By Dee Dee McNeil
July 1, 2021
Brian Bromberg’s solo career began in 1986, on the BlackHawk Label, when he recorded and released, “A New Day” to critical acclaim. Unapologetically, Brian was drawn to the bass by accident years before this first album was released. Let me explain.
His father, Howard Bromberg, was a prominent drummer in Tucson, Arizona, where baby Brian was born and raised. Brian’s dad taught both Brian and his brother to play the drums. I bet the Bromberg house was raucous with rhythm and music. I asked Brian, how his mom handled a house full of drummers.
“Oh man, there was a lot of noise and music in our house, but my mom loved it. My dad was a jazz drummer and my older brother played drums and so did I. After I fell in love with the bass, I practiced day and night. It was a wonderful creative time,” Brian told me.
At thirteen, a youthful and talented Brian Bromberg was already getting gig calls to play his drums. In elementary and junior high school, teenaged Brian also became attached to the cello. One day, the orchestra director at Mansfield Jr. High in Tucson was afraid the tenacious and gifted drummer was going to saw the school cello in half. So, the music teacher diverted Brian Bromberg to the acoustic bass instrument. With Brian’s rhythmic sense and early mastery of the trap drums, he was immediately intrigued by the bass. After all, it was an important part of any rhythm section, but it could also sing melodies and provide harmony. Young Bromberg put down his sticks, laid aside the cello and happily picked up the gigantic double bass. From age fourteen to eighteen, he was fanatical about practicing and mastering his new-found, bass instrument.
While attending high school, Brian was also taking music classes at the University of Arizona. Clearly, he was intent on becoming a professional musician. His family supported his dream. While still in high school, Brian was playing in the university orchestra, in the lab band and he found himself drawn to performances with their jazz combo. After all, he grew up under the tutelage of a jazz drummer. At the Bromberg home, there was always jazz playing and Brian was drawn to both jazz and classical music.
“Well – oddly enough I always loved jazz. Even as a teenager, I was into jazz and listened to jazz. At first, I was a purist. I was into acoustic jazz and classical. I was playing in the orchestra. I didn’t listen to any American Pop music. Although, with two sisters and a brother, all older than me, I heard the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Laura Nyro, Carole King, and James Taylor while growing up. But for me, at fourteen and fifteen, I was really into music by Buddy Rich, Count Basie, Stan Kenton and Don Ellis. I listened to all the big band stuff and to Sarah Vaughan. I was a huge fan of Sarah Vaughan; then Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Stan Getz, who I ended up playing with. Not so usual for a teenager in Tucson, Arizona,” Brian quipped.
When Bill Evans came to Tucson, touring, the genius pianist was using Marc Johnson as his bass player. Somehow, Marc heard young Brian Bromberg playing his bass. He was memorably impressed. Not long after, Stan Getz happened to mention to Marc Johnson that he was looking for a young bass player to take on the road with him and to mentor. Marc immediately flashed back to Tucson and young Brian. The call was made and in 1979, when the young man was a mere nineteen years old, Brian Bromberg joined the great Stan Getz Quintet for a world-wind tour.
“Oh God, Stan taught me more about life than anything you can imagine. The music was great, but I learned more about humanity, because I got to travel the world. I saw the world and different cultures. But, dealing with Stan Getz; that was an interesting experience because of his mental state, which was usually altered most of the time. Being a teenager, a normal kid from Tucson, Arizona, who grew up in a very normal lifestyle, to all of a sudden be hanging out with somebody like Stan was quite an experience. I mean, he used to be a heroin addict, a cocaine addict, he smoked pot constantly. He was a heavy drinker. it was an eye-opening experience, to all of a sudden, be hanging out with someone like that. Stan taught me a lot about humanity and, in some instances, about who I did not want to become. But the music was amazing. He was such a brilliant musician! So, that was incredible. He was flawless, really, truly an iconic musician,” Brian told me.
Below is a concert filmed in Litha, part of the North Sea Jazz Festival in July 1980 featuring then 20-year-old Bromberg on bass, Stan Getz (soprano and tenor sax), Chuck Loeb (guitar), Mitch Forman (piano), Brian Bromberg (bass) and Mike Hyman (drums).
In 1986, Brian Bromberg relocated to Southern California. I asked him how that happened.
“Well, the only reason I came here was because of Phil Upchurch. He was doing a record for Japan and somebody from the Japanese label said you need to get Brian Bromberg on bass. Phil said; Brian who? I was living in Arizona at the time. For whatever reason, the band knew who I was and knew my playing. So, somebody told Phil; you have to have Brian Bromberg on this record. Consequently, I got the call, came to L.A. and I did the record. Then, I went back to Tucson. A few weeks later, Phil calls me up and he said, man, you were great. Look, if I got some gigs, would you come out here and work. I said sure. So, he calls me back with enough local gigs to relocate to Los Angeles. Back in those days, there were plenty of gigs. Phil had months of gigs booked in advance. I wasn’t working that much in Tucson. So, that’s how I moved to L.A.,” Brian told me.
I asked him about the times he toured with Eddie Harris and inquired about what he got out of that relationship?
“Oh wow, he was wild. He was really fun to hang with and fun to play with. Eddie was great and I say this with love and respect; he was just out of his mind in a good way. His sense of humor and spark and energy; oh, he was great. It was really fun playing with him, because he was just crazy and you never knew what he was going to do. … He was really creative. He played with all these gadgets and did things no one had done before; blew his saxophone through those things. I had a lot of respect for Eddie Harris. In one way he had a lot of fame and success. In another way, he deserved more acknowledgement for his contribution to technology and for pushing the envelope in regards to what you can and can’t do. I think he was a really a cool blend between the funky, contemporary stuff and the real straight-ahead stuff. He could do both. I mean, when you think of “Swiss Movement” that record, and “Compared to What.” Man he was just amazing. It was so much fun to play with the cats who actually created those historic recordings,” Brian shared his memory of working with the great Eddie Harris.
This writer thinks Brian Bromberg, himself, is a genius in his own right. Like Eddie Harris, Brian can play many styles of music and he plays them all with excellence. This is exemplified in the long list of recordings he has made as a bandleader performing both smooth jazz and traditional, straight-ahead jazz. After his initial release of “A New Day” he followed up as part of the “L.A. Jazz Quintet” album featuring guitar icon, Phil Upchurch, Brandon Fields, Bobby Lyle, and one of the greatest drummers in the world, Harvey Mason. In the same year of 1986, Bromberg released his album, “Basses Loaded.” In 1988, Brian recorded “Magic Rain” for Intima Records, followed by “BASSically Speaking” on the same label in 1989. Music just kept pouring out of him.
One thing that impresses me greatly about Brian Bromberg’s playing is how he plays his bass like a drummer would, laying down repetitive and creative licks that are full of rhythm and spunk. I heard it a lot on his acoustic jazz album, “Dust to Dessert” and the “It’s About Time” album is one of my favorites. In 1990, he reached back to his acoustic roots, embracing a traditional jazz path. He walked up that road successfully with Doug Webb and Ernie Watts on saxophones, Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, Mike Garson, dramatic and emotional on piano and Mitch Forman bringing his own spice and brilliance to the eighty-eight keys on some tracks. Also, Brian’s brother, Dave Bromberg competently manned the drums. You can clearly hear Bromberg’s style and amazing technique on every recording.
Even in a big band setting, Brian Bromberg’s bass is spotlighted like a police helicopter lighting up half a block from above.
Brain Bromberg’s Unapologetically Funky Big Bombastic Band! Minneapolis 1987 was another smash hit album.
The other creative discovery Brian made in his career is the mastery of the piccolo bass.
“Well, I think it started happening when I began playing bass after playing drums. I didn’t realize that I had that much melody in me. When I started playing bass, I realized I had this melodic side to me. I started messing around with changing the tuning of my bass and one day, I tuned the strings an octave higher than my regular bass. I started playing all this stuff and I said, Holy Mackerel. I could play all these notes in the lower register and it sounds like music and didn’t sound like mud. You know, when you play bass chords down low, they sound kind of muddy. All of a sudden, I’m hearing music. I’m not hearing bass playing. And it rewired me. For whatever reason, I started playing it more and more. I realized I have all this melodic stuff inside of me and it came out and excited me. What the piccolo bass did for me was allow me to sing. I was playing melodies and telling stories. I had no idea all this stuff inside of me even existed. It helped me communicate with music in that register. It was perhaps because it was higher and tuned like a guitar. So, all of a sudden it totally changed my playing, my phrasing and my melodic thought. I put my fingers in the same place as a regular bass, but it just sounds different. It became a voice of mine. It’s rewarding. People don’t know if I’m a bass player or a guitar player. They don’t know what I am, but that’s ok. It made me grow into the music. It made me better. It forced me to be better. I love it. I get to play music, not just the bass. It’s fun, inspirational and it’s cool that a lot more guys are playing with it now. It’s rewarding to see that. It shows me that so many of the limitations we have are our own. I try not to be limited by my instrument. The instrument challenges me. So many songs I’ve written, I’ve written on the piccolo bass,” Brain explained.
You clearly hear the piccolo bass on Bromberg’s latest project, “A Little Driving Music” released in 2021. It was produced virtually, using technology to synchronize the musicians together during the quarantined, pandemic year of 2020. This album is back to his smooth jazz, funky style. However, you always here traditional or straight-ahead jazz mixed into Brian Bromberg’s arrangements. His composition “Froggy’s” is smoking hot! Joel Taylor pounds this track forward with his powerhouse drums and Bromberg’s bass line locks relentlessly into the groove. They supply a rhythm track that bounces like a trampoline for Everette Harp to showcase his dancing saxophone. Tom Zink is on every track of this new CD, adding keyboards that fatten the arrangements.
Always pushing the boundaries of his creativity, Brian Bromberg began to design basses. He wanted something comfortable to hold, ergonomically shaped, with high quality and a resonating tone. The result is the Brian Bromberg Signature Series, a B24 four-string and B25 five-string that revolutionized Carvin’s bass guitars including RJ2 radiused alnico single-coil pickups for amazing tone.
His next project was starting a radio show that exclusively introduced bass players to his listening audience. Appearing on John Liebman’s “For Bass Players Only” show, he talked about his show.
“It was the first Internet radio station for bass players in the world. It exceeded my expectations in many ways. We had listeners in 170 countries and it was incredible. The reason I started the station was because I’ve always had a record deal for thirty years and I’ve sold hundred of thousands of records. That’s a blessing. I had a lot of luck as a bass player. I wanted to give other bass players a platform to be heard. Most of the record labels are gone and there are so many bass players out there worthy to be heard. So, I created “Bass on the Broadband.” Where it didn’t exceed my expectations is that we were on the air almost five years and we got hardly any industry support. A few companies believed in us and gave us a shot. But the Industry let us down with no willingness to support the global bass community. None of the magazines supported us. There are hundreds of companies that make bass equipment who had no interest in taking out ads on our show. If you think about it, the people listening to our show were mostly bass players. Bass players buy strings, straps, instruments, cases, all that stuff. They buy cars to get to gigs. They get financed by Wells Fargo, just like I did. The industry didn’t understand the power of a global program aimed directly at consumers who buy their stuff. I had overhead. On a radio station you have to pay BMI, ASCAP, SESAC performance rights organizations and you’re constantly putting money out. I would have liked to see more industry support. Consequently, I had to shut it down.”
All the while, Bromberg kept touring, kept recording and has released more than twenty-seven albums as a leader, had five number one songs on the Billboard charts and has produced or written number one songs for other artists.
“One of those artists was Jeff Kashiwa who was with the The Rippingtons. We cut a thing called “Hyde Park” and it was the longest running #1 song in the smooth jazz category. I produced a bunch of people over the years,” Brian told me.
He has both produced, recorded and/or performed with too many people to list here, but this partial list speaks for itself, especially spotlighting his diversity: Carmen McRae, Herbie Hancock, Amy Grant, Andrea Bocelli, Elvin Jones, Peter White, Joshua Redman, George Duke, Barry Harris, Ernie Watts, Freddie Hubbard, Gerald Albright, George Benson, Bob James, Jeff Lorber and the list goes on and on.
Brian Bromberg’s current release is another jewel in his musical crown. Featuring special guests like Charlie Bisharat, Lenny Castro, Nick Colionne, Tower of Power’s Jerry Cortez, Mitch Forman, Everette Harp, Dave Koz and Marion Meadows, along with a super solid rhythm section and several other top name musicians who pop in to add their imaginative creativity. This is music you can pop into your car CD player, or pull up on your phone and head to the open highway. No matter what Brian Bromberg is playing, he puts the pedal to the metal and creates “A Little Driving Music” for our listening pleasure. Enjoy!
By Dee Dee McNeil
June 1, 2021
Tomas Gargano – 2006 from Dee Dee’s personal photo collection.
It was so good to speak to my longtime friend and gifted bassist, Tomas Gargano last week. As we chatted, I discovered some little-known facts about his life and musical career. Always in celebration of the history and legacy of jazz, Tomas was inspired early-on by his father, a man who initially had aspirations to become a saxophone player.
“The first instrument in the family was the piano and my sister was taking piano lessons from an old Italian lady down the street in Detroit. We lived on the East side; Six Mile and Gratiot, when I started messing around with the piano. Then, my father bought me a cheap, eighteen-dollar guitar. I started playing that. My father also played Count Basie in the house, relentlessly, at a very high volume. (laughter) One of the things I remember most is holding my father’s big calloused hand, ‘cause he was a blue collar worker, and going to see the Count Basie band. I was seven years old. My father was a frustrated saxophone player. In fact, I started saxophone lessons when I was seven years old, same time he took me to see Count Basie’s band. It’s seared into my memory. I kept asking him, dad – what’s that big thing back there (pointing to the upright bass). He’d be saying; listen to the saxophone. So, I played saxophone until I was sixteen years old.”
From that seven-year-old moment, staring up in awe at Marshall Royal and the Count Basie Big Band, Tomas Gargano fell in love with the bass instrument. Even though he dabbled at piano and studied saxophone for several years, he was infatuated by the sound and application of the bass in a musical setting.
“There was a place on Gratiot Avenue, by my house, where I actually got to hear James Jamerson, the legendary, great, Motown bassist. He was playing upright at the time. I would walk up the alley to the back of this place, The Peppermint Twist Club, and listen to him play through the window. I was a little fourteen or fifteen-year-old kid. I’d stand there and listen to Jamerson play through that back window. They called him the Funk Machine even then and he was playing upright. He’s one of the most influential musicians in my life,” Tomas sang the praises of a man credited with helping create the Motown Sound.
It’s important to remember that the Motown Sound, for the most part, was played and created by jazz musicians. James Jamerson had deep roots in jazz, like many of the seasoned musical veterans around Detroit at that time. Tomas followed his dream of becoming a working musician. He sought out those elders who could inspire, teach and enhance his goal.
By that time, he had put down the saxophone and picked up the bass.
“My first bass teacher was Ed Pickens. He was playing bass with Stevie Wonder. Later, I was at Wayne State University; but then Oakland University started a Jazz Series Study Program. So, I started driving up there. It was about a 40-mile drive to Rochester, Michigan. The instructors were pianist and arranger, Harold McKinney, trumpeter and arranger, Marcus Belgrave and tenor saxophonist, Sam Sanders. Those masters were my teachers,” Tomas Gargano recalls his formative years in music.
When he was just nineteen years old, word spread about his talents on bass. He was called to play a church gig with none other than the queen of soul, Aretha Franklin and her sisters, Carolyn and Erma. It was a three-night fundraiser at New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. There, Tomas met Herbie Williams, who played trumpet and drummer, George Davidson. By 1975, Tomas was gigging steadily around the Motor City. Out of the blue, he got a call to go to Japan and work at the Tokyo Playboy Club as part of their house band. He had planned a move to New York City and live with a cousin, but when this unexpected opportunity cropped up, he snatched it.
“I was the house bassist at the Playboy Club in Tokyo for almost a year. I was on a flight back from Japan and supposed to arrive in San Francisco and then return from there to an apartment in New York on East 24th street. But there was a bad storm that made the airline divert their flight. We landed in Los Angeles. I had a few friends in L.A.; so, I called them,” Tomas explained how he relocated to Los Angeles by accident.
“It was 1979. As for Los Angeles, I checked it out, but I was still determined to get back to big city life in New York. I love a big-city- feel like Detroit, Chicago and New York. But just before I was supposed to leave for NYC, I met Duke Burrell and George Reed. That became a thirteen-year relationship. Once I made peace that I was staying in Los Angeles, it made me think, maybe there was a deeper reason. I remember I was reading the Charles Mingus book, ‘Beneath the Underdog: His World as Composed by Mingus.’ Mingus mentioned Red Callender. So, I thought shit, if I’m here in L.A. I should look this man up. Studying with Red Callender was the greatest thing in my life! It was such a productive, warm relationship that I’ll never forget. He was so much more than a bass teacher. He was a friend and a mentor. He gave me life lessons,” Tomas sang the great bass players praises.
Tomas Gargano’s affinity to surround himself with the elders of jazz and music continued with his long-term association as part of drummer, George Reed’s Trio. Tomas was the baby of their group and George Reed and pianist, Duke Burrell took him under their wise wings to nurture and support his talent. Reed grew up in Harlem and played with Charlie Parker, Red Allen, Marian McPartland and Buddy Tate, to list just a few. Born September 2, 1922, George Reed’s mentors had been Count Basie, Freddie Green and Jo Jones. So, the polished drummer had a wealth of knowledge to share. Duke Burrell was also historic. Born in July of 1920, his roots were in New Orleans, Louisiana. Duke had played with Louis Jordan, Fletcher Henderson, Johnny Otis, Barney Bigard and even Louie Armstrong. So once again, Tomas was surrounded by jazz elders and cultivated by their wisdom. He loved it!
“We worked seven nights a week for a couple of years at Mr. Robert’s Club,” Tomas reminded me. “I think I met you there.”
THE GEORGE REED TRIO
Drummer, George Reed, pianist Duke Burrell and bassist, Tomas Gargano.
Tomas continued his jazz legacy by working consistently with a long line of legendary Los Angeles Jazz cats. He spent several years being the bassist of choice for reedman, Teddy Edwards, vocalist, Ernie Andrews, the amazing Betty Bryant, Linda Hopkins and even myself. Like those iconic musicians, I love the way Tomas Gargano plays his bass!
“I was thinking about this last night; all the musicians you introduced me to,” Tomas Gargano surprised me with that comment. “Through you, I met Rickey Woodard, Charles Owens, Bobby Pierce, Dwight Dickerson, James Gadson, Mel Lee, George Bohanon, Quentin Dennard, Kenny Elliott, Lanny Hartley and so many more of the L.A. cats.
“I remember one gig with Teddy Edwards,” Tomas reminisced. “I think it was his 75th birthday and it was when they used to have those ‘live’ broadcasts from the Biltmore Hotel in downtown L.A. I didn’t know the pianist on the gig. So, we were sitting there at the bar, talking. I asked him casually where he’d been gigging. He told me he’d just came off the road with Wynton Marsalis. To my surprise, it was Eric Reed,” Tomas chuckled.
“Then there was Johnny Kirkland, the drummer, who would call me for gigs. He’d say, be on time. Oh, he was a task master. One day he said, Tomas, come on over to my house, have dinner with me and my wife and then we’ll go up in the attic so I can show you my train set. Those are the most memorable things I treasure about Los Angeles; those personable moments. Those friendships. Another time, I got a call from Bill Douglas to do a gig at this popular Country Club. It was with Gerry Wiggins, (the Wig) on piano, myself, Bill Douglas and Marshall Royal. He was the saxophone player I had heard when I was seven years old at that Count Basie concert with my father. I couldn’t believe I was playing with this man some thirty years later. I flashed back to when I asked my dad, what’s that big thing being played in the back of the stage. Even then, I wanted to play that bass. My father wanted me to choose the saxophone. So, I called my dad and Marshall Royal spoke to him. He was so gracious and such a gentleman to my father. I remember, he said to my dad; your son made the right choice, referring to my choice of instrument. That was a great moment.”
Tomas Gargano’s bass playing has been one of the favorite choices of vocalist, pianist, composer, Betty Bryant for years. He participated, as bassist, on almost every one of her album releases. In summer of 2018, he flew into Los Angeles to be a part of her 88th birthday studio session.
“I also recorded with Teddy Edwards. It was a small, small compact studio. Fritz Wise was on drums, Red Holloway on sax and Harry “Sweets” Edison. I was so proud and humbled to be with those incredible musicians. After the session, we all went out and had Chinese food,” Tomas laughs that joyful laugh that twinkles his eyes and brightens his face.
Adam Marino, James Gadson, Tony Guerro, Betty Bryant, Robert Kyle & Tomas Gargano – 2018
“When I first got to L.A., I remember going to an event called a Taste of L.A. in Santa Monica and I saw three people performing there. I said to myself, I’m going to work with them. It was Ernie Andrews, Poncho Sanchez and you. You were the three stand-outs to me that I wanted to work with and I accomplished that!”
Nine years ago, Tomas packed-up his Los Angeles home and he and his wife Jill relocated to New York City. Before he knew it, he was playing gigs and meeting more jazz royalty.
“Our upstairs neighbor, for two years, was Jon Hendricks of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross fame. He lived on the 31st floor. We live on the 27th floor. He saw me years ago rolling the bass to the gig. He said; Hey Mr. Bass man, bring that bass up to my place and let’s do something. I got to know him. Just being in his presence was inspiring. I’d go up and play, he would just sing and what it made me think about was, for me, the most beautiful work I’ve done is with singers, spoken word and poets. There’s something about the intimacy of the voice and the bass that’s always just moved me to be my best. He was the most dapper gentleman. Even in the last part of his life, when he was in a wheelchair, he was just so generous with his spirit.
“Playing the Apollo Theater was really something. I was with Billy Kaye’s trio and a poet. You come out and you rub the stump, you know. To do that was really something. I’ve done a lot of gigs with poets here in New York. Actually, I’ve worked with the Dean of NYU, Robert Gibbons, who’s a prolific poet. One of my most memorable gigs was with former L.A. resident, Dwight Dickerson and Greg Bandy. Greg was the drummer with Pharoah Sanders and we were the house trio for quite a while, playing at Dwight’s Harlem jazz spot that he opened. Mr. Ron Carter walks into the club one night. I remember distinctly we were playing Jitterbug Waltz in B flat. This tall elegant man bows to the band, comes up to the stage while we’re playing the song and he says to me, may I? Ron Carter wants to sit-in and play my bass! Naturally, he proceeded to play the shit out of that song. After the set, he complimented my instrument and we talked bass talk. Before the pandemic, I also worked a lot at Paris Blues Club, on 123rd and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. I worked there for years with several different groups. My favorite group was Melvin Vines’ Harlem Jazz Machine with Noriko Como on piano, Charles Davis Jr. and Elliot Pineiro on tenor saxophones, Jeremy Donson on alto sax and Malik Washington on drums. I toured Europe with them. The Paris Blues Club owner died early during the COVID pandemic; Sam Hartgris. One of the nicest men I’ve ever known in my life. I think he owned the whole block. He’s one of those guys who sponsored the local soft ball teams in the community. He never looked it, but he was in his eighties. This elegant black man, always in a three-piece suit and a Fedora hat, was the coolest cat in the neighborhood. He encouraged me to bring my own band into his club, but I never did it.
“One of my favorite places in New York City is a four-story brownstone. It’s 3-doors west of 130th and Lenox. It is the New Amsterdam Musical Association and it’s basically the Black Musicians Union, founded in 1903, incorporated in 1906. People think it’s the oldest Musician’s Union in the country. Just a joyous place, because everybody’s welcome. Don Byron, he’s a well-known saxophone player and clarinetist; his father is Don Byron Sr. and he’s 94. He was the house bassist at the New Amsterdam Musical Assoc. (NAMA). Monday nights were my favorite nights of the week, because I’d head up to the 802, that’s the local New York Musician’s Union, where the Jazz Foundation had jam sessions from 6pm to 10pm. Then, I’d jump on a train and go up to NAMA. They had a Monday Night Jam session. Finally, I’d come down here and finish out the night at my regular gig with Billy Kaye. I’d get home about four-o-clock in the morning. I believe NAMA is the heart of the Harlem community. Recently, Don Sr. said to me; Boy, it’s your turn. You’re next. Just like Duke Burrell said it to me. That’s when I became their house bassist at NAMA.”
Drummer, Billy Kaye & Tomas Gargano after the Monday Night Jam Session at Local 802.
“Currently, I sit on the jazz committee of the Union 802 in New York alongside people like Buster Williams, Jimmy Owens, Rachel Z. Hakim, Gene Perle and quite a few people. It’s something that I hold dear. There’s been no work over the last year, but it’s an organization where we’ve rallied, marched and protested for the benefit of the jazz community. I’m very grateful to be on that panel and proud of the work we do.
What’s the difference between the L.A. Jazz Scene and the New York Jazz Scene, I ask Tomas.
“Commuting!” he tells me. “I remember when I was living in Los Angeles, you have to leave 3 hours ahead of the gig to get there on time. Here, I spend about 20-minutes on the subway. In L.A. you’re stuck in your car on the 405 or the 91 freeways for hours. In New York, it’s person to person. There’s a people connection. Mass transit makes it more personal here.
Tomas Gargano has found, over his career, that ‘personal’ is the magic word. His relationships are personal, his music is personal and his love of the bass is personal. He’s performed worldwide and lived in the Midwest, moved to the East Coast and settled on the West Coast. He’s played his instrument throughout Europe and Japan. This busy bassist finds there are great musicians everywhere and he’s rubbed shoulders and stood on bandstands with some of the best in the business. Inspired by the jazz elders, Tomas recognized early on that you have to appreciate and respect music history in order to flourish in ‘the now’ and bring historic relevance to the present. When he’s not fighting for musician’s rights or organizing union groups, he’s working in clubs and concerts, building his own rich, bass legacy.
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By Dee Dee McNeil May 1, 2021
The Los Angeles area is stuffed like a giant pinata with talent galore. After all, Southern California is a hub for the film and television industry, has a thriving theatrical community and also boasts a bodacious jazz scene. It’s easy to overlook some of the outstanding players who sparkle in our very midst. Leslie Baker is one such musician, whose diamond talent and positive energy brightens any bandstand where she plants her big, bad bass.
As a female in the music business, she is proficient in playing both upright and electric basses. Consequently, Leslie Baker has made an indelible imprint on the Los Angeles music community, whether it’s performing in the string section of the Dave Matthews band at the famed Hollywood Bowl or pumping her bass at Colombo’s club in Eagle Rock for the past seventeen and a half years. She’s a dynamo! Another plus, Leslie can easily cross genres of music. She’s got one foot solidly planted in jazz and the other, knee-deep in the blues. In other words, Leslie Baker plays a bass for all seasons.
As a native of Los Angeles, Leslie grew up listening to her father, Dick Baker, playing piano. He was a professional pianist and vocal coach, who encouraged his talented little girl to begin playing piano at age six. Once she mastered the rudiments of music, Mr. Baker suggested Leslie learn to play the bass. She started off playing the upright bass. By the time she was twelve, the young lady was proudly performing as the bassist on her dad’s gigs. At twenty-years-old, Leslie Baker was a self-supporting, very busy musician.
Always striving to be better, she studied with some legendary bass icons. One of her main influences and greatest mentor was the amazing Red Callender. She told me a little bit about that time in her life.
“Well, first of all, Red was so generous and open with me that he pretty much made me feel like a family member. I met Red at a benefit for Willie Bobo at the old Musician’s Union on Vine Street in Hollywood. When I first met him, I walked up to him and said, you’re Red Callender. I LOVE your tuba playing on the James Taylor record, “Everybody’s Got the Blues.”
The legendary bassist, Red Callender, must have been surprised by this excited young woman standing before him and complimenting him on his tuba playing.
“I told him that tuba line just touched my soul. It had me dancing around my apartment,” Leslie told him.
“Then I explained to him a problem I was having. I played only electric bass from age sixteen to age twenty-six. When I discovered the electric bass I said, well why bother with this big cumbersome instrument? I had to go to the gym to keep my strength up and I had to carry the thing home on weekends and to practice. It was a big, awkward deal. For ten years I played nothing but electric, and then, I started yearning for the sound of a string bass where I could bow it. It was the sound I could not get from my electric bass. So, I purchase this double bass. I get it home, play it for five minutes and I feel like my arm’s going to fall off. Then I start reading music on it. I’m reading an Etude and playing it on my new bass. The Etude starts in the key of F and by the time I got done with it, I’m in the key of G Flat. I go, Uh Uh! I need some help. Amazingly, Charles Owens had just corralled Red into teaching. Red had never been a teacher before. He was a career musician. Charles said to him, let’s start our own school. We’ll call it the Wind College. This is what’s so beautiful! His emphasis was on how to play the upright bass in tune. Incredible! He was a great person and I’m glad I got to make that connection. I used to pass by Richard Simon, Karl Vincent and Tomas Gargano when I came and went from lessons with Red Callender. They were studying with him too.”
Baker has been on the bandstand with numerous music masters and learned from each one of them. One such legend, often referred to as the inventor of Rock and Roll, was drummer Earl Palmer. He was not only a great jazz drummer, but also a sought-after studio musician who played on a number of big hit pop songs and rock and roll records. Earl Palmer played on every single Little Richard hit record, on the Righteous Brother’s classic, “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling” and all the Fats Domino hits. That landed him in the Rock & Roll Hall of fame. What a blessing for Leslie Baker to be the bassist who locked into a groove with this master musician! She has learned from the best in the business. For example, she was part of the Al Aarons L.A. Jazz Caravan that was packed with legendary players.
(L to R: Terry Evans, Thurman Green, Gildo Mahones, Count Basie trumpeter, Al Aarons, receiving award for their band, the L.A. Jazz Caravan, Leslie Baker, Carl Randall and the most incredible drummer Earl Palmer! What a band!)
Leslie Baker on bass with Earl Palmer on drums.
Another jazz legend Leslie Baker worked with, was the unforgettable hard-bop drummer, Billy Higgins. As Leslie grew musically, she recognized that one of the best educations you can get is actually performing and playing music with others. Each time you have an opportunity to work with musicians of high caliber, you learn more than any academic situation could teach you.
It wasn’t long before Leslie’s bass talents and her ability to dig down deep and play healthy doses of the blues, attracted famous artists like the legendary blues singer and composer, Willie Dixon. She recorded with Dixon and also performed with the famous, Harmonica Fats. Leslie recalled her session with award winning composer and blues man, Willie Dixon.
“It was some production he was working on at his home in Glendale. Willie Dixon was not in good enough health to play the bass himself. I got referred to him by bass man, Henry Franklin. He was used to using the Skipper and the Skipper told him to use me this time. Maybe Henry had something else to do. I remember Cash McCall was on that session, but I don’t really recall what we were playing. I can’t say if it ever came out on an album,” Leslie told me.
One day, Floyd Dixon scooped her up and took her on the road. Leslie Baker spent sixteen years backing up this Rhythm and Blues man who wrote such hit records as “Hey Bartender” and “Operator 210.” Their music garnered a John Handy Award for their “Wake Up and Live” collaboration. Another highlight of her affiliation with Floyd Dixon was when they performed at the famed Monterey Jazz Festival. That resulted in a recording “Live at Monterey.” Leslie Baker also performed with the legendary bluesman, Lowell Fulson, and Bill Doggett of “Honky Tonk” fame.
Baker’s love of jazz continued to lead her back to playing with master jazz musicians like pianist, Marty Harris. She and Marty recorded several songs together and Leslie features them on her website as a tribute to the late, great musician. www.LeslieBakerWebsite.com
“He was a character, as we all know,” Leslie laughs warmly. “He once told me that when he was called to do a gig, all he wanted to know was who was the bass player. He didn’t care much who the drummer was. To Marty, the drummer was the flavor of the day. But he really wanted to know who was playing bass, because it was about the changes.”
You can hear how beautifully Baker and Marty Harris blended on this sample of their recording.
She also enjoyed the challenge of working with a bass choir that was founded and established by the late James Leary.
“Oh James, he was so beautiful! And the way he wrote those five bass parts, the bottom part was the typical bass line; the top part was the melody or what was up in the higher range, and in the middle, he took the three basses that were left and we were the big chord makers in the middle. We were making the harmony. It was me, Richard Simon and James Leary. That’s where I always wanted to be, either 3rd or 4th chair. I found it extremely fascinating to be in that middle section. In other circumstances I would always be playing something else. But playing in the middle and making those harmonies was very interesting. It really made me work at what Red had taught me; that intonation is so critical. Leary’s love was for that bass choir and also for the vocal choir he wrote for. He was a dear friend for many years.”
When the legendary Buddy Collette was alive, he began an after-school program for middle school and high school music students, ‘JazzAmerica.’ Leslie became one of his educators at the inception of that program, along with bassist Richard Simon and many other talented Los Angeles jazz musicians. Her love of music and her desire to pass on the jazz legacy to a younger generation has her waving her magic bow across the strings of her double bass and inspiring young players. She is also part of a program sponsored by Los Angeles Jazz Society called, “Jazz in Schools” along with trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez and various other L. A. jazz cats.
When she’s not performing or teaching privately, Leslie Baker is rushing out for studio work. She’s added her bass excellence to various movies and television shows. Leslie’s been part of the backing band at “The Voice” television show featuring Kelly Clarkson, Josh Grobin & Craig Wayne Boyd. She’s also made on-screen appearances in a variety of show biz jobs like, “Star Trek TNG,” on the “Frasier” TV series, “The Addams Family Values,” “Bones,” and the film “Red Dragon,” to list just a few. Leslie’s ability to play various genres of music and to read charts quickly and proficiently have opened many doors for her talent. She’s also produced her own album projects. Forming a group called, “Askew” in 1997, she released an album of the same title. It was a sweet memorial for her father. This project featured Phil Wright on piano, (who has also been a mentor to the talented bassist); Steve Fowler on flute, Terry Evans on guitar and Billy Paul on drums. Earl Alexander contributed guitar and vocals. In
1998, She released “Askew Too” with a larger ensemble. Sadly, Steve Fowler had gotten sick with Lou Gehrig’s disease. So, this time she added Robert Kyle on saxophone, Ron Muldrew on guitar, Suzanne Spinoza sang on Baker’s original composition, “Rain Dance” and Robertito Melendez played percussion. In 2002, she released “Askew Blew.” It was an experiment for Leslie and the final piece of an Askew Trilogy.
“We were at Nolan Shaheed’s studio. I was beginning to have fun singing, instead of just playing bass. I challenged my vocal abilities on this project. It’s a blues album. This time it featured players from our live gig at Colombo’s; Eric Ekstrand on piano, Doug MacDonald on guitar and Frank Wilson manning the drums. We were well rehearsed, ‘cause we’d been doing this gig for about a year at the time of the recording. The gig lasted 17- ½ years, right up to stay at home orders on March 15, 2020. It’s the longest gig of my life,” her laugh resonates like an exclamation point.
In 2017 she released the album “Good Vibes” with Tyler Combs on vibraphone and Ken Park on drums. Somehow, Leslie Baker also finds time to manage and run her own studio in Silverlake, California. It’s called ‘Ranch Cabin Records.’
“Because of the pandemic lockdown, for over a year, it’s given me time to study and improve my skills with the software that I use for writing, recording and to coordinate with musicians remotely. I have a YouTube channel. You can search LeslieBakerDuo and you’ll be on your way to finding out more about what we do,” Leslie shares.
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By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
April 1, 2021
Sitting in front of the television set one evening, a small boy named Bobby Rodriguez found himself fascinated by the sound of a trumpet. Harry James and his band were appearing on some variety show, and while watching that performance, young Rodriguez fell in love with the horn. While attending Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School, he discovered the band. At that time, Mr. Bill Taggert was the band master. Rodriguez was ten years old when he signed up to play the trumpet.
“I have four brothers and sisters. Three of them were already gone by the time I was ten years old. They were older, married and on their way. So, it was really just my older sister and myself and my mom. My parents divorced when I was seven years old. So, it was just the three of us. Fortunately, my elementary school had a thriving concert band and I just went in and said I wanted to play trumpet. It took a long time for my mother to embrace my decision, because it cost $5 a month for the lessons and $5 a month to rent the instrument. So, that was $10/month. After a year, it was adding up. We finally bought the trumpet, once I showed my mom I was practicing and serious about it. My first instrument cost a hundred dollars. At that point, it was a major commitment. When I discovered jazz radio, that really opened the door. My first musical influence was Dizzy Gillespie, then Miles Davis, and everybody else followed,” Bobby Rodriguez recalled.
Dr. Bobby Rodriguez is a native Californian and grew up at 4133 Hubbard Street in East L.A., a block away from Calvary Cemetery. It was a tough, no nonsense neighborhood.
“Yeah, it was tough, but you learn the rule of the streets right away. Stay away from this. Don’t look at that. Just go about your business. If you see something coming, you cross the street. There I was, carrying my little trumpet case, ten years old and no one messed with me. Plus, I didn’t have any desire to hang out at night, hangout in alleys; start fires or steal stuff. Both of my parents were very good and they kept me straight and thinking about good things. The trumpet occupied my time. I always say, if any child is in a practice room, it keeps them out of the street,” Rodriguez shared good advice.
By the time Bobby Rodriguez was a teenager, he had turned professional, working gigs around the Los Angeles area with various groups. Then he landed a job with Quincy Jones, as part of his band, and ultimately that led him to work with the popular Brother’s Johnson. They had hit records on the A&M Record label and Bobby played trumpet on all three of their Platinum best-selling records.
“I toured with Quincy for six weeks. When that tour was over, I was invited to join that Brother’s Johnson band, ‘cause I was part of Q’s big band and The Brothers Johnson and I knew each other. They invited me to replace their trumpet player who was leaving the band to return to school. In those days, you might not have recognized me. I was wearing spandex and platform heels on my shoes. I looked a lot taller,” Bobby chuckled.
“So, I joined the Brothers Johnson band. In four years, I saw those two Brothers Johnson, (George and Louis), get rich. They were buying homes and cars and stuff. I think the most I made was $700 a week. It’s funny how in two, three, or four years, folks can explode and then are never heard from again. It’s the publishing that counts. I learned, you have to hold on to that publishing money. Being on the road was a learning experience, but it was sickening after a while. Some of the people just get so involved in ‘where’s the connect’ to keep the party going; party, party, party! I wanted to practice and keep growing and improving. When I came off that tour, I went right to a trumpet teacher and tried to put all the pieces back together and move forward. The teacher I went to was Don Ferrara. I studied with him for about a year and he helped me a lot. Then, I went to Uan Rasey for about five years. He really put me on the track I’m still on. Every time I open my case, I think of Uan Rasey.”
Bobby recalled leaning more towards jazz after he left the Brother’s Johnson. But He stayed busy in the studio, playing on the Maurice White produced project called, “Emotions Album” and Lalo Schifrin’s “Boulevard Nights.” He played on a Warner Brother’s movie sound track featuring Gerard McMann that became the “Defiance” album. Around that same time, he cut and produced albums on himself. One was called “Simply macrame” released in 1973 on the Jazzmen Record label and the other was titled “Tell an Amigo” on the Sea Breeze label. Happily, his own career was blossoming. He was embracing a Latin jazz format.
Around this same time, Rodriguez began producing other artists. For the Southern California based label, Discovery, he co-produced Ed Jones & Familia.
Next, he produced the HMA Salsa Jazz Orchestra for Sea Breeze Records. He was productive and busy.
In 1990, Rodriguez produced jazz vocalist, Maxine Weldon. The album was titled, “The Singer,” which was quite appropriate for the dynamic Ms. Weldon.
“Well, John Bolivar hooked me up with Maxine, because he was in her band. She was going to Bern, Switzerland every year. She would do a six-week concert at Jaylene’s. Jaylene’s was a club there in Bern. Washington Rucker was the drummer in the band. he and I were very good friends. And then someone said, we should make a record. Why are we just going there and don’t have product? So, we made a record. I produced the record and organized it. It came out real nice! Then, after four-years or so, I don’t know, she just stopped singing. I think she went into acting. But I did see her at some event. I forgot where it was, maybe an award’s show honoring Maxine. I was there to introduce her and I played a song for her. She would always sing, “But Beautiful”. It was very nice to see her again. As always, she looked beautiful and she was always very kind,” Bobby shared wistful memories of Maxine Weldon, a former bandmate and terrific jazz vocalist.
Dr. Bobby Rodriguez is not only a trumpet master, producer, educator and arranger, he’s also a proficient composer. His latest effort, titled “Freedom” was recently released.
“My latest CD, is something I began to record before my two operations,” Bobby told me. “I’m slowly rehabbing. I feel that I’m not completely there, but my first conversation with the doctor, after the operation, was can I drive and when can I play my horn? I had open heart surgery; you know. But I started playing right away. I’d say three weeks later. At first, I was blowing very gently into the instrument; very gently! Just trying to get a tone and just trying to recoup and see what was available. I didn’t know if this would be the end of my trumpet career. I see now, I did the right thing by going very slowly; playing three, four, five days a week. But I started this record before all that. We pored over the title for the record, because it was so important. Finally, we came up with the name “Freedom.” It represents the American freedom, of course, but also jazz freedom. Jazz is a music that was once hated because of the revolutionary freedom it expresses.
“I composed five of the songs with family members in mind. One little song, I created for my newest grandson and it’s called “Little Henry.” It’s got a little African, rhythmic jazz content. On this project, I’m writing music that I feel is reflective of who I am today. I wrote another song that I think is a classic. It’s called “Mia’s Lullaby,” and it’s written for my oldest grandchild. She’s thirteen now and I wrote it about five years ago. It was revived in the recording process and I think I’ve got something that’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s a ballad, a lullaby, but not in the traditional sense. After that, there’s a couple of little bouncy tunes and then I wrote one for my wife which is called “Yvonne.” We created a video for that one that’s a representation of her life. The song is gorgeous. Another one, I originally wrote about seven years ago, is called “Robin Star” and that’s for my daughter; the daughter that’s giving me all these grandchildren,” he chuckles.
The man with the trumpet has two children, Robin and Robert. When he’s not parenting or being a proud grandpa, Bobby Rodriguez is a gifted author and educator who has dedicated his life to promoting music and inspiring youth. His “ABC’s of Latin Jazz” was his first textbook. The latest textbook is titled, “ABC’s of Brass Warm-Up.” As a jazz musician and trumpeter, Rodriguez stays very active in the community. His expertise has been invaluable as a member of the Board of Governors of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences (NARAS) and he acted as president of the Hispanic Musicians Association for twenty-two years. We talked briefly about his love of teaching.
“In 1990, I was teaching at Cal State L.A. County High School for the Arts which is inside Cal State L.A. I did ten years there and then I went to UCLA in 2000 and did eighteen years teaching there. At the same time, in 2003 I was teaching at UC Irvine, which I’m still there one day a week taking care of the big band and the combo, which is really good. It’s contributing to my pension. Little did I think about that when I was wearing spandex.” (laughter)
For a while Dr. Bobby Rodriguez was Director of the LatinJazz Ensemble at Pasadena City College and leader of the Jazz Adventure group, as part of the Music Center’s Los Angeles outreach to public schools and music students. He was a member of the City of Los Angeles Jazz Mentorship Program and a performing member of “Jazz Goes to School” for several years. Bobby also was a teaching member of Buddy Collette’s Jazz America program.
Exemplary in all his music, Bobby Rodriguez has a way of making music fun. His accomplishments as a recording artist extend from the early seventies to present day. He has released ten albums as a bandleader, including his Grammy nominated “LatinJazz Explosion” CD. He was a part of Gerald Wilson’s historic “Detroit” album on the Mack Avenue Record label and co-produced Cuban vocalist, Candi Sosa (“Cuba … Me Corazon Te Llama”) and Bill Laster’s “Shades of Jade IV” album. He recorded with Billy Mitchell and John Bolivar on their USA Record, “Live” and has worked with a plethora of legendary musicians like Kenny Burrell and Alex Acuña, who were featured on his “Trumpet Talk” album.
In spite of his recent health challenges, Bobby Rodriguez continues to compose and is busy promoting his latest album of music, “Freedom,” that reflects the freedom he has found over the years. With each performance, he displays a freedom that flows profusely from the bell of his horn, along with a dedication to educating, inspiring and entertaining young and old alike. Bobby Rodriguez is a Doctor of Music, who served our country in the U.S. Army and returned to gain a college education. After twenty-one years, he set an example by returning to school and completing his Bachelor’s degree at Cal State University, Long Beach; his Master’s at California State University, Los Angeles and his Doctorate, in 2006, at the University of California, Los Angeles. Not only does Dr. Bobby Rodriguez talk the talk, he walks the walk!
“If Dr. Bobby can do it, so can you,” he tells his students.
“So, jazz it up,” he proclaims his mantra to me. As we end our phone call, I’m smiling and feeling inspired.
By Dee Dee McNeil
March 1, 2021
New Documentary ‘Billie’
On cable television’s Prime Channel, you will find a compelling look at the life of BILLIE HOLIDAY, using old interviews from some of the people who knew her best. It’s fascinating stuff! The reel-to-reel tapes spin off several very personal details of Lady Day’s life. It’s a New Black Film and Belga Production project, that reveals to us a young, jazz lover, consumed by revealing the real truth of Billie Holiday’s life and death. The slender, Jewish journalist, Ms. Linda Lipnack Kuehl, uses a reel-to-reel tape recorder to interview a host of people who knew and loved the iconic Ms. Holiday. You will hear the voices of Tony Bennett, Billie’s cousin John Fagan, a local pimp named Skinny Davenport and the great Count Basie. It seems that Basie and the twenty-something journalist struck up a very close friendship as she worked on this autobiography. Pigmeat Markham spoke of meeting and hearing Billie Holiday sing at the Apollo Theater, when everyone in the audience was smoking reefer and Ms. Holiday was doing the same in her dressing room. Pigmeat said she stood regal, in a green spotlight, and mesmerized the crowd.
We sometimes hear Billie Holiday herself speaking on tape, extricated from a historic radio interview she made. Billie tells the listening audience, “I always wanted to sing like Louie Armstrong played.”
You’ll hear opinions about the iconic Lady Day from her friend and sometimes roommate, Rubie Davies, who said some folks called Billie ‘Mr. Holiday’ because she could easily have her way with women or men. Philly Jo Jones, the famous drummer who played with Count Basie’s band, recalls when Billie was their frontline singer. Jo Jones said that John Hammond fired her from the band when she refused to sing the Blues songs he wanted her to sing. John Hammond comes right behind him (on tape) and denies that accusation. Count Basie says he can’t remember what happened to make Billie leave.
Artie Shaw recalls going on tour with Billie as his lead vocalist and how, in the Southern States, the white bandmembers were given hotel rooms and Billie would have to sleep in the bus, because they didn’t allow blacks to stay in those Southern hotels. During these tours, Billie’s friend Mae Weiss says that Ms. Holiday always ordered an extra hamburger and stuck it in her purse. This was to insure she would have food if they came to a restaurant that refused to serve people of color. Barney Kessel said he heard her soul when she sang “Strange Fruit” and Charlie Mingus said she exposed racism in this country with that same controversial song. The sorrowful ballad brow-beat white audiences and was gut-wrenching for African Americans. Although most audience members were intrigued by the song, some club customers walked right out, complaining that the poignant lyrics made them uncomfortable. Billie Holiday was one of the first jazz singers to include protest songs in her repertoire. Jimmy Rowles, legendary pianist said he met her when he was just twenty years old and she loved singing with the man she dubbed, “Prez,” Lester young.
In 1947, the Philadelphia police department shot up her Cadillac. You see the car with giant bullet holes in its frame. In an interview, the police chief said they resented her wearing full length furs and diamond earrings, and had been told, by higher-ups in the police department, that the “Feds” wanted her off the streets and in jail. Some said John Levy was behind her arrests, because he wanted to put her in prison so she could get clean from her drug abuse. But many believed it was because of her song, “Strange Fruit.”
Bobby Tucker, the pianist who accompanied her for four years accused her manager, John Levy, of being a pimp and a parasite. He said he once saw John Levy knock Billie Holiday to the ground in a very violent way. Historic trombonist and arranger, Melba Liston also recalls being on tour with Billie Holiday and saw her and John Levy get into a big fight on the tour bus. Melba said, when they got to the hotel, after the concert, Billie cracked Levy’s head open with a coca cola bottle that sent him to the hospital. She had to go to the hospital for her injuries as well.
Born April 7, 1915, Billie Holiday died in a hospital on July 17, 1959. She was only forty-four years old. She lived hard and died young, but left us a legacy of incredible music. When I listen to her recordings, she pulls every emotion out of me. Her voice is one-of-a-kind. She says, in her documentary, that the one song she wrote that sums up her life best is “Don’t Explain,” yet here we are, still trying to explain and make sense of her life and music.
Sadly, the young woman who was writing this biography on Billie Holiday (Ms. Linda Lipnack Kuehl) was found dead before she ever completed her project. Linda’s family said her life had been threatened for asking too many questions. The police report read she had jumped from a Washington, DC hotel window and ruled it a suicide. However, none of her friends or family believed it. This is a documentary with many facts about Billie Holiday’s life and Linda Lipnack Kuehl’s short life, that may surprise the viewer.
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ANDRA DAY stars in the Lee Daniels motion picture production that is currently airing on HULU Cable. Her voice strongly resembles Ms. Holiday in tone and phrasing. Notably, actress/singer, Andra Day even has her mannerisms locked into place, right down to the way Billie once arched her left eyebrow. Impressive! Casandra Monique Batie took the stage name of Andra Day by cutting the Casa off of her first name and adopting Lady Day’s last name as her own. She’s been a fan of Billie Holiday since she was eleven years old.
Lee Daniels, who directed “The Butler” motion picture and also the, award winning “Precious” film, continues his winning streak with this production. His ability to capsulize a picture of black-America, using an African American view point, is what makes Mr. Daniels genius at what he does.
In this film, he focuses on the continuous African American struggle against systematic racism and inequality during Billie Holiday’s lifetime. He spotlights her fight to use music to both protest and make a difference, i.e.: the song “Strange Fruit.” In this song, about lynching, Lady Day poignantly called attention to the wicked ways and the sins of the South, when it came to people of color.
Andra Day said she didn’t want to take the role because she wasn’t a seasoned actress and, in fact, had never acted. She was terrified of not being able to become a believable character. No worries. She obviously conquered her fears. The fledgling actress idolized Billie Holiday and Diana Ross, who played Billie in Berry Gordy’s 1972 Biopic, “Lady Sings the Blues.” Andra said she didn’t want to put a stain on either the legacy of Billie Holiday or the Ms. Ross depiction of Lady Day.
The soulful singer heard Lady Day when she was just a teenager. In preparing for this role, she read every book, looked at every documentary and movie about Billie Holiday and sat for long talks with Lee Daniels. He had a specific idea of how he wanted an actress to portray Billie. Ms. Andra Day wanted to be authentic in the role. She praises Tasha Smith, her acting coach, for giving her the tools she needed and to rise to the occasion. Andra expressed surprise at how diligent the FBI went after Billie for singing the song, “Strange Fruit.”
I will be absolutely shocked if Andra Day’s performance is not celebrated with multiple awards, including for her original song that she performs at the end of the film. This is a must-see motion picture, that gives Andra Day the role of a lifetime and gives the audience an entirely fresh look at the life and struggles of Billie Holiday, who the film dubs, Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement.
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By Dee Dee McNeil / jazz journalist
February 1, 2021
It’s Black History month and I was thinking about Donald Dean and his long history in jazz music. So, I gave him a call and interviewed him. That’s when I discovered some surprising and amazing things about Donald’s life and legacy as a jazz drummer.
Donald Wesley Dean was born in Kansas City, Mo on June 21, 1936. This is a midwestern city that has birthed a number of incredible and legendary jazz players including Mary Lou Williams, blues singer Big Joe Turner, Buster Smith, Ben Webster, Lester Young, bassist and bandleader Walter Page, famed pianist and bandleader Bennie Moten, Jay McShann, Count Basie and trumpeter Oran “Hot Lips” Page. Our very own Los Angeles legend, Betty Bryant, (singer, pianist and composer) is from Kansas City and also, Burt Bacharach. He’s not a jazz player, but we sure enjoy playing his songs. I asked Donald about his musical roots.
“My mom was a great lover of jazz and my dad also. She would take me to every concert that came to town. My dad was a hard worker, loved his ball games and smoked a pipe. He was a blue-collar laborer and worked more than one job to support our family. I had one sister, but she died young. I miss her to this day,” Donald told me.
“I took piano lessons for two or three years but I wanted to play saxophone. My dad was a great lover of Louie Jordan. My mom took me to see Louie Jordan in concert and he had all these fancy clothes on and he was smiling; all the girls were around him and I said, Ooo – I want to play saxophone. But, when I got to school and got the opportunity to play music, they were out of saxophones. So, they put me into the percussion section of the school band, until they got an available sax,” Donald recalled the reason he started playing drums.
NOTE: Louis Jordan was a popular songwriter, saxophonist and bandleader who had eighteen number one hit records on the Billboard R&B Charts. One of the most famous was “Caldonia”. His song lyrics and stage presence were often tinged with a little comedy.
“I attended R. T. Coles Vocational Jr. High School in Kansas City, MO. I was in the 8th grade, and Leo Davis was the musical conductor there. They stuck me into the percussion section and this girl, Shirley Edmunson, was quite a great drummer. I was very disappointed to be stuck in the drum section, to be honest with you. I showed my resentment and she said, well – can you do this and can you do that? She played the drums and put a ‘roll’ down and said, let’s see if you can do that. She challenged me! I immediately left school and got a drum teacher to teach me how to play a roll. Dave Burdell was my teacher. I loved him. He taught a lot of us drummers around there. So, I learned to ‘roll.’ Then I went back to school and showed Shirley I could roll,” Donald chuckled.
“But I still didn’t want to play drums. However, my drum teacher encouraged me. Maybe he saw something in me. He said, hey man, you should stick with this. I said Ok, I’ll do it on the side. One drummer that came up in my neighborhood was James Gadson. Surprisingly, when I went to school, my teachers put me in the band playing mellophone, which is like a French Horn. Strange, all through school I ended up playing French Horn and trumpet. I played my drums outside of school, because when the music teacher heard that I had a little success drumming, he wouldn’t let me play drums. He said it was because I was playing professionally. See, at that time, I was lucky enough to get recruited by a band led by a famous piano player and singer. His name was Amos Milburn and he was a popular rhythm and blues artist in the 1950s.
“Amos Milburn came to town and this girl recommended me to him. I knocked on his door and he looked at me and said what the Hell is this? He was shocked, ‘cause I was fourteen years old. He told me, well, come on. I can’t change it now. So, we went to the gig. He was so impressed, that we all left the gig that night and the band came over to my house. Amos and his manager begged my mother to let me go on the road that summer with them. They promised to take good care of me. So, at fourteen I went on the road with Amos Millburn. I was so young, my mother had to write a note to permit me to play with the band. She had to have that note notarized. On our breaks, I had to go into the office. I couldn’t hang out in the clubs we were playing. The guys in the band would all get drunk and run out of money. They’d come try to borrow my money, ‘cause I was putting all my earnings away. I didn’t go out and party, because I was too young. Their manager would tell me if I loaned them money I should get paid back with interest. Consequently, I ended up going home with a whole lot of money.
“I was working with some talented people like Willie Smith on alto saxophone, Tina Brooks on tenor saxophone, Wayne Bennett on guitar, a guy they called Sweet Pea on baritone saxophone and later, Donald Wilkerson on baritone Sax took Sweet Pea’s place. It was a great training ground for me. On That trip, we were in Cleveland Ohio when I met Little Jimmy Scott. He came over to me and gave me good advice. He was really strung-out at that time and he warned me against drugs. Later in life, we met again in Los Angeles. He hired me to work with him. Even though he was so high the original night I met him in Ohio, he still remembered me.
“After working with Amos Milburn, I went on the road with the Melody Lane Orchestra. I was fifteen. It was a big band. We toured South and North Dakota. I got paid in silver dollars. I will never forget that! I made $35/per night. So, I was making over $200 a week. I didn’t spend a dime. I went home with a drawer full of money. My parents were so proud of me.
“I went to the Navy, after high school, because I wanted to go to college. I went to get GI help to continue my education. In the service, I was placed in electronics. I did secret code work. I worked up and down the East Coast with various bands on my days off. One of the bands was with Gene Barge out of Chicago. He played tenor saxophone.
“I was stationed in Norfolk, VA and later on the West Coast, in Hawaii. After the Navy, I enrolled in the University of Kansas (KU) in the music program. I was studying to be a Music Therapist. That’s when I got a call from trumpeter, Carmell Jones, who wanted me to come to the West Coast and record a record with him and Harold Land Sr.,” Donald Dean explained what brought him to Los Angeles.
It was 1961. Once he arrived in L.A., there was no going back to Kansas City. That record with Carmell and Harold Land Sr. came out in 1962 titled, “Business Meeting” on Pacific Jazz label. You can hear Donald’s tasty drum chops clearly on this song from that album.
“I was working with Marvin Jenkins. We were at the Playboy Club five nights a week. One night, Les McCann came through and, on my break, he said to me, why don’t you come by my house for rehearsal on Saturday morning? So, I went by and after rehearsal he told everybody, we leave for our tour on Monday morning. That was 1967. In 1969, we recorded the historic “Swiss Movement” album for Atlantic Records with Eddie Harris and Les McCann. This was followed by “Much Les” released in the same year.”
In 1970, Donald recorded the McCann album “Comment” and in 1971 the popular “Second Movement” album. There were two more releases in 1972; “Invitation to Openness” and “Talk to the People.” He was on the road constantly and making good money drumming with the Les McCann aggregation. In 1973, they recorded two other albums: “Live at Montreux” and “Layers,” still on the Atlantic label.
“Right after working with Les McCann I started working with Jimmy Smith. This was before he opened his supper club in the Valley. Jimmy and I were great friends. It was his wife, Lola, who I didn’t get along with. Ray Crawford was the guitarist in the group and we were playing all over the place and recording. Yamaha came in and gave us all instruments for us to endorse. They gave me two drum kits. They gave Jimmy an organ and Ray Crawford a guitar. Lola started giving me a hard time, because I had a big following just like Jimmy did. A lot of my friends came around and used to hang out and she didn’t appreciate the women who were giving Jimmy too much attention. I think she blamed me. So, she got pissed off and fired me. Next thing I knew, she wanted the drums back. I endorsed the drums in my name and I wasn’t thinking about giving her my drums. So, she took me to court. Of course, she lost that case. Funny, later on down the road, she called me back to play with Jimmy.”
Donald Dean recorded “Bluesmith” on Verve with Jimmy Smith in 1972. In 1974 they recorded “Paid in Full” on the Mojo label and in 1975 Mojo released another record titled “75.”
“I was also working with Willie Bobo around that time and O.C. Smith. I also worked with Kenny Durham and Dexter Gordon,” Donald reminisced.
In 1988, Donald recorded with the great Horace Tapscott. The album was titled “Live” and released on the Americana label. Later he was on the 2019 Tapscott release of Dark Tree “Why Don’t You Listen.” He also recorded with the late Earl Anderza, on an album called “Outa Sight” released in 1998 by Pacific jazz. I asked him who Earl Anderza was.
“Earl was a very good alto sax man. Unfortunately, he was a drug addict and he couldn’t stay out of jail,” Donald acknowledged with sadness tinging his words.
In the summer of 1988, when I was singing jazz instead of writing about it, this journalist got a four-month gig in Jakarta, Indonesia. I had the pleasure of working with Donald Dean on drums, Spanish bassist, Salvadore on double bass and Dwight Dickerson on piano as my trio. Working with Donald Dean was pure pleasure. Not only was he a master timekeeper, he always had a warm smile, no matter what the situation, and a quick sense of humor. He taught me a good attitude on the road is half the battle.
With the onslaught of the pandemic, Donald hasn’t been playing his drums much. The day I talked to him, he had just taken his second shot of the vaccine. Until COVID19 made everything come to a crashing halt, Donald Dean was offering inspiration to young people in schools by presenting concerts to inner-city youth and giving them a glimpse of jazz history on public school stages around Los Angeles. Speaking of youth, he is proud to brag about his grandson, Jamael Dean who is an amazing young jazz pianist and his granddaughter, Darynn Dean who is a jazz vocalist. I’ve heard them both and they each have exciting futures in the music business. Jamael already has released one album and Darynn is working on recording her debut CD.
Three Generations of Deans: William Dean, Donald Dean Sr., & Jamael Dean
“Have you seen that Lexus commercial on TV?” Donald asks me. Without waiting for my reply he says, “My grandson, Jamael is on it. He’s doing the Lexus commercial and he wanted me to do something with him one day, so I went with him. And lo and behold, I’m in the commercial with him.” Donald Dean’s life is full of surprises!
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By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
January 1, 2021
As I sit here, writing about the intensity and genius of woodwind master, Bennie Maupin, I’m listening to his album “The Jewel in the Lotus” and admiring the beauty of his music.
Although it was written and released in 1974, it is still as dynamic and innovative in 2021 as it was back-in-the-day. In fact, in 2011, Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer (Berlin-based DJs and composers) used samples of The Jewel in the Lotus as the basis for their track “Rensenada” on a remix album.
Listening to Bennie’s original composition, “Ensenada,” featuring Herbie Hancock on piano, Buster Williams on bass, both Frederick Waits and Billy Hart on drums, with Bill Summers on percussion is another release in 1974; an album by ECM Records titled “Spiritual Jazz Classics.” As I listen to it, I feel as though I should be meditating and connecting to some spiritual place inside my being. Bennie’s music does that to you. It directs you to a higher place within yourself. Another of his beautiful pieces is “Escondido,” that pulls you into a meditative place of peace. His melodies are both hypnotic and rhythmic.
But where did Bennie Maupin’s amazing talent come from? What influenced him? It all started on August 29th in 1940 when little Bennie was born into this world at Edith Kay Thomas Hospital. His parents had migrated from Mississippi to the Midwest motor city of Detroit, Michigan, where his father secured work in the automobile factory and his mother became a domestic worker. Once a week, his mother would take little Bennie to the popular Paradise Theater to enjoy live music concerts by famed entertainers like Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington’s orchestra, Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong. That historic building, that was once The Paradise Theater on Woodward Avenue, is now referred to as Orchestra Hall. It remains a popular concert venue.
“I was born on the East side of Detroit. We lived between Rivard & Russell. The Gordy’s lived practically around the corner from us,” Bennie Maupin told me a few days ago.
“I remember music was always in the air around me; at church, in live concerts and on the radio. I had three brothers and I was the youngest. No one in my family played music, but my mother enjoyed it immensely. There were a lot of musicians in my neighborhood. I think I was a pre-teen; maybe eleven or twelve years old. I used to hear this neighbor named Jesse playing saxophone. He was in a group and sometimes they would practice at his house. I’d stand outside and listen.
“I think one of my first mentors, who really comes to mind was the great Teddy Harris. He served in the Korean war and was injured. When he came back, 1954 or 55, I met him and he invited me to his house to study music. He played woodwind instruments and piano. He groomed me a lot. Teddy had enough skills to copy things from records and write arrangements. He was once musical director for the Supremes. He could play, conduct and arrange. He groomed me in those beginning years,” Bennie recalled.
“Then, there was Sam Sanders who was a little bit older than me. We both attended North Eastern high school. The very first band I ever played in (outside of the high school band) was with Sam Sanders. We both went to the Teal School of Music. Joe Henderson went there too. It was located on Cass street in Detroit. It was a big old house with two floors and a lot of rooms. The guy who founded it, Larry Teal, turned it into a music studio. His son was one of my teachers. I wanted to play in my high school band. The band director, a guy named Rex Hall, told me, if you want to play in my band, you’re going to have to take private lessons. I said, how do I do that? And he hooked me up. He sent me to Teal Music School.
“There was a spot called ‘The Minor Key’. All the musicians hung out there. You could hear greats like Yusef Lateef, Miles Davis and Elvin Jones. My good friend, Sam Sanders, was studying with Yusef Lateef. I got a lot of my music information from Sam, secondhand. I met Yusef later on down the road. Yusef lived in Detroit. We’re talking about maybe 1952. I used to go up to the World Stage in Detroit. It was frequented by Yusef, Barry Harris, Kenny Burrell, Donald Byrd, Hank Jones, Milt Jackson, … all those great guys who came from Detroit and later moved to New York. Jazz wise, it was happening. Barry Harris and Kenny Burrell, were some of the guys who were pretty savvy in terms of business. They found an upper floor of a furnisher store and they took one of the rooms, painted it, put some colored lights in there and a piano. That was the original World Stage. These were my places to go, because I wasn’t twenty-one yet. No alcohol was sold and I could get in those places as a teen and hear the music. I also used to go to clubs and stand outside to listen. I used to listen to music through the window. I got to hear Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane playing on Twelfth Street at a place called the 12th St. Lounge. I would stand outside the club and listen. The bouncers used to tell me I couldn’t stand in front, but I could go around to the side and listen. So, that was cool. Later, as I started to really listen more, I became aware of Yusef Lateef, also Barry Harris and Kenny Cox. In fact, pianist, composer, arranger, Kenny Cox and I went to high school together.
“I also went to high school with Alice Coltrane. Alice McLeod is her family name. She’s from Detroit and she’s one of my very, very important teachers. She showed me what versatility was all about. She was older than me by three or four years. When I got to high school, as a freshman, Alice was playing the Timpani; the orchestral drums. She played the snare drum too. I discovered one day, at a school assembly, where kids would sing a song or tap dance, just do whatever they could do, Alice came out, sat down at the piano and played that too. She’s my mentor and very, very important to me. She was extremely close to the great Budd Powell. Alice was an amazing person and a fantastic musician. She went to Europe, lived in France, and then eventually she came back to Detroit. That’s when I really got to know her. I think trombonist, George Bohannon, introduced me to her. They had a group, a really good group with Alice, George and a number of other local musicians. I was influenced by watching what they were doing.”
At that point, I asked Bennie Maupin about his relationship to John Coltrane, who Alice would eventually marry.
Bennie explained, “Well, I knew John Coltrane, but I knew them separately. I knew Alice in my earlier years. Coltrane came to Detroit a lot. I was able to get to know him and go hear him. He played where there was no alcohol served at that place called, The World Stage. So, I got to know John and every time he came out, I would talk to him and ask him questions. Plus, whenever he got done playing in the clubs, and doing whatever he was doing, he would go and play out in an area known as Conant Gardens (in Detroit). In Conant Gardens, Joe Brazil had a really nice house. I think he was a civil engineer. He made good money and had a beautiful home with a piano down in the basement. It was in that house that I really got to connect with John Coltrane. Cause the gigs would be over at two in the morning, but John liked to spend time with the musicians; plus, he just liked to play. I got to meet him so many times and experienced so many wonderful moments listening to him and talking to him about what I was doing and what I was working on.
“Looking back, I met everybody that I needed to know, with the exception of a few people, I met them all in Detroit, before I even went to New York. Actually, I met Sonny Rollins in Detroit. See, Detroit is the hub of all of my stuff. That’s where I met Coltrane. That’s where I met Freddie Hubbard. You know, I spent a fair amount of time being able to talk with Coltrane and also Sonny Rollins. Sonny and I are in contact with each other daily. He’s another one of my mentors. By the time I went to New York, I knew a lot of really important people.”
Don Heckman wrote in an article for the LA Times, that Maupin and Sonny Rollins became fast friends.
“Meeting Rollins changed my life,” Bennie told Heckman in 2001.
“When the Rollins group returned to Detroit for a rare two-week run at a local club, it meant I could see and hear him every night, sit and talk about music and mouthpieces and all sorts of things. It was great, and it continued when I moved to New York. Most people are aware of Sonny going up and practicing on the bridge over the East River, but he used to like to go out to New Jersey to practice in the woods too. He’d call me up sometimes, at night, and we’d just head out into the woods to play”
Before The Four Tops singing group signed with Motown, in 1962 or 1963, they were already touring and working venues all over the country. When they offered Bennie Maupin a road-gig that included performances in New York City, New Jersey and Upstate New York, Bennie gladly accepted the gig. He told me about that time in his life.
“My Four Tops tour was only two or three weeks, something like that. During that period, I got to go to New York City for the very first time in my life. On my days off, I was wondering around, just listening to the city; to the sounds, to the smell of it; to the languages. I was fascinated by everything. I somehow, found myself down in Greenwich Village. I got to a place called the ‘5 Spot.’ I read the sign on the window and it said Thelonious Monk would be there that night. I said oh! Ok. Now I know where I’m supposed to be. That’s when I made up my mind. I’m going to move to New York.”
Maupin and alto saxophonist, Marion Brown wound up being neighbors. Everyone around him was experimenting with the new Avant Garde jazz scene. Bennie Maupin wanted a piece of it and it didn’t take long for him to establish his talent. He found himself playing with Horace Silver, Andrew Hill and Lee Morgan. He also met Jack DeJohnette in the ‘Big Apple’. DeJohnette lived on the Lower East Side and so did Maupin. They struck up a close friendship. After playing only 6-months with piano icon, Bill Evans, DeJohnette left the Bill Evans trio to join Miles, at the request of Miles himself. He then told Miles about woodwind player, Bennie Maupin. Miles slipped into a live show one night, featuring McCoy Tyner. That’s where he heard Bennie playing his bass clarinet in a tiny but popular New York City jazz club called, “Slugs.” Not long after, Bennie got a phone call that summoned him to the studio to record with Miles.
“It was like painting. Miles was a painter. He used the studio as his palette and created these beautiful things that came out of that. … The kind of inspiration and what came out of me is just there! He gave me total freedom to be myself. It’s rare that you get a total forum to be like that, so I took full advantage of it. I wasn’t shy about it at all!” 
Bennie Maupin recalled the exciting experience that created “Bitches Brew.” This was the album that shocked and pissed off hard-nosed, conservative, be-bop fans and issued in a brand, new day for jazz. This album created the pot for cooking up fusion jazz and serving it piping hot to worldwide listeners. It was Bennie Maupin’s amazing bass clarinet addition that spiced up that extraordinary Davis ensemble. Bennie went on to record on other Miles Davis masterpieces like “On the Corner,” “Big Fun,” “Circle in the Round,” “Directions,” and the “Jack Johnson boxed sets.” But when Miles Davis asked him to join his tour group, Maupin had already committed to working with and recording with Lee Morgan. Much to Miles’ dismay, Maupin turned down the famed trumpeter’s gig offer. Instead, he recorded “Live at the Lighthouse” with Lee Morgan. Morgan included five of Bennie Maupin’s original compositions in that 1970 release on Bluenote Records. At that point, Maupin was a published composer, pianist and woodwind master. He was growing and flourishing in New York.
In demand, he found himself working with heavyweight champions of jazz like Roy Haynes, Pharoah Sanders, Chick Corea, Eddie Henderson and Woody Shaw. When Herbie Hancock formed his own sextet, he invited Bennie Maupin to become a part of it. That Mwandishi Band dissolved in 1973. Then, Maupin and Hancock formed the famed Head Hunters. It included Harvey Mason on drums, Bill Summers on percussion and Paul Jackson on bass. Their work together led to both Gold and Platinum certified sales of that October, 1973 album release. Head Hunters became the first jazz album to ever sell over a million copies. Later, Harvey Mason was replaced by Mike Clark on drums. I asked Bennie Maupin about that time in his life, going from recording with Miles to becoming part of the Head Hunters and touring endlessly.
“Well – you know, we did a lot of working. So, when a cycle comes to an end, you do need to recharge yourself. I discovered a lot by moving to California and that completely revolutionized my life. I went from New York’s fast pace to Pasadena, California. I was able to develop a family atmosphere and put some of the resources that I had to use. I bought some property,” Benny described his1974 move to a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles in the mountain community of Pasadena/Altadena, California.
However, Maupin let no grass grow under his feet. The Bennie Maupin Ensemble was a result of his close musical association with dynamic drummer, Michael Stephans and percussionist, Munyungo Jackson, along with bassist Darek “Oles” Oleszkiewicz. In 1974, Bennie Maupin became bandleader and recorded “The Jewel in the Lotus” for ECM. That album remains timeless, as does his amazing work with the Head Hunters group, who in 1976 released their second album, “Survival of the Fittest/Straight From the Gate.” In 1977, Verve Records released Bennie Maupin’s “Slow Traffic to the Right” followed in 1978 by “Moonscapes.” Maupin’s next bandleading mission was recorded in 1998 on the Intuition label, “Driving While Black” which featured him working with synthesize master, Dr. Patrick Gleeson who created loops and creative tracks for Bennie to play his saxophones over. In 2002, bassist John B. Williams and Bennie Maupin united in a project they call, “The Maupin/Williams Project – Live at Club Rhapsody in Okinawa” that displays their straight-ahead mentality and jazz/be-bop roots. In 2003, he released his most recent endeavor, “Penumbra” on the Cryptogramophone label, which is more contemporary jazz. Several overseas albums have also been released, but these I have listed remain the most accessible on YouTube.
If you listen closely to the smooth stylized delivery Maupin has on all his woodwind instruments, you may hear the influence of John Coltrane, Yusef Lateef or Sonny Rollins, but his sound and approach is uniquely his own. I find myself endeared to his work, whether it’s straight-ahead jazz with John B. Williams or fusion jazz with Herbie Hancock, he brings a spiritual sweetness and musical surprises to please and inspire the listener. Bennie Maupin is a master among us, currently working on a legacy book that will delve into the three cities that participated in molding this musician into an iconic exclamation mark next to the word jazz. He is a living tribute and an asset to Detroit, New York City and the Los Angeles jazz community; one who is loved and respected worldwide.
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By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
Jeff Ellwood is the current Director of Instrumental Jazz Studies at Mt. San Antonio Community College in Walnut, California. After much prodding by his contemporaries, he decided to take a solo journey into becoming a recording artist and bandleader. Ellwood carefully picked the crème-de-la-crème of Southern California’s wealth of jazz musicians. He invited the last drummer to play with the great Bill Evans, Joe LaBarbera and his longtime friend, Alan Pasqua on piano, who also was the person who introduced Jeff to the Southern California jazz community.
Jeff and Alan Pasqua met at the prestigious Henry Mancini Institute when Ellwood joined the very few instrumentalists who were carefully selected, from all over the world, to participate in a month-long musical seminar at UCLA. Alan Pasqua was there to teach an improvisational clinic in 2003 and was completely captivated by Ellwood’s rendition of ‘Giant Steps’ on his tenor saxophone. It wasn’t long before the blossoming saxophonist became part of Pasqua’s band and performed with them for the next seven years. Pasqua is also co-producer of Jeff Ellwood’s new album entitled, “The Sounds Around the House.” Ellwood explained:
“So, I was accepted to the Henry Mancini Institute in 2002 and they asked me to come back in 2003. I was back home, in Southern California, after attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. Alan came into the Mancini Institute to teach a master class. He lectured and then he’d have people play. After I played, he said to me, where are you from? I said, I’m living at my mom’s house in Riverside and he was like, you live here? I’m going to call you. And of course, I was thinking to myself, oh sure, you’re going to call me. At that point, I just didn’t think he would really call,” Jeff Ellwood was full of disbelief that someone he greatly admired, a master pianist like Alan Pasqua, would actually call him.
“He did end up calling and I went to his house for an audition. And then, after it was over, he said: Oh, by the way, we have our first gig in two weeks,” Jeff chuckled remembering his surprise and good fortune.
For the next seven years Ellwood was an integral part of the Alan Pasqual band. But it was a long journey to that moment in time. At ten-years-old, young Jeff was diagnosed with severe asthma. The family doctor suggested he take up a woodwind instrument to strengthen his lungs. So, the boy began toying with the saxophone. He taught himself to play and by age fifteen he had joined a rock band and they were playing at Hollywood’s famous Whisky a Go Go. Jeff Ellwood found himself intoxicated with music and he also discovered that girls were hypnotically attracted to musicians. At that point, he had absolutely no knowledge of music theory, but he knew he wanted to be a musician. He explained it in an interview on The Best Saxophone Website Ever with Zach Sollitto.
“In some ways, I have regrets that I never had lessons in high school, but in some ways, I don’t have regrets because it forced me to figure things out and explore playing differently. You have to understand that when I came out of high school, I was awful. I did not know my major scales or how to read music. My first week at community college they made me play lead alto because I had a good sound, but I could not read. I remember the first tune we had to play was a Mark Taylor arrangement of ‘All the Things You Are’ and we had to play that in the 2nd week of school. … I had no idea what the symbols meant on the page. It was a long process for me to learn scales, chords, how to read, etc. and I played a lot of wrong notes during that time. But I knew after high school that I wanted to pursue music.”
Who could have guessed that his love of that famous jazz standard, “All the Things You Are” would inspire him to compose the opening tune for his new CD, titled “U-R.” It becomes a tasty and up-tempo way to open his debut CD release.
Getting back to his story, after graduating high school, the young musician knew he needed to learn more about music academically. Consequently, he attended Riverside Community College and majored in music. That nurturing environment prepared him for his dream of attending Berklee College of Music. Berklee prepared Jeff Ellwood for that Mancini audition where he met Alan Pasqua.
“I was living in Riverside and just trying to carve out a path. To me, the fact that Alan was the first person to recognize that I had a different voice and to appreciate that, it just gave me a little more confidence in believing in what I did. It was coming from somebody I respected and those seven years were a great learning lesson for me. It was like, you know what? We are who we are and not everybody’s going to get it.”
Jeff also called Darek Oles for his recording project. He’s one of Southern California’s first-call bass players and as a special guest, he asked saxophonist Bob Sheppard to join him on track six, a tune written by Dick Oatts (“King Henry”). It originally featured Oatts and Jerry Bergonzi on their “South Paw” album for the Steeplechase label.
“I always loved Dick Oatts. Dick and Jerry Bergonzi are good friends. I happily included that ‘King Henry’ Oatts tune on my album,” Ellwood said.
I asked Jeff about other musical influences and he was quick to again mention Jerry Bergonzi and also Rick Margitza, who played with Miles Davis in 1989 on the Human Nature tour at the Umbria Jazz Festival.
“When I was eighteen or nineteen years old in community college, trying to figure this stuff out, people were telling me to listen to Coltrane and Listen to Michael Brecker. When I listened to them, I just could not process what they were doing. It was something I had to come to later in life. But I remember, I went to a trumpet player friend-of-mines house. He was playing an album by Maynard Ferguson with a lot of Los Angeles cats playing on it; Matt Harris was the arranger. And he featured two young saxophone players, Rick Margitza and another young player, Tim Ries. Maynard was playing a funky version of Body and Soul and I heard this tenor saxophone player come in. Immediately, I said, who is that? That is how I want to play music. The light bulb just goes on. The sound and the phrasing; the approach and everything; I just immediately fell in love with everything about Rick Margitza and I started buying every record I could find. That’s way before you could go on Amazon. I had to go to record stores. I was tracking his stuff down and trying to figure out where he was coming from. I finally found someone who had his phone number and I said, please, can I have it? At that time, Rick was still living in New York. He lives in Paris now. Young, fearless and determined, I cold–called him. I said, I’m in Los Angeles and you’re in New York, but I need to study with you. We agreed, I would mail him a check and a cassette tape of me playing. He would flip to the other (blank) side of the cassette tape and make his comments and send it back to me. He has made a huge impact in my life,” Jeff Ellwood asserted in a firm voice.
“One time somebody asked Michael Brecker what it’s like to be the greatest saxophone player in the world and Michael Brecker said, I don’t know. Ask Jerry Bergonzi,” Ellwood chuckles as he relates that story to me.
“I also spent a lot of time listening to Jerry Bergonzi. I loved his playing and compositions. One day, I just sent Jerry Bergonzi an e-mail and asked him if he would share his lead sheets with me. He was like, sure. He started scanning and sending them. Everything was all handwritten. I said, Jerry, would you like somebody to change these sheets into a music notation software? Clean them up? I wasn’t asking for money to do it. I felt, through his records, he has given me so much. It was the only way I could think about repaying him. I didn’t realize it would turn into 250 some sheets,” Jeff shared.
Currently, he has all of Jerry Bergonzi’s songs on his website and when Jerry has an overseas gig, he refers the overseas bandmembers to that website to pull Ellwood’s neatly penned charts.
While talking to Jeff Ellwood, I recognize his funny, tongue-in-cheek humor. He’s quick to make me laugh. He’s also a humble man with a somewhat precocious personality. Once he sets his mind to something, Jeff Ellwood goes after it, full speed ahead. He and I both understand that choosing music as an occupation is a hard and challenging decision; especially for a jazz musician. He spoke warmly of his family and their loving support of his musical career choice.
“Nobody in my family plays music. Nobody can understand where my talent came from. When I was a fifteen-year-old kid, I was playing in a rock band. We were pretty popular and playing at the Whiskey a Go Go on a Wednesday night. We needed a place to rehearse and my mom was like, oh, go ahead use our garage. So once or twice a week, she’s sitting in the living room just listening to this pounding music and never said anything. Never stopped it. On the other hand, my father said, I’m just letting you know, you WILL go to college. You don’t have a choice in that. He said, you can be anything you want to be. You can choose any college you want to and I’ll pay for it. So, they gave me kind of carte blanche to just do what I really wanted to do. I told them I was going to go to music school and they never said a single thing. They really supported me. I was in my early thirties when I got my first full time job teaching. I remember calling my dad and telling him, you don’t have to worry about me anymore.”
Jeff Ellwood has found himself walking along a pathway of masters and to his credit has played with historic and iconic names like Tony Bennett, Bill Cunliffe, Jimmy Haslip, Dave Carpenter, Darek Oles, Randy Brecker, John Williams, Quincy Jones, Arturo Sandoval and many more. He shared a story with me about meeting the great James Moody.
“When I was working on my Master’s Degree at Cal State Fullerton, the Director of Jazz Studies said James Moody was going to come into town as a guest artist and they were going to go out to lunch. I said please, please, please, let me be at that lunch. He relented and I was just fortunate to attend lunch with Moody and his wife Linda and the Director of Jazz Studies. I kept telling James Moody I wanted to take a lesson with him and later, we’re sitting in a room hanging out. He was 77 years old at that time. He was showing me something and I said, I do a little something like that. I played it and he says, write that down for me. I kind of looked at him and repeated, write that down? And he looked at me and he was like, young man, I’m 77 years old, but I still get up every day and practice and still have the desire to learn and get better and hear something new. I’m sitting there stunned, because he wants me to write down my ‘lick.’ That was a really a profound moment for me. And then, after the lesson I asked, how much do I owe you? Moody says, you don’t owe me anything. The only thing that you owe me is to keep passing this music on.
“I ended up running into him (Moody) at a convention a year or two later. I was like, oh, there’s James Moody. He’s not going to remember me. He meets so many people. But he did remember me. He says, Jeff, it’s so good to see you. Linda, do you remember Jeff? I was like OMG; this amazing man remembers who I am? In my office, behind my desk is a giant picture of James Moody. Also, in my home, my dad found an art print of James Moody and that hangs in my home office. Students who come to take a lesson ask, who is that guy? I say well, sit down. Then, I tell them an amazing story about who James Moody is. It’s a nice way to pass on his legacy.”
On April 13, 2004, a special Henry Mancini Tribute was given at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Among the performers were: Michael Feinstein, James and Jeanne Galway, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Take 6, and Monica Mancini. The Alumni Orchestra of the Henry Mancini Institute was under the direction of Patrick Williams and Jeff Ellwood was part of that Orchestra. I asked him about that experience.
“A lot of the famous people I’ve worked with were at events that I participated in representing the Mancini Institute. I think Julie Andrews was a part of that tribute to Henry Mancini and John Williams. Stevie (Wonder) came out and sang “Moonriver.” Quincy Jones was there too. It was also a Mancini Institute gig when I worked with Tony Bennett. He was doing a thing at the Kodak Theater and they needed to assemble an orchestra to back him up. The nice thing about being affiliated with the Mancini Institute, they’d get calls to do a lot of other things when the Institute wasn’t working. For example, they flew me to New York to play at Lincoln Center a couple of times,” Jeff Ellwood praised the Institute named for famed composer Henry Mancini.
Ellwood’s debut album is a smooth testament to his musical journey, his tenacity in the business, his unique style and creativity and showcases both his saxophone and composer skills. But, in addition to recording and performing, Jeff Ellwood has found a genuine love for teaching. In 2018, Ellwood’s Jazz Studies Program at Mt. San Antonio College won the Downbeat’s Community College Award for Best Jazz Ensemble and in 2019 they came in second place right behind Riverside City College, where Jeff Ellwood once taught for five years.
“When I moved back home, from Boston to California, Riverside City College gave me my first teaching position, teaching an improvisation class. My former saxophone teacher is the Director of Jazz Studies at Riverside College and he gave me the job. I only had a Batchelor’s Degree, so I could only teach the performance-based classes. He pulled me aside one time and said, I think you’re kind of good at this. I think it’s time to go back and get a Master’s Degree. So, I got my Master’s Degree. I remained at Riverside Community College for five or six years and now I’ve been full-time at Mt. San Antonio College for fifteen years.
“I find there are a lot of young musicians who fortunately have a good mind set and are making recordings and videos and getting those things distributed on social media. But what I tell my jazz history class, I don’t want to make the class so difficult for them. However, if you happen to fall down some stairs sometime and you end up in a jazz club, you will at least understand the amount of work, education, blood sweat and tears that has gone into playing this music. You need to understand that a jazz musician is like a classical musician. We have to have all the technical skills of a classical musician. We have to learn to play in all twelve keys and to improvise. We’re not just going up there winging it. It’s like hours and hours of practice time figuring out what to do. So, whether you go out and buy a jazz record, at least you have some kind of appreciation of what goes into it. That’s what I want to do, is to get that fundamental understanding of how deep these musicians are. Like James Moody told me, just pass it on!”
Jeff Ellwood is “passing it on” as an educator but also as an artist. Pick up his newly released CD “The Sounds Around the House” to enjoy the warm, unique sound of Ellwood’s tenor saxophone jazz. It will make a great holiday stocking stuffer!
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By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
KENNY KOTWITZ & THE LA JAZZ QUINTET – “WHEN LIGHTS ARE LOW”- PM Records LLC
Kenny Kotwitz, accordion and celeste; John Chiodini, guitar(s); Nick Mancini, vibraphone; Chuck Berghofer, upright bass; Kendall Kay, drums/percussion.
This album of music is a centennial tribute to the Art Van Damme Quintet. Art was a trail blazer among jazz accordionists. He recorded 42 albums as a leader and another 100 as a sideman and boasted a 15-minute, NBC radio program that ran for 139 episodes (The Art Van Damme Show) back in the 1940s. One of Van Damme’s few students is accordionist, Kenny Kotwitz. Consequently, producer Peter Maxymych reached out to Kenny Kotwitz when he discovered him on YouTube.
“I needed the right accordion player for the project. I heard Kenny Kotwitz play on YouTube and I knew that his style would be perfect for this. After contacting him, I found that he had been a close friend of Art Van Damme, so it all made perfect sense,” the producer explained.
Kenny Kotwitz picked the musicians he wanted to be in the LA Jazz Quintet and did all the arranging for this album. Kenny had fond memories of Art Van Damme.
“When I studied with Art, he would give me an arrangement each week. I would take it home; hand copy it and analyze what was written for the instrumentation. Since they were doing a radio show five days a week for NBC, they had a lot of material. I knew that was the style Peter Maxymych was looking for and I knew that these L.A. master musicians would fit easily into that sound,” Kotwitz shared.
John Chiodini shines on “Estate” (that translates to ‘summer’), laying down a beautiful guitar introduction and amply supporting Kenny Kotwitz during his accordion spotlight. Nick Mancini adds his tenacious vibraphone work to the mix with Chuck Berghofer on double bass and drummer Kendall Kay locking the Latin rhythm tightly in place. This album is a testament to Van Damme’s unique, stylized accordion work and graces each listener with a bakers-dozen of familiar jazz standard songs, played in a sweet, moderate-tempo way. You’ll enjoy these Los Angeles music masters as they interpret “Skylark,” the sultry “Cry Me A River,” and the title tune, “When Lights Are Low,” along with many more you will recognize.
This is easy-listening music, lovely and relaxing, that features Kenny Kotwitz, a protégé of Van Damme, who became a busy studio musician in Los Angeles in 1966 and has gone on to become a master accordion player, a pianist, an arranger and competent composer. In 1983, he even recorded an album with his idol titled, “Art Van Damme and Friends.” With the completion of this project, Kenny Kotwitz imagines Art Van Damme smiling down at this project from heaven and enjoying it, the same way you will.
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DAVID SILLS DOUBLE GUITAR QUINTET – “NATURAL LINES” – Gut String Records
David Sills, tenor saxophone/alto flute; Mike Scott & Larry Koonse, guitars; Blake White, bass; Tim Pleasant, drums.
This is the 17th album release for reed player, David Sills. It features seven original compositions by Sills and tunes by Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Jimmy Davis, Alan Broadbent and two of Sills’ accompanists, guitarists Larry Koonse and Mike Scott. Opening with Scott’s “Minor Monk,” this group swings hard and the catchy melody repeats in your head. This is the sign of a well-written composition. The Sills’ group has a tight, cohesive sound. When David Sills comes to the forefront on his horn, his mellow tone lights up the musical stage. I played this song twice before moving on. You rarely hear a quintet that utilizes two guitars, but it works! David Sills explained:
“In recent years, most of my performances have taken place in venues in which no piano was available, so to fill the role of the missing piano, I began adding a second guitar. This instrumentation seemed to open up many musical possibilities and allowed for an interesting mix of sonic colors. Thus, the idea for this recording, featuring a double guitar quintet, was born.”
Certainly, it helps to use some of the best players in Southern California like Larry Koonse and Mike Scott, who is a founding member of the Los Angeles Jazz Collective. Together, Scott and Koonse create a rich, beautiful rhythm section, along with Tim Pleasant on drums and Blake White on bass. They become a cohesive palate where Sills can paint his silky, smooth tenor saxophone sound. “Sonny’s Side” is a David Sill original composition and it’s another swinging arrangement. I wondered if it was a tribute to Sonny Rollins. When reading the publicist’s promo package, I discovered it actually was. Tim Pleasant colors the music on his trap drums and holds the swing time in perfect place. Half way through, the ensemble give’s Pleasant a time to shine on an impressive drum solo. Blake White, on double bass, locks in with Pleasant and the groove is impeccable.
On the Alan Broadbent tune, “Quiet Is the Star” Sills picks up his alto flute and serenades us. David Sills stays busy as a recording and performing woodwind player, as a composer and an educator. He puts out albums every other year, tours the United States, Europe and Asia as a bandleader and still finds time to perform with David Benoit, The Acoustic Jazz Quartet, the Line Up and the Liam Sillery Quintet. His current project, “Natural Lines” is a whole new adventure, for the first time featuring his double guitar quintet and offering us a dozen well-played songs for our listening pleasure.
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MON DAVID & JOSH NELSON – “D + N + A” – Dash Hoffman Records
Mon David, vocals; Josh Nelson, piano.
Mon David and Josh Nelson balance, with two hands and a rich baritone voice, a dozen classic songs plush with thought provoking lyrics and memorable melodies. Here is a duo that make me feel as though I’m sitting at one of those old piano bars, martini in hand and drooling over the rich, provocative music. The duo opens with a song I’m unfamiliar with; composed by Albert Hague & Allan Sherman and titled, “Did I Ever Really Live.” The lyrical content is rich. Mon David sings:
“You’re born, you weep, you smile, you speak, you cling, you crawl, you stand, you fall. You stand again and try and then, you walk. You eat, you drink, you feel, you think, you play, you grow, you learn, you know and then one day you find a way to talk. You’re young, you fly, you laugh, you cry, you’re grown, you’re on your own at last. You lose, you win, your days begin to slip away too fast. … is it too late to ask, Did I ever love? Did I ever give? Did I ever really live?”
Those poignant lyrics drive this project. These one-dozen songs delve deeply into the mystery of life and living; gain and loss. One of my favorite jazz ballads follows, “You Must Believe in Spring.” I still remember the first time I heard Cleo Laine sing this song ‘live’ at the Hollywood Bowl. Mon David caresses the lyrics with sensitive vocal strength, while Josh Nelson’s hands work like an artist’s paint brushes. His piano-playing gently strokes the keys and chords to support Mon David’s emotional delivery. They follow this song with several other’s we have come to love over jazz decades. The duo interprets Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” and Artie Butler and Phyllis Molinary’s candid composition, “Here’s to Life.”
Mon David is multi-talented. He sings, but he also plays guitar, piano and drums. He explained his decision to record a duo album.
“For me, the human voice is the primary instrument for expressing the emotional depth of a song, but the piano is a close second. That’s why I wanted to work with Josh. His solo performances are terrific, but when he plays with a singer or other instrumentalists, his music has an almost symphonic quality. He’s also very spontaneous. He listens so closely. I realized we really didn’t need charts for these songs, because we were able to collaborate and create them on the spot. That’s why I named the album DNA, which is an acronym for David-Nelson-Agreement. It’s a real conversation between the two of us.”
There are moments when Mon David becomes a percussion instrument with his voice, like on their arrangement of “Devil may Care” and at other unexpected moments, his voice bounces octaves to a head-register tone, like a horn-player or a swiftly moving tennis ball. His tenor voice swoops into view and grabs our attention. He scats and purrs his way through familiar songs like “Billie’s Bounce,” and “Blame It on My Youth,” John Lennon’s “Imagine” and challenging compositions like “Waltz for Debby” in a medley praising the genius of Bill Evans. That medley is one of my favorites on this production. He also introduces us to newer songs like the Bill Canton and Mark Winkler song, “I Chose the Moon.” This is a vocalist who shows, by his choice of repertoire, that he is confident, courageous, thoughtful, well-prepared and well-lived.
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THROTTLE ELEVATOR MUSIC –“EMERGENCY EXIT” – Wide Hive Records
Matt Montgomery, bass/guitar/piano/songwriting; Gregory Howe, guitar/bass/B3 organ/ synthesizer/ songwriter; Erik Jekabson, trumpet/flugelhorn/arranger; Kamasi Washington, tenor saxophone; Mike Hughes & Lumpy, drums; Kasey Knudsen, alto & tenor saxophone; Ross Howe, fender guitar; Mike Blankenship, Farfisa organ/synthesizer.
On Track 6, “Innerspatial Search” this group finally gets my attention. Until then, the compositions were a little lack-luster for my taste. They featured too much repetition in the rhythm section, almost like Rock and Roll tracks that are being prepared for some amazing soloist to come in and overdub on top of. Indeed, that is what Kamasi Washington does throughout on his tenor saxophone, as well as Erik Jekabson on his triumphant trumpet. On track 7, “Rattle Thicket” the group is invigorated with rhythm and they sound very much like a rock band jam session. It’s a brief composition (2-minutes 18-seconds) but its fearless and thunders on the scene with exciting energy. “Art of the Warrior” is more smooth jazz, but as the arrangement unfolds, this song blossoms with increased energy and presence. This
group leans heavily towards rock music with jazz overtones. Sometimes it’s very Grunge-like. Montgomery and Howe are the composers of this music, except Kamasi’s composition, that happened to be the song that finally captured my full attention (Innerspatial Search). The multi-talented Matt Montgomery and Gregory Howe each play numerous instruments, as well as being the songwriters on this project. The resultant material is comprised of productions that have been sitting on the studio shelf from 2001 through 2014. They showcase a young, music-hungry Kamasi Washington, striving to express himself and grow his music. The group seeds of creativity are obvious on this recording, as these musicians plant their feet solidly to express themselves. They have included the past nine recording years, in both the Wide Hive and Fantasy studios, where they created this project. Consequently, it becomes a compilation and history of Throttle Elevator Music’s journey into 2020.
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JIM WALLER BIG BAND – “BUCKET LIST” – Independent Label
Jim Waller, arranger/composer/tenor & soprano saxophones/Hammond XK-5 organ; Chris Villanueva & Andy Langham, piano; Jason Valdez, electric guitar; Jim Kalson, electric bass; Georgie Padilla, congas/percussion; Will Kennedy, drums; Joe Caploe, timpani; Bill King, lead alto saxophone/flute; Adam Carrillo & Matthew Maldonado, tenor saxophone; Brian Christensen, alto saxophone/flute; Dr. Joey Colarusso, baritone saxophone; Libby Barnette, French horn; Karlos Elizondo, lead trumpet; Dr. Adrian Ruiz, Al Gomez, Lee Sparky Thomason & Curtis Calderon, trumpets; Jaime Parker, lead trombone; Gilbert Garza & Mark Hill, trombones; Matthew Erickson & Dr. Martin McCain, bass trombones; STRING SECTION: Anastasia Parker, concertmaster; Dr. Stephanie Westney & Eric Siu, Violins; Yang Guo & David Wang, viola; Ken Freudigman, cello; Jacqueline Sotelo, vocals.
Some might consider Jim Waller an over-achiever. He is a competent player of alto & soprano saxophones, the trombone, organ, piano and is a well-respected arranger and composer. No wonder that he found himself eager to put together a big band to interpret his original compositions and play his arrangements. The “Bucket List” album presents a number of familiar standard songs with five of Waller’s original songs included. You can say this 21-piece Jim Waller Big Band is a big accomplishment from his personal bucket list.
Waller’s first original opens this album and is titled, “Samba for Suzell.” It dances onto the scene and features a spirited tenor saxophone solo by composer/bandleader, Jim Waller; a strong piano improvisation by Chris Villanueva and a spunky drum solo featuring Will Kennedy, (a former member of the Yellow Jackets). The familiar showstopping song penned by Peggy Lee and William Schluger, “I Love Being Here With You,” is well-sung by Jacqueline Sotelo, who adds her scat vocalise to the mix. This entire album offers a delightful mix of Latin, ‘swing,’ blues, waltzes and ballads. All compositions are arranged beautifully and played well.
Jim Waller was born in Santa Barbara, California and attended Fresno State College. He formed a successful surf group who called themselves The Deltas. They recorded two albums in the 60s. In the 70s he changed directions, becoming an important member of the groundbreaking jazz/rock octet called “Los Blues.” They were a popular working group in Las Vegas from 1967 to 1973. Waller arranged their music and produced an album for the United Artists Record label. In 1977, he moved to San Antonio, Texas where he joined a group called “Road Apple.” He also became a sideman for a number of legendary performers like Etta James, Marvin Gay, Bill Watrous, Willie Nelson, Richie Cole, Paul
Gonsalves and Pete Fountain. He’s currently a well-appreciated educator and owns a recording studio where he stays busy producing both music and jingles. With the release of this album, he can cross another accomplishment off of his “Bucket List” and add to his biography, ‘success as a big bandleader.’
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AMBER WEEKES – “THE GATHERING” – Independent Label
Amber Weekes, lead vocal/background vocals; Mark Cargill, string & horn arrangements/producer/ arranger/solo violinist; Josh Nelson, Eddy Olivieri & Tony Capodonico, piano; John B. Williams, Kevin Brandon & Adam Cohen, bass; Nathaniel Scott, Fritz Wise & Sinclair Lott, drums; Jacques Lesure, Doug MacDonald & Paul Jackson Jr., guitar; Andrew Carney, trumpet; Richard Heath & Munyungo Jackson, percussion; Rickey Woodard, saxophone. Nio Wilson, Marcus D. Cargill & JoAnn Tominaga, background vocals; Ernie Fields Jr., bagpipes; Gregory Cook, celeste; Andrew Carney, trumpet.
Amber Weekes has a bell clear voice, perfect for the ten holiday songs she interprets on her debut Christmas album. The gift is ours. Opening with “The Christmas Waltz” by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, enhanced by the muted trumpet of Andrew Carney, this is a lovely song that many have overlooked on their holiday albums. Amber Weekes introduces us to the lyrics with her perfect enunciation and pleasing tone. Mark Cargill adds strings and horns, like a satin pillow for Amber’s voice to lie upon. On her rendition of “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Amber pulls out every nuance of this arrangement, with tones warm and smooth as Christmas taffy. This vocalist throws in a familiar jazz standard “My Romance” and then continues reminding us of the holidays with songs like “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” and “Silent Night.” She performs “Some Children See Him” by Alfred Burt and it was a new song to my ears, with a lyric about Jesus being visible to the youth. The bagpipes by Ernie Fields Jr., were a pleasant surprise in this arrangement. The title tune was composed by Mark Cargill & Gregory Cook. This melody is catchy and Amber Weekes penned the lyrics. Cargill performs a stellar violin solo. They employ background voices that sound child-like and are sung in unison. I enjoyed Amber’s bluesy arrangement of “What Are You Doing New Year’s Eve.” Her musical ensemble swings on “Winter Wonderland” and “Let it Snow.” Amber Weekes and her Los Angeles musicians offer us a little bit of everything to brighten up our holiday season.
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
In the music community, Paulette McWilliams is a recognizable, familiar and respected name. She’s been singing and dancing around the business of music her whole life. She was on Marvin Gaye’s final tour as a performance partner singing the Tammi Terrell and Marvin Gaye duets to sold-out audiences.
From 1979-1980, she was a member of the Harlettes, travelling and performing with the iconic Bette Midler as part of an energetic, background trio. This is where she first met Luther Vandross, who was the velvet smooth voice singing behind the curtain during the Bette Midler performances.
McWilliams has sung duets with some of the biggest names in show business, like the legendary Johnny Mathis.
This songbird was also a dear friend and peer of the late Luther Vandross, touring with him on multiple occasions and also recording with him for over twenty years. It’s her voice you hear on his chart-topping songs “Wait for Love” and also “Stop for Love.” Her lovely voice has graced the recordings and stages of multiple stars including Michael Jackson. She’s the background vocals on one of Jackson’s biggest hits, “Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Enough” and on Billy Idol’s #1 hit, “Mony Mony.” Paulette sang backup on the Aretha Franklin hit, “Jump to It.” She has chirped with super stars like David Bowie and Celine Dion. As a professional singer for over five decades, Paulette McWilliams has used her voice to enhance every genre of music. She recorded an amazing rendition of “Too Hot” with R&B crooner, Will Downing, in a smooth jazz setting. That was on a CD Co-produced by McWilliams and Tom Scott titled, “Telling Stories.” But in her heart of hearts, Paulette McWilliams wanted to sing jazz.
You can hear Paulette’s jazzy side when she sang a duet with Bobby Caldwell. McWilliams has a silky voice that can switch from jazz to pop to R&B in the wink of an eye. Her voice is a chameleon. This is a perfect ticket to becoming a well-paid session singer.
For example, you may have heard Paulette McWilliams’ power-house vocals on several, familiar television and radio jingles including the Folgers commercial or encouraging us to buy Budweiser, Michelob and Coors beer(featuring Tom Sellick in the TV commercial). Her voice promoted Diet Pepsi with Britney Spears, McDonalds, Cadillac, Cover Girl, American Express, MasterCard, and even United Airlines among hundreds of others. The McWilliams voice has always been in demand.
Even as a baby, Paulette McWilliams’ mother claims she hummed instead of cooing. Other family members say she sang before she could speak. She sang with the radio music she heard and she sang when she took her first unsteady steps. After all, both her mother and her father had strong, beautiful voices and they always sang around the house. Little Paulette soaked up all the music like a sponge. By the age of three and four-years-old, the whole family recognized Paulette’s God-given, talent. Her home was a hub for the holidays. Paulette’s mom, dad, two older sisters and a little brother welcomed all the relatives, on both sides of their family. Every holiday season, everyone flooded their home to enjoy family and her mom’s cooking. At some point, the call would always echo, “Paulette, come sing. Paulette, come sing.” Shyly at first, the little girl would take center stage in the living room and serenade the family. Gifting her with much applause, they showered the child with silver dollars. That became a ritual, and It may have been that warm, loving experience that enlightened Paulette to the value of her very, special, vocal talent. Subconsciously, she probably realized she could make money as a singer.
At eleven years old, she appeared on the popular Patricia Vance Little Stars competition in her hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Patricia Vance headed a children’s school and modeling agency in the Windy City. Vance also hosted a talent show called “Little Stars” and young Paulette, with the beautiful voice, sang ‘Catch a falling star and put it in your pocket’. Sammy Davis Jr. was a guest on the show that particular day. Paulette came in second place, but to her surprise and joy, Sammy Davis Jr., approached little Paulette after the show and encouraged her talent. He even gave her his business card. She was a great admirer of Sammy Davis from his roles in movies. His endorsement of her performance helped validate Paulette’s journey to stardom.
“When I relocated to Los Angeles in 1976, I went to Danny Daniel’s Tap School in Santa Monica. Oh, I love tap. I had taken tap in Chicago as a child at Sadie Bruce School and I continued my studies out here. I wanted to incorporate everything into my art and be a great entertainer, because I had watched Sammy Davis Jr. and wanted to make sure I could do everything he did,” Paulette told me.
At thirteen, Paulette McWilliams was a precocious teenager who sat at home wondering why she wasn’t a super star. She explained:
“As a teenager, I was wondering why hadn’t I been discovered? I would get frustrated and go to the yellow pages and look up managers and one day I contacted Don Talty. I was thirteen going on fourteen when Don came to my house after I sang to him over the phone. Don and his artist, Jan Bradley, who had some hit records back in 1963, (Paulette sings “Mama didn’t lie – didn’t lie); they sat in my living room talking to me and my parents. That was a result of me looking Don Talty up in the phone book. Famous guitarist, Phil Upchurch came with them. Don Talty talked to my dad and my mom about maybe doing a record on me. They approved and the next thing I knew, they cut a record on me. (she sings) ‘He’s nothing but a teenage dropout.’ They released a 45rpm record on the Prism label. I wrote the song on the B-side called, “May Cupid Forgive You,” Paulette told me.
Teenage Dropout song was Paulette’s first record release.
“Early on, I hung out with Phil Upchurch. Phil introduced me to Donny Hathaway and Phil Upchurch is the one who mentored me for a long time. He’s about seven years older than I am,” Paulette recalled hanging out with legendary musicians early in her career.
By the time she was twenty, Paulette McWilliams was singing with a popular Chicago group called, “Ask Rufus.” They presented an eclectic repertoire of funk, pop and country-soul. In fact, when Paulette decided to leave ‘Ask Rufus’ she is the one who introduced them to her friend, a very young Chaka Khan. The rest is history.
Afterwards, she spent time working the Chicago hotel circuit headlining her own band, “Paulette McWilliams and the Grip.” She and the iconic Donny Hathaway also started jamming together.
“Donny Hathaway frequented a club called Ratsos as an artist. It was a very well-known nightclub in Chicago. Quite a few times I would go there, sit on the piano stool and sing with him. It was composer/pianist, Tennyson Stephens, Phil Upchurch and Donny Hathaway that took me back into the studio. One of the songs they had me sing is one of the songs on my current ‘A Woman’s Story’ album called, ‘Chasing the Sun.’ In 1974, that song was sent to Quincy Jones by Phil Upchurch. A week later, Q calls me at home. He said, hey baby girl, I just heard your tape. I want you to come out here and sing lead for me on my Body Heat tour.”
Chasing the Sun on A Woman’s Story CD
It was in the mid-1970s when Paulette McWilliams packed a bag, kissed her mom and little daughter good-bye, and headed to Southern California for the Body Heat Tour. The world opened up like an oyster and her voice and reputation was the shiny pearl.
“Q (Quincy Jones) would tell everybody that I was half Aretha and half Sarah Vaughan. He would tell me all the time; you remind me so much of ‘Sassy.’ The last night of our tour in Tokyo, Japan, we were on stage and he was conducting the orchestra. I was singing ‘Everything Must Change.’
(she sang the first line of Bernard Igner’s song to me.)
“While singing the second verse, I heard this amazing voice start singing and I looked up shocked. I was standing on the stage next to Sarah Vaughan, who had suddenly walked in from the wings and joined me. That’s a duet I’ll never forget! Q was conducting the orchestra with tears running down his face,” Paulette recalled the surprising moment when Sarah Vaughan joined her on stage and they sang together.
The Body Heat Tour became a catalyst for work. Paulette wound up being the featured singer on the Quincy Jones follow-up album, “Mellow Madness” for which she co-wrote the title tune. She was also getting lots of studio session work with folks like The Johnson Brothers and then she started getting calls to do jingles again. She had already been recording commercials for television and radio in Chicago, so it wasn’t surprising that Los Angeles would also put her to work. For a single mother, struggling to raise her young daughter, that session work was the gravy on the biscuits.
However, Paulette’s real dream was to become a successful solo artist. Her first album release was “Never Been Here Before” on Fantasy Records in 1977. The next album was for Columbia Music and titled, “Flow”, released in Japan (the same year) where she previewed her composer talents co-writing nine out of the dozen songs she recorded. At the time, she was working steadily with Cannonball Adderley’s nephew, Nat Adderley Jr. on piano, as her co-producer. They became fast friends when she was based in New York. That dynamic musical relationship went on for thirty-plus years. In 1980, a 45rpm single release featured Paulette singing a duet with Johnny Mathis. That release was titled, “I’ll Do It All for You,” From their album “Different Kind of Different.” In 1985, Paulette joined the Disco craze when she recorded a duet album for Atlantic Records, produced by Ollie Brown, titled “Fire Fox.” It was a duo featuring Paulette McWilliams and Toi Overton.
In 2012, Tom Scott Presented Paulette McWilliams on an album titled, “Telling Stories.” On this album, she began to sing some jazz songs, but it was still a mixture of funk, pop and soul. Then there was “Paulette McWilliams and the Beet Brothers” a ‘live’ album recorded in Amsterdam after weeks of touring. On this album she sang several familiar standard jazz tunes.
“We recorded twelve songs in two days and put the best 10 tracks on the album,” Paulette remembered their swift and amazing studio accomplishment.
Finally, in 2020, she has released her solo album titled, “A Woman’s Story.” It was produced by two-time, Grammy winner, Kamau Kenyatta. It was released this year and has tapped into her dream of becoming a jazz/soul solo artist. For years she has admired and listened to vocalists like Sarah Vaughan, Nancy Wilson, Peggy Lee, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Doris Day, Carmen McCrae, Nina Simone, Betty Carter, Shirley Horn and Aretha Franklin. This album features songs made popular by some of the other female artists who Paulette McWilliams admires. She taps into her jazz roots, exploring melodies that intrigue her and lyrics that relate to her own life experiences. She picked pop and R&B songs, along with the able assistance of producer/arranger Kamau Kenyatta. Under his direction, McWilliams interprets them in her own jazzy way. Even more importantly, this album is a tribute to those amazing influences on her life like Marvin Gaye, Luther Vandross and composer, pianist, singer, Tennyson Stephens. For Marvin, she sings “Just to Keep You Satisfied” from his “Here My Dear” album. For Luther she sings, “So Amazing”, interpreting it in her own unique way. It was a pleasant surprise to hear her ‘cover’ the Janis Ian song, “At Seventeen” with an emotional solo by Gregmoire Maret on harmonica. I thought this arrangement took many liberties with both the melody and the chord changes, but the beauty of the song still shines honest and true. She also celebrates Joni Mitchell, singing “Both Sides Now.” However, there is one mentor that Paulette McWilliams greatly credits with her growth and this latest album release.
“The total album is me, in many ways paying homage to Quincy Jones. For someone of that stature to take me around, share musical and historic stories with me, and take me under his wing is something I’ll never forget. This whole album becomes a statement to him that says, look Q, I finally know who I am.”
By Dee Dee McNeil
When I first met Kamau Kenyatta, I recognized almost immediately that he was a deep thinker. Tall, thin and willowy, he ambled over to the piano and started showing me some tune he’d been thinking about that he believed had amazing potential for someone to sing. His long, slender fingers moved nimbly across the keys. He plays beautifully.
“Do you remember this Bill Withers’ composition?” he asks me. “It was on his second album and it’s really interesting and deep,” he elaborates.
Kamau has a way of pulling the best out of music and employing the slightest and most incredible inuendoes and ambiguities to color his arrangements. He loves to reinvent a song and he knows how to inspire an artist. That’s what makes him a prolific producer.
Our paths originally crossed some years ago when Kamau Kenyatta was playing more piano than horn. He’s proficient in both. But today, some thirty-years later, I am taking a peek into his history. Pen poised; I ask him when he first felt a musical calling.
“Well, you know I was very fortunate to grow up with people that really loved music and I would say, in the African American community of the nineteen-fifties, it was almost like a badge of honor to know music. So, my mother, Ruth, my father (John A. Jones) and my Uncle Richard Harris, (who used to babysit me) although none of them were musicians, they took great pride in listening to the music. At that time, I was two or three-years-old and my uncle Richard had an extraordinary vinyl collection with Ahmad Jamal and Miles (Davis), Art Farmer, the Modern Jazz Quartet, just all the people you listened to back then. At only two or three years old, my uncle may have thought that I was sitting there enjoying the music because he was enjoying the music. But hey, I remember I genuinely liked that music! My uncle was so meticulous about his vinyl collection, that if he scratched a record, he gave it to me, because he wouldn’t play anything with a scratch on it. So, I actually had my own Ahmad Jamal album and Miles Davis album when I was three and four years old. I knew who they were and I would put them on the turn-table and listen to jazz.
“My mother and father were listening to people like Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. They talked about Billy Eckstine with a great sense of pride and affection. In my house, I heard them talk about Mr. B. and Sarah, all with first names. Consequently, as a child, I thought they were family members or family friends I hadn’t met yet. They spoke of Sarah, Mister B and Hazel Scott with such pride and familiarity.
“As I got older, my mom started taking me to ‘live’ concerts. She was very, very much into music and still is. She’s ninety-one. Mom exposed me to ‘live’ music. She took me to hear the Northwestern High School Band. That was her Alma Mater and that concert made me think, oh man. I want to play an instrument too. So, that’s what got me into music and jazz.
“I started on the clarinet. I wanted to play the bass clarinet, but they told me I was too small for the bass clarinet. Now, in my Detroit neighborhood, I was already wearing glasses and now I’m carrying a clarinet.”
(We laughed together as I pictured a little boy, looking a wee bit like a nerd, walking down the Motor City avenue carrying his clarinet.)
“So, I was kind-of a marked man. That’s when I asked my parents to please get me something cooler than the clarinet. Get me a saxophone. My grandfather, John Jones, was an electrician. He worked overtime doing side jobs and one job was at a pawn shop. That’s where he got me my first tenor sax. That’s when I started playing saxophone. I was eleven-years-old,” Kamau remembered fondly.
I asked Kamau who were some of his early influences and he recalled his first mentor being a public-school music teacher named Allison Oglesby. Then he skipped to his days at the historic trade high school that has turned out so many amazing musicians, Cass Technical High School, and he listed a few more people who taught and inspired him.
“I got involved with Metro Arts through Cass Technical High School. There, I got to meet guys who would come to the program, like Harold McKinney, Teddy Harris and Kenny Cox. Those were the three I probably was the closest to of all the Detroit musicians. Then there was Pistol Allen, (a drummer at Motown) trumpet legend, Marcus Belgrave and even Lottie the Body.”
(we laugh together again, because we’re both from Detroit and we share and respect the legendary legacy of Lottie “the Body” Graves, a shake dancer and Burlesque queen. She is also a big supporter of Jazz and the arts in the Detroit community. Believe me, she was quite beautiful and stacked-up-from-the-ground back in those days. People of all cultures and colors came to see Lottie dance in Vaudeville shows country-wide. She settled in Detroit in the 1960s and became the act to see at the popular Ziggy Johnson hosted, Paradise Club on the East Side of Detroit and at the popular Twenty-Grand nightclub on the West Side of the City. She also performed regularly at The Brass Rail Grill. Her show was famous for Lottie’s high-class costumes and her exceptional dancing abilities. She even hosted her own club called ‘The Pink Poodle.’)
Kamau Kenyatta continued to reflect on his early life in the music business.
“Being around all of that culture influenced me. You know, characters like Lottie the Body would shout out to you from the audience. We’re talking about late sixties, early seventies, when I was a young musician. I was playing in the black community, when some of those people in the audience (like Lottie) would direct our performances. They’d shout out things like, ‘take your time, baby’ – – ‘You playin’ too much.’ Those ordinary people in the audience, sometimes out of love or pride in our jazz heritage, inadvertently guided a young musician’s performance. They knew the music and they inspired us!”
Detroit, Michigan was a great place to soak up a rich, jazz heritage. Folks like the Jones brothers, (Hank Jones, Elvin Jones, and Thad Jones) represented a family success story in the business of music. Kenny Burrell grew from Detroit roots, as did Tommy Flannagan, Barry Harris, Ron Carter and Yusef Lateef. Donald Byrd grew up and out of Detroit to sparkle the world with his trumpet genius. It wouldn’t take long for Kamau Kenyatta to cross paths with some of these music icons.
“In the 1980s I started doing some touring. I went on the road with Donald Byrd and the Blackbyrds. When I auditioned for that gig, I played ‘Cristo Redentor.’ I replaced Allen Barnes on saxophone for that tour. After that experience, I joined Mary Wilson and the Supremes. Teddy Harris (pianist, big band leader and Detroit educator) got me my first job with her. He was their Musical Director.”
This was only the beginning of Kamau’s world-wide touring. Travelling to over twenty countries, he has worked with Carl Anderson (from Jesus Christ Superstar and Anderson’s memorable recording with the great Nancy Wilson). Kamau also worked with legendary composer/performer/activist Oscar Brown Jr., and has played with jazz greats like Yusef Lateef and Earl Klugh. He leant his talents touring with the R&B, gold record girl’s group, SWV; with Silk, Charles Wright and the 103rd Street Rhythm Band and even New Kids on the Block. His experiences were varied and he mastered several genres and various styles of music along the way. These diverse experiences would all further mold this man into the prolific producer he has become.
Kamau Kenyatta pictured (upper left), Vincent Bowens, Ayesha Lateef, Yusef Lateef (center-front) and Ralph Jones; after playing a gig at St. Matthews & St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church in Detroit, Michigan.
“I moved to Florida for a few years and then I came from Florida to the West Coast. I was going to move to Los Angeles, but I wound up in San Diego and things worked out for me to stay here. I got a job teaching in 1999 at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). That kept me grounded here,” Kamau explained how he transitioned from on-the-road gigs to a life in the thriving, upscale community of San Diego, California. This was the place where he met Gregory Porter.
“At that time, I was a substitute teacher at UCSD for George Lewis, the great trombonist/composer and educator, and Gregory Porter was in that class.”
NOTE: George Lewis, a native of Chicago, currently is Professor of American Music at Columbia University in New York City and is also Vice-Chair of the Department of Music.
“Gregory was a football player at San Diego State and he had been injured. It was a serious injury; a career-ending injury. So, he was looking for other outlets for his talents and a new career path. He came to UCSD to audit this jazz class. As soon as I heard him sing, I was excited about his talent. I said come to my house. Come and let’s spend time together. He was born in 1971 and he didn’t live through a lot of the stuff that we’ve lived through. I spoke to Gregory about the rich history of Detroit and Motown. It wasn’t that he was unaware of some of the older music, but we sat together for hours and listened to people like Leon Thomas and Jon Lucien. We talked about visual arts and books and authors and African American painters, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. Whatever people think of his singing, people should know that this guy is just a brilliant intellect. I didn’t teach him how to sing. He already knew how to do that.
“I actually took him to Detroit and showed him some of our history. We went to Temple #1 on Linwood Avenue that Mother Tynetta X attended; Sacred Heart Seminary, where during the 1967 rebellion they painted the statue of Christ black. I wanted to share those kinds of scenarios and that kind of history with him. And I think it had an influence on him. My mentoring of him goes beyond music. It has a social and political component. He wrote that hit record, “1960 What?” after our visit to Detroit. He took everything I shared with him and made it better.”
As a mentor, it swells your heart with pride to see your fledgling, talented protégés take wing and fly. As a producer, Kamau Kenyatta worked to bring out the very best of Porter’s talents and in 2014 the reward was when Porter won a Grammy for his Blue Note Record release, “Liquid Spirit” and more recently, they both took home a Grammy for the stellar recording, “Take Me To the Alley.”
In San Diego, Kamau Kenyatta found joy in teaching and inspiring young minds to grow and flourish. He served as musical director for ‘Blues Schoolhouse,’ an educational program for middle-school children at the International House of Blues in San Diego. In the spring of 2007, Kamau embarked on a solo album project that featured him as pianist/composer and artist. He produced his “Destiny” album. In 2009, Kamau joined the Music Department at California State Summer School for the Arts (CSSSA) and served as Department Co-Chair from 2010 to 2011. But more and more, Kamau Kenyatta found himself in demand for arranging and producing in a succession of unexpected projects.
“Hubert Laws had hired me to do some arranging for him. I met him through Greg Phillinganes at Quincy’s house one night. Even to this day, when I work with Hubert, I remember listening to him when I was eleven or twelve years old; listening to his albums in Detroit. I mean, I’m a fan of Hubert Laws, as much as I’ve been a collaborator. He’s such a brilliant musician. They call him ‘Silk’ because he’s so smooth. He is turning 81 this year and he’s still fantastic. He’s probably better now than he ever was. Some time ago, I had done this one project with him called, ‘Hubert Laws Remembers the Unforgettable Nat King Cole,’ where I arranged songs recorded by Nat King Cole for him to play.
“Hubert liked the work that I did and called me back to help him when he got the call to do some music for this Fox network documentary that detailed the history of African-American film. He called me to assist him on that project released in 1998. It’s a complete honor to work with him at any time,” Kamau Kenyatta beamed.
Continuing with his success in film scoring and soundtrack arranging, Kamau Kenyatta was approached by film maker Carol Parrott Blue, a Houston, Texas professor and author, who was producing a film about growing up black in Texas in the 1940s. This DVD-Rom, combination book and website, won the 2004 Sundance Online Film Festival Jury Award.
“It was an interactive DVD about African Americans in Houston, written by Carol Parrot Blue. I wrote music and I supervised the period music that we chose for that film. It was another incredible and great experience. Unfortunately, we lost Carol Blue a few years ago.”
“I’ve scored a few film projects at UCSD. There’s a professor at UCSD called Zeinabu Irene Davis. She’s part of the L.A. Rebellion, a group often referred to as Los Angeles School of Black Filmmakers. That is a group of filmmakers who all went to UCLA in the late 60s up to the late 1980s. Zeinabu asked me to score a film, “Spirits of Rebellion” in 2015. More recently, in 2016, I did music for this documentary on Gregory Porter called, “Don’t Forget Your Music”, Kamau told me.
The fascinating thing about Kamau Kenyatta’s talents is his ability to interact with a variety of artists and genres. You hear him exhibit those skills in both his arranging and producing. In 2010, he produced the album, “Water” on artist Gregory Porter. This album made the world sit-up and take notice of Mr. Porter and his undeniable talent as a singer/songwriter. The “Be Good” album came next in 2012 and became a big hit both nationally and internationally. In 2013, Kenyatta served as associate producer/arranger on Porter’s Blue Note Records disc “Liquid Spirit” and they won a Grammy in the “Best Jazz Vocal Album” category.
In 2015, Kamau co-produced this journalists’ album, “Storyteller.” It was mainly my original music and pop/jazz.
In 2016 he produced Ed Motta’s “Perpetual Gateways” vocal album and Steph Johnson’s “Music is Art” CD, that featured Ms. Johnson singing her own compositions. It was a pop/R&B/contemporary release.
In 2017, he produced, arranged and played soprano saxophone on the Robert McCarther’s album titled, “Stranger in Town,” that was a straight-ahead jazz album. The same year, Kamau won a Grammy for his co-production and arrangements on “Take Me to The Alley” with Gregory Porter.
In 2018, Kamau Kenyatta produced an album called “Uncovered Soul” by Kathy Kosins. On this project, Kathy and Kamau reinvented familiar R&B songs using more contemporary arrangements. The following year, he produced projects on both Daneen Wilburn and Alicia Olatuja. Alicia’s album was titled, “Intuition: Songs From the Minds of Women.” Both of these singers are strong, soulful vocalists and the material on Wilburn was funk-based and commercial.
“Alicia Olatuja is a singer from St. Louis originally, but she’s based in New York City. Billy Childs did an amazing arrangement on a Brenda Russell tune for us. We did all women composers on Alicia’s project,” Kamau explained.
Then, in the fall of 2019, Kamau found time to produce a solo project titled, “The Elegant Sadness.”
“This album is made up of extended versions of my original music from the “Don’t Forget Your Music” documentary that I scored for the BBC-released film on Gregory Porter,” Kenyatta explained.
“The Elegant Sadness” features: Kamau Kenyatta, piano/composer/arranger/producer; Hubert Laws, flute; Curtis Tylor, trumpet; Brian Clancy, tenor saxophone; Mackenzie Leighton, bass; Richard Sellers, drums; David Castaneda, percussion; Nolan Shaheed, engineer.
Opening with a song titled, “Smoke” pianist Kamau Kenyatta presents a pensive, moderate tempo ballad featuring Curtis Taylor on trumpet and Brian Clancy on tenor saxophone. Kenyatta’s piano style is thoughtful and tender; expressive and lovely. He sets the groove when his piano chords open the composition. Kamau establishes the bass line with his left hand, then allows space, inviting the horns to arrive at the party. The next composition is titled, “Watching and Waiting.” Drummer, Richard Sellers, pushes the horns ahead like a powerful tractor. Originally, all seven songs were produced, composed and arranged by Kamau Kenyatta to accompany a documentary on Gregory Porter entitled, “Don’t Forget Your Music.” These are extended and embellished versions of that music.
Kenyatta’s music is lyrical and melodic. His carefully penned compositions make you want to hum along with them. There is a certain amount of familiarity to his music, even though I realized I had never heard these tunes before, I still felt a kinship to them. That’s a genuine compliment to the composer. I listened and felt connected.
A composition called “Leaving San Diego” features the great Hubert Laws on flute. Hubert adds quality and beauty to this project. As an iconic jazz musician who’s held in high esteem by the jazz community, Hubert Laws flies into my listening space like a smooth, gliding bird. Kenyatta’s solo establishes his melody on piano and improvises on a theme. There is nothing splashy or exciting here, but rather a laid-back production, meandering along at a moderate pace and offering the best of Kenyatta’s composer skills and the mastery of these talented musicians.
Currently, a Teaching Professor at UCSD in the Music Department, in 2020 Kamau Kenyatta is looking forward to several prime projects. He just completed an album with the dynamic vocalist, Paulette McWilliams titled “A Woman’s Story” and is preparing to work on a new project with Allan Harris, who has a warm, velvet smooth voice reminiscent of Nat King Cole. He is mentoring a young singer Kamau refers to as ‘brilliant’ named Laurin Talese, who has recorded previously with Robert Glasper and Kenyatta is also planning to record Hugo Suarez, who will be playing boleros on solo piano.
I have no doubt, Kamau Kenyatta’s bound to wave his magic producer’s wand over these artists with the same individualized concern, creativity and objectivity that he brings to each and every project. That’s what makes him the ultimate and successful producer/arranger he has become.
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz journalist
Voices of our City Choir is made up of people who have experienced homelessness in the San Diego, California area. Co-founded by activist, guitarist and singer, Steph Johnson, an emotional rendition of their original song won them the “Golden Buzzer” Award on the popular “America’s Got Talent” television show. They performed a song that the choir wrote titled, “Listen to the Sounds of the Sidewalk”. I have to say that their emotional delivery brought this journalist to tears as I sat in front of my computer. I can’t imagine how moved the people in that ‘live’ audience must have been.
See below: SAN DIEGO CHOIR ON “AMERICA’S GOT TALENT” WINS A GOLD BUZZER AWARD
I had the pleasure of speaking with Steph Johnson recently and this is what she shared with me about how this amazing choir was formed.
“We’re really particular about the way we refer to our unsheltered choir members, because we want to make sure they’re recognized as individuals. Consequently, we refer to them as our Unsheltered Neighbors or people experiencing homelessness.
“About four years ago I got involved with my Unsheltered Neighbors that literally lived across the street from me, right in downtown San Diego. The city had allowed the removal of about 10,000 SRO’s (those affordable housing units) basically to sell the property and make way for condo’s and the gentrification we’ve seen up and down the West Coast. 10,000 people were without a home. They only created housing for about 1500 people, so thousands were facing homelessness overnight. I could see there was no real solution. There was a lack of communication between the county and the city of San Diego. There was a lack of understanding between my sheltered neighbors and my unsheltered neighbors. Did you know, people are being put in jail for being homeless? Once you’ve experienced that level of poverty and the criminalization of that situation, where once you start getting tickets for being poor, and you have no money to get out of that situation, it is quite literally impossible to move out of homelessness. So, I just felt a calling. I have a way of connecting with people and I love people. I wanted to lift up my brothers and sisters that were being so hated upon for basically being in their socio-economic situation,” Steph Johnson explained the situation she witnessed in her community.
To reiterate, she loves music and people. That became the common denominator Steph Johnson used to change people’s lives, one note at a time. As a vocalist, a guitar player and a recording artist, Steph Johnson was comfortable performing and communicating emotionally from stages to her admiring audiences. She used that same gift to communicate with her unsheltered neighbors. Steph Johnson took her love of people to the streets, using Music as a common language. She entered people’s tents, exploring community’s underneath bridges, talking to her unsheltered neighbors and interacting with them.
“Of course, at first they wanted to know who I was and what I wanted?” Steph shared with me.
“They’d say well, who are you with? I told them my name was Steph and I played music. Many were like, oh I play music too, or I sing. I remember I met this woman on the street and when I told her I was into music and I sang, she said well Google my name. I sang in this choir in Chicago. I said OK. I’ll look you up. Well, I looked her up and sure enough, she had been singing in this choir in Chicago. Wow! Here I was doing outreach and meeting these creative types of people. Sometimes I was by myself. Sometimes I took a friend. I’m an advocate and an activist at heart. Music and art created a connection between me and their community.
“Around that same time, I met a gentleman that invited me to sit in his tent. He was telling me about his plight. He smiled at me and said, it doesn’t matter what we say or feel. We have no voice. Right then, I realized how they felt; voiceless! I think it was that very next day when I met this reverend; Rev. Chris Nasis. After a conversation we had, he offered us his church to use, “The Living Water Church of the Nazarene.” They’re located in San Diego’s East Village. He said, yeah, you can come in and do anything you want to do using our church. So, I blurted out, well I want to start a choir. And it was so funny, because I didn’t know that I wanted to start a choir until that very moment. It just spilled out of me. It was like a message from the divine. I remember thinking, ok, so you’re going to start a choir?
“At this point, I reached out to a friend, Nina Deering, to ask her if she wanted to help me start a choir for people who were experiencing homelessness? She said yes. She’s no longer with us, but she was definitely a part of our beginning. We quickly grew from one or two people, to sixty people, and then it was a hundred people. Now we have 250 people in The Voices of our City Choir.”
I can still hear the awe in Steph Johnson’s voice as she shared her incredible success story with me. Her selfless work establishing that choir gave hope to many who were hopeless. It created a vehicle for people to vent their pent-up emotions into an artistic, musical expression. At last, their voices could be heard.
“In 2019, we did a concert with the San Diego Symphony and it was epic. It was just beautiful. We partnered with the Master Chorale on stage at the Symphony by the Bay and we sang ‘Amazing Grace.’ It was really, really touching. Martha Gilmer, the CEO of the symphony, told me, (after we did three shows that weekend) that we should collaborate in a big way. We could do something really cool, together. That’s the response this choir inspires in people.”
“We’re a non-profit but we’re also a social entrepreneurship and we employ people. We generate money from our concerts and with that money, I was able to hire a management team that has helped over sixty people get off the street,” Steph told me.
In 2020, State Assemblyman, Todd Rex Gloria, of district 78 in San Diego, named Steph Johnson as a Woman of the Year. I asked her about that recent award.
“The plan was to go to the State Capital to be honored, and then the pandemic hit. So, we couldn’t go to the California State Capital. There was going to be a ceremony. They were going to fly me up there and have a luncheon with all these other women recognized from across the State for basically making their community better,” she explained.
Even though the State Capital trip was cancelled, she was awarded Woman of the Year, without the fanfare. I found Steph Johnson to be a humble woman. She shared with me how honored she was to be in the company of other nurturing women; women who are working to make this world a better place.
Continuously, her choir has brought attention to the plight of our unsheltered neighbors. So much so, that PBS recently created a documentary about the Voices of our City Choir, coordinating with film maker, Susan Polis Schutz and titled, “The homeless Chorus Speaks,”. The documentary can be viewed on www.youtube.com.
It’s been a rewarding journey for Steph and her unsheltered neighbors, since forming the choir in 2016. At first, she was simply trying to find a solution to a troubling problem in her community. Four years later, she has accomplished far more than she ever dreamed possible.
“We started the choir as a grassroots organization in 2016. By the beginning of 2017, we had started a shelter. A friend of mine opened up her home and took in fourteen choir members. It was kind of an open floor plan. Actually, more like an open warehouse where she would host live-music concerts. So, we got cots and dividers and we started helping these fourteen choir members settle in. Then we started making the film and all the while, we were trying to advocate at City Council with our elected officials. We tried to help those choir members who were being ticketed. We were advocating to get our unsheltered neighbors medical and legal support and also, to try to get them housing. In the beginning, I was their case manager and initially, I was standing in lines with them. We went through the motions together. That started with a few of us. Now, it’s grown into a small team. But thanks to the America’s Got Talent exposure, we’re getting donations. People know about us. That helps with grants, housing and we have a lot of goals ahead. That’s really exciting!”
Meantime, Southern California activist, Steph Johnson, has been in the studio working on her own jazz album. I had the pleasure of reviewing it. Like everything else this energetic little lady does, her recording project reflects high quality and clearly displays the artistic side of this advocate for change. See my review below:
STEPH JOHNSON – “SO IN LOVE”
Steph Johnson, vocals; Josh Nelson, piano; Anthony Wilson, guitar; Rob Thorsen, bass; Chris Lawrence, trumpet; Richard Sellers, drummer.
Guitarist and choir director, Steph Johnson, surprised me when she sang “Lazy Afternoon”. Her voice floated into my listening room, warm and lovely, plush with emotion and she has her own unique tone. When she told me she had an album out, I thought it would be an instrumental recording, featuring her guitar talents. Surprise! The lady can sing. The trumpet of Chris Lawrence compliments her vocals and he offers a warm and inspired solo on this lovely “Lazy Afternoon” song. They’ve arranged it in a very smooth-jazz way that works, putting just a little funk into the mix to keep the old standard young and vibrant. Ms. Johnson is definitely a jazz singer, with her unique tone and adlib qualities on the fade of the song clearly showing her improvisation skill. I receive mustard-yellow, paper bags full of CDs who claim to be vocal jazz artists, like a badge of honor, but who are cabaret singers or pop vocalists or just pretty girls with sing-in-the-shower kind of voices. Steph Johnson happily breaks that mold. She’s the real deal.
This vocalist has chosen some of my favorite songs for her repertoire. Opening with the verse, she sings a song I used to love to hear Little Jimmy Scott sing; “I Wish I Knew.” He recorded it as a ballad, but Steph has another arrangement that’s fresh and she swings the tune. The sign of a true jazz singer is someone who can ‘swing’ and Steph Johnson swings effortlessly. For a while, she and the bass player, Rob Thorsen, perform as a duo. The arrangement is very effective. There is a tasty guitar solo by Anthony Wilson on the fade of the song.
Speaking of guitar, Wilson uses his expert guitar licks to open “Here’s to Life.” With just voice and guitar at the top of the tune, Steph showcases those poignant lyrics that are so wonderfully written. Then enters the band and the blues. “So, here’s to life,” she sings. “And all the joy it brings. Here’s to life, to dreamers and their dreams.” Steph sells the song with Rob Thorsen’s bass walking richly beneath her meaningful lyrics. I believe Steph Johnson when she sings with that little husky undertone to her vocals that’s so compelling and natural. She has a full, rich range, with sweetness in her head register and fullness in her alto voice. You can really enjoy her range on “I Fall in Love too Easily” accompanied by Josh Nelson’s sensitive piano. The “So In Love” tune blossoms as a Latin arrangement. Sometimes I hear shades of Diana Krall in Steph Johnson’s vocals and at another point I hear phrasing that reminds me of Dianne Reeves. That being said, Ms. Johnson maintains her own style and grace. She tackles Betty Carter’s original tune, “Jazz Ain’t Nothin’ But Soul”and puts her own spin on it. I wish she hadn’t ventured so far from the original melody in places, and this reviewer wasn’t crazy about the arrangement, but Steph shows strength in her freedom and individuality. Steph Johnson has released 4 albums. Her most recent recording (until this one) titled, “Music is Art,” was released in 2016 and produced by two-time Grammy Award winning producer, Kamau Kenyatta. That recording celebrates a unique blend of her jazz stylings with obvious, soulful, R&B roots. She also composed much of the music. With her recent release of “So In Love,” Steph continues her spiral upward towards bright, musical horizons. This may be her best recording to date.
DON LITTLETON CELEBRATES “ELEPHANTS NDA PARK” DURING BLACK MUSIC MONTH
By Dee Dee McNeil
Don Littleton is a Los Angeles based drummer and composer with deep roots in Watts and Compton. I had an opportunity to chat with Don Littleton (during Black Music Month) about his life and music. He was born in Fort Knox, Kentucky, but he’s lived in the Los Angeles community for forty-plus years. His father was a military man, so the family moved around. They wound up in Mesa and Phoenix, Arizona and then to Watts in 1959and later to Compton, California in the early sixties. His dad was originally from Shreveport, Louisiana and he played a mean harmonica.
“My dad freaked me out one day. We were sitting on the front porch and he had this harmonica he suddenly pulled out. I never knew my dad could play harmonica like that. He actually blew my mind, because I had never seen him play that instrument. He’s from Shreveport, Louisiana and that’s what they did down there. I guess he learned it as a little kid,” Don Littleton recalled.
Although no one in Don’s family was seeking a musical career, there was always a piano in all the family homes. Everybody played a little piano; especially his aunts and his grandmother. They were all music lovers. It was his mother who got Don interested in percussion. She went to Mexico one day and brought him back a little set of bongos from Tijuana.
“Those bongos were a little cheap, but I’d wet them down and put them over the stove to heat the skins and tune them. My big brother Carl Jr. was so proud of me. He and the family encouraged me to play. I used to entertain the family. There I was, in my pajama’s, playing my little bongo’s, In the family living room, underneath our chandelier. That was my first stage,” Don remembered fondly.
“I would play along to records. That’s kind of how I learned how to play. Then, in June one year while I was in high school, I got my first trap drum set. The first song I learned to play was ‘Song for My Father.’ After high school, I moved back to Arizona and Charles Lewis was my first mentor. I got more into the trap drums in Arizona. I might have been eighteen or nineteen years old. I played in his R&B and Top 40 band. I played a little jazz. I could always swing. We played tunes by Santana, Sly and the Family Stone, that kind of repertoire. It was from about 1970 to 1973.
“My dad said I needed to take advantage of my opportunity to attend college on his GI bill. So, I enrolled in school. I went to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and attended Southern University, majoring in music. One of my mentors down there was Alvin Batiste. I was a member of a hot band in Louisiana. We opened for a number of popular, name artists. First, we were called ‘Hot Ice’ and later, me and some of the guys from that band started a new band called ‘Convertible World.’ One time, I was recruited by the great Cannonball Adderley to play in his quartet and we did a gig with the Louisiana Symphony. Three years later, I came back to Los Angeles, maybe around 1978.”
Don’s career blossomed and grew like wild, California sage. Once back in California, He began to record extensively on some pretty powerful recordings. His first release was “The Littleton Brothers.”
“I co-led the first record that was recorded here in L.A. with Bobby Watson, the alto player, who played with Blakey. That was the first record and that was the Littleton Brother’s record with my younger brother; (Jeff Littleton – bassist). It was the Littleton Brothers featuring Bobby Watson. It was actually Bobby’s gig and we recorded it ‘live’ at MOCA downtown. We released it in 2009.”
NOTE: MOCA stands for the Museum of Contemporary Art, an art space in downtown Los Angeles that often hosts ‘live’ jazz concerts.
Before the Littleton Brothers release, Don Littleton found himself in a diversity of musical settings. In 1992 he recorded an iconic album with Karl Denson titled, “Blackened Red Snapper.” Karl Denson, a California native, is known for his Acid Funk and straight-ahead jazz saxophone, flute and vocals. When Denson released his “Blackened Red Snapper” album he was 36-years-old and, like Don Littleton, his career was growing. Denson was once a member of the Lenny Kravitz band and currently leads his own groups including, the Karl Denson Tiny Universe band (KDTU) and his own trio. You can clearly hear what a force Don Littleton is as he propels this Denson music, both powerfully and straight ahead.
“We rehearsed man. We rehearsed a lot. Karl Denson had a hot band. John Patitucci played on that record. Munyungo Jackson played percussion. My brother, Jeff Littleton, played bass on most of the album, and Ron Stout played trumpet. Deron Johnson, who wound up playing with Stanley Clark, was also on the scene,” Don Littleton recalled the session.
In 1993, Littleton switched gears and recorded with a Rap group, The Fellowship Innercity Griots. The solid trap drums of Don Littleton hold this music tightly in place and support their hip hop, rap vocals.
More opportunities followed. In 1994 he was part of a ‘live’ recording featuring Solomon Burke and the Souls Alive Orchestra. They were performing at the House of Blues in Louisiana.
“Yeah, that was a live-performance-record at the House of Blues in New Orleans,” Don told me. “That was a four-night gig and we did the Jazz Heritage Festival. That’s one of the biggest in the nation. Unfortunately, that festival won’t happen this year. He had a big band. I think I had to audition for the gig. I actually played percussion and trap drums.”
1998 he recorded on the Derf Reklaw album, “From the Nile.”
“Derf Reklaw’s record, ‘From the Nile’ was mostly World Music. He had some Reggae on there. A lot of odd meter stuff. Derf likes to write stuff in eleven and nine, not your typical 4/4 meter,” Don explained.
in 2001, he recorded with a member of the Freestyle Fellowship group. The album was titled, “Mikah 9.”
“Oh, Mikah 9 (pronounced My-kah) he was one of the members of that hip hop group Freestyle Fellowship. There were 4 or 5 of them. The band was actually the Underground Railroad band headed by Darryl Moore. Darryl is a very fine Los Angeles based engineer.
“Back in the day, I listened to Jimmy Cobb, Arthur Taylor, Billy Cobham and Max Roach. When I was working with Randy Crawford, we played Fat Tuesday’s club in New York. This tall guy dressed in a long black coat walks in. It was Max Roach. I looked up and there was one of my heroes. He came down to see Hank Crawford and Phyllis Hyman. They all lived in the same building nearby. He sat down right next to my drums. James Polk was there that night. We were playing a shuffle and Max Roach started patting his foot. That’s when I knew I had him. Later in life, I ran into Max Roach and I asked him if he remembered me from when I was playing with Hank Crawford in New York. He said yeah. You were swinging hard!
“Roy Haynes is another one I love. When Tony Williams passed away, Roy Haynes was right there to step into his place.
“Aside from jazz, I grew up listening to Motown, Brazilian jazz and island music. I like Cuban and Puerto Rican music a lot and I love Mongo Santa Maria. A lot of people come up to me and say I sound like Mongo. You can hear it on my current Tunapuna song on my recent album release. Tunapuna is a small little town in Trinidad. I hummed that line in my head for a long time before it finally became a song. It has a Calypso feel. On this latest project, I allowed the guys to bring their own music to the table. Some are my compositions and some belong to my band members. We created something as one unit.”
Before I finished the interview, I asked Don Littleton to elaborate on the CD title. That’s when I discovered he’s an animal activist.
“I put on the back of the record that we support elephant conservation and that elephants should not be killed or destroyed for their ivory tusks. I just don’t like the idea of them killing elephants. It’s all about elephant conservation. ‘Elephants Nda Park’ with the park being their home, and not necessarily being in a zoo, but being free; in the Serengeti. The whole Serengeti should be their park.”
If you are searching for some fresh, innovative, hard-swinging jazz and World-flavored music, this newly released album by Don Littleton is bound to please.
DON LITTLETON – “ELEPHANTS NDA PARK” – A CD REVIEW
SWMG (Southwest Music Group)
Don Littleton, trap drums/percussion/composer; Pablo Calogero, tenor & soprano saxophones/flute/ bass clarinet/composer; John B. Williams & Michael Alvidrez, bass; Hideaki Tokunaga, guitar/tres/sarod; Jane Getz, electric piano; Andrew Acosta, udo drum/percussion; Gabriel “Slam” Nobles, steel drums/vibes/electronic MalletKAT.
A tune called “Modal Citizen” opens with a flurry of sticks and drum licks that sets the straight-ahead groove and tempo. The word ‘Modal’ is a musical term based on modes other than the major and minor mode most commonly used in music. Since this is a project celebrating rhythm and drums, that makes perfect sense. When Pablo Calogero enters on his tenor saxophone, accompanied by John B. Williams on bass, they add a melody to Littleton’s inspired drum licks. This tune is propelled by the drummer and features just the trio of bass, horn and trap drums. It’s quite exciting and spontaneous, showcasing the talents of each participating musician in a spotlight of multi-colors. I’ve witnessed Littleton during his on-stage appearances and he is always full of spark and fire. You clearly hear this on their original composition.
The opening tune on this CD is titled, “A Call for All Elephantz” and was penned by Pablo Calogero. It engages the listener with an amazing and compelling use of instruments like the ‘sarod’ (played by Hideaki Tokunaga), with a sort of sitar sound and with Pablo manning his soprano saxophone, reminding me of Coltrane’s improvisational free style. Littleton is pushing the ensemble powerfully on drums. The percussive additions take us into a jungle of sounds and emotions. Gabriel Nobles adds his steel drum/marimba sounds on an electronic malletKAT. We are now in the realm of World Music. In other places, you will enjoy the tasty addition of the ‘tres’ instrument during some of Littleton’s percussive production. The tres instrument is a Spanish Cuban instrument, a three-course chordophone. It resembles a guitar in appearance and usually has six strings and is often played in Afro-Cuban music.
Pablo Calogero picks up his bass clarinet and I hear shades of Bennie Maupin and touches of Yusef Lateef on the Jimmy McHugh’s composition, “Let’s Get Lost.” For this arrangement, bassist John B. Williams joins Littleton and Calogero. Don Littleton and Pablo collaborate on some of the tunes as songwriters. For example, “Sleeping Elephants,” where they reduce the energy and tempo to a lullaby pace. The melody is catchy and pulls the listener’s attention into the whirlpool of percussive drums, bass and tenor saxophone. The Thelonious Monk composition, “Bye-Ya,” is arranged in a similar way, without piano or guitar, but only showcasing the saxophone, the bass and Littleton’s busy and perfectly timed drums. This is a mystical album of mastery and creative expression. It’s full of unexpected surprises. The song, “Tunapuna,” reminds me of South African music and a dish I used to fix for my small children with Tuna fish and noodles. It’s a happy-go-lucky Caribbean crusted composition by Littleton, where he sings the melody using “La La La” as his lyric. I can picture scores of children dancing and frolicking to this joyful tune.
Here is an intoxicating project, released during the Coronavirus Pandemic, and currently available on CD Baby. It’s absolutely wonderful music; fresh, rhythmic, melodic and features the uninhibited drum mastery of Don Littleton. His project is embellished by the brilliance of Pablo Calogero on woodwinds and two stellar bass players; John B. Williams and Michael Alvidrez. When they do add piano to an arrangement, the music is amplified by the tasty licks of Jane Getz. Both ‘Slam’ Noble and Andrew Acosta bring exciting rhythm with their percussive coloration. This artistic work by Don Littleton is way overdue and deserves to be heard on every radio station worldwide. It’s one of the best things I’ve listened to all Spring.
By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
While walking down a Tel Aviv street, a dark-haired child passed a music store. The slender, inquisitive, six-year-old boy heard a man demonstrating an electric organ. That boy was Tamir Hendelman. Captured in that unexpected moment, the child found himself intrigued by the music he heard. To his ears, it sounded like a full orchestra. Young Tamir ran home and begged his mother to please buy him an organ. Thus, began his love affair with music, and later the piano and jazz. The rest is history.
Tamir’s family is not particularly musical except for his grandmother. Two stories below their apartment, his grandmother was always singing. Tamir explained:
“My parents didn’t have a passion for music the way I did. But my grandmother did. She always sang around the house: standards, popular melodies, opera and traditional Israeli songs. Every Friday night, she hosted Shabbat. Sometimes the TV would feature an American film musical. That’s where I first heard some of those Great American Song Book standards. She was a world traveler, bringing home little souvenirs. One snowy night, on tour in Alaska, I stumbled on a Russian shop with a nest doll display. Looking through the window, I recalled grandma’s nest dolls and suddenly I heard a melody, which became “Babushka,” a song I recorded on my Destinations CD.”
Tamir’s organ lessons as a child led to a deep love of classical and jazz music. A Count Basie cassette was an early gift from a teacher. He then heard Chick Corea in concert and watched Bobby McFerrin weave his charms on an audience, performing acapella in Tel Aviv. He also enjoyed a group called the Swingle Singers. They vocally performed music by Bach, Mozart and even music by The Beatles.
Hendelman quickly became enchanted with the rich expression of Jazz and classical music and with writing and arranging music that blended these sounds. Here is Tamir’s rendition of the prelude from Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin.
At the tender age of twelve, Tamir’s family moved to the United States to explore new horizons. He found himself smack dab in the middle of Los Angeles’ creative energy. His first U.S. teacher, Vilma Maramba, used the Yamaha method, encouraging improvisation. Playing an original piece, he participated in Yamaha’s National Electone Keyboard Competition. As fate would have it, one of the judges was pianist, arranger, composer and conductor, Joe Harnell. To his esteemed credit, Harnell has conducted for Peggy Lee and Ella Fitzgerald. Tamir took third place in the competition but impressed Joe Harnell enough that the iconic pianist/conductor approached young Hendelman after the contest. His encouraging words and belief in Tamir’s talent led to their lifelong friendship. As his mentor, Harnell suggested Tamir attend Tanglewood Institute, in Western Massachusetts, to study classical composition. Tamir later discovered the beauty of the acoustic piano and studied further with Clare Fischer and Billy Childs, both harmonic innovators.
Next Tamir received his Bachelor of Music Composition degree from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. He then became the youngest musical director for Lovewell Institute of the Creative Arts. Moving back to LA, he attended jam sessions at Billy Higgins’ World Stage, while composing and soaking up the music of Keith Jarrett, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, and Miles Davis.
Life in California was his oyster and there were many pearls to be found. As his career blossomed, Tamir began to get session calls and gigs accompanying singers. It’s one thing to be an incredible pianist, but it’s quite another thing to also be an incredible and sensitive accompanist. Tamir Hendelman could do both. While performing as part of vocalist, Sandra Booker’s band, the iconic drummer, Jeff Hamilton, heard Tamir play. A few months later, Tamir received an invitation to become the new pianist in the Jeff Hamilton Trio and of course, accepted enthusiastically. Soon after, he also joined the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz orchestra and has been touring internationally with both groups ever since.
At twenty-nine, Tamir met bassist Sherry Luchette and he was smitten. They soon married and that began a new chapter of his life. They are now the proud parents of two lovely, little girls. His career exploded in great ways. He found himself recording and touring with legendary artists like Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole, Bill Holman’s Big Band, Roberta Gambarini and was a guest soloist with the Henry Mancini Institute Orchestra. On recordings conducted and arranged by John Clayton, he performed alongside John Pizzarelli, Diana Krall and Paul McCartney. He also became a bandleader of his own trio. In 2009, Hendelman recorded his debut album, “Playground” with Jeff Hamilton and John Clayton. You can’t get much better than that. 2010’s “Destinations” trio CD (on Resonance Records) followed, featuring Lewis Nash and Marco Panascia. Tours with his trio have taken him across the US, as well as Europe and Japan.
Tamir Hendelman stayed busy recording with giants like, Teddy Edwards, Houston Person, Nick Brignola, Phil Upchurch, Rickey Woodard, vocalists Jackie Ryan and Barbara Morrison, Jeff Clayton and the Clayton-Hamilton orchestra. He performed Rhapsody in Blue with the Winston-Salem Symphony and participated on a tribute to Jobim with members of the Pittsburgh Symphony. Then along came the deadly Corona Virus. Musicians around the world found themselves at home, adjusting to a new and different pace and a challenging new way of life.
Now, since many of us are self-quarantined and stuck at home, Tamir decided to offer his friends and fans a weekly solo piano live-stream. It happens every Saturday evening at 6 p.m. (Pacific Coast time) on the Internet. Each week, he tributes various jazz giants and the Great American Songbook composers. https://gem.godaddy.com/p/a3deb01/
“Like many in LA, I’ve loved the tradition of house concerts, such as the long-time Jazz at the A-Frame series. The intimate setting and dedicated fans make these so special. When the A-Frame closed, I was invited to lead a series of solo and duo concerts at a home in Sherman Oaks as part of a series called the PQ Sessions. I featured guests like Rickey Woodard, Larry Koonse, Danny Janklow and Graham Dechter. We often dedicated our sets to a certain composer or musician. It seemed natural for me to take that approach with this new solo piano series from home,” Tamir explained his recent Zoom project.
“Each Saturday, I explore the music of a certain composer or musician, from Harold Arlen (5/23) to Miles Davis (5/30), Kenny Barron and Joao Gilberto (6/6), Chick Corea (6/13) and Cole Porter (6/20). This allows me to discover and share some hidden gems by these artists. My On-line workshops, feature the Great American Songbook and were also inspired by Barry Harris, who used to hold similar workshops for pianists and vocalists.”
Since 2005, Tamir Hendelman has been teaching piano, improvisation and harmony at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music, where instruction has temporarily moved online this quarter. He’s one of the brilliant professors at this newly renamed Global Jazz Studies program. Recently, the program was enhanced with the addition of Terence Blanchard and Arturo O’Farrill.
“As musicians and educators, I feel we’re here to bring people together and to lift them up. Especially now, when our students are immersed in technology, I encourage them to use those tools to musically connect with each other. They learn how to record together in ‘real’ time, accompany and musically support each other, and stay inspired together as a community. A few weeks ago, vocalist Tierney Sutton and I recorded a Hoagy Carmichael song, ‘I Get Along Without You. This was my first experience recording alone…together. I was glad to share this with our students and get them comfortable with the process. They paired up and recorded with each other in ‘real’ time. To me, that’s where the magic happens.”
The duo with Tamir Hendelman and Tierney Sutton came out beautifully. You can enjoy it below.
Not only is Tamir Hendelman an outstanding pianist, an educator and composer, he is an arranger of note. Many seek his creative arranging talents when they decide to record. He shared a funny story with me about an arrangement inspiration he once had.
“I often hear musical ideas while walking in nature. While working on an arrangement for vocalist, Joanne Tatham, she wanted me to create a new take on McCoy Tyner and Sammy Cahn’s ballad, ‘You Taught My Heart to Sing.’ While on my little walk, suddenly a garbage truck began backing up and beeping all the while. ‘Beep – beep – beep! Sure enough, that found its way into a bass figure repeating the same note, that came in and out of the song arrangement. I guess you never know where inspiration will strike,” he chuckled remembering.
If you want to hear more of Tamir Hendelman’s style and brilliance, I encourage you to visit his website www.tamirhendelman.com to discover and attend his latest Saturday streaming concerts and to learn more about his recordings. When live concerts resume and travel opens up, catch him in person or just dial him up on Youtube.com. From my perspective, not only is he an accomplished musician and educator, he’s also just a really down-to-earth and likeable person.
By Dee Dee McNeil / jazz journalist
February 1, 2021
Bassist, Mauricio Morales has composed seven outstanding selections for this, his debut album. To produce and carryout his arrangements, Morales employed three different drummers, a pianist and harmonica player, both trumpet and alto saxophone, a guitar and four string players. The Mexico City native, currently based in Los Angeles, showcases his arranging and composing skills on this release.
“Luna is a tribute to childhood. It represents the pursuit of a childlike peace of mind and excitement about life. Every song depicts a different layer of my own growth. Conceptually, I am attempting to tell a story through my music. Each piece represents a chapter in the journey that Luna is meant to be,” Mauricio Morales explains the premise of his artistic album.
Of course, “Luna” translates to ‘moon’ and many of the songs incorporated during this production reflect nature elements including this title tune. “Luna” opens this project and is based on the Mexican tradition of El Dia de los Reyes Magos. That’s the holy Epiphany Day of January 6, where presents are given in remembrance of the three kings who came to baby Jesus in Bethlehem bearing gifts. One part of this Mexican celebration is sending letters skyward, represented by helium balloons, requesting certain gifts.
“Our family always celebrated this time-honored tradition. I was three when I first celebrated it and my mom filled out the gift card for my balloon. She asked me what I wanted and I said, the moon. My title song represents the innocence of a kid who is so unaware. I wanted to make the music sound magical and special,” said Morales.
His mother, who he mentions, is Teresa Gonzalez, a renowned Mexican watercolor painter. Both his parents encouraged young Mauricio’s love of nature and music. The “Luna” composition soars and floats, with Mauricio taking a provocative bass solo in the middle of the piece, along with trumpeter Aidan Lombard. Another nature tune called “The Forest” is plush with sweeping string parts and Roni Eytan’s creative harmonica melodies that dance atop those strings.
“The Forest is really a simple song. My idea was to write a piece about the hero’s journey. It’s a common template in every form of storytelling that involves a hero that goes on an adventure and is successful in beating whatever challenges are put in front of him and (that hero) comes home transformed. The whole idea is about fantasy,” Mauricio Morales described what inspired this composition.
Perhaps this concept is a subconscious look at his own journey. Interestingly, Morales did not start out being a jazz player. Instead, at age fourteen he was playing pop music and heavy rock in Mexico City. He also loved listening to video game themes and was infatuated with film scores and television background music behind programming. The attached video was made at Berklee College and is a medley of themes from the video game ‘The Legend of Zelda.’ This student ensemble was directed by Mauricio Morales, who also played bass on the project.
“I was like a sponge soaking up any kind of art that had an impact on me. I came to understand, over the course of time, how cathartic and liberating it was to recognize the freedom that improvised music represents,” he elaborated on what made him turn to jazz.
Eventually, his dream was to study at Berklee School of Music in the United States. Morales manifested that dream and, once enrolled at Berklee, he studied with celebrated faculty members including George Garzone and Tia Fuller. But Morales credits educator Hal Cook for mentoring him throughout his tenure at Berklee. In 2019, He settled into West Coast living, making Los Angeles his home. That’s when he started seriously thinking about this “Luna” project. Morales worked closely with three friends he knew from his studies at Berklee: pianist Aga Dertak, trumpeter Aidan Lombard and harmonica player Roni Eytan.
“I was relatively new in Los Angeles, so I didn’t know a lot of people, especially string players. I wanted to do something different. The music was already written and arranged. I knew violinist Megan Shung from working with her on different projects and she instinctively pointed me in the right direction. They (the strings) create such a different texture for the music. … The collective energy and focus from all musicians involved is what created a perfect outcome,” Morales reflects.
“Terremoto” opens with the powerful drums of Gene Coye. Morales wrote this twisting and turning composition and arrangement as a result of the terrifying earthquake that destroyed parts of Mexico City on September 19, 2017.
“It was a hard moment. I wanted to be home and support, but I was in school in Boston and seeing lots of buildings tear apart and numerous lives destroyed. But what was remarkable was how people came together to help each other. It was a crazy and tense moment. That’s why I wrote a pretty and simple melody, underscored by the intensity of the rhythm section, meant to represent the contrast between chaos and beauty. I was so moved by my native city coming together in dealing with tragedy and showing so much resilience amongst the chaos that surrounded them.”
On a composition Mauricio Morales calls, “The Glass Door,” Patrick Simard shines on drums, propelling the song forward, inspired by Aga Derlak on piano. Morales says this is a reflective tribute to pianist, Robert Glasper, who is an artist he admires for the way Glasper perceives harmony and melody. But it’s not until track 6, “Relojito” that we hear Mauricio Morales take an extended bass solo, one that shows off his inspired chops. The final song titled, “Garden of Hope,” features a riveting electric guitar, with a very rock inspired solo by Al Joseph. Morales says this is a song about redemption.
“There is hope, no matter what mistakes you make,” he reminds the listener.
I found this debut recording by Mauricio Morales to be both inspired and poetically expressive. Morales uses music instead of words to paint melodic pictures of his life journey. We are swept along by his unique storytelling.
* * * * * * * * * *
José Rizo, bandleader/songwriter; Justo Almario, tenor saxophone/flute; Danilo Lozano, flute/Musical Director; Dayren Santamaria, violin; Joey De Leon, congas; Joe Rotondi, piano; Ramon Banda, timbales; James Zavaleto, lead vocals; Alfredo Ortiz, vocals/guiro/bell/bongo; George Ortiz, timbales; Ross Schodek, bass.
José Rizo is a popular Los Angeles disc jockey, who writes in his liner notes:
“The making of this “Mariposas Canton” album has been a very long, two-year journey. It was extremely difficult with the devastating loss of our brother, Ramon Banda. This recording is dedicated to Ramon.”
This journalist also feels a deep loss and sadness for the departure of my friend, Ramon Banda, from this Earth. He was one of several musicians who answered my call and came into the studio to create spots for a “Suicide Prevention” project spearheaded by Martha LaCroix. On occasion, I was also blessed to have performed with Ramon Banda, a timbales master, percussionist and also an amazing trap drummer. Ramon played trap drums with my jazz trio and I also reviewed him playing drums with the great Joey Defrancesco. The photo below was taken at the studio of Nolan Shaheed.
Early in his career, José Rizo produced a public affairs show called, “La Voz De La Raza” and it aired Sunday mornings. That was from 1975 to 1976. He served as a program director for two years at the Santa Barbara commercial station, KIST AM. He was also popular for another radio show called, “Barrio Salsoul” that aired from 1976 to 1982 on the KCSB-FM radio station. As Rizo began to make contact with some of the iconic Latin artists, he would promote them at Cinco de Mayo concerts at the Storke Plaza in Santa Barbara. He used artists like Los Lobos, Tierra and Pete & Sheila Escovedo and Poncho Sanchez. The José Rizo reputation was growing. Next, he started interviewing artists on his radio shows. That was during his college days in Santa Barbara, California. Not only is José Rizo currently a disc jockey on the 24-hour Los Angeles jazz station (KKJZ), he is also a notable bandleader and songwriter. In 2011, he founded Mongorama, an ensemble inspired by conguero Mongo Santamaria’s early 1960s band. This is Mongorama’s third album release, under the direction of the group’s current musical director, flutist Danilo Lozano. Rizo credits his co-writer, Francisco Torres, a talented trombonist, as the group’s arranger. Rizo and Torres composed “Mariposas Canton” that translates to ‘butterflies sing inside my heart every time I see you.’ It features the smooth vocals of James Zavaleta and a tenor saxophone solo by the great Justo Almario. José Rizo and Torres also wrote a song to tribute Helen Borges, who was a DJ favorite around Los Angeles for decades. This composition is titled, “Helen of Jazz.” Before her death, Helen Borges had requested that Danilo Lozano play flute on this tune. José Rizo kept his promise to her and Danilo is fluid and impressive on his flute solo. One of the young lions of jazz is also featured on this cut; vocalist, Darynn Dean. Ms. Dean is the granddaughter of iconic drummer, Donald Dean and she is a blossoming force of nature.
On the Cal Tjader composition, “Mambo Mindoro” Dayren Santamaria offers listeners a magnificent and emotional violin solo and Joey De Leon’s congas perfectly push the rhythm and enhance the production. Track 4 is full of excitement and pizazz. Titled, “Fiesta De Charangueros” here is over seven minutes of joy. Santamaria’s violin dances and prances amidst De Leon’s congas and the bright timbales of George Ortiz. Joe Rotondi is ever-brilliant on piano and the composer, Danilo Lozano, takes a flute solo. Justo Almario is always pleasing and adds his tenor saxophone to the mix. This song will make you want to get up and dance! The addition of voices are like the fancy wheels on a hot rod. They keep the music rolling happily along with flash and style. Track 5, titled “A Little Dab’ll Do Ya” offers a laid-back arrangement with a beautiful melody. This is one of my favorites on this album of fine music. The horn parts are harmonic and sexy, once again featuring an outstanding tenor solo by Justo Almario. Joe Rotondi has an innovative and inspiring sound on piano throughout this album, and he’s given ample solo time on this Nicholas Martines composition. Ramon Banda is tasty on timbales. Banda adds his magic timbale touch on six of these twelve songs. I like the way the arranger plays with rhythms and changes tempos, giving Alfredo Ortiz time to shine on bongos. This tune sounds like a motion picture sound track. I was also impressed with Yoshigei Rizo. She displays her beautiful voice on “Como Fue” as the ensemble’s lead singer.
José Rizo, born April 27, 1956, worked for KCSB-FM (while a student at University of California, Santa Barbara) and KIST-AM before debuting his 30-year, hit, radio show “Jazz on the Latin Side” at the studios of KKJZ-FM on the Long Beach State University Campus. That was in 1990. Rizo has produced jazz and Latin music festivals around Southern California for some time. He co-founded the Saungu Record label with his wife, Leticia V. Rizo. In 2000, he put together the Jazz on the Latin Side All-Stars, a sixteen-piece star-studded Latin jazz band. They recorded four albums. In 2009, to the joy of salsa dancers, José Rizo established this Mongorama ensemble.
On this Mongorama album, the song, “Quiero Menudo” is a Mexican meal that is said to have the powers of curing a painful hangover after a heavy night of partying. As the title of Track 6, these energetic musicians present another composition by Rizo and Torres that moves and grooves. Another original composition by these two songwriters is “Descarga Ramon Banda” that tributes their fallen percussion master and friend. There are some songs by Mongo Santamaria included and the band covers the popular “Watermelon Man” song by Herbie Hancock. Young Darynn Dean once again shows off her scat vocals briefly, at the end of this song. Finally, the album closes with another original song, “East L.A. Meets NAPA”; Napa being a historic California city founded in 1847. It was a known jump-off point for folks on their way to the gold rush and is quite famous for its prestigious vineyards. Rizo has hosted wine tasting and jazz events at various Napa Valley wineries.
Two significant mentors influenced José Rizo’s blossoming disc jockey career. One was Chico Sesma, a pioneer Latin music DJ and the other was Chuck Niles, the singular jazz disc jockey honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. One thing I found that made Chuck Niles so loved and so important to our Southern California jazz community was his accessibility and support of local artists on his popular radio jazz show. That’s when KKJZ was KLON-FM radio. Chuck was always seen frequenting local jazz spots and he kept abreast of what was happening in our jazz community. I think José Rizo learned from that example.
José Rizo’s success, as a disc jockey, has led him down other exclusive and prestigious paths, like being invited to participate on the Grammy Award Committee and the Latin Grammy Award committee. The success of his radio show “Jazz on the Latin Side” allowed him to produce the KLON Latin-jazz Club Caravan and the Cinco de Mayo Latin-jazz Dance Concerts. He also founded the KJazz High School Jazz Festival. From 2007 to 2010, he was Program Director for KKJZ. José has become a part of the annual Central Avenue Jazz Festival, serving as Artistic Director alongside of jazz legends like Teddy Edwards and Buddy Collette. Rizo received the Jazz Journalists Association’s ‘A’ Team Award for his support of that Central Avenue Jazz Festival in 2007. Always striving to move Latin jazz musicians into a larger spotlight, José Rizo co-founded the Luckman Fine Arts Latin Jazz Concert series from 2000 – 2005. He’s also artistic producer of Councilman Gilbert Cedillo’s Latin jazz & Music Festival, normally held every August in highland Park, California. On top of all that, José manages to find time to compose Latin music, band-lead and produce all-star Latin music groups, while coordinating his DJ show and running his record company. I’d say that’s pretty impressive!
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Written by Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
By Dee Dee McNeil
A mainstay on the Los Angeles jazz scene since the mid 1980’s, London-born Benn Clatworthy has been making music for forty-plus years and recently released a new album titled, “System 6: Bennie’s Lament,” on Henry Franklin’s Skipper Productions label. Clatworthy’s musical background is unusual, in that he was drawn to music without any significant early mentoring in the arts.
BENN CLATWORTHY: “I was born in England. As a kid, I was shifted about from Hastings to London, ‘cause dad was living in London and mom was living in Hastings. When they finally made the divorce official, I was around eleven and a little bit out of control. I ended up being sent to a youth authority type school; an experimental place for troubled kids. You didn’t get much attention there, but you had chores to do and not much school work at all that I can remember. From about thirteen-years-old until sixteen, I was there and then returned to London to stay with my father and sometimes other places. In those early years, from eleven to twelve, I was heavy into music. I loved reggae and soul music. I attended dances at the youth clubs and saw the live bands. I was fascinated by them.
“Thinking back, I was always fascinated by music. Early in life, I had piano lessons as a child. I first discovered jazz because I heard this Jamaican fellow, who played saxophone on record named Harold McNair. His music struck a chord inside me. I tried being a drummer for a while and next, a guitarist. After I left that youth authority school, I was still playing around with the guitar. I had a friend, the son of Alexis Korner. In England, everybody came through Korner’s band at that time, or John Mayall’s band. I heard Charles Mingus and Eric Dolphy at Alexis Korner’s house. That’s when I sold my guitar for a saxophone.
“I have a brother and a sister who both live in England. I come from an artistic family. My father is a sculptor and a painter. My grandmother, on my mother’s side, was Gertrude Lawrence, quite a famous person in musical theater. The song “Body and Soul” was written for her by Johnny Green. She became the first British performer to star in an American musical on Broadway. She was on Broadway in 1952 when she died. She was starring in ‘The King and I.’ She sang classic standards like, ‘Someone to Watch Over Me’ and ‘My Ship.’ Those songs were written for her because she sang in plays that featured those songs. I never met my mum’s mother, but I learned about her later in life. So, maybe music is in the genes,” Benn shared with me.
NOTE: Veteran actress/singer, Gertrude Lawrence, played opposite actor and television director, Yul Brynner in “The King and I” until her unexpected death from cancer a year-and-a-half after the opening. Lawrence garnered Best Actress Award for her part in that Tony winning play.
BENN CLATWORTHY: “My biggest inspirations were Sonny Rollins and Dexter Gordon. They were huge influences and of course, Duke Ellington. Booker Ervin and John Coltrane inspired me too. All those years working as a musician, I never studied with a saxophone teacher until I was twenty-five years old. Yeah, the first time I studied was when I came to the United States. I studied properly with Phil Sobel. I was playing in London, but I didn’t know what I was doing technically. I was working in all the pubs and little clubs and I was always trying to play jazz. One thing I noticed, after working locally in America and overseas, more people come to listen in Europe than in America. They seem to be happy to pay to come and listen and they listen with rapt interest. Jazz is held up in more esteem in Europe than it is here. But in Europe, you don’t get people saying emotionally, ‘Yeah – yeah – play it baby’ like in America. I like to hear that and I like to give some of that back to my audiences.
“I remember being terrified for five weeks preparing for an appearance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and it was great. I wanted to be perfect to perform with the orchestra and with John Beasley’s trio. Roy McCurdy was on the gig and I love playing with Roy. It’s hard to be objective when you’re up on the stage and I was just praying that I played my very best. After the concert, the first violin player came up to me and said I was great. I was so humbled by that. His words really touched me.
“I find myself more into classical music for the last couple of years. Their playing is so technically incredible. They can play these amazing things and I’m trying to write with more harmonics and more knowledge of orchestration. On my albums, I do a bit of original music. I force practicing, but I don’t force writing. I let it come when it wants to,” Benn Clatworthy gave me a glimpse into how he composes.
On this recent 2020 album release, Clatworthy has composed nine of the eleven original songs. For this “Bennie’s Lament” production, (Clatworthy features a group he calls System 6) Benn has assembled some of Southern California’s finest instrumentalists, including Ron Stout on trumpet, Joey Sellers on trombone, Yayo Morales on drums and percussion, Bruce Lett on bass and Bryan Velasco on piano. Clatworthy shows off his competence on tenor and soprano saxophones, clarinet, bass clarinet, flute and alto flute. This album is more Avant-garde than some of the former Clatworthy CDs I’ve reviewed. Additionally, Yayo Morales has composed one song (Two Little Brothers) and Jeremy Sellers offers the other original titled “Good Grape.” I’m used to hearing Clatworthy play more bebop and Straight-ahead music. This album pushes musical boundaries and showcases his composer skills, as well as his technical ability on several woodwind instruments.
I asked Benn what had inspired this project.
BENN CLATWORTHY: “This is actually my work of art. There’s just three of us left from our days of playing in the Francisco Aquabella Latin Jazz Band; Joey Sellers, Bryan Velasco and me. Francisco Aquabella was a famous Cuban conga player, born October tenth in 1925, and I worked for a long time in his band. When he died in 2010, I was honored when his family wanted me to continue to lead the band. I tried for a while and I made three records. Two represented the Aquabella Jazz Band and were called Aquabella. Then I changed the name to System 7 because we were a septet. Now it’s become System 6, because there are only six of us in the band.
“I learned a tremendous amount playing with Francisco Aquabella and I started writing music for that group. I wasn’t writing Latin music. I was just writing what comes into my mind at the time. Like on the tune “In Strayhorn’s bag,” I based that song on the first two chords where there’s a dominant seventh with a sharp eleven. It reminded me of a tune by Strayhorn and I developed my tune from there”
Track 10, “In Strayhorn’s Bag” is one of my favorites on this album and it was nice to hear the story of how Clatworthy composed that song. On “How They Talk,” Ron Stout takes the spotlight on trumpet and this is another one of the Clatworthy originals I like a lot. The rhythms on “Two Little Brothers” is intoxicating and Clatworthy brings his bebop chops to this Latin-fused party. I can hear the Coltrane influence on Benn’s title tune, “Bennie’s Lament.”
When he isn’t recording, Benn takes time to teach and motivate young players.
“I’m happy to see so many young people inspired by music. Playing an instrument takes a lot of discipline. Doing anything well takes discipline. You’ve got to practice like your life depends on it. I get up in the morning and practice. Every day, I try to improve as a musician and as a human being,” he told me. “Right now, during this pandemic thing, I’m practicing a lot because there’s no work. We can’t wait to get back on-the-road and promote this CD.”
We can’t wait to hear you and System 6, live and in-person, Benn. Until then, we can pop your recent compact disc on our CD players, sit back and enjoy.
By Dee Dee McNeil/Jazz Journalist
Sept 1, 2020
When I listen to Teodross Avery’s saxophone music, I feel like I know him. When I hear his compositions, they sound familiar (like jazz standards) and when I interviewed him recently, we talked like old friends instead of artist and journalist. He’s got an easy way about him. He’s personable and that comes across in his music. I didn’t feel anything pretentious blowing out of the bell of his horn. His saxophone is honest, pure, emotional and well-played.
He was born in Northern California, (the Vacaville/Oakland area) and he comes from a mid-sized, loving family. There was little Teo, two sisters, a step-brother, a step-mother and father and his real mother was also in the mix.
“My father played various instruments around the house just for fun; the harmonica and Bongos. He bought me a guitar when I was just five years old,” Teo shared with me.
“Like a kid’s guitar or a toy guitar?” I asked him.
“No. It was a real electric guitar and I thought I was rockin’ hard in those days. (laughter) I started taking lessons at ten. But before lessons, I had my real guitar and I was playing while very young.”
The Avery house was always full of music. His father boasted a huge record collection and young Teodross heard a range of music including West African music, soul, rock and jazz. At age thirteen, the sound of John Coltrane jolted Teo onto a new musical path. The young Avery put down the guitar and picked up the saxophone. Two years later, the impetuous teenager heard that Wynton Marsalis was coming to town. Always in search of ‘live’ music, he enjoyed hearing the various jazz artists in-person; artists like Art Blakey, Freddie Hubbard, Nat Adderley, Pharoah Sanders and Elvin Jones. Teo was determined to meet trumpet icon, Wynton Marsalis.
“Yeah, he was passing through the Bay Area and performing at UC Berkeley. I would always go hear ‘live’ music in the Bay area. I would stake out. I’d get to the venue early and I’d wait for the musicians to arrive,” he chuckles remembering.
“It was kind of unique, because how often would musicians see a fifteen-year-old kid waiting for them to arrive? So, they opened the music up to me, which was really cool. At the time, Wynton was helping out a lot of young musicians. He always had you introduce yourself first. Like hi, my name is blah blah and I’m from such and such a place. Then he’d say – ok. Pull out your horn. I want to hear what you have to say on your instrument. Let’s hear what you got. Then, he’d critique you and inspire you. He’d direct you if he thought you had something you needed to work on. After he heard me play, he told me to talk to his saxophonist, Wessell Anderson. After playing for Wes, I told them I needed a new horn, since they were helping musicians get better instruments. They told me they would arrange a new instrument for me and I was really, really, appreciative,” Teodross Avery spoke sincerely. “I was fifteen.”
Doors flew open for the talented young man. At seventeen he got a scholarship to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston. At nineteen, he landed a record deal with GRP/Impulse and cut his first album, using a slew of exceptional musicians. For two days, I listened to this man’s early work on YouTube. He was not even of legal age to drink alcohol, but his music had an old soul. That first album was bebop-tight and fluid. He was soulful and sounded like a veteran player instead of a nineteen-year-old college student. I asked him about that time in his life.
“I was playing with Carl Allen and at the time, he had a music copyist who knew a management person (Anna Sala) who knew an A&R person. That A&R person (Carl Griffin) knew there was a call out from GRP/Impulse Records. They were looking for a saxophone artist. When the copyist heard me on Carl Allen’s record date, he asked me to send them my information. That’s how I got that deal, and interestingly, that music copyist, who’s also a trumpet player, is leading an amazing group today called “The Cookers.” I’m sure you’ve heard them. His name is David Weiss. He’s been in a few groups, but this was a great group with Billy Harper, Eddie Henderson, Donald Harrison, George Cables, Cecil Mcbee and Billy Hart. He hooked me up.”
Dee Dee: You used Roy Hargrove on that first album. I love that song “High Hopes.” How did Roy come to be on that album?
“When Roy would come through Boston, I would go hear him and we used to wind up at this bar named Wally’s. Everybody went there to jam. You’d go to Wally’s to learn how to play. It was like Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem, back in New York. One of those places where you went and just played. Our friendship evolved like that and he wound up on my album. I composed nine out of the eleven songs on that album,” Teo Avery flashed back to his Berklee College days.
I reminded Teo that one of the songs I listened to on that album was “Edda”, a Wayne Shorter composition. I asked him if Wayne Shorter was one of his inspirations.
“Oh sure. He’s probably one of the greatest composers in jazz. His music is very strong. I was also influenced by John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Joe Henderson, Max Roach, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Michael Brecker, Freddie Hubbard, McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock; oh, there’s so many,” he mused.
Teo’s next project came in 1996, when he released his “My Generation” album. His first album was bebop influenced and straight-ahead. But this next release blended genres. He enlisted the talents of Mark Whitfield, John Scofield and Peter Bernstein on guitar, Charles Craig on piano, Greg Hutchinson on drums and Rodney Whitaker on bass.
“I’ve been knowing Rodney since those days of going to hear Roy Hargrove. I heard him perform with Roy. He and Greg Hutchinson played so well together. They just locked. I was like, I gotta have these guys on my record,” he recalled with excitement in his tone.
On one of their songs he featured “Blackthoughts” from “The Roots” group, a popular house-band featured on the Jimmy Fallon Late Night TV show. Avery also did a very cool arrangement of Janet Jackson’s hit record, “Anytime, Anyplace” on this album.
“I grew up playing jazz, but I grew up in Hip Hop too. So, I like to bring those elements out,” he explained why he included a Hip Hop rapper and a pop/R&B hit song on that particular album.
Teo continued to record. In 1998, he released “Teodross Avery & the 5th Power, New Day, New Groove.” Years later he released, “Post Modern Trap Music.”
In between recording and composing, the young saxophonist and budding composer graduated Berklee and moved to New York City. While attaining his Master’s degree in Music from the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University, he found his way to producing soundtracks for movies like “Love Jones” where he actually played a musician and performed on stage (1996) and they used his original music in the movies “Beauty Shop” and “Brown Sugar.” As a musician who blends styles and genres, he found his way onto the first gold-record album Amy Winehouse released, co-writing a song she sang called “Brother” on her “Frank” project.
Teodross Avery found himself on tours and in studios that put him in contact with a number of iconic entertainers including Aretha Franklin, Mos Def, Roy Ayers, Lauren Hill and Leela James. On the jazzy side of the coin, his horn embellished bandstands with Ben Riley, Hank Jones, The Roy Hargrove Big Band, Lewis Nash, Donald Harrison, Bobby Watson and Dee Dee Bridgewater, to name just a few. I asked Teo who made the biggest impressions on him.
“Oh, that’s so hard to say because each person has strengths that are different from each other. You might be on stage with somebody who’s selling lots of albums and they might do two things really well, that you’re observing. Then you might be on the road with someone else who really isn’t as big of a star, but they might do two other things better. Everybody has something to offer and if you’re there to be observant and to play and be supportive; if you’re there to learn, then every opportunity is an opportunity to grow. Sometimes you learn what to do and other times, what not to do,” he shared.
“Lauryn Hill has this ability to make emotional music that resonates with a lot of people. She knows how to talk about things lyrically that people tap into, especially women. She knows how to really connect in a very emotional way. I learned about that from her. On the flip side, you have somebody like Leela James. She’s all about that soul and making you feel real good with that gospel soul-funk. So, there’s a time when you need to sit down and focus on being soulful. That’s what she showed me.”
Dee Dee: What made you take the teaching position at California State University Dominquez Hills?
“It was in 2010 I had done everything I wanted to do in New York and I was seeking a way to come back to California. So, it was really like a good time to go back to school and get my doctorate. When I was done with that (2012 to 2016), I started looking for jobs. This one came up here in L.A. My wife and I were expecting a child and we were already in Los Angeles and we didn’t have to move to another State. It was just the right time. I didn’t want to be that musician who was gone away from their family. I’ve been on the road and seen musicians being away from their families and away from their wives at very critical times. I just couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t raise my child like that, not being around. I saw my dad being a good parent and I wanted to give that to my child,” he explained.
“Currently, we’re teaching completely online via Zoom. I feel like I’d rather be safe than sorry. Who wants to take a chance on catching COVID19? After all, I have a family. I’d rather wait it all out,” he spoke about the pandemic that’s currently ravaging our California state.
In 2016, Teodross Avery received his Doctorate degree in Jazz Studies from the University of Southern California (USC). Dr. Avery is currently the head of Jazz Studies and Contemporary Music at California State University Dominguez Hills (CSUDH).
In 2019, Dr. Avery recorded a tribute to one of his music heroes, “After the Rain: A Night for Coltrane.” On this release, he returned to his bebop roots. This year, (2020) he has continued his love of straight-ahead jazz with the release of his latest album, “Harlem Stories: The Music of Thelonious Monk.” Once again, he uses an all-star lineup of musicians to interpret Monk’s amazing compositions. He has divided the album in half, featuring one group on the first five songs including Willie Jones III on drums (who also produced this project for his label, WJ3 Records), Anthony Wonsey on piano, Allakoi “Mic Holden” Peete on percussion and Corcordan Holt on bass. Then Teo changes the band for the next five tunes, with the addition of DD Jackson on piano, the final five compositions are interpreted in a very abstract way. He keeps Holt on bass, but adds Marvin “Bugalu” Smith on drums.
Teodross Avery fell in love with the music of Thelonious Monk when he was just fifteen years old. His dad used to play the genius pianist and composer’s music all the time. Teodross recalls:
“I used to listen to Monk’s album, ‘Monk’s Dream’, with the volume on ten on my dad’s huge speakers. I began to hear how important the swing rhythm was to Thelonious Monk’s music. It became clear to me that Monk wanted his complex melodies and harmonies to affect the musicians and the listeners alike with non-stop swing rhythms.”
Without a doubt, Dr. Avery has put together a group of musicians who swing hard and non-stop. He also brings (along with the historic sound of Monk’s group), his own perspective and arrangements that add a kaleidoscope of colorful shades, beauty and brilliance. Right from the very first song, “Teo” I am intrigued and absolutely intoxicated by the energy and creativity of this varied ensemble. “Teo” is a wonderful Monk composition, inspired by the composer’s appreciation of tenor sax-man and longtime producer, Teo Macero. Folks were likely to hear Monk and his band of merry men play this tune often at Minton’s Playhouse in New York while Thelonious was the house pianist in the mid-1940s. Every composition on this album is the work of this piano genius. When Avery interprets “Ruby My Dear” he surprises me with the funk drums at the top and the smooth, Latin, rhythmic vibe he inserts. When the melody arrives, like a beautiful woman making her grand entrance after the party has started, it both pleases and astonishes this listener. This arrangement is dynamic and fresh. It will make all the party attendees swivel their heads towards the ballad’s entrance. Teodross Avery’s arrangement could have been influenced by the fact that this tune was penned for Monk’s girlfriend at that time, a spicy, Cuban-born beauty named Rubie Richardson. The piano of Anthony Wonsey is the sparkle, like jewelry around the song’s long, lovely body.
“Evidence” vividly showcases Willie Jones III on drums. This, of course, is a standard jam session jazz tune that drummers love to dig their sticks into. Willie Jones III does not disappoint. The
Teodross Avery Quartet brings a classic, hard-bop menu to the table. It’s just what my taste buds needed to begin this early Saturday morning. Like “Evidence,” the classic tune, “Rhythm-a-ning,” allows Teodross Avery to swing and race at top speed on his tenor saxophone. He has a tone and attack that exploits the best in whatever he plays. Corcoran Holt is stunning and convincing on his bass solos. His up-tempo precision attack throughout, features his swiftly-walking double bass that locks into the drums and makes the perfect basement for this quartet to jam inside. A melodic mixture of improvised piano notes scurry beneath the sensitive fingers of Wonsey. This is an exciting and serious representation of master Monk’s work and explores the talents of these awesome musicians.
DD Jackson sits down to the piano to introduce us to “In Walked Bud” in a very inventive and blues-laden way. He has a totally different style of playing than Wonsey, but is no less dynamic or brilliant. He brings something new and inventive to the tune. The drums roll, like a two-ton truck barreling down the freeway, underneath this spontaneous ensemble. Teodross Avery is magnificently present on his tenor saxophone. Mr. Jackson takes a serious solo that makes me sit up and pay close attention. This is the way jazz is supposed to make you feel. Marvin “Bugalu” Smith parts the curtains and demands our consideration during his drum solo, full of spunk and fire. “In Walked Bud” never sounded so good!
We get a breather on “Ugly Beauty,” the only waltz Monk ever wrote and it’s sweetly presented, yet still with those powerful drums edging the band on. Teodross Avery plays beautifully on soprano saxophone this time, sounding like a wild, beautiful bird. He glides, dips and flies over our heads and makes me look up. This music lifts me. DD Jackson answers some of his conversational horn lines on piano, as though they are having a private conversation. His fingers move rapidly; humming bird or butterfly wings dusting the piano keys.
Every song and each individual production on this album of great music is worthy of a replay. I spent a couple of hours listening, so I could soak up every nuance; every drop of colorful creativity. Teodross Avery is masterful as a woodwind player, but also as a bandleader, arranger and musical inspiration.
By Dee Dee McNeil
The Spanish Harlem Orchestra blends Latin fire, sparkling, percussive energy and traditional jazz in a multi-colored spotlight. The leader of this Grammy Award winning congregation is Oscar Hernandez. He’s a man that comes from humble roots that were proudly planted in the Bronx of New York. One of eleven brothers and sisters, born to Emilio and Providencia Hernandez, he is the only one that chose music as a career path.
“I grew up in a beautiful time; a time of great cultural development in the Latino and Hispanic communities. I grew up in the South Bronx and that was predominantly inner-city. Andy and Jerry Gonzalez were very important to me. They were a couple of years older than me and they had their own apartment downstairs from where their parents lived. It was a place where musicians used to congregate and do nothing but listen to music and jam. They had a huge record collection. For being young guys, they had a lot of knowledge about the music. I learned a lot about Latin music from them. We learned about the history of our music. We used to listen to a lot of jazz as well. We listened to the roots of Bebop; Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and I listened to Bud Powell, who influenced me as a pianist. Other guys who were making the music so important were people like Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, McCoy Tyner, Chick Corea, Wynton Kelly, Redd Garland and so many people who became part of the fabric of what jazz was in the fifties and sixties. We were Latinos, but we had our ears to the ground as to what was happening in jazz,” Oscar recalled that youthful, impressionable time in his life.
The Hernandez family originally relocated from Puerto Rico to the United States in the 1950s. They settled into an apartment in the heavily Latino populated South Bronx. Oscar is the youngest of their eleven children. When someone gave one of his big brothers a piano, they managed to drag the musical gift into the basement of their inner-city apartment building. Oscar Hernandez found himself magically drawn to the instrument. He started playing the piano by ear.
“I think music saved my life, because I don’t know what I would have done without music. I’m sure I would have done something positive, but it was just awesome to discover my natural talent,” he told me.
As a small boy, Oscar Hernandez heard the music of Tito Puente, Willie Colon and Tito Rodriguez dancing from the windows of his neighborhood and spinning on the record players of his family and friends. At a popular local Boys & Girls Club, he took trumpet lessons for a while. But once his small fingers touched the black and white keys of that first, battered, upright piano, he put the brass down.
“I often tell people that the education I got as a young musician in New York City from age sixteen to twenty-five, all the way to age thirty, by playing with all the people that I got to play with, you couldn’t get that kind of training at the best university in the world. It was an incredible time for me. There was so much music happening. We went to not only the Latin clubs, but to the jazz clubs as well, like the Village Vanguard. We went to Birdland and a lot of places that were really happening back then. We used to be part of Jazz mobile, an organization that put on a lot of concerts around the city.”
As a teenager, Oscar was already playing with Joey Pastrana and later with the Ismael Miranda band. Under age and eager to learn, he was sneaking into nightclubs to hear the music of popular folks like Ray Barretto, Eddie Palmieri and Richie Ray. During an interview with George Rivera, Oscar Hernandez talked about being eighteen and playing with Ismael Miranda. At that time, they were a very
popular band and working all the time. Performing often times seven days a week will strengthen your playing and like Oscar said, it’s a learning experience. It helped him hone his craft. But the crowning gig was when he joined a celebrated American conga drummer and bandleader who introduced the country to a music popularly known as Boogaloo. Boogaloo would later be labeled, ‘salsa.’ This band was also solidly rooted in traditional Puerto Rican music. They explored New York’s modern Latin sounds, and threw in some charanga (a popular Cuban dance music) and conjunto styles. Conjunto is a mixture of accordion and Mexican-American music.
“When I played with Ray Barretto, I was in my mid-twenties and it was like going to the best university. He was one of the most knowledgeable people about all walks of music that you could ever be associated with. He was also making history with regards to his own music,” Oscar praised his friend and bandleader.
“Rican/Struction, (on Fania Records and released in 1979) was an important record that happened in the late seventies and for me to be part of that recording, oh man! What a feather in my cap. I feel so grateful. I recorded six records with Ray and (pardon my French) They’re all kick ass! You can go back and listen to that stuff now and go like, Wow – that sounds amazing. It’s funny, because my success with my own band, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, I have to say Ray’s band was a precursor to what I’m doing with my band today,” Oscar told me.
“My early mentors on piano were (on the Latin side) Eddie Palmieri and his brother, Charlie Palmieri. Obviously, they were kind of at the forefront of that music when I grew up. The music that was coming from Cuba inspired me and people like Perucihn, a Cuban pianist, as well as Arsenio Rodriguez and many other that we were listening to. On the jazz scene, of all the people I learned from were the early guys. Bud Powell was important. Red Garland, Wynton Kelly and Bill Evans; then the people who were in the forefront of contemporary jazz like Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and McCoy Tyner,” Oscar recalled the piano players who he considered mentors.
Oscar Hernandez’s new release on ArtistShare Records is the Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) presenting us with “The Latin jazz Project.” He has already racked up three Grammy Awards for his SHO salsa albums. Established in 2001, their first recording was released in 2002. “Un Gran Dia En El Barrio,” was nominated by the Grammy’s for “Best Salsa Album.” In 2003, They garnered the Billboard Grammy Award for “Salsa Album of the year” and in 2005 they actually won the Grammy Award with their second CD release, “Across 110th Street” for “Best Salsa Album.” They won a second Grammy for their fourth CD, “Viva La Tradicion.” In 2019, they won their 3rd Grammy with their “Anniversary” release. On every recording, Oscar Hernandez is the pianist, the orchestra leader, music producer and arranger. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra is praised as one of the best Salsa and Latin jazz music ensemble in the world. Currently, “The Latin jazz project” is their 7th album release. I asked Oscar what was the difference between salsa music and Latin Jazz. he talked to me about this recent release and the difference between this project and their former SHO recordings.
“It’s funny, because the band has performed all over the world. I’m really proud that the Spanish Harlem Orchestra has played almost every jazz festival that exists and the reaction we get is amazing. I’ll give you a perfect example. We played the John Coltrane Jazz Festival in High Point, North Carolina last year. I remember the presenter, the booking agent, was going back and forth about booking us or
not. He was saying, I don’t know how Latin music will go over here. It’s mostly a black audience, you know. So, he finally agreed and we performed. I actually wrote an arrangement for ‘Mr. P.C.’ which is a John Coltrane composition. After our show, the audience was on their feet giving us a standing ovation. The guy came back and said, man – was I ever wrong. Wow – you practically stole the show! And that’s the reaction that we get across the board. So, for me, that feedback is priceless. I make a living off this and I make money. But it’s not about that at all. For me, it’s the reaction I get when we perform. It’s just spiritually uplifting and it basically validates my whole life’s work and what I do.
“I mean, I am blown away to have special guests like Kurt Elling, Tom Harrell, Miguel Zenon and Bob Mintzer on this current project. Those guys are kind of my heroes. In the past we had Chick Corea as a guest on our 5th record and we had Joe Lovano as a guest. On the “Anniversary” record, we featured Randy Brecker. We always include a little Latin jazz in all our recordings. So, this “Latin Jazz Project” was bound to finally happen. It’s pretty cool.
“In terms of the difference between salsa and Latin Jazz, the biggest difference is that Latin Jazz is mostly instrumental, as opposed to Salsa, where they’re singing some Spanish songs and we feature a vocalist. Once you integrate those elements of jazz, be it harmony or melody or improvisation with Latin rhythm, then you have Latin jazz,” Oscar Hernandez explained.
For the past fourteen years, Oscar Hernandez has firmly planted his feet in Southern California and settled down in Los Angeles.
“I’m in New York a lot. I’m a die-hard New Yorker. But I got divorced in New York and then I got married to a woman who’s from out here in L.A. I always liked Los Angeles, so, I moved out here. We have a thirteen-year-old daughter. I have two sons in New York and I have an older daughter that was born and raised in Los Angeles. She’s such an amazing woman. It’s a blessing to be here with her; with both my daughters in L.A. and to have my two sons in New York,” he speaks in a loving way about his children.
“I just want my legacy to be about good music. My music comes from a real place. It comes from a place where I am a part of that history. It’s been close to fifty years now and I’ve had the opportunity to keep putting my music out there; music that I feel in my heart. I’ve played with Ray Barreto. I’ve played with Celia Cruz, Earl Klugh, and Paul Simon on Broadway. I played with Julio Iglesias, Willie Colón, Oscar D’Leon and Ruben Blades, who I won a Grammy with in 1986 on the “Escenas” album. I’ve played with so many people that are a part of the history of this music, that I want my legacy to be about keeping our music on a pedestal. I want people to learn about the beauty of Latin jazz music. I want my legacy to be somebody that contributed their drop in the bucket with regard to good music. I mean, I think what drives me first and foremost is my passion for the music. I love the music. I feel like now I’m really clear that It was divine intervention. GOD put it in my path for a reason. I didn’t choose it, it chose me.”
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SHO – SPANISH HARLEM ORCHESTRA – “THE LATIN JAZZ PROJECT” – A REVIEW ArtistShare
Oscar Hernandez, piano/arranger/composer/leader; Hector Colón, Jonathan Powell, & Manuel “Maneco” Ruiz, trumpet/flugelhorns; Doug Beavers & Noah Bless, trombones; Jorge Castro & Mitch Frohman, baritone saxophone; Luisito Quintero, timbales/shekere/shakers/chimes; George Delgado, congas; Jorge Gonzalez, bongos; Gerardo “Jerry” Madera, bass; Jeremy Bosch, flute/vocal; Marco Bermudez & Carlos Cascante, vocals. SPECIAL GUESTS: Kurt Elling, vocals; Joe Locke, vibraphone; Jimmy Haslip, bass; Tom Harrell, Jonathan Powell & Michael Rodriguez, trumpets; Dave Liebman, Bob Mintzer, Bob Franceschini & Miguel Zenon, saxophones.
Opening with an original composition by producer/arranger, Oscar Hernandez, “Ritmo De Mi Gente” dances off my Cd player. Orchestra leader, Hernandez, is featured on piano and has arranged this up-tempo, hip-swaying tune. Jeremy Bosch is brightly featured on the flute. For the past seventeen years, this three-time Grammy Award winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra (SHO) has earned their reputation as a premier salsa ensemble and lauded for their ability to blend their Latin cultural music with jazz. The director and orchestra leader, Oscar Hernandez, is celebrated by many as one of the most important Latin jazz pianists of his generation.
“We have always been steeped in the tradition of Latin jazz. It makes sense for us to finally get to this point. I couldn’t be more proud of this project and this band,” Hernandez elaborated in his liner notes.
Track two, “Bobo,” features L. A. based, big band leader, Bob Mintzer, lending his talents on saxophone. On the familiar and beautiful standard, “Invitation,” the distinctive vocals of Kurt Elling are prominent, with a rich saxophone solo by Miguel Zenon. The orchestra propels these songs with excitement and percussive brilliance by Luisito Quintero, George Delgado and Jorge Gonzalez. Throughout this production, the surprise appearances of several iconic musicians add credence and icing to this sweet, musical cake. You will hear former Yellow Jackets member, Jimmy Haslip, on electric bass during their arrangement of “Silent Prayers” along with the iconic Dave Liebman on saxophone. The energetic arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” becomes a Salsa stage to feature the trumpet of Jonathan Powell. All in all, here is a lovely Latin album featuring tight, well-rehearsed arrangements, stellar orchestra members and a star-studded list of special guests. What’s not to love? This could easily become another Grammy Award Winning album for Oscar Hernandez and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra.
THE MARK MASTERS ENSEMBLE
“THE ALEC WILDER SONGBOOK FEATURING GARY SMULYAN – NIGHT TALK”
Capri Records Ltd.
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
Ed Czach, piano; Putter Smith, bass; Kendall Kay, drums; Jerry Pinter, tenor & soprano saxophone; Don Shelton, alto saxophone/alto flute; Bob Summers, trumpet; Gary Smulyan, baritone saxophone; Dave Woodley, trombone.
Featuring some of the Los Angeles music communities A-list musicians, this CD is plush with harmony, swings hard and has tightly executed arrangements that send this ensemble soaring into the big band jazz universe. Alec Wilder is the composer of all the songs and The Mark Masters Ensemble amply interprets them with fire and finesse. All arrangements are written by Mark Masters. The musicians are such amazing technicians on their instruments that they sound like an orchestra. I am not surprised, because I’m familiar with the excellence of Ed Czach on piano, Putter Smith on bass, Kendall Kay on drums and folks like Bob Summers on trumpet. The entire ensemble is made up of first-class, Southern California musicians.
Alec Wilder is an iconic, amazing composer and you probably would recognize some of his popular American Songbook tunes; among them, “I’ll Be Around.” The Mark Masters Ensemble opens with “You’re Free,” a great tune that swings hard and is driven by the awesome baritone saxophone of Gary Smulyan. Masters’ collaboration with Smulyan has embraced twenty-one friendly years, starting with when he invited Smulyan to perform his music with strings at California’s Claremont McKenna College. Later, he was featured on the Mark Masters tribute to Clifford Brown Project in 2003. Clearly, Gary Smulyan’s beautiful, rich sound on his baritone saxophone immediately grabs the attention. His tone is smooth as satin, as he creatively improvises or boldly sings out the melody. Either way, he will intoxicate the listener.
“Writing this project with Gary in mind, I wanted to feature him as if he was performing with a symphony orchestra. The goal was to set him apart from everything else and to highlight his sound and his unique voice. I know that whenever he’s playing, it’s going to sound great. But I want to make sure that I do everything to put him and everybody else in the best light,” Mark Masters explained in his press package.
There is no doubt that this project shines brightly, spotlighting the dynamic Wilder compositions and brilliantly showcasing a crème-de-la-crème of some of our best Los Angeles musicians. Mr. Masters has long been heralded as one of the great, modern-day, jazz arrangers. He formed his first ensemble in 1982 and has recorded a variety of tributes to some iconic jazz men including Jimmy Knepper, Clifford Brown, Dewey Redman, Duke Ellington, and in 2013, the music of Walter Becker and Donald Fagan. He has also reimagined works by Gerry Mulligan and Charlie Mingus on his acclaimed “Blue Skylight” album. This will definitely become another plume in his arranger’s cap.
I’m a Netflix subscriber and find this network’s roster of shows to be quite entertaining. Their original shows are diverse and they have a little something-somethin’ for everyone. When I ran across this series, I was both excited and surprised. This original Netflix show, “The Eddy” reminds me of my days enjoying foreign films. It’s a drama, shot in Paris, France, and the language moves from English to French, with subtitles. But the exciting thing about this show (“The Eddy”) is that it takes place in a jazz club with the music front and center. The plot is about the two owners of the club, an Arab and an African American man, and their struggle to stay relative, artistic and in business. The Arab man plays trumpet and handles the business of the club. The black man is a jazz pianist, composer and oversees the house-band. This multi-ethnic cast includes a jazz band that performs a plethora of original music. All of us, in the business of jazz, can appreciate the constant struggle it is to keep our music relevant and alive. Created by six-time GRAMMY winning songwriter, Glen Ballard, this is a story that puts the music upfront, blended in with a murder mystery, a struggling relationship between father and daughter, romances and some incredible jazz music performed live. It stars Andre Holland as club owner and jazz pianist (character name, Elliot), Amandla Stenberg as his 16-year-old daughter, (Julie) and sultry singer, Maja, played by Joanna Kulig. Tahir Rahim plays Farid, the co-owner of their jazz club and Leila Bekhti (a popular French film actress) plays his wife. Check out “The Eddy” on Netflix. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
By the way, you can also find some great music documentaries on this independent network including one on Quincy Jones, “Quincy”; a special on Nina Simone, “What Happened Miss Simone?,” the story of the top background singers in the United States, including L.A’s own, Merry Clayton, called “20 Feet from Stardom”; an amazing documentary on Clive Davis titled, “The Soundtrack of Our Lives”; The Miles Davis Story, “Birth of the Cool”; a look at Bob Marley’s life called, “Who Shot the Sheriff?”; the life of Lee Morgan, “I Called Him Morgan,” and so much more. With all this time on our hands, being locked down during a worldwide pandemic becomes the perfect time to sit back and enjoy our music in documentaries and movies.
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
I recently received an e-mail inviting me to soak up some inspirational music On-line by Los Angeles based pianist, Yuko Mabuchi. During this time of quarantine and stressful confinement, she offers her perspective on Mozart. I happily clicked on the website above where Yuko has combined classical music with her jazz arrangement. It’s quite entertaining. Using the inspiration for her composition titled, “Little Mo,” Yuko borrows from Mozart’s Piano Sonata #11 and intrigues us with her self-quarantined production, adding programmed drums and bass.
Let me tell you a little bit about Yuko Mabuchi. She’s a wisp of a woman, petite and delicate, until she sits down at the piano. Then, before our very eyes, she transforms into a powerful giant on the keyboard. I witnessed this myself, on May 8 of 2016, when she was a special guest of piano master, Billy Mitchell at the historic Maverick’s Flat nightclub. Once her slender fingers touched the piano keys, we were all captivated by Ms. Mabuchi’s enormous energy and spirited performance. Her leg kicks out (reminding me a bit of the late-great Dorothy Donegan) and she sometimes jumps up from the piano bench. Yuko throws her head back, caught in the joy of the musical moment. I watched her feet dance, unencumbered beneath the piano bench.
Born June 21st in Fukui, Japan, a small seaside city West of Tokyo, little Yuko was surrounded by music early on. Her mother is a classical piano teacher and Yuko began studying the piano at age four. Her father played Earth, Wind and Fire records and listened to Latin music and the Brazilian jazz of Jobim. As a child, Yuko was surrounded by a variety of musical genres and she embraced them all. At first, she played piano by ear, picking out the melodies and soaking up the grooves of the popular music scene, including pop and hip hop. She mastered classical study, but there was a freedom she found in jazz that touched something deep inside of her.
As a teenager, Yuko tuned-in to the Japanese jazz station on her radio. She became familiar with Oscar Petersen and Herbie Hancock. When she attending concerts in Japan, she was further inspired by the work of artists like Gerald Clayton Jr., Donald Vega, Kenny Baron, Junior Mance, Hiromi and Cyrus Chestnut. She was still studying classical music, but after high school Yuko attended the AN School of Music in Kyoto, Japan. Under the tutelage of Kunihiro Kameda, she blossomed. Right away, he noticed the young student’s amazing potential and affinity toward jazz. Professor Kameda had once lived in the United States. One of the friendships he made was with our own West Coast drummer, Kenny Elliott. So, Kameda-san called Kenny and with the drummer’s help, made arrangements for his student to study in the Los Angeles area. He suggested that if Yuko really was serious about pursuing jazz, she should go to America where it was bred and born. Yuko’s father agreed, although both he and his wife were concerned about their daughter’s jazz direction. Her mother had hoped their talented daughter would become a famous, classical, concert pianist. Neither parent had in mind that their first born would pursue a jazz pianist career.
In 2010, Yuko Mabuchi arrived in Southern California and enrolled at the Music Performance Academy in Alhambra, a California community of mainly Asian and Latino cultures with a sprinkling of others. MPA (Music Performance Academy) was Japanese owned and brought many Japanese students to America encouraging their study of American music and artistic culture. This is where I first met Yuko, because I taught Artist Development and Vocals at that school for approximately three years; part time. Billy Mitchell and Gary Shunk became the young lady’s mentors, while soaking up the recordings of Monte Alexander, George Duke and Gene Harris. She hunkered down, learning the funk and groove that Mitchell was teaching her and the technique and improvisation that Shunk inspired. She studied voice and artist development with me and I saw her growth and willingness to practice and challenge herself. Under the direction of Billy Mitchell, she recorded her first demo project entitled, “Red Special.” It was sponsored by MPA and featured her original composition skills.
Yuko donated her time as the accompanist for the Watts-Willowbrook Youth Symphony and took great pride in inspiring young people from that Los Angeles inner-city. It wasn’t long before she began performing all over town; at Catalina Jazz Bar, downtown at the Biltmore Hotel, in Old Town Pasadena at the Levitt Pavilion Summer Concert Series, at small jazz clubs and popular hotel chains like the Crowne Plaza. Her name and reputation were growing.
Yuko Mabuchi’s first full length CD was released in 2011 on Vista Records titled, “Waves.” Clearly, she was becoming a self-assured and talented composer. In 2013, Yuko returned home triumphant, new CD in hand, with her artistic development evident. She busied herself with work, forming a jazz trio and performing at the Jazz Spot J in Shinjuku, Tokyo and also as a participant of the Fukui Jazz Festival in 2014 and 2015. She also appears as a regular soloist at Keio Plaza in Tokyo.
Her next CD release on Vista Records was “My Life,” in 2014. Again, her composer skills were flowering and featured. This time, she added jazz reedman, the great Justo Almario on flute as well as smooth jazz saxophonist, Andre Delano. This album is a testament to her growth and polish as an artist and as a jazz musician. In 2017, she released “The Yuko Mabuchi Trio” on Yarlung Records. It was recorded ‘live’ at USCs Cammilleri Hall. This was followed by a “Tribute to Miles” album, released on both vinyl and CD.
Yuko Mabuchi enjoys teaching and inspiring young people, but her goal is to become a great musician and to work at her craft, tour the world, and leave her mark as a respected jazz pianist and composer. That dream is unfolding right before our eyes. I look forward to attending one of her concerts in the near future, once this pandemic has run its course. Until then, thank goodness for ‘YouTube.’
ARTURO O’FARRILL AND THE AFRO LATIN JAZZ ORCHESTRA – asks “FOUR QUESTIONS” – Zoho Records
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
An avid supporter of all the arts, Arturo O’Farrill is the Professor of Global Jazz Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Herb Alpert School of Music. He is also on the faculty at The New School of The Manhattan School of Music, (where he received some of his formal music education). Born in Mexico, O’Farrill grew up in New York and began his professional career with the legendary Carla Bley Band. He was a mere nineteen-years-old. O’Farrill credits Carla Bley for teaching him about integrity and the importance of art. She drilled into the talented teenager that it was more important to perform and compose for the sake of art and not just for fame and money. The young pianist took that wise encouragement to heart.
As his reputation blossomed, he also worked with such legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Lester Bowie, Wynton Marsalis, Steve Turre and Harry Belafonte. In 2007, Arturo O’Farrill founded the Afro Latin Jazz Alliance (ALJA) as a non-profit organization dedicated to the performance, education and preservation of Afro Latin music. (http://www.afrolatinejazz.org)
They say the fruit doesn’t fall far from the tree. Arturo is the son of renowned jazz trumpeter, bandleader and arranger, Chico O’ Farrill. His father was originally from Havana, Cuba. Arturo’s mother was a Mexican vocalist. Consequently, their house was always ripe with music. In 1965, they relocated to the United States. At age six, young Arturo was less than enthusiastic about taking piano lessons. However, he came to love the instrument and was greatly influenced by Bud Powell and Chick Corea. Although he studied and played a number of genres with various bands, in the 1990s Arturo returned to his Latin roots. In 1995 he became Music Director of his famous father’s Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra.
When Wynton Marsalis asked Arturo to pull together and lead an Afro-Cuban Jazz Band to perform at the Lincoln Center, that’s when O’Farrill formed the Afro Latin jazz Orchestra (ALJO). The rest is history.
“Baby Jack” is the first track on the Afro-Latin, Jazz Orchestra’s current album. The Brass section blares! Arturo O’Farrill’s piano enters the picture like a referee, stepping in between the dueling horns and bringing a melody that moves like an ascending staircase. We are lifted up. When the sexy saxophone comes into the picture, (featuring David DeJesus) the mood changes to pensive and seductive. This arrangement is both enchanting and captivating. Track #2 is titled “Jazz Twins” and is dedicated to Arnold and Donald Stanley from Los Angeles; two close knit staples of the jazz community. But it’s the third tune and the title tune, “Four Questions” that combines O’Farrill and his 18-piece orchestra with the spoken word and the revolutionary spirit of Dr. Cornell West. Together, they usher in a jolt of truth that demands that we, as a concerned people, come face-to-face with the social and political horrors of this time in world history. Like many true artists, Arturo O’ Farrill seeks to incorporate honesty and political awareness into his musical conversation. He uses his full orchestra, with a choir of voices, to express these unique arrangements.
The “Four Questions” that Dr. Cornell West addresses on this album were actually posed by the great African American civil rights activist and journalist, W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1903 book, “The Souls of Black Folk.” Dr. West based his book, “Black Prophetic Fire” on these very important “Four Questions.”
1) What does integrity do in the face of adversity and oppression?
2) What does honesty do in the face of lies and deception?
3) What does decency do in the face of insult?
4) How does virtue meet brute force?
Amidst dramatic horns and orchestral contrary motion, a rhythmic groove is established to support the Dr. West eloquent oratory. He speaks about everybody being for sale. But where is integrity? “It’s in your struggle,” he says. “It’s in the music.”
To address the second question, he reminds us that we live in an age of criminality. Crimes rage on Wall Street, but they don’t go to jail. We have a corrupted system of incarceration.
“Are we willing to tell the truth; to unveil honesty?” he asks.
The dynamic arrangements of Arturo O’Farrill accentuate the Dr. West verbal diatribe. His music brings beauty to an ugly truth. The drums embrace cultures and blend into the presentation like the cultures within our own country. Music and art call attention to the tribe of humanity that populates Earth. This is sixteen minutes and fourteen seconds of historic realization.
Dr. West asks us: “How do you preserve the humanity of the others who are dehumanizing you? How do you preserve your spirit? Folks can’t ride your back unless it’s bent,” the learned man asserts.
Arturo O’Farrill’s music crosses cultures, blends borders and scratches against our brains like the spoken words of Dr. West. In harmony, they speak to us. Demand to be heard. This piece ends with an old, gospel spiritual song, “Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” the horns ask us. Arturo Asks us. Dr. Cornel West asks us. The piano asks us. The orchestra whispers and weeps.
This is a project of pleasure and pain, like life itself. I will be surprised if this doesn’t join the list of Grammy Awards that Arturo O’Farrill has already won. At the 2008, 51st Grammy Award Ceremony, he won Best Latin Jazz Album for his “Song for Chico.”
In 2014, Arturo O’Farrill and the Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra won the Latin Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Album titled, “Final Night at Birdland.” In 2015, he released “The Offense of the Drum” and Arturo O’Farrill and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra won a Grammy Award for Best Latin jazz Album. In August of 2015, Arturo and the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra released “Cuba: The Conversation Continues”, which was recorded in Havana 48 hours after President Obama announced plans to normalize diplomatic relations between the USA and Cuba. This album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble in 2016. Meantime, his “Afro Latin Jazz Suite” won the 2015 Best Instrumental Composition Award. Again, in 2017, he won for Best Instrumental Composition for “Three Revolutions.”
Perhaps Arturo O’Farrill best summed-up his music and his artistic direction with this quote:
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalis
Born April 5, 1937, Charles Owens has been a mainstay of our jazz community for nearly half a century. Charlie O, as I sometimes fondly call him, is a master woodwind musician. His passion and love of the saxophone started when he was a small child. Born in Phoenix, Arizona, his mother and father divorced during his early years. When Charles’ mother met and married William Owens, their family moved from Phoenix to Portland Oregon.
“Right around the beginning of the second World War, we moved to Portland, Oregon. My parents were looking for work in the shipyard, because they were making ships in Oregon. We lived in Oregon until the end of the war and then in 1945, on Thanksgiving weekend, we moved from Portland, Oregon to San Diego. I remember because the car broke down on our way and we had to stay at the filling-station all week-end, because the guy wouldn’t open up and fix the transmission. Finally, the mechanic came back on Monday, after the holiday weekend, and fixed it. We went on to San Diego. My mother and stepfather moved there because the aircraft industry at Convair was hiring. I went to elementary school, all the way through part of college in San Diego. We lived in Logan Heights,” Charles told me.
Shortly after, Charles and his parents travelled to Oklahoma on a short vacation. He was around nine years old.
“We went down to Sapulpa, Oklahoma to visit my father’s people. There were all kinds of instruments laying around their house; trombones, saxophones, drums, piano, whatever. I was there for a week and I had a chance to try all of them. I fell in love with a Silvertone alto saxophone made by Sears & Roebuck. Everyone in my dad’s family played an instrument. My Uncle Harry played the saxophone. My Uncle Herman played the trumpet and was pretty good. Aunt Eloise, my father’s sister, played piano and somebody played the drums. My dad liked to sing. He sounded a lot like the smooth lead singer of the Inkspot group. So, I just had a ball that week making all kinds of noise on all those horns and instruments. When I got back to San Diego, I asked my mom if I could get that Silvertone alto saxophone. She bought it for me and it cost fifty bucks,” Charles recalled.
I asked Charles who was his early influence on saxophone.
“Well, my first was Charlie Parker. I saw him in a movie and he had on this white coat and he was decked out, looking good and playing alto. Just something lit up in me. It was the best feeling. It was just beautiful to hear Bird play. I was eight or nine-years-old. I went to the Victory theater and there was Bird playing on the big screen. it was just heavenly. He thrilled my soul and made me happy.
“Everybody in my little gang of friends played saxophone. There was a guy named Johnny Hodges (not the famous Johnny Hodges) and then Daniel Jackson. Daniel would come by the house. We had a piano in the front room. He would play the piano and I would play saxophone. Then I would play piano and he would play saxophone. We’d learn songs together like, “I Remember April” and “Cherokee.” Then there was James Hatcher. He played alto and we’re still buddies today. I got this gig with Tommy Wilson and the Kingsmen. They were the hottest band around San Diego during my high school years. We bought our little cars and kept them running off the gigs we played on the weekends. We had San Diego sewed up. Every time they had a house-party, people had to have Tommy Wilson and the Kingsmen. I was also inspired by Teddy Pico. He was a large, wonderful saxophone man and a big influence on all of us aspiring saxophone players. Daniel Jackson was another one of my main influences. He would show me stuff that would take me years to learn on my own. Growing up, I also loved Stan Getz. He played so pretty. Also, Gene Ammons was a big influence on me. I remember, as a kid, walking home from school and past this hole-in-the-wall joint that had a juke box. I’d hear Gene Ammons playing “My Foolish Heart” and it really spoke to me. I’d stand outside and listen.
“I majored in music and went to San Diego State for a couple of years and then went to Prayer View A & M University just outside of Houston, Texas. That’s where I met my wife, Mildred. We came back to San Diego from Houston. I was working at a ‘Jack in the Box’ making burgers and I thought, if I’m going to be in music, I’ve got to make a living some kind of way. So, I joined the Air Force to be in their band. That’s what kept me in music after college. My wife went on to college and I went to March Air Force base. It was a wonderful experience.”
When Charles Owens completed his stint in the Air Force, he continued his music education at Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“I met Dwight Dickerson at Berklee. Dwight and I were playing in a strip joint. Dwight was playing piano. Hershel Dwellingham was playing drums and I was playing saxophone. We had a good time and made $125/week. I played the afternoon shift; 4 to 9PM. Dwight played from 9pm to whatever. Some kind of way, we became best friends. I’ll never forget this beautiful Puerto Rican lady. Oh, she hated my guts. She complained constantly that I never played the melody. He’s always playing some outside shit, she said. I did play the melody once, but after that, she was right. I was trying to be Coltrane,” Charles chuckled.
Charles Owens played with the Buddy Rich band from 1968 to 1970. He recorded with Buddy Rich in ’68, playing on an album titled, “The New One!” and he did some arranging on another album titled, “Mercy, Mercy.” In 1970, Charles began to play regularly with Mongo Santamaria and was a guest player on Mongo’s 1969 release of their “Afro-American Latin” album. On May 10, 1971, Owens relocated to Los Angeles and with the help of Ernie Watts and Don Menza, he became active as a studio session musician. The same year, Owens appeared on the Bobby Bryant CD, “Swahili Strut” and released his first album on the Discovery label titled, “Mother Lode.” in 1973, he played saxophone on Henry Franklin’s album, “The Skipper.” He talked to me about some of those studio sessions and television specials that he worked on.
“I had the pleasure of recording with Natalie Cole several times. I recorded with Marvin Gaye on the ‘Here My Dear’ album and Les McCann from time to time on his small band stuff. I didn’t record with Diana Ross, but I did play with her on tour for six weeks. I think I made $3,000 on that gig. That paid for my daughter’s birth. I worked with Michael Jackson too. It was a funny thing. He recorded all that great music, but he couldn’t sing the melody to A-Train. It was during a television taping and they tried and tried to teach him the melody,” Charles Owens sings me the melody that challenged Michael.
“But he just couldn’t learn that one part, so they discarded the idea of Michael singing A-Train. Another time, I worked with James Brown and this one night he forgot the words to “Livin’ in America”. He couldn’t remember the words to a song he had written, so they had to cancel the TV show we were taping. I also worked with H. B. Barnum and he was producing a lot of stuff. That work definitely helped me raise my family. By that time, we had a daughter and two sons.”
In 1978, he recorded with jazz vocalist, Lorez Alexandria, on an album titled, “A Woman Knows.” For this project he played flute and both soprano and tenor saxophones. Then, in 1979, Charles recorded his second album as bandleader, “The Two Quartets” for Discovery Records, featuring John Heard and Louie Spears as bassists, Alex Acuna and Carl Burnett on drums, Dwight Dickerson and Theo Saunders as pianists and Charles playing his tenor saxophone.
When the 80s rolled around, Charles Owens was in serious demand. He got the call to join the Ellington Orchestra under the direction of Mercer Ellington.
“He would fly me out to New York. I’d make my little money and come back to L.A.,” Charles told me.
“It was a great inspiration to be around all of those truly wise and great players like Johnny Hodges, and hang out with Chuck Conners, a famous bass trombone player with the Duke Ellington orchestra. Also, Rudy Woods was another trombone player I met and Bubber (Miley). These are legendary Duke Ellington trombone players. It was like getting the stamp of approval for being a jazz player. It these cats dug you, they’d give you their flask and say, take a drink buddy. You’re alright. I was living my whole life, not wasting it. Being accepted by these real giants in the business, gave me that stamp of approval. Being around Mercer and Barrie Lee Hall Jr., a trumpet player that took the Cootie Williams spot in the orchestra, was great!”
NOTE: (Barrie Lee Hall was given Cootie William’s last trumpet when he joined the Ellington Orchestra. Barrie Lee was praised as one of the greatest plunger players of all times. He led the orchestra for about a year and sometime took over for Mercer Ellington in a leadership role when Mercer was absent.)
Around the same time, (1980), Charles recorded another album called, “Charles Owens New York Art Ensemble” with a group of iconic jazz players including bassist Ray Brown, pianist George Cables, drummer Roy McCurdy, that also featured James Newton and Red Callender. On this studio project they celebrated the music of Harry Warren. However, the album Charles Owens calls his ‘greatest achievement’ is the “Joy” album. That was released in 2010.
“That recording is the last one I did with Ron Carter, Mulgrew Miller and Lewis Nash on it. I flew back to New Jersey to record it in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio. He was one of the greatest A&R men and that was my greatest achievement. It was a dream come true and I’m elated how it turned out. I believe it’s the best thing I ever put on a CD,” Charles shares with me.
There are many, many more albums that Charles Owens can be heard on. As a leader, back in 2007 he released the “So Far So Good” CD that he recorded in Europe, March 26th and 27th, right around his birthday.
Charles told me, “For the ‘So Far So Good’ recording, I flew to Germany. We played outside of Munich in a little town where this guy Steffan had a wonderful studio in the woods. Kirk Lightsey, Reggie Johnson and Doug Sides were living over there. It was really, really special working with Kirk Lightsey. Reggie Johnson is the bass player, that when Charlie Mingus died, he took Charlie Mingus’s place in the Mingus ensemble. He’s a great bass player. The record was released on the Organic Music label.”
Currently, the great Charles Owens has been sharing his talent, experience and knowledge with a plethora of young musicians, teaching both at UCLA and privately. Owens has an eye for talent. Back in the eighties, before anyone had ever really heard about saxophonist Rickey Woodard, Charles sent him to New Zealand to be our featured act at the grand opening of the first downtown jazz club in Auckland, that Dwight Dickerson and I hosted. Charles Owens was also one of the first to start singing the praises of Kamasi Washington. Both of these L.A. based musicians have skyrocketed in the jazz business and have become popular recording artists. Two other young lions he mentored are Azar Lawrence and Louis Taylor. He suggested Azar go to New York to further develop his career. The next thing he heard, Azar had landed a gig with McCoy Tyner. Charles tells me that Mr. Hamilton (who teaches at Berkley High School in Northern California) has sent him a number of excellent saxophone and bass students. A couple of young musicians that he recently has been mentoring are a San Diego trumpeter named Sam Kirdica and a Santa Barbara based saxophonist named Zane St. Andre. Professor Owens has high hopes for these two young talents.
The day I interviewed Charles, he told me he was leaving for Chicago, Illinois in the morning.
“I’m going to Chicago tomorrow to play with the Clayton/Hamilton orchestra and I’ll be back home Sunday. I’ve been playing in their band for about thirty years,” Charles alerted me.
I might add, he has recorded with this popular band on several occasions. Most recently, Owen’s recorded with the Clayton/Hamilton Orchestra featuring Barbara Morrison and Ernie Andrews. The album is called,” The L.A. Treasures Project: Live at Alvas Showroom.” In 1995, he was part of their “Absolutely!” recording and in 1999 he played clarinet and tenor saxophone on their album titled, “Explosive.” In 2000, Owens played soprano and tenor sax on their “Shout Me Out!” album and again in 2005 on the “Live at MCG” recording.
“Speaking of big bands, I have my big band that’s going to be playing over at a French school on Pico near Beverly Glen this month. It’s a French private school where the children have to speak French and English in their curriculums. Then tomorrow we’ll be playing jazz in the Palisades for three and four-year-olds. The kids liked it so much last time we did it that the teacher wanted us to come back and do it again. Drummer, Donald Dean Sr. and I have been promoting jazz in the schools for several years. We have a Black History Month concert tomorrow on 108th Street. We did one yesterday at the 52nd St School and we were very well received,” pride colors the tone of the reedman’s voice.
While riding to gigs that inspire our youth to appreciate jazz, you will find him playing “Soul Eyes” by John Coltrane on his car stereo system.
“That’s my favorite song right now. After teaching, I get into my car, turn it on and if I’m in traffic, it cools me right out. On “Soul Eyes” Coltrane is really playing from the heart.”
When it comes to teaching and mentoring, Charles Owens has strong views about the best way to inspire students.
“I think it helps to have an older person, that knows what they’re doing, to tell you what to do and to be kind and offer positive suggestions. I try to explore what students can do better. I may encourage them to work on their tone or to practice, … but I always try to be nice. A teacher has to be able to inspire people. Sometimes you need to tell someone something to help them improve, but no matter how nice you tell them, they don’t want to hear it. A teacher’s job is to make them aware of what they have to do and to help them get to the next step. I’ve discovered that sometimes that helps me get to the next step. Teaching has taught me how to treat people. It’s so easy to give a person a compliment, along with the lesson, and see their face light up,” Charles counsels.
Finally, I asked Charles Owens, since he has lived on both coasts of the United States, what he thought the difference was between West Coast Jazz and East Coast Jazz?
“Well, the New York musicians tend to be a little more adventurous and a little less in tune than the West Coast musicians. The West Coast musicians are better musicians, because for a while there was so much work out here and you could get it if you could play in tune and if you could blend. Because of the studio sessions and the recording and performance band opportunities, West Coast musicians are a little more thoughtful about what they play. The New York musicians are more original and play a little more out of tune. That’s the difference I found,” Charles answered.
You can catch the Charles Owens Quartet on March 28th at the World Stage in Leimert Park. https://www.theworldstage.org/ He will also be in concert at The Merc in Temecula, California at the Sherry Williams venue for jazz on April 2nd. https://tickets.temeculatheater.org/eventperformances.asp
By Dee Dee McNeil
It’s a pleasure and an inspiration to see so many fresh faces on the jazz scene. Consequently, I’ve created my New Artist Series, to introduce some of these exceptional musicians to you. Just because they are new to us doesn’t mean they haven’t been practicing, developing their skills and consistently performing at various venues around the globe. To paraphrase what Lizzo recently stated on the Grammy Awards show, I guess you have to be constantly performing and working for ten years to become an overnight sensation. Well, this is a young man who just may become a jazz legend. Pianist Joshua White, a resident of San Diego, California, is my featured gifted artist.
Born August 17, 1985, Joshua began formal piano training at the age of seven.
“When I was growing up, we had a piano in the house. I guess it was just my natural curiosity about the instrument that intrigued me. I had a love for music as well.”
His love for music led him to explore all the classical masters, to bask in the rich flavors of R&B, Hip Hop and to enjoy Top-40 Pop radio music. He also became the organist and pianist at his local church. By age eighteen, Joshua White found himself drawn to jazz. I asked this talented pianist, what made him move from classical to jazz?
“Well, I wouldn’t say there was a movement from one to the other, because I still listen to Brahms, Schumann, Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky and all of those other artists. I think it was just an expansion. Being introduced to new artists and composers expanded what I was already developing. I also grew up playing in church, which has helped inform me in a different tradition. So, I’m about expanding these traditions and learning as much musical history and as much about musical theory as I possibly can. I don’t feel I moved from one to the other. It was just the addition of more musical knowledge and tradition. Ultimately, it helps me to find what I want to say. All that knowledge provides you with more options in which to ask better, deeper and more profound questions,” Joshua White told me in a telephone interview.
Encouraged and supported by some world-renowned, master musicians like noted pianist Mike Wofford, flautist, Holly Hofmann, innovative bassist, Mark Dresser and composer Anthony Davis, Joshua White continued to grow and flourish. Once Joshua began to make himself known in the Southern California jazz community, he rubbed shoulders and shared stages with many virtuoso players like legendary reedmen, Daniel Jackson and Charles McPherson; bassists, Marshall Hawkins and Rodney Whitaker; drummers, Carl Allen and Marvin ‘Smitty’ Smith and trumpeter, Gilbert Castellanos, to mention only a few.
In 2011, Joshua entered the prestigious Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition, performing in Washington, D.C. and he placed second out of 160 competitors. One of the judges was the iconic pianist, composer Herbie Hancock. Hancock told music critic George Varga:
“I was impressed by his (Joshua White’s) daring and courageous approach to improvisation on the cutting edge of innovation. He is his own man. I believe that Thelonious Monk would have been proud of the performance of this great, young artist.” It was a beautiful stamp of approval coming from the Grammy Award winning Hancock.
In 2017, Joshua White released his first recording as a bandleader. Titled, “Thirteen Short Stories” on the Fresh Town Record label out of Barcelona, Spain. It’s available on Amazon and all streaming platforms. It features his original compositions and introduces us to his uniquely, creative and sometimes Avant Garde style.
Below is an example of Joshua White playing solo. His technique fills the room with splashes of continuous sound, a pulsating pedal and a rush of piano mastery that spills, like a waterfall, and floods the room.
(You are my Sunshine) at Vibrato
This coming Friday, February 7th Joshua White will perform at the Broad Stage, a 499-seat theater located at 1310 11th Street, Santa Monica, California. His trio includes bassist, Alex Boneham and drummer Tyler Kreutel. Joshua talked about the instrumentalists that he chooses to work with.
“What I look for in musicians is not necessarily a comfort level, but I look for something stimulating within them. What I mean by that, I don’t want to know what you’re going to do. I want someone who wants to be provocative, thought provoking and who has an interesting commentary. Someone who doesn’t look to be told what to do and who has a sort of critical esthetic in terms of how they interpret music. I don’t know if there’s any one thing that I’m looking to express, but I would say that instead of a literal type of expression, it’s more of a curiosity, a question. I ask myself, what are the possibilities of the composition? What are the possibilities in the sounds that I can get from the instrument? What are the possibilities from working in a collaborative environment? Where can we go? What are we constructing?” he elaborates.
(At Hollywood concert)
I asked Joshua if he thinks about the lyrics of a song when he plays standards.
“I wouldn’t say that I think of the lyrics when I’m playing, but I would say that I have definitely been informed by the great vocalists from the improvised tradition. Even when I’m learning standards, I’m looking at the vocal versions of the song and listening to the lyrics, you know, from Abbey Lincoln to Betty Carter, to Billie Holiday, Blossom Dearie, Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Carmen McCrae, or Carmen Lundy , Dianne Reeves, Nnenna Freelon; everybody,” Joshua lists a number of respected jazz vocalists.
“Also, by playing for the church choir, I learned all the vocal parts. I know how to create vocal arrangements. I’ve even written songs that we’ve played in church. I have a wide range of experience of working with many different kinds of songs and working with many different musicians and many different ensembles; working with different kinds of musicians, configurations and instrumentation. I’ve helped arrange on a small scale, but I would love to have the means and the time to write for a symphony orchestra. I would love to do that.”
You can experience the expansive breadth and width of Joshua White’s ‘live’ trio performance this Friday night in Santa Monica, California at The Broad Stage. The show starts at 8PM.
(Bye Bye Blackbird at Palm Springs concert)
By Dee Dee McNeil/ Jazz Journalist
Keb Mo is the second born of four children and the only son of Lauvella Cole.
“My mom was a beautiful, hard-working woman. She was raised by a sharecropper and she didn’t mess around. She raised her children well. She was from Hooks, Texas just outside of Texarkana. She was an amazing mother. She was a hair dresser. She sang in the choir. We went to church regularly. You know how that goes,” Keb Mo chuckles, generously sharing his childhood with me.
He tells me he has three sisters, but Keb Mo is the only professional musician of his siblings. His love of music started early. Besides the influence of the church, at ten years old, he was playing trumpet in the General Rosecrans Elementary school band. When his family moved from one Compton residence to another, he continued his passion for music by joining the Victory Park Elementary School band. They put him out the band because, according to the faculty, his grades were not good enough.
“Isn’t that the reason for studying music, to develop your brain?” he quips.
Keb Mo is the first to tell you he was never crazy about school or academics. It was music that came naturally to the young man. Music was his passion. He was intoxicated with the sound of percussion instruments and hypnotized by the rhythm of the drums. So much so, that Keb Mo started playing the steel drums with a local calypso group called, the Young Calitino Steel Drum band. He played steel drums in that band from eleven-years-old to age nineteen. Their group was popular around the South Los Angeles area and at that young age he began working hotel gigs with them and private parties.
“I started playing the steel drums because a guy in our Compton, California neighborhood built and played the steel drums. Coincidentally, he was probably the only American making steel drums who came from Trinidad and happened to live on my block. He’s not around anymore. He passed away a few years ago. But his name was Chuck Countee. I’m still really good friends with his son Carlos. I got so good that at the age of fourteen I was hired to play my first studio session on steel drums at the Gold Star Recording studios and I even got paid union scale. I was really green, but I was having a lot of fun.”
Although he was a competent drummer, Keb Mo wasn’t satisfied with just playing trumpet and drums. While attending Compton high school, his band director encouraged him to play the French horn, because they needed a French Horn player. Consequently, Keb Mo expanded his talents and learned the French Horn.
“I played French horn in the tenth, eleventh and twelfth grades. I became first French horn in the Compton High School Band. That’s back in the sixties, when Compton had an orchestra and a youth orchestra. I was just starting out in music. Then, I took a year off and went to LATTC (L.A. Trade Tech) for architectural drafting, because after high school I didn’t really think I had what it took to seriously pursue music as a career. But my friends kept asking me to play gigs, so I jumped back in.
“I was good at a couple of little things; like I could play steel drums. But more than that, I knew how to play in a band. I worked well with others. For many years, I felt like I was just dragged along by the universe.
“I have played all the instruments in the steel drum band. I started off on the bass pan. Then I went to the double pan. I played that. Then I went to the lead pan. After that I went to trap drums and congas. I even did the Limbo. I explored every percussion instrument and I learned all the basic, traditional, Afro-Cuban beats on the congas. In high school my friend Larry had two sets of drums. He let me borrow one of his drum sets and I set it up in my garage. I taught myself how to play some basic grooves on the trap drums.”
Along his musical path, Keb Mo was soon drawn to the guitar. He dabbled on the bass guitar during his time playing with the steel band. But he was in awe of Taj Mahal and also impressed with the talents of Jose Feliciano.
“I had been down to the Troubadour with the steel band. We played down there one night. There was this guitar store, McCabe’s, next door to the Troubadour. I saw all these guitars with hubcaps on them. I was around fourteen or so. That same night, I saw Jose Feliciano, this blind guy playing in the lobby, sittin’ there with his guide dog and playing ‘Light My Fire’. We (the band) were like, Oh shit. We were blown away.
“My Uncle Herman Wyatt had started teaching me guitar at age twelve. Then my friend Stanley Freeman lived around the corner. He was taking lessons at the Compton Music Center and he’d come back and show me what he learned at his lessons. That was good, because I had no money for lessons. I got a book on guitar and bass. Much later, I went to GIT and studied guitar with Joe Diorio. He was one of the pioneer teachers at GIT (the Guitar Institute of Technology) before it became MI (Musicians Institute). I took several courses at GIT including jazz guitar and harmony. Then I was playing with Papa John Creach. I was always kind of looking for something better. I wasn’t really interested in school. I didn’t really like school. I was somewhat artistic, but I knew I wasn’t going to college. Not with my grades. (laughter) I just coasted through.”
Keb Mo’s relationship with Papa John Creach and the Jefferson Starship group garnered him his first Platinum record. When he was just twenty-one years old, he co-wrote “Git Fiddler” for the “Red Octopus” album with Papa John and John Parker. Surprisingly, in 1975 that instrumental became a big hit for the blues and soft-rock band, zooming up the Billboard charts to #1. When Papa John Creach left Jefferson Starship as their lead singer and violinist, he formed his own band. It included the fledgling songwriter and guitarist, Keb Mo. Keb spent the next five years on the road with Papa John Creach.
“I had three pretty good road gigs; Papa John Creach, Taste of Honey and Deniece Williams. After I stopped playing with Papa John, I had an apartment over by Hollywood Blvd on Grammercy Place. I landed a job delivering flowers and I decided to start writing songs. From 76 to 77, I had some little local gigs and I was mostly songwriting. That time was a whole other chapter in my life. Around 1977 or 78, I had a friend, Chuck Trammell, who had a gig doing demos over at Irving Almo (A&M Record Company’s publishing arm). I was his right-hand guy. From 1977 to 1980, I was probably in the studio every morning, at least three days a week cutting demos. It didn’t pay like union sessions, but it was alright; $25 to $50 per tune. We were in studio B and that was like my college. We had to record two demos per session. I’d get up and prepare the charts. I would plan out what the band was going to do and lead the sessions. Chuck was the producer. He didn’t play anything. He was very charismatic and he had worked a lot with Quincy Jones. He actually was a really fine producer. I got to call the players. I would call the late Robert Russell (bassist), Gerald Albright (saxophonist), Michael King on keys and sometimes James Gadson would come in on drums.
“After our demo sessions were over, all the top session guys would be working union sessions in the studio. I’d poke my head in the door and I would witness greatness! I started working with the top background singers of the day. I was doing a lot of different tasks in the studio and learned how to hold my own and how to be a professional studio musician. Now that I have a nice studio at my home, all that experience gets used all the time.”
In 1979, Keb Mo discovered he had nodes on his throat and he had to go in and have them surgically removed. This stopped his ability to sing for at least a year, so the demo session work was a blessing and probably helped him polish his already shiny guitar skills.
“I had a lucky break in the early 80s. I got a gig to sub for this guitar player named Spencer Bean. He’d call, from time to time, and ask if I would cover for him. So, he had this one-night gig with Monk Higgins and Charlie Tuna of the Who Dunnit Band. Spencer asked me to cover the gig for him for the first two weeks because he had to go to Atlanta. I said cool. I gotcha. He went to Georgia and never came back. Those guys took me under their wing and they trained me in the blues. We were at Marla Gibbs’ Memory Lane and all these people came through, like great vocalist, Merry Clayton. She’d show up; Albert Collins would show up and Big Joe Turner. Pee Wee Crayton, Billy Preston; all these legendary people would show up and sit-in with the band. I was like, wow! That got me back on the club scene. I kept that gig for about two years straight. Barbara Morrison started hiring me for a little bit. I also started gigging with the Rose Brothers.” (An R&B group of four brothers on the Muscle Shoals Record label).
Keb Mo also worked with another blues and R&B legend, Vernon Garrett.
“I was with Vernon Garrett for two years. I played with Vernon and I was always a big fan of Taj Mahal. When he played the blues, he really intrigued me. Taj Mahal was jumping outside the box. I first heard Taj Mahal play in 1969 when he played at my high school. I said, wow. Wait a minute. I had never seen nothing like that. He pulled out that steel guitar and really surprised me.
“It was the late 80s when I started singing again or around that time. After I healed, I had a whole lot of vocal coaching. I studied with Gloria Bennett for a long time. Then I had another vocal coach, Robert Edwards who was a student of Seth Riggs.”
Around 1980, Keb Mo released an album called, “Rainmaker,” under his birth name of Kevin Moore. He was working with a mutual friend of ours, a drummer by the name of Quentin Dennard. Quentin nick-named him Keb Mo and that name stuck. It was the perfect stage name. Lots of other blues artists had adopted names. For example, Taj Mahal’s name is actually Henry St. Clair Fredericks and Muddy Waters birth name is McKinley Morganfield.
So, in 1994, when SONY Record label discovered Kevin Moore’s unique talents, he was then using the stage name of Keb Mo. He had polished his guitar chops and was a competent songwriter. His voice was plump with emotion and he had a pleasing huskiness to it. That first SONY album won him the W. C. handy Award for Best Country and Acoustic Blues Album in 1995. After years of playing gigs and honing his craft, the spotlight was finally shining brightly on Keb Mo.
“I had learned how to be a professional. So, when I got signed to SONY, that record took off. I used all the skills I had learned on that record. I knew what I was doing. I had a hell of a producer; John Porter. By that time, I had two publishing deals and I had stacked up songs. I had a lot going on.”
After the super success of the “Keb’ Mo” release in 1994, he followed up with another SONY album titled, “Just Like You,” with special guests Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne. That record won him a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album in 1997. In August of 1998, the talented songwriter, singer and guitarist released his “Slow Down” album. It also won a Grammy Award. He was on a roll.
In 2000, he released “The Door” and another album called “Sessions at West 54th that was recorded ‘live’ in New York. In 2001, he recorded a children’s album called, “Big Wide Grin.” You may have seen him on the popular television show, “Sesame Street” promoting that wonderful recording. Then there was the 2003 “Martin Scorsese Presents the Blues: Keb’ Mo” album that was part of Scorsese’s blues Series. It seemed that everything Keb’ Mo’ recorded was nominated for a Grammy. In fact, he can boast fourteen Grammy nominations to date. Then, in 2004 he won his third Grammy Award for his album, “Keep It Simple.”
Keb Mo is a quiet man with a warm smile that can light up a stage brighter than any spotlight. He’s also a deep thinker. You hear it in his lyrics and the poignant, heartfelt way he describes things. Like when he wrote about his mother’s house in Compton, California in a song called, “There’s More than One Way Home.”
Daddy came around every once in a while, but momma, she was there all the time. And summertime in Compton was not like TV, but we were right there where we needed to be, And the Thurmond Boys on Peach Street with only their dad, so proud of themselves and that old Pontiac they had. And Miss Brooks, her Bible and her three little boys, At the Double Rock Baptist Church makin’ a joyful noise.
There’s more than one way home Ain’t no right way, ain’t no wrong. And whatever road you might be on, you find your own way, cause there’s more than one way home
This prolific songwriter is also an activist. His album release in 2004 attests to that by its very title, “Peace … Back by Popular Demand.” You can also hear it in the hit record by the Dixie Chicks who co-wrote and recorded a song he co-wrote titled, “I Hope,” on their “Taking the Long Way” album.
Sunday morning, I heard the preacher say Thou shall not kill
I don’t wanna hear nothing else about killing
And that it’s God’s will
‘Cause our children are watching us
They put their trust in us
They’re gonna be like us
So let’s learn from our history
And do it differently
I hope for more love, more joy and laughter
I hope we’ll have more than we’ll ever need
I hope we’ll have more ‘happy ever after’
I hope we can all live more fearlessly
And we can lose all the pain and misery
I hope, I hope.
The recordings and the awards kept coming. He recorded his “Suitcase” album in 2006, “Live and Mo’” in 2009 and “The Reflection” was released in 2011. In 2015 Keb’ Mo’s album, “BLUESAmericana” won the Contemporary Blues Album category at the annual Blues Music Awards celebration. As a concerned citizen of the world, he’s generous and caring. Kevin continues to donate 5% of his royalty money from the BLUESAmericana album to charity.
In 2016, he released “Keb’ Mo’ Live: That Hot Pink Blues Album”. Then, something amazing happened to Keb Mo. Years after witnessing his guitar idol perform at his public school, you can imagine Keb’s joy to finally record with the legendary Taj Mahal. It was 2017 when they recorded an album titled, “TajMo.” This collaboration garnered Kevin his fourth Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album and was a highlight in his career. More recently, he has released the popular “Oklahoma” album in 2019 and a Christmas album titled, “Moonlight, Mistletoe & You.”
There have been several of Keb Mo’s songs covered by other artists. You may not know this, but he co-wrote (with Josh Kelley) the theme song for the television series, “Mike and Molly.” He also performed that song.
Kevin continues to turn out albums of original and expressive music. Blues music is one of the deep origins of jazz and it reflects our rich, African American history and heritage. Keb Mo is proudly carrying that tradition forward. Even performing at the White House for President Barack Obama.
During this month of February, while we are celebrating Black History month, I salute an artist with deep roots in his Los Angeles/Compton neighborhood. Keb Mo is worthy of our continuous applause. Using his lyrical magic, his husky voice and guitar mastery, this ‘Angelian’ is authentically making positive, cultural input across the entire world.
By Dee Dee McNeil / Jazz Journalist
From the time she was small enough to climb upon her mother and father’s coffee table and pretend it was a stage, Amber Weekes found comfort bursting into song. She has always known singing was her destiny. Maybe her passion for vocalizing began in the womb, when her father was crooning love songs to her mother with his Frank Sinatra, smooth-styled voice spilling across their room. Maybe Amber was inspired by the jazz vocalists she heard being played on the Los Angeles radio station, KBCA, famous for playing John Coltrane’s song, “Spiritual” as a morning-drive, theme song. Perhaps it was while little Amber was listening to disc jockeys like Jai Rich or Talley Strode who were pumping out jazz formats and playing Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. Even the late, great, bandleader Gerald Wilson had a noon day show on her mom’s favorite radio station titled, “Jazz Capsule.” The young child was listening. Later, Amber Weekes studied musical comedy and acting in high school, but singing was always Amber’s priority.
AMBER: “I remember vividly that on Sunday, daddy would go to church and mama would be busy fixing Sunday dinner. KBCA (105.1) would be playing and when daddy was coming home from church, as he drove up the street, he could hear the jazz floating out of our house. My parents were really into us having exposure to music. Their musical tastes were very eclectic. We listened to Ray Charles, The Beatles and early Barbra Streisand. They played records by Lena Horne, Sarah Vaughan and Dianne Carroll.
“My paternal grandparents were immigrants to the United States. My grandfather was from Barbados and my grandmother was from Jamaica. They had six children to raise and my father, Martin Weekes, was one of six. My grandparents ran ‘Weekes Luncheonette,’ which was on the corner of 155th and St. Nicholas Place and that’s the way they supported their family. My aunts and my uncle and my dad all worked in the restaurant. It was open 24-hours a day, 365 days a year. I don’t know exactly when they opened it, but I believe it was sold in the sixties when drug activity in Harlem became very high. Duke Ellington lived right around the corner and Lena Horne lived close by and so my father and his siblings had contact with Duke and Lena and Sidney Portier and Harry Belafonte. One of the stories that my father tells is that when he was a teenager, around sixteen, in the late forties, I remember him repeatedly talking about how Duke would come in after the gig, two-o-clock in the morning, and Duke loved to have a fried egg sandwich. My father was a short order cook. He used to fix it for him. It was neat to have that history. Daddy said that he remembered that Duke would have his shirt unbuttoned and you could see the neck of his T-shirt underneath his buttoned-down shirt.”
According to a biography by Dana Avant, St. Nicholas Place between 150th and 155th streets was a middle-class neighborhood, with many of the neighbors either famous or they would become famous. Folks like James Bailey of the Barnum and Bailey Circus lived near Weekes Luncheonette and at the northern part of St. Nicholas Place a famed ballpark called the ‘Polo Grounds’ was where Willie Mays hit many unforgettable homeruns. Mays also lived on St. Nicholas Place, right across the street, in an apartment building near Polo Grounds. Other historic figures who popped into the popular 24-hour candy store and restaurant were historic names like Paul Robeson, Father of the blues, W.C. Handy, Langston Hughes, Teddy Wilson, Billy Strayhorn and Ellington. Such public figures as the male singers who made up The Inkspots group, lived in the Sugar Hill neighborhood. So did John Bubbles of Buck & Bubbles, a popular Vaudeville Comedy duo. In 1935, John Bubbles was part of the original cast of Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess” production. He played the part of ‘Sportin’ Life.’ It was said that the Weekes daughters were so beautiful that men flocked to the Weekes Luncheonette and referred to it as, ‘Glamour Manor.’  They looked forward to catching a glimpse of Aunt Winnie, Aunt Delores, Cousin Blossom and the other brown beauties. Amber shared a story of how a famous actor fell in love with her Aunt Delores.
(L to R. Back row: Aunt Delores Sheldon, Aunt Winnie Weekes, Uncle Robbie Sheldon, Aunt Muriel Weekes, & my father, Martin Weekes; Front row: Grandmother Nettie Weekes, Aunt Joy Weekes, and paternal grandfather, Wilfred Weekes.)
AMBER: “If you ever read Sidney Portier’s book, ‘This Life,’ there’s a chapter of the book called, Cry the Beloved Country, where he actually mentions the luncheonette. Sidney Portier was a young actor at that time and a regular patron at the Luncheonette. In fact, that’s where he met my oldest aunt, Delores. They dated and they were engaged. It’s all in his book. Delores was my father’s oldest sister. Mr. Portier mentions all four of my aunts in the book and that my grandfather had two sons. Sidney and my Aunt Delores were friends until she died. To have that kind of history in my family is amazing. All my life, I’ve heard stories about my dad and my uncles being young people at that special time in Harlem, and how they met so many celebrity folks, like Duke Ellington and Dianne Carroll. Dianne was there at that time. I did meet Ms. Carroll once, when I was very young, and she remembered the luncheonette, saying that when she was a kid it was her candy store of choice. People forget that Dianne Carroll was a singer. I found myself much more interested in her when she was a summer fill-in for the Carol Burnett television variety show. She and my mother had the same piano teacher. Mom, Evan Weekes (pronounced Yvonne), loved to sing and was the church soloist in the church choir.”
DEE DEE: So, your mom and dad were both musicians?
AMBER: “Well, daddy was just musically inclined without even trying. He was able to play the piano by ear. He played the trombone and when he was very young, he was like a Frank Sinatra clone. Daddy always sang. In fact, when he was in the army, he was in a talent show in Germany and was offered a record contract or there was some conversation about him pursuing a music career. But he was a child of the Depression era and my grandparents were struggling. He really wanted to do something that he felt would give him a more stable life. When daddy left the service, he became an Aerospace engineer and then a lawyer. My father was really an extraordinary man. My mom loved to sing as well, but she leaned more towards the classical side of things. Mom is still alive. I have two sisters. Both have beautiful voices and we all sang and played instruments as children. My sister Dwan Weekes-Glenn is a retired entertainment lawyer. Nicole Y. Weekes is a Neuropsychologist and tenured faculty member at Claremont Pomona College. Unlike me, both my sisters are marvelous dancers too.
“Before I forget, my first album, ‘Round Midnight’ came out a long time ago in 2002 and perpetuates a promise I made to myself. I’m a big fan of Oscar Brown Jr., and I’ve committed myself to record at least one of his songs on every album. My first album had his song, “Hazel’s Hips” on it. So “Hazel’s Hips” was kind of an acknowledgement of my mother introducing me to the work of Oscar Brown Jr., and also a way of acknowledging the luncheonette that my grandparents had and the relationship that Sidney Portier had with my Aunt Delores.”
When I looked up these lyrics to Oscar Brown Jr.’s song, they perfectly exemplify Amber’s grandparent’s famed luncheonette and their pretty daughters.
Hazel’s hips are a concert of contours and curves, as she slips to and fro
’round the tables she serves; I buy six meals a day in my fav’rite cafe,
’cause I see hazel that way.
hazel’s eyes are divine and her hair is so fine, but her hips bring the tips!
hazel dips me my soup, serves me my cup of tea, my heart flips when i see
hazel smilin’ at me; so I say, ‘honeybunch, can’t I have you for lunch?’
but hazel just gives me a hunch. Hazel’s legs are a toast and her waist is the most,
but her hips bring the tips!
On Amber Weekes’ newly released “Pure Imagination” album, she continues to celebrate Oscar Brown Jr. Scotty Barnhart is outstanding on trumpet during her polished presentation of Oscar’s famed composition, “The Snake.” On Oscar Brown Jr.,’s “Brown Baby” composition, Weekes and Trevor Ware duet, effectively showcasing Amber’s voice with only bass accompaniment. Ware pulls out his bow, during this arrangement, to beautifully sing his solo.
Trevor Ware is currently bassist with the Count Basie band and he’s an in-demand studio musician, as well as a popular bassist in and around Southern California. Ware helped co-produce this latest Amber Weekes’ release. I asked Amber how Ware got to be a co-producer on her recent album.
AMBER: “Well, Trevor started playing with me when I first began performing in Los Angeles clubs. I met him originally through vocalist, performer Sweet Baby Jai. He did a couple of shows with her. A long time ago, there was a place called the Tower Restaurant that was inside the TransAmerica building. It was a beautiful restaurant. I was doing a gig there and it was either Baby Jai or Barbara Collins (who was representing Baby Jai at the time), who recommended that I use Trevor Ware. It may actually have been Elliott Douglas who was playing piano on that gig. I know that Elliott and Trevor had worked together quite a bit. Anyway, Trevor wound up working that gig with me. There was something about Trevor that resonated with me in a different kind of way. After that gig, we became good friends. He was my steady bass player for a long time and for a while he was my musical director. We recorded the “Round Midnight” album in 2002. Trevor Ware and reedman, Louis Van Taylor produced it. I knew Louis and we had worked together, but I’ve had a longer relationship with Trevor. There’s just a level of comfort that I have with Trevor. So, I hadn’t done an album in a really long time and I was ready to do another one. Trevor just seemed like the logical person to call. There’s a kind of organic engagement between the two of us. He and I started putting together the concept of the album and of course it changed over the two years it took, from conversation to completion. But it really did start with him. You know, over the years we haven’t worked together that much because he’s just become the A-list bass player for everybody. When it came time to do the recording, I really wanted him involved. He started the production, helped me figure out most of the album and what the repertoire was going to be. Because of Trevor’s busy schedule, it seemed challenging to finish it in the time-frame that I wanted. So, it just evolved into including other producers and musicians like Mark Cargill, who I’ve known longer than I knew Trevor. I’ve known Mark since I was nineteen. Mark is an extraordinary violinist and string arranger. He does the string arrangements for the television series, ‘Dancing With the Stars.’ Mark had seen my Facebook posts about doing the album and he offered to assist.
“I had gone to Louisiana in April and when I came back, we were trying to complete things. We thought, well why don’t we do “Gone at Last”? But I want it to sound New Orleans authentic. Trevor said, well, I can’t write a ‘second line.’ Let’s get Kenny Sara to do it.”
Kenny Sara produced the Paul Simon tune, “Gone at Last” and Amber Weekes employed the Bucjump Brass Band to authenticate the Louisiana sound and production that she wanted. Kenny Sara headlines the Sounds of New Orleans, a four-piece band whose forte is New Orleans based jazz music, R&B and funk. They have become an entertainment fixture at Downtown Disneyland’s Ralph Brennan’s Jazz Kitchen for over ten years. On this latest release, “Pure Imagination,” Weekes captures the toe-tapping excitement of Sara’s production, with the band adding gospel overtones, vocal chants and modulations that make you want to dance and shout.
Amber Weekes has a smooth, pleasing style. Her voice is crystal clear and during this repertoire, she pleasantly performs a Baker’s Dozen of notably familiar songs. Opening with the title tune, borrowed from the Willy Wonka movie, Amber Weekes invites jazz vocalist Sue Raney to make a guest appearance. She has studied with Raney and their voices blend nicely. I am struck by the Weekes way of stylizing her music, leaving space for the songs to breathe. Her phrasing is measured, like an instrumentalist rather than a singer. She doesn’t hold the tones out for long periods of time or delve into lengthy legato phrasings. Weekes displays skills by going straight to the notes without sliding. Every word is clearly enunciated and every melody is emotionally enriched. Her choice of tunes shows an expansive appreciation for many genres of music and includes compositions by Paul Simon, Duke Ellington, Oscar Brown Jr., Barry Manilow and Johnny Mercer. She introduced me to “When He Makes Music” by Marvin Fisher and Jack Segal. Lyrics like:
“His laughter is an echo in the breeze, that hushes larks and thrushes in the trees and calms the wave that rushes from the seas, when he makes music,” are lyrics that remind me of what makes a great song. Producer, Mark Cargill, adds an amazing violin solo on this ballad. His instrument sprinkles angel dust over Amber’s sweet delivery.
All in all, this is a treasure trove of great songs by a vocalist who understands the importance of an honest and emotional delivery. Blessed by her ancestry, music is just part of Amber’s DNA. The release date of this Amber Weekes project is scheduled for January 3, 2020.
Players on the Pure Imagination album include: Amber Weekes, vocals; Peter Smith & Tony Compodonico, pianists; Trevor Ware, bass/co-producer/background vocals; Jeff Littleton, bass; Charles Ruggiero & Nathaniel Scott, drums; Mitchell Long & Ramon Stagnaro, guitars; Justo Almario & Danilo Lazano, flute; Keith Fiddmont, alto & tenor saxophone; Dale Fielder, baritone saxophone; Curtis Taylor, Jeff Kaye & Scotty Barnhart, trumpets; Mark Cargill, violin/string arranger/conductor & co-producer; Munyungo Jackson, David Jackson & Don Littleton, percussionist; Nick Mancini & Gabriel “Slam” Nobles, vibraphone; Sue Raney & Mon David, vocals; Paul Baker, harp; Brian Swartz, horn arrangements; Mark LeVang, accordion; THE BUCKJUMP BRASS BAND: Robbie Hiokie, trombone; Randall Willis, tenor saxophone; Louis Van Taylor, baritone Saxophone; Vince Tividad, sousaphone; Mark Justin, piano; Kenny Sara, bass drum/snare drums/percussion/background vocals/ handclaps.
By Dee Dee McNeil
John Coltrane, tenor saxophone; McCoy Tyner, piano; Jimmy Garrison, bass; Elvin Jones, drums.
It seems that several tapes originating at the Rudy Van Gelder studios in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, have been recently re-discovered and resurrected. Among them is this classic John Coltrane recording session that was saved to analog tape in June of 1964. This was during a time when Coltrane’s spiritual recordings were soaring in popularity and transforming his career path, as well as the world of jazz. It was between his recording of the “Crescent” album and Coltrane’s super successful, “A Love Supreme.” The songs on this new project may be familiar, but the actual recordings have never been heard, in their entirety, before this release. The classic Coltrane band is in place, featuring all-stars, McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. Of course, John Coltrane was on tenor saxophone and you will hear the legendary musicians playing “Naima,” a take One and take two exploration of this beautiful composition begins and ends this album.
This recording came about when filmmaker, Gilles Groulx, approached John Coltrane to score a French film titled, “Le Chat Dans le Sac,” (translated to The Cat in the Bag). No one was sure Coltrane would do it. Monsieur Groulx explained it was a love story, taking place in Montreal, Canada, with political undertones. The unexpected result of this request was that John Coltrane agreed and brought his band into the studio to revisit songs he had already recorded. Their session was recorded on quarter inch, analog, mono tape and mixed by Rudy Van Gelder. Groulx happily took the master to Canada to use in his film. The final film production only included ten minutes of Coltrane’s 37-minutes of recording time. Now, we can hear their entire session.
The title tune, “Blue World,” opens with Jimmy Garrison setting up the tempo and mood on his double bass, soon joined by the piano chords of McCoy Tyner and the skipping drum sticks of Elvin Jones, galloping across the piece with precision and inspired time. John Coltrane takes his stance into the spotlight with slow deliberation, making the tenor saxophone sing in only the way he can. Blasting into a crescendo ending, with Elvin Jones going wild on trap drums and the music building to a frenzied pitch, the finale of this song is dramatic. “Village Blues” is recorded three times and you will enjoy all three takes. Additionally, there is the “Like Sonny” composition and an over seven-minute rendition of “Traneing In.” The mix is crystal clear and the tracks are better than the original, previous recordings. They sound freshly improvised and crisp, like new money.
FRANCE LINE-UP: Louis Armstrong, trumpet/vocals; Jack Teagarden, trombone/vocals; Barney Bigard, clarinet; Earl Hines, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Sid Catlett, drums. GERMANY LINE-UP: Louis Armstrong, trumpet, vocals; Trummy young, trombone; Bob McCracken, clarinet/vocals; Marty Napoleon, piano; Arvell Shaw, bass; Cozy Cole, drums.
Imagine, stepping into a magical transformer and being whisked back in time. For a minute, just pretend you have entered a time machine. Moments later, you are sitting in a small jazz club in New Orleans, it’s 1946, and just mere feet away from your table, a young man, destined to become a living legend, is blowing his horn. Other’s on the scene are Jack Teagarden on trombone and Barney Bigard on clarinet. Crouched over the piano keys is Earl “Fatha” Hines. Arvell Shaw stands tall next to his double bass and Cozy Cole is slapping the trap drums. The leader, standing center stage in a dark suit and bow tie, is Louis Armstrong. The ensemble is performing together in preparation for a European tour.
It appears that eventual tour was recorded on February 22 – 23, 1948 during the Nice International Jazz Festival. It was recorded live at the famed Nice Opera House and also at the Titania Palast in Berlin, Germany. The group of musicians varies. Velma Middleton is featured, along with Louie, on vocals. Sometimes the dynamic Sid Catlett is the drummer and other times, it’s Cozy Cole. Earl Hines is the pianist in France and Marty Napoleon plays piano in Germany. But the steadfast trumpeter and star of this live production is Louis Armstrong.
This recording is part of Dot Time’s Legacy Series and these treasured tracks were recovered in forgotten, European archives of a live performance of Louie Armstrong and his All Stars in both Nice, France and later, in Germany, during a Berlin recorded broadcast on RIAS (Radio in the American Sector) files.
On the bluesy presentation of “Rockin’ Chair,” Jack Teagarden lends his smooth vocals to the mix, with Armstrong playfully answering him in his signature vocal style and adding a bit of comic relief during their duet. One thing I always admired about Louis Armstrong, (other than his amazing musical agility on his trumpet) was his penchant for entertaining. Sometimes musicians play only for themselves and each other, forgetting about the audience or having the attitude you can love it or leave it. Louie Armstrong knew that singing was a strong audience pleaser and always included this in his shows, as well as adding comedy relief. Louis Armstrong understood the importance of entertaining. The story goes that Armstrong’s manager at the time, Joe Glaser, told him before his European tour not to sing. He said they were all foreigners and didn’t speak any English. Armstrong nodded gravely, but as you hear, he paid absolutely no attention to Glaser’s instruction not to sing. In his own way, he was a serious activist, using music as his catalyst. He opened every concert singing Fats Waller’s poignant “Black and Blue” composition. It reflected the racism in America and always was received with marvelous applause and appreciation. You will hear his performance of that song on this album, along with the popular, “Sunny Side of the Street.”
He scats his way through “Them There Eyes,” as only Louie could do and I was intrigued with the blues song, “My Bucket Got a Hole In It,” featuring the boogie-woogie bass line I used to hear my own father play on our upright piano. Louis Armstrong then pays homage to his roots on “Way Down Yonder in New Orleans” and on “Mahogany Hall Stomp” the band has an on-stage jam session with Arvell Shaw making a strong statement on his bass and Barney Bigard swinging his clarinet solo boldly into the audience. Closing with “A Kiss to Build a Dream On,” Louis Armstrong leaves us a message from beyond this world and a promise, like a blown kiss, that love crosses all boundaries the same way great music does.
This amazing deluxe, seven-CD or 10-LP package of music reminds us that Nat King Cole was a piano master. This delicious compilation of Nat Cole’s early years, between 1936 to 1943, offers nearly 200 recorded tracks by the illustrious jazz musician before he ever signed with Capitol Records.
“This is a really important project for Resonance,” says co-president or the label, Zev Feldman. “We’ve done some pretty substantial packages over the years, such as our three-disc Eric Dolphy and Jaco Pastorius sets with 100-page booklets, but this Nat King Cole box is truly a definitive, king-sized set.”
Many people only recall Nat King Cole as the silky, satin-smooth voice that made the “Christmas Song” a forever-hit-holiday standard. When Nat Cole sang, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose …” the entire universe swooned. But long before he became a popular voice on the recording scene, Nat was inspiring great piano players like Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner and George Shearing with his amazing style and technique. Nat King Cole grew up in the jazz business, listening to icons like Earl “Fatha’ Hines and Art Tatum. You can clearly hear some of their influence in this amazing set of early recordings.
The tune, “With Plenty of Money and You” was cut in 1938. Nat King Cole is playing piano so swiftly he sounds like the studio engineers speeded up the tape. He has perfect time as his finger race across the piano keys. It’s just a spectacular listen, with Oscar Moore on guitar and Wesley Prince on bass. This was the very first recording session for Nat’s trio and unique because there was no drummer. Even before this release, the very first recordings Nat Cole made was with his brother Eddie for Decca Records. He was only seventeen-years-old, but it was obvious, even then, that Nat King Cole was a piano prodigy. You will enjoy Nat’s first versions of “Sweet Lorraine” in this collection, that later in his career became a huge R&B and pop record hit. You can hear how his tone and vocal style developed, from the 1930’s to his expansive success in the 1960s. but even more significant is Nat King Cole’s amazing abilities on the piano. This recording documents his astonishing talents on piano, as well as bringing several unforgettable songs alive that we may have forgotten and deserve to be remembered like, “All for You,” and “There’s No Anesthetic for Love.” This is a ‘must-have’ for any jazz collector’s library! Release date is November 1, 2019.
Dee Dee McNeil CDs, “STORYTELLER” and “WHERE CAN OUR LEADERS BE?” are Online at CDBaby.com or Amazon.com. As a journalist, Dee Dee is available to write liner notes, biographies and feature articles on jazz musicians and singers. Contact her at email@example.com or leave your message and phone number at 248-262-6877.
DEE DEE McNEIL
Dee Dee McNeil is An Educator/Singer/Songwriter/Poet/Journalist/Producer & Playwright. Originally from Detroit, Michigan, her poetry was published in the first edition of Dudley Randall’s poetry anthology, “The Broadside Annual.” Several other anthologies followed. As a contract songwriter for Motown Records, several iconic artists have recorded her music including Diana Ross & the Supremes, Gladys Knight & the Pips, David Ruffin, Edwin Star, The Four Tops, Nancy Wilson, Rita Marley, Kiki Dee, Jonah Jones, Side Effect, Rapper ‘Styles’, LL Cool J, Gip Noble, The Marvelettes, Robert McCarther, Peggy Duquesnel and the historic Rap group, The Watts Prophets, of which Ms. McNeil was a member. She moved to Los Angeles in 1970 and became an alumnus of Budd Schulberg’s Watts Writers Workshop. She was one of the first women to Rap in the late ‘60s and early 70’s, speaking up for women’s rights. She recorded as a member of the Watts Prophets in 1970, reciting her original poetry, playing piano, singing and adding original music to their premiere release entitled, “Rappin’ Black In A White World,” named from a song McNeil penned with co-writer, Marthea Hicks.
Her articles and Cd reviews have appeared in Cadence Magazine, All About Jazz Newspaper and she had a jazz blog at www.lajazz.com for five years. As a freelance journalist, her articles have appeared in Good Old Boat Magazine, Pathfinders Travel Magazine, Ambassador National Italian-American Foundation magazine and many more. she was a music journalist for the AOL.com owned Patch Online newspapers. Her Column was called “Music Matters.” She once had a Jazz column in the Michigan Chronicle Newspaper. Another of her syndicated entertainment columns appeared in several newspapers across the country and in Canada. In 2009 her book “Haiku In My Neighborhood” was published, featuring the photography of Roland Charles.
In 2010, she presented her “Haiku In My Neighborhood” literary enrichment program as part of the City of Inglewood Parks, Recreation and Community Services, teaching haiku to children aged five to eleven as part of an after-school program. In 2011, she successfully presented the same program for older children at the Horace Mann Junior High School in Los Angeles. In 2012, one of her short stories was chosen and featured by the Sally Shore “New Short Fiction Series” read and presented by actress Angela Gibbs at the Watts Towers under the banner of “From the Ashes Revisited” to tribute the Watts Writers Workshop alumni. In 2014, her short story entitled “Singing My Way Through Adversity” was published in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries – 101 Stories of hope, Healing, and Hard Work.” In 2016, her essays were published in three separate “Chicken Soup for the Soul” books: “The Spirit of America”, “My Very Good, Very Bad Dog,” and “The Joy of Less.” Currently, she has a jazz blog where she previews CDs and writes feature articles about jazz artists at www.musicalmemoirs.wordpress.com and she contributes to LA Jazz Scene.buzz with a column called “Dee Dee’s Jazz Diary.”