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I used to travel about quite a bit before I became an elder, before my wife’s stokes, before I became a caretaker 24/7/365. Understandably, for this New Orleanian, the nearby and culturally close Caribbean was my stomping grounds.

While I marveled at my Haitian experiences and will forever treasure my two trips to Cuba (during the second of which due to being in the right place at the right time, I bathed in the experience of conversating and briefly hanging out with Assata Shakur), and though the twin nation of Trinidad&Tobago was often a stopping point where Jimi Lee and I were thoroughly at home even though neither of us viewed there as where we would choose to be if we had a choice of islands—Port of Spain, Trinidad with its oil wealth and the upside down, mountain-side Hilton hotel offered a wide swath of experiences and, by contrast, the ambiance and slower pace of Tobago was much more to my liking, especially how people took the time to talk to you.

The differences between the sibling Caribbean isles was glaringly notable. However, the visual and cultural differences among the Antilles nations notwithstanding, Barbados was always my favorite, not for its beauty—certainly most of the other islands were much more physically alluring, particularly Jamaica with its mountains and beaches, or St. Lucia with its mix of English and French heritage as filtered through its predominate population of African-heritage peoples—nevertheless, there was something about small island (14 miles by 21 miles) Bajan ways that captivated my spirit.

Given how much I dug the Caribbean, my forays on the other side of the Atlantic into the island of England would catch me by surprise. Surprised by how good a fit it was for my spirit. After all it always rains in England and the sun is forever playing peek-a-boo, out one minute, hiding the next. This was a country dominated by English speaking ex-colonizers, or so I thought until I was given the chance to travel about and meet my brothers and sisters on that side of the pond.

Much to both my surprise and my delight, I discovered the Black folk there were a lot like we American Blacks. They were sojourners in a land dominated by the other man and, like us, they were a long way from home. And most of all, just like us, they bonded to build community in a psychically cold country that also had shiver inducing winters.

I don’t remember how I first met Kadija Sesay, but some kind of way we maintained contact with each other over the years. On one particular occasion I had an invite to be in London for a little over a week, she welcomed me into her flat even though she was about to disembark for Spain (if I remember correctly, I believe that was where she was headed). A couple of days after I arrived she took off and didn’t return until a couple of days before I left. I literally had her spot to myself for most of that particular journey.

We related to each other like brother and sister. Both of us were cultural activists, and were deeply into publishing. She and I were comfortable both talking and being silent in each other’s company. Although we had radically different life experiences we shared sensibilities and outlooks. Her sharing something I knew nothing about invariably struck a sympatico chord, just as my fumbling to identify concordancies and discordancies between our two cultures always made her chuckle.

Many years later, when I saw the BBC report on Kadija, I smiled to myself and vowed, I must write something, even if only a few sentences, to pay tribute to the sister I was not born with but whom I met and bonded with along my life path journeying through the African diaspora.

 

 

“We Must Get Closer To The Essence Of Life / But Be Aware, It’s Takes Courage And Strife.” From the early seventies up until hurricane Katrina in 2005, I was a DJ on radio station WWOZ. Over the years I hosted a number of programs, three of which were “Morning Meditations”, “The Kitchen Sink”, and “The Essence Of Life” that featured a cover-the-waterfront approach to the music.

Once we had a musician called “Sweet Mickey” in the studio. He and I hit it off bantering back and forth. He was from Haiti and I had been to Haiti (from standing atop the Citadel located in Cap Hatien up in the north of the country, to marveling at the beautiful black sand seaside of Jacmel in the south). A few years after laughing with the affable guest, Michel Martelly became the president of Haiti in 2011.

I spent many a morning as a record spun, and in the later years of my tenure, standing behind the console as a CD rotated, looking out the big window that stretched the width of the second floor studio of the Kitchen building in Armstrong Park. I would silently  watch the sun come up as I pulled the early shift beginning at six in the morning. I always ended with Labi Siffre’s wonderful song, “(Something Inside) So Strong” — which became my anthem. But then I also spent years pulling the night shift doing the Kitchen Sink, a program whose name accurately described the musical content.

Gary Bartz was a favorite whom I had met a couple of times when he was on tour and came through New Orleans. I was especially enamored of Bartz’s NTU Troop albums and a song called Celestial Blues, which was composed by Bartz’s pianist and vocalist of that period, Andy Bey (who was also a favorite).

Recently I read a fascinating Jazz Times article that featured Bartz musing about and documenting selections from his recording career. Although I’m a Coltrane freak and heavily lean into tenor saxophonists, I nevertheless give big ups to Gary Bartz. 

In the Jazz Times article, Bartz claims he’s not much of a vocalist, but any quick listen to his alto saxophone stylings makes clear he sings through his horn. Indeed, the vocalizations, especially his searching and soaring aural articulations are the deeply felt sound of a truly great saxophone-vocalist to whom we should all get closer. 

(Music links are at the bottom of this essay.)

When William Rouselle and I entered the room, the mayor stopped speaking and would not continue until we left.

Mr. Bill (as he is affectionately known) and I, were an unlikely duo, born less than a year apart in 1946 and 1947 respectively. He was from uptown, I from downtown (way downtown, the lower ninth ward, CTC–cross the canal). Although we both graduated from a catholic high school, he was from Xavier Prep class of 1963 (they had a predominately girl’s population) and my parents sent my resentful ass to St. Augustine (an all boy’s, mostly creole seventh-ward aggregation whose relatively small, dark-skinned population consisted of athletes and musicians plus a handful of so-called super-smart negroes) the class of 1964, which I fell into.

Bill graduated from Xavier University, I briefly attended SUNO (Southern University in New Orleans) after a three year stint in the army, which is partly how we met. In 1968 Bill was a newly employed television reporter and I was one of the leaders of student demonstrations. Shortly thereafter we met in person.

Ours is almost a fairy tale story. Highlights included community organizing together, such as opposing George Wein at Jazzfest (the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival) and, later on, both of us working with Wein as board members and staff at Jazzfest. We both were stalwarts of the Free Southern Theatre. And we once gave a joint press conference during a tumultuous period of anti-klan militancy; the small coffee table was set with rifles on them; I had a 30-caliber carbine, and, if I remember correctly, Bill had a hunting rifle.

Plus, there was a whole lot more. During the seventies and eighties we were so close that when we attended raucous meetings one of us would start talking and the other would finish. Literally. And, man, we were some card-playing fools, the bid whist champions of our circle (I favored straight, no, low, i.e no trumps, low card winners, expose the kitty). And, oh yes, we both worked for years at the Black Collegian magazine where Butch and I were wounded in a shooting accident. I took a thirty-eight slug through my left knee. The bullet had hit Butch first, then through a desk, and onwards through my leg, and finally into the wall. Bill had the task of reporting the shooting accident, attending to getting us to the hospital, and patiently explaining to the incredulous doctors how two grown-ass negroes were shot while supposedly playing chess and both were wounded by the same bullet from a derringer that could snuggly and inconspicuously fit in a grown man’s hand.

In the particular case I started writing about above, the year was 1970-something and the city’s first Black mayor was Ernest Morial. Bill and I were co-conspirators in the take over of city hall, I with a handful of comrades sitting-in inside and Bill leading demonstrations outside in front of city hall.

Yes, we go way back. I keep promising to get with Bill and write up our story but meanwhile I’m sending out this brief missive as partial fulfillment of that ongoing wish.

So this post is about two things: my friendship with Bill and reparations. “When will we be paid for the work we did?” Here are three selections: one each from Prince, the Staple Singers, and Terry Callier.  There’s a whole lot more I could say, but I’ll just let this swift salvo stand until I get myself together and wage the full out campaign to tell the story of how Mr. Bill and I became the partners we were and the friends we will always be.

 

Detail from a book jacket for Marcelo D’Salete’s “Angola Janga.” (Fantagraphics Books)

I was in the middle of some street. Didn’t speak the language. Wasn’t hardly no one around. I was supposed to meet someone from samba legend Martinho da Vila’s camp. So I nodded at the occasional person I saw and waited. But not for long. Shortly the street was filled with members of the Vila Isabel carnival crew. They passed out the handbills for one of the songs they would perform on Mardi Gras day.

Mart’nalia, Martinho’s daughter,  arrived shortly and immediately identified herself to me; her father had told her I would be there. Through an interpreter, he invited me to attend the rehearsal and said that his daughter would meet me there. She spoke a little English. As promised she joyfully explained what was going on, translated the mimeographed small sheet of lyrics, and encouraged me to get with the program. I could sway and keep time with them, but their swift and fancy footwork was far beyond me. 

Yes, this was a celebration but also a whole lot more. The lyrics were political as hell. I don’t even remember the specifics, but do recall how serious and intentional the overtly expressed sentiments were. Once they got rolling, hey had literally well over a hundred people learning and shouting out the song. They might have been—check that, there wasn’t no might have been— they were definitely shaking their asses but they were also raising their fists. Talk about a party with a purpose! That’s when my impression of Brasil changed dramatically (they spelled the name of their country differently from the way we mangled the country’s name, us calling it Brazil with a “z”). 

Now, whenever I see or hear Brasil (or Brazil) I have a deeper appreciation for the landing spot of pirated people from Africa. I had not been aware of just how broad their resistance was and is. They remain conscious of their history, their struggle. I knew they, like Africans everywhere, had resisted and even during colonial times had established Palmares where they lived free for almost a hundred years, while most of us in the western hemisphere were laboring under colonial lashes and forced servitude. Intellectually, they were far more conscious than most of us were in the good ole USA.

Which is a deep realization. Because of our successful Civil Rights movement and our long history of resistance from Cripus Attucks in 1770, a Black man who was the first person to die in the American revolution, on up through Malcolm, Martin and eventually Obama, we often labor under the delusion that we are the leading Blacks in the western hemisphere. Totally unaware not only of other Black struggles throughout the hemisphere, but also oblivious to the fact that our social status is majorly due to our intimate proximity to the USA’s economic and political power.

Of course there is no doubt, we really have had a major impact internationally in terms of both political and cultural matters. But if we look at our impact comparatively we will realize that our alleged pre-eminence is not all that we think, or misconstrue, our position to be. For example we think our music dominates world culture, yet objectively reggae has a far broader acceptance world wide. And, of course, Carnival in Rio is the most celebrated expression of Black culture on the planet. (We can discuss the Blackness of Carnival at another time, right up next to when we discuss the Blackness of American musical culture coming out of the USA.)

Anyway, that one night on the street sufficiently opened my eyes wide enough to re-look at everything I had seen before, everything I thought I knew not only about Brasil but, indeed, concerning the broader history of Black resistance. This was back in the eighties. My brother spirit Jimi Lee had led me there. He and I would eventually spend hours, and hours, and days and deep times throughout the Caribbean and South America, including an especially harrowing but also immensely beautiful sojourn in Suriname. We were there when a coup attempt went down and it was not a certainty that we would all get out alive. Indeed, Jimi’s passport was confiscated and he was forced to remain while our group was sent home early. Fortunately, Jimi eventually was released about a week later.

Jimi was one of the first truly international Blacks I knew on a personal level. We went a bunch of places including Barbados (a personal favorite), Trinidad & Tobago, but especially Brazil. It helped a whole lot that Jimi was fluent in Portuguese and also that he knew people up and down the social structures of the various countries we went to.

At one of the many meetings Jimi brought me to, we conversed with cultural workers in Brasil discussing the ups and downs, potentials and pitfalls of what was then called “cultural tourism”. There was always a political undercurrent steady flowing through our travels and connections. And in Brasil, from the fabled Sugarloaf Mountain with the gigantic Jesus-statue on its crest, to the favelas where the poor were encased, everywhere we went there was a lot to learn.

Which brings me to Angola Janga: Kingdom of Runaway Slaves. (Thank you Ms. Lynn Pitts for bringing this book to my attention.) This is a graphic novel by Marcelo D’Salete focusing on Palmares, the historic Brazilian resistance movement. 

D’Salete is an internationally acclaimed illustrator born in 1979 who earned a master’s degree in art history from the University of Sao Paulo. Angola Janga is a powerful, richly researched, 432-page graphic novel translated from the Portuguese by Andrea Rosenberg.

The focus on Palmares is a conscious choice by D’Salete. He also has another book translated into English, Run For It: Stories of Slaves Who Fought for Their Freedom. Together these two books are an important alternative celebration that illuminates a history of resistance that deserves to be more widely known.

Most of us may never get to Brasil, nevertheless all of us need to be aware of the struggles in the heart of this country that is the home of the largest population of Black people outside of Africa.

 

http://bamalovesoul.bandcamp.com/album/covers-8

Whatever. Enables us to carry on even when we don’t feel like going. No where. No how. Or conversely feeling good, walking along and singing no particular song, just a little something something we made up, a hum, a whistle, a whisper, a shout. Just something.

Why we be like that? Who knows for sure? Just sure we give thanks for the music in us, eternally coming out.

Here’s a collection of cover pieces. Yeah, I know. The originals was the jams, and most times covers be but pale imitations. I ain’t maintaining these are better than the songs’ debut appearances, just saying, sometimes, especially when no one else is looking, or only a certain special someone is near by, or, hell, we could be standing in some line somewhere, and the melody just tumble out across our lips, and whomsoever be around, we don’t care. 

I got a song in my heart and I just got to let it out.

You know what I mean. (That’s a declaration, not a question.)

Enjoy!

 

Art is a product of the human imagination, and as such, all humans make art. Moreover, even though specific cultures may invent ways of making art, humans can learn from each other and participate in each other’s art making processes. As simple as it sounds, what any subset of humanity does, another subset of humanity can learn to do.

What we don’t know, we can learn; what we do know, we can teach. We really don’t have to accept the supremacy of one group over another, whether on a political, economic, cultural, or gender basis. When we make meaningful art we uplift ourselves as well as set an invaluable example for others.

All of which leads me to Augusta Savage, a 20th century sculptor whose work is too often ignored, overlooked. She is unknown to most of us even though she was a stalwart of the fabled Harlem Renaissance. The ups and downs of her personal life in many ways personifies the story of her people. 

Augusta Christine Fells was born February 29, 1892 in Green Cove Springs, Florida. She was the daughter of a Methodist preacher who literally, physically beat her for practicing her art because he believed, as the old testament instructed, one should not make graven images before God.

On both a personal and a social level, how many of us come up in circumstances which are antithetical to our personal desires, our dreams? Fortunately for us, Augusta refused to succumb to pressures to cease and desist creative artwork.

By the time she graduated high school, encouraged by a principal at a school in West Palm Beach, where her family then resided, Augusta was actually teaching a clay modeling class. Think on it. When you were a child, daddy used to beat you for doing your art work, and yet, by the end of high school you are teaching an art making class to your peers.

Over the following years, numerous people recognized her talent and she won scholarships and fellowships. In 1921 she was admitted to Cooper Union in New York. The twenties was the Garvey Era, the watchwords were “Up you mighty race, you can accomplish what you will.”

Her will to both teach as well as create is a defining characteristic of Augusta Savage. She launched the Savage Studio Of Arts And Crafts. Among her students who would become world famous were visual artist Jacob Lawrence and sociologist Kenneth Clark. As an artist one of her most famous creations was Lift Every Voice And Sing, popularly known simply as The Harp.

Created on commission for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the sixteen-foot plaster sculpture was often photographed and eventually copies were made. Ironically, Savage did not have the money to have a bronze casting done and the original was destroyed upon the close of the fair.

In later years Savage moved to the New York state countryside where she continued to both create her artwork and to teach students. She died of cancer on March 26, 1962.

An ardent believer in the beauty of her people regardless of the ugliness of the conditions within which we were often forced to live, Augusta Savage set a sterling example as a creative artist.

 

Lyrical funk from cross the water. For all the old souls of whatever age. It won’t take long for you to know whether you dig it or not. Jazzie B is an OG from an earlier era who was big back in the day

And although not frequently heard on the contemporary playlists, he is still very much taking care of catering the joyous noise of life. Happy, happy to hear his 2014 curated assemblage of late eighties era sounds and sound-a-likes.

Pat your foot. Nod your head. One more once again, we flowing back to life. Tee-total enjoy.

All three are about honoring soldiers who died in battle. (“One of the Earliest Memorial Day Ceremonies Was Held by  Freed Slaves”). Two of the views are about opposing combatants in the U.S. Civil War. (The contested Confederate roots of Memorial Day).

Today, in the late teens of the 21st century, the U.S. teeters back and forth as a politically divided nation. The political issues surrounding Memorial Day play out in numerous and fractional ways. 

The third, and currently popular view, honors U.S. soldiers in general. The historical record is skimpy and far from precise. As with all things involving humans, there are conflicting and even contradictory issues. You be the judge.

—Kalamu ya Salaam

 

At the turn of the century in the 1900s between Reconstruction and the first World War there was born a man who was one of America’s most significant musicians. Tall. Black. Poised. A leader. A soldier. An organizer. And ultimately a tragic martyr who died at the hands of one of his own men.

His name was James Reese Europe. Born February 22, 1880 in Mobile, Alabama. When he was 10, his family migrated to Washington, DC. When he was 25 he set up permanent residence in New York City. He died May 9, 1919 in Boston, the victim of a jealous drummer in his band. He was only 39 years old.

Most of us have never heard of him. Although, during his life time, he was often billed as a king of jazz and a maestro of ragtime, today he is overlooked. Under appreciated. His life and musical compositions seldom cited.

Indeed, I was not consciously looking for him when a reference flashed on screen while I was online searching for something else. Even though I had recently included him in an essay I wrote for a presentation at the U.S. Mint in New Orleans on Esplanade Avenue at the Mississippi river, I did not have him in the top of my concerns. I am ashamed of myself. How could I forget so important a figure in our musical history?

Jim Europe was in demand in the major East Coast metropoles. He was admired, sought after, and constantly employed. In 1910 he organized the Clef Club, an all Black organization for people in the music industry. The Clef Club not only sponsored performances, it also served as a musician’s union and booking agency. In 1912 he gave an historic concert at Carnegie Hall, over a decade before George Gershwin and Paul Whiteman. For the concert, Europe assembled a 125 member orchestra. In 1913 he was among the first Black ensembles to make recordings on Victor Records.

Look at him. In 1916 he enlisted in the New York national guard. During the war years, Lieutenant Europe not only organized and led military bands he is credited with taking ragtime and jazz to Europe as a member and officer of the 369th Regiment, aka the Harlem Hellfighters in which he was both a band leader and the lead officer in a machine gun squad.

As I sat scanning my computer, all it took was one mention in passing, and the seed that was planted deep in my subconscious sprung awake. In less that five minutes on the internet I was able to reclaim Mr. Europe’s legacy.

Here are three videos, arranged in order of significance.

First is a brief animated introduction that gives an overview of Europe’s life.

The second video features footage and period photographs focusing mostly on his World War I experiences.

And the third features pianist Jason Moran giving an informal lecture about the work of this great man with piano demonstrations and ending with a mini-concert that includes three students on flute, saxophone and sousaphone.

Don’t be slow. Get in step. Learn about the greatness of James Reese Europe.

 

This composition was on Ornette Coleman’s 1959 album The Shape Of Jazz To Come. Dig it or not, Ornette totally reshaped an approach to jazz. I have said before, in jazz, all the best vocalists want to sound like horns, and all the best horn players want to sound like singers. That kind of lyricism regardless of what they are playing. But with Ornette there was another element, his alto horn had a deep blues under flow. Whether his sound appeals to you is another matter, but there is no denying the blues inflections. And perhaps never more so then on one of his signature compositions.

I dug the song so much—and that’s what this composition was, a song—that I wrote a poem to it. Years later, I recorded the poem with Courtney Bryan on piano. I suggested she play off the melody and the feel of the tune. Only toward the end do we hear the distinctive melody, which I deeply love.

Here, let me step back a second. Up until 1959, most critics were praising the Modern Jazz Quartet as the most original jazz ensemble of the fifties era, and perhaps they were given the proclivity toward the so-called “cool” jazz stylings with their ornate, even at times baroque stylings. The MJQ, especially with Milt Jackson on vibes, was steeped in the blues, even though the majority of their Atlantic albums often were tinged, or sometimes even outright purveyors of classical music. But even then, Bags (as Jackson was affectionately known), although playing an instrument not associated with the blues, had a way of bringing the noise. There was jazz before Ornette, and certainly after Ornette, but the turn toward the classical was an MJQ forte, and that is what was being upended at the end of jazz’s fifth decade. Bags made it clear it was back to the blues.

But what was also clear is that the fixed notes of the piano, or the vibes, for that matter, made it difficult to master the blues, especially those flattened tones, all that whooping and hollering. Sounding like a black baptist preacher on communion Sunday, or better yet, somewhat like Reverend Gary Davis (and if you don’t know who he is, you best get yourself together and check him out), or even more better, Ornette be like a raucous Son House. And as if to make the blues references clear, even to those with tampered scales in their ears, check out Ornette in a trio format, actually mostly a duet with bassist Charlie Haden, who had been a member of Ornette’s trend setting quartet.

Ok, that’s enough for one session.

—kalamu