Anatomy of a Record Store

BIRDEL’S RECORDS: ANATOMY OF A DYING BREED Back in 2010/2011 I had the privilege of conducting extensive oral history interviews in Central Brooklyn for the Weeksville Heritage Center.  For those not familiar, Weeksville was the original African American settlement, founded … Continue reading


Back in 2010/2011 I had the privilege of conducting extensive oral history interviews in Central Brooklyn for the Weeksville Heritage Center.  For those not familiar, Weeksville was the original African American settlement, founded by free African Americans in what is now the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY.  Now commemorated by the shiny, new Weeksville Heritage Center cultural center and museum, at 158 Buffalo Avenue in Brooklyn,  some of the original Weeksville structures remain on the grounds surrounding the Center.

Our oral history project focus was on the significant jazz history of Central Brooklyn.  Jennifer Scott, Kaitlyn Greenidge and myself conducted these extensive interviews with jazz artists, club and cultural center owners and curators, jazz educators, activists associated with past and present culture keepers like the legendary East, and the current Sista’s Place, and the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium, and one record store proprietor – Joe Long of the now-legendary Birdel’s Records.

A classic in the now unfortunately fossilized world of neighborhood record stores, Birdel’s is now officially commemorated by Birdel’s Records Way, on Nostrand Avenue between Atlantic and Fulton Street.  A magnet for touring artists’ autograph sessions across all genres of Black music, like its many similar neighborhood record stores across the country, Birdel’s prided itself in the depth and breadth of it’s Black music resources across genres.  Many young people increased their jazz and other Black music knowledge at Birdel’s, including rap titans like Biggie Smalls and Jay-Z, who haunted the stacks for crate digging and knowledge seeking.

Here’s the official notice of the naming of Birdel’s Records Way:Birdel’s Records Way (Brooklyn)
Present name:Nostrand Avenue
Location:Between Atlantic Avenue and Fulton Street
Honoree: This co-naming commemorates Birdel’s Records, a record store that was open for more than a half century until recently. Birdel’s Records opened in 1944 in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Through the years, the store drew such R&B legends as James Brown, Al Green, Patti LaBelle and Barry White who came to sign autographs.

On April 12, 2011 Jennifer, Kaitlyn and I encountered a lively man named Joe Long, owner & proprietor of Birdel’s Records.  Unfortunately record store proprietors are often left out of the equation when it comes to the development of various music and styles, despite the fact that many were quite influential in their given neighborhoods.  Fortunately we sought out Joe Long and he proved to be a very lively and informative witness to the development of Black music in his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood… and beyond.  Here’s our interview with Joe Long, one of the captains of a now ancient breed – the neighborhood record store.

Willard Jenkins: We read about your record store, Birdel’s, in the New York Times.

Joe Long: That was the second piece about our closing.

WJ: When I read that piece it reminded me of record stores I used to frequent as a kid, before there was any Tower Records; the kind of record store in the neighborhood where the records would be behind the counter on the walls. Talk about the history of Birdel’s.

JL: I came to New York from North Carolina in 1954. The reason I came to New York was to better myself with a decent job to help my mother prolong the education of my sister that was in North Carolina College in Durham. She had won a 2-year scholarship, she was valedictorian. I came out of high school at the tender age of 16 and I said I would work to help her to get through her junior and senior year of college. That’s what prompted me to leave North Carolina to come to New York.

In 1954 my sister that lived here worked at Rands Dry Cleaners and she had a position for me when I left North Carolina. I came straight to Brooklyn and we lived on Quincy Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant at that time. I worked at Rands on the line sorting clothes and I learned that quick, and then I did maintenance [work] with them. I was always an enthusiastic person for music, I really loved music. In my sophomore year at home I bought a Victrola called Airline from Montgomery Ward. Remember those big boxes with AM and FM radio, shortwave and everything? Airline was the brand.

I bought that radio so we would have music in the house and in the community. Victrola, they called them at that time, cost me close to $200 and I paid down like $25 then $5 a week until I was able to pay for it; back then they wouldn’t give it to you until you finished paying for it.

Everybody would come to my house and we would party on the weekends because I had the only Victrola in the community.   I was working at the 5 & 10 cent store H.H. Kress, and by me working there I had access to the music – it was 78s during those days and I would bring home these 78s and we would have our little thing. My father was a janitor and after his [work] day finished they would always give us the popcorn and we would distribute it in the community… the cookies and things… So we used to have a good time.

When I came to Rand Dry Cleaners, they had 155 stores across the metropolitan area – Brooklyn, Long Island, Queens, and Staten Island. I would always come down to Birdel’s and buy my music. During that time they were located on Fulton and Throop next to the Apollo Theatre; we had an Apollo Theatre here in Brooklyn too that had acts and music and things. During those days I would come in evenings after work and buy music. Birdel’s relocated down on Fulton & Nostrand.

During those days – this was in 1956-57 – the groups were making records and the entertainers that were a part of those groups would come by the store. The bass singer from the Heartbeats, Wally Roker, we became close. Wally used to say to me “Joe you know music, why don’t you ask Birdel for a job.” I would tell him I already have a job, why do I need another job? During those days the record stores were open until midnight. You had the junkies out there and the drugs and all, but it wasn’t like today, you could feel more safe.

We had the Bickfords during those days, something like Chock Full ‘o’ Nuts [coffee shop]… We had a Bickfords two doors down from Birdel’s on Fulton Street and I used to go down there. Wally would say come on down there and we would talk and he would say ‘I’m gonna tell Birdel to hire you and maybe you’ll like it…’ I said ‘well ok, I’ll give it a try.’ So I spoke with Benjamin Steiner, the owner, and his wife was named Birdie Steiner and they had a guy named Lefty and another fella named Shorty that used to work full time. So I would come in the evenings, and I started to work there and I liked it.

So then I went to Rand after two years and I tell them I’m gonna quit. They didn’t want me to quit because I had learned all the locations of the stores throughout Brooklyn, Queens, Long Island and Staten Island, so they really needed someone with the trucks to help get around. So I told them I’ll give you a coupla weeks notice and then I’m going to leave you, and then I told Birdel’s that I would come with him full-time. I really liked the [Birdel’s] job. I worked part-time at Birdel’s in the evening and that gave me an idea of whether I would want to get into the music business. I liked it so much I told him I would work with him and I would give him ten years; I’m a young man, I said I’ll give you ten years.

He was talking about retiring so I said if you don’t want to sell me the store in ten years I’ll go ahead and get my own business. So he says ‘ok, we’ll see.’ Jews don’t really make commitments to us. I worked with him and I really liked it. He saw the head I had on me… during those days you bought records by numbers. Once I saw a number I was just like a computer, the number would stick. Right now I can call off numbers from 1954-55 on record labels that we ordered by, and he liked that.

So he would say to me ‘you’re gonna get this store, I’m gonna sell you this store…’ In 1963 I told him I was ready [to buy the store]. In ’64 blacks at that time were a little more on the edge of wanting to do things for self; you had the Black Panther party, the radical Brooklyn guys that really would do things to get attention. God rest Sonny Carson’s soul, he was one of the guys that really was out front. So Birdel’s got a little leery during that time and he was saying that he might have to sell before.

So when the time came and Martin Luther King got killed and the riots came, that really was the icing on the cake; he said I’m gonna sell and get out. During those days SBA small business loan was loaning minority people money and it wasn’t that you had to have a good foundation or background or good bankroll… if they saw the potential in you and you were able to take the business they didn’t mind loaning. That was one of the reasons I was able to get a loan for the business. Birdel had quoted me a price and I went to SBA and they offered me the money so quickly that when I went back and told [Birdel] I had the money that’s when he wanted to up the price $10,000.

I told him ‘Ben you promised me the store and you promised me a price. I worked for you over ten years and never stole a penny from you because my mother didn’t raise no thieves in North Carolina, and I’ve been honest. I had a tendency of working with fellas that would always be stealing and I used to tell them ‘man, you don’t steal the man’s money because one day you might need the man for reference, but if he fires you for stealing you won’t get good references.’ So I said I’m gonna tell you to quit stealing and if you don’t stop stealing I’m going to the boss because I don’t want to work around thieves and I don’t want him to think that I’m part of what you’re doing.’

So at that time he says to me ‘ok I’ll talk to my wife and see if we want to stick to the original price.’ The drugs are flourishing in Bedford-Stuyvesant, especially on Fulton Street and there was a guy who had a store on Fulton Street who was dealing drugs and he wanted the location on Nostrand Avenue and he was the one who offered [Steiner] the $10,000 more that I would pay – because I knew what he wanted to do.

I told Ben, you go home and talk to Birdie because I’ve worked with you all these years and I’m not looking to just walk away; I put my blood, sweat and tears here and if you don’t sell me this store I’m gonna burn it down. Its just that simple, I said I’ll burn it down, you won’t have it and I won’t have it, you’ll get the little money from your insurance or whatever, but I will burn it down. He went back and talked to his wife; he knew that I was serious. He knew that I wasn’t playing.

During those days I had two fellas – a guy named Mitch and a guy named Jeff, we had a little social club together. I told them once I buy the store I’ll bring you all in. During those days when black folks were on the other side of Fulton Street you didn’t have the idea of coming across Atlantic Avenue to say that you wanted to be a part of Crown Heights.

After he went back and talked to his wife they finally made the deal to sell me the business. When I took on Mitch I said my whole vision was to have a chain of independent retail [record] stores. One of the reasons I saw that change I knew that during those days music was popular with the blacks and you had good radio stations that played this music and it wasn’t a thing of wherein you were selling tickets for different programs – gospel programs… all these programs were a help to build Birdel’s up. So when I finally bought the store and we closed the deal, Birdel said to me ‘Joe, you’ll make a lot of money here.’ I said to him ‘Ben, I might not make no money because you made the money, I worked for you and I know you made good money and when we as a race of people find out that one of us own it they tend to not purchase and support like they should.’ I told him that but I wasn’t worried about survival out here because I knew what it took to survive.

When I took on Mitch I said ‘Mitch I want to do a chain and we got as far as three stores. The only people that were competitive to independent [record] retail at that time was E.J. Corvettes, Mays Department store, and Sam Goodies; but Goodies was a part of the record clan that could sell records out of town, so they could sell [at] list prices, they didn’t have to give you a discount.

So as I would build up a store I would put my partner Mitch in there and he had a head and wanted to be Mr. Big Stuff and he didn’t want to work and every time he would go out and hang out, I’d put the workers to work and he’s gone. I told him ‘we can’t achieve a good business if you’re not there, because these people we’re putting in here are gonna be stealing.’   I knew they weren’t gonna take it all, but at least give me the majority, don’t take 60/40 – give me 70/30 or 80/20, but they weren’t doing that so I kept him on, I told him I would give him five years to learn the business, but I kept him on another three years and he still didn’t learn the business.

So then I sat down with him and I said ‘look, we’re gonna have to [end] our partnership. He didn’t want to give it up because now he didn’t have nowhere to go. We had three stores so I told him, I’ll keep Birdel’s on Nostrand Avenue, I’ll give you the tape center on Fulton Street, and we had another store on Flatbush and Prospect, and I said we’ll sell that to my brothers, because I had two brothers working here. That way we’ll all have a store, you can do what you want and I’ll do what I want. But if you want to keep the Birdel’s name for the Birdel’s Tape Center you’ll have to pay me because the name was incorporated, and I told my brothers the same.

My brothers didn’t want to give up their jobs; one worked for the transit authority, the other one worked for an insurance company. They didn’t want to quit their jobs and they put their wives in there to run [the store] and I knew it was gonna be a failure. Women have come a long way from those days, but during that time I could see they weren’t the people to have in your business to carry the load – and I’m being honest, this is what I saw. They hung on for about 3 years and I said [to his brothers] ‘if you don’t want to give up your jobs I’m gonna have to take the store back. If you don’t want to give up your jobs I’ll sell it.’ Eventually I took it back.

I was trying to let Mitch know that I carried him for eight years – I promised you five – and now I want out. I’m divorced now, but during that time my wife said to me to get rid of him and pay him, so I paid him. When I finished paying him [his store] lasted about a year then he went out [of business]. We had a rider in the contract that said if he was to go out, he head to come back to me and see if I wanted to buy the business back. He didn’t do that, but it was alright with me.

Right then and there I started building Birdel’s internationally because I knew the Japanese clientele liked vinyl, people from Germany liked vinyl, and all these people were tourists that would be coming into New York. Harlem was a little more well-known than Bedford-Stuyvesant and they would go up to Harlem – they had the Record Shack, Bobby Robinson with Bobby’s Happy House, and then Rainbow, you we all worked together, we were like a network. So when they would come up to Harlem they would tell [record tourists] ‘you need to go over to Birdel’s in Brooklyn.  And all you had to do is get one [tourist] to see what you do and what you had, and it became like wildfire and [tourists] started to come into Brooklyn. And then we became internationally known because the Japanese would come and they would tell somebody, and England would tell somebody… and they’d say ‘go to Birdel’s’, they forgot about Harlem [laughs].

That’s how I became really popular. It took years to do this, it didn’t happen overnight because vinyl took a decline; when I came into the business it was vinyl, then it became mono/stereo with records and stereo was an elevation of the sound that was better, then it was 8-tracks, then cassettes. All of these trends I grew up in with the different modifications in the music business.

All of that modification with vinyl (mono-stereo), the record manufacturers felt as though now there was a decline in the music as vinyl. They would put out a vinyl album and they would tell the public that it was going gold. During that time gold was if you sold 10,000 units; 100,000 units would be platinum. They weren’t really selling that amount because it was all a number game; they would ship the amount to these stores and in essence if they didn’t sell them they would get them back in return.

So we had a cutout house in Philadelphia that I would go to and buy this product on vinyl. I could buy that same album for $1 from the cutout house and I could in turn sell it for $1.98 or $2.98 – most of the time I would put $2.98 on it – and this is how I built it up, because now the record is only 6 months or a year old and people still want it. So that’s how I started building up the vinyl trade, and this is how the word got around to go to Birdel’s, get the music in vinyl because one thing about it was if I didn’t have it, nobody had it because I would order for people all over… You have to build a customer relationship and it wasn’t about the money with me, it was about the commitment that I had to my customers. Our motto would be “if Birdel’s don’t have it, ain’t nobody got it…’ They would depend on me because I was like their bible. But it took a lot of work.

When we would have those big conferences, like Jack The Rapper and the Urban Network, I would go because we got record companies to support us and the independent stores were always the foundation of the record business.   If we didn’t build the music during those days – when you had the disc jockeys… before Frankie Crocker you had Eddie O’Jay, you had the Jack Walkers, WLIB, WNJR in Newark, Jocko… These guys were disc jockeys, they made the music… That was before the Frankie Crockers came along and the Gary Byrds… [Deejays] would make the music and we would have them, wherein the big boys wouldn’t carry it because they didn’t know nothin’ about it. They [big chains] would only carry it after we broke the record, so the manufacturers and these companies knew that the independent store was the foundation of the business to build it up, so they had to support us.

We had corporations together; we had Mirror, independent stores coalitions throughout the country and we would meet at these conventions and we would voice our choice. So then they said ‘we gotta do something else now’ and they came up with digital tapes and that was taking away from cassettes, so then they said they had to come up with another configuration, which brought in the CD. They didn’t know that the CD would really be a thorn in their side to the music business. Because what happened was everybody that had a CD could copy it. At these big conferences when the presidents of all these companies would come in they would always call me the troublemaker because I would always be on their ass. You couldn’t butter me up… a lot of these presidents of these coalitions would come in and say I’ll take care of you, but you don’t have to take care of your group. But they couldn’t say that to me, I would say to them ‘you know what, if you all continue to make CDs and worry about bootlegs and get the RIAA and the FBI to work with you to combat this you all will have to quit making the [CD burner] machines. Now if you’re making the machine and these people are buying the machine, what did you expect them to do? This was one of the downfalls – the copying of product.

Then they tried to put labels about $10,000 fines for CD burning… people didn’t pay that no mind and it became widespread. I told them when you come to us about a bootleg we are only the ones who can sell it, you’ve gotta hit the manufacturers where these people are making 100,000 units at a time. So they busted a couple of them – one in Philadelphia, one in Florida and they took 100,000 records, but that didn’t stop it.

One day we were talking at one of those meetings, I said ‘you know what, ya’ll let the horse out of the barn now and you’re trying to get him back in. You have destroyed independent music labels because now everything is geared to the big boys, the artists are going along with them now. You’ve got Burger King, McDonalds and all these companies telling these artists we can give you X amount of dollars and we will book you about ten cities and you’ll be able to make more money, so that cut out the independent.

Then the same thing when the radio stations combined; they got rid of all the little radio stations and they made a big network, and KISS went all over the country and bought up all these stations – forgot about the independent disc jockeys they had, brought in artists that don’t know nothing about the record business and they put them in position that they shouldn’t have been, and the disc jockey that went to school to learn the business was no longer a part of that. Through it all [Birdel’s was] were surviving and they couldn’t understand it. They used to tell me all the time, ‘you know, you don’t ask for nothin’, how you makin’ it’? I said ‘with the master upstairs’, I used to quote scriptures on them in a minute. As long as I’ve got my health, got my strength, I’m gonna make a dollar – and this is what I’d tell them all the time. All of this time that we worked as a coalition to build the [record] manufacturers up, they were always looking to tear us down.

Then they began to like me and they started doing things for me all the time. I was reading an article from 1973 that Nelson George wrote for Billboard; I knew his mother, his mother’s best friend was one of my bookkeepers. I watched Nelson grow up and every time he’d write an article he’d mention Birdel’s.

WJ: You mentioned that you sold tickets to events…

JL: We sold tickets for events all over the metropolitan area – New York, New Jersey… we were like a ticket outlet. Before Ticketron first started this is what we were doing. When Ticketron came I wanted to be a Ticketron outlet. I bought a building on Nostrand Avenue – the old Chase Manhattan building and I got an architect to come in and do a layout for me; I wanted to do three levels, something like Tower Records was on Broadway, a 3-level [record store] with Ticketron. When he laid out the plan for me it would cost close to a million dollars to do the construction and everything. I went to Freedom Bank, I went to Carver’s Bank, Citi Bank… and all of these banks refused to loan me money. It really deterred me about elevating my game because now I can’t get no backing.

They would always say to me ‘what is your equity’ and all of that. I said ‘hell, if I had something I wouldn’t be here! If I’ve got $300,000 I don’t need you! I’m here to borrow money and if I fail you’ve got whatever it is…’ but they couldn’t see it. It was the same thing in 1978; I could have bought that corner on Fulton Street where I was with [Birdel’s] and I couldn’t get no money. When you talk about politics, political people and how they help the independent, grassroots people… it ain’t there. They might talk about it but believe me its not there. I should have been bigger than J&R; I knew those people, Jimmy & Rachel, those are the people that own J&R, I knew those two little people when they were nobody. Nobody came to bat for us, and that is the saddest part. Now that corner on Nostrand Avenue & Fulton Street you can’t buy that for $3M, guy is asking for $10M for that corner now.

WJ: Did you have other people working for you who went on to have their own record stores?

JL: Yep, a couple of them. Not only record stores, I’ve had others come in and learn the record business who went on to be producers. As a matter of fact Biggie [Smalls] when I started, he used to come to my store on Nostrand Avenue and go downstairs… When he first started coming around he used to say ‘Birdel, I hear you got a lotta old 45s and stuff in the basement. Me and my man wanna go down and listen’ – I never knew his man’s name. I said ‘oh man, come on down.’ He used to tell me ‘one day I’m gonna be big and when I’m big I ain’t gonna forget you.’ I said ‘OK Biggie, you ain’t gotta do nothin’ but what you’re doing now… smokin’ reefer out there on the block shootin’ craps, hanging out there at the pool room up at Cambridge Place… that’s all you gonna be…’

He’d say ‘naw, I’m gonna be better…’ I said OK. And when he got big he came back and said ‘whenever you want me to an autograph session [in-store] I’ll do it, let me know.’ At that time the West coast and the East coast had that fightin’ thing goin’ on. He came and did that autograph session about two weeks before they were going out to Los Angeles. He and Puffy [Combs] wasn’t the best [of friends], it was like a front thing… I told him ‘Biggie if I were you I’d stay home…’ He said ‘naw Birdel, I gotta go out there…’ I said ‘let Puffy, he’s the owner of the company, let him go out there and see what’s happening.’ But he went out there and never came back, until he came back in a box.

WJ: Did you have any other young people like that come around the store?

JL: Jay-Z used to come through there, all these guys… Reverend Run, Russell Simmons and all of those young guys used to come through there. Jay-Z or one of those guys off of Morris Avenue came through one time and he was in the store and we wanted to do an autograph session and every minute he’s looking behind his back. I used to tell him ‘what’s wrong man, I don’t have people in here to be scared of, if there’s something you’ve done you better go around there and clean it up, ‘cause you’re out here in the limelight.’ What’s that other boy’s name… Rob Base… These are the kind of guys that I would help. I’ve always been a person that regardless of who you are or what you were doing, I would always try to set you straight.

WJ: What kind of help would you give these guys?

JL: I’d help them financially, mostly with the knowledge and understanding; I fed their hunger, and I talked to them… I used to have little sessions [in Birdel’s], bring the drug guys off the street, and set ‘em down in there on Nostrand Avenue… I’ve had a lot of them come back later in life and say to me, say to the children, ‘you see Birdel’s over there, if it wasn’t for him you wouldn’t be here, he straightened my life out.’ These are the things that I really enjoy because I’ve given so much and I guess that’s why I’ve been blessed like this.

When I said I was going to close that store after 50 years I knew I had done a job. I got support all over the world, not just New York and the States… I got a call from Ghana – and I was in Ghana, sent ‘em product… we took on a family there, me and my sisters. We had a Long Foundation that we helped to support the needy over [in Ghana], we helped put computers in a school over there… So these are the things that I’ve done, but when I do something I don’t need my name in the spotlight because I do it from my heart.

WJ: Do you remember having jazz guys come into your store?

JL: Oh yeah… Cecil Payne, baritone player, Wilbur Ware, bass player, Randy Weston, piano player, Paul Chambers, Miles Davis

WJ: And what would they come in for?

JL: To ask me about music, ask me did I have certain music. The jazz musicians always bought each other’s music during those days so that they could keep up with what was going on. The Blue Coronet was the jazz club down the street before Brownie’s Hideaway around the corner… These were places that the jazz musicians hung out in and played. They had a big place on Franklin Avenue near St. John’s that had played jazz… Randy Weston and all of them guys used to come through and they could play. During those days when they were appearing at the Blue Coronet they would walk up to the store because during those days we were open until 12:00 midnight.

WJ: Did you play music out into the street?

JL: Yes, that was a big help; I had speakers set up on the street.

WJ: You just mentioned a place I’m not familiar with, Brownie’s Hideaway; talk about that place.

JL: Brownie’s Hideaway was a little nightclub spot on St. Marks right off of Nostrand, right where Key Food is now.

WJ: What happened there?

JL: It was like a little spot that the entertainers come in and sang, local talent would come in and sing. Across the street they had The Cove at 704 Nostrand Avenue, then you could go down to Town Hill on Eastern Parkway.

WJ: So I guess you knew Dickie Habersham-Bey from the Blue Coronet?

JL: Yeah, Dickie I knew for years.

WJ: Did you sell tickets at Birdel’s for jazz events?

JL: Any event we sold tickets for – jazz, gospel, R&B, oldies but goodies… all of those things we sold.

WJ: So they jazz guys would come in and buy each other’s records?

JL: Yeah, the listened and if they liked it they would buy it… They supported each other.

WJ: Back in the day the classic record stores would always enable the consumer to come in and listen to something they were interested in. What kind of set-up did you have at Birdel’s for customer listening?

JL: I would play it for them. Most of the time I could look at you and see if you REALLY wanted to buy it, or you just want to hear it. Most of the time the [record] companies would give us a promotional copy [of new releases] so we would have a copy, but not all of the companies. But what I would let you know up front is I’m gonna open this for you, but if you really want to buy it I don’t mind playing it for you. If you don’t want to buy it then I’ll have to seal it back up – I had a sealer – and then I’ll sell it to the next customer.

Most of the time during those days you would always have a 45 or something that came from that album, so we would play the 45 and you didn’t have to worry about the album. During those days, when an artist made a good record they made a good album, it wasn’t about one good tune and you thought about the rest of it being garbage. Ninety percent of all of those records were good albums during that day.

WJ: Did you have a regular policy of artists making personal appearances in your store?

JL: Uh huh, if they were someone in the vicinity I would have them come in there. Jazz artists were funny they didn’t stay like the blues artists or the R&B artists. They would come through there and people would walk in the store and I might say ‘here’s Wilbur Ware over here, a bass player, he played with Miles Davis, or he played with Randy Weston or somebody…’ And they’d say ‘oh yeah…’, and then Wilbur would say [quietly] ‘…I play music, I don’t want to be out there…’ that’s the way they would talk. I’d say ‘man, you’re an artist, let the people know who you are!’

WJ: So jazz artists were too modest?

JL: Yeah they were too modest. But a guy like Miles Davis would come in there and [the customers] knew Miles right away. He would come in there and stay for awhile and say ‘….hey what’s goin’ on, I’m down at the Blue Coronet for awhile, come on down and listen to me – I’ll play something you want to hear…’ I’ve always been a jazz lover.

WJ: Why did you decide to close Birdel’s?

JL: In 1968 when I took over the store I said I would do 25-30 years because I was looking for a change, and I wasn’t gonna look to work the rest of my life, I wanted to be behind a desk calling the shots. When 2007 came I said ‘wow, this is my 50th year in the business and I’ll be 70 years old…’ Maybe we’ll do a 50/70 [anniversary celebration]. So I called up the record companies and I told them I wanted to do a 50/70. They said ‘what do you mean by that Joe?’ I said I want to get a boat and travel around Manhattan and I want all my friends from all these years that I’ve known, not only in the music business – my church family… I want everybody under the same roof and I want to give a 50/70 gala.’

They said ‘we can help you, but we don’t know how much.’ I said, well I’ll get a price for a boat and we’ll go from there. So I got a price for the boat – now they have downsized these record companies so you only have four big ones – Universal, BMG, EMI and another… it’s only four big boys now – and they all came together and said they would give me a piece of money and that’s what I did.

That was the year, 2007, that I was gonna retire. The reason I wanted to retire then is because I could see the vision of the record industry shrinking as far as music is concerned, and especially with the downloads; I fought them too for 10-15 years when they started selling [downloads] and you could put it on your iPod or whatever. I saw then the decline of people coming into your store. If I wanted to stay in this business I would have changed this whole business around.

I brought my nephew into the business to carry on Birdel’s when he finished school at North Carolina Central because he was majoring in business administration. And he learned the business and he worked with me ten years. After that I was ready to move out. But then he met a young lady and she didn’t want him in the record business no more because of the climate you’re surrounded by in the record business – all the entertainers, all the parties… She saw if she didn’t get him out of the business she might have lost him and she really wanted to get married. So she told him she would like to marry him but he would have to come out of the business.

He really didn’t tell me at the time that he wanted to get out of the business. Later on he said that he wanted to get married and Tonya wanted to move to North Carolina and wanted me to go back to teaching. So my son is a playwright, my daughter is a doctor – OBGYN – so I said to myself ‘why am I gonna continue to work? I’m set, I have my health and strength, so I wanted to do a few things before I leave this earth – I want to do some traveling, go back to West Africa, and I want to do some other things that I have in mind, so I said maybe with the record business declining like it is now it’s a good time for me to get out.

My customer base didn’t want me to leave, so I hung on for another 3 years and I saw that I wasn’t making no money, all I was doing was paying rent, buying music, and there wasn’t any sense in putting good money to bad money, so I said no use in me keeping my money in here just to satisfy a few devoted customers, because the [customer] age from 16-40 nobody was buying, they were all online. So if you don’t have that customer base there’s no use in continuing. If I had stayed I would have turned the store around to electronics and just had the music for an offset.

I would have kept the gospel and the oldies because that’s what I was noted for; my specialty was oldies. They really didn’t think I was gonna close. I used to say ‘ya’ll gonna miss me when I’m gone…’ They would say ‘… you ain’t going nowhere…’ I’d say ‘watch me…’ One of the guys came in crying, he said ‘Birdel, you told me 3 years ago… I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone…’ They came to the realization that I’m going to close these doors.

WJ: What did you do with all your record stock when you closed?

JL: I’ve got stock in storage… the vinyl. I’ve got maybe 50-60,000 pieces of vinyl. I want to sell the whole thing, I don’t want to sell it piecemeal. I had a guy from Ireland that wanted it all but he ran into a problem with the freight and how he would get it back, he didn’t want to spend a lot of money to get it back [to Ireland]. I had another guy from Germany who told me if I took this stock over there I’d be a millionaire overnight with this vinyl. He said they were hungry, the needed this because nobody else has it. I told him ‘man, I’ve been doing this 53 years and I’m tired, let me do what I want to do…’

WJ: As you look back on those 53 years, what thoughts do you have about the music business? There are two different things we’re talking about here – the record business and the music business.

JL: The music business – over those 53 years I’ve been involved in it, the record business has been good to me. The record business has taken a decline. The music business will always live because you have a history here with the music that cannot be duplicated no more. They can sample it they can do whatever they want, but they can’t take away from the originals. This is why music is so important today. What has really hurt the music business part of it is you don’t have radio that is dedicated to play music because now everything is about the dollar. During those early days we as independents could buy time; you could buy a half hour or 15 minutes on a station and play in those 15 minutes what you wanted to play.

Only on WBGO [in the metro area] can you hear good jazz, the same with the oldies but goodies. What I really wanted to do was to buy a radio station. I used to tell people that if you bought a station you don’t worry about the ratings and you don’t worry about the listeners because if you play good music you’ll get listeners.

WJ: I can remember when I was a kid there was a guy in Cleveland who had a record store and he bought up a few hours on the air on WJMO, the Black station, and he’d have his in-store radio show every Sunday (the “Pleaser”). Did you ever do that?

JL: I did a little bit years ago. I went to school for radio and worked at WPNN down in Annapolis, MD for a year or two, but I came back to New York. I found that during those days the disc jockey had the freedom, but you didn’t have the support of the owners because they were looking for the dollar, and you’re on staff so you’ve gotta do what they tell you to [play]. The big corporations came in and bought the stations and then they collaborated and put them all together, so then they were in control.

So if you hear this [record] in Atlanta, you’re gonna hear it in Milwaukee, in New York, hear it all over. This is the way they program music now and they don’t play good music. When have you heard a good jazz record on the radio going back to a Miles Davis “Bag’s Groove,” 1957-58? They don’t have that today, so you really have the music that’s there but its not getting the exposure, it’s not getting the airplay.








Brooklyn community activism… with a jazz twist

In 2010 I conducted an oral history interview project focusing on the jazz scene in Central Brooklyn, the heart of which is the Bedford-Stuyvesant community, working with historians Jennifer Scott and Kaitlyn Greenidge, for the Weeksville Heritage Center.  For those … Continue reading

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

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

Remembering The East with Jitu Weusi

PART ONE: A jazz fan in development…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


AN ADVOCATE FOR WOMEN IN JAZZ Thankfully we are gradually evolving to a better place in recognizing the absolutely vital roles women occupy across the jazz community, from playing, bandleading, composing, and recording to educating, presenting, managing, directing, producing, providing … Continue reading


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Catching up with TK Blue

Catching up with T.K. Blue… My first sighting of alto-soprano saxophonist & flutist T.K. Blue was many moons ago at the former Greenwich Village jazz hub Sweet Basil.  On that evening my mission was to see the great Randy Weston, … Continue reading

Catching up with T.K. Blue…

My first sighting of alto-soprano saxophonist & flutist T.K. Blue was many moons ago at the former Greenwich Village jazz hub Sweet Basil.  On that evening my mission was to see the great Randy Weston, who in part was making a rare stateside appearance amongst his global travels.  That fateful evening Randy performed in duo with a saxophonist I was not previously familiar with, Talib Kibwe.

I was immediately impressed, not only with Talib’s passionate alto playing, but also with the obvious brotherly connection he had achieved with Randy.  Then in the early 90s Suzan and I traveled to Trinidad, where Suz had spent some of her elementary school years, for the annual Pan Jazz Festival.  Each morning our room at the Trinidad Hilton was enhanced by the sounds of a flutist warming up nearby.  As those sounds grew more aggressive we realized that musician was practicing next door!  Turns out it was the same Talib Kibwe, who was in Trinidad – an island where he has deep ancestral roots – to lead a band at the Pan Jazz Festival, an event which brought together the uniquely American art form of jazz with Trinidad’s rich steel pan music tradition in successful collaborations.

Fast forward to the late-90s, and several performances of Randy Weston’s African Rhythms band later (with Talib Kibwe now serving as Randy’s music director), I asked Talib whether he would serve as a bit of an intermediary to see if Randy was interested in being trailed by a biographer to write his book.  Randy was very happy with that prospect, began referring to me as his “writer”, and ten years later African Rhythms, the autobiography of Randy Weston, “Composed by Randy Weston/Arranged by Willard Jenkins” arrived from Duke University Press and the rest is history.

A few years ago Talib determined to adopt his youthful nickname “Blue” and professionally became known as T.K. Blue.  His work as music director of Randy Weston’s African Rhythms band morphed into T.K. becoming Randy’s chief arranger when NEA Jazz Master Melba Liston‘s health deteriorated and she was unable to continue as RW’s principle arranger.  I remember when T.K. wrote the arrangement for Randy’s Lincoln Center concert collaboration with violin master Regina Carter, he always told the story about how Melba’s spirit came to him in guidance as he was crafting a particularly tricky passage.

T.K. continued with Randy in many contexts right up until Weston’s passage on September 1, 2018.  And for those who don’t know that story, that morning Randy woke up, sat down in his favorite chair awaiting his breakfast, nodded off and passed on to ancestry  in an ultimate moment of peace.  Since then T.K. has continued to honor Randy Weston’s memory and his rich book of tunes onstage and on record, as his latest recording, The Rhythms Continue wonderfully attests.  

As life began to slowly re-open from these pandemic times, last month we had the pleasure of catching T.K. leading a band at Brothers’ Smokehouse in Ramsey, NJ (info: 551/264-9073) – a highly recommended barbecue-based restaurant owned and operated by Randy Weston’s grandsons!  Then two weeks later in May, T.K. and another member of Randy Weston’s African Rhythms family, tenor sax titan Billy Harper, co-led a quintet – with Allyn Johnson on piano, Herman Burney on bass, and Eric Kennedy on drums – as part of the re-opening of Todd Barkan’s wonderful Keystone Korner resurrection in Baltimore.  With that performance, and on the heels of The Rhythms Continue, clearly some questions were in order for T.K. Blue.   

I met NEA Jazz Master Dr. Randy Weston in the late 1970’s, in
performance with another NEA Jazz Master Abdullah Ibrahim at Ornette Coleman’s place in SOHO called The Artist House. In fact Abdullah’s band was one of the last to perform there before it closed. Randy stopped by to check us out with his father Frank Edward Weston and his agent Collette Giacomotti. About a year later I sat in with Randy for a SWAPO (South West Africa People’s Organization) fundraiser against Apartheid in South Africa. We played “Hi Fly” with just piano and piccolo. In addition I also played with Dr. Weston at Syncopations, a West Village jazz club owned by drummer John Lewis.  Later in 1980 Randy hired me for my first concert with his band at The
House Of The Lord Church in Brooklyn.

By the end of 1981 I moved to Paris and coincidentally Randy was also living in the France in the town of Annecy. By the summer of 1982 we were working regularly together is a variety of formats.

I was anointed with the musical director’s chair for African Rhythms during the recording of “The Spirit Of Our Ancestors” for Verve 1992. Melba Liston wrote all the arrangements for this date but she had a stroke. I was asked to direct the band and help run this session, which included many super stars like Pharoah Sanders, Dizzy Gillespie, Idris Muhammad, Jamil Nasser, Dewey Redman, Billy Harper, Benny Powell, Idrees Sulieman, and a host of others.  I have always been fascinated with African culture and history since my college days at NYU and Columbia University. Dr. Weston was a huge proponent of the “African” influence in music and culture across the diaspora. I felt the impetus to immediately continue my association with such a great mentor and master musician as Randy Weston!!!

Dr. Weston’s passing deeply touched me in a profound way. I felt tremendous ebullience when a decision was made to honor Randy in an obeisant fashion through sound. “The Rhythms Continue” on JAJA Records reflects my attempt to pay tribute and also look to the future.  It’s my reasoning for having relatively young pianists on this date, in understanding how Randy has influenced their artistic creativity: Keith Brown, Mike King, Kelly Green, and Sharp Radway. To know your future, you must know your past, hence Ancient Future!!!

My recent performance at the Keystone Korner-Baltimore was absolutely magnificent. Even though I played with all of these musicians in different configurations, it was the first time we all played together: Billy Harper-tenor; Allyn Johnson-piano; Herman Burney-bass; Eric Kennedy-drums; T.K. Blue-alto sax, flute, kalimba. Besides their incredible excellence in music performance, I felt everyone has a warm spirit with deep reverence for the elders. I knew the connection would be perspicuous. The result was a celebratory performance as witnessed last weekend at the Keystone Korner.

Everyone brought his best effort to the bandstand. Allyn really locked into the “Weston” groove and intrinsically I could feel Baba Randy’s spirit in his playing, while he always maintained his personal expression. Herman is rock solid on the bottom and his lock with Eric on drums is infectious. They had some intense telepathy and could change the rhythmic groove instantly. Eric listens quite passionately to everything being played and he accentuates all the nuances. Of course Maestro Billy Harper is a master tenor saxophonist. His penetrating sound and protean improvisational forays captivated the audience. The foundational framework these artists laid down made it enormously sacrosanct. I was uplifted every time I played my instruments. It allowed me to venture into uncharted territory while improvising.

I am so appreciative and grateful that Todd immensely loved our shows. There were many magical moments and I pray additional opportunities will surface for this particular band to perform together.

About that magical weekend at the Keystone Korner with the T.K. Blue-Billy Harper Quintet, Todd Barkan texted me this message: “I wrote quite extensively on my Facebook page as I compared it to the very most inspired ensembles to ever levitate the Keystone stage, in a league with the “Sahara Band” of McCoy Tyner, with Sonny Fortune, Calvin Hill, and Alphonse Mouzon, and the greatest bands of Buhaina (Art Blakey), Cedar Walton, Elvin Jones, Ron Carter, Betty Carter, et. al.  Much love and brighter moments.”

  • NEA Jazz Master Todd Barkan

More information:

Bill Brower: A true Jazz Cultural Warrior

On April 12 the DC jazz community in particular, and the world jazz community in general lost a true Jazz Cultural Warrior with the passing of writer-producer-historian Bill Brower (that’s Bill with the locks in this photo from the annual … Continue reading

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

Bill Brower: Notes from a keen observer & scenemaker

Interview by Willard Jenkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was the occasion for Andrew to play that marathon?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did your relationship with Dr. Taylor develop?

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

What was the nature of this Jazz in DC production?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about your work on the Capital City Jazz Festival.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B: The new loft scene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Karrin Allyson Goes Shoulder to Shoulder

KARRIN ALLYSON Vocalist Karrin (pron. kah-rin) Allyson clearly has a good ear for thematic recordings.  And that’s a perception I don’t make casually, based in large part on her splendid 2001 project Ballads: Remembering John Coltrane (Concord ’01).  On that … Continue reading


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

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

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

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

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, … Continue reading

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.

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 … Continue reading

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.


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 … Continue reading

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:

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.  … Continue reading

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!!!!!