The Independent Ear

TK Blue: The (African) Rhythm Continues

The joyous alto and saxophone and flute sound of T.K. Blue (aka Talib Kibwe) has been part of my consciousness for many moons. Before we even met his sound was a subliminal presence. The first time I actually encountered his passionate horns was an 80s era duo performance with Randy Weston at Sweet Basil. Back in 1990 Suzan and I traveled to Trinidad to cover the annual Pan Jazz Festival, a celebration of the melding of Trinidad & Tobago’s vibrant steel pan tradition with jazz. That was a particularly memorable trip, not only for the music but also for my first trip to Trinidad and a homecoming for Suzan, who spent some of her early childhood days living in Port of Spain. Among the musicians was T.K., who as it turned out roomed right next door at the festival hotel, Port of Spain’s landmark upside down Hilton Hotel, a hotel literally perched on a hillside with it’s first floor at the top descending down the hill. Each morning our wake-up call was the incessant saxophone and flute practice of our neighbor. Who was this thoroughly dedicated artist? Suzan’s curiosity got the best of her and we soon met T.K. Blue, who has become a true brother, stemming from that Trinidad introduction to his decades as music director of the great Randy Weston‘s African Rhythms bands. In fact it was Talib who encouraged me to pursue writing Randy’s autobiography, African Rhythms (Duke University Press).

T.K. Blue’s latest recording is The Rhythms Continue, an equal parts lovely and vibrant remembrance honoring Randy Weston’s powerful impact on his and so many other of our lives. The record includes contributions from members of Randy’s African Rhythms band, including bassist Alex Blake, African drummer Baba Neil Clarke, drummer Vince Ector, and frequent Weston collaborator Min Xao Fen, a master of the Chinese stringed instrument known as the pipa, plus an apropos rotating cast of pianists. The music is a successful blend of Weston compositions and T.K. Blue originals. The results are so striking that clearly some Independent Ear questions were in order.

The title of your latest recording is The Rhythms Continue. Would it be correct to assume that’s an obvious reference to your many years with Randy Weston’s African Rhythms bands and the continuum of that spirit?
Your assessment on the name of my new recording entitled The Rhythms Continue on JAJA Records is absolutely correct. Dr. Weston’s spirit and influence has touched the hearts of many people in such a positive fashion. I was quite fortunate to have had an in-depth and profound relationship with Baba Randy, and I am quite sure he would want all of us to continue on our journey, following our dreams and aspirations. He always preached it’s more important to tell a story than take a solo.

From the repertoire, your eloquent liner notes on the master, and the CD booklet photograph, this record is clearly your response to the loss of Randy Weston. How did your decades-long odyssey with Randy Weston begin, what were the circumstances behind your becoming a member of his band?
I followed an interesting route in becoming a member of African Rhythms. First was hearing Dr. Weston and his son Azzedin perform at the East in Brooklyn. Next was Baba Randy hearing me perform as a member of pianist’s Abdullah Ibrahim’s ensemble. Finally was an opportunity to sit in with Dr. Weston for a fundraiser to benefit the abolishment of Apartheid. This led to my first official concert as part of the African Rhythms at the House Of The Lord Church in Brooklyn in 1980. Moving to Paris solidified our wonderful relationship as Baba Randy also lived in Annecy, France.

Clearly you were also feeling the presence of Randy’s longtime collaborator Melba Liston when you made this record as well. Talk about what Melba, who was to Randy’s music what Billy Strayhorn was to Duke Ellington‘s music, meant to your tenure with Randy’s band as his music director.
I had the delightful experience of knowing Melba Liston quite well. My first encounter with Maestro Liston was at the home of saxophonist Billy Mitchell in Lakeview, Long Island. I was still in high school and lived one block away. The next opportunity was while performing at the United Nations in NYC with pianist Patti Bown. “Auntie” Melba wrote her arrangements. Of course the icing on the cake was when Melba and Randy reunited to perform and record in several big band, medium size, and small ensemble settings. I had the opportunity to visit Melba’s home in Harlem on a myriad of occasions and saw first-hand the enormous volume of work she arranged and composed. In Randy’s amazing biography “African Rhythms”, I mentioned how Melba came to me in a dream and helped me rectify an issue while arranging music for Randy’s Ancient Future Suite for Jazz at Lincoln Center. Melba Liston, as well as many extraordinary female performers, deserves a huge slice of recognition in Jazz History!

The selections on this record are a combination of Randy and your writing. What went into your selection of this program, particularly considering the depth of Randy’s songbook?
Dr. Randy Weston passed away September 1, 2018. I was in his presence for the last time on Saturday August 18th. His passing left a huge void in my life and I felt the best way to express it was through music. It was also the most precise way to heal one’s soul experiencing the mourning of a close elder and mentor. I went into the recording studio near my home in Jersey City right away and simply played songs in a solo framework that manifested the tremendous influence of Baba Randy, who had recently become an ancestor. Later on I started fleshing out some original compositions that I wanted to record with the alumni African Rhythms band. I always retained the idea of telling a story in a suite format that depicts my “contemplative memoir” regarding such a prolific figure in Jazz. The precise songs and their sequence for this tribute began to take shape. Those that did not make the cut may very well surface on a subsequent recording.

Two of the tracks, “Night in Medina” and “Ifrane” – ironically each represent his frequent reflections on Morocco and both appeared on Randy’s record Blue Moses – you play largely as solo saxophone selections. What made you determine to play them largely solo?
Two of the alto sax solo tracks on this recording are Night In Medina and Ifrane, both from the recording Blue Moses on CTI Records. This is by far one of my favorite recordings of all time. It features an array of iconic figures in Jazz and it was Baba Randy’s greatest selling album. My maiden voyage to Morocco was in the mid 1980’s. Randy’s band just finished a concert for the International Jazz Festival in Sevilla, Spain. He asked me to accompany him to Morocco, which I happily accepted. We drove from Sevilla to southern Spain and took the ferry to Morocco. We then drove to Tangiers and Rabat. Needless to say this voyage was quite overwhelming, complete with seeing the building that housed his African Rhythms Club, meeting his extended family in Tangiers, a traditional Moroccan dinner at the minister of finance’s home in Rabat, and experiencing the traditional Moroccan hamam, or hot bath. I decided to record these two songs in solo fashion to denote this special journey to the Motherland.

One thing I noticed – and appreciated as a radio programmer – is that the 19 tracks on The Rhythms Continue – are almost continuous suite-like in that none of them is over 6 mins. long. Was that a conscious effort on your part when you were planning and recording this session, to keep the tracks at a modest length?
From the inception of this recording project I wanted to convey a suite, something continuous and connected that paints a picture. I did not entertain very long improvisations for this CD, but rather shorter pieces or vignettes that serve as connecting points between longer compositions. I was more concerned with telling a story while choosing a more economical approach to improvisation. I will always remember what Frank Wess once told me: “Make your statement and get out of there. When you finish a solo chorus and your mind says go for another one, don’t listen!!! Leave them wanting more”

The musicians in the band on The Rhythms Continue are members of Randy’s African Rhythms bands, as well as the Chinese pipa master Min Xiao Fen, a great friend and frequent musical collaborator with Randy. And you use a rotating cast of pianists – Sharp Radway, Keith Brown, Mike King, and Kelly Green. What was your thinking in terms of representing Randy’s spirit and influence at the piano with these musicians?
Choosing the pianist(s) for this project required some reflection. You can obviously go in many directions, which could include many master and established artists. In the end I decided to examine how Randy’s influence and legacy would be in the hands of extremely talented young pianists and nourish their opportunity to display their craft. Sharp Radway, Kelly Green, Mike King, and Keith Brown each demonstrated wonderful charisma and creativity in their vision of Dr. Weston’s legacy. In addition all pianists mentioned are exceptionally creative and humble. I feel quite blessed they were available and they exuded so much love and joy. Honoring Melba Liston as well was also a priority.

How ultimately would you like the public to view the legacy of Randy Weston, and your place in that legacy?
I can only hope that the public will remember Dr. Randy Weston as a pioneer in Jazz, infusing the sounds of Africa in his music. In addition he was a warrior for the elevation of the African aesthetic via its music, art, culture, and philosophy. His yearning to uplift the condition and status of the African-American during a strident era of adversity should always be acknowledged and appreciated. I feel immensely fortunate to have been an integral part of his journey and his wisdom has propelled me to continue the rhythms of life through music. It is also my intense pleasure to pass along this dynamic legacy to the next generation. Lastly I would like for future generations to know that Baba Randy was extremely kind and generous. He exuded altruism in all situations and the “Chief” had the utmost respect for his band members and all artists. He regularly paid his band way above union scale. He exemplified class and dignity. I will strive to continue on this path and I give thanks for all of his guidance.

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Dressed to Thrill vol. 2

This is the second in an occasional Independent Ear feature focusing on jazz musicians’ various “looks” on the bandstand. Just in case you missed our premise, from the vol. 1 installment: Historically, jazz musicians have for generations been among music’s most fashion-forward exponents. Frequently jazz musicians have been featured in occasional jazz-centric fashion spreads in general interest periodicals, notably in GQ magazine. A cursory review of jazz magazine covers provides additional evidence of the sartorial splendor of many of our finest jazz practitioners. To some we seem to have lost that element as succeeding generations appear to take a decidedly more casual approach to how they present themselves onstage sartorially. For whatever reason it seems many modern musicians have adopted the attitude that the audience came purely to hear them play well, and if they deliver on that promise there’s no need to carefully consider their onstage appearance, much less address their audience to provide some sense of what they’re playing and why they’ve made their choices.

However there remains a school of thought that your onstage appearance is a positive (or negative) reflection on whether you’ve arrived onstage to truly take care of serious business. Some musicians seem to forget, overlook, or outright dismiss any sense that their onstage appearance makes any difference in their audience’s perception and ultimate appreciation of their work. In my experience observing and developing audiences as a presenter, journalist, and educator I can tell you that without question a musician’s onstage appearance does make a difference. With that in mind we introduce the second installment in an occasional Independent Ear feature we’ll call Dressed to Thrill. The forever fashion forward Miles Davis, apropos the current buzz generated by Stanley Nelson’s superb new documentary film, was featured in vol. 1 of Dressed to Thrill. Vol. 2 is a potpourri of largely bandstand “looks” from various and sundry jazz instrumentalists and vocalists, and take note of the fact that the great majority of these artists were captured looking & wearing their best on the bandstand. See how many of these sartorially aware artists you can identify:

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Jazz From Detroit

One of the most rewarding books I’ve read this year, and certainly a surefire nominee for the annual Jazz Journalist Association award for best book has to be Mark Stryker’s Jazz From Detroit. The Motor City is known from a musical perspective first and foremost for being the birthplace of the legendary Motown Records. But even a closer examination of that vaunted touchstone of pop music history reveals that Motown’s founder, Berry Gordy, built that voice dominated tradition on a foundation of jazz instrumentalists.

Detroit is both birthplace and incubator of some of jazz music’s finest talent, including many jazz masters and hall of famers. Journalist Mark Stryker has written a book loaded with insights on the city’s vibrant jazz history, including the each-one-teach-one mentality of several notable musicians who contributed not only their fine skills to the scene and eventually the world stage, but also recognized the value of mentoring succeeding generations of jazz musicians following in their footsteps. Jazz From Detroit is such an exceptionally informative read that we recently reached out to its author Mark Stryker with a few questions. Here are his expansive and informative responses to our Independent Ear inquiry.

What was your original motivation for writing this book?
Even before arriving in Detroit in 1995, I knew in a general sense about Detroit’s reputation for producing great jazz musicians. But it was only after I got here — as an arts reporter and music critic with the Detroit Free Press — that I began to realize just how deep the tradition ran. For one thing, I learned that for every musician who left Detroit and got famous, another one stayed behind who played almost as well, occasionally just as well. Then I realized that beyond Hank, Thad, and Elvin Jones, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Donald Byrd, Curtis Fuller, Yusef Lateef, Louis Hayes, and other high-profile hard bop players, there were a huge number of “name” musicians who came from Detroit or spent significant time here that most folks don’t always associate with the city — Howard McGhee, Lucky Thompson, Gerald Wilson, Eddie Locke, Major Holley, Doug Hammond, and many others.

Over time, I also began to understand the fundamental role that the Detroit Public Schools’ peerless music programs played in seeding the jazz scene and the outsized influence that community mentors, particularly Barry Harris and Marcus Belgrave, had in perpetuating the tradition. Then one night at Baker’s Keyboard Lounge in 2005, I heard the pianist Kenn Cox give a between-tune de facto sermon to the audience in which he said, “Jazz wouldn’t be the same without Detroit.” That was the catalyst.

I realized there was a larger story to tell about the profound influence of the Detroit Diaspora on the course of modern and contemporary jazz. No one had put all these pieces today and chronicled that impact in a comprehensive way, explained how and why Detroit became such an important center for the music at midcentury, and then how the city sustained its influence decade after decade, even as its economic might and population declined. Detroit’s jazz legacy was not a historical fluke. It grew out of a particular set of economic, social, and cultural factors, and the talents of specific musicians. It continued because enough of the infrastructure — schools, mentors, engaged and nurturing audiences — remained in place to regenerate the scene.

I also felt that many of Detroit’s greatest musicians hadn’t been written about with the depth that they deserved. I wanted to produce profiles that explored their lives and music — to create a sense of who they were as people off the bandstand, while also digging into the marrow of their art with substantive analysis and criticism. I was a reporter and music critic at the Free Press, and I grew up as alto saxophone player and took an influential jazz history seminar at the University of Illinois with the seminal scholar Larry Gushee, who preached meticulous scholarship. I tried to honor all of those facets of my background in writing the book. A shorter way of saying all of this is that I wanted to give Detroit
its due.

How did you determine which artists to interview, and given the wealth of contributing musicians from Detroit, what was your process for determining which musicians to feature?
Deciding who to include and who to leave out was painful! I have an appendix in the book that lists Detroit musicians by instrument and there are about 175 names, and I could have listed scores of others. So many significant players came of age in the 1940s and ‘50s alone that it would have been easy to fill the book only with them. But it was critical to me to bring the story up the present day. Detroit jazz is an ongoing, living tradition. That meant from the get-go some big names from the past weren’t going to make the cut. One way I made choices was that if a musician was already the subject of a full- length biography (or one in progress), of if there was already a substantial journalistic or scholarly account of their lives, I felt I could leave them out in good conscience. I know that’s a dubious rationalization, but it allowed me to sleep better at night by justifying the exclusion of Paul Chambers, Betty Carter, Pepper Adams, Frank Rosolino, Sonny Red, Roy Brooks, and Faruq Z. Bey. About half the chapters started as pieces of various kinds for the Free Press (profiles, reviews, obituaries, short features), though they were extensively revised and expanded for the book. Some of the fundamental interviews go back to my earliest days at the paper — Kenny Burrell and Joe Henderson, for example, were both interviewed in 1996, and many other interviews were done in the course of my tenure at the paper from 1995-2016. Particularly valuable were those pieces that grew out of reporting trips that allowed me to spend significant time with a subject, such as spending a couple days in New York hanging around Barry Harris and watching him teach, or traveling to Atlantic City with Louis Hayes for a gig, or visiting Hank Jones at his home in upstate New York. Some subjects were interviewed multiple times through the years, during and after my time at the paper. Having said all that, there were musicians that I interviewed in person who still didn’t make it into the book – Bennie Maupin and Alice Coltrane among them.

Some musicians died before I was even writing professionally (Thad Jones) and others I never got a chance to talk to for one reason or another (Milt Jackson, Elvin Jones, Donald Byrd, Roland Hanna). In these cases, I felt they were simply too important to leave out, and I relied on archival interviews and secondary sources. (I should add that I interviewed colleagues, friends, family, etc. for all of the musicians profiled in the book.)

In the end, I tried to balance issues of importance and influence, generation, whether I had something unique to say, whether I had interviewed a subject, whether there were other books or materials of quality already in circulation, and my own subjective favorites. For what it’s worth, the four musicians whom I’m most sorry I did not find room for are bassists Doug Watkins and Paul Chambers, the underrated pianist Terry Pollard and trumpeter Howard McGhee. For reasons of space, I also had to cut at the 11th hour what I thought was an entertaining chapter about Soupy Sales, the TV personality, who played an important role as an advocate for jazz in Detroit in the 1950s.

The interviews and profiles aside, the hardest part of writing the book was creating a cohesive organizational structure and writing the thematic chapters that connected the dots between individual musicians and styles across the generations and the complex history of Detroit since 1940. I toggle back and forth between the Diaspora and keeping up with what’s happened on the ground back in Detroit. My editors and I talked a lot about the overall arc of the book and making sure that we were creating a gestalt rather than just a collection of individual profiles — balancing the big picture with the close-ups.

When I was at Arts Midwest in the mid-late ’80s developing their former regional jazz service program, which included interviewing a number of Detroit’s prominent resident musicians and subsequently producing technical assistance workshops for musicians there, I was constantly impressed at the number of activist musicians in Detroit. There was always a sense that Detroit musicians were often self-starters when it came to developing opportunities for themselves and finding means of supporting their and others’ work. Why has Detroit in particular been a place of more than a few activist DIY jazz musicians?
Good question. I think there are three basic reasons. First, no American city declined further from its midcentury peak in terms of economic power and population than Detroit in the 1970s, ‘80s, ‘90s and early 2000s. So, if you were a jazz musician here, the shifting economic and demographic landscape of the city and declining traditional opportunities for club and recording session work —particularly after the bloody summer of 1967 and Motown’s departure for Los Angeles in the early ‘70s — demanded that you do it yourself or perish. Second, Detroit, going back to at least the 1930s, was a locus of black achievement, ambition, and aspiration, and that helped create a culture of activism and self-reliance. Thanks to the combined impact of the auto industry and the Great Migration, Detroit was on leading edge of creating a black working and middle class in America. In 1950, the city was the 5th largest in country with 1.85 million people. More than 300,000 of those residents, about 16%, were black. In his essential book Black Detroit, Herb Boyd writes that, “Whether from the pulpit, the foundry, or the political arena, Detroit’s black community has always been active and highly volatile”. Worth noting too is that the Nation of Islam was founded in Detroit in 1930.

Third, as far back as 1953, when Kenny Burrell formed a prescient organization in Detroit called the New Music Society, there was a tradition of self-determination among Detroit jazz musicians. I devote an entire section of my book to the flowering of cooperatives and self-determination efforts in Detroit in the 1960s and ‘70s — important but little-known organizations such as the Detroit Artists Workshop, Detroit Creative Musicians Association, Strata Corporation, and Tribe,and bands like the Contemporary Jazz Quintet and Focus Novii.

While Strata, Tribe, and CJQ register a bit today with aficionados because they left recordings, the full scope of their activities and influence is still a secret. The Detroit Creative Musicians Association and its signature group, Focus Novii, which included guitarist James Blood Ulmer and drummer Doug Hammond, is completely off the radar. Like my former professor Larry Gushee often said: The history of jazz and the history of jazz on record are different things. I’m happy to have been able to bring this hidden Detroit history to light. Self-determination is by now part of the historical legacy of Detroit jazz.

There’s also always been a sense among Detroit musicians of passing on the knowledge to future generations, whether that was in formal or informal education settings. Do you find Detroit rather unusual in that respect, where mentoring and teaching have always been available to the next generations?
You find people in every city who are “the teachers,” but I think Detroit is unique in that the culture of mentorship is so deeply embedded into the DNA of the jazz scene. In the book, Regina Carter says: “This community raised us.” In many ways, the two biggest heroes in the book are Barry Harris, who taught practically everybody in Detroit in the 1950s, and Marcus Belgrave, who nurtured countless musicians from the early ‘70s until his death in 2015. Barry is the progenitor. At nearly 90, he’s still teaching in New York at salon-style workshops that he runs in basically the same fashion as the Socratic dialogues held at his house in Detroit. I title my chapter about Barry “Professor of Bebop,” and his influential theories have found their way into the wider course of jazz education. But Barry remains a lone wolf: a school of one. He was only about 20 when he took a leadership role in Detroit, teaching Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, Doug Watkins, Curtis Fuller, Pepper Adams, Yusef Lateef, and then later Joe Henderson, Charles McPherson, Roy Brooks, Lonnie Hillyer, and many others.

Barry Harris, the Professor of Bebop

When folks like Trane, Cannonball and Sonny Rollins were in town, they also fell by Barry’s pad to see what he was up to. Barry was only about 20 around 1950, when he took a leadership role in the jazz community, and he didn’t leave until 1960 — that long tenure magnified his influence. He didn’t need to leave because there was so much work. I titled an entire section of my book “Marcus Belgrave and his Children” — his children being the many stars he taught, including Geri Allen, Kenny Garrett, Regina Carter, Gerald Cleaver, Robert Hurst, Rodney Whitaker, and Karriem Riggins, as well as James Carter, who didn’t spend as much time with Marcus as the others but still benefited from his influence. (James’ primary mentor was a public-school teacher [and saxophonist] named Donald Washington.) Marcus came up with Ray Charles in the ‘50s and early ‘60s and there were important associations and recordings with everybody from Mingus to Wynton Marsalis. He was born inPennsylvania but from 1963 forward was based in Detroit and a direct link to the jazz aristocracy. Marcus strongly rooted all of his proteges within the tradition — bebop, swing, blues, telling a story when you improvise — but his students all found their own voices within myriad idioms. Marcus was not the only important mentor in Detroit over the last 30 or 40 years. Kenn Cox, Harold McKinney, Donald Walden, Jack Pierson, Donald Washington, and a few others made an impact; but Marcus was the defining example.

Trumpet master Marcus Belgrave was a powerful mentor for a legion of Detroit’s finest

Many of Marcus’ former students are important teachers themselves. Rodney Whitaker runs the jazz program at Michigan State University, Bob Hurst teaches at the University of Michigan, Geri Allen was running the program at Pittsburgh when she died and had just take on the role of artistic director of an arts organization in Detroit called the Carr Center. That’s all because of the legacy of Marcus.

What has the Detroit Jazz Festival meant in terms of further developing the Detroit jazz scene?
The festival — the largest free jazz festival in the world — is an important annual showcase, an opportunity for the city to celebrate its remarkable jazz heritage and remind itself of what is has created. The festival has always been devoted to the core of the art form, and it has always been an event that honored not only the homegrown icons who ascended to stardom but also the everyday heroes of the current Detroit scene. A long time ago, the festival’s former director Jim Dulzo told me that a jazz festival isn’t just a collection of musical performances or a street fair with a jazz soundtrack; it should hold up a mirror to the city’s culture and tell us something about the unique place where we live. That’s what the Detroit festival does. It’s also free, which is critical, because that infuses the event and its audiences with a beautiful democratic spirit and diversity. Detroit audiences are so incredibly knowledgeable about the music, and even folks who come to the festival who aren’t jazz aficionados are still music fans. Detroiters revere music of all types. People are so respectful. I heard Ron Carter and Pat Metheny play duets for an hour a couple weeks ago at this year’s festival — maybe 7,500 people were listening at a free outdoor festival and you could hear a pin drop during the ballads. That doesn’t happen everywhere.

In some communities there is a bit of resentment – subtle or otherwise – towards the big annual jazz festival among those who endeavor to present jazz year-round. Has there been any of that kind of reaction to the Detroit Jazz Festival?
Not really. Perhaps because the festival is free, it isn’t viewed as competition. I suppose there have been little tensions here and there, but the festival does collaborate with other institutions in town.

Obviously a book like Jazz from Detroit is heavy on the history. What is your sense of the contemporary Detroit jazz scene, and does the city continue to produce world class jazz musicians?
As I said earlier, it was important to me to bring the book up to the present day because Detroit remains a vital hone for jazz and is still an important breeding ground. The famous players who came up under Marcus Belgrave are now in their 40s and 50s and at the peak of their careers. Tenor saxophonist JD Allen, who isn’t featured in the book but could be, is another Detroiter who is a major figure on today’s scene.

The last section of the book, “Tradition and Transition in the 21st Century,” is devoted to contemporary currents in the city. I talk about the continuing importance of mentorship in the community and the increasing role that nonprofits are playing in the city in terms of jazz education. I focus on two veteran bassists — Ralphe Armstrong and Marion Hayden — who have had major-league associations but have always chosen to live in Detroit and have now also become important mentors; and two superb young musicians who are about 30, saxophonist Marcus Elliot and pianist Michael Malis. They are Marcus Belgrave’s grandchildren, because they studied with Marcus’ students like Geri Allen and Rodney Whitaker and they also played with Marcus for a few years before he died.

James Carter’s current trio includes two fellow Detroiters, Gerard Gibbs on organ and Alex White on drums. Robert Hurst leads a tremendous band stocked with mostly young Detroiters, including pianist Ian Finkelstein, saxophonist Rafael Statin, and drummer Nate Winn. They all played great. Check out Bob’s exceptional CD from last year called “Black Currant Jam.” Hell, I heard Nate playing drums with Danilo Perez’s large ensemble at the Detroit Jazz Festival [three] weeks ago and he sounded as creative and authoritative as any of his peers in New York or anywhere else. The point is: The legacy continues.

Saxophonist Donald Washington, currently based in the Twin Cities, was another of the exceptional mentors during his time in Detroit, including mentoring James Carter, and Rodney Whitaker, both of who played in Washington’s youth ensemble Bird-Trane-Sco-Now

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Dressed to Thrill vol.1

Certain jazz musicians have for generations been some of music’s most fashion-forward exponents. For years jazz musicians have been featured in occasional jazz-centric fashion spreads in general interest periodicals, notably in GQ magazine. A cursory review of jazz magazine covers provides additional evidence of the sartorial splendor of many of our finest jazz practitioners. To some we seem to have lost that element as succeeding generations appear to take a decidedly more casual approach to how they present themselves onstage sartorially. For whatever reason it seems many modern musicians have adopted the attitude that the audience came purely to hear them play well, and if they deliver on that promise there’s no need to carefully consider their onstage appearance, much less address their audience to provide some sense of what they’re playing and why they’ve made their choices.

However there remains a school of thought that your onstage appearance is a positive (or negative) reflection on whether you’ve arrived onstage to truly take care of serious business. Some musicians seem to forget, overlook, or outright dismiss any sense that their onstage appearance makes any difference in their audience’s perception and ultimate appreciation of their work. In my experience observing and developing audiences as a presenter, journalist, and educator I can tell you that without question a musician’s onstage appearance does make a difference. With that in mind we introduce an occasional Independent Ear feature we’ll call Dressed to Thrill. Apropos the release of Stanley Nelson’s warmly received new Miles Davis documentary film “Birth of the Cool,” we begin our Dress to Thrill features with one of jazz music’s all-time fashion forward musicians, Miles himself. And speaking of general interest magazine coverage of jazz musicians, dig the Jet magazine cover at the bottom.

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Reggie Workman 2020 NEA Jazz Master

As part of the jazz oral history project I embarked upon in 2010, along with Jennifer Scott and Kaitlyn Greenidge of the Brooklyn-based Weeksville Heritage Center, we interviewed numerous jazz and jazz-connected Brookynites, focusing on those who had been active in Central Brooklyn, ranging from Jitu Weusi and Mensah Wali of the now-legendary movement that gave birth to The East jazz & cultural center, to political activists Viola Plummer and Roger Wareham, whose coalition eventually begat one of Brooklyn’s most consistent grassroots jazz spots Sista’s Place, to such scene makers as photographer Jimmy Morton and hip hop pioneer Fab 5 Freddy. Included also were a number of great activist musicians, including bassist-educator Reggie Workman, who has a significant Central Brooklyn history. On October 8, 2010 we interviewed Reggie Workman at his office at The New School, where he has taught for many years.

Our primary focus was Reggie Workman’s history at The New Muse, a grassroots teaching institution akin to what Jitu Weusi established with The East. Knowing his deep history in the music, and after hearing his responses to my questions, after we concluded I asked Reggie if he had ever been nominated for a NEA Jazz Masters award. In his typical humility he told me he didn’t think so in a manner that suggested that (A) he wasn’t sure if he even qualified for such an honor, and (B) that he would certainly welcome such a designation. Well at long last that happened, and Reggie Workman has happily been named to the 2020 class of NEA Jazz Masters, he will be recognized at the annual NEAJM honors concert next spring at SF Jazz. In recognition of that well-deserved designation, here’s our interview with Reggie Workman.

Willard Jenkins: You’re from Philadelphia; when did you first come to New York?
Reggie Workman: Right out of high school, 1957-58.

Did you come to Brooklyn first?
No, you came to Brooklyn because there was a lot of music going on there, and if you wanted to hear so and so you had to come to Brooklyn. When I first came to New York my first living area was up around where the Harlem School of the Arts is now on St. Nicholas Place because I was working with [vocalist-pianist] Freddy Cole and Freddy Cole had Walter and Louis Williams with him and they were around St. Nicholas Place. They were the ones who kind of took me in and made sure I didn’t go off on the wrong path; they were like my family, so they adopted me and I lived up that way at first.

Then after that as you grow when you first come to New York you go to the areas that suit your purpose. So from there I went to various hotels – the Flanders and all of those kinds of places that all of the musicians have to go to, where the buses used to pull in with Illinois Jacquet’s band, Dizzy’s band, etc. with kitchenettes. And Skinny Bergen would cook food for everybody and that was the way that it was. The Flanders Hotel had kitchenettes for $47 dollars a week at that time, so naturally that was a place where we all gravitated. From there we would go to Brooklyn or wherever we could find a room that we could afford. So that’s the way it was back in those days.

Was there a certain point at which you moved to Brooklyn?
Yeah, I lived in Brooklyn for a while – at the front end of my being in New York, around Nostrand and Bedford but it was a small street that I forget the name of right now. So I stayed there for a while – we’re talking about maybe around ’59.

So that’s close to the time when you were playing with John Coltrane?
No, I didn’t get to Trane until 1960; of course I knew Trane from high school because we grew up in the same area, his mother’s pad was right near and we used to cross paths a lot.

So how long did you live in Brooklyn?
When I came back the second time… there was a guy who had a dynamite place on Dean St. who used to work with me on my bass and he said ‘I’m moving Reggie, so you’ve got to take this apartment, so I took that place until around 1972.

When you first got to New York you mentioned the fact that Brooklyn was a place you came for music. What was the scene like in Brooklyn then?
You had the Blue Coronet, the Baby Grand, and the Continental different clubs, which I won’t try to name all of them; there was live music every night somewhere in Brooklyn, and of course on the weekends. There was one club where the poets and the comedy people went, there was one club where the organ trios went, there was the Blue Coronet where they had the jazz and all the popular groups, there was another club where neighborhood groups worked; so it was a real viable music scene where you could go from one place to the other and not even have to go to New York [Manhattan] to hear the music.

So this scene was pretty much in Bed-Stuy then?

Mostly Bed-Stuy. Of course there on the periphery [of Bed-Stuy] you had all the places where the cabarets were, where the dancers and the parties and things happened, that was all music too. What I’d like to emphasize here is that almost everything that happened had some live music involved with it. If it was a wedding… live music; a party… live music; a cabaret… live music; a parade… live music; a celebration of your daughter or son graduating from high school… live music. Those were the days where it was very apparent that the music was a part of our life’s fiber and of course that all the musicians rolled up their sleeves and made sure that they honed their craft in that arena made it work.

Some of the things you just said could lead one to believe that during a certain point – we’re talking the late ‘50s and the 60s – its more apparent that there was a livelier live jazz music scene in Brooklyn than there even was in Manhattan.
I’m not suggesting that. You hear the brothers talking about the Republic of Brooklyn – a certain kind of architecture, a certain kind of rent level, and a certain kind of scene… There are a lot of people who were in Brooklyn during the time I came here [who would say] ‘well I’ve never been to New York before…’ There were people who were so satisfied with being in Brooklyn that they wouldn’t even come to New York because they didn’t have to, everything they needed was [in Brooklyn], you name it, it was there for them. New York was another life style, different kind of people, different neighborhoods and everything. All the boroughs have their own character.

It’s interesting that you characterize Brooklyn on one hand and New York on the other hand, because to those of us who don’t live here, and who have never lived here it’s all just New York. But you’re saying that people would refer to Manhattan as New York, and Brooklyn as Brooklyn.
That’s very true. Even with the students around [the New School] here, they come here for awhile and we put them in the dormitories here in New York and they experience that and go through that for a time then they realize that there’s another area over in Brooklyn where they can get cheaper rent, more space, the feeling is different, they can move close to Prospect Park vis a vis Central Park if you try to move close to, you go straight to the poor house. You can find music in Brooklyn, clubs where you can work as well as the clubs on the Lower East Side. Still [Brooklyn] is the same today, but not as viable as it was years ago.

What you characterize as “years ago”, essentially the 1960s or so, you’re talking about a black scene right?
That’s me, naturally I’m talking about a black scene but I would like not to have a parameter like that.

Understood, but it strikes me that as far as African Americans were concerned at the time you could pretty much find in Brooklyn what you could find in Harlem.
That’s quite true… almost. What was happening in New York was a different scene, there was no Metropole in Brooklyn, where you might go see John Bubbles; there was no Local 802 in Brooklyn… there was no Beefsteak Charlies in Brooklyn, where all the cats hung out looking for a gig, there was no building in Brooklyn where all the publishing houses were, there was no Turf Cheesecake in Brooklyn – eventually there was one on Flatbush Avenue that became known for its cheesecake… So each place had their differences. There was no Bottle & Cork where you might go hear John Coltrane in New York, but there was in Queens. Every borough had something different to offer and of course in what people call “Stagnant Island”, in Staten Island you even had something different, there was stuff going on over there that you wouldn’t find in other places.

Why do you think that amongst those who grew up in Brooklyn and lived there as adults as well, why do you think there’s this fierce pride?
I like to call it welcome pride, and I know why you call it fierce because its really part of our survival syndrome. We have a group of people who migrated – you know about the situation with the Navy Yard and immigration and all that – you had people from different islands that migrated to Brooklyn because of the situation with the boats that happened at the Navy Yard and so forth. You had a situation where the board of the directors at the Muse were doing a study and Jitu Weusi and the East started the festival, I became pretty close to the brothers at the East. That was something that was the result of a community that was in touch with one another. Albert Shanker was trying to get [teachers] fired, and Al Vann was trying to get into office at that time and all that motion was happening in Brooklyn. And when Jitu started the East, the conservatory for young people’s alternative education that became something that folks from different islands and different cultures could relate to and it grew and grew. We said we needed to do this at the New Muse. When I came from Queens and moved into Brooklyn I naturally was in tune with that sort of thing and eventually I took Chris White’s place at the New Muse and Bill Barron was in charge. We looked at what the East was doing and it was like a template for me, it was very important. Now it has grown into the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, but still the same direction, the same motivations, same inspirations.

When they hired me [at Muse] I immediately tuned into what Jitu and the East were doing and said we needed to do that at the Muse. That was the reason we started our festival. We called it the Crow’s Hill Festival. Why the Crow’s Hill Festival? Because most people when you say Crow’s Hill think ‘those niggers…’? No, we’re not saying that about Crow’s Hill. Its Crow’s Hill because the black people who were working for the wealthier white people up on the hill – it was all farmland many years ago – those people became independent and became property owners as vis a vis the Harlem community and the Dutch.

So you had the Crow’s Hill Music Festival that grew up out of the East annual festival. So every year we would have a festival and on the heels of the East festival we would go right into the Crow’s Hill Festival and use some of their carpenters to help us build the stage and they’d teach us how to do the sound and whatever we couldn’t do ourselves, so we had a community that was constantly going on and the board of directors was busy raising more money, running back and forth to Albany to get money for this institution and we had enough resource to put us into the political arena. We had somebody who supported us at the New York State Council on the Arts, and we were able to do more things because of this viable black community that’s happening in Brooklyn.

Tell us about the Muse, when it began, what was its mission and the motivation behind how it came to be.
There was a place, which has been rebuilt called the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. The Brooklyn Children’s Museum moved into this auto showroom on Bedford and Eastern Parkway and that became their temporary home. Slowly the musicians began to become involved with the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. Then the construction was completed and it left a big place they had taken over on Bedford. The powers that be moved in there and said ‘OK, we can start an African American cultural center here [in the now-vacated auto showroom-former home of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum]. That group of people moved into that former home of the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, taking advantage of the menagerie. A young man that was running the planetarium stayed with us so therefore we had a planetarium as a part of the other program.

The artistic part of [the Muse] developed step-by-step, so they solicited for funds and I think that Bill Barron and Chris White, Rudy Collins and folks like that approached the board and said ‘we would like to start a music program here’ and began to put together the same type of thing. There were various factions in the area. Don’t forget what I said about folks from the islands. The Haitians for example were some of the strongest factions in the area; they’re in very close contact with one another, they have a particular cultural aspect – the music is unique – so that was incorporated into the growth of the school, different things that were needed for the children to continue [studying] their culture. If you don’t work on it yourself you’ll be talking about HIStory, not YOUR story.

So the New Muse was really important for the artistic part as well as the other part that the kids would not have an opportunity to experience [for themselves], it’s still there for them. It was called the New Muse Community Museum.

Why was it called the New Muse?
Probably because there was a Muse at one time, so in order to make it in tune with the mission they called it the New Muse Community Museum, and the word community was really important because it was a focal point for the politicians and the community to really get in touch with all the parents who were around in this neighborhood; it went all the way over into Crown Heights, with a great and strong African American population.

So I was out there with my bullhorn not only getting support for whatever politician but also getting them to come to our weekly concerts, because you didn’t have the same kind of media that you might have in Manhattan. Seems like because of my family I’ve always been involved with the arts, trying to give something back, to try to make sure that we are in touch with the new people coming up. And that’s one of the things we’re doing with the African American Legacy Project.

In what capacity did you become part of the New Muse?
At first I was just teaching bass and substituting for Chris White when he couldn’t make it, when he’d be out with Nina Simone or somebody. Then I began to start dealing with more assignments to work there as time went on. When Bill Barron got sick and died from a heart attack, they needed a director for the music department and they asked me to do it, so I got more involved.

When you say more involved, in addition to teaching what else were you doing there?
I was going out and meeting with factions who might bring some energy to the Muse. I was involved with the politicians getting people to support us, and a lot of hands-on, bootstrap type stuff; working to build this institution to what it could be.

I’ve talked with some young musicians who were involved with the Muse and they have pointed to you as one of the key people there.
I was one of those people, but not by myself. When I did get really involved like that I began to pull in everybody I could. And again I always go back to fact that Alex Etienne, a politically active Haitian trumpet player – he’s still around, he’s been sickly lately but whenever I’m working at Sista’s Place Alex is going to be there. He was the one who went into the Haitian community and made sure that those youngsters got involved with that music program [at the New Muse].

We were trying to reach out to everybody, not just those who could afford it, and we put our prices down to a place where folks could reach it – where they couldn’t afford not to come.

In addition to the music classes, what kind of other offerings did the New Muse have?
It had art classes, photography classes, astronomy classes from the young brother who ran the planetarium, we had zoology, dance classes, bi-weekly concerts, writing classes. There was quite a bit of education going on and that was after-school education.

How old were the students?
The students were from 7-70 so there was no bar line; we had some folks with canes struggling up there to take their [music] theory lessons, piano lessons or whatever the case may be, and they were really serious. We had 7 year olds who were dropped off by their parents and their parents knew it wasn’t just a baby-sitting situation. It was real learning. We started at 3:30 after school and we went until around 9:30pm. I left the New Muse around 1984.

During the time you were at the New Muse were you performing around Brooklyn a lot?
Somewhat, but not a lot. During the era of the 60s things were happening, but that was why the East took off because things were tapering off [in Brooklyn in the 70s]. I won’t say the New Muse preceded the East, but its physical building may have been more luminous, [it preceded] 10 Claver Place [the East’s building]. When they moved into the Armory folks began to say ‘hey, these folks are serious’, and then the festival began to grow and there was action going on and people began to see the folks who were dealing with the East. The New Muse was still going on, the building was happening and they began to put money into it as a banner, but the banner became more diverse when Claver Place began to develop their thing, even though the New Muse was still happening. I don’t want to say either/or because both [the New Muse and the East] were important at the time.

There seems to have been a sense of cooperation between the two places because even though the New Muse preceded the East you did suggest that the New Muse learned a few things from the East.
Definitely. I used to go to the East to see a lot of music. I was inspired and encouraged to do more after having that experience, and that experience came as a result of being invited to the East on those dates when they had those special concerts. When performance was incorporated into the New Muse I never forgot all that stuff, all the things they were doing to grow, the techniques they had to present their concerts. So I said I was going to try to do all I could somewhat the same thing at the New Muse as much as I can. When I was incorporated into the New Muse I began to see all of the valuable parts of that and where I needed to expend my energy, and I also began to see that some of it was good and some not, so I navigated myself through the waters and did what I could during the time I was there.

You mentioned that one of the things the New Muse learned from the East was the benefits of having a festival. How did that Crow’s Hill Festival come about?
It started with just a bandstand outdoors and a block party, and my vision was much bigger, having seen what the East did with their festival, which also started as a block party. So I would talk to my superiors about expanding [Crow’s Hill], so instead of being right outside Bedford Avenue on the corner of Lincoln Place, it grew all the way down to Franklin. We solicited the cooperation of the neighbors for the music and the police department for the permits, we put a big banner across the street. We had a center stage, a stage down the block, etc. The Crow’s Hill Festival lasted about 10 years [until the demise of the New Muse]. The institution [New Muse] went out.

I went on the road with Max Roach, and when we left everything was intact. When I came back people had been paid to break into the building [the New Muse], because part of our mission was to collect names of citizens for the political people to vote and go to Albany to try to raise money to try to keep the institution alive. So I guess somebody who didn’t want us there… the factions began to fight one another. They destroyed the building, destroyed a lot of the records, a lot of the music, trashed the planetarium – just broke into the building and destroyed everything, somewhere around ’83-’84.

During the time that you were at the New Muse, what was your performing career like?
Good question, because when you have jobs like this [his current employment at The New School] and like that you cannot go out and perform as much as you would like to. I’ve got tenure here [The New School] now, therefore I’m able to go out and do some things, but the career of anybody who takes on a job in academia is compromised because you have to be there, you can’t have students and not be there for them when the time comes. So you have to submit to sacrificing some of your performing career. But always my situation was like, I am a performer and musician first; education is just as important but that’s not what I do, my life has been about performing and I have to continue to do that. So I’ve always tried to keep somewhat of a balance. There was a lot of pressure to keep the scales balanced.

Have you found teaching to be an enriching experience?
Yeah, I always say teaching reverses itself – you get as much out of teaching and out of the students who are coming up with new ideas as they do.

In addition to your days at the New Muse, what other memories do you have of your time in Brooklyn?
When I would have a job with Gigi Gryce at the Continental, I would be able to hang out at Fulton and Nostrand where the clubs were – between Bedford and Fulton on Nostrand I would be able to go from club to club to meet different people. I would be able to go from house to house for lessons or whatever I could do to get in tune with the music of the time, a little cheaper than I could live in New York City; just a general feeling [in Brooklyn] of community that was closer to home for me. Knowing what I learned then, New York is the place where your career is going to stem from because they don’t get out into the boroughs until they find out what they’re going to do and where the work is, how they’re going to make their work happen, how they’re going to do their networking. Then people stretch out after they get to that, in recognition of some people who just start out in Brooklyn and they just reach over into New York and say ‘ok, I’ll deal with that too…’ That’s a whole lot of people. You can’t come to New York and not experience Brooklyn. I was shocked at people in New York who feel like they just don’t need to come to Brooklyn.

Reggie Workman on bass with John Coltrane.

What year did you start working with Coltrane? Did you have any experiences playing with him in Brooklyn?
At the beginning of 1960. No, I’m sure that he played in Brooklyn, but I never played with him there. I played with John Coltrane back in Philadelphia, before I left home. We used to have sessions at my home and one time I looked up and there was John Coltrane unpacking his horn. If he knew there was something happening, he would be there. He walked from South Philadelphia with his sneakers on and his horn over his shoulder, all the way up to Germantown when he heard that there was going to be a session at the house. That’s the kind of inspiration people would have when they knew that there was some music going on.

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