The Independent Ear

Bill Brower: A true Jazz Cultural Warrior

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

Bill Brower: Notes from a keen observer & scenemaker

Interview by Willard Jenkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the occasion for Andrew to play that marathon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did your relationship with Dr. Taylor develop?

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

What was the nature of this Jazz in DC production?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about your work on the Capital City Jazz Festival.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B: The new loft scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Karrin Allyson Goes Shoulder to Shoulder


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

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

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

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

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Remembering Ralph Peterson

Following his long and very public battle with cancer, drummer-bandleader-educator and record label producer Ralph Peterson, Jr. joined the ancestors in the early morning hours of Monday, March 1.  For our June 2019 DC JazzFest concluding weekend at The Wharf, to celebrate the Art Blakey centennial we presented Ralph Peterson’s Gen-Next Big Band, a vibrant assemblage of his top students at Berklee College of Music.  That particularly unit which twice recorded for Ralph’s Onyx label, including this 2019 edition:

On that 2019 DC Jazz Festival occasion, as part of our Meet the Artist series of activities I hosted a live DownBeat magazine Blindfold Test, which was subsequently published in DB.  Thanks to DB publisher Frank Alkyer for granting permission to re-print this Ralph Peterson Blindfold Test in the Independent Ear.

DownBeat Blindfold Test conducted by Willard Jenkins

Ralph Peterson

Drummer-bandleader and Berklee College of Music professor Ralph Peterson has raised the Art Blakey Jazz Messengers flag high in this centennial year of the great Pittsburgh-born drummer’s birth. Back in Buhaina’s final decades on the planet, whenever he had a big band project or needed a second drummer to rehearse the Messengers or hold auditions, he would most often call upon Peterson. To celebrate Blakey’s centennial, Peterson has this year released two commemorations – I Remember Bu by his GenNext Big Band, comprised of first class Berklee students, and Legacy Alive by a crew of Messengers alums under the banner of The Messenger Legacy; both on Peterson’s Onyx label imprint. On this occasion Peterson had just performed an explosive set at the helm of the GenNext Big Band at the 15th annual DC Jazz Festival. After the gig Peterson sat down at DCJF’s Education Village for this Blindfold Test.

Albert “Tootie” Heath, “Reets and I” (Philadelphia Beat, Smalls 2015) Heath, drums; Ethan Iverson, piano; Ben Street, bass

Ralph Peterson: That’s amazing composition from the Bud Powell book. I remember playing that piece with Walter Davis. The piano player smacks of Geri Allen and Jaki Byard maybe. So if it’s not either of those two, it’s someone of that ilk. I sat up trying to hear the texture of the ride cymbal, because the drummer was playing very Roy Haynes-esque, but it didn’t have that quintessential flat ride sound of Roy.

Manu Katche, “Keep on Trippin’” (Third Round, ECM 2010) Katche, drums; Tore Brunborg, saxophone; Jason Rebello, piano/keyboards; Pino Palladino, bass; Jacob Young, guitars; Kami Lyle, vocals, trumpet

R.P.: Very often you can identify a piece if you can identify the sound of the drummer, or the sound of one particular player, or the sound of the recording. For a moment IO thought it might be Terri Lyne Carrington. Then I thought it might be Marcus Baylor. Clearly this is the kind of jazz that I was first introduced to, this is how I thought jazz should be until I met Paul Jeffrey; it has that pocket you can dance to feeling.

Neal Smith, “The Cup Bearers” (Some of My Favorite Songs Are By Smith; NAS Music 2005) Smith, drums; Mark Whitfield, guitar; Rick Germanson, piano; Peter Washington, bass)

R.P.: Something wants me to say Rick Germanson on piano, Neal Smith on drums. Neal, that’s my dog, we have neighboring offices at Berklee. He has such an amazing, nuanced touch, and I know he loves this tune, so I thought it was Neal’s record.

Sons of Kemet, “Burn” (Inner Babylon, NAIM 2013) Shabaka Hutchings, tenor saxophone; Oren Marshall, tuba; Tom Skinner and Terri Rochford, drums

R.P.: Is that Pheeroan akLaff? I’ve got some former students this could be; a Slovenian drummer named Andres. It reminds me of the music I used to play with David Murray and the music of that tour circuit – Craig Harris Tailgater’s Tales, Hamiet Bluiett, Bob Stewart…What I was able to identify was the sound of tuba as opposed to [string] bass, which led me to think that the group is Europe-based, but I like it.

Randy Weston,“Pam’s Waltz” (Randy Weston Trio, Riverside 1955); Weston, piano; Sam Gill, bass; Art Blakey, drums

R.P.: Two pianists come to mind right away – Horace Parlan and Walter Bishop Jr.; I don’t know if it’s them because there’s a quality there that I know from my association with Walter Davis. It sounds like it was written for a movie. The role of the drums here is pretty low-key – Connie Kay comes to mind, maybe Vernel Fournier. It just goes to show that artists the caliber of Art Blakey can’t be put in a box. His brilliance and his ability to be subtle and supportive was just as powerful as his ability to be bombastic and a leader.

Terri Lyne Carrington, “Jazz is a Spirit” (Jazz Is a Spirit, ACT 2001) Carrington, drums; Wallace Roney, trumpet; Munyungo Jackson, percussion; Danny Robinson, guitar; Greg Kirstin, keyboards; Malcolm Jamal Warner, spoken word

R.P.: I thought it was Keyon Harrold on trumpet. I didn’t think it was Wallace [Roney], but what I find most interesting about it is Wallace’s ability to not weigh too deep into the harmonic explorations of Miles [Davis] playing against the tonality. And that’s made it deceptive to me because usually Wallace’s connection to Miles is obvious and direct, so this more subtle approach is nice to hear him do. There’s a lotta cats out here who can do it, but Wallace is to Miles what I try to be to Art Blakey.

Matt Wilson, “Teen Town” (An Attitude for Gratitude, Palmetto 2012) Wilson, drums; Terell Stafford, trumpet; Gary Versace, organ; Martin Wind, bass

R.P.: Is this Joey [DeFrancesco]? I like it, it’s a fresh approach to this Weather Report tune. This was one of the first complicated pieces of fusion that got my attention in high school. This was [originally] on Heavy Weather with Wayne Shorter, Joe Zawinul, Alex Acuna, and Jaco. What’s interesting is that Matt and I are same generation, so we were probably similarly influenced. I really respect what Matt does as a leader.

Mike Reed, “Sharon” (Clean on the Corner, 482 Music 2012); Reed, drums; Greg Ward and Tim Haldeman, saxophones; Jason Roebke, bass; Craig Taborn, piano; Josh Berman, cornet

R.P.: Vijay Iyer? It reminds me of work that Greg Osby, Gary Thomas, and Steve Coleman have done together. The tune is based on Miles Davis’ “Four” but they’re playing on the upper harmonic partials of the tune. I like it, it swings and it’s out, and I like that. Both globally and regionally there’s so much music on a high level being produced by artists, where when I came up you were looking to be signed, but the paradigm has shifted and artists are freer to start their own labels.

Olodum, “Olodum Mare” (Pela Vela, AXE 2002)

R.P.: Samba school! Duduka da Fonseca? I love the feeling of this music of Brazil! My people are from Trinidad and Barbados, the islands closest to Brazil. That music is connected to Ghana and Ghanaian drumming. Other than Africa, there are more Africans in Brazil than anywhere else. I love that!

Allison Miller, “Pork Belly” (No Morphine, No Lillies, Royal Potato Family 2013); Miller, drums; Myra Melford, piano; Todd Sickafoose, bass; Steven Bernstein, trumpet; Jenny Scheinman, violin

R.P.: Nasheet [Waits]? Is this Orrin Evans? I don’t know who this is but because of the way the drums are tuned it sounds like somebody from my generation, [because of] the openness of the bass drum and the depth and warmth of the toms. I don’t know who it is, but I like it, very nice piece.

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A jazz society case study

Reflections on the Left Bank Jazz Society

By Willard Jenkins

The history of jazz societies in the U.S. dates back to the mid-20th century. These have generally been organized clubs or gatherings of jazz enthusiasts for the purpose of discussing and enjoying jazz together, whether that be attending live performances or discussing jazz recordings in some organized – often scholarly – fashion. Jazz is a communal music in many ways. It’s a music, which at foundation is characterized by the band or ensemble of varying sizes, with musicians interacting and improvising together through a pre-arranged blueprint or arrangement, or perhaps in expressions free of pre-ordained structure, but interacting cooperatively nonetheless.

Likewise jazz enthusiasts, in part due to the somewhat exclusive nature of the audience for jazz and the fact that jazz has not since the 1940s been a mass consumption music, have often felt compelled to gather with like-minded folks for the enjoyment and promulgation of the music. The best, most successful jazz performances are characterized by that successful interaction between a band or ensemble of musicians – often a sort of rhythmic gravity referred to as “swing” – performing before a spirited audience that expresses their delight in applause, vocal encouragement of the soloists and the band, and that good feeling generated among an audience when the sense of group enjoyment is palpable in spirit. It is this sense of communal spirit, coupled with the fact that jazz music enjoys smaller, often more dedicated audiences than mass consumption music, that has compelled jazz enthusiasts to develop some form of organizational vehicle to further express their deep appreciation for jazz music and the musicians who play the music.

I’m happy to say I had my own jazz society experience. Living in Cleveland, OH where I grew up, a few years after my undergrad days when I was working full-time and on the side developing myself as a jazz writer and broadcaster, we had a great jazz club called the Smiling Dog Saloon. That particular club, which began presenting live jazz in 1971, featured many of the touring greats of jazz; for me it was the first place I experienced Miles Davis, Sun Ra, the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, McCoy Tyner, Cannonball Adderley, the Gil Evans Orchestra, the original Weather Report and Return to Forever bands and many others. Due to a variety of circumstances the Smiling Dog closed its doors in 1975. Believe me, this left a real void in terms of touring jazz greats playing Cleveland.

Joe Mosbrook has written a definitive history of jazz in Cleveland, including the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society’s development 

In 1977, after reading an informative article in DownBeat magazine about the successful formation of the Las Vegas Jazz Society, I gathered a group of jazz enthusiasts in my living room (I’ll never forget that November 17 date because it was the day we brought my newborn daughter home from the hospital – and I suppose that suggests my level of jazz enthusiasm!) to form the Northeast Ohio Jazz Society. For many years thereafter we presented regular jazz concert series in Cleveland, bringing jazz artists to auditoriums at Cleveland State University, Cuyahoga Community College, and clubs around the area. We were also aware of a somewhat similar organization operating in Baltimore, MD – an organization with the rather distinctive name of – not the Baltimore Jazz Society – but the Left Bank Jazz Society, conspicuously named after one of the hipper districts of Paris, France.

The Left Bank Jazz Society was founded simply to promote jazz in Baltimore, by a group of jazz enthusiasts in 1964. The LBJS was founded by a group of men gathered to discuss the plight of jazz in Baltimore; that group notably included Benny Kearse and Vernon L. Welsh (a jazz guitarist on the side); and here it’s important to note that Mr. Kearse, who passed in ’99, was a black man and Mr. Welsh, who passed in ’02, was a white man. I make note of that because the Left Bank Jazz Society history truly speaks to jazz as a social music. Their idea was to form an organization “devoted to perpetuating and permeating an awareness of jazz as an art form through organized activities, such as lectures, concerts, sessions and field trips to festivals and night clubs where jazz is featured” (taken from a LBJS yearbook).

Note that the LBJS was founded in 1964, the same year the Civil Rights Act was passed, and the Left Bank actually grew out of another fairly short-lived group – the Interracial Jazz Society, which as its name clearly implies was not only about promoting jazz but about destroying the racial barriers at Baltimore area clubs and auditoriums. Left Bank’s mission and goals stated that its members must “share a love for contemporary American Jazz Music and a belief in the democratic ideals of freedom and equality, regardless of race, creed or color, which this music exemplifies.” Membership dues were set at $2/year, primarily to cover gig notice mailings; those members were characterized as “subscribing members’; the LBJS governing body was capped at 45 “because that’s all the club room will hold,” according to Mr. Kearse.

Despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act, the civil rights struggles of African Americans everywhere, including Baltimore, continues to this day. However throughout the course of its existence the Left Bank Jazz Society presentations offered an oasis where folks mixed freely and happily, both on and off the bandstand. Vernon Welsh, who had spent a good deal of his professional life as an auto salesman, spent his last 15 working years managing Baltimore’s Famous Ballroom. Determined to bring great jazz to Baltimore, the Left Bank Jazz Society began its policy of presenting performances with many of the city’s cadre of excellent professional musicians, like the saxophonist Mickey Fields. Other frequent Baltimore-based jazz performers who played early LBJS presentations included the bassist David Baily, the pianist Tom Baldwin, and the drummer Teddy Hawke, who became a sort of LBJS house rhythm section in the classic jazz club tradition.

The earliest LBJS presentations happened at a place called the Al Ho Club in South Baltimore, and The Madison Club in East Baltimore. In 1966 the Left Bank Jazz Society found its permanent home at the Famous Ballroom, in the 1700 block of North Charles Street. Thereafter their mailings announcing presentations included the motto “See ‘ya at the Famous.” In addition to the concerts LBJS also fostered the LBJS Jazzline, a taped telephone message service listing their coming attractions. LBJS also began sponsoring a weekly radio show on WBJC-FM on Saturday evenings, hosted by Vernon Welsh. Other activities included a jazz lecture series at MD colleges and other institutions, fund-raising concerts, and free summer concerts.

The great majority of Left Bank Jazz Society shows thereafter followed a standard and successful format: Sunday afternoons, 5:00p.m – 9:00pm. Admission at the beginning was only $3! Refreshments were available, cabaret-style and BYOB was encouraged. Though inexpensive soul food was made available for purchase, many brought their own food and beverage, while LBJS sold set-ups for mixed drinks. A true communal spirit in celebration of jazz was born and encouraged at the Famous. An example of the early LBJS menu: a plate of chittlins’ and hog maws for $2.20 or a plate of ribs for $1.95, with collard greens, potato salad, and string beans available as side dishes for $.40! LBJS audiences were about 70% black and largely middle-aged. An article I read suggested: “The whites are primarily young converts from rock…”

The capacity of the Famous Ballroom was approximately 600 and they packed the place on Sundays – at its high point presenting over 40 performances a year! (by its 10th anniversary LBJS had presented over 450 performances!) – for some of the real greats of jazz music: from Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Stan Kenton to John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon, and Stan Getz to Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, and Sun Ra! Looking over the incredible roster of those who performed at Left Bank Jazz Society gigs I was very impressed by the breadth of artists and styles.   The Left Bank Jazz Society boasts the melancholy distinction of hosting John Coltrane’s final concert performance, on May 7, 1967 – two months before he passed from liver cancer. Obviously Coltrane was laboring heavily with his illness at that point, though his performance was described as Herculean as usual, curiously those on the scene that day remembered how after his first set Coltrane did not retire to his dressing room to continue practicing – per the legend of John Coltrane – instead on this occasion he actually sat on the piano bench between sets wearily greeting his fans!

Here’s how Cathleen Curtis in the book “Lives & Legacies of Baltimore Jazz”, published in 2010, described that last Coltrane concert performance: “The date is May 7, 1967, and the place is the Famous Ballroom on North Charles Street, where no one has any idea that they are witnessing the last live performance of world-renowned saxophonist John Coltrane, who will die of liver cancer in just two months. The audience is an eclectic array of races, ages, and styles; there are professors from the Peabody Conservatory of Music, college students of all colors, members of the militant Black Panther organization, and middle-aged women dressed in their Sunday best. Yet the only tension in the air is the sound of the music, and the only words exchanged during the performance are “shhh,” the audience hushed under the weight of the extreme intensity emanating from the stage. Coltrane, accompanied by the other members of his quintet – Pharoah Sanders, tenor sax, Alice Coltrane, piano, Donald Garrett, bass, and Rashid Ali, drums – begins with “Resolution,” a section from his spiritual suite A Love Supreme. Only at the end of the first set, which lasts only two hours, is the spell broken by the group’s rendition of “My Favorite Things,” as Sanders plays the piccolo against Coltrane’s soprano sax. The ringing brilliance of both instruments enhanced their piercing high notes and rushing arpeggios. The surprise of the afternoon came when Coltrane began to chant against the piccolo, beating his chest. The crowd went wild.” It should be noted that another account of that concert I read suggested that over half the house emptied out after that first set, but I suppose that’s the nature of any performance as intense as late period John Coltrane.

Looking over a chronology of the first few years of LBJS presentations displays a fascinating and logical evolution of talent giving clear indication that the organization’s financial wherewithal was building as its program developed. They started presenting performances on August 16, 1964 at the Alho Club with some of Baltimore’s finest musicians. Throughout that first year they also began presenting some of the DC area’s notable musicians, including saxophonist Buck Hill, guitarist Charles Ables (who later became Shirley Horn’s longtime bass guitarist), and drummer Bertell Knox. By December of that first year – December 12 to be exact – they presented their first major jazz artist when they presented the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, with James Moody, Kenny Barron, Rudy Collins, and Chris White.

However they didn’t jump headlong into presenting exclusively touring greats. Instead they continued to build their policy with Baltimore and DC artists, with occasional performances by traveling soloists working with Baltimore rhythm sections, such as February 14, 1965 when they presented saxophonist Jimmy Heath and trumpeter Kenny Dorham working with the Baltimore rhythm section of bassist Donald Baily, pianist Jimmy Wells, and drummer Teddy Hawke.

Because of the interracial nature of the audience, which at the beginning and throughout much of its history was pretty much a majority black audience, and the happy atmosphere engendered by the informal cabaret setting – with folks eating, drinking and enjoying each other’s company in the presence of great jazz – that audience became a significant hallmark component of the overall presentation. Word quickly spread among musicians that something hip was happening in Baltimore on those Sunday afternoons. Those audiences were feeding back their joy to the artists; this further encouraged first class performances, and musicians eagerly took those gigs knowing they too would have a good time on those Sunday afternoons. The Left Bank Jazz Society Sundays at the Famous Ballroom flourished even to the point of the LBJS affiliates in DC and notably two MD prison chapters.

There was at least one wedding ceremony performed at one of the Left Bank Jazz Society events at the Famous. The late great tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan, who performed several LBJS gigs – the first being with Freddie Hubbard on February 28, 1965 – actually got married at the Famous! I recently asked his widow Sandy Jordan how that came about and here’s what she wrote: Clifford was great at finding the easiest solution to most situations.  We had no time, not a whole lot of money and my family is in Balto.  Clifford said  “this sounds like a job for Left Bank.”  He called and asked and they were delighted.  He asked Benny who was playing

July 6th, Benny said Carlos [Garnett]…Cliff said great!  They gave us 50% off the ticket price for our wedding guests (about 100) if they were able to advertise the wedding, which they did on the Jazzline. My mom made the food and drink.  We were in a roped off area and there were about 500 people including us.  Big Fun and Little Money and Big Press.  Everyone was happy all around. So we got married on the intermission.”

A significant sight at all of the Famous Ballroom LBJS presentations was seeing Vernon Welsh with his back to the audience, headphones strapped on, working a reel-to-reel tape recorder to capture all Left Bank Jazz Society concert performances. Obviously being out in the open and conspicuous as he was, these were not surreptitious recordings; clearly the artists had full knowledge that they were being recorded, which is quite remarkable in this age of clearances and the understandable insistence by artists of the sanctity of their intellectual property. Clearly Mr. Welsh was doing this purely out of developing LBJS archives, which was quite a prescient move when you think about it.

Vernon Welsh went on to record more than 800 jazz performances at the Famous Ballroom during the 1960s and ‘70s. For many years those performance recordings were stored at the library of Morgan State University. Record producer Joel Dorn, had made a name for himself as an ace producer at Atlantic Records – producing such records by such greats as Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Yusef Lateef, Hubert Laws, Charles Mingus, Mose Allison, Chick Corea, Hank Crawford, Eddie Harris, Herbie Mann, Milt Jackson and many others. When he left Atlantic Dorn, whose big start in the music came as a jazz deejay at a Philadelphia radio station, began supervising reissues for Rhino Records, then developed his own imprint called 32 Jazz. After that he started a label called Label M.

After writing some liner notes for Dorn’s labels we had become friendly and I remember an excited telephone call I got one day from him in 2000. Seems he had acquired a treasure trove of live recordings from the Left Bank Jazz Society and was setting about releasing some of those recordings. Here’s what Joel wrote about one such recording when he released a Freddie Hubbard & Jimmy Heath concert titled “Live at the Left Bank”: “Y’know, sometimes I babble on about how unbelievable it was in clubs in the old days, the 50s, 60s and 70s! Well, my babblin’ days are over, now I have proof. When you hear what’s on this CD, you’ll know exactly what I’m talkin’ about. Dig what’s goin’ on between the guys and the audience. That was the magic. If you were in the right joint at the right time listening to real guys playing the real thing, it’s something you’ll never forget. The Left Bank’s concerts were the hippest gigs in this country. They became the place where everyone wanted to play, and without a doubt Left Bank was the #1 Jazz Society anywhere.”

Just to give you a sense of being in the room at the Famous Ballroom, experiencing great music for a truly “with it” audience, here’s the aptly titled “Bluesville” from that particular Freddie Hubbard & Jimmy Heath performance, with Wilbur Little on bass – someone they brought with them, picking up resident drums and piano in Bertell Knox and Gus Simms, from June 13, 1965. [PLAY “Bluesville”]

Jimmy Heath recalled that performance this way: “It was an event, and the people knew what was going on. We felt like giving our all in appreciation. Folks would clap or holler out your name in the middle of your solo when they got your message or felt your groove. We always played encores and got standing ovations. I will always remember LBJS. It was like a coming home party each time, even though I was from Philly.”

That quote certainly sums up the “old home week” atmosphere of those Sunday afternoons at the Famous Ballroom. Unfortunately, as we’ve all experienced – all good things must come to an end. In 1985 the Left Bank lost its home base at The Famous Ballroom. They continued booking shows at Pascal’s nightclub, Coppin State University and the Teamsters Union Hall on Erdman Avenue, but somehow the magic was lost. After leaving its home base it became increasingly difficult for the LBJS to maintain its audience. By 2000 attendance had dwindled and things became squeezed; unfortunately that was the last year of Left Bank Jazz Society live programming.


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Sibongile Khumalo

On January 28, 2021 the woman no less than Nelson Mandela declared “South Africa’s First Lady of Song”, Sibongile Khumalo passed on to ancestry.  I first met Sibongile on a 2005 trip to the Cape Town Jazz Festival, where she was a fixture. This is a woman whose stylistic range was as broad as any – from Verdi operas to the outer edges of jazz expression. 

When I returned to that beautiful country in 2007 I was delighted to see that Sibongile was slated to play the festival again, this time in the company of one of our greatest drummer-bandleaders, NEA Jazz Master Jack DeJohnette.  Jack had assembled a band he called the Intercontinentals, which also included the innovative British trumpeter Byron Wallen, pianist Danilo Perez, saxophonist Jason Yarde, and bassist Jerome Harris.  I’m hopeful that somewhere in his archives Jack has recordings of that band that will be released widely, the band was that exceptional!

As we reflect on the passing of Sibongile Khumalo I thought I’d share a reprise of Suzan Jenkins and my earlier interview with her with Independent Ear readers. 

A Great Voice from the Motherland: Sibongile Khumalo.

The annual Cape Town Jazz Festival is held around Easter time in the Convention Center of one of Africa’s most beautiful cities. When traveling around Cape Town the beauty of the city contrasts starkly with the adjacent huge black township, vivid recollections of the forced evacuation of people of color (eviction is more to the point) from District 6 and subsequent relocation, and the ongoing scars left by apartheid as the country struggles with those wounds to build the perfect democracy envisioned by wise men like the great Nelson Mandela, the beloved Madiba.

Any trip to South Africa for a visiting jazz enthusiast quickly reveals that even during the dark days of apartheid the country was blessed with clearly the oldest and most vibrant jazz scene – particularly where that regards the number of exceptional jazz artists – jazz history of any country on the African continent, bar none. That history not only reveals great instrumentalists like the most well-known figures Hugh Masakela and Abdullah Ibrahim (formerly known as Dollar Brand) and the important historic SA bands the Jazz Epistles and the Blue Notes led by the edgy and distinguished pianist Chris McGregor, but also such important artists as saxophonists Kippie Moeketsi, Dudu Pukwanna, Winston Mankunku Ngozi, trombonist Jonas Gwangwa, and trumpeter Mongezi Feza, but also such contemporary figures as pianists Hotep Idris Galeta and Andile Yenana, and bands like Voice and Vivid Afrika. On the vocal side are such important figures as Miriam Makeba, Nancy Jacobs & Her Sisters, Dorothy Masuka, and Dolly Rathebe.

The most important contemporary South African woman singing jazz is Sibongile Khumalo. And therein lies a distinction; notice I didn’t say jazz singer, but instead a woman singing jazz. Ms. Khumalo is blessed with a gorgeous, operatically-trained voice that is as comfortable singing arias and pop songs as it is rendering jazz compositions. During a trip to the 2007 Cape Town Jazz Festival one of the highlights was a band led by drummer Jack DeJohnette that he labeled the Intercontinentals. That’s because the band boasted Panamanian pianist Danilo Perez, American bassist Jerome Harris, British saxophonist Jason Yarde and trumpeter Byron Wallen, and the centerpiece, Sibongile Khumalo, who acted as both vocalist and wordless improviser throughout the band’s stunning performance. Following the band’s press conference Suzan Jenkins and I sat down with Ms. Khumalo for the following interview.

The first time we were in Cape Town for the festival – in 2005 – we heard a lot of wonderful instrumentalists but we were also interested in South African jazz vocalists. It was recommended that we get some of your recordings. So we found the record you made at the Market Theatre, then I subsequently ordered one of your classical recordings online.

Sibongile Khumalo: The one that came out in 2005.

Yes. It was Duke Ellington who described Ella Fitzgerald as being “beyond category”. It’s obvious that you’re beyond category as well. Tell us about the broadness of your approach to music.

Phew… In 1991 leading up to ’92 I’d been doing concerts with a symphony orchestra, doing oratorios, doing recitals, but also working with a brilliant jazz guitarist who passed away a couple of years ago named Alan Qwela.   Between Alan Qwela and another jazz vocalist who also passed away a year ago I was exposed to jazz as a genre – as a potential for expression. At some point people say ‘…you have such a wonderful voice, why don’t you record something..?’ I’d be like ‘what am I going to record; I just sing what I sing…’ At that stage, early in my career, I didn’t feel like I was singing anything that I felt was important simply because – maybe that’s not the right word – I wasn’t saying things that I had been taught to sing. I was singing “Messiah,” I was singing “Elijah,” some arias from operas from here and there… But it was not something that I thought I could put down in a recording for posterity. I felt I needed to have a voice, some kind of language of my own but I didn’t know what that was.

Pop music, South African pop music – the way that Yvonne Chaka Chaka, Brenda Fassi, Sipho Mabuse… and all those groups were big as well, there was a whole circuit of festivals the same way as you have jazz festivals at the moment. That also was not something that I felt I could quite speak to. So it kinda like happened organically, I started drawing from those kinds of elements that I’d grown up with of choral music, of some of the classical stuff, and I put together a show called “The 3 Faces of Sibongile Khumalo” in ’92. In that program it was elements of the classical world that I’d come from, elements of the jazz that Alan and Sophie had exposed me to, and some of the traditional stuff that I grew up with in the township [Soweto]. And I did bits and pieces of all of that, just doing some Bach, doing some of the choral work – I didn’t see it as scat back then — but incorporating some of the stuff from the operas on top of the improvisations that the guys were doing. It was kind of happening like that. Over the years that has kind of evolved and developed slowly, gradually. Then I sort of fell back to my comfort zone again and I started doing some of the more sort of easy on the ears sort of things with the album before the classical one, called “Quest,” which was drawing on some of the old South African jazz standards without going into the whole sort of stretching out – just singing the music and having a good time with it.

Until two years ago when I was challenged in a sense… Jack said ‘I’d like to work with her…’ I said ‘OK, Jack DeJohnette wants to work with me…’ OK, we’ll see about that; that was my attitude initially. A year ago I got this call ‘we’ve found an opportunity to get this thing going for you and Jack in March 2007 [Cape Town International Jazz Festival]…’ I said ‘March is fine, it’s cool, it’s OK…’ Three months ago I get this call from Jack DeJohnette and I said ‘alright, this is happening…’ I had to start thinking about this; the conversations happened, the conversations happened, and we shared the music, sending each other discs and songs and I started listening and I was thinking to myself ‘I knew Jack DeJohnette was deep, but this is deep, how am I going to deal with this stuff?’

I’m told about Danilo Perez, I’m told about Jerome HarrisJason [Yarde] I’d met and worked with in the U.K. a few times, Byron [Wallen] I was aware of but not too closely. So I’m thinking ‘OK…’ I talked to people here and told them Jack DeJohnette; this is happening, wada, wada, wada… So I got asked the question ‘well who’s in the band?’ ‘The pianist is a guy called Danilo Perez and Jerome Harris… They said ‘who?’ I said ‘Danilo Perez…’ My son in particular… I told him I’d listened to [Danilo]’s music, he’s such a beautiful player…’ My son said ‘he’s a what? Ma, do you hear yourself?’   I said ‘[Danilo] sounds good; he’s very nice actually…’ My son said ‘Ma, he’s awesome… he’s an awesome musician, are you listening?’ I said ‘yeah, OK, he’s great, sure…’

So that’s how this journey has been to this point. My approach, coming back to that long-winded answer to your question, my approach is informed really by where I come from. It was all of that. What’s happening though with this is that all of these things sometimes happen in a song. Before it was the classical element, it’s the choral, it’s the jazz bit, and it’s traditional… sometimes in the same song everything kind of comes together.

[Which aptly describes what she brought to the Intercontinental project]

Jack describes me as an improviser… I’ve never thought of myself in those terms. And I think it’s largely when you work with people who trust you invariably you have to trust yourself. I have had to look at myself and say ‘oh, so there’s something going on in there, what is actually going on?’ ‘OK, I’ll stretch a bit more, I’ll investigate, and I’ll interrogate this a bit more. The rehearsals have been particularly telling. I wish we had recorded some of them; they’ve just been an incredible journey of discovery for me.

You referred in the press conference to the isolation of the old days in South Africa, pre- 1994 [democracy] creating kind of an inward viewpoint, musically speaking. What do you think that meant for South African music and musicians once this new democracy opened things up?

Initially… we went through a period of confusion, a period of transition which kind of manifested in a sense a sort of confusion about what it was that we needed to be saying because prior to 1994 it was clear we saw ourselves – some of us – as visionaries, or as social commentators, or just being the musicians that were put there to give solace to the nation, or something like that. The message was pretty clear that we were fighting against Apartheid; it was a kind of… cultural activism of sorts. After ’94 it tended to get a bit blurred, a bit confused, because suddenly… ‘Yeah, what are we supposed to be talking about?’ Some people felt guilty about singing about love, or talking about love for instance. Because if you think about a certain song, it’s a love song but it talks about the order of the day, because the song says ‘When the sun sets I will come looking for you… when the sun sets I will look for you in the prisons, in the hospitals, on the sidewalks…’ because that’s where you might have been dumped by the police… So suddenly it was like ‘what are we supposed to be talking about?’ So there was that transition which sort of manifested in some kind of blurred message about what we were doing.

Then when that sort of settled down, suddenly anything and everything was possible and you have young performers who sing love songs, who sing to their mothers, who sing about the children, who sing about AIDS, who perform about whatever message really grabs them, not just from a political standpoint or a social point of view where you need to deal with crime or poverty or AIDS, but to sing about personal things, to do a ‘dear diary’ kind of thing with their music. So that’s what’s happening now, the world has opened up; our world view has opened up. And also this interaction with other people just makes you realize more that actually you’re not so unique after all, you know as an artist you’re interested in the world around you… your neighborhood, your communities yes, but also you have personal issues to deal with as an artist and that’s what’s been happening a little more.

Suzan Jenkins: As you were talking about how you did or didn’t see yourself it makes me wonder whether you were constrained because you came up through a more classical kind of upbringing, if you were constrained by what’s on the paper, this is how you go about doing things; then all of a sudden your brother kind of threw things in the mix and you started hearing more improvisation and whether or not that kind of broke those constraints – ‘hey, I’m supposed to be reading what’s on the paper but actually I know that people improvise on a theme and maybe I can do that…’ That’s just my observation and I’m wondering if you’ve ever thought about that?

No, the constraints came more from just being in the environment socially. The piece of paper still does put some limitations to how you think you can let yourself go. Opera for instance, you’re not looking at a piece of paper but there are certain traditions which, thank God, a lot of opera singers are now challenging and breaking down because it’s not just the beautiful sound that you produce as an opera singer, you need to act, you need to put another dimension to the character; that’s what’s happening to a lot of opera at the moment, so that’s one area where there used to be those kinds of constraints, but not really. The constraints that I was referring to have to do with how Apartheid manifested in the Black person’s mind in this country particularly: that sense of self-loathing and self-hate, and just lack of self-esteem – ‘can I actually do this, am I good enough to do this, why are they asking me…’ that kind of thing.

Jack DeJohnette says he wants to work with me: ‘really, are you sure…’ And it takes awhile to get out of that and say ‘oh, yes, right… there’s something I’m saying here that is making sense to somebody…’ I did an opera role in Oslo about three years ago and one of the guys in the chorus said to me ‘you actually don’t know how good you are, do you?’ Even as recently as 3 years ago there was still the sense that ‘I’m just a little South African girl; please don’t ask me to…’ Yeah, it still happens and one has to constantly work against that self-battering, like a typically abused person. One of the things I learned a few months ago was to change the story in your head all the time, be constantly speaking up to yourself rather than down, and it’s working. I guess everything happens for a reason at the time and this particular experience [Intercontinental project] is working to affirm that for me. It’s kinda like ‘…yesss, sure, it’s working…’ And also being able to have fun with it besides the risk-taking and just being a way of not putting yourself into those little boxes and being insecure and unsure and thinking ‘what do they see in me?’; being able to say ‘you have something to say…, its not right or wrong, it is what it is, so accept that, embrace that, go with it, move forward with it… That’s the kind of boxed in sense, those kinds of constraints as you refer to them , that continue to be a challenge for this country, that will be for this generation at least. Our children fortunately didn’t have to deal with Apartheid the way we did, so they… My daughter knows what happened in ’76 from the history books but my 16-year old is like ‘yeah, OK, so it happened, so am I supposed to carry your baggage for you [laughs] kind of thing…?’

I must tell you a quick story: [my son] came home from nursery school one day, he was about 6, and he was telling me about these girlfriends that he’s got. So I’m looking at this child and thinking ‘you have a girlfriend?’ He says ‘I’ve got two and they really are cute mama..’ Now I’m looking at this child and thinking he’s telling me he’s got two girlfriends and I wanted to ask if they are Black girls or White girls because it’s a mixed nursery school but that’s my stuff, you know? So I’m thinking how do I ask this stuff, so I ask the names of these children, it’s Christine and Natasha, and I’m thinking ‘there’s no Black kid named Christine or Natasha, but I need to be sure. So I ask ‘what’s the color of their hair…’ And he says ‘oh the one is blonde and the other one has got red hair…’ And I’m like ‘oh shit [laughs]…’

But that’s your reality… and not his.

No, it’s not his, he’s just seeing these beautiful little girls and it’s OK…’ But that’s part of the joy, it’s going to take this generation to really get [separatism] out of the way; they need to know – they need to learn so they don’t repeat it and recycle it to other people, however we need to do it in such a way that even as we teach them about what happened, we must not teach them to be that, which is an oppressor, which is a dictator…. And that’s the challenge, but that’s the beauty also of being in this kind of environment at this time because it just makes you so aware of the possibilities of a positive life force.

We’ve done a few [WPFW; Washington, DC] radio series on South African music, this will be our sixth show. As we talk about the music, the thing that continually hits me is the spirit of possibility. Right now you just talked about oppression. From our perspective the word oppression doesn’t even begin to describe what was happening in your country but there’s always been this incredible spirit of possibility and hope [in SA]. As a practitioner, an activist, a woman, a vocalist, can you give me some clue as to how that continued to happen even in the darkest of times… and now?

As an aspirant opera singer, in my last years of high school and university when I was considering my career options, I remember my dad – who was a singer himself involved in music a lot – discouraging me from following a career in opera because it would have meant leaving South Africa because there were such limited opportunities for people of color. I said ‘but how can you say that, because that’s all I know?’ I want to sing, I can teach… and I did teach, I worked as a researcher, I worked as an administrator but essentially I wanted to sing, but that was one of the first things that gave me a wake-up call about what this was. I was like a child wanting to pursue a career in music as a performer.

When I finished university, whatever decisions – because I was so conscious about what was happening around, virtually all of the decisions I made about what I needed to do were politically-driven decisions rather than just career related-decisions. There was no way I was going to teach in a normal primary school because that was government [controlled] but when the opportunity came to teach, or rather when the thought came to teach I ended up working in community arts centers where the money was erratic, you didn’t know whether you were going to get paid at the end of the month or not because we depended upon sponsorships and donations. You couldn’t even plan three months ago, you just were there being present in that moment to do what you needed to do.

If you went and performed somewhere out of Johannesburg and had to drive there you had to go on the road… they have now these one-stop places on the road and you can go to a Wimpy’s [fast food restaurant] and sit down and eat… Back then they had these little shops on the road run by Afrikaners and they had a little window around the back and that’s where you bought your food, that greasy bacon & egg sandwich with a cold polystyrene cup of coffee… things like that. If you needed a toilet you were lucky if you got one, and you would get to your destination that evening and have to perform and give joy to your audience. They don’t know… yes they know that your travel may have been rough, but they didn’t pay that attention, they wanted to be entertained, they wanted to have a good time… So its things like that.

As a woman I’ve been very lucky I suppose in that I’ve always worked with guys who saw me firstly as a musician and not as a woman. I’ve heard of stories of female colleagues who’ve been subjected to all kinds of unwelcome sexual overtures from their colleagues and for whatever reason I have not had that. I see the music first, I see you as my equal, as my colleague, as somebody who’s out there to do what we all have to do equally and whenever there’s been somebody who’s got funny intentions I have a way of looking at people and its like ‘so what is your problem’ [laughs]? I’ve been very fortunate [laughs]. But I know of women who’ve had to contend with rubbish like that and it’s hard…

I think part of it for me personally has been the fact that I always describe my father as the first feminist I ever knew. It was just his attitude to women that he expected me to pull my weight like everybody else. He expected me to be better than my brother. I don’t expect to be treated differently because I’m a girl, I pull my weight like everybody else. People forget sometimes that I’m a women, we’re there, and we’re doing the work that needs to be done.

Select Sibongile Khumalo Discography

Ancient Evenings, Columbia (1996)

Live at the Market Theatre, Sony (1998)

Immortal Secrets, Sony (2000)

Quest, Risa/Sony (2002)

Sibongile Khumalo, Sony (2005) (Brahms and other classical compositions, including by South African composers)

The Greatest Hits, Sony/BMG (2006)

South African jazz is unfortunately hard to come by through U.S. retailers. The best online source for South African music and African music in general is Sterns Music

An excellent source for general information, including artist bios (on those mentioned in the preface to this interview and others) on South African jazz in particular and SA music in general:

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