Some of the most rewarding in a series of oral history interviews I did on Brooklyn’s rich jazz history, specifically concerning the historic Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhoods, were with the good folks associated with the legendary East, a peerless Afrocentric venue of the 1970s. The man who largely curated the East’s exceptional schedule of weekend performances, as well as the music component of Brooklyn’s equally legendary (and still operating) International African Arts Festival, was Mensah Wali, someone I met through our mutual friend NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston. Several years ago Mensah relocated to Pittsburgh to work with Gail Austin in developing arts programs in that home to so many of jazz music’s master contributors. Together Mensah and Gail run the lively presenting organization known as Kente Arts. Last summer, while in Pittsburgh for a lovely weekend commemoration and reunion of Pittsburgh’s historic black musicians’ union (detailed in the Independent Ear archives), I spent a lovely evening with the two of them, which included catching the outstanding trumpeter Sean Jones under the stars in one of the city’s gently sloped park lands. As Kente Arts vibrant newsletter and event notices continued to roll in, clearly it was time to get caught up with Mensah.
Some months back The Independent Ear ran the interview I did with you for the Weeksville Heritage Center oral history project on your work as music curator at Brooklyn’s legendary East. So how’s a dedicated Brooklynite like yourself wind up in Pittsburgh?
LOVE, LOVE, LOVE!!! It will make you do all kinds of things. In 1987, Lois Hernandez of the Odunde Festival called a conference of East coast festival organizers in Philadelphia, PA. Adeyemi Bandele, Dr. Segun Shabaka & I went on behalf of the International African Arts Festival. Gail Austin, Sabira Bushra & Dr. Aisha White came from Pittsburgh representing the Harambee II Black Arts Festival. Harambee was on a strong growing curve and needed bigger name artists and I had a book with many of them. So that’s how the communication started. Gail and I eventually married. We had a commuting marriage for the first five years and then I retired and moved to Pittsburgh.
What’s the genesis of Kente Arts Alliance?
While in Brooklyn Adeyemi, Basir Mchawi, Mzee Moyo (RIP) and I formed Kente Productions; when I moved to Pittsburgh and wanted to continue bringing presentations to the community I was granted permission to use Kente for my first promotion in “the Burgh”. Kente Arts Alliance was formed a year later with Gail Austin, Fred Logan, Dr. Aisha White & Lynda Black. In 2007, Kente achieved non-profit status and hasn’t looked back since.
How does Kente Arts Alliance support itself and continue to present performances?
Pittsburgh has a strong foundation community which is supportive of the arts community. Each year, Kente develops a series theme and writes a number of proposals to support the series. We have been very fortunate in catching the attention of the both corporate and non-profit foundations.
Editor’s note: Read on, one such Kente Arts thematic series, focusing on jazz ROYalty, is detailed below…
What’s been the Pittsburgh community response to Kente Arts Alliance and your activities?
Like all small non-profits vying for limited dollars, we struggled at first. After six years, Kente has attracted a loyal following that have helped us to grow. As that support grows, we are aiming to build an organization that is sustainable by increasing our revenues beyond foundational support. Apparently, our strategy is working. We are increasing our number of sold out or nearly sold out performances, thereby increasing our ticket revenues.
Talk about last season’s Royalty series.
Our Jazz Royalty Series featuring Roy Ayers & Roy Haynes was the most successful series of all. Unfortunately the last Roy in the series [trumpeter Hargrove] was unable to make it. On April 28, 2012, we presented Roy Ayers, who as you know, is a cultural icon, often referred to as “the Godfather of Neo – Soul. Ayers is among the best-known, most-loved and respected jazz/R&B artists on the music scene today. Now in his fourth decade in the music business, Ayers continues to bridge the gap between generations of music lovers. Today, the dynamic music man is an iconic figure still in great demand and whose music has been sampled by music industry heavyweights, including Mary J. Blige, Erykah Badu, 50 Cent, A Tribe Called Quest, Tupac, and Ice Cube. Like many presenters and jazz promoters, Kente has struggled with attracting patrons to jazz productions in the age range below fifty five years and younger. We knew the Ayers audience would attract that population. Our hope was that we would be able to carry over those patrons to the next concert.
Our next concert in the series was NEA Jazz Master Roy Haynes. Last year, Haynes celebrated his 87th birthday and is a fireball of energy. As you know, Haynes is a jazz legend of unsurpassed accomplishments and for the last 60 years or more continues to wow audiences where ever he performs. In spite of his age and longevity in the music business, Haynes’ work is always fresh. Critics often say his music is as fresh today as it was 50 years ago when he played with Charlie Parker. But most astonishing about Haynes is that his playing and energy defy his age. We knew going in that younger audiences, if introduced to Haynes, would be won over to seek a music alternative beyond pop music. Apparently, we were right. The University of Pittsburgh sponsored 36 undergraduates to attend the concert, and members of Haynes Fountain of Youth Band presented a talk back session for them after the concert. The students were wowed by the performance and hopefully will continue to seek out this music.
Following Roy Haynes’ triumphant performance Mensah and Gail Austin (center) joined Kente board member Dr. Harry Clark, pianist Martin Bejerano, saxophonist Jaleel Shaw (left) and bassist David Wong, members of Roy’s Fountain of Youth band onstage
What’s upcoming for Kente Arts Alliance?
Our next series is “Africa Calling”. It was kicked-off with the vitality of The Universal African Dance & Drum Ensemble on April 20, 2013. This was our first venture with a dance presentation and we will continue on in October 26 with another expression of Africa in our music legacy. Of course your next question is WHO will that be? By force of habit/experience, I will not say until the ink is dry and were ready to promote. I promise, you will be among the first to know.