove

Dear SWING:

Although Ellington has received plenty of recognition as a composer and pianist, he’s sadly overlooked as an existential philosopher. When he says “It Don’t Mean a Thing If it Ain’t Got That Swing,” he’s telling us that a musician who isn’t swinging — or perhaps even a swinging musician when he’s off the bandstand — is plunged into meaninglessness.

“What Am I Here For?” Duke asked, but a part of him knew that there was music, and nothing more. That explains how terribly prolific he was, shadowed by the fear that the moment he put down his pen or took his hands off the keys, a life well-lived would come to nothing.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

I just played a gig with a bad banjo player. I spent a lot of time learning the music, and the gig went fine. My problem is that now I can’t get that music out of my head. It’s killing me! What am I supposed to do? — Troubled in Tallahassee

Dear Troubled:

Unfortunately, offensive music in your head can only be displaced by music that’s more offensive — that’s how the banjo music got in there to begin with. So if you really want to get rid of it you could always listen to bagpipes or kazoos, but at some point you’ll have to ask yourself: “Could I face death with this as my final soundtrack?”

For now, a better question is this: How and why, in the course of evolution, did humans develop a predilection toward filling their heads with painful music? The answer: If their heads were instead filled with beautiful sounds, humans would become complacent, content to sit idly and enjoy their internal concerti. Bad music motivates humans to take action, even if their march forward is just a desperate attempt to escape, their heads ringing with escalating sounds insufferable.

It’s a bleak commentary on existence — mankind forever in motion, running from increasingly torturous music that finally proves inescapable. Unfortunately, that’s the formula for progress; on the brighter side, death becomes something no longer to be feared.

Dear Mr. P.C.:

When we’re playing a “background music” gig and the crowd is so loud there’s no way they can hear us, and we can’t even hear ourselves, does it matter what we play? — Invisible Dan

Dear Dan:

Jazz is all about responding, in the moment, to the sounds around you, right? To do otherwise is dishonest and untrue to the art form. So of course it matters what you play; you need to play the music of not being able to hear yourself, music of frustration, rage and — above all — inaudibility.

Liberated from burdens like intonation, note selection, tone quality and time, you can focus instead on creating music that fully deserves not to be heard.

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