Archive for the Music Reviews Category

Fallen Angel: Self-Destructing before the World  

Posted in Cultural Matters, Film Criticism, Movie Reviews, Music Reviews with tags , on July 7, 2015 by playthell


Amy during better days
 The Short and Tragic Life of Amy Winehouse

The new documentary film on the British singer Amy Winehouse now playing at the Sunset Theater in the East Village is beautifully produced and directed by Asif Kapadia. Over the course of two hours and eight minutes we are provided a remarkable look into the life of this six time Grammy winner who rose up from the London working class and captured a world-wide audience writing and singing songs based on the vicissitudes of the high times and bizarre episodes that mark the rise and fall of her short but remarkable life.  Watching the movie I got the impression that we were witnessing the human equivalent of a shooting star that blazes across the night skies in a bright flash of light and then flames out before our eyes.

The film is thoughtfully constructed from video clips of her life; some of it is finely produced footage from her live performances in the UK and the USA, but most of the footage comes from family and friends.  Thus we see her in a wide variety of settings.  Some of the film has sound, and thus we can observe her speaking, but other footage is accompanied by voice overs of Amy speaking.  Hence we hear a lot of her story in her own words. And what we see is a young person of considerable creative talent who appears to understand little in life except making music, and cannot overcome the deep seated emotional problems caused by the lasting trauma of her father abandoning her and her mother at an early age.

This leaves her with a deep need to be loved by men, or at least win their approval, and her emotional neediness drives her into a destructive relationship with a guy who is also emotionally damaged because of a screwed up relationship with his parents.    He promises to be her rock and help Amy cope and instead he introduces her to crack cocaine and heroin.  Abuse of these drugs along with excessive alcohol consumption final did her in at the tender age of 27.  However in the meantime she managed to become an international superstar who could have become fabulously rich if she had been able to stay sober.

Although Amy’s particular experience is unique, the basic narrative is an old story: old wine in a new bottle.  In many ways her saga is so familiar she comes across at times as a cliché, depending upon who is watching it.  For those who know something of music business history and inside lore it is easy to place Amy’s self-destructiveness within a tradition of music history in the 20th century. Creative geniuses like Charlie Parker and Jimmy Hendrix self-destructed on drugs, and there is a long line of singers whose fame and fortune couldn’t rescue them from self-destruction: Billy Holiday, Judy Garland, Elvis Pressley, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, Phyllis Hyman, Whitney Houston, et al.  However none of them acted their destruction on stages with a million people watching.

Under Asif Karpadia’s direction we are provided glimpses of Amy’s life before she became a star, when she was a passably pretty girl who was more sensuous that beautiful; her best feature being full pouty lips –DSL’s that forced one’s mind into the gutter –and her long black hair, which she often wore in “big hair” styles resembling the popular “beehive” styles of the 1960’s.  She reminded me of one of those smart mouth delinquent working class English girls in the British movie “To Sir with Love,” starring an unusually stiff and priggish Sidney Portier.

But after all is said and done the raison d’etre for this documentary film is Amy Winehouse’s talent and importance as a musical artist.  On this issue the movie becomes an extended panegyric that degenerates into special pleading.   While there is no doubt that Ms. Winehouse had talent, it is a gross exaggeration to call her “The Queen of Soul,” while the real queen, Ms. Aretha Franklin, was alive and well – not to mention her numerous Afro-American progeny such as Whitney Houston, Alicia Keyes, Beyoncé et al who are singing their asses off in the tradition.  And Tony Bennet’s claim that she was “one of the purest jazz singer I ever heard….if she had lived she would have been on the same level with Ella Fitzgerald and Billy Holiday,” is shameless hyperbole.

Perhaps Tony Bennet’s assessment of Ms. Winehouse’s talent was influenced by the fact that she constantly cites him as her artistic “hero,” along with Sarah Vaugh, Billy Holliday, Thelonious Monk, and other Afro-American Jazz greats.  Testimony from black American artists in the film like the drummer/leader of “Da Roots,” an innovative hip hop band from Philly, revealed that she was a serious student of the Jazz tradition that was constantly recommending records for him to study.

However most of the music selected for the film – which one presumes was a representative sample of her work – was Rhythm & Blues and her band was rocking!  There were excerpts from some of her Jazz performances, the most extensive being a recording date she did with Tony Bennett, where she was scared to death and nearly walked out of the studio when she kept screwing up on take after take.  It was clear that Amy and Tony have a mutual admiration thing going; that accounts for the dreamy things they say about each other.  But reality is not so easy to conceal.

Amy Winehouse was just the latest white singer to study the black vocal style and brazenly imitate her idols.  Here too her story is an oft told tale.  It was true of Elvis Pressley, Mick Jagger, Joe cocker, Billy Joel. Janet Joplin, et al.  It was also true of white instrumentalists too.  And in each of these cases once the white performer became competent in the genre they were crowned “The King of Jazz” aka Paul Whiteman; the “king of Swing” aka Benny Goodman; the “King of Rock and Roll” aka Elvis Pressley; the “King of Hip Hop” aka M&M; the “Queen of Rap” aka Iggy Azalia.

According to this film Amy Winehouse was both “The Queen of Soul” and was on the way to rivaling the great Ella Fitzgerald and the incomparable Billy Holliday as a Jazz singer.  Yet each of these art forms are Afro-American inventions, and only black artists and audiences can decide who is boss because they set the standards of excellence.  The resulting product has captured the imagination and created devotees among musicians all over the world…since the turn of the twentieth century Afro-American musicians have been the most infventive and imitated artists on earth. It is obvious that white folks need to chill, get over themselves.

Aside for these gross exaggerations regarding the magnitude of Ms. Winehouse’ talent; this is a pretty good flick about a very troubled performer who literally decomposes before our eyes.  We watch her go from a healthy, perky, quite attractive girl, to a bulimic sack of bones who seem to be knocking on death’s door – one foot in the coffin and the other on a banana peel.

Lost in Space?
High off everything ….but life

Yet nobody cold reason with her; not her closet girlfriends who had been at her side since childhood, nor the Afro-American rapper/actor  Mos Def, who she evidently admired and pops up throughout the movie at various stages of her career like Banquo’s ghost, warning Amy to turn away from her self-destructive path. Finally, on a hot July day in 2011, she finally killed herself; the autopsy said she died of “alcohol poisoning.”

In the end the filmmaker managed to produce a poignant portrait of a self-destructive artist who turned her pain into song poetry and allowed the world to witness her self-immolation even as she tried to hide out in plain sight.


Double Click on links to see Amy Perform

Live in London 2007

Amy’s last tragic Concert


Aretha Franklin

Whitney Houston

Fanfares for a Culture Hero!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , on June 14, 2015 by playthell

Select Senator Pic

Senator Bill Perkins, Rome Neal and Producer Woody King
 An Evening of Banana Puddin, Panegyrics and Jazz

It was yet another wonderful evening of performing art at the Nuyorican Theater. But on this occasion it was the indefatigable impresario Rome Neal that was the raison d’etre for the festivities, as the performers turned out to honor a man that has done so much to advance their careers by providing a space and opportunity to perform in New York City.   For the performing artists the Big Apple is a Darwinian milieu, red of tooth and claw, where only the strong and persistent even if talented and gifted will survive. Rome Neal personifies that intrepid spirit.

With little more than spit, grit and mother wit Rome has not only made a place for himself as an actor and director in the theater, but has become an important independent producer of Jazz performances.  In his role as Jazz impresario he has presented such unique shows as “Women in Jazz” and “LGBT Jazz Greats,” in which he has introduced these Jazz musicians to a wider audience than they might otherwise have had an opportunity to play for.

His “Banana Puddin” Jazz concerts have featured a wide variety of musicians such as “A Night of Legends Featuring Barry Harris, Randy Weston and  Danny Mixon.”  His “Young and the Jazzy” series has also uncovered obscure gems whose prodigious talents might have gone unrecognized.  Rome’s “Japanese Jazz Connections” concerts showcased many of the outstanding Japanese Jazz musicians who migrate to New York in search of the source of their art the way Muslims go to Mecca.  He is continuing the tradition begun by Dr. Billy Taylor, the late great Jazz pianist/composer/bandleader .

From his base at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in the Lower East Side, Rome has produced both innovative theater and cutting edge Jazz performances.  As the Director of Theater in this landmark East Village cultural emporium Rome has produced the plays of Laurence Holder – the Dean of playwrights that mine the treasure trove of Afro-American history and employ its riches as the basis for their dramas – and has single handedly kept the dramatic voice of the great Oakland California based novelist/dramatist/poet/essayist Ishmael Reed alive in New York.

An iconoclastic satirists who wields his pen like the sword of an avenging angel, Reed – whom English Professor and insightful critic Leslie Fiedler has called “a highbrow Ironist” and The Nation has declared the most important American satirist since Mark Twain –  has been practically banished by a Euro-American cultural establishment that ought to be celebrating him for enriching American literature and thought.  Rome has come repeatedly to Reed’s rescue by producing his plays in New York; if this were the sum total of his activities as a cultural impresario it would be a worthy legacy.  But he has done so much more, especially in the realm of music.

The liveliest and most spiritually moving of the arts, it is not unusual for people working in other art forms to become mesmerized by the power of music and wish to become involved with this intoxicating medium of expression, but few have managed to make this transition on the level of Neal….Ishmael Reed’s conquest of the piano being the exception that proves the rule.  Reed has become so proficient a pianist that Rome produced a concert featuring the great writer as a pianist.

Rome’s metamorphosis from actor/director to singer and Jazz impresario seems to really take off with his riveting performance of Thelonious Monk, in an insightful one man play written by Lawrence Holder. (See, Monk: the Play on this blog)   Rome’s performance as the enigmatic Jazz piano virtuoso Thelonious Monk is a marvel to behold, a tour de force.  Like all great acting performances we witness Rome morph into his character until we are unable to separate the actor from his role and we forget that he is acting. Which, after all, is the essence of the thespian’s art.

Rome Neal in his signature role
Rome Neal, actor performs in his award winning play "Monk"

Rome Neal, actor performs in his award winning play “Monk”

 A remarkable transformation

Witnessing Rome’s actions since he began playing Monk it sometimes appears that he too could not distinguish the difference between himself and the role.  For instance he began taking music lessons with the great Jazz pianist Barry Harris at the Jazz Cultural Center, a unique learning and performance venue in Tribeca where apprentice where tutored by master musicians in a collegial environment, and he learned to sing.  I confess that I was skeptical of Rome’s new venture, having grown up surrounded by great singers – my next door neighbor Blanch Hammond won a national talent competition singing an extremely difficult passage from Wagner – and had once served as bandleader for Jean Carn, one of the outstanding singers of the twentieth century, I have exacting standards for singers.

Hence I thought Rome’s chances of succeeding at becoming a singer were less than a snowball’s chances in a steel furnace.  Furthermore I did not hestitate to make my feelings known in unambiguous language; willing to risk brusisng his feelings in order to rescue my friend from embarking on a fool’s errand. I was vocal  critic. But he proved me wrong when he played the lead part in Laurence Holder’s play about a Jazz singer: “The Crooner.”

Despite the fact that he would probably not been cast in this role if he were not the producer/director of the play, Rome held his own in the production.  Again I was a first hand witness to his incredible tenacity and his willingness to risk failure in order to realize his artistic aims.  Many of the people who turned out to celebrate Rome’s 12th year as producer of the Banana Pudding Jazz Series at the Nuyorican have benefited by his tireless efforts in behalf of Jazz artists and thespians; efforts fueled by a heroic optimism that come what may great art will find a way.

It was a grand celebration, an outpouring of love and appreciation as one artist after another took the stage and offered musical libations to a respected elder of their community.  Most of the performers were instrumentalists because Jazz is a complex instrumental music that prizes virtuosity and spontaneus innovation, but the singers chimed in too and had their say.  It was an evening of cookers, straight ahead swing, Duke and Dizzy’s thing. They swung so hard the hoofers got up and got down; tapping out complicated rhythms of the sort that inspired the best drummers in the Jazz tradition until tap went the way of the dinosaurs – crushed by changing public taste and the imperatives of the marketplace.

Rome’s love of Jazz is extraordinary…one gets the impression that exposure to it enriches his life in a special way that few can share or even understand. However Rome also deeply believes that exposure to Jazz music can enrich the life of anyone; I believe it is what inspires his efforts as a Jazz impresario.  The extent of this belief was dramatically revealed during his recuperation from a bad fall off a ladder while working on a set at the Nuyorican.  When he began his rehabilitation from the serious injuries resulting from the fall at Governeur Health clinic, the therapist asked him what kind of music he liked; as music is increasingly recognized by medical practitioners for having therapeutic powers.

Rome told the physical therapist, a young white woman, that he loved Thelonious Monk. Although she had never heard of him, through the magic of the internet she found Monk’s music and put it on.   As they began the workout Rome started to tell her Monk’s story and she was amazed at his knowledge of this obscure musician whose existence she had never heard of a few moments ago.

When she asked him how he knew so much about Monk, Rome told her that he had played Monk in an award winning one man play.  Then he began to recite poignant passages from Holder’s play.  And when Round bout Midnight came on – a canonical composition in Jazz – Rome sang the lyrics to her.  He watched a change come over her as the soulful blues and abstract truth of Monk’s musical revelations began to mess with her mind….at the end of the session she left wanting to hear more of Monk’s music.

From his description of the experience, I was reminded of some lines from “The Ballad of Thelonious Monk,” written by Jimmy Rowles, made famous by Carmen McCrea, but most convinvingly recorded by a male country and western singer – my favorite version: “I used to think cowboy music/ was the only thing there was….and then I heard Thelonious Monk.”  The song goes on to explain the marvelous effect monks music had on his life, explaining that his horse wouldn’t go to sleep unless he played “Ruby My Dear.”

The word got around the hospital that they had a great actor and Jazz impresario as a patient.  Before he was done Rome produced a special women’s jazz concert and dedicated it to his female doctor and therapist.  They attended as honored guest and it was a great moment for them.  He later produced a Jazz concert for his team of orthopedic surgeons and they all came out.  Many were introduced to the art of jazzing for the first time, and they have come back for more. This, in essence, is Rome at his best.  He is ever the Jazz Impresario.

One of the grandest moments in an evening of magic moments was when Harlem state Senator Bill Perkins presented a Proclamation from the New York Senate commending Rome for his contribution to the arts, an honor he exuberantly shared with his grandchildren, Delano and Jolie.  Perkins had made the arduous journey from the Capitol, which is upstate in Albany, after the morning session in the Senate in order to make the tribute and present the Proclamation in person.  Rome, in turn, surprised Senator Perkins with a Shekere Award; which he bestows on outstanding lovers and supporters of the arts.  It was an enchanted evening….one befitting a devoted Eulyptian and fearless cultural warrior.  

Senator Perkins reading the Prolamation
As grandaughter boldly looks to the heavens
Rome with Senator Bill Perkins
 Presenting the Proclamation to Rome’s Grand Daughter Joile
Rome presenting the Shekere to Senator Perkins
DSCN0026 A Special Award for Eulypians
Showing the Senator how to shake that thang
Tapping out a rhythm on a stringed gourd with Cowry shells
Woody King Jr.
DSCN0019Offering up praise songs to the man of the hour
The Jazz Impresario Anoints the Audience
 Droppin Science big time
 Rome and Songstress Rosanna Vitro


Musicians came from everywhere
Yoichi Uzeki all the way from Japan
 And Fredrika Krier came from Germany






Alto Saxophonist T.K. Blue


Trumpeter and Congero: Michael C. Lewis and Steve Kroon




Tenor man Arthur Green added a grand voice




Pianist and Bassist: Andre Chez Lewis and Corcoran Holt


Patience Higgins and the Boys


 Hoofer Hank Smith took the Floor
Third Choice
Tapping out Complex Jazz Rhythms

 First Choice

Trading twelves with the Drummer


 The Singers!

Eric FraizerSwinging the Blues
You Don’t Know What Love Is……


 ……Until You Know the Meaning of the Blues
Like a beautiful Bird of Paradise
Leziie Harrison thrilled audience and musicians alike


 Rusannah Swung Blue Monk with a whole lotta soul!



Steve Cromity wasAll Blues!

 The Man of the Hour!


Expresses his gratitude to the artists and audience


Double Click on link to see video

Sweet Willie and the Rappers!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , on May 25, 2015 by playthell
Shakespeare as a hip hopperSweet Willie: Premiere Poet of the English Language


A Daring Discourse on Hip Hop and Shakespeare

There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so”

~William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Sc. 2

 There are so many treasures to be found on You Tube that I feel compelled to introduce some of these important videos to a wider audience by reviewing them and publishing the essay with a link to the video.  The videos that interest me cover politics, sport and culture.  And the subject of the video under review here is the relationship between the verse of William Shakespeare and the best Hip Hop bards.

The presenter in the video is an Afro-British poet and teacher named Akala, who is the guiding light of a unique cultural experiment that blends the works of William Shakespeare – which were written in the late 16th and early 17th Centuries – with that of 20th century American rappers, demonstrating the similarities between the esthetics and concerns of Shakespeare’s verse and the poetry that arose from Afro-American street bards in New York City during the 1970’s called Hip Hop or Rap, a cultural phenomenon that I witnessed and wrote about.  I am also a published Shakespeare critic.

Hence it came as a pleasant surprise when I searched them out and read the mission statement of the London based Shakespeare and Hip Hop Company.

“Both hip –hop and Shakespeare’s theater represent energetic and inventive forms of expression.  Both are full of poetry, word play and lyricism.  Both deal with what it is to be human, and issues from people’s lives, and of course just like Shakespeare’s work, hip-hop is all about the rhythmic tension of words. The similarities between hip-hop music and Shakespeare’s theater are striking.  As a media-savvy popular entertainer and talented businessman, we think hip-hop would have been Shakespeare’s thing – a truly old school Jay Z.”

Jay Z: Hip hop Poet and Super Entreprenuer

Jay Z

He turns street literature into lucre!
Jay Z and beautiful wife Byonce chillin at the apex of power

Barack, Byonce and Jay Z

Rappin with fellow hip hop head Chilly B. Knowledge

Upon reading this I reflected on how my first, and most influential, teachers of Shakespeare’s texts – My aunt Rosa Morgan and Ms. Rosalie Gordon –would have reacted to such a claim.  Knowing their reverence for the Bard I suspect that they would have been scandalized.  But that is because all English teachers revered Shakespeare as something akin to a demi-god, a divinely inspired wizard of the word – written or spoken.

However the scholarship on Shakespeare has revealed that he was quite a down to earth fellow who held little in common with the pious prigs who are now the keepers of the Western canon – one imminent Yale literary scholar has declared “Shakespeare is the Western canon” – meaning the sacred texts of secular literature; those texts selected by the great scholars of Western literature as required reading in formal classes on English language and literature. Thus we can safely assume that many of the canonical sentries will be fairly alarmed by any suggestion of an affinity, a Sympatico between the verse of the Bard and the rhymes of rappers.  In their view the former is high-brow poetry; the latter low brow doggerel….and it shall remain ever thus.

Yet The Bard might have liked hip hop as Akala suggests, for upon closer examination we find some fundamental differences between Shakespeare and those who now interpret his works. To begin with the guardians of the canon are all professional intellectuals, scholars trained by virtue of many years of rigorous university study, guided and tutored by imminent specialists in their field and terminating with the Doctor of Philosophy or PhD degree.  Most of these professional academics know but little of actual life as it is lived by all levels of society, and they abhor business practices as a kind of amoral chicanery unworthy of one committed to the exalted life of the mind.

Their knowledge of the world is highly specialized, which has resulted in them knowing more and more about less and less.  William Shakespeare was a very different animal.  He wanted to know everything about the world and how human beings responded in different situations.  That curiosity, along with his unique insights and literary genius, accounts for the fact that if one tries hard enough it is possible to find a Shakespeare quote for any human activity…he is more reliable than the Bible; which some students of the King James version believe he wrote.

The son of a leather tanner he learned early on about business practices, and the first lesson every businessperson everywhere must learn is that they must show a profit after paying vital expenses or they won’t be in business long.  Without inherited wealth or rich patrons Shakespeare had to figure out how to make a living while he created his art or he would be forced to choose between writing and eating regularly. Evidently the starving artist mystique held no more romantic charms for him than for Jay Z.  Literary scholar Leslie Fiedler ably examines Shakespeare’s attitude toward art and commerce in a brilliant and insightful essay titled “Literature and Lucre,” which is a chapter in his seminal book on the changing values and function of literature in Western  culture What Was Literature? 

The great insight that Fiedler’s text provided for me was his elucidation of how Shakespeare felt about making money from creating art.  A practical man, he decided that since he was an actor and playwright he should own and manage his own theater.  This decision had a profound impact on how the Bard viewed the purpose of his plays, which affected how he crafted them.  His first concern was shared by every theater owner anywhere in the world: putting butts is seats until the room is full for every show.

The second major concern was to write compelling entertainments employing the Greek masks of tragedy and comedy, pathos and bathos that would satisfy the emotional needs of his customers who would then spread the word and keep them coming.  Shakespeare understood well that a satisfied customer is one’s best advertisement. He was wearing two hats, businessman and artist, for him there was no contradiction between the aims of commerce and culture that pervades the thinking of so many creative people who think of themselves as fine artists, some of whom regard being commercial as a sign of artistic treason i.e. “selling out.”   Although we are left to speculate about how good a businessman Shakespeare was, the texts he left to posterity testifies profoundly to his genius as a poet and dramatis – no one has ever done it better!

I have been fairly mesmerized by the writings of William Shakespeare ever since my Aunt Rosa, who taught English literature in high school when I was a boy, bade me listen to the music of his words.  She said to me one day that the way to tell if you had written something well is to read it out loud because, she emphasized, “If a thing is well written it will read well out loud.”  Then she picked up a copy of the Bard’s text and began to read it out loud while instructing me on how to listen.  I fell in love with the iambic pentameter rhythms of his verse and it is a love that has lasted a lifetime.

My love of Shakespeare’s text soon led to a fascination with the spoken word; this enchantment was partially due to the fact that I suffered from a severe speech impediment in early childhood.  And once I overcame it through the patient and loving guidance of my mother, my aunt Rosa drafted me onto her oratorical team, just as she had done with our parents a generation before.

It was during my tenure on the oratorical team under the stern tutelage of my aunt that I began to recite Shakespearian monologues.  At the same time I was studying the Bard’s plays under the guidance of Mrs. Gordon, the daughter of college professors who held a degree in English Literature from Boston University, where she dated Countee Cullen, a budding poet at Harvard who hailed from Harlem, then a the most glamourous and accomplished black community in the world.

An actress at heart Ms. Gordon was an impassioned teacher of Shakespeare and when she read from Macbeth we could see the witches in the skies attempting to fill his head with avarice and ambition as he returned from battle.  And when she read Lady Macbeth’s cold and calculating monologue bidding her husband to hurry home so that she could stoke those vile ambitions we sat riveted in our seats.  I can still hear her even now, over half a century later – “Thine heart is too full of the milk of human kindness/ hie the hither / that I may chastise with the valor of my tongue/ all the that impedes thee from the golden round/ with which supernatural and metaphysical aid/ Hath doth crowned thee withal.”  And we agonized with Lady MacBeth as she vainly struggled remove the blood of the murdered King Duncan from her hands: “Out Damned Spot!”

Hence I have had an ear for the rhythm of Sweet William’s verse since boyhood. My fascination with the Bard’s work was heightened when Joseph Papp, producer of the Shakespeare in the Park summer theater – where professional productions of Shakespeare’s plays could be seen at the Delacorte theater in Central Park – mounted a production of Othello. The play starred the Spanish actor Raoul Julia in the role of Othello, and this decision sparked a furious debate among New York theater critics.  The essay in the august New York Times theater section “Looking Inside that Outsider: Othello the Moor,” caught my eye.   What got my attention in particular is a claim by the Director of the Delacorte production, an Irishman named Joe Dowling, that Shakespeare didn’t intend for Othello to be a black man.

He speculated that this was a recent interpretation motivated by a tendency toward political correctness in the arts. And like most historical ignoramuses he went on to say that Shakespeare could not have intended for Othello to be black because there were no black men in Elizabethan England.  However as the Caribbean scholar Edward Scobie tells us in his path-breaking book Black Britannia, there were many black people in England during Shakespeare’s time and cites a report of the Privy Council complaining to Queen Elizabeth about the growing numbers of “blackamoors” in her realm.

Scobie, who was a Professor at New York City College, pointed out that Shakespeare had more than a casual knowledge of the Blackamoors because he was madly in love with his black mistress named “Lucy Negro,” whose heart he stole from a British nobleman and who was described as black and beautiful and a superb actress with the Greys Inn’s Revels.  Since I have already written and published an extensive treatise on the question of Shakespeare and race I shall not belabor it here.  For those who wish to read my thoughts on the subject see: “Did Shakespeare Intend Othello to be Black: A Meditation on Blacks and the Bard,” in the anthology Othello: New Essays by Black Writers, Howard University Press.

The essay above was inspired by the discussion of Othello’s race in the New York Times article; it was my answer to their nonsense masquerading as authority.  As it happens, just before the Othello production a troupe from the Royal National Shakespeare Theater visited New York and performed Macbeth.

It was a fabulous production staged in a massive old Gothic church on the posh East side of Manhattan, and the cast was all black.  I thought it the most fabulous production of Shakespeare I had ever seen.  I was bewitched by the cacophony of mellifluous voices spoken in exotic accents from all over the black world: Africa, Europe and the American diaspora.

It was a Pan-African production staffed by beautiful gifted thespians of earthen hues that conjured up strains from Duke Ellington’s tone poem Black, Brown and Beige Suite.  I was so moved by their performance that I hurried to my computer and wrote a review, “Shakespeare in Living Color,” which was published on the cover page of the Arts section in the New York Village Voice, whose coverage of the Arts scene was unsurpassed in the 1990’s.  For instance it was here that serious, literary, criticism of the growing hip hop phenomenon was born.  With outstanding Afro-American writers like Barry Michael Cooper, Harry Allen, Greg Tate, Nelson George, Joan Morgan, Dream Hampton, et al. the Voice became the tribune of hip hop.

The reception that greeted the Macbeth review was such that I became known to the producer of the play, who arranged for some of the cast to come on my WBAI radio show one afternoon on their day off, and I had a ball reading Shakespeare with members of the Royal National Shakespeare Theater.  I told them the story on air of how the great Afro-American actor Ira Aldridge – unquestionably one of the outstanding Shakespearian Tragedians of the 19th century and the most powerful Othello according to theater critics all across Europe who reviewed his performances – learned his craft at the Grove Theater, a black owned theater in Greenwich Village devoted to the performance of Shakespeare’s plays.

Alas, he was forced to flee to England in order to find a safe space to perform, because ignorant racist white thugs routinely attacked them for daring to perform Shakespeare.  Aldridge would go on to become a sensation in Europe playing Othello and Aaron, Shakespeare’s two magnificent Moors in whom he invested virtue and vice, their dramatis personae symbolizing the extremes of good and evil. It was these experiences – meeting the black Shakespearians, writing about their performance, the controversy over Othello’s racial identity –   that led me to write the extended treatise on Othello. At the time of my meeting with the black Shakespearians Aldridge was the only black actor with a chair in the Shakespeare memorial at Stratford Upon Avon, The Bard’s birthplace.

Ira Aldridge
The Greatest Othello of the 19th Century?

During this period I had an experience that began my enlightenment about the predicament of black artists in Britain. At the time I was writing regularly for the London Guardian – which was then the venerable Manchester Guardian – and when Senior Editor Alan Rushbridger visited New York, accompanied by a group of writers, I took my London colleagues to lunch at B Smiths, a first class restaurant located in the Broadway theater district owned by an Afro-American high fashion model. As one would expect, this was a smart and stylish crowd. The cuisine was superb and we were serenaded by a first rate Jazz trio as we dined.

The senior editor looked about the plush environs in wonder and then confided “There is no smart affluent black scene like this in London.”  Although it struck me as odd, I was in no position to dispute him, considering that on a previous business trip to London when I was a boxing promoter I split my time hanging out with millionaire white businessmen at the Dorchester – which they assured me was London’s finest hotel – and black Jamaican gangsters in Brixton. (see: “On Being Black in London.”)  And since I had never experienced anything but the warmest collegiality at the Guardian, my fail-safe racial bullshit detector was powered down.  But when the editor went on to tell me how happy they were to have me writing for the Guardian because there were no black writers of my caliber in England, the flashers began to go off in my head and I could hear the warning voice saying “beware of bullshit tips!”

Although I had no evidence to dispute him I knew Rushbridger’s astonishing claim couldn’t possibly be true.  A few days later my suspicions were confirmed. I was browsing through a book stall at the famous Papyrus book store, located right across the street from Columbia University, which is a great place to be if you are into used books, and I stumbled across a book titled “The Struggle For Black Arts in Britain.” 

The book was an anthology composed of essays by a variety of writers, all of them black and residing in Britain.  The English prose composition was finely crafted, innovative, and animated by a flash of Pan-African spirit; its polyrhythmic phrases seemed to dance off the page. I was stunned….how could such gifted writers be so ignored?  They struck me as prophets without honor in their own land.

All of these memories were conjured up as I watched the lecture demonstration on the relationship between Shakespeare’s literary project and the concerns of hip-hop artists by the Afro-British poet Akala: spoken word artist, insightful intellectual, Shakespeare devotee, thespian and theatrical innovator.  It is hard to imagine a more effective spokesman for this bold movement to combine the work of Shakespeare and hip hop artists in live performance to hip hop beats.

This is something really new, a genuine innovation, and they are not just floundering about trying anything, but are building a new genre of Rap performance that is extending the artistic ambitions of the form.  They are about the business of establishing an original voice in the world of hip-hop, a dazzling new voice that combines verbal virtuosity with a deep knowledge of poetry, a celebration of lyrics that prize intellect and elevated notions about the role of the poet in contemporary society.

There are speakers who have much of importance to say but say it badly, and there are those who have nothing of real gravitas to say but say it so well that the can bewitch the crowd with the power of their oratory alone.  Like being told to go to hell in such attractive language you actually look forward to taking the trip.  One speaker puts the crowd to sleep from boredom as if they had been feed sleeping pills instead of words.  The other entertains the crowd but teaches them nothing.  In both instances the audience is cheated and little learning takes place.  But there are special occasions when a speaker has something of value to say and says it well.  That’s when we really learn something.  Akala is that kind of teacher.



Innovative Rapper and Shakespeare Scholar

From the introduction of his subject of the commonalities of hip hop and Shakespeare, it was clear to me that Akala knew his stuff.  One gets the impression that by now he has heard all of the objections of the naysayers who are offended by the comparisons and conducts a clever exercise that removes all doubt that he is on to something real and we are not about to be subjected to a display of buffoonery conducted by some barely literate special pleader who knows not the grave offense that he is perpetrating.

He tells the audience that he is going to recite some lines and form Shakespeare and some lines for US rappers, and although they were written over 400 years apart in different regions of the world he challenges the audiences to vote with a show of hands which lines were written by Shakespeare and which by rappers.  Although I thought the idea preposterous I nevertheless sat up on the edge of my chair anxiously anticipating his recitations.

The first quote was “To destroy the beauty from which one came.”  The second line was “Maybe its hatred I spew….maybe its food for the spirit.”  The audience voted overwhelmingly that both lines were authored by Shakespeare, and since this was an audience nurtured on the texts of the Bard I knew they could not be easily deceived…but they were.  The first lines were penned by Jay Z and the second were written by M&M.  He then Recited lines from the Wu Tang Clan, and fooled the audience again.

That little demonstration made Akala’s  point in a powerful way, the fact than nobody expected it made it all the more effective.  The experience was like getting hit over the head with the truth; from that moment on he grabbed our attention and held it tight.   The audience became so confused and intellectually  intimidated that when he quoted lines authored by the Bard only half the audience got it right…and I didn’t do much better.  It was a revelation….but Akala’s presentation goes much deeper.

He discussed the class structure that existed in England at the time, and pointed out that the country was rife with violent conflicts and 90% of Shakespeare’s audience was illiterate and explained that, like the rappers, Shakespeare’s art had to appeal to the untutored masses.  Akala gave a remarkably cogent analysis of the origins of hip hop culture among the Afro-American population of New York City; cited the great innovators in the development of hip-hop like African Bambatta, D.J Red Alert, Kool Herc et al, and explained the African origins of the word “hip” a term Afro-Americans introduced into the English language.

Afrika Bambaataa


Bronx Bard and a Founding Father of Hip Hop
DJ Red Alert!


A Pioneering MC
Kool Herc

Kool Herc

One of the Holy Trinity of Hip Hop

I had never heard of its connection with Africa, but serious students of Afro-American culture and speech have identified several words of African origin.  What was most enlightening is how similar the meaning of the word is in African and Afro-American cultures.  His discussion of rappers as latter day neo-African griots is also fascinating.  Yet as impressive as the intellectual discourse is it is Akala’s performance as a spoken word artist/rapper that steals the show.  The boy’s got skills big time!

Akala is a verbal virtuoso who spits out words like bullets from a machine gun.  At one points he recites the Bard’s Sonnets over hip hop beats, and demonstrates the similarity between some rappers flows and Iambic pentameter, Sweet Willie’s favorite flow.  This came as a surprise to me because I had always thought of the French playwright Moliere as having the most in common with modern day rappers by virtue of the fact that he told his stories in rhyme, as in his much celebrated play “The Misanthrope.

After listening to Akala’s presentation one begins to understand why Professor Henry Louis Gates included the verse of rappers in his canon building Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature, a move many intellectuals believed to be a sacrilegious act.  So sit back in your favorite chair and check out this video; let Brother Akala take your mind on a fantastic journey. Among the surprising revelations this video unveils is the fantastic influence hip hop has had on the popular culture of the world.   After all, this is an art invented by young working class blacks and Puerto Ricans  with a compulsion to make music but were denied the opportunity to receive formal training in the art of music due to the severe cuts in funding for public education in New York City.

This is the result of pragmatic philistines who cannot distinguish between what students need to know in order to make a living, and what they must know in order to make a rich and satisfying life.  In word and deed Akala testifies to the positive influence of hip hop on contemporary popular culture whose appeal flows over all borders.  It is a bravura performance, unlike anything I have ever witnessed in a spoken word exhibition, and it is accompanied by an ongoing intellectual discourse which is distinguished by erudition and eloquence.  Bravo!



Double Click on link to see Akala’s presentation

Playthell G. Benjamin
Harlem, New York
May 24, 215

Get On Up!

Posted in Film Criticism, Movie Reviews, Music Reviews with tags , , on August 12, 2014 by playthell

Boseman Chadwick-james-brown-get-on-up-movie (1)

Chadwick Boseman Rocks his Role as the Inimitable James Brown


The James Brown Story Comes to the Silver Screen

In her insightful magisterial study “The Daemonic Genius of Richard Wright,” Professor Margret Walker says of the great Afro-American novelist “Richard Wright came straight out of hell;” the same can be said of James Brown, an iconic figure in American popular music.  Browns life story is both an epic tale about the triumph of the human spirit through the agency of art and a representative anecdote for American civilization – which that peerless interpreter of American culture Albert Murray defines as “any story of steerage to boardroom” or the rags to riches tales of Horaito Alger. It is a story of tragedy and triumph that allows us to look into the life, loves and art of one of the unique American public figures of the 20th century.

The elements of a great movie are a good story, a well written script, imaginative sets and costumes that capture the milieu – i.e. spirit of the time and place – a good musical score, thoughtful creative directing and great acting.  This film has them all…an embarrassment of riches.   While Shakespeare’s observation that “the play is the thing,” is true enough, it takes actors to transform those words from inanimate symbols scrawled on paper into living breathing believable characters.  Through their agency the words become flesh…in a god-like act.

I have never seen anyone do it better than Chadwick Boseman.  As I watched him bring the larger than life character of James Brown to life, I conjured up the voice of Sir Lawrence Olivier, who is thought by many to be the most accomplished actor of the 20th century, warning young thespians who aspire to greatness as actors: “Acting is a noble profession but an actor should never be caught doing it.”  Boseman must have taken Sir Lawrence’s words to heart and placed it at the center of his art because after a few minutes I completely forgot that he was not James Brown!   He was every bit as convincing in the role as Jamie Fox was as Ray Charles….and he won the Oscar for his performance….jes sayin.

It was a strange experience for me because I witnessed James Brown’s entire career.   I first saw him perform in 1956, when he was enjoying his first hit record “Pleas, Please. Please.”   He was the headliner at the “Two Spot,” the premiere black night club in Jacksonville Florida. All of the great Jazz, Blues and Rhythm and Blues acts performed there.  People came from all around, not just Jacksonville, but the surrounding towns and counties, such as St. John’s County where I lived in the ancient city of St. Augustine.  Some party people even drove down from Augusta Georgia, James Brown’s home town to check out the show.

Please, Please, Please was burning up the airwaves on WOBS, the radio station serving the large Afro-American communities in the Jacksonville area.  Their star D.J Johnny Shaw “The Devil’s Son in Law,” played it constantly.  We had listened to the record on the radio and everybody was running to the nearest record store to buy it.  So me and my boys were very excited to see this guy James Brown perform live.  Never having seen him we were totally unprepared for the spectacle we witnessed.  I was actually too young to even be in the club, but since I was singing with a R&B group that was performing on the Sunday Afternoon Matinee I was allowed to enter this magic temple where great music was made.

The Sunday Matinee at the TWO Spot was a talent contest between competing singing groups in the area.  It was like a scene in Robert Townsend’s great movie homage to the golden age of live R&B performance “The Five Heartbeats.”  The place was packed with pretty girls out to “let the good times roll,” a frame of mind immortalized by Brown’s New Orleans contemporaries Shirley and Lee on their hit record “Come on Baby Let the Good Times Roll.”

All of the five members of my group, “The Dewdrops,” could croon their asses off; we were members of the Murray High Glee Club, directed by my Aunt Marie, and we sang everything from J. Rosamond Johnson and Harry T. Burleigh’s arrangements of the “Negro Spirituals” – that marvelous body of sacred music produced by Black American slaves – to Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s B Minor Mass.  Hence when “Bubba Duck” Jackson, a ruggedly handsome football player with a high falsetto tenor voice, fell to his knees while singing  “This is Dedicated to the One I Love” – a Hank Ballad and the Midnighters  hit – with tears rolling down his cheeks, the girls went crazy!  But that was just the dress rehearsal.

Like us, the ladies were there to see “James Brown and the Famous Flames.”   After the talent contest was done, with us coming in second in a very tough competition, the Master of Ceremonies announced “It’s star time at the Two Spot!   Hereee’s James Brown and the Famous Flames!”  The audience exploded in applause and began to move to the groove of the band as we waited for the man of the moment to emerge from the wings.  Suddenly this ebony black guy in a white tuxedo with tails strolled onstage followed by a group of back ground singers dressed in black pants. White shirts, black tuxedo jackets with purple satin lapels and bow ties  closely followed.  He opened with his arrangement of a Louis Jordan hit from an earlier period “Cladonia!”

From the outset his dancing was a marvel, although we recognized that at root it was his improvisations on the “Mashed Potatoes’” and the “Camel Walk” two popular Afro-American vernacular dances au courant at the time, but when James added his unique moves they became something different and something more.  It was love at first sight, I fell for the James Brown sound completely, as did my peers, and it is a love that has lasted a lifetime.  It was an enchanting evening in a magical place, the Two Spot dance hall and supper club in Jacksonville Florida, where great musical performances was common fare, because most white clubs and concert halls wouldn’t book black artists.  They preferred the corny white artists who “covered’ their records with saccharine corny versions aimed at white America – ala Pat Boone’s cover of Little Richard’s rousing Rhythm& Blues hit “Tutti Fruti.”

The James Brown Show on Screen

James Brown_Get_on_Up_film_

It was like seeing James Resurrected

This movie captures the essence of those magic moments in American popular music and more. The writers, John-Henry and Jez Butterworth, capture all of this in their well written script and the actors bring it convincingly to life under the able direction of Tate Taylor.   Alas, despite the artistic success of this film, the fact that these major creative functions were all performed by whites and blacks were reduced to the artistic equivalent of ventriloquist dummies whose movements and speech echo the words and ideas of whites, raises some serious questions about the ongoing phenomenon of Euro-American creative artists appropriating Afro-American cultural ingredients and epic tales that define major black historical figures.  What, the thoughtful observer is compelled to ask, does this tell us about the persistence of rampant racism and cultural imperialism in the movie industry.

The broadly learned and insightful Afro-American cultural historian and critic Harold Cruse discussed this issue in depth a half century ago in his masterwork “The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual.” But considering the fact that Tate Taylor also directed “The Help” – a hit film about black maids working for racist whites in the apartheid south of the first half of the  20th century – and the recent hit biopic on the life of Jackie Robinson was also written, produced  and directed by whites it’s time to take up the subject of the Afro-American creative artists in the cultural arena again.  However neither time nor space affords us the opportunity to do justice to this this critical issue here; that subject will be addressed in a future essay devoted to this topic.

Chadwick Boseman proves that he is not only a great actor, but a hell of a singer and dancer too!  James Brown is the most influential dancer/singer in a genre in which dance is central to the performance.  Every major dancer in Rhythm and Blues i.e. “Soul” music since the 1950’s has been influenced by James Brown.   Some of James Brown’s R&B contemporaries – Jackie Wilson, Little Richard, Bo Diddly, Chuck Berry,   et al – had their own moves.

The Delta blues man Muddy Waters was also a great dancer, and Cab Calloway – who was from the preceding generation, taught them all.  But James Brown is by far the most influential dancer in the Rhythm and blues tradition.  Michael Jackson, Prince, MC Hammer and even the Filipino star Bruno Mars are all extentions of the spectatular artistry of James Brown.  And Brown himself belongs to a long tradition of Afro-American vernacular dance.  For insance it is easy to see how he was influenced by the great Song and dance man Cab Calloway, who also fronted a dynamic band.

Cab Calloway

Cab Calloway
The Grand Daddy of them All!

One need only look at such great dancers as Prince, Michael Jackson, Morris Day, MC Hammer, Chris Brown, et al to recognize the indelible influence of James Brown. In Fact MC Hammer made a video calling Michael Jackson out for not giving props to the “God Father” of dance in the R&B idiom.

James Brown
The God Father of Soul!
 Michael Jackson
Michael Jackson II
His moves mesmerized the world!



 Openly Acknowledges that he based his act on James Brown’s Model

MC Hammer

Hammer II

They couldn’t touch this!!!!!

Filipino Sensation Bruno Mars


All are Artistic Extensions of James Brown!

It is no mystery why Afro-Americans have created every popular dance craze in the US.  The ever insightful Albert Murray attributes this to the “tendency of Africans to turn all movement into dance like elegance.”  Growing up in Georgia, and spending his early boyhood in the backwoods where he was immersed in the black folk culture that retained elements of West African culture, James attended a sanctified “Holy Roller” church, and witnessed the power of music to move people…and the way the dancing preacher – a fairly common figure in black fundamentalist churches – used music, chants and movement to hypnotize his followers.

The movie captures all of this in a powerful vignette, and affords us an insider’s view of the origins of James Brown’s performance style.  It is no wonder that Albert Murray would observe that a James Brown performance created the emotional power of a great revivalist preacher in his seminal text on Afro-American music “Stomping the Blues.”  Like Little Richard, Sam Coke, Ray Charles, et al, James began singing in the Afro-American church – an institution that has produced more great original American musicians than Julliard.  Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, who revolutionized western instrumental music, as well as the grand operatic divas Leontine Price, Jessie Norman, Kathleen Battle, et al  and legions of musicians in all genres were products of the black church.

But James Brown remained close to his musical roots, the black southern country churches and those unlettered preachers the black bard and 20th century Renaissance Man James Weldon celebrates in his epic poems “God’s Trombones.”   Of these untutored sable clerics who claimed to be called to the pulpit by God almighty himself, Johnson said “The old time southern Negro preacher had all the devices of eloquence at his command.”  James Brown converted that eloquence into music.  In him we see the evidence of Zora Neale Hurston’s claim that black folk religion is for “people who love magnificence and can’t get enough of it.”

This however, was not the church of the formally educated black middle class, of whose church services the ‘Poet Laureate of Harlem” and peerless observer of Afro-American life and culture Langston Hughes says was the result of a decision to “Let’s be boring like the Nords” in his path-breaking essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain.”  James Brown, a country boy molded in the hell of America’s racist apartheid South, kept it real and relied on the power of his folk roots for the source of his artistic inspiration.  And he brought the funk like nobody else; any R&B or Rap artist who does not understand this is faking the funk!

The movie explores all of this and more, as it takes us into aspects of James Brown’s life that are not well known to many of his fans…this writer included.  With Browns’ longtime musical colleague and personal friend Bobby Bird as a historical consultant we get intimate details of Brown’s life that we could not have gotten from any other source.  And no doubt this is because of the guiding hand of Mick Jagger in the project. A rock music legend that saw James Brown perform live during a tour of the US and never forgot it – in fact he includes the scene in the movie – Jagger understands the intricacies of keeping a band on point and ready to perform on the road.

Thus we are afforded a view of the problems of a touring band that usually never meet the public eye.  We get to see what a strict task master Brown was, docking the musicians pay for every infraction, sometimes seeming petty and ego-maniacal, but the result was one of the tightest bands in the history of the Rock and Roll era. That’s why they were able to respond dramatically to every gesture of his body the way they did. Or go directly to the bridge when he called for it.  We all enjoyed watching him cue the band with words or body movements….but we never understood the hard work required to achieve such precision in performance.

However the greatest revelation about the life of James Brown that I experienced is his relationship with his parents and how he was raised.  Dirt poor and stuck in the back woods, reliant upon a brutal father whose meager pay working as a laborer in the pulp wood industry was routinely squandered on whisky and gambling, who was ignorant, and a mother who confused and abused, James had to figure things out for himself while yet a child.  His mother, tired of poverty and abuse, ran away and became a whore, and when his daddy joined the army to escape his miserable dead end existence in the racist backwoods of Georgia, James was left to live with his aunt, who was the madam of a thriving whore house.

When we look at the conditions these black women endured in the South – oppressed on the basis of race, gender and class – who among us is righteous enough to cast the first stone of condemnation….not I.  They played the bad hand they were dealt as best they could, and some of them aspired to better things for the youths than were available to them.   This was especially true of James’ aunt who ran the cat house.  She told him that he had something special, that one day the whole world would know his name and that he would be fabulously wealthy.  Raised by kind hearted hos James got a look at life that was raw like Sushi.

All of these factors contributed to the personality formation of the man the world came to know as the God Father of Soul.  He was a man who understood that everything good that had happened to him in life was because of his talent as a performer.  And life became very good indeed; luxury jets, fine cars and mansions of many rooms were all his – as well as an endless bevy of black, brown and beige beauties.  No doubt he could have had his pick from a multitude of snow queens, but he stayed with the sistas.   Yet his childhood memories of seeing his mother turning tricks with soldiers, and all the whores he grew up around, made him more than a tad puritanical about the women in his life.  It also made him abusive.

Some of the most dramatic moments in the film involve James and his wife – played by the voluptuous brown beauty Jill Scott – a type A female who stood her ground….what the folks in Georgia used to call a “Tushie.”  When he slaps her down in one scene it is shocking to behold: but then, James Brown, like all of us, is a product of his socialization – or lack thereof.  Hence it should come as no surprise that he was relentless and ruthless with is band members in his quest for fame and fortune, and a unapologetic patriarch with his women, or that he showered them with expensive gifts and took good care of his children.

‘Thick Fine” Jill Scott and Chad Boseman


Sizzle on Screen as James Brown and Wife

We can see the seeds of all these adult traits being forged in his personality by virtue of his experiences as a boy.   This film captures it all:  the glamour, the tragedy, the good times and bad, the pathos and bathos of Afro-American culture…and most of all the marvelous music!   According to the director, Boseman pulled this amazing performance off with only two months of preparation.  “We got the go ahead from Universal around the end of August. Chad Boseman had September and October to become James Brown—the dancer, the singer, and played him as a 17-year-old all the way to a 63-year-old. I literally can’t understand how he did it.” Taylor recalls.   The resulting product of all this hard work and generous talent is a cinematic tour de force:  Bravo!



See Video Clips Below

Double click to see “James Brown and the “Famous Flames”

This concert was at the height of his prowess in 1964
Click to see: James Browns Greatest Moves

Where James got his Inspiration

Cab Calloway: Grandfather of Soul!
James Brown honored by the President at Kennedy Center

Playthell G. Benjamin                                                     

Soul Brother #1

On the Road
August 11, 2014

Jazz and Gumbo!

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , on June 24, 2014 by playthell

 Wynton and me

Two Southern boys Partying in the Big Apple

 A New Orleans Style Party at Wynton’s Crib

   The night had been a smash before the party got started.  Earlier in the evening the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra played their season opening concert featuring the inimitable Ahmad Jamal at the piano and we had all attended. It was an affair to remember as the sold out crowd repeatedly rose to their feet in ovations to the musicians.  It is always a special treat to hear Jazz performed in the House of Swing, especially the Rose Theater, the acoustic engineering alone would make it a rare treat for the serious jazz fan; but the opulent and imaginative interior decoration enriches the experience in ways that’s hard to explain but you know it when you feel it.

Hence everyone was in high spirits as we retired to Wynton’s crib for Gumbo and wine, with some succulent and exotically seasoned fried shrimp appetizers.  Nerves were on edge as we waited for the huge pot of Gumbo to heat up, but as there was abundant French breads fruits and wine we persevered. Wynton’s crib is a great place for a party.

It is spacious, elegant but manly and livable, and enjoys a magnificent panoramic view of Manhattan and New Jersey.   The size of the pad and the diversity of the crowd were such that there were actually several parties going on simultaneously.  Wynton mostly hung out in the main drawing room where the piano is located.  Chess sets were also in abundance in the great room, and like the piano they would be played several times before the evening was over.

 Wynton Plays Chess with is homeboy Matt Dillon
 Wynton and LD

 Hanging out at Wynton’s place brought to mind a party I once attended at Duke Ellington’s spot on Central Park South, right after his triumphal concert with the New World Symphony in Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall, circa 1974.  That gathering also attracted an accomplished international crowd of beautiful people, but Ellington was a much older man and he was treated in the way that religious devotees treat their messiah.

People seemed to struggle to keep from genuflecting before the great man, even the titled European Aristocrats at the party had to struggle to maintain their cool.  But here the vibe was totally different.  Although I’m certain that the guest at Wynton’s party were just as aware that they were hanging out with history, that our host was a rare genius whose great works will live long after he has departed this world, still everybody was laid back and treated Wynton the way he acts: like one of the guys.

 Like Duke Ellington, music is Wynton’s mistress…
 Wynton's Piano
 …..and Just as in Ellington’s apartment, the piano is omnipresent  

 Wynton is the most unpretentious person I know, given his truly spectacular gifts and achievements; he seems indifferent to his greatness and regards celebrity as a picayune matter.  I have known him for twenty years now and I have never seen him talk down to anyone nor show any trace of arrogance or vanity; he seems to always be trying to get better at what he does and help others achieve their dreams.

Musically it amounts to an incredibly generous attitude that I also noticed in Betty Carter and Duke Ellington, who regularly discovered young talent, nurtured it, and graced the stages of the world with their gifts. Although I find him a jovial and even tempered guy, I don’t know anybody who works harder at their chosen profession nor enjoy it more.  Wynton has a restless and endlessly creative mind that is constantly conjuring up new musical ideas, or strategizing with the managers at JALC to market the program, or managing the diverse personalities of the great artists who make up the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, and consistently giving great performances on the trumpet around the world.

Thus I would argue that what some critic’s mistake as arrogance is simply the self-assuredness that comes with great achievements and knowing what you are talking about. Hence confidence is mistaken for arrogance.  Wynton does not suffer fools gladly…and neither do I! He relaxes by taking young street b-ball players to the hole, or bombing them out with his “fabled” jump shot on the courts of nearby projects, or scheming on the chess board for the best strategy to defeat his opponents.

But when he defeated Matt Dillon in a game he damn near jumped up did a break dance, yet gracefully acknowledged that Matt had trounced him countless times on the Chess board, even conceding that his opponent had the better game. As soon as Matt decided the Gumbo was properly heated the guest hurried to cue up, and once they savored the gourmet New Orleans cuisine it quickly became apparent from the soft ecstatic moans, and squeals of delight, that Matt “done messed around stuck his foot in the pot” as the old folks used to say down south.

Chef Matt Dillon: The Man of the Hour!

Wynton's buddy Matt

His Gumbo Inspired Much Love from Everyone

Gumbo is obviously a word that is derived from Louisiana’s African heritage, a cultural reality that the arbiters of American culture prefer to ignore.  As cuisine it is a kind of amalgamated stew with generous proportions of shellfish – oysters, clams, shrimp – along with chicken, sausage, peppers, etc served with rice.  It is like a French version of the Spanish dish Paella, except its soupy and a lot spicier.

When properly prepared the myriad flavors assault the senses with a cacophony of delectable sensations that makes it an intense sensual experience rather than merely a meal. It was the kind of meal we used to call “fightyamammys” in Florida back in the day; the idea was that some meals are so good you’ll “fight your mammy” over it.

The cultured and highly civilized guest could barely manage to contain the predatory side of their character in their quest for more of this bewitching brew. After the guest had stuffed themselves on Gumbo and Baguettes, the wine poured and Wynton sat down to the piano and began a lively rendition of “Happy Birthday to you.”  It turned out that it was the birthday of Joe Temperley, the great Baritone Saxophonist with the Lincoln Center Orchestra.

Joe Temperley
Playing his Baritone Sax next to the Bassist

Joe is living proof of the global influence of the language of Jazz.  As one of the two great traditions of complex instrumental art music produced in the western world, everybody who is serious about acquiring instrumental virtuosity attempts to play one or the other.  And in rare instances – ala Wynton Marsalis, Hubert Laws, Carlos del Pino, Paquito de Rivera, John Lewis, et al – a truly great musician will perform in both traditions.

Although both genres are expressions of modern western art music, Jazz is the musical Gumbo that was conjured up in the clash and diffusions of West African and European culture as it was played out in the United States.  Wynton recognized this vital cultural connection when he composed A Tribute to Congo Square, an extended work of several movements written as a remembrance of that hallowed ground in New Orleans where the roots of Jazz were formed, for performance by the JALC in collaboration with Adada! a Ghanaian percussion ensemble. The uniqueness of this cultural amalgamation can be seen in the fact that Jazz is strikingly different from the other neo-African musical forms that developed in other parts of the African Diaspora in the Americas.

Offering a Musical Libation to the Ancestors
           Wynton and the Aficans
Photo by: Frank Stewart

There are of course the obvious similarities that are common to all neo-African music, which is a reflection of their common origins, the most important characteristics being polyrhythm, antiphony and polyphony, but while the  music of Cuba and Brazil has remained dance oriented and thus rhythmically restricted to the needs of dancers, jazz is a complex instrumental music in which experiments in melody and harmony were as important as rhythmic innovation; and since the advent of bop it has become increasingly divorced from the dance, evolving into a concert music designed for listening, or deep intellectual and spiritual musings.

Yet what finally sets Jazz apart from any other music of the western tradition are the elements of blues and swing guided by a democratic philosophy that values individual freedom and promotes innovation, which are quintessential American values and thus Afro-American music is a product of the unique experience of Afro-Americans.

We are the only African people who grew up in the belly of the most powerful and technologically advanced nation in the world and played an integral role in its development since birth. The USA is inconceivable without the input of Afro-Americans. From the five thousand patriot/soldiers who fought in the American Revolution that ushered in the bloody birth of our nation, to the quarter of a million black men who bore arms in defense of the Union when the southern aristocrats led the red neck rabble into a treasonous rebellion against our government that tore the nation apart in defense of human slavery, to the many others who fought in the rest of America’s wars that preserved the nation and helped it grow powerful.

And the most powerful defenders of the unique American concept of freedom have been Afro-American clerics, activists and intellectuals. Then there were the unsung millions who cleared the land and tilled the soil, turning the south into the cotton kingdom and making New Orleans the wealthiest city and biggest sea port in the nation by 1850.  A financial empire built on unrequited black slave labor.

But in a grand historical irony, out of this bitter and shameful history came a percolating cultural stew that produced Jazz and Gumbo.  And we had a generous serving of both at Wynton’s crib that enchanted evening, as Matt Dillon not only prepared the Gumbo, he also pre-programmed the music on his computer and we were serenaded with classic recordings from the jazz tradition past and present.  

Joe Temperley, looking as contented as a Carnation cow, gave me a nod, an assured wink, and then declared: “This Gumbo is so delicious eating it is more fun than playing the saxophone.”  Coming from a great Jazz master of the baritone sax, whose big lush silky tone and flawless flow marks him as the rightful heir to the legacy of the late great Harry Carney of the Ellington Orchestra, That’s a rave!

When I was invited to Duke Ellington’s party thirty four years ago I gave not a thought to the fact that I would be an eyewitness to history; I felt the same way about Wynton’s party.  Yet in during the course of the event I realized that it was an event that should be recorded for posterity. So I preserved Ellington’s party for history in the essay “An Evening with Edward Kennedy Ellington.

The Duke!

Duke+Ellington - paragon of elegance

The standard to which the JALC Aspires 

The present soirée will be commended to the historical record as Jazz and Gumbo.  And,fortunately, this time I had my camera…and I remembered the words of James Vanderzee, the photographer who set out to preserve for future generations the images of elegance, accomplishment and pride exhibited by African Americans during the cultural awakening of the 1920’s known to history as The Harlem Renaissance: “A picture will last forever!”


Double Click to see Wynton Warming up Before the Gig

 D0uble Click to see Ahmad Jamal with JALC Orchestra
– Picture Perfect –
Flight to Russia
Photographs and Text
By: Playthell G. Benjamin
*Photos of Wynton, Adada!
and Joe Temperly in Sax Section. 

By: Frank Stewart.

Posted: June 24th 2014
*** The event was held at an earlier date.


May the Circle Stay Unbroken

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, On Foreign Affairs on May 1, 2014 by playthell

Duke Ellington in Stetson

The Sound Sorcerer wielding his Mighty Axe; his sound was heard around the world

 Jazz and Modern Black Culture in South Africa

It is interesting to read Playthell’s article, “An Evening with Edward Kennedy Ellington;” it got me thinking of life in the Ghetto of Soweto, in South Africa. The Townships might not have had the architectural wonders of New York and its chic urbane life-style, but, Duke still affected and influenced the life, music and self-esteem of Africans under Apartheid. There has long been a struggle against Apartheid by the indigene refuting the claim that we were uncouth and backward.

As the Township of Soweto expanded and grew, so did the music scene: the South African Jazz Scene. Some of the jazz groups had “American” as their names. There were Jazz big bands; the fashion of the day were Dobbs brim hats, Florsheim shoes – some two tone – double breasted jackets with broad lapels and the whole dress code as was worn by the Americans of the ’30s, 40s and 50s.  I guess what I am saying is that, because of the inhumanity of Apartheid we witnessed an oppressed people immerse themselves in the American Jazz music and African American culture, language and mannerism as a way of keeping our souls intact.

Louis Armstrong Master Musician and Fashion Plate
Louis_Armstrong_and_Velma_Middleton,_Carnegie_Hall,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._Feb._1947_ Notice the sharp two toned shoes

John Hodges


 Notice the elegant broad lapels

The sleeve jackets of the LPs were the point of discussions from the Shebeens – Taverns/Speak Easies – of the day. Discussion about music, styles, musical signatures of The “Duke”, the “Count”, Hodges, Archie Shepp, Philly Jo Jones(some People even renamed themselves after their favorite artist here in Mzantsi), Coltrane, Monk, Miles, Bessie Smith, Sonny Rollins, Stitt, Sidney Betchet, Stachmo, Jelly roll Morton, Fats Waller, Charlie Parker, Ida Cox, Lucille Hegamin, Rosa Henderson, Bertha “Chippie” Hill, Sara Martin, Trixie Smith, Lizzie Miles, Sarah Vaughn, Mahalia Jackson, Mamie Smith, Josie Miles, Edna Benbow HIcks, Eartha Kitt, Mae Harris, Lulla Miller, jimmy Lunceford, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Charlie Christian, Ron Carter, Yusef Lateef, Ella Fritzgerald, Scot Joplin, and a host of other many American musicians-too numerous to list here.

Virtuoso Trumpeter Miles Davis
miles-davis-Fashion Icon
Fashion Trend Setter
He Was Miles Ahead in his Ideas and Style
 miles davis  Fashion Icon
In Music and Fashion!
 South African Jazz Trumpeter Hugh Masakela
Hugh masekela-1959 Miles’ Musical Progeny
Real Cool Cats


Swinging the Blues in South Africa
 Ella Fitzgerald….You Send Me!
The First Lady sings while master trumpeter / jazz innovator Dizzy Swoons


 Sarah Vaughn: The Divine One!
Sarah Vaugh II
The Afro-American elegance and sophistication that inspired South Africans


The Divine One and Ella’s Musical Daughters
Merriam Makeba with the Great Gillespie


 This South African Songstress

 South African Jazz singer

She can feel it in her soul: Dem dirty blues and all that Jazz
Jazz Musicians were Africa Conscious
Africa Brass - Coltrane
And Glorified the “Motherland” in their Music

The American Jazz idiom was dominating thoroughly and completely here in Mzatnsi. How do I know all these name of all these musicians.  Well, as kids in the early sixties, we would sit with our Uncles and fathers and hear them argue and debate that was the best on drums, saxophones, composition and arrangements, and passions would rise to pitch level.

There were people who never thought of other artist as deserving mention or to be listened to because they did not meet their standard of what was Jazz or the like. So as we grew up in the late sixties, we were exposed to a variety of different artists of this American genre. Well, in most cases, my generation was scoffed-at by our old timers for not listening to real and classic Jazz when we listened to Jimmy Smith, John Patton, Harold Mabern, Blue Mitchell, Lou Donaldson, Billy Cobham, Booker T., Soul Music and funk.

We were ridiculed by these stalwarts and keepers of the Old Jazz, as me and my peers referred to Classical jazz as “not listening to Jazz,” and knowing nothing about it. But today, with most of them gone, and many of those who survived apartheid – the old timers I referred to above – have formed Jazz Clubs here in South Africa. They meet on weekends and bring out their best collection and spend the whole day listening to jazz, eating and imbibing large amounts of alcohol.

And whilst engaging in this celebration of jazz here in Mzantsi, you would hear talk like Playthell’s, whom I will cite below, as being what was said about these musicians by our elders. Most of the other stuff was learned and read from the LP liner notes by some Jazz critic or aficionado, and From Down Beat Magazine and so forth. It would go something like this passage from Playthell’s essay:  

“Some of these people had crossed an ocean to attend the concert earlier in the day. After a while, it was clear that several of the guests had seriously followed Duke’s work for thirty to forty years. … As Duke responded to requests and moved from one tune to another, I was impressed by the fact that most of these songs were now part of the standard repertoire of American music. … I wondered at the artistic sensibility that could conceive these elegant tone poems, based in sophisticated urban blues and surrounded by consistently inventive orchestrations…. ….When he composed his suites to various regions of the world he never wrote the music when he was in those places.

‘I don’t want to be overly influenced by the local musical traditions, so I always wait until I’m back home to write my impressions.’ And he also confessed to me after a few rounds of Champaign: ‘I’m a sophisticated savage.’ Before I could persuade him to elaborate on his colorful claim our conversation was disrupted by others demanding the attention of the great man. I understood and bowed out.  That enchanted evening in July, 1974 demonstrates that rest the world has long recognized the extraordinary creative contribution of the Duke. It is long past time this prophet became s hero in his own land.”

To be honest, what Playthell wrote above would be taken by these Jazz aficionados, turned on its head, made theirs. And included in their folklore about Jazz, as if it was they who spun the yarn above, and had experienced it, so that they have a one-up on their fellow Jazz buffs.. But, with time, those with the means, have been visiting The Newport Jazz Festival, Montreux Festival, and many of those in Europe.. And the comeback with fantastic tales of their visits and so forth, today (Most of it exaggerated, somewhat, but with some kernel of Truth.

Duke, Armstrong and Singer Jimmy Rushing
Duke Ellington,  Rushing, Louis Armstrong, Billy Strahorn with Photomodels at 1962 Newport Jazz Festival 
Hanging out with High Fashion Models Backstage at Newport 1962

 Today in south Africa, we have come a long from the days I described above.. People are not more able to listen to jazz without the pressures of apartheid dehumanizing us. But African American Jazz in South Africa made our lives more bearable and full of hope. We never gave the Boers a chance to tell us nor believed we were barbarians or savages. Duke and the rest of the African America Jazz Masers, confirmed to us, since most of us looked like many of them and vice-versa- we knew that we were better than what the Apartheid monsters said we were.

There were many Jazz bands that were spawned as a result of our exposure to the American music scene and its Jazz Masters. These I might talk about in another palaver we might have on this subject. But Playthell’s article, with its cultural opulence and high art life-style, is still what makes our world go round. Duke was our demi-god when it came to Jazz, Style, dress/fashion, comportment and Class. He personified all this and then some to my uncles and their friends.

A Paragon of Male Elegance
Duke Ellington esq-best-dressed-duke-ellington-lg-2
Esquire Magazines “Best Dressed Man”
A Playful Moment with the Great Ray Nance
Ray Nance
 Jiving around onstage in Sweden
A Triple Threat and More….

Ray Nance II

Sweet Ray Nance: a Master of Trumpet, Violin and Dance….he could Sing too!

Our Elders copied many of Duke’s mannerism that Playthell describes above, which he observed on his visit to the Maestro’s apartment.  As you can imagine, many have tried, albeit not on par with Playthell’s analysis, to be what the Duke represented and even added they own spin to the act. Apartheid, in its evil intent to dehumanize us, failed dismally because many Africans in South Africa knew that their Nazi-like oppressor’s claims of racial superiority were lies.

We lived our lives full of Jazz and our spirits danced above the concentration camps they built for us Called Townships… Like the humongous one called Soweto (Southern Western Townships) Digging jazz is still the way to go.. although the present-day youth in south Africa – as in the United States – are out of sync and do not know any better.. Some of us still know what time it is when it comes to Jazz music…

Young South African Jazzmen
 South African Jazzmen.jpg Today

 All Races come together playing Jazz


 Double Clink on Link to see Duke and Ray Nance 

The Ellington Orchestra in live Concert, Zurich 1959

SkhoKho Sa Tiou

 Mzantsi, South Africa

May Day 2014

Melting The Sun

Posted in Guest Commentators, Music Reviews with tags , , on April 20, 2014 by playthell


 Chris Pendergraft of space rock band Echocosmic

Cosmic Salvation Songs

Down around the back of a former iron foundry in east Oakland’s post-industrial wasteland, if you can find the door and know the secret knock, it is possible of a Friday evening to catch the lyric melancholy and faster-than-light travel of the band EchoCosmic at play. Synching digital beats and mixing board effects with live instruments, these musicians bring well-honed skills and a constant quest for meaning to their music.

In 1997 a quest for meaning through music produced Root Beer, the early band in which brothers-in-music Chris Pendergraft and Mike Blodgett began to work together. Through the writing and performance of the band’s signature protest rock songs, Mike Blodgett’s guitar style developed lyric eloquence, with bright sprays of descending sounds arcing like brief light pulses in the cold and indifferent openness of deep space.

Inherent in the name Echocosmic is the powerful sense of great distance and vast lapses of time.  Cosmic is defined as: the whole universe;immeasurably extended in space or time; vast; harmonious.   All of these elements have a place in the band’s compositions.  The word echo comes to us from the mythological Greek nymph who pined away for the beautiful, indifferent Narcissus until only her voice remained. With this etymology, it is no wonder that the echo carries an implicit sense of melancholy.

But an echo also relates to sound in a manner of interest to music-makers; it is uniquely produced by reflecting sound waves from a surface, where the returning sound may be only a fragment of the original.  And herein lies the heart of the matter, for in the songs of Echocosmic we hear the report of the interstellar traveler, returning across inhuman distance and still more inhuman time.

 These songs are evocative of struggle, mourning, and memory, chronicling the birth of black holes or the explosive nirvana of a star going nova.  ”Red Shift” with its desending chords and cascading shower of deep notes, feels like we are listening to the recorded end of some ancient civilization or an entire planet, perhaps as viewed by an anguished alien race of future spacefarers.

A red shift refers to a change in light wavelengths, moving toward a slower, cooler portion of the spectrum. The sun is a frequent, even baseline reference in space rock, and Echocosmic heeds this tradition.  Another of their songs is meant to communicate the point of view of bacteria colonizing a sun: in the heat of the solar flares, the space bacteria awaken, grow and make a new home.

In 1968, Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun came out on the album Saucerful of Secrets by Pink Floyd, pioneering progressive rock’s shift toward what would be termed “space rock;” their solar fires and deep cold space attracted the attention of people ranging from NBA Hall of Fame star Dennis Rodman to Exorcist movie star Linda Blair.

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a ten minute extravaganza of “out there” sound which builds to a violent end that actually comes, impossibly, as a climax. This distinctly disciplined approach to a pulsing momentum with abstract sound became a genre that encompasses much of Echocosmic today.

 Drummer Eric the Mover
 Keeps the rhythm out there!


 Mike Blodgett
Lead Guitar, a Sonic Space Cadet
 Merging technology and Music
Powering their Space Odyssey


Their Rehersal  Space is Also a Recording Studio


 Which Blodgett built to Free the Band from the tyranny of record companies
East Bay Artist Susannah Israel and Ray Heywood


Are Mesmerized by the Music


 Text by: Susannah Israel
Photos by: Playthell Benjamin
April 20th 2014
Oakland, California

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