The Independent Ear

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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Mike Wade

Trumpeter Mike Wade is based in Cincinnati, OH.  I first heard Mike as a judge on the old BET Jazz show Jazz Discovery, a show which invited unsigned jazz artists to compete via video submissions before a panel of judges.  Mike has gone on to perform with all manner of jazz royalty, and R&B notables, as well as within his hometown DC-centric go-go music tradition.  His affiliations have included David “Fathead” Newman, Gary Bartz, Mulgrew Miller, Rene Marie, Marc Cary, Bootsy Collins, and Ricky Wellman.  For his latest release Mike Wade has further expanded his stylistic umbrella to embrace the New Orleans brass band tradition to produce his new Nasty Nati Brass Band release, a Cincinnati take on that indelible sound.  Clearly some questions for Mike Wade are in order.




Mike Wade & The Nasty NATI Brass Band

This record represents a bit of a departure from your previous efforts.  What was the idea and the plan for this Nasty Nati Brass Band record?
 The ultimate plan and concept for The Nasty NATI Brass Band is to pay homage to the Midwest horn bands of FUNK music, capture the rich, syncopated rhythms and joy of the New Orleans second line, blend the strong, driving rhythms of DC Go-Go music (MY HOMETOWN), and last but not least always create and have the presence of funky Latin rhythms as inspiration! These are the four musical building blocks that we THE NASTY NATI BRASS BAND hang our hat on. We plan to record two more CD’s this year (2021). Another TNNBB CD and a TNNBB Christmas CD.
There’s obvious inspiration here from the New Orleans brass band tradition.  What was it about that tradition that you wanted to bring to this project?
 Mainly to create music inspired and enriched with the incredible, contagious ability that the New Orleans second line has to bring people together for a good time, NO MATTER WHAT!
When I hear the spoken word of Dr. G. Scott Jones on this record, I’m reminded of one of the voices in the Last Poets.  Talk about the spoken word element on this record, and particularly your social justice intent. and whether the Last Poets were part of your inspiration.
 Dr. Jones wrote the music for our Tribute to Tamir Rice. I created the groove fir this song and the arrangement. The poet is Maurice Suttles, a former student of mine in high school, that played tenor drum in my Drumline. Maurice has recorded three of my CD’s since graduating from high school.
These are Dr. Jones responses: The melodic concept is influenced by the music of John Coltrane. The desire to include spoken stems from years of studying Gil Scot Heron, The Last Poets, and Charles Mingus.
Our intent for social justice as a group is through music try to get people to listen to each other and understand the pain and suffering that exists in all of the terrible incidents that have taken place and continue to take place among these cases.
You’ve contributed several of the arrangements on this record, but have kind of deferred to the whole, rather than have this be a complete showcase for your trumpet artistry.  What was your overall sense of this record in that regard?
My overall sense of not showcasing all of my trumpet artistry on this CD is to SHOWCASE more my ability to produce, bandlead, compose and arrange great music projects to the world. As we go forward in music production, they’ll be plenty of opportunities to add more of my trumpet artistry within our productions, but only if needed and desired through our compositions and concept.
Do you view this Nasty Nati Brass Band as an ongoing project or a special one-time project, and what are your plans going forward?
This recording is one of many recordings that TNNBB plans to record. This is definitely not a one and done band or project. We’re just getting started!
You’ve spoken about your efforts at, as you characterize it: “introduce other talent, musical styles, group collaboration & group musical concepts”.  Please tell us about your work in that regard.
I have a CD called Mike Wade “Reality” where I collaborated with two different production teams and The REALITY BAND who recorded 4 to 5 songs in the studio to finish the CD off. On this CD I challenged rappers to create original raps to original music that also used different arrangements and road maps from top to bottom. I also challenged myself in my approach to these tracks, from creating selective horn parts to heavy or sparse improv. The Band was challenged because we had to sound and do a bit more than just cover our material, we had play in such a way to where the band did not come off sounding dated. In the end, I introduced several new rappers to the world, created some original music that was blended with a few old famous jazz samples and several different styles of music! Mike Wade’s “REALITY” CD is available at
Is this brass band project something you are planning on taking on the road?  And do you ever envision this as New Orleans-style marching band music that you’ll literally take to the streets?
 The Nasty NATI Brass Band is first and foremost a BRASS BAND! We do funerals, weddings, parades, etc., etc. just like any BRASS BAND for our communities! I have and plan to continue to take the Brass Band on the road. We’ve performed at Blues Alley in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C. before the pandemic! We’ve performed in West Virginia opening for the Force MD’s and Dru Hill. We’ve performing in Louisville, Lexington, Akron, Cleveland & Columbus, OH. As far as taking New Orleans second-line to the streets, this group has been there and done that, and continue to do that!!!!!
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Cafe Society LJS

One of our earliest iterations of Tribeca Performing Arts Center’s ongoing Lost Jazz Shrines series was a season celebrating the unique legacy of Cafe Society.  In 1938 a New Jersey shoe salesman named Barney Josephson sought to open his own nightclub for jazz and jazz-inspired presentations.  He had spent years investigating other Manhattan clubs and what he found was often distasteful, particularly the often discriminatory policies he found regularly.  One classic example he particularly abhorred was the legendary mob-operated Cotton Club in Harlem, where strict club policy found Black artists confined to the stage, along with Black waitstaff and a Whites only patron policy which particularly favored the well-heeled clientele.

Josephson steadfastly sought to open his club as a place where patrons, artists and waitstaff were comfortable mingling openly regardless of race, ethnicity or class considerations.  The result was Cafe Society, which opened in January 1939 at 2 Sheridan Square in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village district.  Billed as “The Right Place for the Wrong People,” Josephson’s club booked many legendary performers for varietal shows.  Opening night included the boogie woogie piano players Meade Lux Lewis, Albert Ammons, and Pete Johnson – known later as the Boogie Woogie Boys – and Billie Holiday.  Later, Cafe Society served as the place where Billie Holiday debuted the remarkable song “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching poem which was destined to be referred to as the opening protest anthem of the Civil Rights Era in the U.S.

As part of our 3-concert Cafe Society series at Tribeca PAC in Spring 2003, one concert celebrated the rich saxophone tradition of Cafe Society with a rare NYC performance by Chicago great Von Freeman.  Here’s that concert:



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