The Independent Ear

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


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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Brooklyn community activism… with a jazz twist

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

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

Remembering The East with Jitu Weusi

PART ONE: A jazz fan in development…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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