The Independent Ear

The Passing of an Ironman

Like many I first discovered Greg Tate’s prose in the weekly Village Voice – in a music writer’s room that also included such significant voices as Stanley Crouch, Gary Giddins, and Robert Christgau.  Greg’s sense of the music was refreshingly inventive while maintaining a colloquial sensibility that made a lot more sense to me than some of the musicological fakery I was experiencing in various jazz prints – thoroughly lacking in the I know music… and you don’t music criticism that was clearly moldy fig-alated.

Fortunately when we began a series of dialogues with African American music writers in these pages to examine the seeming disparity of Black music’s essential provenance in what has become American music on one hand, and the scarcity of Black writing perspectives in the prints on the other, Greg Tate contributed robustly to the dialogue.  Those dialogues have become the currently in-production book Ain’t But a Few of Us, due out 3rd quarter 2022 via Duke University Press – also home to Greg Tate’s work, including Flyboy in the Buttermilk.

When Greg Tate joined the ancestors on December 7th, I reached out to a small cadre of writers, scholars and fellow travelers to remember the man known as Ironman…  

Before I could really comprehend how bright of a lodestar Greg Tate would be for me as a writer and musicologist, I knew that he offered a fresh model for me. He didn’t traffic the either/or path that seemed so prevalent in early-’90s music journalism, when it came to either focusing seriously about jazz or directing that energy toward the nascent hip-hop movement. Greg did both with gusto and so much else, such as R&B and rock music, comic books, literature, visual art, and movies. When his book, Flyboy in the Buttermilk, was published, those essays galvanized my imagination the same way that Parliament-Funkadelic’s music or the X-Men comic books did. Tate made me want to be a great writer and chronicler of Black fantastical music and culture.

I foolishly tried to emulate his writing style and failed miserably. That failure was a good thing. It taught me that there was only one Greg Tate; it also taught me to focus on the clarity of my prose and the strengths of my research, arguments and storytelling. Through that failure, I slowly crafted my own both as a writer and DJ.

But even while Greg was this writer star, who also co-founded the Black Rock Coalition and became a noteworthy musician as the leader of Burnt Sugar, he was always approachable. He always made me feel as if I was a member of his creative tribe. And for that alone I will be eternally grateful.

— John Murph

When I interviewed Greg Tate for a Q&A for Publishers Weekly in 2016, he told me that Wayne Shorter and Amiri Baraka were his strongest overall influences. If you look at the vast body of his work, that rings true. Tate downloaded Shorter’s Afro-futuristic, cinematic multiverse approach to music to construct his own Negroidally-nuanced literary narratives, and he stamped Baraka’s poetic passport that docked in ports of call where bebop, Beat poets and Black Fire nationalism dwell. Add all of those aesthetic ingredients with tinges of Sterling Brown, W.E.B. Du Bois, Toni Morrison, Sun Ra and the comprehensive constellation of Black, Brown and Beige thought that is Howard University – Tate’s Alma Mater – and you had a writer who, from the time his byline appeared in the Village Voice in 1987, until December 7, when he ascended to a higher plane, sounded like no one but himself.

— Eugene Holley, Jr.

 

Reading Greg Tate’s imposing prose for the first time was intimidating, slightly disorienting; like encountering the music of Eric Dolphy or Ornette Coleman after a steady diet of straight ahead swing or seeing Picasso and Dali after assuming that Rembrandt was the final word in visual art. Tate rocked my journalism school-bred world in much the same way that Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Joan Didion upset the journalistic establishment of the ‘60s and ’70s. This was a fresh new voice. And there was nothing gimmicky about his inventive use of the language, dubbed “slangy erudition” by one wag. As fellow writer Hua Hsu so brilliantly noted in a Sept. 21, 2016 article for The New Yorker: “His best paragraphs throbbed like a party and chattered like a salon; they were stylishly jam-packed with names and reference points that shouldn’t have got along but did, a trans-everything collision of pop stars, filmmakers, subterranean graffiti artists, Ivory Tower theorists, and Tate’s personal buddies, who often came across as the wisest of the bunch.” There was an underlying logic and intelligence to Tate’s writing style that lent authority to even his most experimental forays into criticism. His ideas were always solid, penetrating, insightful. I especially admired the way he made connections between seemingly disparate types of music — how James Brown informed Miles Davis’ electric band of the ‘70s, which in turn was influenced by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Jimi Hendrix and maybe even King Crimson to some degree. Tate could always trace the connections — from George Clinton to Romare Bearden to Sun Ra to Michael Jordan to King Sunny Ade to Butch Morris to Chuck D. Tate thought globally. His mind was as expansive as the Grand Canyon and as tight as a JB groove. And his lexicon of hip phrasing and cadence that anticipated/mirrored hip-hop spoke of his playful intellect — part Jean Paul Sarte phenomenology, part Bootsy Collins cartoon mind, part Sun Ra extraterrestrial traveler. We aspiring writers, critics, journalists who read him religiously every week in The Village Voice during the ‘80s stood in awe of his expressive virtuosity. And it was not something that you could copy. There was no template for this style of cultural criticism, this Afro-futurist way of thinking. All one could do was admire the skill, the vision, the daring creativity. As he wrote in 1986: “My mission is clear. The future of Black culture depends that this generation brings forth a worldly-wise and stoopidfresh intelligentsia of radical bups who can get as ignant as James Brown with their Wangs [computers] and stay in the Black. Give me such an army and we’ll be talking total cultural Black rule by the time the eco-system collapses, SDI bottoms out Fort Knox, the Aryan Brotherhood is officially in the White House, and Wall Street is on the moon.”

— Bill Milkowski

“Strange vibrations…from the hardcore…”

That refrain, above, voiced over his original program theme music, is how I first heard Greg “Ironman’ Tate in D.C.   It was the late 70s, when he presented his wonderfully original “Strange Vibrations From the Hardcore”, radio program, on WPFW, radio.  I would begin my 33-year tenure at ‘PFW, as he departed for NY, to begin a masterful writing career with the Village Voice; while also developing his music playing, composing, and conducting skills through his group and Arkestra, Burnt Sugar.  His “Bird flew Miles through Trane, who Jimmy’d the Mothership Connection, exit/exit us”, prose is a poetic, prayer-like refrain that’s now imbedded in my psyche.   I didn’t see Greg too much, once he became a NYker, a nascent NY trip being to an early meeting of his guitarist Vernon Reid co-founded founded Black Rock Coalition organization, with my friend and fellow ‘PFW programmer, Herb Taylor.  Whether concerts here in DC, or there in NY, greetings were always black, warm, and welcome.   ‘PFW had many great avantars, but Greg was the first to truly avant, the funk.  Bird may The final warning words in his epic 1992 epoch tomb, “Flyboy in the Buttermilk – essays on contemporary america”, Fireside/Simon & Schuster: “If we don’t exercise our capacity to love and heal each other by digging deep into our mutual woundedness, then what we’re struggling for is merely the end of white supremacy – and not the salvaging of its victims.”

–Bobby Hill

 

Greg Tate was a “genius child.”  He was a person moving ahead of his time and telling us where we needed to go.

I was first introduced to his poetry when I judged a poetry contest for DC public school kids in the early seventies. Many of the poems submitted were class assignment work; poems about spring and seasonal changes. Suddenly I picked up a poem that was extremely different and seemed to come straight from Hendrix’s guitar. A blast of difference–setting the work apart from the other poems in my packet. Maybe a few months later I met Greg for the first time. I was introduced to him by our mutual friend Charlene Porter. Charlene might have worked for Greg’s father. She introduced me to Greg Tate in Folio Bookstore on P Street near DuPont Circle.

Looking back through my files I see that I sponsored my first reading for Greg on December 21, 1976 at the WPA. I would sponsor other readings for him on into the 1980s on my Ascension Series; inviting him to read with poets like Alexis DeVeaux and Diane Burns. Greg at the time was hanging out with the cool people at Howard: Calvin Reid, Richard Powell and all those visual artists who were beginning to sketch and paint a new world. Two people Greg admired and loved were Thulani Davis and A.B. Spellman. Greg also came from a cool family. Taters I liked to call them, echoing the words of Boston Red Sox slugger George Scott who called his homers “taters” as they sailed over the Green Monster (Wall) in Fenway Park. A thing of beauty. A new aesthetic – something that is part of much of what Greg Tate taught us during his life. Greg was a seeker and explorer. I laughed when in 1992 he signed his copy of Flyboy in the Buttermilk for me. He wrote: “Ethelbert, the E-Man, thanx for discoverin me.” Looking at these words today makes me feel like an old Columbus. Like Native Americans – Greg was already doing his thing. I just happened to bump into him. The rest is history.

— E. Ethelbert Miller,Writer and literary activist

I was lucky enough to write for the Village Voice when Greg Tate did. My words could not soar up to the territory in which his generally floated, but at least they were printed with the same ink and bound within the same pages. Later on, I got the chance to speak on public panels along with Greg. Again, my banter didn’t bounce like his or echo with similar thuds of deep meaning. Yet the conversations were necessarily raised up to the level of the Flyboy’s game, and I was in that game. Through Greg’s words and his music, in his writing and his playing, via both his swagger and his humility, I learned things about Blackness and being and about being Black that I couldn’t know but needed to understand in order to, say, write about jazz or just to live justly in this world. And I felt inspired to figure out who I was, too. I knew Greg a little but I felt like he knew all about me because that’s how great writers make you feel when you read them. And when I heard and saw him perform with Burnt Sugar The Arkestra Chamber, I inhabited, for a little while, a world he imagined into reality. Greg never asked anything of me. But through his own tough and lovely expressions, he demanded that I do the work of research and thinking and listening hard and, only then, find something new and useful and beautiful to say. I can’t do it all the time like Greg did. I’m trying, Greg, I’m trying, man.
— Larry Blumenfeld

 

 

 

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Monterey Jazz Festival Soldiers On

This year’s 64th annual Monterey Jazz Festival was a welcome respite for it’s thirsty audience, two years since the big event had last played the Monterey County Fairgrounds to full capacity.  Like many in the global community of jazz festivals, after resorting to a strictly virtual, pandemic-decreed online presentation in September 2020, MJF was back on hallowed ground in the pastoral Monterey Peninsula, with several decided differences.

The pandemic’s continued presence demanded some unprecedented changes in both it’s physical configuration and it’s performance schedule.  In ordinary times the Monterey County Fairgrounds includes a sprawling midway with it’s big stage – the open air Arena, or Jimmy Lyons Stage on one end of the fairgrounds, and two indoor venues – Dizzy’s Den and The Nightclub – at the other.  In between a typical MJF weekend would also find the outdoor Garden Stage bustling with performances particularly for the customary sun-dappled weekend matinees, the indoor Coffee House Gallery, and a separate facility for viewing the Arena performances simulcast on big screen video.

The fairgrounds midway connecting these venues is typically bristling with food, drink, arts, crafts, and assorted inviting goods at vender booths.  A good friend on his first visit to MJF once declared the whole scene “…like an amusement park for adults!”  Clearly the pandemic, which we are ever-so-slowly distancing ourselves from with the assistance of vaccines, masks, social distancing measures and overall human cautions, continues to be a very real menace to society, but not as potent a factor as it was back when Monterey Jazz Festival 2020 was forced into virtual mode.

In its brave, finely calculated effort at returning to some degree of normalcy, for its 64th annual edition the MJF team developed a sound plan for 2021 presentation: ticket sales were capped at 2500 per the festival’s three days.  Blessed with a robust annual season ticket buyers roster, those limited number of tickets were scooped up mere days after the 2021 festival was announced.  If you know anything about MJF you know it is not only a haven for great, sometimes historic jazz performances, but what has really enabled Monterey Jazz Festival to withstand the vicissitudes of time is its eminently agreeable audience ambiance and the fact that for many MJF audience members there’s a feeling of annual jazz family reunion in the air that September weekend.

Some audience members have been ticket holders nearly since the inception of the event; seats are bequeathed down to succeeding generations; some folks have held the same Arena seat (where all seating is reserved) for decades.  Its just that kind of event, an atmosphere my Dad would refer to as “old home week.”   Joie de vivre rules the day at the Monterey Jazz Festival!

In addition to capping ticket sales at a fraction of the usual capacity, those secondary venues – Dizzy’s Den, the Nightclub, the Garden Stage, the Coffee House Gallery, and the simulcast room were all shuttered.  All performances took place at the Arena (which was sans it’s usual large stationary bleacher section at the rear) and an adjacent open-air courtyard hard by the food & drink vendors.  The fairgrounds were essentially fenced off at half it’s usual footprint.  Though the geography and the audience may have been truncated, the spirit & joy were decidedly on high beam – perhaps even heightened from the normally joyous MJF atmosphere, given the year we missed and what this writer has experienced as this Fall ’21 season’s overarching sense of relief and celebration at our once again slowly but surely gathering as a populace, though preferably with all due health precautions.  As with so many large events this Fall 2021, proof of vaccine or a negative Covid test 72 hours in advance were required for festival entry.

In concert with the reduced venue footprint, MJF wisely limited its usual Friday night/Saturday matinee/Saturday night/Sunday matinee/Sunday night closer sequences to Friday 7:00-10pm; Saturday and Sunday 1:00-6:45pm.  Clearly very few if any of the festival celebrants felt even remotely cheated by the festival’s reduced capacity moves; if anything the annual sense of reunion was ramped up.  Besides those Arena sessions, the Yamaha Courtyard Stage was a lively venue, with fans in constant motion in search of good eats and subsequently camping out at picnic tables to catch continuous sets by guitarist Mimi Fox’s Organ Trio on Friday, followed by Letter One Rising Stars Award 2020 and 2021 recipients, trumpeter and Roy Hargrove protege Giveton Gelin on Saturday, and the striking young alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins on Sunday.  (Ironically these two budding firebreathers often work together in Gelin’s frontline!)  Each played what amounted to club sets, the dining, drinking, socializing seen creating a more intimate scene when contrasted with the big stage Arena.

Despite these seeming limitations, the audience clearly had a blast!  The high energy was palpable as friends met up with friends for perhaps the first time in 18+ months, and for many seeing friends for the first time since MJF September ’19!  I heard a number of long timers remark with evident appreciation about how this 2021 pandemic-required reduced scale festival felt like how MJF “used to be,” before it’s modern era venue expansions.

Friday evening opened with Pat Metheny‘s current trio project Side Eye.  With James Francies on keyboards and Joe Dyson on drums, Pat sifted certain of his familiar themes through this new format seamlessly, including the opener “So It May Secretly Begin,” “Bright Size Life,” and a in-these-times appropriate “Better Days Ahead”.  Francies deftly intoned keyboard bass with one hand, his other delivering on his melodic/harmonic responsibilities, his bass hand delivering tonalities very much like a bass guitar as opposed to the familiar synth bass tonality.  About halfway into his program Pat unleashed his “Orchestrion”, a sort of robotic, self actualized percussion section that provided some intriguing visuals once the big screen camera crew zeroed in on that futuristic implement, one which may have given slight pause to any of the percussionists in the house!  On one piece Pat eased some “Song X” sonic textures into the program, recalling his exploits with Ornette Coleman.

Herbie Hancock closed the 2-performance opening evening with Lionel Loueke on guitar and his uncanny wordless ancestral vocal accompaniment, James Genus on bass, and drummer Justin Tyson in his current crew.  But besides the master’s usual sterling keyboard work, sparkling young flutist (and occasional vocalist) Elena Pinderhughes (a grad of MJF’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra program) brought the most intrigue to Herbie’s largely career retrospective program, with a “Chameleon” encore.

The Saturday afternoon/early evening session opened with one of the festival’s revelations, delivered by the young composer/conductor Miho Hazama‘s exceptionally balanced, compositionally rich set.  Her 13-piece M_Unit included a string quartet, which brought significant additional color to her commissioned work the “Exoplanet Suite.”  For Miho’s first West Coast performance, she clearly captured many hearts & minds with her riveting original music and thematically-driven set.

There was one lineup casualty, the cancellation of the East L.A. band Las Cafeteras.  MJF artistic director Tim Jackson quickly asked pianist-composer Gerald Clayton, who directs MJF’s youth band Next Generation Jazz Orchestra, if he could put something together to fill that Saturday 2:30pm slot.  Asked later about that scenario, Gerald told me by email that “When Tim Jackson got the word that Las Cafeteras had to cancel, he asked if I would be willing to put something together.  I made some calls and before long we had the [Gerald Clayton] Experience slated to go.  I spent the following mornings waking up early to write out charts and send music to the cats.  We got together a few hours before our set, rehearsed the tunes and walked on stage.”

The “cats” Clayton called upon were alto saxophonist Immanuel Wilkins – a ubiquitous MJF ’21 presence courtesy of his 4 Yamaha Courtyard Stage sets and a couple of auspicious “special guest” soloist slots – guitarist Matt Stevens, on hand to play as part of Terri Lyne Carrington‘s Social Science set, bassist Kaveh Rastegar, and the always-enriching drummer Eric Harland.  They proceeded to play a set that belied any sense of the impromptu, particularly delivering a beautiful take on D’Angelo‘s “Africa.” The arrangement clearly demonstrated Clayton’s skills at crafting music supposedly outside the boundaries of jazz expression and making it their own.

Terri Lyne Carrington’s absorbing gender and racial justice project Social Science delivered a typically brilliant, beyond boundaries set, including meditations on such societal vexations as the wait/waiting game gender and racial justice advocates are historically cautioned to play in seeking equitable treatment and redress.  Her band included Stevens on guitar, the resourceful pianist Aaron Parks, Morgan Guerin on bass, DJ Kassa Overall, and the NEA Jazz Master herself on drums.  Vocalist Debo Ray was a significant presence, successfully delivering the powerful lyric contents of the program, with electronic colors and asides from Overall.  They closed with the extraordinary, poem-driven piece “Bells”.

Vocalist Ledisi closed the Saturday session with spirited elan, bringing a measure of 21st century R&B to a hungry audience that soon stormed the grassy space in front of the Arena’s Jimmy Lyon Stage.  Dozens of revelers joyously danced to Ledisi’s infectious vocals, stage presence, and finely complimentary band.

Sunday afternoon opened with Gerald Clayton directing the student Next Gen Jazz Orchestra, which begged additional questions of Clayton (who in making his stage intros, if you closed your eyes you might’ve thought it was his Dad, bassist-conductor John Clayton doing the talking!).  “This was my second year directing the NGJO,” Gerald informed.  “It means very much to me on a personal level, as I have history with the festival’s education program; my first time attending the festival was as a competing high school senior,” confirmed this son of a lifelong jazz educator.  “Besides the personal feeling of having gone “full circle”, this opportunity also allows me to get deeper into education – something that I have always been passionate about.”

Monterey Jazz Festival’s Next Generation Jazz Orchestra is selected by national audition.  “There is an audition process, where the students send in videos of themselves performing a variety of things,” Clayton confirmed.  “Those videos are judged by a group of professional musicians, then handed off to me for the final selection.”  The ever-ready and poised Immanuel Wilkins, who is quickly evolving a personal alto saxophone approach, sat in with the band. But it was left to one of the very promising young NGJO members to provide the highlight, baritone saxophonist Noa Zebley‘s feature on Charles Mingus’ raucous “Moanin'”.  Vocalist Ellah Brown proved quite the charmer on her features.

MJF’s 2021 artist-in-residence was pianist Christian Sands, who conducted live interviews with several festival artists across the weekend, including Clayton and bassist Katie Thiroux on jazz education, and vocalist Kandace Springs.  For his Sunday afternoon set Sands worked with bassist Yasushi Nakamura, the versatile drummer Clarence Penn, and the cunning and original guitarist Marvin Sewell.  Sands broadened his canvas by inviting three of the Next Gen youngsters onstage for his original tune “Be Water.”  Given these hallowed grounds – home of the fabled Monterey Pop Festival where Jimi Hendrix literally exploded on the scene, not to mention 64 years of great jazz – it stood to reason that the audience, many of them boomers, would react well to a rock era reprise.  Sands delivered with his great arrangement of the Steve Winwood classic “Can’t Find My Way Home,” with scores of audience members mouthing the lyrics to themselves.

Vocalist Kandace Springs continued her upward arc, this time leading a trio that boasted two wonderfully talented young women: bassist-vocalist Caylen Bryant, proud daughter of saxophonist Lance Bryant (as she told the audience), and the precocious drummer Taylor Moore. who informed the audience that she was a Jimmy Cobb protege.  The ever-present Immanuel Wilkins – this year’s MJF co-MVP (along with Clayton) – performed another guest shot, and Kandace warmed the audience with her reprise of the Roberta Flack classic “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

The festival closer left the crowd further energized and thrilled, as George Benson delivered a retrospective of his hits and familiar interpretations, and on the promise he had made to this writer for the program book, of serving up a “George Benson party”.  Dozens caught the spirit, once again rushing the grassy stage front area to luxuriate in the groove of yet another high-spirited day at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

 

 

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Pittsburgh: We Knew What We Had

As one who was born in Pittsburgh, but moved to Cleveland at age 11 well before my teenaged jazz sensibilities developed, I’ve viewed Pittsburgh with great pride since my jazz awakening.  After all Pittsburgh is the place of origin of an extravagant number of jazz masters, a list that includes Mary Lou Williams, Earl “Fatha” Hines, Art Blakey, Ahmad Jamal, Billy Strayhorn, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine… and that’s just for starters.

Several seasons back I was invited to moderate a panel discussion for a celebratory weekend sponsored by members and celebrants of the city’s former Black musicians union local.  As with several urban areas across the country, Pittsburgh’s Black musicians union local – from the days when such an entity was essential in light of the discriminatory policies of the mainstream musicians’ union – was a thriving, vital entity.  Pittsburgh’s Black musicians union local had its own jazz club where many of the city’s jazz greats were active.  And Pittsburgh is doing a very credible job of recognizing the gifts of its jazz greats with standing plaques commemorating their Pittsburgh histories.  For example, during that weekend I was driven by the house where Art Blakey grew up, now commemorated by a plaque.  I also visited a modern housing development replete with Pittsburgh jazz greats names tastefully emblazoned on the walls.  And those are just a few of the ways Pittsburgh boasts its proud jazz history.

The work of Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG) has long been a beacon of jazz presentation in Pittsburgh, not to mention the more recent vital and thriving Pittsburgh Jazz Festival.  Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, a unique training and community organizing facility that was founded by the visionary Bill Strickland, has a deep stake in jazz presentation and in preserving the history of jazz in Pittsburgh, efforts under the leadership of guitarist and ace jazz presenter Marty Ashby.  One of the most recent exemplars of MCG’s efforts at preserving the city’s jazz legacy is the 2018 documentary film We Knew What We Had, subtitled “The Greatest Jazz Story Never Told,” which brilliantly captures a historical perspective on Pittsburgh’s jazz contributions.  Clearly some questions were in order for the film’s producer, Marty Ashby.    

This film seems kind of inevitable given the richness of Pittsburgh’s jazz history, so how did it finally come together?

The film actually premiered on PBS in January of 2018.  It took 10 years to make.  We had a few false starts because the community of folks we brought together to discuss the film couldn’t agree on the approach or perspective. Finally, in 2013 we got our first funder. I gathered everyone and explained that it was time to get started.  We had already lost Ray [Brown] and Stanley [Turrentine], and too many others and I refused to wait any longer before we lost another legend we could interview for the film.  The Director, Jeff Sewald, and I assured the community that the interviews would dictate the story.

What archival resources did you call upon for all the great still photographs and background materials used in this film?

We have photos from dozens of collections as you can see from the credits.  Some private collections like Joe Negri (pictured below)’s.  Some we paid for like Hermann Leonard’s and Lee Tanner’s photos.  And thank god for Teenie Harris and his amazing collection housed at the Carnegie Museum.  We produced the music score for the Teenie Harris exhibition in 2011 so I was intimately familiar with his Jazz related images.  I believe we have of 87 of his images in the film.  I never realized that a 56:30 film could utilize hundreds of photos to tell a story.

Who was your primary interviewer and what was the common thread in those interviews?

Jeff Sewald was the primary interviewer.  I did a few of them, like George Benson and Mundel Lowe.  We shot over 60 full interviews and I believe we only used around 30 in the final edit.  The common thread was basically having folks tell us stories about back in the day.  Pending their age, it was either first hand experiences or things they have been told.  For some of the cats like Monty Alexander and Geri Allen we asked about specific musicians we knew they had worked with.

Given the depth of your history playing in Pittsburgh and serving the jazz audience in Pittsburgh, what did you learn from this process that you hadn’t already known?

I still learn something about the richness of the legacy Pittsburgh has on Jazz History seemingly every week.  While I knew about all the big names from Pittsburgh, the interviews uncovered a rich scene with hundreds of jazz musicians working in dozens of clubs seven days a week.  The tradition of mentorship for young musicians came out in the interviews in a very profound way which helps to explain why the level of musicianship here is so incredibly high to this day.  I was also very taken with the love that the cats have for their hometown even if they have been gone for decades and rarely come home.  George Benson and Ahmad Jamal said it in the film and I remember Stanley and Ray always discussing their fondness for Pittsburgh.

What are your screening and distrubution plans for this film?

The film was optioned by American Public Television for 3 years beginning with the premiere in January of 2018.  It was broadcast on over 400 channels across 46 states totaling thousands of telecasts of the film reaching 86% of the viewers nationwide. They picked it up for another 3 years this year and it continues to air at various times throughout the PBS networks.  It has become a favorite go to in February for various station fundraisers.  The film has been screened at the US Film Festival in Dallas, TX, at the Jazz Institute in Graz, Austria, at BIAMP PDX Jazz Festival in Portland, OR, and at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City. The documentary was awarded a Gold Telly Award in the Use of Music for Television category and a Bronze Telly Award for the Cultural in Television category. It came out on DVD/Blue-Ray this past spring.

Do you see this as the penultimate study of Pittsburgh’s jazz history, or are there any plans for additional films?

I feel that the film is a well-constructed introduction to Pittsburgh’s Jazz legacy.  There are so many other [Pittsburgh] folks we didn’t have time to dig into like Maxine Sullivan, Dakota Staton, Dodo Marmarosa, Jimmy Ponder, Sammy Nestico, Barry Galbreath, Eddie Jefferson, Roy Eldridge, Grover Mitchell – and the list goes on.  I would love to make a part two.  All a function of time and $$.

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William Parker: Migration of Silence

Bassist-composer William Parker, is along with his partner and co-producer, dancer-choreographer Patricia Nicholson Parker are the prime movers and presenters of the auspicious annual Vision Festival in NYC.  But first and foremost William Parker is a prodigious bassist and multi-instrumentalist who has carved out a powerful and influential presence in his quest for original music.

The latest recorded evidence of William Parker’s expansive musical viewpoints is represented on the sprawling canvas of his 10-disc box set Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World (Aum Fidelity).  As if the Vision Festival is not clear enough evidence of William Parker’s selfless mission to promote original music in the art of the improvisors space, Migration of Silence is far from dominated by either Parker’s bass presence.

Among those who express the music – William Parker’s originals or otherwise – the list of guest improvisers invited in Parker’s expansive laboratory for Migration of Silence are: violinists Jason Kao Hwang and Jean Cook, solo pianist Eli Yamamoto, vocal improvisers Ellen Christi, Lisa Sokolov, Fay Victor and Andrea Wolper, vibrapbonist Matt Moran, drummers Hamid Drake and Jackson Krall, the Universal Tonality String Quartet, and saxophonist Daniel Carter.  Given the depth and breadth of Migration of Silence Into and Out of the Tone World, plus the broad promise of that title in and of itself, clearly some questions were in order for William Parker.

One of the interesting aspects of how you assembled this 10-CD project is that on 6 discs you’re noted as having “Composed, Arranged & Produced” the performances; whereas on the 4 others you’re listed as “Composed & Produced by William Parker”.  As you put this project together, what compelled you to those slightly different relationships with what is ultimately all the music of William Parker?

The songs that I participate as a performer may be listed as composed and produced by William Parker. The songs that I am not playing on I might be listed as an arranger but all the music is tweaked shaped and informed by me on every track. Part of this is allowing or encouraging the players to be themselves to add to and interpret the music as they hear it.

Likewise you chose not to perform on several of these CDs.  Some might rightfully consider it a selfless move to release such a large boxed set of music, yet not be a dominant performer or in some cases not participate as member of the ensemble.  What went into your decisions to play on some of these sessions, and purely to compose and produce others?

I am basically a free improviser and don’t wish to be bogged down with preset ideas that may be inside a composition if I play on the music it would be much more open than the versions that were released. Although many of the musicians on the recordings had studied with me and were very familiar with  both aspects of creativity, Improvisation is a form of composition and composition is a form of improvisation

Considering your long history with the Vision Festival and all of the great musicians and performances you and Patricia have produced on that festival down through the years, how did you determine that these particular players were the musicians you wanted to help you make “Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World”?

I like to use musicians who can un-tap and live with the mysteries that sound inside the music. If I like what someone is doing I will hire them male or female. Whether they are known or unknown to the music world. The first priority is the music. Creating a balance between under and over rehearsing.

Do you see this box set as a kind of recorded extension of what you & Patricia have established with the Vision Festival?

It covers some of the same principles social justice, freedom, anti-war, anti-racism. All of these things have been relevant in my music since the early 70’s.

Ultimately what are you seeking to convey with such a large project as “Migration of Silence Into and Out of The Tone World”?

I am a multi dimensional human being and musician, and I am interested in so many different aspects of sound music poetry and theatre.  This box set touches  on some of these interests, including folk [music], strings, tempered and untempered sounds the many areas that were not approached on this box set.

After such an impressive and prodigious box set, what’s next on your plate?

The next realease is s single CD called “Universal Tonality” featuring Dave Burrell, Biily Bang, Grachan Moncur III,Jerome Cooper, and many others.

Stay tuned…!

 

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Anatomy of a Record Store

BIRDEL’S RECORDS: ANATOMY OF A DYING BREED

Back in 2010/2011 I had the privilege of conducting extensive oral history interviews in Central Brooklyn for the Weeksville Heritage Center.  For those not familiar, Weeksville was the original African American settlement, founded by free African Americans in what is now the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.  Now commemorated by the shiny, new Weeksville Heritage Center cultural center and museum, at 158 Buffalo Avenue in Brooklyn,  some of the original Weeksville structures remain on the grounds surrounding the Center.

Our oral history project focus was on the significant jazz history of Central Brooklyn.  Jennifer Scott, Kaitlyn Greenidge and myself conducted these extensive interviews with jazz artists, club and cultural center owners and curators, jazz educators, activists associated with past and present culture keepers like the legendary East, and the current Sista’s Place, and the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, and one record store proprietor – Joe Long of the now-legendary Birdel’s Records.

A classic in the now unfortunately fossilized world of neighborhood record stores, Birdel’s is now officially commemorated by Birdel’s Records Way, on Nostrand Avenue between Atlantic and Fulton Street.  A magnet for touring artists’ autograph sessions across all genres of Black music, like its many similar neighborhood record stores across the country, Birdel’s prided itself in the depth and breadth of it’s Black music resources across genres.  Many young people increased their jazz and other Black music knowledge at Birdel’s, including rap titans like Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z, who haunted the stacks for crate digging and knowledge seeking.

Here’s the official notice of the naming of Birdel’s Records Way:Birdel’s Records Way (Brooklyn)
Present name:Nostrand Avenue
Location:Between Atlantic Avenue and Fulton Street
Honoree: This co-naming commemorates Birdel’s Records, a record store that was open for more than a half century until recently. Birdel’s Records opened in 1944 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Through the years, the store drew such R&B legends as James Brown, Al Green, Patti LaBelle and Barry White who came to sign autographs.

On April 12, 2011 Jennifer, Kaitlyn and I encountered a lively man named Joe Long, owner & proprietor of Birdel’s Records.  Unfortunately record store proprietors are often left out of the equation when it comes to the development of various music and styles, despite the fact that many were quite influential in their given neighborhoods.  Fortunately we sought out Joe Long and he proved to be a very lively and informative witness to the development of Black music in his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood… and beyond.  Here’s our interview with Joe Long, one of the captains of a now ancient breed – the neighborhood record store.

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 quick, 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.’ Jews don’t really make commitments to us. 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 that 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 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, you 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.

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] when I started, 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 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 [Combs] 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, baritone player, Wilbur Ware, bass player, Randy Weston, piano player, 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 come 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 they jazz guys would come in and buy each other’s records?

JL: Yeah, the 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 me 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 when you closed?

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, the 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 in-store radio show every Sunday (the “Pleaser”). 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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