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How early?

All of these tracks were recorded before the June, 1964 Civil Rights Legislation. 

Segregation was still fully the law in much of the land. The Civil Rights Movement had not yet come fully to fruition. Television, guided by the political and economic power structures of America, was still punitively black and white.

Today, some nostalgically call for a return to those good old days. But as Moms Mabley declared: “What good ole days? I was there. Wasn’t no good ole days.”

As a young teenager I first saw Nina singing on television, “I Loves You Porgy“. Even though I was not fully aware of where the music came from or what the song meant, I was moved to my core. That moment was the beginning of a life long fascination that never faded.

Even at an early age, I was overwhelmed with the desire to be loved by someone the way this woman sang concerning some fortunate fella named Porgy. I imagined love like that was top shelf.

However as childhood dreams collided with adolescent realities, as well as with budding adult gropings through the actualities of life, the romance turned into the often contradictory existence of  what happens when we try (so very, very hard) to live our dreams. Instead of sweet fantasies, what we engaged with and end up entangled in are bittersweet actualities. 

Yes, we probably have had some wonderful moments, but those remembered reveries actually took place at the same time as our youthful hopes were dashed and replaced by the checkered ups and downs of what love inevitably means for most of us as we valiantly, but too often vainly, try to make our particular coming of age experiences more than the typical swan songs of the hum-drum, daily slogs that replace romance in most of our lives.

In truth, reality fractures romance. Reluctantly we realize that life is about far more than our own personal feelings and beliefs. As we intimately engage with others, we are forced to confront and deal with the contradictions of life as a social experience. Furthermore, for most of us, moving through America’s 20th century, life was no walk in the park. 

What Nina did for me was teach me that we are not the only ones who suffered. Nor the only ones who rebelled. When she uttered “Pirate Jenny“, that controversial German song both was and wasn’t definitely about us. There was an unmistakable confrontational tone that made clear that for Nina, this was far, far more than a show tune.

For me this song marked the beginning of Nina’s overtly activist phase–but the truth needs to be told, Nina was always using her art to engage or confront her social environment.  

Whether we (or especially anybody else) realized the reality or not: to be black is to be human, and to be human in America meant, and continues to mean, we either resist or we submit to the dehumanizing views, values, and ultimately to the authority of white supremacy. Particularly when that supremacy is often a shorthand for excluding the experiences of the majority of humanity and requiring that rather than celebrate our non-white selves, we are encouraged, indeed cajoled into striving to become other than who we naturally are.

We are no mere hewers of wood and drawers of water. We are not destined to be servants and slaves. Defined as lesser when compared to those who would consider themselves our masters. Humanity is neither all white, nor all male, and certainly not all rich. We must move beyond socially enforced boundaries. To live fully requires that we break out of restrictive boxes.

For us, to be or not to be is not a question, but rather is a choice we must make to live or to die struggling to live. To quote our poet, Claude McKay, “If we must die. . .” let it be “. . . fighting back!”

# # # # # # #

As a bonus, here are live versions of some of Nina Simone’s classic interpretations.

 

 

 

Trane. John William Coltrane (23 September 1926 – 17 July 1967). A giant of twentieth century music. As a sideman and then as a leader; as a premiere saxophonist (both tenor and soprano); plus he was also an inspiring composer. He created so much music. Over fifty years after his transition, new recordings continue to surface.

I count myself as a Trane freak. I have over 100+ CDs documenting his greatness. I never heard him live, but I luxuriate in and am inspired by his recordings.

Early on, as a young teenager, I used to walk out the room when his music came on the radio. However, one day in Nashville, while visiting at Fisk University, I was relaxing in the student lounge, and for the first time really heard “My Favorite Things”. Some higher power must have deemed that as I approached 18 years of circling the sun, I had now matured enough to appreciate music of higher realms.

I went on to devour all the music and studies of John Coltrane that I could obtain. I even constructed my own timeline and loved all the whistle stops Trane made as he roared through modern jazz. Unlike a number of jazz artists, even though his recording career as a leader was less that twelve years long, Coltrane’s music became the major force in the transition from bebop to the “new thing”.

Coltrane practiced incessantly. He cold-turkey stopped using drugs and drinking heavily. He read widely and was even seen in the audience at a Malcolm X speaking engagement. Coltrane developed a deep interest in African, Indian and oriental musical forms. When he married Alice McLeod, Coltrane became a devoted family man where he had a home in Long Island, New York. He also encouraged Alice to learn the harp which she went on to master.  

 


THE PRESTIGE YEARS (1957 – 1958)

There are 14 albums with Trane as a leader or co-leader of Prestige sessions. Plus, there are numerous albums of Trane as a sideman for Prestige releases and for releases on other labels. During this period Coltrane often recorded with, as well as occasionally under the leadership of, Donald Byrd. Here is an excursion through the famous song, Lush Life.

 

MILES DAVIS YEARS (1955 – 1961)

Trane’s tenure with Miles is when the saxophonist attracted international attention and includes what is generally considered the major recording of modern jazz, Kind Of Blue. My favorite track on that album is Flamenco Sketches. I am also a big fan of the last Columbia-label recording that Trane and Miles did together, Some Day My Prince Will Come.There is no doubt that by this time, John Coltrane had established himself as the major musician in jazz.

 


A SUMMER WITH MONK (1957)

Trane briefly left Miles and spent a summer with Thelonious Monk. Some jazz scholars refer to this as Trane’s graduate education in his musical development. Certainly when Miles convinced Trane to rejoin the trumpeter’s band, Trane had matured under Monk’s leadership into a forceful, even dominating, soloist while learning to perform Monk’s idiosyncratic music. On their four official recordings, we hear Trane fully developing his fabled “sheets of sound” techniques. However, his ballad playing is also stellar, particularly Trane’s tender reading of Monk’s Ruby My Dear.

 


THE ATLANTIC YEARS (1959 – 1961)

With his recording of My Favorite Things, Trane became both a top-selling artist as well as a true innovator stylistically. As a saxophonist, he re-introduced the soprano saxophone as a leading instrument. Indeed, after this period in Trane’s development, many tenor saxophonists were encouraged, if not outright required, to double on soprano saxophone. Furthermore, his first recording on Atlantic was the ultra-influential Giant Steps album.

 

 

 


THE IMPULSE & PABLO YEARS (1961 – 1967)

Here we find both the mature and the all the way “out” phases of Coltrane’s career. The bulk of Trane’s recordings from this period are considered the pace setters for modern music. While the last handful of titles are often a matter of taste for those who rate and/or love all of Trane’s music, it is a generally accepted truism that A Love Supreme is Coltrane’s masterpiece. A healthy bulk of the Impulse catalogue is from the period of the classic John Coltrane Quartet, featuring McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison on bass.

While Trane’s technical prowess on mid- and up-tempo compositions is totally undeniable, he was also especially effective on blues and slow numbers. Trane’s composition and achingly effective reading of Dear Lord is exemplary of the spiritual deepness of a mature musician.

This brief essay is far from a complete discography and does not include significant European recordings from radio broadcasts that Trane did in 1961 and in 1965, nor do we include the miscellaneous sides Trane cut throughout his career with musicians as diverse as Earl Bostic, Johnny Hodges, Dizzy Gillespie, and Duke Ellington.

I consider Trane’s collaboration with Duke on a signature Ellington composition, In A Sentimental Mood, to be definitive–especially the arrangement, featuring Duke’s distinctive piano introduction and stylings that add a second melodic line to the iconic song. Duke and Trane are often considered the premier musician’s of their respective eras.

Moreover, I consider the Impulse-label, John Coltrane and John Hartman album as the most successful and satisfying of jazz albums featuring a male vocalist from that period. Of special significance is Trane’s new take of the Billy Strayhorn composition Lush Life, which Trane had recorded as an instrumental in 1957 during his Prestige years.

 


Which brings us to the crown jewel of Coltrane recordings: A Love Supreme – Live In Seattle. The story of how the recording was done and then not discovered until over fifty years later is an epic in itself.

There are so many reasons to recommend this album. First, this is an extended treatment of only three available recordings of the whole suite: 1. the studio release, 2. a live recording from a festival in France, and 3. this recording from the last night of an extended gig in Seattle.

Secondly, this is the first recording when Pharoah Sanders has joined Trane’s band. Pharoah would go on to produce some of the most challenging music of a long career that included seminal sides with John Coltrane as well as extremely popular and innovative music as a leader in his own rite.

Third, we hear Trane incorporating more percussion in his music in addition to Elvin Jones on drums. This is a pivotal moment in Trane’s development and is recorded during the same era as ground breaking albums such as Meditations, Ascension, both the 1961 Live At The Village Vanguard as well as Live At The Village Vangard Again!, and now this new release, recorded in 1965. 

Rather than an overview, this is a actually a brief summation of the music of John Coltrane. The Coltrane wikipedia page offers more information including listing of books as well as overviews of Coltrane recordings. If one listens to the bulk of post-bop Coltrane, and particularly to the recordings Trane made as a leader, then one will received a thorough and insightful education in modern, twentieth century music.

 


Photo–Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, Sarah Dash 

 

After well over a decade of working together, in 1974 LaBelle had a major hit with New Orleans producer Allen Toussaint. Whenever they came to town, the night people turned out en masse, strutting the streets decked out in silver, proudly resplendent. 

Twenty years into this new millennium, LaBelle’s music continues to be a forward flag. Patti Labelle, Nona Hendryx, and Sarah Dash, in combination with their UK-bred manager, Vicky Wickham, established a new paradigm for “girl groups”. These were women. Proud women. Sexually liberated. Making socially challenging music.

The LaBelle trio were an eclectic ensemble. Hendryx was the resident wordsmith and philosopher, Labelle was an electrifying performer, Dash had an angelic voice. They combined their strengths to produce an entrancing and challenging sound.

This is not simply an obituary for Sarah Dash who recently made her transition. While we do honor Dash’s departure from this plane, what this really is, is a celebration of the feminine. Pure and powerful. They battered against the social restrictions back in the seventies, and their music continues to challenge the conservative tide that is still very much with us in 2021. 

Some of their music was too radical for radio of the last millenium. Indeed, LaBelle is more forward than much of today’s music. And it’s not a gimmick. Individually and certainly collectively, these women are easily the match of any female ensemble of the first two decades of the 21st century. LaBelle persevered for well over twenty years. Two decades. That’s a long, long time in entertainment-industry years.

Check them out. If you are unfamiliar with LaBelle, these selections will help bring you up to speed. And if you are a long time fan, these selections will bring back fond memories.

As a bonus, here is a clip of Patti Labelle singing the last song LaBelle recorded. . . I should say “performing” the last song the trio recorded. Ms. Labelle famously falls to the floor, rolls across the stage, singing as she rotates. . . just check it out.

Consider LaBelle. You may be surprised. You certainly will be delighted.

 

 

 

Wait a minute. Don’t make your move too soon. Years ago when Meshell debuted at the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, I was there. Enthralled by her combination of musical talent and autobiographical fierceness. And when that forward thinking sprite, Staceyann Chin newly arrived in New York was about to explode, I was also there. Marveling at the giant talk of this little sister. That was decades ago. They are still holding forth.

But of course, a lot of water has flowed under their bridges. They worked, and worked hard at their respective crafts. Developing and sharpening their artistic visions while living their lives, neither of which was easy, but they persevered. It’s not easy in the U.S. being lesbians who do not commercially exploit their sexuality but who also do not shrink from confronting the class-defined/racially-entombed anti-sexuality/anti-racism of this nation. 

Neither was born in America–Meshell in Berlin, Staceyann in Jamaica. Both have chosen to live and work primarily in this cold, cold clime. At one point late in their respective careers they joined forces on a gender defying/defining event. They not only did a public series, they also sat and talked about their lives.

The meeting was iconoclastic. Check it out.

 

 

 

> Simply the G.O.A.T.–The Greatest Of All Time–Gymnastics.

Competitive gymnastics is a rough sport. Broken bones, torn ligaments, sore muscles and most of all the combination of physical and psychological strain. The movement–the constant twisting, flipping, soaring, and yes, falling: landing wrong, dislocating a shoulder, on and on. Few know the troubles gymnasts endure.

Now, add to that sexual assault by a physician–a man who is allegedly your doctor, only to find out how routine his sexual assaults are. Add to that the people and organizations who are supposed to look out for you, well, they look the other way.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, imagine you coming out of a foster home. You shoulder the burden of looking out for those younger than you. Looking Out. Who looks out for you?

They tell you “Just flip and fly little woman, it’s going to be alright. Smile. Do your thing and smile. How hard can it be to smile?”

Simone has never asked for pity. No public complaints–not even when she revealed her abuse.

It’s hard to be human when people see you as super-human.

As able to leap. . . oh the burdens of being the best is a far, far greater burden to carry than most will ever know.

Simone, you are still young. Lay them burdens down. You have done what no one else can do. Rest, dear sister. Stop now. You have nothing more to prove. 

We salute you.

Live the rest of your life howsoever you wish, howsoever you will. You’ve earned it. Peace be unto you.

 

 


Photo: Chuck Stewart
John Coltrane (September 23, 1926 — July 17, 1967)
Alice Coltrane (August 27, 1937 — January 12, 2007)

After Trane, what does one do. In his latter years, John Coltrane produced music that was on a different level. No longer mainly “Favorite Things” in 3/4. The music of his last years was utterly cosmic, which meant that healthy portions of it was chaotic, the chaos of the universe coming into existence. Exploding. Expanding. Literally taking up space while taking shape, physically and philosophically it’s the birthing process which we all are born into, born out of. The making of meaning from the incoherence, the formlessness of all possibilities existing simultaneously. Our life is simply one of a myriad of possibilities; as much what we make of the gift of life as what we are given by the context of time, place, and circumstance.

Form is an afterthought. A way to impose meaning on moments of existence that spontaneously come into being. Most of us are most comfortable with form, reject the inchoate jumble that eventually we shape (or shapes itself) into something we recognize. Conception is actually just the process of giving coherence to the accident (or should we say, the happening, the unpremeditated happenings, such as the fertilization of the egg transforming into embryo).

BCT Records ‎– BCT-1972 https://www.discogs.com/release/13701911 Recorded live at the Berkeley Community Theater, 1972. 7. 23.

1 Journey in Satchidananda 00:00
2 A Love Supreme 21:25
3 My Favorite Things
40:12
4 Leo
56:08

Bass – Charlie Haden
Drums – Ben Riley
Harp, Organ, Piano – Alice Coltrane
Sarod – Aashish Khan
Tabla – Pranesh Khan
Tambora, Percussion – Bobby W.

 

Coltrane made music that was sound before being formed into the sounds we recognize as music. Downbeat magazine called the music Trane created with Eric Dolphy “anti-jazz” nevertheless Trane went on to make cosmic music that was way beyond anti-jazz. Trane with his conceptions and his horn, as well as with his cohorts, collectively they made both musical order as well as the chaos out of which order came–know this, order comes from chaos and not the other way around: order does not come first. When one is reared appreciating order, well then, chaos is often unacceptable even though order is nothing more than chaos locked down into acceptable patterns, i.e. order.

Which brings us to Alice Coltrane, she not only understood but, like Trane, she was expert at both chaos and order, paradoxically, the order she generated included traditional Black gospel as well as traditional expressions of religious music and chants from India. Plus, she is an adept at modern jazz, expert as both a concert pianist and a master of an unique-in-jazz organ sound. Add to that her ability to expertly play the harp. Alice Coltrane is nothing short of an avatar of modern music.

There has been no other musician who took up where Trane took us and then went on to go beyond. That they were married, reared a family, in addition to producing unequaled and unique music, that’s just plain other-worldly. Alice Coltrane. Both our roots and our future.

 

 

Ethelbert and I have known each other a long, long time–way back in the 1970’s Black Power era. In preparation for this interview, Ethelbert did some homework. He investigated both my writings and the various eras I covered. Plus, he kept the conversation moving, not letting it get bogged down in minutiae and not staying on any one topic too long. He is an expert researcher and archivist, what with being a graduate of Howard University and an ardent student of Sterling Brown.

Back in the day, when I was awarded a fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, I wrote a poem about and dedicated to Ethelbert.

The poet I talked about who wrote the “I Am New Orleans” poem is Marcus Christian. In addition to this hour-long conversation, there is not much else to say. Thank you brother Eshu.

= = = = = = = 

Echoing Eshu’s Love Songs
(for “eshu” ethelbert miller)

man, the relevance of coincidence is a motherfucker
just today, walked down commercial street
the business end of provincetown
in and out of shops, paused here, there
entered where attracted by something
backed out and continued
found this used bookstore (found?
must be careful of my verbs
i am not a white man
the store was there before i
got there) entered
they had a poetry bookcase
bought 4 books: sam cornish–songs 
of jubilee, kimiko hahn–air pocket,
akua lezli hope–embouchure, and
e. ethelbert miller–where
are the love poems
for dictators? / before midnight
had read, scanned or run thru
them all. yes, of course
i knew about dictators,
have run into a few before
on an occasion or two
or should i say ill-occasion
have even been one, but
i did not own the book on that

there are no love songs
for dictators, not even
i’ll be glad when you’re dead
you rascal you–cause even that
has a bit of affection, anyway
i think it one of your better books
you were on to something
or maybe simply on something
or was it someone
who had your mind so open
you could feel the impress
of another’s smile, another’s
grimace, and you could walk that
shit home backwards and blind
like a beggar going back and forth
between their favorite corner
and the poor piece of space
they call home

so, then i got this email from you. and all i can say is damn, and look out the window a second into the dark and know that either god is laughing or i should be because the universe sure enough knows how to confound the wisdom of we poor wretched fools who make the mistake of trying to understand it, the universe, that is, and i started to wondering if anyone really knows why their lover loves them, actually that’s not quite true, cause where i started with was wondering does nia know why i love her, do i know, is love knowable or simply, if we are lucky, embraceable? like who knows where the song comes from or goes to, we just lucky when we can hit the notes and carry a tune. . . like that, and now i’m free typing this without knowing where it’s coming from or where i will end up, just knowing i wanted to let you know, that i hear you, brother, i hear your songs and echo the rhythms–ain’t no love songs for dictators, for love is beyond the frequency of the ears of those who consciously hurt others

 

17 Sept. 2021

 

Another rainy night in New Orleans.

Sometimes songs come to you. Unbidden. You don’t consciously call them up. No person, no time, nor event even suggests the tune’s appearance, but. . . no matter, there the air is.

Here is Fire and Rain”. I’ve written at length about the song and its back story before. See this rundown from when I did Breath Of Life (Sept. 2010), my music blog back in the day. You can find most, if not all the versions mentioned on the internet. But I’m highlighting three of those interpretations–all on the slow and deeply moving side of my emotional fence.

I don’t know what or who I was thinking about. . .but I’ve already said that. I’m just truly moved by a combination of a passing melancholy and a realization, as another song says, into each life some rain must fall.

My earlier write-up investigates the legend. As I’ve said (or was written) on some other occasion: we “Negroes” (referring to us in a fifties vernacular, with tongue firmly in cheek, because this is looking back, not forward), us folk can make the most beautiful music out of emotionally shattering experiences.

The three totally dissimilar but somehow similarly evocative versions are by:

Bobby Womack

 

New York born but long time Canada-based Ranee Lee

 

and a man I used to occasionally and sometimes sardonically imitate his voice and style, Richie Havens

R&B, Jazz, and Folk, respectively. They all three speak to me, and hopefully to you, in a self-reflective moment.

Just one of those moods. If it’s not for you, doesn’t appeal to you, well, skip it. It’s ok. The sun will shine tomorrow.

–15 Sept. 2021

 

Two days ago on Wednesday, Sept. 9, 2021, I woke up extra early, around about 1a.m. in the morning. Immediately noticed a light was on. Hallelujah. I quickly surmised power had been restored. I know that our slog is far from over, but now we are rolling down the easy side of the mountain.

However, it has not been an easy ten days. Hot, with only brief rain. All kinds of rumors fouling the air. Stores with empty shelves, if and when you found a store open. Fortunately for us in New Orleans the tap water was still flowing. In other parts of southern Louisiana the order of the day was either no water or a boil water advisory.

Hurricane Ida was a beast. Killing people as far north as New Jersey and New York even though it arrived on land in Louisiana. Right after Ida hit us in New Orleans, life was strange. The sun was shinning. The sidewalk was dry. But the day was nothing nice, especially following the way Ida slow-walked through our city.

It wasn’t the water, it was the wind. All over the place, trees had been blown down. Not snapped in two but rather the whole nine, ripped from the ground, roots visibly sticking out. Old oak trees and especially small trees of various kinds that had survived Katrina lay on their sides unable to withstand Ida’s powerful wind gusts.

Our small unit: Asante, Peteh, Akeel and myself had decided to tough it out. And tough it was. Early in the aftermath I sometimes second-guessed the wise-ass wisdom of my decision to stay when I had various opportunities to abandon ship.

I dipped heavily into my stash: generator, food, household supplies. But that is what savings are for, moving through and pass the unforeseen but deadly storms of life. And, of course, there were numerous negative surprises along the way.

Like when Chop jumped up on me one day when I was returning from the store. I had plastic bags in hand. I thought the dog was playing but he was serious. Took a deep nip out of my chest. I’m from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. I was surprised but not afraid. The bleeding was minimal because I had quickly backed away but even in the following week I had small but nevertheless deep bumps where Chop’s fangs had punctured the right side of my chest.

Or when Akeel and I went to a supermarket early one morning trying to beat the crowd only to find out that the store didn’t open until 9a.m. So we went to another store a couple of miles away and were able to secure the necessary food supplies.

I knew I couldn’t return empty-handed. The plan was to have a small free breakfast program for the neighborhood. Ms. Rosita Richardson, Peteh’s mother, came over to give us an expert hand. Peteh’s sister, Melanie and her family, supplied a foil chafing dish set-up that was used to keep the food warm. Asante was cooking. Peteh and Akeel were moving boxes, tables and giving out styrofoam go-plates with grits, scrambled eggs, orange slices and either biscuits or toast.

The food giveaway was Peteh’s idea with Asante’s immediate concurrence.

Earlier in the week, Peteh had planned to drive up to Baton Rouge to get some chickens. Felton DeRouen II is the animal husbandry staff person at the Southern University Ag Center where he helps “new and small farmers with knowledge on how to start and run a small poultry farm while providing fresh eggs to our community”.

So Peteh returned not only with the thirty chickens he went up there to purchase but also with thirty dozen eggs. The start of Peteh’s small poultry operation was the basis for our free breakfast program.

We were blessed. We had our health, working vehicles, and the cash needed to purchase food and supplies, plus material support from family and a friend who provided supper plates. Needless to say the much appreciated breakfast went quickly as the word spread that we were offering free food.

At some point we must realize that giving thanks is not simply a “don’t worry be happy” mental exercise.

Of course, Asante lives in a working-class neighborhood rather than in a gated community where a free breakfast doesn’t mean much. In a sense giving out meals is not a philanthropic nor even Good Samaritan activity. Many of us profess Christian/Islamic/Buddhist ideals, but how many of us actually work to help people we see every day but whom we probably don’t even know by name?

By noontime all the food was shared and the kitchen and front room cleaned. What a productive morning.