The Independent Ear

Jazz Girls Day DC

For this year’s edition of the annual Washington Women in Jazz Festival (http://washingtonwomeninjazz.com/ March 10-31), trombonist Shannon Gunn, a native of Richmond, VA and graduate of George Mason University recognized as one of the DMV’s finest exemplars of her instrument, is producing a wonderful new component: Jazz Girls Day DC. Clearly the program begged some questions, to which Shannon Gunn graciously agreed to respond.

What would you say is the overall mission of Jazz Girls Day DC?
Jazz Girls Day DC, in partnership with the Washington Women in Jazz Festival, empowers young girls and non-binary gender students to have the skills needed for self-confidence in the performance of jazz.

Kevin Allen, Music Director at John Calvin Presbyterian Church, approached me with the idea in the late summer of 2018. “I was looking for a way to expand our Jazz in the Sanctuary concerts at John Calvin Presbyterian Church. After reading Shannon Gunn and the Bullettes’ purpose, “…uplifts women in jazz, creates networking opportunities, and provides a positive role model for aspiring jazz musicians in the DC area,” I thought it was a perfect idea. It also aligns with our church’s goal to be a part of the surrounding community.”

Jazz Girls Day DC will take place on Saturday, March 30th, at John Calvin Presbyterian Church at 6531 Columbia Pike, Annandale, VA 22003, starting at 11:00 am for the workshops. There is ample free parking on site.

What can participants expect from the workshop experiences?
Jazz Girls Day DC is open to Middle and High School students who identify as women or gender non-binary.

We will start with a listening session and mixer where everyone can meet each other and eat snacks. Then we will have workshops on improvisation, vocabulary, and scales, a student-only jam session, and a free culminating concert open to the public. Students will have the opportunity to network and meet other students like themselves. Stacey Williams, the “Jazz Cat Herder,” will also give a brief workshop on building confidence in the business of music. We have a stellar line up of faculty this year, including:

Amy K. Bormet, Piano
Karine Chapdelaine, Bass
Tina Raymond, Drums
Charmaine Michelle, Trumpet
Shannon Gunn, Trombone

The final concert at 4:00 pm will feature the faculty and any of the students who wish to perform.The concert is free and open to the public.

For more information, contact Shannon Gunn at 571-318-6278 or jazztothebone [at] gmail.com.

What’s the overall history and purpose of the Washington Women in Jazz Festival?
Created by Amy K Bormet in 2011, Washington Women in Jazz hosts an annual festival (WWJF) each March to celebrate the women of the DC jazz community. Bormet and her colleagues develop, promote and lead a wide array of concerts, jam sessions, lectures, panels, discussions, and masterclasses. A highlight of the festival is the Young Artist Showcase, where high school and college women are given a platform to perform and connect with professional jazz artists.

Check out other happenings with the Washington Women in Jazz Festival here: http://washingtonwomeninjazz.com/

Do you see these activities as dovetailing with the renewed efforts at achieving gender equity and gender justice in jazz?
I have learned from my research on women in jazz that middle school jazz bands typically have 50% women, then in high school it drops to 14% women; and then at the college level there are only 9% women in the school big band. I am not sure of the reason for the drop off, but I want to make sure that gender does not play a part in it. I feel like the best way to help this is to instill self confidence in the youngest students who wish to pursue jazz. Jazz is just as much a “mind set” game, like golf; by instilling a strong foundation in skills, they can strive for excellence without boundaries.

www.washingtonwomeninjazz.com

Don’t miss Shannon Gunn and the Bullettes, Friday, June 7, 6:00pm (free) at the Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian National Museum of Art, part of the 15th annual DC JazzFest (complete information: www.dcjazzfest.org).

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Anatomy of an independent record store

Back in 2010/2011 when I was engaged in an oral history interview project for the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn, accompanied by Weeksville’s resident cultural anthropologist Jennifer Scott (now director of the Jane Addams Hull House Museum in Chicago), and Kaitlyn Greenidge, I conducted a raft of oral history interviews with men and women in the jazz community and beyond. Our territory was Central Brooklyn, specifically the Bedford-Stuyvesant community. [Here it should be noted that among previous interviews from this project published in the Independent Ear were illuminating conversations with the late Dickie Haversham-Bey, proprietor of the legendary Brooklyn jazz club the Blue Cornet, and more recently some of the principles behind the legendary performance/live Blue Note recording session Night of the Cookers, all available in our Archives section.]

For those not familiar with Weeksville, historically it was the first African American settlement in the borough of Brooklyn; some of the historic homes have been preserved on the Weeksville grounds. Among the musicians, arts & social community activists we interviewed for that oral history project, one of the most colorful was Joe Long, proprietor of the classic independent record store Birdel’s. Can you name another community record store whose clientele ranged from Randy Weston and Miles Davis, to Biggie Smalls and Jay Z? Birdel’s was the place. Here’s our conversation with Joe Long.

Willard Jenkins: We read about your record store, Birdel’s, in the New York Times.

Joe Long: That was the second piece about our closing.

WJ: When I read that piece it reminded me of record stores I used to frequent as a kid, before there was any Tower Records; the kind of record store in the neighborhood where the records would be behind the counter on the walls. Talk about the history of Birdel’s.

JL: I came to New York from North Carolina in 1954. The reason I came to New York was to better myself with a decent job to help my mother prolong the education of my sister that was in North Carolina College in Durham. She had won a 2-year scholarship, she was valedictorian. I came out of high school at the tender age of 16 and I said I would work to help her to get through her junior and senior year of college. That’s what prompted me to leave North Carolina to come to New York.

In 1954 my sister that lived here worked at Rands Dry Cleaners and she had a position for me when I left North Carolina. I came straight to Brooklyn and we lived on Quincy Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant at that time. I worked at Rands on the line sorting clothes and I learned that quickly, and then I did maintenance [work] with them. I was always an enthusiastic person for music, I really loved music. In my sophomore year at home I bought a Victrola called Airline from Montgomery Ward. Remember those big boxes with AM and FM radio, shortwave and everything? Airline was the brand.

I bought that radio so we would have music in the house and in the community. Victrola, they called them at that time, cost me close to $200 and I paid down like $25 then $5 a week until I was able to pay for it; back then they wouldn’t give it to you until you finished paying for it.

Everybody would come to my house and we would party on the weekends because I had the only Victrola in the community. I was working at the 5 & 10 cent store H.H. Kress, and by me working there I had access to the music – it was 78s during those days and I would bring home these 78s and we would have our little thing. My father was a janitor and after his [work] day finished they would always give us the popcorn and we would distribute it in the community… the cookies and things… So we used to have a good time.

When I came to Rand Dry Cleaners, they had 155 stores across the metropolitan area – Brooklyn, Long Island, Queens, and Staten Island. I would always come down to Birdel’s and buy my music. During that time they were located on Fulton and Throop next to the Apollo Theatre; we had an Apollo Theatre here in Brooklyn too that had acts and music and things. During those days I would come in evenings after work and buy music. Birdel’s relocated down on Fulton & Nostrand.

During those days – this was in 1956-57 – the groups were making records and the entertainers that were a part of those groups would come by the store. The bass singer from the Heartbeats, Wally Roker, we became close. Wally used to say to me “Joe you know music, why don’t you ask Birdel for a job.” I would tell him I already have a job, why do I need another job? During those days the record stores were open until midnight. You had the junkies out there and the drugs and all, but it wasn’t like today, you could feel more safe.

We had the Bickfords during those days, something like Chock Full ‘o’ Nuts [coffee shop]… We had a Bickfords two doors down from Birdel’s on Fulton Street and I used to go down there. Wally would say come on down there and we would talk and he would say ‘I’m gonna tell Birdel to hire you and maybe you’ll like it…’ I said ‘well ok, I’ll give it a try.’ So I spoke with Benjamin Steiner, the owner, and his wife was named Birdie Steiner and they had a guy named Lefty and another fella named Shorty that used to work full time. So I would come in the evenings, and I started to work there and I liked it.

So then I went to Rand after two years and I tell them I’m gonna quit. They didn’t want me to quit because I had learned all the locations of the stores throughout Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and Staten Island, so they really needed someone with the trucks to help get around. So I told them I’ll give you a coupla weeks notice and then I’m going to leave you, and then I told Birdel’s that I would come with him full-time. I really liked the [Birdel’s] job. I worked part-time at Birdel’s in the evening and that gave me an idea of whether I would want to get into the music business. I liked it so much I told him I would work with him and I would give him ten years; I’m a young man, I said I’ll give you ten years.

He was talking about retiring so I said if you don’t want to sell me the store in ten years I’ll go ahead and get my own business. So he says ‘ok, we’ll see.’ I worked with him and I really liked it. He saw the head I had on me… during those days you bought records by numbers. Once I saw a number I was just like a computer, the number would stick. Right now I can call off numbers from 1954-55 on record labels that we ordered by, and he liked that.

So he would say to me ‘you’re gonna get this store, I’m gonna sell you this store…’ In 1963 I told him I was ready [to buy the store]. In ’64 blacks at that time were a little more on the edge of wanting to do things for self; you had the Black Panther party, the radical Brooklyn guys that really would do things to get attention. God rest Sonny Carson’s soul, he was one of the guys that really was out front. So Birdel’s got a little leery during that time and he was saying that he might have to sell before.

So when the time came and Martin Luther King got killed and the riots came, that really was the icing on the cake; he said I’m gonna sell and get out. During those days SBA small business loan was loaning minority people money and it wasn’t that you had to have a good foundation or background or good bankroll… if they saw the potential in you and you were able to take the business they didn’t mind loaning. That was one of the reasons I was able to get a loan for the business. Birdel had quoted me a price and I went to SBA and they offered me the money so quickly that when I went back and told [Birdel] I had the money that’s when he wanted to up the price $10,000.

I told him ‘Ben you promised me the store and you promised me a price. I worked for you over ten years and never stole a penny from you because my mother didn’t raise no thieves in North Carolina, and I’ve been honest. I had a tendency of working with fellas that would always be stealing and I used to tell them ‘man, you don’t steal the man’s money because one day you might need the man for reference, but if he fires you for stealing you won’t get good references.’ So I said I’m gonna tell you to quit stealing and if you don’t stop stealing I’m going to the boss because I don’t want to work around thieves and I don’t want him to think that I’m part of what you’re doing.’

So at that time he says to me ‘ok I’ll talk to my wife and see if we want to stick to the original price.’ The drugs are flourishing in Bedford-Stuyvesant, especially on Fulton Street and there was a guy who had a store on Fulton Street who was dealing drugs and he wanted the location on Nostrand Avenue and he was the one who offered [Steiner] the $10,000 more than I would pay – because I knew what he wanted to do.

I told Ben, you go home and talk to Birdie because I’ve worked with you you all these years and I’m not looking to just walk away; I put my blood, sweat and tears here and if you don’t sell me this store I’m gonna burn it down. Its just that simple, I said I’ll burn it down, you won’t have it and I won’t have it, you’ll get the little money from your insurance or whatever, but I will burn it down. He went back and talked to his wife; he knew that I was serious. He knew that I wasn’t playing.

During those days I had two fellas – a guy named Mitch and a guy named Jeff, we had a little social club together. I told them once I buy the store I’ll bring you all in. During those days when black folks were on the other side of Fulton Street you didn’t have the idea of coming across Atlantic Avenue to say that you wanted to be a part of Crown Heights.

After he went back and talked to his wife they finally made the deal to sell me the business. When I took on Mitch I said my whole vision was to have a chain of independent retail [record] stores. One of the reasons I saw that change I knew that during those days music was popular with the blacks and you had good radio stations that played this music and it wasn’t a thing of wherein you were selling tickets for different programs – gospel programs… all these programs were a help to build Birdel’s up. So when I finally bought the store and we closed the deal, Birdel said to me ‘Joe, you’ll make a lot of money here.’ I said to him ‘Ben, I might not make no money because you made the money, I worked for you and I know you made good money and when we as a race of people find out that one of us own it they tend to not purchase and support like they should.’ I told him that but I wasn’t worried about survival out here because I knew what it took to survive.

When I took on Mitch I said ‘Mitch I want to do a chain and we got as far as three stores. The only people that were competitive to independent [record] retail at that time was E.J. Corvettes, Mays Department store, and Sam Goodies; but Goodies was a part of the record clan that could sell records out of town, so they could sell [at] list prices, they didn’t have to give you a discount.

So as I would build up a store I would put my partner Mitch in there and he had a head and wanted to be Mr. Big Stuff and he didn’t want to work and every time he would go out and hang out, I’d put the workers to work and he’s gone. I told him ‘we can’t achieve a good business if you’re not there, because these people we’re putting in here are gonna be stealing.’ I knew they weren’t gonna take it all, but at least give me the majority, don’t take 60/40 – give me 70/30 or 80/20, but they weren’t doing that so I kept him on, I told him I would give him five years to learn the business, but I kept him on another three years and he still didn’t learn the business.

So then I sat down with him and I said ‘look, we’re gonna have to [end] our partnership. He didn’t want to give it up because now he didn’t have nowhere to go. We had three stores so I told him, I’ll keep Birdel’s on Nostrand Avenue, I’ll give you the tape center on Fulton Street, and we had another store on Flatbush and Prospect, and I said we’ll sell that to my brothers, because I had two brothers working here. That way we’ll all have a store, you can do what you want and I’ll do what I want. But if you want to keep the Birdel’s name for the Birdel’s Tape Center you’ll have to pay me because the name was incorporated, and I told my brothers the same.

My brothers didn’t want to give up their jobs; one worked for the transit authority, the other one worked for an insurance company. They didn’t want to quit their jobs and they put their wives in there to run [the store] and I knew it was gonna be a failure. Women have come a long way from those days, but during that time I could see they weren’t the people to have in your business to carry the load – and I’m being honest, this is what I saw. They hung on for about 3 years and I said [to his brothers] ‘if you don’t want to give up your jobs I’m gonna have to take the store back. If you don’t want to give up your jobs I’ll sell it.’ Eventually I took it back.

I was trying to let Mitch know that I carried him for eight years – I promised you five – and now I want out. I’m divorced now, but during that time my wife said to me to get rid of him and pay him, so I paid him. When I finished paying him [his store] lasted about a year then he went out [of business]. We had a rider in the contract that said if he was to go out, he head to come back to me and see if I wanted to buy the business back. He didn’t do that, but it was alright with me.

Right then and there I started building Birdel’s internationally because I knew the Japanese clientele liked vinyl, people from Germany liked vinyl, and all these people were tourists that would be coming into New York. Harlem was a little more well-known than Bedford-Stuyvesant and they would go up to Harlem – they had the Record Shack, Bobby Robinson with Bobby’s Happy House, and then Rainbow; we all worked together, we were like a network. So when they would come up to Harlem they would tell [record tourists] ‘you need to go over to Birdel’s in Brooklyn.’ And all you had to do is get one [tourist] to see what you do and what you had, and it became like wildfire and [tourists] started to come into Brooklyn. And then we became internationally known because the Japanese would come and they would tell somebody, and England would tell somebody… and they’d say ‘go to Birdel’s’, they forgot about Harlem [laughs].

That’s how I became really popular. It took years to do this, it didn’t happen overnight because vinyl took a decline; when I came into the business it was vinyl, then it became mono/stereo with records and stereo was an elevation of the sound that was better, then it was 8-tracks, then cassettes. All of these trends I grew up in with the different modifications in the music business.
All of that modification with vinyl (mono-stereo), the record manufacturers felt as though now there was a decline in the music as vinyl. They would put out a vinyl album and they would tell the public that it was going gold. During that time gold was if you sold 10,000 units; 100,000 units would be platinum. They weren’t really selling that amount because it was all a number game; they would ship the amount to these stores and in essence if they didn’t sell them they would get them back in return.

So we had a cutout house in Philadelphia that I would go to and buy this product on vinyl. I could buy that same album for $1 from the cutout house and I could in turn sell it for $1.98 or $2.98 – most of the time I would put $2.98 on it – and this is how I built it up, because now the record is only 6 months or a year old and people still want it. So that’s how I started building up the vinyl trade, and this is how the word got around to go to Birdel’s, get the music in vinyl because one thing about it was if I didn’t have it, nobody had it because I would order for people all over… You have to build a customer relationship and it wasn’t about the money with me, it was about the commitment that I had to my customers. Our motto would be “if Birdel’s don’t have it, ain’t nobody got it…’ They would depend on me because I was like their bible. But it took a lot of work.

When we would have those big conferences, like Jack The Rapper, and the Urban Network, I would go because we got record companies to support us and the independent stores were always the foundation of the record business. If we didn’t build the music during those days – when you had the disc jockeys… before Frankie Crocker you had Eddie O’Jay, you had the Jack Walkers, WLIB, WNJR in Newark, Jocko… These guys were disc jockeys, they made the music… That was before the Frankie Crockers came along and the Gary Byrds… [Deejays] would make the music and we would have them, wherein the big boys wouldn’t carry it because they didn’t know nothin’ about it. They [big chains] would only carry it after we broke the record, so the manufacturers and these companies knew that the independent store was the foundation of the business to build it up, so they had to support us.

We had corporations together; we had Mirror, independent stores coalitions throughout the country and we would meet at these conventions and we would voice our choice. So then they said ‘we gotta do something else now’ and they came up with digital tapes and that was taking away from cassettes, so then they said they had to come up with another configuration, which brought in the CD. They didn’t know that the CD would really be a thorn in their side to the music business. Because what happened was everybody that had a CD could copy it. At these big conferences when the presidents of all these companies would come in they would always call me the troublemaker because I would always be on their ass. You couldn’t butter me up… a lot of these presidents of these coalitions would come in and say I’ll take care of you, but you don’t have to take care of your group. But they couldn’t say that to me, I would say to them ‘you know what, if you all continue to make CDs and worry about bootlegs and get the RIAA and the FBI to work with you to combat this you all will have to quit making the [CD burner] machines. Now if you’re making the machine and these people are buying the machine, what did you expect them to do? This was one of the downfalls – the copying of product.

Then they tried to put labels about $10,000 fines for CD burning… people didn’t pay that no mind and it became widespread. I told them when you come to us about a bootleg we are only the ones who can sell it, you’ve gotta hit the manufacturers where these people are making 100,000 units at a time. So they busted a couple of them – one in Philadelphia, one in Florida and they took 100,000 records, but that didn’t stop it.

One day we were talking at one of those meetings, I said ‘you know what, ya’ll let the horse out of the barn now and you’re trying to get him back in. You have destroyed independent music labels because now everything is geared to the big boys, the artists are going along with them now. You’ve got Burger King, McDonalds and all these companies telling these artists we can give you X amount of dollars and we will book you about ten cities and you’ll be able to make more money, so that cut out the independent.

Then the same thing when the radio stations combined; they got rid of all the little radio stations and they made a big network, and KISS went all over the country and bought up all these stations – forgot about the independent disc jockeys they had, brought in artists that don’t know nothing about the record business and they put them in position that they shouldn’t have been, and the disc jockey that went to school to learn the business was no longer a part of that. Through it all [Birdel’s was] were surviving and they couldn’t understand it. They used to tell me all the time, ‘you know, you don’t ask for nothin’, how you makin’ it’? I said ‘with the master upstairs’, I used to quote scriptures on them in a minute. As long as I’ve got my health, got my strength, I’m gonna make a dollar – and this is what I’d tell them all the time. All of this time that we worked as a coalition to build the [record] manufacturers up, they were always looking to tear us down.

Then they began to like me and they started doing things for me all the time. I was reading an article from 1973 that Nelson George wrote for Billboard; I knew his mother, his mother’s best friend was one of my bookkeepers. I watched Nelson grow up and every time he’d write an article he’d mention Birdel’s.

WJ: You mentioned that you sold tickets to events…

JL: We sold tickets for events all over the metropolitan area – New York, New Jersey… we were like a ticket outlet. Before Ticketron first started this is what we were doing. When Ticketron came I wanted to be a Ticketron outlet. I bought a building on Nostrand Avenue – the old Chase Manhattan building and I got an architect to come in and do a layout for me; I wanted to do three levels, something like Tower Records was on Broadway, a 3-level [record store] with Ticketron. When he laid out the plan for me it would cost close to a million dollars to do the construction and everything. I went to Freedom Bank, I went to Carver’s Bank, Citi Bank… and all of these banks refused to loan me money. It really deterred me about elevating my game because now I can’t get no backing.

They would always say to me ‘what is your equity’ and all of that. I said ‘hell, if I had something I wouldn’t be here! If I’ve got $300,000 I don’t need you! I’m here to borrow money and if I fail you’ve got whatever it is…’ but they couldn’t see it. It was the same thing in 1978; I could have bought that corner on Fulton Street where I was with [Birdel’s] and I couldn’t get no money. When you talk about politics, political people and how they help the independent, grassroots people… it ain’t there. They might talk about it but believe me its not there. I should have been bigger than J&R; I knew those people, Jimmy & Rachel, those are the people that own J&R, I knew those two little people when they were nobody. Nobody came to bat for us, and that is the saddest part. Now that corner on Nostrand Avenue & Fulton Street you can’t buy that for $3M, guy is asking for $10M for that corner now.

ON THE DAY IN 2014 WHEN A STRETCH OF NOSTRAND AVENUE WAS NAMED IN HONOR OF BIRDEL’S

WJ: Did you have other people working for you who went on to have their own record stores?

JL: Yep, a couple of them. Not only record stores, I’ve had others come in and learn the record business who went on to be producers. As a matter of fact Biggie [Smalls] I started him, he used to come to my store on Nostrand Avenue and go downstairs… When he first started coming around he used to say ‘Birdel, I hear you got a lotta old 45s and stuff in the basement. Me and my man wanna go down and listen’ – I never knew his man’s name. I said ‘oh man, come on down.’ He used to tell me ‘one day I’m gonna be big and when I’m big I ain’t gonna forget you.’ I said ‘OK Biggie, you ain’t gotta do nothin’ but what you’re doing now… smokin’ reefer out there on the block shootin’ craps, hanging out there at the pool room up at Cambridge Place… that’s all you gonna be…’

He’d say ‘naw, I’m gonna be better…’ I said OK. And when he got big he came back and said ‘whenever you want me to an autograph session [in-store] I’ll do it, let me know.’ At that time the West coast and the East coast [rappers] had that fightin’ thing goin’ on. He came and did that autograph session about two weeks before they were going out to Los Angeles. He and Puffy wasn’t the best [of friends], it was like a front thing… I told him ‘Biggie if I were you I’d stay home…’ He said ‘naw Birdel, I gotta go out there…’ I said ‘let Puffy, he’s the owner of the company, let him go out there and see what’s happening.’ But he went out there and never came back, until he came back in a box.

WJ: Did you have any other young people like that come around the store?

JL: Jay-Z used to come through there, all these guys… Reverend Run, Russell Simmons and all of those young guys used to come through there. Jay-Z or one of those guys off of Morris Avenue came through one time and he was in the store and we wanted to do an autograph session and every minute he’s looking behind his back. I used to tell him ‘what’s wrong man, I don’t have people in here to be scared of, if there’s something you’ve done you better go around there and clean it up, ‘cause you’re out here in the limelight.’ What’s that other boy’s name… Rob Base… These are the kind of guys that I would help. I’ve always been a person that regardless of who you are or what you were doing, I would always try to set you straight.

WJ: What kind of help would you give these guys?

JL: I’d help them financially, mostly with the knowledge and understanding; I fed their hunger, and I talked to them… I used to have little sessions [in Birdel’s], bring the drug guys off the street, and set ‘em down in there on Nostrand Avenue… I’ve had a lot of them come back later in life and say to me, say to the children, ‘you see Birdel’s over there, if it wasn’t for him you wouldn’t be here, he straightened my life out.’ These are the things that I really enjoy because I’ve given so much and I guess that’s why I’ve been blessed like this.

When I said I was going to close that store after 50 years I knew I had done a job. I got support all over the world, not just New York and the States… I got a call from Ghana – and I was in Ghana, sent ‘em product… we took on a family there, me and my sisters. We had a Long Foundation that we helped to support the needy over [in Ghana], we helped put computers in a school over there… So these are the things that I’ve done, but when I do something I don’t need my name in the spotlight because I do it from my heart.

WJ: Do you remember having jazz guys come into your store?

JL: Oh yeah… Cecil Payne, Wilbur Ware, Randy Weston, Paul Chambers, Miles Davis…

WJ: And what would they come in for?

JL: To ask me about music, ask me did I have certain music. The jazz musicians always bought each other’s music during those days so that they could keep up with what was going on. The Blue Coronet was the jazz club down the street before Brownie’s Hideaway around the corner… These were places that the jazz musicians hung out in and played. They had a big place on Franklin Avenue near St. John’s that had played jazz… Randy Weston and all of them guys used to come through and they could play. During those days when they were appearing at the Blue Coronet they would walk up to the store because during those days we were open until 12:00 midnight.

WJ: Did you play music out into the street?

JL: Yes, that was a big help; I had speakers set up on the street.

WJ: You just mentioned a place I’m not familiar with, Brownie’s Hideaway; talk about that place.

JL: Brownie’s Hideaway was a little nightclub spot on St. Marks right off of Nostrand, right where Key Food is now.

WJ: What happened there?

JL: It was like a little spot that the entertainers came in and sang, local talent would come in and sing. Across the street they had The Cove at 704 Nostrand Avenue, then you could go down to Town Hill on Eastern Parkway.

WJ: So I guess you knew Dickie Habersham-Bey from the Blue Coronet?

JL: Yeah, Dickie I knew for years.

WJ: Did you sell tickets at Birdel’s for jazz events?

JL: Any event we sold tickets for – jazz, gospel, R&B, oldies but goodies… all of those things we sold.

WJ: So the jazz guys would come in and buy each other’s records?

JL: Yeah, they listened and if they liked it they would buy it… They supported each other.

WJ: Back in the day the classic record stores would always enable the consumer to come in and listen to something they were interested in. What kind of set-up did you have at Birdel’s for customer listening?

JL: I would play it for them. Most of the time I could look at you and see if you REALLY wanted to buy it, or you just want to hear it. Most of the time the [record] companies would give us a promotional copy [of new releases] so we would have a copy, but not all of the companies. But what I would let you know up front is I’m gonna open this for you, but if you really want to buy it I don’t mind playing it for you. If you don’t want to buy it then I’ll have to seal it back up – I had a sealer – and then I’ll sell it to the next customer.

Most of the time during those days you would always have a 45 or something that came from that album, so we would play the 45 and you didn’t have to worry about the album. During those days, when an artist made a good record they made a good album, it wasn’t about one good tune and you thought about the rest of it being garbage. Ninety percent of all of those records were good albums during that day.

WJ: Did you have a regular policy of artists making personal appearances in your store?

JL: Uh huh, if they were someone in the vicinity I would have them come in there. Jazz artists were funny they didn’t stay like the blues artists or the R&B artists. They would come through there and people would walk in the store and I might say ‘here’s Wilbur Ware over here, a bass player, he played with Miles Davis, or he played with Randy Weston or somebody…’ And they’d say ‘oh yeah…’, and then Wilbur would say [quietly] ‘…I play music, I don’t want to be out there…’ that’s the way they would talk. I’d say ‘man, you’re an artist, let the people know who you are!’

WJ: So jazz artists were too modest?

JL: Yeah they were too modest. But a guy like Miles Davis would come in there and [the customers] knew Miles right away. He would come in there and stay for awhile and say ‘….hey what’s goin’ on, I’m down at the Blue Coronet for awhile, come on down and listen to me – I’ll play something you want to hear…’ I’ve always been a jazz lover.

WJ: Why did you decide to close Birdel’s?

JL: In 1968 when I took over the store I said I would do 25-30 years because I was looking for a change, and I wasn’t gonna look to work the rest of my life, I wanted to be behind a desk calling the shots. When 2007 came I said ‘wow, this is my 50th year in the business and I’ll be 70 years old…’ Maybe we’ll do a 50/70 [anniversary celebration]. So I called up the record companies and I told them I wanted to do a 50/70. They said ‘what do you mean by that Joe?’ I said I want to get a boat and travel around Manhattan and I want all my friends from all these years that I’ve known, not only in the music business – my church family… I want everybody under the same roof and I want to give a 50/70 gala.’

They said ‘we can help you, but we don’t know how much.’ I said, well I’ll get a price for a boat and we’ll go from there. So I got a price for the boat – now they have downsized these record companies so you only have four big ones – Universal, BMG, EMI and another… it’s only four big boys now – and they all came together and said they would give me a piece of money and that’s what I did.

That was the year, 2007, that I was gonna retire. The reason I wanted to retire then is because I could see the vision of the record industry shrinking as far as music is concerned, and especially with the downloads; I fought them too for 10-15 years when they started selling [downloads] and you could put it on your iPod or whatever. I saw then the decline of people coming into your store. If I wanted to stay in this business I would have changed this whole business around.

I brought my nephew into the business to carry on Birdel’s when he finished school at North Carolina Central because he was majoring in business administration. And he learned the business and he worked with me ten years. After that I was ready to move out. But then he met a young lady and she didn’t want him in the record business no more because of the climate you’re surrounded by in the record business – all the entertainers, all the parties… She saw if she didn’t get him out of the business she might have lost him and she really wanted to get married. So she told him she would like to marry him but he would have to come out of the business.

He really didn’t tell me at the time that he wanted to get out of the business. Later on he said that he wanted to get married and Tonya wanted to move to North Carolina and wanted to go back to teaching. So my son is a playwright, my daughter is a doctor – OBGYN – so I said to myself ‘why am I gonna continue to work? I’m set, I have my health and strength, so I wanted to do a few things before I leave this earth – I want to do some traveling, go back to West Africa, and I want to do some other things that I have in mind, so I said maybe with the record business declining like it is now it’s a good time for me to get out.

My customer base didn’t want me to leave, so I hung on for another 3 years and I saw that I wasn’t making no money, all I was doing was paying rent, buying music, and there wasn’t any sense in putting good money to bad money, so I said no use in me keeping my money in here just to satisfy a few devoted customers, because the [customer] age from 16-40 nobody was buying, they were all online. So if you don’t have that customer base there’s no use in continuing. If I had stayed I would have turned the store around to electronics and just had the music for an offset.

I would have kept the gospel and the oldies because that’s what I was noted for; my specialty was oldies. They really didn’t think I was gonna close. I used to say ‘ya’ll gonna miss me when I’m gone…’ They would say ‘… you ain’t going nowhere…’ I’d say ‘watch me…’ One of the guys came in crying, he said ‘Birdel, you told me 3 years ago… I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone…’ They came to the realization that I’m going to close these doors.

WJ: What did you do with all your record stock?

JL: I’ve got stock in storage… the vinyl. I’ve got maybe 50-60,000 pieces of vinyl. I want to sell the whole thing, I don’t want to sell it piecemeal. I had a guy from Ireland that wanted it all but he ran into a problem with the freight and how he would get it back, he didn’t want to spend a lot of money to get it back [to Ireland]. I had another guy from Germany who told me if I took this stock over there I’d be a millionaire overnight with this vinyl. He said they were hungry, they needed this because nobody else has it. I told him ‘man, I’ve been doing this 53 years and I’m tired, let me do what I want to do…’

WJ: As you look back on those 53 years, what thoughts do you have about the music business? There are two different things we’re talking about here – the record business and the music business.

JL: The music business – over those 53 years I’ve been involved in it, the record business has been good to me. The record business has taken a decline. The music business will always live because you have a history here with the music that cannot be duplicated no more. They can sample it they can do whatever they want, but they can’t take away from the originals. This is why music is so important today. What has really hurt the music business part of it is you don’t have radio that is dedicated to play music because now everything is about the dollar. During those early days we as independents could buy time; you could buy a half hour or 15 minutes on a station and play in those 15 minutes what you wanted to play.

Only on WBGO [in the metro area] can you hear good jazz, the same with the oldies but goodies. What I really wanted to do was to buy a radio station. I used to tell people that if you bought a station you don’t worry about the ratings and you don’t worry about the listeners because if you play good music you’ll get listeners.

WJ: I can remember when I was a kid there was a guy in Cleveland who had a record store and he bought up a few hours on the air on WJMO, the black station, and he’d have his thing every Sunday (the “Pleaser” show). Did you ever do that?

JL: I did a little bit years ago. I went to school for radio and worked at WPNN down in Annapolis, MD for a year or two, but I came back to New York. I found that during those days the disc jockey had the freedom, but you didn’t have the support of the owners because they were looking for the dollar, and you’re on staff so you’ve gotta do what they tell you to [play]. The big corporations came in and bought the stations and then they collaborated and put them all together, so then they were in control.

So if you hear this [record] in Atlanta, you’re gonna hear it in Milwaukee, in New York, hear it all over. This is the way they program music now and they don’t play good music. When have you heard a good jazz record on the radio going back to a Miles Davis “Bag’s Groove,” 1957-58? They don’t have that today, so you really have the music that’s there but its not getting the exposure, it’s not getting the airplay.

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Umbria Jazz Winter 26th edition

Umbria Jazz Winter 2018

Perched on the flat summit of a large butte composed largely of rock formed by volcanic ash sits the lovely town of Orvieto, located in the southwestern side of the Italian Umbria region. Normally home to roughly 21,000 inhabitants, for the last 26 years, the week after Christmas Orvieto becomes Italy’s ground zero for great jazz, home to Umbria Jazz’s Winter edition.

CARLO PAGNOTTA

In 1973 when Carlo Pagnotta, the enduring force behind Umbria Jazz, and Adriano Mazzoletti founded Umbria Jazz, the festival started in the Umbrian town of Todi, eventually settling in Perugia, the picturesque hilltop capital of the Umbria region. Pagnotta and company proved quite prescient in naming the festival for its home region as it led to a natural transition to the winter edition in Orvieto. As journalist and festival official Enzo Capua told us one evening over dinner, the success of Umbria Jazz has led to other Umbrian towns clamoring for their own Umbria Jazz editions.

THE STREETS OF ORVIETO ARE ALIVE DURING UMBRIA JAZZ WINTER

Further, Capua authoritatively informed that Umbria Jazz – like many jazz festivals across the globe – has served as a significant economic development tool for Orvieto. It seems that prior to the festival growing it’s winter event the city had actually experienced dormant hotels and a generally sleepy business atmosphere during typical post-Christmas weeks. That’s certainly not the case these days as Umbria Jazz Winter transforms Orvieto into a vibrant, carnivalesque environment, its main streets and byways bustling with enticing retail action and a happy holidays mode in its many cafes and restaurants. That’s especially the case in the lively plaza surrounding the city’s most imposing architectural wonder, the beautiful Duomo, Orvieto Cathedral, which is reputedly the country’s second only in size to St. Peters in Rome.

The music of this 2018/19 edition of Umbria Jazz Winter (the festival closes on New Year’s Day) was yet another apt reflection of the International Language of Jazz. Jazz history tells us that this uniquely American art form has morphed into a true world music as jazz education has expanded globally. Practically every major country in the world now boasts its own community of impressive jazz musicians and Italy is certainly a contender.

As one who endeavors to assiduously avoid playing what I refer to as the lineup game – as in ‘let’s check the lineup before we commit to attend the [insert name here] Jazz Festival’, while planning this Orvieto trip, I paid little attention to who was actually playing. Past experiences have developed a high level of trust in the programming instincts and acumen of such first class jazz festival curators as Umbria Jazz’s Carlo Pagnotta, making the lineup game an unnecessary exercise. One goes to such festivals armed with a sense of trust in their respective curatorial instincts, assured that whatever plays those stages will be a rewarding mix of master and emerging level talent.

Arriving in Orvieto sans more than a cursory advance sense of the Umbria Jazz Winter #26 lineup, notice was quickly taken of the robust prevalence of Italian jazz artists on the bill for the next five days & nights. After the 9-hour flight from JFK to Rome, and a pleasant 90-minute drive to Orvieto, settling down in the Grand Hotel Italia to check the festival schedule it quickly occurred that this would be one European jazz festival experience that leaned heavily on its own country’s impressive community of jazz musicians and bands for the bulk of its lineup. And what’s the sense in traveling 10+ hours to a beautiful country just to see a succession of American artists? Of course there’s always the food and bonhomie of such a welcoming country as Italy, with it’s renowned cuisine traditions and inviting retail; on the other hand, take a simple vacation to enjoy those pleasures. When you travel that distance for a jazz festival, experiencing great music is goal #1.

That first evening began with traversing Orvieto’s central byway for the first of each day’s Street Parades featuring the raucous band Funk Off, reprising its daily role in past Umbria Jazz summer festivals in Perugia. Strolling through town, destination Teatro Mancinelli, clarified that on this Italian holiday week, one could scarcely do better than this lovely town, with its hilly vistas and rolling green valleys. That evening’s doublebill featured the intensely interactive partnership of the animated trumpeter Paolo Fresu, accordion master Richard Galliano, and the Swedish pianist Jan Lundgren. The brooding presence of one of Italy’s most renowned jazz masters, the trumpeter Enrico Rava, in a quartet performance with bassist Giovanni Tommaso, pianist Danilo Rea, and drummer Roberto Gatto followed them. The opening trio proved the most compelling of this bill, with particularly Fresu and Galliano communicating brilliantly, with a keen sense of humor.

Saturday afternoon commenced with a noontime performance at the museum space Museo Emilio Greco by one of the festival’s standout performers, the Cinema Italia project led by the authoritative alto saxophonist Rosario Giuliani. The presence of another accordionist, Luciano Biondini greatly enhanced their program of music by the distinctive Italian film composer Nino Rota, best known in this country for scoring The Godfather and Godfather 2, and for scoring Fellini films. Drummer Michele Rabbia was quite the animated presence, what with his use of live electronics, and assorted sound enhancements, such as engaging a small cymbal to rake across the drumheads with requisite madcap. Rosario is above all an eminent melodist, which lent itself beautifully to this interpretation of Rota’s scores.

Later that evening was the first of several of the 26th annual festival’s signature offerings at Teatro Mancinelli, “Bud Powell In the 21st Century, a program that commissioned the pianist Ethan Iverson, late of the Bad Plus, to re-imagine the music of Bud for the Umbria Jazz Orchestra. Opening the program was slated to be the bebop survivor NEA Jazz Master Barry Harris, in trio with bassist Ben Street and the great drummer Lewis Nash. However a Harris’ health challenge curbed his Orvieto experience and Iverson was thrust into double duty. For his impromptu set with Street, with whom the pianist has plenty of experience from their trio with drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath and his first time hook-up with Nash, Iverson chose the music of Thelonious Monk based upon his close kinship with Powell. Nash, coming from the same school of high-class drumming good taste as Heath, proved once again to be a most agreeable collaborator in this setting.

ETHAN IVERSON

Iverson’s Bud Powell program, at the helm of the full big band instrumentation of the Umbria Jazz Orchestra, Nash and Street in the rhythm section, commenced with an Iverson chart of Bud’s composition “Celia.” Sandwiched between big band Bud charts, the scene next morphed into a most agreeable quintet setting, with Umbria Jazz Orchestra guests Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, and Dayna Stephens on tenor sax smartly reprising three pieces from Bud’s classic quintet date “The Amazing Bud Powell Vol.1,” which had featured Sonny Rollins and Fats Navarro on the frontline. The band closed with “Un Poco Loco,” each horn section member cleverly trading a chorus each, then coming together for spirited collective improvisations. Iverson and the band encored with the pianist’s own “Paradise Mobile,” which he explained would be played in the spirit of Duke Ellington’s counterpoint, skillfully using the chordal platform of “All The Things You Are”.

This proved to be the first of three sightings of this program on succeeding nights, each revealing it’s own charms. The next two encounters featured the opulent swing of one of Italy’s enduring masters, pianist Dado Moroni for the opening set trio, more than ably sitting in for the lamented absence of Barry Harris with Nash and Street. Later that week a sumptuous dinner in a delightful cavern restaurant with Iverson, Street, Nash and Maroni’s family introduced us to the pianist’s lively red headed son Oscar (named for Peterson) in all his 4-year old glory, and Dado’s charming wife Ada. Maroni’s presence was yet more positive testimony coming from the robust community of Italy’s jazz musicians.

New Year’s Day we closed our Orvieto experience with a second helping of the delicious duo of trumpeter Fabrizio Bosso and pianist Julian Oliver Mazzariello. Bosso is an artist of prodigious chops and vivid imagination, a veritable supernova who cleverly manipulates various mutes and live electronics to further enliven his resourceful approach. The duo played “Misty” like a cashmere scarf on a blustery day. Bosso clearly has a trumpet virtuosity that exhibits an attractive audacity leavened with warm humility, clearly coming out of a successful post-Wynton bag.

One of the charms of Umbria Jazz Winter was the opportunity to catch each of the above acts more than once. And in the jazz realm that certainly invites opportunities to experience the sound of surprise as each repeat performance did indeed turn out to be different. Fabrizio Bosso, who has clearly emerged as one of the world’s great jazz trumpeters, in his second duo performance with the wonderfully skilled Mazzariello, elected to close the set with some New Orleans flavored audacity – strolling the hall while blowing a beautiful “In a Sentimental Mood” for an enraptured audience.

But the hardest working men in Orvieto were undoubtedly the rich baritone voice and storytelling élan of Allan Harris, and the diminutive soul man Wee Willie Walker, who hit with the volatile The Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra. Walker performed daily, including dinner sets at the gastronomic delight Ristorante Al San Francesco (where musicians, journalists and festival guests dined upstairs daily to their collective delight for lunch & dinner). Meanwhile Harris was all over the place, dipping liberally into the American songbook, including Nat Cole nods, varying his sets with selections from his riveting saga of Blue, a composite character of Black cowboy/Buffalo Soldier legend. Of particular note in Allan Harris’ crew was the drummer Shirazette Tinin, particularly when she sat down to the cojone. I can’t think of a better place to experience off-season jazz festival ambiance than Orvieto for Umbria Jazz Winter.

ALLAN HARRIS


SHIRAZETTE TININ

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Jim Harrison jazz warrior

Just returning from the annual NYC January performing arts conference zone, in my case that would be primarily Jazz Congress and secondarily the huge Association of Performing Arts Professionals conferences, inevitably leads to thoughts and meditations on the ongoing evolution of the jazz presenter. The current core of that sector is the jazz festival presenter, of which this writer is a proud member. Thinking back to earlier times when jazz presentation was largely confined to the club scene, brings to mind those independent operators who strove to present their own sense of the music on those smaller stages. One such indy stalwart is my old friend and colleague Jim Harrison.

Besides presenting jazz in the NYC club scene, Jim Harrison also once published one of the few African American oriented jazz periodicals, The Jazz Spotlite News. That particular vehicle provided me with byline opportunities when few others would, granting invaluable opportunities to hone my craft. You’ll read more about Jim Harrison’s publishing side, and the odyssey of the Jazz Spotlite News in the forthcoming book Ain’t But a Few of Us. Here another contributor to the Ain’t But a Few of Us series dialogues – which first appeared in the Independent Ear in 2010 (check our Archives section) – Amsterdam News jazz writer Ron Scott, a periodic Independent Ear contributor, writes about Jim Harrison.

THE QUIET JAZZ WARRIOR
By Ron Scott

Jim Harrison (middle) flanked by vocalist George V. Johnson Jr. and trumpeter Charles Tolliver

He is the unassuming gentleman who is greeted warmly by all the musicians, including such greats as Jimmy Heath, Barry Harris, Jimmy Owens, Rene McLean and Roy Haynes. Those on the jazz landscape periphery only know him as that cool guy always on the scene, who everybody seems to know. But what exactly does Jim Harrison do, you might ask?

Jim Harrison is a jazz promoter, extraordinaire. He should be instructing a course in jazz promotion: Its’ history and significance. Even technology with its e-mail, speed dial, and iPhones has not depreciated the importance of Harrison’s contributions or discouraged musicians who seek him out for his crucial promotion savvy. “My clients also use e-mail blasts and we have a mailing list,” said Harrison.

Back in the day before computers and smart phones Harrison’s job was to get the word out. “We got to people on the streets with flyers, and posters,” said Harrison “There were spots in Harlem where I left flyers like the Lenox Terrace, Showmans’ Cafe, restaurants, community centers, Penn Station and Grand Central Station.”

Currently, Harrison has a choice client list that includes jazz vocalist Antoinette Montague, pianist Lisle Atkinson, and Jazzmobile. “Over the years I’ve had an extensive client list but at 86 years old, I have cut back the fast-paced life for something a little more manageable,” laughed Harrison.

At the height of the Black Power movement in Harlem, the pianist, composer, and educator Dr. Billy Taylor co-founded Jazzmobile in 1965, to bring live jazz to the city’s five boroughs. The person he hired to promote this fledgling project was Harrison. Today Harrison is still a consultant for Jazzmobile’s summer concerts. “Robin Bell-Stevens, the director of Jazzmobile, has been very supportive. She’s the best of the organizations’ directors and I worked with all of them,” says Harrison.

A native of Harlem, Harrison started a fan club for Jackie McLean in 1961. McLean had been stripped of his cabaret card and couldn’t perform in New York clubs. Harrison’s fan club held “listening parties” with McLean.

He decided to promote McLean in non-traditional jazz settings where a cabaret card was not needed, so he promoted a McLean concert at Judson Hall (originally across the street from Carnegie Hall). After being terminated from his job in Queens (1962), Harrison realized promotion was his ideal job and moved back to Manhattan to become a full-time promoter.

He later promoted McLean’s concert at Town Hall in 1963 and continued working with him until 1965. McLean hooked Harrison up with Slug’s, the legendary club formerly in the East Village, where he was the promoter from 1965-1972. He also promoted concerts for Lee Morgan in Staten Island and the Bronx before the trumpeter was fatally shot at Slugs in 1972.

Harrison did promotions for the late trombonist Benny Powell in 1963. “Benny was a big help to me,” said Harrison. “I wanted to get a full time job but Benny said, we need you out here.” For Powell’s Ben G Enterprises Harrison also did concert productions at Club Ruby in Queens. “Jim has done a lot for musicians,” said Powell. He’s the greatest underground publicist I’ve ever met. He would go out at night and put up posters. If you stood still long enough, he would put a poster on your back. He was very effective.”

Maxine Gordon and Hattie Gossett’s Ms. Management hired Harrison, and he was the promoter of record for noted jazz clubs Boomer’s and Sweet Basil’s (1976-1981). He became a publisher (1979-1982) with his jazz publication Jazz Spotlight News that included listings, reviews and features.

“Black writers weren’t getting published in DownBeat Magazine,” the jazz magazine of record at the time, said Harrison. “After reading a concert review by the New York Times and other dailies it was the great review by John Sanders, jazz writer for the Amsterdam News, that made it clear we needed black writers to have a voice in jazz, our music, so I started Jazz Spotlight News.” The paper started with 12 pages and before it closed boasted 144 pages and 60 black freelance writers. The closest resemblance to Spotlight News is today’s Hot House and AllAboutJazz.

Harrison ran an ad in the paper thanking his wife Fannie for her support; paraphrased it read, “Thank you Fannie Harrison for allowing me to blow the rent money, food money and everything to allow me to become a jazz promoter.” Harrison was married to Fannie for 44 years before she died in 2006. She worked at the door for his many jazz events and helped type up the flyers. He didn’t blow all the money because he managed to keep her happy and raise two children. “She was an incredible woman,” he said.

Harrison stopped publishing the paper when he joined Barry Harris and Larry Ridley at the Jazz Cultural Theater (1982-1987). “That was a good experience but it was hard work,” said Harrison.
He also worked with Ridley at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. promoting concerts, and continues to work on the bassist’s projects at the Schomburg Center. “Jim has been like a big brother to me,” said Ridley. “I can’t think of anyone that has been more dedicated to jazz who’s not a musician.”

These days Jim Harrison lives with his daughter and grandchildren in Brooklyn but make no mistake, he is still a low-key gentleman, who is greeted by all the great jazz musicians and those in the know. He is our elder living jazz legend.

The great promoter has worked with jazz royalty such as Kenny Durham, Elmo Hope, Eddie Jefferson, Milt Jackson, and Walter Davis, Jr. among others. “It’s been a very interesting life and delightful journey,” says Harrison.

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Davey Yarborough interview

Davey Yarborough
Interviewed: Wednesday, March 14, 2018
Duke Ellington School for the Arts

Talk about the Ellington School’s unique relationship to the DC Public Schools.
What it’s actually called is a hybrid program, where we have the obligation to ensure that the kids coming here have the full compliment of high school academic education; on top of that we have a full arts development program as well, so we’re called dual curriculum. We have several disciplines: instrumental music, vocal music, literary media, dance, visual arts… we have the only museum studies major in the nation, and we have theater.

How does a student enter Ellington?
We have an audition process, but again we’re a unique school, we’re even a unique arts school because the majority of arts schools application process is highly affected by the academic prowess of the students. This school is purely motivated to the development of artists, so we have the task also of – if they are not academically sound when they come in, that we will remediate them because we are a college prep school. We have been successful historically, and I’ve been here as a band director since 1986; I came in as an attendance counselor in 1984, but my tenure here has witnessed the consistent graduation rate being in the 90s and up.

What you said initially suggests that if a student is prolific in one of those arts disciplines, but has issues academically, the school is willing to uplift the academic side?
I guess the caveat is where they may not even be proficient in their art field, their interview dictates – in terms of the aptitude and the attitude.

Where and under whom did you study jazz?
[Laughs] You need a book! My first exposure actually came from my family, not as artists but as listeners. My parents had a good record collection [he grew up in DC; parents from North Carolina]. The listening bug hit me hard when we would go away in the summer. I have an aunt who had a record player and records in her room. So when she would leave for school I’d go in her room and listen to her records.

She came back and caught me one day and said she didn’t want me to mess up her records but she saw that I liked them so much. So RCA put out the first stereophonic album, and it was called “Sounds in Space,” and on this record was every genre you could think of, it was a sampler. She gave me that record – which I still have today – and I wore it out and it’s hanging in the inspiration room in my house, along with the other things that inspired me to do what I’m doing. She gave me that record and said ‘you can play my record player anytime you want, and here’s your own record.’ I played that record until it turned white! It had orchestra, Dakota Staton, classical, pop… the various mediums.

At school they used to take us to Constitution Hall on field trips every couple of months to watch the National Symphony rehearse, so I got to hear Benjamin Britten’s listening guide to orchestra and found that very fascinating because I got a chance to really hear them talk about the various instruments. That got my ear. So by the third grade I knew that I wanted to be an artist.

My family wasn’t necessarily gung ho about my pursuing a career as a musician, as with most parents, and I don’t fault them for that because they wanted what they thought was the best for me. But if you stick to your guns you can prove whatever it is you are dreaming to be.

Where did you go to college?
Federal City College, UDC, and Howard.

Did you study with DC legend Calvin Jones at Federal City College?
Yeah, that’s my man. But before him, Bobby Felder brought what was called the Entertainment Package, the first big band I had ever seen perform. I was seriously fascinated and at the end of the performance he said “if are there any seniors who are interested in going to college, come up and talk.”

I had a pretty good ear, I wore out a lot of records, and I started out on clarinet. But when I got to high school my clarinet sorta disappeared – long story. My father said “well, I bought one instrument, but you’re gonna buy the next one.” So I worked at Arby’s for $1.10 an hour all summer and at the end of the summer I had $400, but the saxophone that I wanted [points to it in his band room] cost $425! So my dad loaned me $25. And I still have that saxophone, an alto; it’s like the baby. Later I was sort of forced to buy a tenor sax. I got into a R&B band called The Delusion, and recorded with a group called The Loveations, a record called “I Can’t Forget About You,” we had a vocal and an instrumental version. So I was big time, I was in high school and I was recording, but I couldn’t read a lick [laughs].”

When I got a scholarship from Federal City College without having to sight read, it was cool. They said “play something for me,” then they said “yeah, we’ll get you in.” So I got in and ran into Dr. Arthur C. Dawkins for my saxophone lessons. He put some pieces of music in front of me and that was the end of it for me [laughs]! But he said, “you’re in, and you’re in on scholarship” because my grades were good. “But you got grades, but you’ve got one semester to prove to me that you’re gonna be able to step up.”

A senior named James Palmore took me under his wing, and when I wasn’t taking lessons from Dawkins I was playing duets with [Palmore], who was very instrumental in helping me learn to read. He was doing John Coltrane transcriptions and all kinda stuff. At the end of that first semester he told me that, “the good news is you can maintain your scholarship and you can keep going, but we don’t have a saxophone major, so you’re now a flute major… go get one!

So I went to the pawn shop and found an Armstrong closed hole flute for $90 and that was my flute for three years. When I got ready to graduate, Dawkins said “you’ve gotta get yourself a real instrument, because if you’re going to play with anyone they’re going to expect you to play on a quality instrument.” He had a William Haynes flute and he was getting ready to unload because he had ordered another flute. I paid way under the value but I paid $3500 for that flute, in payments. He still wants that flute back [laughs], but I still have it, so I went from there.

I got my associates degree from Federal City and then it became UDC and I was convinced by Bobby Felder, because I got my associates degree and I figured I had satisfied my parents, went to college, and I wanted to get out on the road and play, I thought I was done with school. Bobby pulled me into his office and said “you tell me what you can do with an associates degree that you couldn’t already do with a high school diploma. You’re halfway through a Bachelor’s degree and with that all kinds of other doors will open for you. You’re on scholarship, on the dean’s list…” So of course I couldn’t answer the question so I thought ‘two more years.’

Right after that he said “what are you going to major in?” I said Performance, of course. He said “we don’t have a performance major, but we do have an education degree.” When I was in high school, Jessie Adams my band director pulled me aside one day when I was cuttin’ up and said “one of these days you’re going to be sitting here dealing with students just like you” [laughs]. And at that point I said “oh no, I will not teach.” I went from that point on all the way up to that conversation with Bobby I said I don’t want to teach. He said “hold up, just because you got an education degree doesn’t mean that you have to teach, it’s a bachelor’s degree, you can get a bachelor’s in basket weaving if you want.”

The bottom line is that was the standard up to that point. So he said “just get the degree, you love music, you’re playing, just go on and get the degree and you can do anything that you want to do.” Boy, he conned me good! So I took a practicum at Jefferson Junior High under Winston Hall, a piano player and a good band director. I did the practicum – just going in and observing a band director – he gave me a couple of flutes and gave me three or four little flute players and he said “you work with them, and that’s your teaching, and of course you watch how I deal with the band and how I deal with the rest of the kids,” and he would grade me on that.

So I’m working with these kids, and you’ve gotta work with them individually, and I turned my back on one and I heard this loud BAM, and I turned back around and a flute was sorta bent over the chair. I said “what happened?” The student said “I don’t know.” I said “come on man…” He said “I couldn’t do what you were telling me and I just got mad.” About a month later this guy comes in grinning from ear to ear. He had had a breakthrough and seeing that face, hearing that kid go from prune faced to the happiest kid in the world… that got me good! That’s where I decided that it was ok to teach.

What was your first teaching position?
That’s where Calvin Jones comes in. I was in a summer youth employment program under Mayor Barry and my first job was emptying trashcans at the government print office and I still have nightmares about that. Lillian Hough and Yvette Holt had a program over at Backus, an arts program – dance, and Calvin Jones was the band director for that program. When I got there for this summer job they put me with Calvin Jones. He took me on the first day to a couple of the elementary schools to pick up instruments. While we were picking up the instruments he had AM radio on in his car and I’m listening to big band jazz. He started telling me about the artists. He was a trombone, piano, and bass player and all of this was having a serious impact on me. At the time he was teaching at Cardozo High School.

He left Cardozo and came to UDC and that’s when he became the jazz band director. When I was there he had a septet, a sextet, and the big band and I played in all three. I have a history with pawn shops, I used to build stereo systems from components at the pawn shop and sell them to my friends. One day I was in the pawn shop and there was a soprano sax there and it was gorgeous to me, so a stereo I had just built paid $110 for that saxophone.

So I brought it to school and Calvin got excited! He started writing soprano sax parts for the big band; by that time I was playing lead alto. He liked the combination of soprano and trumpet so he started writing for the sextet. Judith Korey is the one that taught me music theory. She gave me a key to her office so that when she left I could go in and use the piano and practice. So I would stay there until it was time to go to the nightclub where I was working. So I would get there at 8:00am, go to class and study theory, then I would go to her office and practice until time to go to the nightclub; back then I played with a lot of different people. There was a place called Moore’s Love and Peace, which was probably my first real steady job. I had met [wife] Esther [Williams] by then. Dawkins sent me on one of his gigs as a sub, we played the gig together, we exchanged numbers afterwards. She said, “yeah, if we need another saxophone player we’ll call.” By then she was touring with her first record.

A couple of weeks later she calls me and she’s playing with Charlie Hampton, doing a gig at the church, and she said, “we need a saxophone player,” so I went there. Then about three or four months later she called and said “Charlie is getting ready to get rid of his saxophone player and I suggested you, he remembered you,” and so I got that gig. We ended up playing at that club for about eleven years!

What was your first teaching position?
Ernest Dyson taught jazz history and business of music courses at Federal City College and he worked at the Washington Community School of Music over in Northeast DC in a church and he offered me a job teaching flute there. So I walked into Dawkins office all proud and said “hey Doc, I got a job teaching music!” He said “you can’t have that job, because what’s gonna happen is you’re going to start earning that steady money and the next thing you know you’ll drop out, you’ll never get your degree, and it’s too early for you to leave [college], you’ve got enough to do just getting through college.” He went to Ernest and said “don’t give him this job.”

When I graduated with my associates degree Ernest called me back and said “do you still want that job?” So that was my first teaching job and I really enjoyed doing that, I was just a private flute teacher. In ’78 when I graduated UDC I was engaged to Esther and after my senior recital I announced that I was engaged. Bobby and Doc they all knew Esther, but they looked at me like “you’re gonna get married now? Before, you were talking about how you wanted to go out on the road, and now you’re going to come straight out of college and get married, don’t you understand what that’s about?” I said, “yeah, I do – and I did.” Once I let the cat out of the bag I don’t think there was a professor in the building that didn’t call me in and say “why are you going to get married as soon as you graduate?” But I did, and my first job after I graduated was at Wilson High School as a Drivers’ Education instructor. I got hired here at Ellington in May of ’78 for September, because I did my student teaching here under Wallace Clark and Mickey Bass.

Wallace and Antoine Roney were here then, but you couldn’t study jazz during the school day, you had to do it after school. Mickey would come down two days a week after school and teach the kids who were interested in jazz. Not that it was forbidden, just not yet established. So I was offered the band director’s job, but that year the government cut teacher’s salaries, so I got fired before I got a chance to work. So I went over to Wilson HS and taught Driver’s Ed because there was a trombone player there who was teaching Driver’s Ed and one of the Driver’s Ed teachers had fallen and was on disability, so it was a temporary job.

The band director at Wilson was elderly and about ready to retire, so they said come on over here for about a year or so and he’ll probably retire so you can slip into his job. He didn’t leave [laughs]. And also the Driver’s Ed program had some financial problems and I ended up getting Rifed from that, so I sold pianos at Jordan Kitts in Columbia, MD for a year. I came back and got a job at Carter G. Woodson Junior High. Robert Sands had retired. On my first day the principle told me about him, said he had a 300-piece marching band, etc.; I wasn’t about marching bands… but it was a job.

So I went by Robert’s house and he said “look, I’m a saxophone player, don’t let this teaching thing stop you from playing.” And I said “right,” not really understanding what he was saying, but then I realized that because you are putting your energy into these young people and there’s only a certain amount of time in a day, I could see how that could happen, but I never gave up playing. Dawkins had got me into playing in theater productions, so I was doing some of the theater jobs, and then I was still doing the nightclub thing. I did Woodson for a year and decided at that point that I didn’t need this. When they handed me my evaluation – outstanding evaluation – I handed them my letter of resignation.

A saxophone position came up at UDC, so I went over there part time. Then I started thinking if you do music round the clock guys burn out. So I took a job as an attendance counselor at the School Without Walls, and I did that for almost two years. I had taught Floretta McKenzie’s daughter driver’s education at Wilson and she started following me; she knew I played and she would show up places where I was playing. One day she walked into the building here at Ellington, walked up to the principle, Maurice Eldridge – who had seen me playing with Joe Williams and Bobby Blue Bland at Fort Dupont, [pianist] John Malachi was in that band. So Maurice is onstage giving Joe Williams an award, he looks down in the pit and says “what are you doing here?”

So just about a month later, Floretta McKenzie said she wanted me to run the music program at McKinley HS. Maurice said “he’s here [at Ellington] and if he’s going to go back into music education, I want him here because I need another saxophone teacher.’ I had been here for awhile and I knew some of the faculty members and students, so I picked Ellington.

What month and year did you start at Ellington?
March of 1984 as the attendance counselor, and then in September of ’86 I became the band director.

When you started teaching at Ellington, what did you teach?
Saxophone, and they allowed me to start the big band. They put me in a small room – one third the size of this current band room – and it had steps and some chairs in there, and a couple of music stands. But where’s the equipment? And I was also told by a faculty member that if you teach some classes make sure you schedule them before 3:00 because these students aren’t going to stay until 5:00, even though they’re supposed to. Another teacher said “well, the equipment was here, but it sorta walked out.” So there was no band equipment there. So come my first class, I had my drummers play air drums… I said you set up and act like this is your snare drum, your floor tom… and I got some music and I had a little keyboard that was there, and the horn players had their horns, so we just did what we did to get started. Lo and behold one day the door opens and a CNN camera crew walked in the room and they’re filming this and asking “where’s the drumset?” I said, “we don’t have any,” and just as I was explaining this to them, Maurice Elders the principle walked in and they turned the cameras around to him, and a little while later I had a couple of drumsets. I don’t even know if he knew whether the equipment was there or not, but after that I got some equipment.

Then Joe Williams, Wynton Marsalis donated, they were the first contributors, and I went around Georgetown asking for whatever types of donations I could get for the equipment that I really needed, and that was the first wave of equipment. Wynton gave me $5,000 and Joe gave the same amount and that got us off the ground. From then I learned how to write grants, because I was writing letters to airlines… anybody that I thought would donate. I got enough to do what I needed from that point on.

What sense of Duke Ellington’s music have you given your students here?
First it was imparted to me. I was working with [bassist] Keter Betts, because of Dawkins, I worked with Bill Harris’ band, Rick Henderson’s band, all these things resulted from Dawkins and Bobby Felder connecting me. I ended up with Bill Harris at Wolftrap and that’s where he introduced me to Sarah Vaughan, Keter Betts… Bill took me to the concert and there were other musicians that he introduced me to. Keter asked me to come play with his band and I played with that band for about five years. I met Roland Hanna playing with Keter. When I got the Ellington job, Keter called and wanted me to come by his house. So I went over, sat in the kitchen, and he started asking me about Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and I was already shocked that I got the job because a whole lot of veteran band directors wanted that job, and he could see that there was a little bit of tension behind that.

So Keter said “what do you know about Duke?” I told him the little I knew – and it was a little – and he said “well that’s not enough because your job now is to enlighten those kids at that school, especially the ones that are playing.” So he went down to his basement and he pulled out a book called “Ellingtonia” and he started showing me all of the songs, the writing, the photography… everything – to the point of overload. I said to myself ‘how am I going to deal with this?’ That’s when Keter volunteered to come to Ellington before school. We had a program called Paying Your Dues that I ended up getting a grant from the DC Commission on the Arts to do. I brought in Steve Novosel… whatever artists that I could find I would give them a little stipend to come at 7am and teach the kids who wanted to learn jazz. John Malachi would come in; as a matter of fact the week he passed he came and did a rehearsal and a workshop.

The program Paying Your Dues allowed me to take the kids to the East Coast Jazz Festival (Ronnie Wells’ predecessor to Paul & Karmen Carr’s current Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival), and we’d do fundraising that enabled us to get to France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and some of the other tours we did; grantwriting and fundraising enabled us to take the band out.

What’s been your ensemble focus here at Ellington?
Everything that I can! Willie Ruff and Dwike Mitchell came here, which demonstrated to the students the duo form, that you don’t have to play big band music all the time… jazz is jazz, I don’t care what instrument it’s played on. One of the things I had to do with the student body here is say, come out of that tunnel people have you in; if you hear [jazz] and you like it, you can do anything.

Currently I have my 7:15-8:15am class for kids who come in who don’t get into the jazz orchestra, or don’t get into my in-curricular combo. And I’m still teaching saxophone as well. Right now I’ve got about 8 of those students, and then 6th period Monday-Tuesday-Thursday I have a 5-piece combo and we work on anything from Go Bop – to ease them into bebop I would take bebop tunes and I brought John Buchannan here once and he was one of the founders of go-go an we went to Federal City College together. So I wanted them to get the true Washington art form of go-go, which they had been listening to, but I wanted them to see the evolution of that and make sure they had the genuine stuff.

We would take tunes like “Yardbird Suite” or “All Blues,” which we took
out of three and put it in four, and put it into the go-go beat. They even have what they call “Take the Metro”, which uses “Take the A Train.” They have a medley where they come out of “Nica’s Dream” and go into a go-go groove and do “Take the A Train.” So we have that, but we also visit the Herbie Hancocks, who whenever the genres change he adapts, just like Miles did. The idea is we want to produce artists. So I teach just as much of the European classical repertoire for my saxophonists. As the saxophone teacher I want them to understand that Charlie Parker liked Brahms. There are a whole bunch of artists that take from the other genres to put into jazz. The beauty of jazz is that you are allowed to do that, so that’s what I do with the kids. I try to make sure they’re exposed to everything. I took them to a concert once where Snarky Puppy partnered with the National Symphony to let them see that whatever is out there, you can do.

What awards has your ensemble won?
[Laughs and points out several shelves chock full of trophies.] We were the first high school jazz orchestra at Montreux [‘90], the year they reenacted the Miles Davis/Gil Evans works with Miles, and Wallace spelled Miles –when Miles would stop playing, Wallace would get up and start playing. We’ve been to North Sea Jazz Festival, been down to the Bahamas for their festival three times… so I’ve taken them wherever I could take them.

How have those experiences enriched your students’ experience with music?
It’s always good for them to see and interact with the top talent. I took the kids to Marciac Jazz Festival and their high school level in France is called college, but we took the kids over to one of the colleges and despite language barriers they all got together like they had been buddies for all their lives, and watched them interact and exchange, and see what their peers are doing in another area… I always felt that was their greatest inspiration; that combination of dealing with their peers and then also going to see Wynton, Roy Hargrove, Toots Thielemanns… Taking young people and having them interact with their peers, as well as the giants, I think is the best inspiration you’re gonna get. When they came back from those trips they’d be ready to play, ready to compete, and they excelled. They’d learned what practice was all about, their ears were tuned to what… my favorite statement generally comes in the 11th grade when a kid comes to me and says “Mr. Yarborough, it seems like the more I practice, the worse I sound.” And I say “yeah, your ear just caught up to your abilities [laughs].”

Who have been some of the more prominent students to graduate from your Ellington program?
Wallace Roney and Antoine Roney were already here before me, but I taught Antoine, I was in Wallace’s band, he was already playing professionally. Mickey Bass really straightened them out; even when they went to Berklee they called him and said “they’re not showing us anything here.” Eric Allen and Clarence Seay were here at the same time. Since I’ve been here are Chuck Royal, Marc Cary – he was already doing it when I got here, he was just waiting to be discovered – and then the barrage of artistry – the bassists Ben Williams, Eric Wheeler, Corcoran Holt, Ameen Saleem, Daniel Moore (the music director for Showtime at the Apollo), Clifton Williams (who won a competition while he was at Berklee to write the theme for Showtime at the Apollo), Brian Settles, Jessica Settles, Amy Bormet (Washington Women in Jazz), Elijah Easton

There is certainly a great DC bass tradition. How did you get so many talented bass students?
Some of those kids had been exposed – Ameen had never played jazz and I put him in D minor to work out a walk and that was how he started. In the 11th grade his father came in here with him and said “my son says he’s memorized this book” – it was the Real Book – and I said “yeah, he has.” I took the book, opened it up, closed it and had him play whatever was on a particular page. It definitely wasn’t just me because I’d have Keter come here, or whatever artistry I had been in contact with in DC.

Right now my focus is to develop a directory of artistry I’ve [interacted with here], including Butch Warren, Quinton Warren… anybody I knew that was playing I invited here to play for the kids, or took the kids to go see them. I didn’t have a budget until I started getting grants… A lot of these guys just came here because I asked them to come – Stanley Cowell… I realize now how long I’ve been here.

This award comes at a precipitous time for you as you prepare to retire. What are going to be your primary pursuits post-retirement?
My retirement is going to be from DCPS (after 40 years). When this school officially became the hybrid that it is, the principle back then told me he knew I’d retire someday, and that if I did they would just hire me back through the non-profit side. I do have so much of this place wrapped up in me; this was a dream… So I will probably come back here part-time, but I’m actually using the retirement to continue building my next project – which is the Washington Jazz Arts Institute, which will celebrate 20 years this year. We have operated for 20 years without a full-time employee and its been fairly successful; we average anywhere from 35-50 kids during the summer when we have a 4-week program, six hours a day, four days a week at People’s Congregational United Church of Christ, the church my wife and I attend gave us space to operate. We’re looking for a permanent space and we have some ideas. But that’s where I’m needed. We’re also about teaching life skills, rounding out individuals with a focus on music development utilizing the jazz genre. We haven’t been able to expand to the rank beginner because I don’t have the staff, but we work with kids anywhere from eleven to age 24.

The mission is to provide a support system for any Washingtonian or DMV resident the opportunity to be supported from the time that they know they want to be an artist, through retirement. The concept is that once you are given these lessons then you are obliged to give back, in terms of the artistic and life skills development you’ve gotten. That’s why say through retirement because eventually I would like to have my middle school kids actually coaching the elementary school level, high school mentoring middle school, 11th and 12th graders mentoring 9th and 10th graders, college kids mentoring 11th and 12th graders, professionals mentoring college students.

Sonny Stitt, Frank Wess, Art Dawkins, Calvin Jones… those were my mentors and that’s where the whole concept came from. Eventually that program that I was in with Calvin Jones really is what gave us that concept; I just want to make it formal, and I also want to have it in all four quadrants of the city, I don’t want to have just one location. I want a repertory band, a senior citizens group… I’ve run into lot of seniors who say “yeah, I played before I had a family to take care of, and I’d like to get back.” The knowledge they an impart… that’s straight from the horse’s mouth to the next generation!

Vocalist Esther Williams and saxophonist Davey Yarborough perform Friday, Nov. 2, 2012 at Westminster’s Friday Night Jazz in Southwest in Washington. (Sharon Farmer/sfphotoworks)
Doubtless Davy Yarborough’s retirement plans include increased opportunities to perform alongside his vocalist-wife Esther Williams

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