The Independent Ear

Brooklyn community activism… with a jazz twist

In 2010 I conducted an oral history interview project focusing on the jazz scene in Central Brooklyn, the heart of which is the Bedford-Stuyvesant community, working with historians Jennifer Scott and Kaitlyn Greenidge, for the Weeksville Heritage Center.  For those not familiar the Weeksville Heritage Center commemorates the oldest African American settlement in New York.  

One of the jazz community figures we interviewed was community organizer Jitu Weusi, who was part of a group of stalwart community organizers who not only opened a school for community youngsters, but also opened a cultural center called The East whose primary musical focus was jazz.  This summer Claver Place, where The East was located, was renamed Jitu Weusi Place in honor of the tireless organizer and culture keeper, who was also part of the consortium that comprised the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, producers of the annual Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival.  This is part one of our interview with Jitu Weusi.

Remembering The East with Jitu Weusi

PART ONE: A jazz fan in development…

 One of the revelations of the Lost Jazz Shrines of Brooklyn research project for the Weeksville Heritage Center (see elsewhere on Open Sky Jazz) has been the extensive interviews with key Brooklyn figures. The magnitude of Brooklyn’s mid-20th century jazz history was first brought home in writing African Rhythms, the autobiography of NEA Jazz Master Randy Weston (composed by Randy Weston, arranged by Willard Jenkins; available on Duke University Press in October ’10). Great stories and the light of revealing history has continued to be shed through this ongoing series of Weeksville interviews.

One such saga is that of The East, a pioneering African American cultural institution which rose up in Central Brooklyn in 1969 and was the jazz venue in the borough for several years, among its many extraordinary deeds.  My knowledge of The East had been limited to the recordings Pharoah Sanders Live at The East (which point of fact wasn’t actually recorded at The East, but was a studio date in the spirit of Pharoah at The East), and percussionist Mtume’s Alkebu Lan for Strata East, which was indeed recorded during one of the always-spirited jazz nights at The East.  There were also enriching and delightful personal experiences at the annual African Street Festival (now known as the International African Arts Festival),  which was birthed by The East, but I never had the pleasure of visiting The East’s storied jazz sessions.

The East, which was so much more than a jazz performance venue, is a classic example of the kind of African American self-determination that flowered in the late 1960s-early 1970s as bright flowers of the civil rights struggle.  To gain insights into the origins and development of The East there was no better place to start than with one of the historic figures of post-60s public education, politics and culture in Brooklyn, Jitu Weusi.  We interviewed Jitu, a tall, gray-haired, unassuming eminence on a warm, late-spring morning at his current office at  The Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium on Fulton Street, where he serves as chairperson.  This first of two parts will detail Jitu’s early history with jazz; part two will detail the development of The East, just part of our wide-ranging interview which will eventually be available as part of the Weeksville archives.  Like so many of us, Jitu’s interest in jazz grew through the oral tradition.

Jitu Weusi (center in tie & glasses) celebrating an event at the 6th annual Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival with among others Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz (to Jitu’s left)

Willard Jenkins: What are your earliest memories of jazz music?

Jitu Weusi: I was about 12 years old and my cousin Charles Morris had a newstand.  I was the first born of my generation and he called my mother and said ‘I want Leslie” — that was my name until I changed it — ‘to work at the newstand on Saturdays.’  So that started a new era in my life, going down to the newstand on Saturdays.

Every Saturday morning I would get up about 7am and be out of the house by 8; by 8:30 I was at the newstand and I would be there until about 6:30-7pm.  I had a number of tasks to do: in those days you prepared your Sunday papers with the various sections on Saturdays; so I would put together the Daily News, the Times, and the Tribune.  The main news section usually came about 8pm on Saturday night and you just inserted them in there and the papers were ready to be sold.  The newstand was located right on the corner of Fulton and Franklin.  Fulton and Franklin at that time was a very, very hot corner.  It was hot for two reasons — Ebbets Field [legendary home of the Brooklyn Dodgers] and Coney Island; you got the train to go to Ebbets Field and Coney Island at Fulton & Franklin.  So people would come out of that subway and make it to the elevated line upstairs and get those trains.  So from March-October there was a lot of traffic.  That was a very trafficked area anyway; blacks had just started to move in that area.

Across from the newsstand, on the southeast corner was a record store called Sam the Record Man.  Now Sam the Record Man, like all good record stores, had this loud outdoor [sound] system and they used to play records all day long.  Many of these records I had never been exposed to before.  It was my first time being exposed to people like Ruth Brown, Fats Domino… a lot of the early progenitors of rhythm & blues; but also he would play jazz: King Pleasure, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald… he played different vocalists as well as instrumentalists.  After awhile I began to know who was who and what their tunes were.  My cousin and his brother — they were the two male figures that operated the newsstand — my cousin Charles Morris was the oldest,, he was a disabled vet and it was under his auspices, his disability, that he was able to get the newsstand.  His brother, Leroy Morris, worked with him.  Leroy’s nickname was Lefty, and he was very athletic, and he knew all the jazz guys; he knew [Brooklyn drummer] Willie Jones, Max [Roach]…

WJ: This is Lefty Morris the basketball player?  He talked Randy Weston into going up to the Berkshires to “escape” Brooklyn.

JW: That’s right, he knew all the jazz guys…  He knew [drummer-dancer] Scoby Stroman, Willie Jones, Max Roach… these guys used to come by the newsstand all the time, even if he wasn’t there.  I was “youngblood”… [it was] ‘hey youngblood, what’s happening man…’  Like I said, I was 12-13 years old.  They were glad to see that I was halfway alive, halfway awake…  I’d always been into reading the newspapers and I knew who was who, like Mao Tse Tung, Stalin…  If they’d given me a current events quiz I could whiz through it because I knew people, I knew figures.  They used to always tease Lefty, ‘yeah man, I came by and youngblood was there and we laid out there and talked about world politics for awhile…’  So that’s when I had my sort of baptism to the music and to the community.

A third thing I remember during that period was, my cousins Lefty and Charles’ sisters, they were like in their early 20s.  At my 13th birthday they took me to the New York Paramount to see a stage show and it was an all-jazz stage show.  I remember it was Count Basie and Joe Williams, Sarah Vaughan and Teddy Wilson, George Shearing… it was about 3 or 4 acts.  I remember that show vividly; it was the first time I’d seen a big band [Basie], they swung pretty heavily.  I remember Joe Williams and his blues singing…  I enjoyed myself and learned a lot about the music.

During my teens I really didn’t get into too much related to jazz.  I guess I was like everybody else, I was into the R&B craze, the stage shows, Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers and all that kind of stuff.  At about 17 I was working in the camps upstate and I started listening to jazz much more often; I started buying a few more records.

Who were you listening to then and whose records were you buying?

JW: I was buying Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers; I remember “Blues March,” this was the Messengers where he had Bobby Timmons, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Jymmie Merrritt…  And I was listening to Horace Silver, “Senor Blues” and his different compositions.  Those were the opening, teenaged years of listening to records.

Then I remember that I had a little girlfriend when I was about 19; she used to live in the Dunbar Houses at 150th Street and 7th Avenue [Harlem], and her mother was very, very strict; like 12 at night you had to go, ‘she gotta go to church in the morning, she gotta do this, gotta do that… 12:00 you gotta hit the road young man.’  I found this place right at 155th and 7th Avenue called Brankers, a music bar.

What was happening at Brankers was really prostitution, but I didn’t know all that.  I couldn’t see all that.  Brankers was like a meeting spot where all these guys would come and hook up with their lady friends and go upstairs.  But in between, they had live music downstairs; they had Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Shirley Scott… these trios; it usually was an organ player, a guitar player, and a drummer or an organ player, a saxophone player and a drummer.  I’d go to Brankers at 12:30 and I could sit there until 2am listening to music.  I could buy a beer and nobody would bother you; get out there, catch the train and go home.  That became another thing that introduced me to the music.

In the summertime I used to go up to the Catskills area to work in these camps.  When I was about 20 I went to this camp called Wingdale on the lake.  At some point during that summer this guy named Bill Tatum became the entertainment director of the camp and we became friends.  After the summer he told me to keep in touch, he was going to get me some more work.  When I called him he told me he was working at Wells’ upstairs room on 113th & 7th Avenue, home of chicken & waffles.  I had to go down and get my cabaret card and he got me a job working at Wells.  Wells was good to me as a work spot, and I also stayed close to the music.  They played a lot of Dakota Staton, Gloria Lynne, and all that kinda stuff.  But every now and then they’d have a trio, so I heard more live music too.  Of course now I’m getting older and I know the different radio stations, I’m listening to Symphony Sid.  By that time, I was maybe 20-21, I had begun to dabble in Miles Davis, Coltrane, a little Cannonball Adderley, etc.  I got so absorbed I remember on my 20th birthday I took this girl to the Five Spot to see the opening of Ornette Coleman.  Now my musical tastes are broadened and I’m into a wider range of artists.

One particular night we went down to the Village Gate to see somebody.  While I was there I heard this woman manager say ‘I need some waiters…’  I made my way back to her and said I used to work in Wells upstairs room in Harlem.  She asked if I had a cabaret card, I said yeah, she said ‘you’re hired.’  The next day I started working at the Village Gate and that was golden!  I saw everybody: Nina Simone, Thelonious Monk… I not only saw everbody, but I got to meet everybody, guys I had listened to, like Art Blakey…  I found out that some of them lived in Bedford-Stuyvesant, like [bass & oud player] Ahmed Abdul-Malik.  He would play with Herbie Mann and after the set he would say to me ‘youngblood, you goin’ to Brooklyn, come on, I’ll give you a ride’ and he would take me home.  That was a period in which I really became a solid member of the jazz fraternity.

Bassist-oud player Ahmed-Abdul Malik played with Randy Weston, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Mann among many others.

What was happening jazz-wise in Brooklyn at that time?

Brooklyn had a lot of things going on club-wise.  When I worked at the newsstand the Putnam Central Club was hot.  But I was 13; I used to hear Lefty and them talk about the PCC, Tony’s on Grand Avenue… I remember one time I tried to go to The Continental [Brooklyn jazz club], and I looked in there and who did I see but my cousin, a traffic policeman.  Here I am peeping in the door and he’s sitting in the back there, so I got the message: ‘don’t mess around!’  Yes, there was a very active jazz scene in Brooklyn during that period.

When you became of age to frequent the clubs, what was the Brooklyn jazz scene like then?

When I was 21, about 1960, the scene was not bad, there were still some clubs that we could go to, key among them was The Blue Coronet.   I was a frequent visitor there, esepcially when I started teaching — which was about ’62.  We had a little crew of men and women who worked in the schools and we would call each other [and ask] ‘who’s at The Coronet tonight?  Let’s go down there.’  The Blue Coronet was the top [Brooklyn] club at that time.  La Marchal had sort of come and gone.  It wasn’t a prominent club even though Freddie [Hubbard] and [Lee Morgan] made a record [Night of The Cookers] there and gve it some glory.

The Continental had come and gone too, their best years were in the 50s.  Tony’s was there, but the PCC had closed and changed ownership.  Rusty’s Turbo Village had regular music.  You had a lot of bars [in Brooklyn] and every now and then they’d have somebody there: Berry Brothers, Tip Top, Monaco…

So as you evolved as a fan of the music, how did you come to escalate your involvement to the point where you became an activist and even a cultural entrepreneur?

I graduated from Long Island University in June 1962 and I became a teacher in September 1962.  I became interested in the music not only from an enjoyment perspective, now I became interested in it from an educational perspective.  I did experimental things like play different music in my classes and kids would tell me they had never heard any music like that.  I played Olatunji’s Drums of Passion in my class and it was a heavy turn-on; ‘wow, what’s that, where did that come from, who’s that?’

So I saw that the music had a lot of educational value, turning on the youngsters to various sounds, various performers.  Oscar Brown Jr. was another person I used in my classes, different sides that he made: “Dat ‘Dere,” “Signifyin’ Monkey,” “Bid ‘Em In”…  So I now thought of ways to use the music as a motivator in the education of youngsters, especially in the area of social studies.  Now the music became a valuable kind of tool, more than just my listening; now I listened for different purposes and different meanings.

My own repertoire continued to broaden, my collection continued to broaden…  I remember at a certain time I was exposed to the music from “Black Orpheus,” this brought me into contact with the African population of Brazil and their story.  I remember I took a class to see “Black Orpheus” and [the students’] whole reaction to seeing these black people speaking [Portuguese], and having a different kind of culture…  It sparked a whole lot of questions when we got back to school: ‘…How’d they get there, what language were they speaking…?’

[For me] The music now became [sociological] and worldly, universal… not just located in the United States, [but] as a universal commodity, all over the place; I began traveling different places.  I remember my first experience, around 1966, going to Newport to the jazz festival.  I could have never stayed in Newport, because the money to stay in Newport was way up there.  So we ended up staying in a place called Fall River, Massachusetts.  I didn’t know it at the time, but places like Fall River and New Bedford [MA] were places that basically had an African-based population from runaway slaves that intermarried with a lot of the Portuguese that lived in those areas.  And there was a very strong kind of cross-fertilization between those communities and the African community, so when I came up there to stay for Newport [Jazz Festival] I found a lot of people that were very supportive and very glad to have us stay there.  All of that helped to broaden me and broaden my understanding of the music and the people, and the backgrounds and how it fit in.

I began to see this music in a more historical context.  My mother used to listen to people like Louis Jordan, she told me about Chick Webb and different people like that.  Now, by the late 60s all of this begins to tie together, like a historical pattern that’s beginning to develop [for me].  Now I’m beginning to see this [music] in a historical, sociological, philosophical context, and I’m beginning to understand that [jazz] is a revolutionary music, it’s a music of an oppressed people that has sort of guided a movement over the years.

By the mid-60s I became active in political activities: school struggles, around the struggles to decolonize public education.  We used phrases like “community control,” but it basically dealt with the whole question of colonial educational pespectives.  I belonged to an organization then called the African American Teacher’s Association and we put pressure on the board of education to open up the whole school [curriculum] and become more accepting  of different cultural perspectives.  When I came into teaching they gave us some books and some curriculum outlines to follow, and most of that was white.  Like they used to say in the old days, the only two [black folks] they mentioned were George Washington Carver and Booker T. Washington… that was the full extent of our history.

Now I’m beginning to deal with Crispus Attucks, Phyliss Wheatley, the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, Toussaint L’Overture and the Haitian revolution…  I’m dealing with a whole broad kind of struggle of Africans for their freedom and independence.  In the midst of all this is the music.  Now my whole thinking begins to take on new dimensions.

I was part of the group that used to listen to [jazz radio hosts] Ed Williams and Del Shields on WRVR; that was our religion; we had to get home in time to listen to them because of all the information that was dispensed on those two shows.  Our music and our politics now became more toward the same track.

Next: The birth of The East, and how jazz was an integral part of that historic font of black culture and education.

For more information on the Weeksville Heritage Center visit; to learn more about the Lost Jazz Shrines of Brooklyn project email

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment



Thankfully we are gradually evolving to a better place in recognizing the absolutely vital roles women occupy across the jazz community, from playing, bandleading, composing, and recording to educating, presenting, managing, directing, producing, providing service, administrating, and mentoring in our collective efforts at flying the jazz flag high.  One organization whose mission is to support women in jazz is the International Women in Jazz.  We had a few questions recently for the president of International Women in Jazz, Jacqueline Lennon… 

What is the mission and origin story of the International Women in Jazz organization?

INTERNATIONAL WOMEN IN JAZZ, INC. (IWJ) is a non-profit [501(c)3] organization committed to supporting women jazz artists and related professionals, and to fostering a greater awareness of the contributions women make to jazz, worldwide. Through its programs, IWJ provides information and assistance to its members, thus standing dedicated to actively ensuring a place for women as a vital part of the past, present, and future of jazz. International Women in Jazz, Inc (IWJ) has a longstanding relationship and history of jazz presentations at Saint Peter’s Church, Midtown, NYC where Pastor Gensel in 1995 founded its jazz ministry, fondly naming Saint Peter’s Church The Jazz Church familiar worldwide. IWJ grew out of a seminar on women in jazz organized by Pastor Dale Lind and held at Saint Peter’s Church in New York City in September 1995. Many women prominent in jazz were present, including Universal Jazz Coalition founder Cobi Narita, writer Leslie Gourse, and Lorraine Gordon, owner of the renowned Village Vanguard. The discussion yielded such a massive amount of feedback and raised so many issues, that it became apparent an ongoing forum or organization was needed to address the unmet needs of women in jazz. Hiring practices, unequal pay, and less opportunities to excel in a male dominated society were some of the concerns of female musicians. Cobi Narita called a meeting the following November, and International Women in Jazz was founded.

What is the current profile of the typical member of International Women in Jazz?

International Women in Jazz membership comprises of women and men jazz professionals and jazz enthusiasts. We support emerging, seasoned musicians and elder artists who include vocalists, instrumentalists, composers, educators, students, and industry professionals and jazz enthusiasts worldwide. We are a diverse ethnic, gender, and cultural organization. We are proud of our members who inspire us. NEA Jazz Masters Sheila Jordan, Dorthaan Kirk and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Celebrated members in our midst are Emme Kemp, Broadway composer and entertainer; Catherine Russell, jazz vocalists and two-time Grammy Award winner for Best Jazz Album; Antoinette Montague, award winning vocalist, educator, radio announcer, and Jazz Woman to the Rescue persona; Kim Clarke, renowned bassist; Ghanniyya Green and Claudette Morgan, sultry vocalists and educators; Hyuna Park and Bertha Hope, pianists; Dotti Anita Taylor, pianist and flutist; Carol Sudhalter, saxophonist; Cobi Narita, producer and jazz philanthropist and president emeritus of IWJ are just a few of IWJ’s movers and shakers within our membership. All of our members continue to master their crafts and are creative forces in the jazz world. I would be remiss not to acknowledge those members of IWJ who have passed on leaving their marks as advisors, educators and jazz activists who helped shaped IWJ and the jazz community worldwide: Marian McPartland, pianist, and radio personality; Nat Hentoff, author, and columnist for the Village Voice; The Wall Street Journal; Cephas Bowles, General Manager of WBGO 88.3 FM jazz radio; and multi-instrumentalist and Sweethearts of Rhythm pioneer Carline Ray. We wholeheartedly thank them for their influences that still energize and mobilize International Women in Jazz to this today.

What is the organization’s sense of the need for women to join together on behalf of the music and women’s presence in the music?

The phrase ‘there is strength in numbers” applies. It is vital that female musicians be activists for their own causes; be present on all levels of the music industry whether owning venues, studios, recording labels and be decision makers in the board room and unions to have their say and make a difference. For many years we affiliated with Donne in Música from Italy serving on their International Honour Committee participating in its advocacy for female musicians’ rights in its series of women music programs and competitions. IWJ member, composer Jane Meryll, representing the U.S., won their prestigious 2018 Global Women in Music for Human Rights Award and performed in concert in Italy. As president, I continue to dialogue with members asking what concerns they have in securing gigs and obtaining leadership roles in the jazz profession. Resolving some of the unmet needs for female musicians since IWJ’s beginnings continue but improvements in female performances in orchestras and presenting more women ensembles are happening. It is still an uphill battle with contract negotiations and receiving compensation similar to their male counterparts. It is also about increased recognition and respect. The history of jazz from African roots to America and beyond must be transparent with acknowledgment encompassing those who have contributed and are unsung heroes and heroines in jazz. We must continue to voice our opinions and concerns to step up the pace for change in the industry. Our membership also includes active performers and legendary statewomen. Emme Kemp, our griot of jazz, provides education and historical information on jazz and shares her experiences from a career that expands over seven decades. Our Youth in Action component encourages young female musicians to age 17 to participate in our events and have co-generate performances. Rising stars at the time and recipients of the IWJ Youth in Action award included vocalists and or instrumentalists: Camille Thurman, Gabrielle Garo, Charenee Wade and We’ McDonald; pianist and organist Leonieke Scheuble. All have developed into professional adult jazz musicians.

How do you see your organization positively impacting our collective critical need to grow the audience for jazz?

A recurring event is IWJ’s “First Mondays” open mic, a monthly event where musicians perform and share music with one another, network and newcomers can be introduced to IWJ and jazz music in front of an audience of jazz enthusiasts. This event has been open to the public since 1995. In the last few years, we have expanded this event on weekends establishing residencies at venues across New York City to increase our jazz family. International Women in Jazz continues its activities creating a greater awareness of the contributions of women in jazz worldwide. I served as a delegate with the German American Chamber of Commerce Council at the Reeperbahn’s German and U.S. Festivals since 2019 to further introduce IWJ to international audiences.

Talk about some of the programmatic efforts the International Women in Jazz organization has undertaken thus far.

Since 1996, IWJ has co-produced concerts in association with Universal Jazz Coalition and Saint Peter’s Church, the JVC Jazz Festival and the NYC Parks and Recreation Department. Since 2007, IWJ, in partnership with the Jazz Committee of Saint Peter’s Church, has produced a 3-day annual Women in Jazz Festival. Since 2010 festivals are produced solely by IWJ. Prominent and legendary females in jazz highlight our celebration and include members and our young musicians. Our historical list can be found on our website: Festival includes concerts, open mic and jam sessions, seminars, food court, vendors for jazz, and honoree presentations. We look forward to resuming our annual International Women in Jazz Festival where we pay tribute to the achievements and significance of women jazz musicians while promoting jazz awareness to people of all ages.

What do you foresee for the future of the International Women in Jazz?

Post pandemic will slowly bring back live events on location. Space and scheduled events will be limited and competitive. Alternative techniques to live events were challenging for our survival. In all likelihood virtual events will stay with us and that is a good thing. A learning task but an additional source of social media and meeting new friends around the world from your living room. IWJ must adapt to the industry’s new normal and keep up with the technology. Our road to recovery is to seek and access grants and other financial stimuli to sustain our organization and rejuvenate. We must engage and collaborate with other organizations to become stronger voices for the arts and to bring about positive change. Pray and remember those who left us during the pandemic and during crucial times in our nation. We will draw strength and recharge for the love of music and life. As President of International Women in Jazz, and as a vocalist, public access TV producer/host and archivist for IWJ, I am motivated and hopeful to provide the community with an International Women in Jazz library on female legends of jazz. IWJ has a rich history and a responsibility to preserve it, pay homage, and educate future generations. We intend to move forward with what we proudly have to offer.

Posted in General Discussion | 3 Comments

Catching up with TK Blue

Catching up with T.K. Blue…

My first sighting of alto-soprano saxophonist & flutist T.K. Blue was many moons ago at the former Greenwich Village jazz hub Sweet Basil.  On that evening my mission was to see the great Randy Weston, who in part was making a rare stateside appearance amongst his global travels.  That fateful evening Randy performed in duo with a saxophonist I was not previously familiar with, Talib Kibwe.

I was immediately impressed, not only with Talib’s passionate alto playing, but also with the obvious brotherly connection he had achieved with Randy.  Then in the early 90s Suzan and I traveled to Trinidad, where Suz had spent some of her elementary school years, for the annual Pan Jazz Festival.  Each morning our room at the Trinidad Hilton was enhanced by the sounds of a flutist warming up nearby.  As those sounds grew more aggressive we realized that musician was practicing next door!  Turns out it was the same Talib Kibwe, who was in Trinidad – an island where he has deep ancestral roots – to lead a band at the Pan Jazz Festival, an event which brought together the uniquely American art form of jazz with Trinidad’s rich steel pan music tradition in successful collaborations.

Fast forward to the late-90s, and several performances of Randy Weston’s African Rhythms band later (with Talib Kibwe now serving as Randy’s music director), I asked Talib whether he would serve as a bit of an intermediary to see if Randy was interested in being trailed by a biographer to write his book.  Randy was very happy with that prospect, began referring to me as his “writer”, and ten years later African Rhythms, the autobiography of Randy Weston, “Composed by Randy Weston/Arranged by Willard Jenkins” arrived from Duke University Press and the rest is history.

A few years ago Talib determined to adopt his youthful nickname “Blue” and professionally became known as T.K. Blue.  His work as music director of Randy Weston’s African Rhythms band morphed into T.K. becoming Randy’s chief arranger when NEA Jazz Master Melba Liston‘s health deteriorated and she was unable to continue as RW’s principle arranger.  I remember when T.K. wrote the arrangement for Randy’s Lincoln Center concert collaboration with violin master Regina Carter, he always told the story about how Melba’s spirit came to him in guidance as he was crafting a particularly tricky passage.

T.K. continued with Randy in many contexts right up until Weston’s passage on September 1, 2018.  And for those who don’t know that story, that morning Randy woke up, sat down in his favorite chair awaiting his breakfast, nodded off and passed on to ancestry  in an ultimate moment of peace.  Since then T.K. has continued to honor Randy Weston’s memory and his rich book of tunes onstage and on record, as his latest recording, The Rhythms Continue wonderfully attests.  

As life began to slowly re-open from these pandemic times, last month we had the pleasure of catching T.K. leading a band at Brothers’ Smokehouse in Ramsey, NJ (info: 551/264-9073) – a highly recommended barbecue-based restaurant owned and operated by Randy Weston’s grandsons!  Then two weeks later in May, T.K. and another member of Randy Weston’s African Rhythms family, tenor sax titan Billy Harper, co-led a quintet – with Allyn Johnson on piano, Herman Burney on bass, and Eric Kennedy on drums – as part of the re-opening of Todd Barkan’s wonderful Keystone Korner resurrection in Baltimore.  With that performance, and on the heels of The Rhythms Continue, clearly some questions were in order for T.K. Blue.   

I met NEA Jazz Master Dr. Randy Weston in the late 1970’s, in
performance with another NEA Jazz Master Abdullah Ibrahim at Ornette Coleman’s place in SOHO called The Artist House. In fact Abdullah’s band was one of the last to perform there before it closed. Randy stopped by to check us out with his father Frank Edward Weston and his agent Collette Giacomotti. About a year later I sat in with Randy for a SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization) fundraiser against Apartheid in South Africa. We played “Hi Fly” with just piano and piccolo. In addition I also played with Dr. Weston at Syncopations, a West Village jazz club owned by drummer John Lewis.  Later in 1980 Randy hired me for my first concert with his band at The
House Of The Lord Church in Brooklyn.

By the end of 1981 I moved to Paris and coincidentally Randy was also living in the France in the town of Annecy. By the summer of 1982 we were working regularly together is a variety of formats.

I was anointed with the musical director’s chair for African Rhythms during the recording of “The Spirit Of Our Ancestors” for Verve 1992. Melba Liston wrote all the arrangements for this date but she had a stroke. I was asked to direct the band and help run this session, which included many super stars like Pharoah Sanders, Dizzy Gillespie, Idris Muhammad, Jamil Nasser, Dewey Redman, Billy Harper, Benny Powell, Idrees Sulieman, and a host of others.  I have always been fascinated with African culture and history since my college days at NYU and Columbia University. Dr. Weston was a huge proponent of the “African” influence in music and culture across the diaspora. I felt the impetus to immediately continue my association with such a great mentor and master musician as Randy Weston!!!

Dr. Weston’s passing deeply touched me in a profound way. I felt tremendous ebullience when a decision was made to honor Randy in an obeisant fashion through sound. “The Rhythms Continue” on JAJA Records reflects my attempt to pay tribute and also look to the future.  It’s my reasoning for having relatively young pianists on this date, in understanding how Randy has influenced their artistic creativity: Keith Brown, Mike King, Kelly Green, and Sharp Radway. To know your future, you must know your past, hence Ancient Future!!!

My recent performance at the Keystone Korner-Baltimore was absolutely magnificent. Even though I played with all of these musicians in different configurations, it was the first time we all played together: Billy Harper-tenor; Allyn Johnson-piano; Herman Burney-bass; Eric Kennedy-drums; T.K. Blue-alto sax, flute, kalimba. Besides their incredible excellence in music performance, I felt everyone has a warm spirit with deep reverence for the elders. I knew the connection would be perspicuous. The result was a celebratory performance as witnessed last weekend at the Keystone Korner.

Everyone brought his best effort to the bandstand. Allyn really locked into the “Weston” groove and intrinsically I could feel Baba Randy’s spirit in his playing, while he always maintained his personal expression. Herman is rock solid on the bottom and his lock with Eric on drums is infectious. They had some intense telepathy and could change the rhythmic groove instantly. Eric listens quite passionately to everything being played and he accentuates all the nuances. Of course Maestro Billy Harper is a master tenor saxophonist. His penetrating sound and protean improvisational forays captivated the audience. The foundational framework these artists laid down made it enormously sacrosanct. I was uplifted every time I played my instruments. It allowed me to venture into uncharted territory while improvising.

I am so appreciative and grateful that Todd immensely loved our shows. There were many magical moments and I pray additional opportunities will surface for this particular band to perform together.

About that magical weekend at the Keystone Korner with the T.K. Blue-Billy Harper Quintet, Todd Barkan texted me this message: “I wrote quite extensively on my Facebook page as I compared it to the very most inspired ensembles to ever levitate the Keystone stage, in a league with the “Sahara Band” of McCoy Tyner, with Sonny Fortune, Calvin Hill, and Alphonse Mouzon, and the greatest bands of Buhaina (Art Blakey), Cedar Walton, Elvin Jones, Ron Carter, Betty Carter, et. al.  Much love and brighter moments.”

  • NEA Jazz Master Todd Barkan

More information:

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment

Bill Brower: A true Jazz Cultural Warrior

On April 12 the DC jazz community in particular, and the world jazz community in general lost a true Jazz Cultural Warrior with the passing of writer-producer-historian Bill Brower (that’s Bill with the locks in this photo from the annual Calvin Jones Big Band Festival at UDC, w/Cedric Hendricks and Judith Korey).  I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Bill on more than one occasion, for the much-heralded book DC Jazz, and for my forthcoming book of interviews with Black jazz writers, Ain’t But a Few of Us.  Besides our jazz community connections as fellow writers, producers and historians, we likewise grew up in Ohio (he in Toledo, me in Cleveland) and Bill attended historic Antioch College.  So Bill and I shared a lot in common, including our love for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where Bill served as a longtime line producer of the Jazz Tent.  Here’s the Q&A version of my DC Jazz book interview with Bill Brower.

Bill Brower: Notes from a keen observer & scenemaker

Interview by Willard Jenkins

For the past 40+ years jazz historian Bill Brower, a native of Toledo, OH, has been a true DC jazz community renaissance man. He has been a jazz journalist-critic, occasional broadcaster, concert, festivals and jazz event producer, an event technical producer, and all-around scene maker. We interviewed Bill one afternoon in his N.E. DC kitchen, a few short steps from a room packed with records, CDs and books on jazz and various sundry subjects.

When did you arrive in DC and what brought you here?

Bill Brower: I came here in the summer of 1971 after a series of coincidences that involved Tom Porter. I graduated from Antioch [College] in the spring of 1971. A friend of mine from Antioch, Archie Hunter, came through that spring and said ‘why don’t we go to Brooklyn and hang out at the African festival.’ I was on my way to Brooklyn, my car broke down and I decided to go to DC and hang out with Tom; I’d known him since I was a sophomore at Antioch.

Tom quipped – ‘you’re in Dayton, the New York Times comes a day late and there’s no music, you need to bring your butt to DC.’ Long story short, when my then wife came back from California I said ‘hey, we’re moving to DC.’

What was your experience on the jazz scene in DC in your earliest days here?

B: My first real DC job was as a community organizer and that actually led to one of my earliest jazz experiences. I was working for a group called Government Employees United Against Racial Discrimination and that was a group that had various task forces and agencies. One of them was a black deputy U.S. Marshall’s organization, and Wallace Roney Sr. was the representative. We’d have these weekly meetings to discuss basic strategies and mutual interests – some were legalistic, some were direct action…

Wallace took me home one day and saw my living room full of records. He said ‘I’ve got a son who’s involved in jazz.’ That’s when [trumpeter] Wallace Roney Jr. was at Duke Ellington School. And because Sr. traveled a lot he needed someone to work with Wallace Jr. Wallace’s early band had Clarence Seay on bass, Marshall Keys on sax, Geri Allen on piano, and Eric Allen was playing drums… Some of them were in college… Chuck Royal was in that band, [Wallace] had a lot of young, really good players. That’s why [Wallace Sr.] needed me because Wallace Jr. was at Duke Ellington; Marshall is a little bit older, he might have been out of college. It was some high schoolers and some college- aged folks. They were playing [places] like the Pigfoot, Harold’s Rogue & Jar… that’s where Wallace was getting gigs. So my job was to be the adult – to collect the money, watch the band. Kind of chaperone-manager.

What was the scene here like overall when you first got to DC?

B: I started collecting records when I was in Jr. high School, and continued in college. When I got to DC I actually stayed with Tom Porter and he introduced me to a bunch of cats like Bob Daughtry, and there was a legendary cat named Thomas Paul, who worked for what became Olson’s Books & Records. There was a record store up Connecticut Avenue south of the Washington Hilton Hotel and there were two partners, Bob Bialick and John Olsson.

At one point Olsson split off. Thomas Paul was like the jazz guy. I fell into a group of cats that collected records, like Art Cromwell. Thomas Paul was our connection, we were like record junkies – if I can draw that analogy and not seem too pejorative. This was when Olsson’s was across from what is now a Sun Trust Bank at Dupont Circle. Later on it became Olsson’s Books & Records and Richard Goines was the jazz buyer there. Eventually I went to work for Olson’s in 1982, at 19th & L, and I had a helluva jazz section. I was the jazz buyer there and Richard was the jazz buyer at the Georgetown store. I did that maybe three or so years, until about the time that we started the Capital City Jazz Festival.

Did that record store work open doors for you in the DC jazz community?

B: Before I started working in retail I was already writing [about jazz]. I started writing around 1974, with the Washington Post as a stringer. That didn’t last long so I had to decide whether I was still going to write or not. I had a jazz column for the Afro American that went on for years. I started a column for the Journal newspapers, all jazz-oriented. Then I had a jazz column for the Washington Informer…

What aspect of jazz were you writing about for these local publications?

B: It was a combination of things – who’s coming to town, almost like jazz notes – I might write a feature on somebody, it might be record-oriented, I might do a bunch of short record reviews; it was a variety of things, whatever I wanted to do.

Where was the jazz being performed in DC at that time?

B: You had some venues on Rhode Island Avenue, like Mr. Wise, Moore’s Love & Peace, the Pigfoot, Blues Alley, The Etcetera Club on M Street, the One Step Down, the Top of the Foolery, Harold’s Rogue & Jar on N Street south of Dupont Circle.

Were these clubs that would feature mainly DC-resident musicians?

B: On the Rhode Island Avenue side, where most of the black clubs were, it was local musicians. Wallace played there, Davey Yarborough and Esther Williams were at Moore’s Love & Peace a lot – a lot of local cats played those places. Bill Harris’ place, the Pigfoot, would occasionally have a Betty Carter or someone from his years in the music that he had a relationship with, but also a lot of the local cats. Top of the Foolery played mostly resident musicians, Marshall Hawkins played a lot for example. One time Andrew White played 6pm to 6am, every note from his book – and Steve Novosel played the whole time – at the Top of the Foolery near George Washington University, on 23rd Street on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue.

What was the occasion for Andrew to play that marathon?

B: Because that was an Andrew White production [laughs], ‘I’m gonna play 12 hours.’ That was the gig. He produced all of that, you know like his book [of compositions] is this big [holds hands wide apart].

The Etcetera was on M Street between Connecticut and 19th Street. They were a short-lived club – maybe a couple of years – they were trying to compete with Blues Alley. I remember Sun Ra playing there. And they would also do gigs at lunchtime. They weren’t focusing on Washington artists; they were bringing national or international artists.

When I first got here Blues Alley’s orientation was trad jazz. By the time I started to write, at least by the middle to late 70s, Blues Alley was a 6-night a week national club – which would be like Dizzy Gillespie, Ramsey Lewis, the Heath Brothers, McCoy Tyner…

The One Step Down was famous for their jukebox and on Friday and Saturday evenings they would bring in a Barry Harris or sometimes a working trio or working quartet, but often times they were bringing in soloists to work with local rhythm sections. One Step Down and Blues Alley were ongoing; I don’t remember a time until One Step Down closed when those clubs weren’t active. The Top of the Foolery was active as long as I could remember, then at some point it became a parking lot on Pennsylvania Avenue over by George Washington University, around 23rd Street.

When you arrived in DC who were some of the more important and impactful musicians around town?

B: Andrew White, Buck Hill, Ruben Brown, Marshall Hawkins – those guys, those circles. Of course Charlie Byrd was still around and his club, which was on K Street, was just south of Blues Alley. Harold Kaufman, a psychiatrist and amateur piano player, owned Harold’s Rogue & Jar. Wallace worked there and I also remember David Murray playing there.

Would you characterize DC at that time as having an active jazz scene?

B: Oh yeah, definitely for the size of DC. There was jazz a lot of other places; there was a guy over there by the Howard University Hospital who developed a hotel and he had a club that I remember Sun Ra playing. Then you had Woodies almost across from Howard University on Georgia Avenue and Euclid Street. He would bring [Philly saxophonist] Bootsie Barnes or Philly Joe Jones, different soloists who would pick up a rhythm section here. There are a bunch of places that popped up, but the real constant has been Blues Alley. When we started losing that generation of musicians that were actually touring – like Max Roach, Sarah Vaughan, and Nancy Wilson – that echelon of artists played Blues Alley. A peg below that in terms of commercial viability would be One Step Down. Then occasionally Harold might get in the game, then Etcetera was trying to be Blues Alley, but it didn’t last.

What was it about the DC jazz scene that has made documenting its history compelling for you?

B: I began to feel that over the years Washington’s role in the development of jazz was not sufficiently acknowledged. John Malachi was teaching at Howard University; he wrote “Opus X”, and was the piano player with Billy Eckstine. Then I understood that [Charlie Parker’s bassist] Tommy Potter was in DC, Eckstine was here too. If you looked at the Earl Hines band, then you looked at the Eckstine band, you’d see this DC element in those bands. Those cats didn’t just pop out of the air, what was going on here?

As I began to find out more about people who were taken for granted, then I started to connect more dots. And then when I started to do more things with Dr. Billy Taylor it sharpened my knowledge and interest, because that was an important part of his mission, particularly as he could see the end of his life. It’s very clear to me that the program that he put together at the Kennedy Center and hired me for – Jazz in DC – he wanted to find ways to get people to look at Washington as an important center for jazz development.

How did your relationship with Dr. Taylor develop?

B: I first met him because I had an assignment for DownBeat to write about Jazz Alive [the NPR series Dr. Taylor hosted] and through that I met [series producer] Tim Owens, Wiley Rollins, and Dr. Taylor.   To do that article I had to research his career and all the things he was involved with. Through the years, as I evolved more from being a journalist into concert production I would encounter [Billy] at festivals and different projects I’d be working on.

What was the nature of this Jazz in DC production?

B: I curated eight concerts, November 21-29, 2009, for the Millennium Stage that were all themed… Nathea Lee hired me to be a part of Julius Hemphill’s Long Tongues. When the Lost Jazz Shrines project came up Nathea Lee contacted me about writing the essay, so I developed a menu of ideas.

What were the eight concerts you produced for Jazz in DC?

B: They were themed around venues. I did one around the Howard Theatre, one on Abarts, Bohemian Caverns, stuff around 7th Street – Little Harlem… I’d give a brief talk about the venue and show some images that I’d collected and then there would be a performance. We did one devoted to Dr. Taylor’s big band music, the only one that wasn’t themed around a venue. We put together a band with Charlie Young, pulled a bunch of music at the Library of Congress. Charlie went through it and was able to reconstruct charts; we also got Afro Blue involved. That was quite a concert!

Billy did a big concert around James Reese Europe. There might have been a couple of concerts at the Eisenhower Theatre that were part of it but we did these 8 nights on Thanksgiving week. That was a real opportunity to get paid to dig into [DC jazz history] and do some research and come up with the concepts for those concerts.

Since your earliest days observing the jazz scene here, what are some of the elements you’ve witnessed that have negatively impacted jazz in DC?

B: That’s just business cycles more than anything. I always make a distinction between the culture and the business. Businesses go up and down for a variety of reasons and that’s not in and of itself a way to judge whether jazz is dead or alive. I think the reason that One Step Down came to an end was because the [owners] got old, they were having health issues and there were development options coming in there, so people make [business] decisions.

So it’s your sense that those kinds of things run in cycles as opposed to that old “jazz is dead” canard?

B: I get sick of that discussion I think it’s shortsighted. Dig a little deeper, think a little bit deeper about what may be happening. It might be because a club is in an area that’s going through a change and the club can’t survive that change. I think it has more to do with urban development, or redevelopment than it does ‘is jazz up or down.’ You could be a good businessperson or a bad businessperson; you could be getting old or it could be a demographic change or some other kind of change that would cause that business to run a cropper.

Conversely, what have been some of the more positive developments on the DC jazz scene that you’ve observed?

B: The fact that the music has moved to other platforms than clubs. I’d say that right now for a community like ours we have an embarrassment of riches. We have the Friday night jazz scene at Westminster Church, but you also had the Smithsonian Natural History with a Friday night jazz scene kind of in the same time period, and other churches trying to replicate that. Just the fact that jazz is not limited to the club platform has been a real important development.

Obviously WPFW is very important. The loss of WDCU had nothing to do with the music it had to do with the state [the University of the District of Columbia] was in. I think at the point where we had two radio stations providing on-air jazz programming was really important. I can think of a whole set of individuals who were very knowledgeable – lay scholars if you will – aficionados who used radio as a platform to share their knowledge, their collections with the community, that was very important.

What the Kennedy Center has done for jazz, what Strathmore has done to a lesser degree, Clarice Smith Center at the University of Maryland, George Mason University… all that is relatively new stuff. Library of Congress, Smithsonian… the institutional engagement in providing more platforms for the music.

You’re not one who reacts negatively to the whole notion of jazz in the institutions and the evolution of jazz to the concert stage?

B: Not at all; I think jazz is a big house and it’s important that it goes on. I would hate for musicians to feel dependent or feel like they have to be funded to do what they do. I think it is a dynamic culture, basically a vernacular culture that has moved into more academic realms. I think that’s why jazz is healthy, vibrant, and dynamic; that’s what I love about it. I like joints and I like concerts and I think they all have a place, they all fit and that’s what’s good about the situation now. I wish that the musicians at the club level could be compensated better, but then that sort of self-selects. Cats will play the clubs for their own agendas until they say ‘I can’t do that anymore.’

Talk about your work on the Capital City Jazz Festival.

B: The seeds of that lie with WPFW. The center of [Capital City Jazz Festival] was Karen Spellman. She did a concert as a fundraiser for WPFW – and how I got involved was the Roneys [Wallace Jr. and saxman Antoine] were on the concert. It was the McLeans – Jackie and Rene – the Marsalis brothers, and the Roneys. I had known Karen through SNCC [Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee] connections. I got to know A.B. Spellman through [poet] Gaston Neal.

I did my first Antioch College co-op here in 1966. Through coincidence I got off the bus one day on 14th Street and I saw this guy in a storefront fixing it up, so I went in there and it was Gaston Neal and that’s how I met him. He was getting ready to open up the New School for African Thought. He was part of the black poetry movement with Larry Neal, Marvin X, Amiri Baraka… At that point what Baraka was to Newark, Gaston was to DC. Gaston got sidetracked because of some personal things and never got his work out there in publication. Then when he got himself more stable he went into counseling and writing was kind of an aside, but at that time he was definitely a cultural visionary and a lot of music was coming through that New School for African Thought. And that first weekend when it opened A.B. was a part of that and that’s how I came to know him.

Then later he and Karen were in Atlanta and they got married and A.B. came to Washington with the NEA. A.B. used to shop at Olsson’s. He would come in once a month and say “Bill, what should I buy”? One time he came in and said “we’re thinking about doing a festival, we believe that it’s important that Washington have a festival.”

The Kool Jazz Festival had come to the Kennedy Center in ’77 or ’78 and they actually used the whole Kennedy Center; I was like an intern, it wasn’t a paid position, and I worked on that. Part of what A.B. was referring to was ‘ ‘this city is still ripe for a festival, there’s a new Washington Convention Center with a subway stop right there, I can’t do it I’m at the NEA, Karen is going to take the lead and I want you to get with her to do this festival.’ Because of the relationship Karen had with WPFW around that concert she produced for them as a fundraiser they were in the mix so Bob Tyner, who was then the Program Director, was involved. Jeff Anthony was at the NEA working in the Music Program specifically around jazz but he resigned at some point after we’d done [Capital City Jazz Festival] a couple of years and he became an important part of that.

Then out of our relationship we went on from the Capital City Jazz Festival and that same core of people did the Black Family Reunion and started the Adams Morgan Day festival, on the production side. One of the board members of the Capital City Jazz Festival was Ralph Rinzler, who was like an external affairs guy for the Kennedy Center. That’s how we wound up doing an event as part of the Capital City Jazz Festival that we did in ’85-’88. The first one we did we honored Bill Harris, Roy Haynes and Benny Carter and we presented Marlon Jordan and the American Jazz Orchestra under Loren Schoenberg’s direction and they played a work of Benny’s.

The first two we did at the Convention Center. We actually did a full festival three years – two at the Convention Center with a sidecar at Duke Ellington School one year – and then one year we did a week at Howard University, and we did a week of stuff at the Old Post Office Pavilion – that was lunch time stuff – and then the next weekend we did at George Washington University. That was a festival where we basically got in so much debt that we never mounted another full festival of that type. But we did do events at the Smithsonian twice, and one year that was the only thing that we did. Ralph Rinzler kind of brokered that as well.

L to R: Rusty Hassan, Felix Grant, W. Royal Stokes, (unidentified), and Bill Brower

We did a tribute to John Coltrane with Hamiet Bluiett, Andrew White… We did a program around the organ with Jimmy McGriff. We passed out copies of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to the audience but nobody sang it; McGriff always ended his concerts with that song. Kenny Burrell was on that. During the week we did DC resident artists at lunchtime at the Old Post Office Pavilion. The last weekend of the festival we had Geri Allen, Henry Threadgill, Henry Butler… The significant thing is that before we even did the first Friday night concert at Crampton Auditorium, we were at the bank getting a loan to be able to pay the musicians.

That Sunday we all met at Karen’s house because we knew we had to re-fashion the festival in order for it to get done. That was probably one of the most emotional times I’ve had because that year 1988 Karen was working on the Democratic National Convention and I was really running everything. I did production, a lot of the programming, publicity stuff, but Karen was the interface with the money and she was better able to negotiate a lot of things.

The first festival that we did we opened up with Miles Davis and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band at the Convention Center. It was around Miles’ birthday and we gave him a big cake; he played so long that people got tired. We wheeled out the cake and he cut it and was giving it out to the audience. We did a lot of great shows – we did M’Boom and the World Saxophone Quartet, Little Jimmy Scott with Milt Jackson, Betty Carter, Tito Puente and Paquito D’Rivera and we had a Latin jam session with local Latin cats… We had Miles’ paintings, we did a Chuck Stewart photography exhibit, we had panel discussions… Particularly when we first started we didn’t have a lot for artist fees so I added a lot of stuff like the jazz marketplace.

Keter Betts really helped us the year we honored Ella Fitzgerald and Milt Hinton. We had to make a lot of difficult choices – like should we buy ads or buy these airline tickets at this price. I always thought if we’ve got WPFW and WDCU forget the Washington Post. Well I didn’t realize that ten people might be listening to the radio; I wasn’t looking at Arbitron ratings to figure out what was the actual audience penetration that I thought I was getting, that maybe it would have been better to buy the ads and figure out how to pay for the airline tickets later. But given the amount of resources that we had, what we were trying to do was probably too ambitious and probably should have been more conservative in our programming.

We did three full festivals and one year we only did the Smithsonian piece; I think that was the year we did the piece with Milt Hinton and Ella. Because we had debt that we had to pay off we would do sessions like Monday nights at Trumpets for a while. And we did concerts at people’s houses; if they had a grand piano we’d say ‘OK we’ll get Henry Butler.’ We’d have him come and play and we’d charge $75 per person, with champagne and cake for an intimate evening.

As a legal entity we went on for a few years after we stopped putting on big things, mostly as a way to try to pay down the debt. People had secured their properties against this bank loan. There are people that were actually crushed by the fact that what we were putting onstage we weren’t able to pay for. But there were people who said ‘we’ll support you.’

How did that festival work evolve into your concert and festivals production work?

B: I started working as a stagehand well before this. I used to write for the Unicorn Times late ‘70s-early ‘80s, which was like the City Paper except it came out once a month. Richard Harrington was the editor; he called me one day and said I want you to go down to the corner of 7th & E, there are two guys there who are doing some interesting stuff. I was writing mostly about the avant-garde for the Unicorn Times.   When I was writing for the Journal or the Afro American I wrote more about mainstream and more about local activities and record reviews. I got access to any club I wanted and I was inundated with music. I wrote for JazzTimes, I wrote for Musician, a bunch of different publications.

He sent me down to this place, which had been like a lunchtime spot. There were two people there, Bill Warrell and a guy named Earl Bateman. Bill Warrell wanted to start a loft, which was what DC Space essentially was;   Bateman wanted to do a festival in ’78. At this point I was exclusively freelance writing

So I go down and interview these two guys. Bateman wants to do two nights of music: Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, World Saxophone Quartet, Sam Rivers, Marion Brown, John Cage, Phillip Glass, Steve Reich – kind of like a mix and match thing. I never wrote the article for the Unicorn Times because Bateman hired me to be the publicist for these two nights of music. He said he’d pay me a thousand dollars and ten percent of all the recording and video taping that would result. So I signed on for that. I got one check for $100, which bounced. The concert collapsed the first night.

Marion Brown played, then Bateman came out and said “we have technical difficulties.’ The technical difficulty was there wasn’t enough money in the box office to pay the next artist, so that delay went on for 45 minutes or so. Then Bateman came out and said “Ladies and gentlemen the concert is over.” And it was a cold, icy rain night, a chill-to-the-bone night. They put everybody out of Constitution Hall.

DC Space wasn’t quite ready as a performance space, but that night Bill opened it anyway. Out of that came his relationship with Julius Hemphill, Oliver Lake, and David Murray. They said ‘we’re in DC, we might as well play somewhere;’ so that night is actually when DC Space opened. But I never made it over there.

While catching the bus home there was a club nearby, so I stopped in there to kind of drown my sorrows. I’m sitting there and sitting next to me is the stagehands union shop steward of Constitution Hall, a guy named Jerry King. First he recognized me as one of the people who did that concert they weren’t going to get paid for. I thought I was going to get a thousand dollars at the end of the concert and I’m sitting there trying to add this all up. We ended up spending that evening there.

Some time later a guy in my building who was a stagehand at the Warner Theater asked me if I wanted to make some money. He said come down to the Warner Theater at 10:00, they needed some extra guys for the load out. At the end of the night I got paid in cash! When the guy paid me he looked at me and said ‘don’t I know you?’ It was the same guy Jerry from that night at the Kung Fu Lounge! He said ‘you wanna work tomorrow’? Be here at 8:00am and bring a crescent wrench. I had always been around theater, but never as a stagehand. I was still writing and the two fit together great. At one point I was working at Olson’s twenty hours a week, working as a stagehand, and freelance writing.

When I got to the Capital City Jazz Festival I already had production chops. We had been doing circuses, ballets, plays… Bill Washington and Cellar Door had all of the concert stuff and Bill produced all the black shows. So that’s what we did at Constitution Hall: the Whispers, Gladys Knight & the Pips, whomever… Sometimes two shows a night.

Quint Davis and Tom Dent from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival came to DC to do a workshop for people who wanted to produce festivals. Karen Spellman wanted to get involved with them as a way to better understand the festival we had. I approached them and nothing was available at their festival. A year later Wiley Rollins, who I had met while writing the piece on Jazz Alive, one of his good friends during his Harvard days was John Washington. When John went back to New Orleans he was on the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation board. He knew I wanted to work at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and that’s how I got to New Orleans.

Throughout all this work in DC on jazz, how has the DC jazz audience evolved through the ensuing years?

B: I think the audience I first knew got older and a new one developed. Obviously a big boon has been the development of U Street, which went down with the King riots. It didn’t really come back until the subway was finished. When that happened a whole new U Street nightlife developed and with that nightlife came a whole new generation. The resurgence of U Street meant a new audience, a young audience. There was an audience that was a part of what Blues Alley was about and Harold’s Rogue & Jar, Top of the Foolery… That audience I encountered at those places was probably a little bit older than me. Now it’s twenty-some years later and most people in their 60s aren’t going out to clubs; you might see them at Westminster, but they’re not going out to clubs. So with the revival of U Street as a nightlife venue, not only did the Bohemian Caverns come back, you had Twins Jazz there, but also you had other places that feature some type of jazz at some point or another, that’s when I saw a new audience.

The continuity that was broken up was the result of all of these socio-economic things that have happened, and then with the demographic infusion – the city has changed. One of the reasons I was so excited to come to DC was because I was from Toledo, went to Western Reserve Academy in Hudson, OH, then went to college in Yellow Springs, OH, then I came to DC and I was loving all the black culture. But then Chocolate City has changed. After the [post-MLK assassination] riots a lot of people left DC because they could leave and a lot of people stayed because they couldn’t leave, and a lot of areas that were central to the black community at that time were on the decline: H Street, U Street… and everything related to that; so those areas came back with this whole gentrification process and with that has come new audiences.

One such development in recent years has been a kind of do-it-yourself attitude as far as presenting jazz, as exemplified by Capital Bop and what writer Gio Russonello and musician Luke Stewart are doing, something of a loft scene.

B: The new loft scene.

Do you see any correlation between what Bill Warrell did with DC Space and what’s happening now with this new loft scene?

B: There were some other places also; there was another kind of jazz scene, almost like a Black Nationalist scene. Jimmy Gray – Black Fire – another important figure people overlook is one of those programmers who came on WPFW, like Eric Garrison, who were scholars in their own right, serious record collectors. Jimmy Gray had been in the record distribution business, and got out to start his own label… There were some other kind of loft scenarios that featured musicians that Jimmy was working with, not so much well-known New York cats, but musicians who were trying to play in that way.

I haven’t patronized it, but my attitude is this new loft development is going backwards – cats playing for peanuts in environments that are less than what I think the music deserves and I feel sort of like ‘been there, done that.’ DC Space was on a higher level than that; Bill fixed it up: good bar, good food, high level of players…

The one thing I think continues that tradition is what Transparent Productions does. I think that [Transparent producer] Bobby Hill was kind of a part of what we were doing. One of the things I did when we had Capital City Jazz Festival, I invited Tom Porter, Bobby Hill and a bunch of other people [to be guest curators and propose ideas]. Once we started the jazz festival everybody felt like ‘I could do that’ because everybody has ideas about programming. And that’s when I realized that yeah, I had great ideas about programming but what you really needed was a business sense, which I didn’t have. So when I started making those choices about advertising, I think a better businessperson might have made better choices. We made choices out of what our vision was, not how to stabilize and grow a festival. By the time I went to work in New Orleans on the festival that’s when I realized I needed to learn.

I would say that Transparent Productions represents more of a continuum with what District Curators was about. District Curators evolved out of DC Space. The idea of doing a series at the Corcoran, where they did Cecil Taylor, Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Julius Hemphill’s Long Tongues. Those were the three nights at the Corcoran. The whole evolution of what we did with Long Tongues that was District Curators.

Transparent Productions, because of the individual people involved – Bobby Hill, Thomas Stanley, Larry Appelbaum – all those individuals had the experience of DC Space, felt the void when it went off the scene and created a vehicle to continue in that spirit. What Luke and Gio are doing I don’t think has anything to do with DC Space. They’re a new young generation creating their own space; they may reverse engineer and look back and see themselves as inheriting some kind of a void, but to me Transparent Productions is what DC Space spawned, there’s a more direct relationship between what they’re doing and what DC Space was. I’m not going to say it’s not important, it is important. They’re creating another beachhead, creating opportunities for people to play… I think their [Capital Bop] website is amazing – what they’ve put together and how they relate that to what they do. I think their initiative is great.

Part of it for me right now is I’ve stopped trying to keep up [with the scene], it’s more about what interests me and trying to do my own work. When I was an active journalist I tried to be everywhere and cover everything. I’m not trying to be an active journalist now, it’s not important to me to do that. What’s important to me are projects I’m interested in and what I want to work on. There’s much more behind me than in front of me and I want to make sense of and leverage that body of work.

How do you see these developments, like Transparent Productions, what Capital Bop is doing, impacting DC’s cultural scene in general?

B: The beat goes on, I’m just glad they’re doing it. The fact that oncoming cats are doing what they’re doing, you have to have faith in that.

How does your work on the annual Congressional Black Caucus Foundation jazz day impact the DC jazz community?

B: Its become an event that people like to go to, people that don’t necessarily attend the annual CBCF legislative conference come to that event. When that started it was just a panel discussion and a reception.

John Conyers sent out a letter, he wanted to do some jazz stuff and Cedric Hendricks was on his staff. And because I could write, I could program and I could organize production, I became a very useful piece of that puzzle. I started out working with that event as a volunteer in 1985. In 1992 I reached out to the shop steward at the new convention center – which is when they moved the CBCF jazz event from the Hilton to the Convention Center – to find out what the labor rates were so I could put together a budget. He said ‘you need to contact the CBCF, they’re looking at you to help them produce the conference.’ That’s not a job I was looking for, but I owe that to John Conyers.

Once I got there, because I was one of the producers, I was able to push the jazz piece even further. By this time I’d been working in New Orleans, at Jazz at Lincoln Center… my range of contacts had grown exponentially. I had much more experience in terms of production, and not just production nuts & bolts but I had that concept of what it is to be a producer. So I was able to push it to another level.

When we first started doing the jazz event the record companies would underwrite the performance if we picked up the travel. Once the record industry died it became a different game in terms of sponsorship and how to keep that afloat. For the Foundation its all about every event earning more in sponsorship than it costs because the conference is a fundraiser for the overall work of the CBCF throughout the year.

We have resisted pressure from the Foundation to charge for the concert. So it’s a free event during the legislative week that has a high level of talent that the community can participate in. As the years have gone on the only thing left for the community to be involved in with no charge is the jazz event. This thing has reached a high level and now it’s an asset to the whole CBCF enterprise.

House Concurrent Resolution 57 (declaring jazz “an American national treasure”) resulted from the first CBCF jazz evening panel discussion in 1985. At the end of that session Jimmy Owens challenged John Conyers to do something legislatively for jazz. He took on the challenge. I was working as a stagehand at the Kennedy Center on the Kabuki Theater and a Japanese stagehand pointed to an artist and said “you see that guy there, he’s a living national treasure.” Bingo, that’s where that language came from! That next day I took what that guy said to me and finished drafting HCON 57.

What’s your overall goal for the CBCF jazz day?

B: Just that it’s important that an organization of that significance in the national African American community and the nation at large has seen fit to put a showcase around the music. It doesn’t happen with the Urban League, it doesn’t happen with the NAACP, nor with the black fraternities and sororities – it does happen at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation Annual Legislative Conference. And the reason it happens is because John Conyers had that vision to add that piece as an issue discussion and it has evolved. Because of his stature he was able to create that space.

If there’s a study or something done in the jazz community, I’ve tried to have a presentation about it to open up the issue forum, because I know that much of that information is not broadly disseminated – even within those circles in the black community that claim they’re interested in the music. So we say, ‘let’s do it there, let’s bring together a panel of experts, let’s elevate a discussion.’ It became more of a day; we went from wanting a two-hour block of prime time for the issue forum and a town hall meeting on jazz, and then later have the concert, and keep a humanities element in it by having a meet-the-artist discussion so that people who don’t get into the issues forum still get to have some introduction to what people think about this music. I’m all about preserving our stake in this music, that’s my agenda; this music came out of our experience in our community, in the American context. Cedric and I are all about using that platform to keep that alive, that’s what WE can do.

I’m disappointed that JazzTimes, DownBeat and the rest of them don’t pay any attention to this event, but I think they’re gonna pay attention around HR2823 [Conyer’s new jazz support legislation]. The reason this bill was drafted is because John Hasse came to Conyers about getting more money for the Smithsonian jazz efforts. Cedric called me and I said if we’re going to do a new bill it can’t just be about getting the Smithsonian more money.

Conyers is planning to introduce this new jazz legislation just prior to Jazz Appreciation Month (April) in conjunction with an event that the Smithsonian is organizing called Two Johns, honoring John Conyers and John Coltrane on the 50th anniversary of “A Love Supreme.”

From the ideas we’ve gathered, in early 2014 we’ll have a new draft of the bill that we can circulate for comment until the end of February, then Legislative Affairs will draft the final bill in March to be introduced during Jazz Appreciation Month. That will give us a piece of legislative with some teeth; it will direct agencies of government to spend money in different ways on jazz.


Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment

Karrin Allyson Goes Shoulder to Shoulder


Vocalist Karrin (pron. kah-rin) Allyson clearly has a good ear for thematic recordings.  And that’s a perception I don’t make casually, based in large part on her splendid 2001 project Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane (Concord ’01).  On that particular record she re-cast Trane’s Impulse! Records classic Ballads album vocally, including releasing those songs in the same order John and producer Bob Thiele followed for the master’s classic exploration of a tender portion of the Great American Songbook.

For her latest project, Ms. Allyson, whose voice bears a very pleasing Midwestern sensibility from her Kansas roots, working closely with producer-conceptualist Kabir Sehgal, has chosen to go deep in a vivid color pallet of our ongoing social justice concerns – women’ suffrage, a platform originally based on the right of women to vote in elections, which has in an omnibus manner also come to embrace ongoing women’s rights & social justice pursuits.  In the artist and her producer-conceptualist’s response to gender justice issues, Karrin’s current Shoulder to Shoulder album celebrates historic women’s suffrage and justice acts & efforts, and the ongoing need for women and allies to remain firm and stand tall together because the gender justice work of our world never ends.

Notably this project includes powerful spoken word passages, like Sojourner Truth’s vividly memorable 1851 speech, which as producer Kabir Sehgal’s liner notes assert: “…spotlights one of the great oversights and misgivings of the women’s suffrage movement.  It was largely about the societal advancement for white women.”  To deliver Sojourner Truth’s speech, Karrin engages the distinctive voice of Lalah Hathaway.  Frederick Douglass’ 1888 wisdom is recalled on the record by Harry Belafonte, while Julie Swidler honors suffragette Alice Paul’s 1921 commentary.

Musically Allyson works with an imposing cast of guest contributors, including Regina Carter, Rosanne Cash, Kurt Elling and additional guests, including the fast-emerging young singer Veronica Swift, whose mere participation is applause for Karrin’s selflessness (it’s not often that an established vocalist welcomes such a newcomer onto their album).  Core musicians include saxophonist Mindi Abair, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, pianist Helen Sung, bassist Endea Owens, and the crafty drummer Allison Miller.  Clearly some questions about this brilliant project were in order for Karrin Allyson.

Posted in General Discussion | Leave a comment