By Dee Dee McNeil
June 1, 2022

The music of Rique Pantoja is a vision of peace, beauty and love. This artistic pianist has recorded and performed with some of the biggest names in both American and Brazilian jazz for over forty years. In collaboration with his old friend, Juan Carlos Qintero, (owner of Moondo Music) his latest album is the perfect fit for Moondo’s high-quality and artistically rendered jazz label.

A native of Brazil, at first Pantoja attended a university to study engineering. But this was not his heart’s desire. It was his father’s vision. That’s strange, because both his father and his uncles all loved music and played musical instruments. Perhaps his father was trying to protect Rique from the rocky road of choosing music as a career. But, after a frustrating year of engineering study, Rique’s father finally relented and approved of his son pursuing music as a career. You see, Rique Pantoja had been studying classical guitar since the age of eight and exhibited a deep infatuation with music. He switched to piano at thirteen years young and by sixteen, he was already composing songs.

Rique lived in the United States for a while as an exchange student. During this time, the teenager won a talent show for his composing talents. I asked him how that came about.

“As you know, I came from Rio de Janeiro. I grew up there. One of my dreams was to come to the United States and study English. I studied in Brazil, in a private school, where I had to learn both English and French. I thought the best way to learn a language is to go to that country. So, I lived with a family in La Crosse, Wisconsin and it was a great experience. I was seventeen. I was already playing music and playing guitar since I was eight years old. I played Choro music which is part of Brazilian folk music and I started playing piano when I was thirteen. The family in La Crosse enrolled me in high school. My school in Brazil was very demanding. Consequently, I was a little more advanced. I told my math teacher, no – I already studied Algebra. He thought I was kidding. So, he challenged me to do all the exercises on the last page of our book. I did and he said, okay, you know this! So, they moved me, promoted me to be a high school senior. At the same time, I got involved with other people playing music there. It was a great experience. I got to graduate and wear a cap and gown. But then, they had a talent show. I applied. I was writing a song for my girlfriend back in Brazil. I was playing piano and guitar. And one of my songs got to be the winning song for that talent show. So, that definitely was an incentive and an encouragement for me to continue writing. From there, I wrote all sorts of music. I’ve written kids songs and classical music for Christopher Parkening, a famous classical guitarist; one of the best in the world. He recorded two of my classical compositions,” Rique told me with pride.

After high school, his next step was to study at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachussettes. Later on, after graduating Berklee, the young pianist packed up his Fender Rhodes and relocated to Paris, France. There, he formed a band consisting of French and Brazilian musicians and that band played mostly original compositions. Rique recalled how he wound up in Paris.

“Besides studying at Berklee, I was studying privately with Charlie Banacos. He was a legendary teacher and I had many other mentors like Michael Brecker and Mike Stern. Even though I had an opportunity to study and learn so much, I still felt as though I was green. I had all this information, but I couldn’t really execute it the way I wanted to play. This great pianist from Brazil, Egberto Gismonti, who released some stuff on ECM, came into town to play some gigs in Boston. Appearing with him was Nanã Vasconcelos, a great Brazilian percussionist who has played with many different bands including Pat Metheny. I invited Nanã to come over to my place. I told him I was at a crossroads. Should I stay here in Boston or go back to Brazil? I learned so much, but I still couldn’t translate through my fingers what I learned. He said Rique, I’ll tell you what I think. You should go to Paris. They love jazz and they love Brazilian music. With your compositions, the stuff you’re writing, man you’ll be working in no time. I got all excited. So, I took the cheapest flight, a Red Eye from New York to London. I got on a train carrying my Fender Rhodes in a suitcase and arrived in Paris. I didn’t even know where I’d be staying. I was 24-years-old. Paris opened up so many incredible opportunities, including recording with Chet Baker,” Rique recalled.

One night, the great Chet Baker heard a band playing in a Parisian club next door to where the famed trumpeter was performing. Baker popped into the club and was totally impressed by the music of young Rique Pantoja. The result was, in 1980, Rique’s band recorded with trumpet master Chet Baker, who was so impressed by the youthful composer that he came to the studio to record Rique’s original songs. That album is called, “Chet Baker and the Boto Brazilian Quartet.”

After living in Paris for two and a half years, Rique Pantoja returned to Brazil, with success under his belt. He discovered his reputation burned brightly in Buenos Aires like a five-alarm fire. He was in demand. Pantoja toured two years with the great Milton Nascimento and became Musical Director for singer/songwriter, Djavan. He also was an in-demand studio session player.

“Yeah – and even after I went back to Brazil, Chet kept recording my songs. There’s a version of my song, ‘Arborway’ that’s on an album Chet recorded in Japan on the CD ‘Chet Baker in Tokyo.’ … I had an opportunity to do this jazz festival in Brazil and they asked if I could get Chet Baker to come there. So, I reached out to Chet and he came to Rio, played in that festival and we wound up doing another album together. One was recorded in Paris back in 1980 and the other one was done in Brazil called Rique Pantoja and Chet Baker,” Rique told me.

In 1991, at his wife’s insistence, the very busy Rique Pantoja agreed he needed a break and desired to spend more time with his family. They chose Los Angeles as a place to vacation, where the couple had many friends, including Brazilian super star, Ivan Lins. That short break turned into thirty fruitful years of making music with California as his base. Pantoja plays it all: classical, jazz, pop, gospel, worship music and of course Brazilian and international music. Because of his diversity, his sensitivity and excellent music skills, Pantoja worked with a number of huge names like Carlos Santana, Ernie Watts, Ricky Martin, classical guitarist Christopher Parkening, Gloria Estefan, Abraham Laboriel, Justo Almario, Lee Ritenour, Kirk Whalum and a score of others. I asked Rique who were some of his favorite musicians and he responded.

“I really learned from and enjoyed working with Ernie Watts,” Pantoja affirmed.

In fact, he has written a song that celebrates Ernie Watts on his latest album titled “Live in Los Angeles.” The composition, “1000 Watts” is a tribute to Pantoja’s friend and popular, reedman, Ernie Watts. The composition is drenched in funk.

“Abraham Laboriel, that’s another one of my favorite friends and players,” Rique Pantoja continued his list. “Alex Acuña and Frank Gambale, who’s a phenomenal guitar player. I went to Australia a few years ago with him. Frank played with Chick Corea in the electric band. … I have played with so many amazing musicians, also Brazilian musicians. I was musical conductor for Djavan. I played with Milton Nascimento for two years and I played with Gilberto Gil. I’ve had so many opportunities in my life and feel so blessed to learn and to be inspired, while at the same time working with talents like these and Chet Baker.”

Rique’s composing skills shine. He has penned and arranged themes for hit television shows like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.” Pantoja has also written popular jingles for major brands like Coca Cola, Honda, Shell oil, Globo Reporter, DeBeers Diamonds, Pepsi, Nissan and Toshiba. His music appears on the sound track of Disney’s hit comedic film, “Jungle 2 Jungle.” Recently, Rique was also part of the musical soundtrack of the animation film, “Rio” with Sergio Mendes and film composer John Powell.

Now, you can enjoy him on his newly released album “Live in Los Angeles.” He’s recorded with some brilliant players including Steve Tavaglione on saxophone and flute, Jimmy Earl on bass, Joel Taylor manning the drums and Cassio Duarte on percussion. He also includes Moondo Music labelmate, Ricardo Silveira on guitar. This project shows pianist, Rique Pantoja’s exceptional vision on his instrument and it spotlights his awesome composer talents.

The album opens with “Arpoador” (that means harpooner in Portuguese). Arpoador is also a small community, a peninsula, between Ipanema and Copacabana in Brazil. It’s an exciting and beautiful way to open this production, with changing moods and bright tempos, along with synthesizer brilliance during a solo that lifts the arrangement sky-high! Ricardo Silveira’s guitar solo is tantalizing. Cassio Duarte showcases his hot, percussion talents along with Joel Taylor, a powerhouse on drums.

“Julinho” has a haunting melody interpreted by Steve Tavaglione’s sensual saxophone. These two opening pieces quickly become two of my favorites on this album. But let me say this. Every Pantoja composition on this recording is brilliant. Every arrangement is stellar and Rique Pantoja’s piano mastery infuses this music beautifully, offering each musician a musical palate to paint their hearts out. His song, “Da Baiana” brings another genre to the party and is based on Afro-Cuban rhythms. I enjoyed the happy flute of Steve Tavaglione. Pantoja’s composition “Bebop Kid” introduces us to his vocal side. Rique has a voice that’s honest and emotional. I expected an up-tempo tune to exemplify bebop. Instead, this is a ballad and he sings the lyrical story in his native Portuguese with plentiful emotion. Suddenly, the arrangement changes, pendulum quick. The ballad becomes a pop groove with Latin tinges. Rique’s music is just pure fun!

As he plays the piano, Pantoja sometimes sings a scat line in unison with the melody. His piano sparkles across each song, like sunshine on restless waves. The flute solo by Tavaglione warms this arrangement, flying above the chord changes like a hungry seagull. Also, the guitar solo by Ricardo Silveira is formidable and I am captivated by the electric bass solo of Jimmy Earl. Each song on this “Live in Los Angeles” album offers something more to entertain and surprise us. It is a vision of complexity and artistic beauty you will enjoy listening to time and time again.

As if recording, touring and composing were not enough to keep him busy, Rique has still another life as a respected music educator! He teaches courses at Southern California’s Biola University and Cal Baptist University. Rique Pantoja has led workshops at Maranatha Worship Training and the Los Angeles Music & Performance (LAMP) School. Professor Pantoja is proficient in Pro Tools & Logic School Audio graph (AGI) and offers master classes at a number of schools, including Pepperdine University on the Malibu campus. I asked him if he had any advice for young musicians.

“I’ve been teaching for sixteen years. I taught at Biola University in LA. They have a conservatory. I taught some writing and also at CBU I taught some production with software. So, I really dedicate a lot of time encouraging and teaching young musicians. My advice would be to honor the gift you’ve been given. Develop it with a spirit of excellence. Because you know, the gift is given and the whole purpose of it is to share it. If you give me a gift and I keep the gift in the closet and never share it or you give me a nice shirt and I never wear it, it’s a waste. The same goes to any kind of gift we share. When we share, we fulfill the purpose of that gift. So, to any students that aim to be great and to learn music, it’s just a beautiful art form that has no end. I’m still studying. I am studying orchestration. Even though I’m not writing for an orchestra right now, I still want to learn more. I study Ravel’s string quartet that’s twenty-eight minutes long. There are all these most beautiful things inside that one piece. I go back and pay attention and study the score for art’s sake. It’s not that I want to be more famous. I’m over sixty, so I’ve done so much already. My goal is to keep growing and to do it passionately. I have the hope that my music will get out there and touch the lives of people and bless them.”

 

 

By Dee Dee McNeil

May 1, 2022

FEATURING: Chris Standring, guitar/keyboards/programming/arranging/composer; Rodney Lee, keyboards; Andre Berry, bass; Chris Coleman, drums; Kevin Axt upright bass; Gary Meek, tenor saxophone.

Back in the 1990s, Chris Standring was combining Hip Hop and smooth jazz with a group called “Solar System” that included the same keyboard genius he still collaborates with, Rodney Lee.

But before he moved from England to the West Coast of the United States, he was polishing his guitar chops and practicing his arranging skills at the BBC. I asked him about that time in his life.

“Back in the 80s, there was a show on Radio 2. You know, we have Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 3, Radio 4, etc., in England. It’s National radio programming across the country. On Radio 2, BBC had a late-night radio show called Night Owls. There were two late night programs. I can’t remember what the other one was called. Night Owls invited bands into the studio to record. So, you would crank out as many songs as you could during that time. They would mix them, master them, and then play them on the radio and you’d get paid royalties actually quite well from that exposure. I probably did fifteen or twenty of those in the period of a few years. That was in the late 80’s,” Chris informed me.

A native of Aylesbury (in the county of Buckinghamshire, England) Chris has been currently based in Southern California for the past three decades. He moved to Los Angeles in 1991. Standring has had thirteen Billboard Top 10 singles and six singles that reached number one on the Billboard Chart. In fact, a song from his recent album, “Change the World” followed suit. Chris often writes music for others to record and this song was meant to be gifted to another artist. At the last minute, Standring decided to keep the tune for himself. He released it as a single and the song powered up to #1 on the Billboard Chart.

After settling in Los Angeles, Chris was quickly embraced by the West Coast music scene. He found himself recording with gospel royalty like Bebe and Cece Winans, pop and R&B singer, Jody Watley and smooth jazz artists like Rick Braun, Bob James, Richard Elliott, Peter White, Kirk Whalum, Marc Antoine and Al Stewart.

“One of the reason’s I moved over here was so I could do things on a bigger level. I was quite ambitious,” Chris explained.

His recent album, “Simple Things” continues his successful path of well-played, contemporary jazz interpreted by seasoned West Coast musical veterans. From the very first original composition (“Shadow of Doubt”) on Chris Standring’s new album, I hear shades of Wes Montgomery. There is something about the strong, powerful ‘groove’ Chris pumps into his guitar playing that reminds me of Wes. Colorfully accompanied by the tenacious drumming of Chris Coleman, who slaps the funk into place, Standring’s music just makes me happy! Indeed, according to his publicist’s notes, Standring confirmed:

“…the theme of this album is joy, positivity, hope and because I’m a sucker for a beautiful melody, a little sadness as well.”

Years ago, this journalist was a part of the Motown staff in Detroit as a songwriter and almost all the amazing players on those early Motown studio sessions were competent jazz players. The groove and the funk I hear from Chris Standring, Andre Berry on bass, Chris Coleman on drums and Rodney Lee on keyboards remind me of those early Detroit days. These Chris Standring arrangements and compositions make me want to dance, just like the Motown music used to do. Standring soars on his Benedetto guitar and makes a joyful sound atop the excellence of his dynamic rhythm section, but you can clearly still hear his jazz roots.

“I saw a YouTube video of Bootsy (Collins) explaining his basic funk formula. The bass line he demonstrated is so funky that it inspired me to write Something of my own. Of course, I had to thank him, which I did on my tune, “Thank You Bootsy,” Standring explained, celebrating an artist who has influenced his composing and arranging style.

Chris Standring began studying classical guitar when he was just six years old. He was drawn to jazz early-on, but he didn’t become a serious jazz musician until he attended the London College of Music. His mentors were great bebop players like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Budd Powell and Chet Baker. Later he became a fan of Joe Pass. His father was a big Oscar Peterson fan and often played Peterson’s records at their home. His mother played both piano and harp, more as a hobby than as a studied musician. Chris’s older brother played flute and his sister was a classical guitarist. So, there was always music being played or listened to at their house. When he arrived in the United States, Chris became familiar with the work of Pat Martino and greatly admired that legendary guitarist. Sometime later, he got to meet him in person.

I had the opportunity to take one lesson with him a few years ago. I happened to be on tour in Philadelphia and I knew Pat lived there because a friend of mine had taken a lesson with him. I thought, why don’t I do that? So, I called him up and we scheduled the meeting. I was so excited, I didn’t sleep a wink that night, awaiting the next day, so I could take a lesson with Pat Martino. The lesson was really great. That evening, he came to my show with his wife,” Standring recalled the joy of that meeting and the treasured memory of that lesson. I could still hear the ‘happy’ in his voice.

Chris has realized that sometimes it’s the little things that make the biggest impression on our lives. When it comes to music, he has been a serious and dedicated musician for decades. As a recording artist, he is always exploring the music with fresh eyes. He loves jazz, but he’s also a lover of funk, gospel, Rhythm and Blues.

“I’m a big fan of Prince, who learned about funk studying the music of people like Bootsy Collins. I wrote the opening track, “Shadow of Doubt” after hearing a particular bass line by Prince that I really liked and I wondered what I could do with something similar,” Chris Standring shared.

You can clearly hear the Prince influence on tunes from his latest release like, “Face to Face” and “Ain’t Nothin’ But A Thing” featuring Rodney Lee on organ. There is also a trace of James Brown influence in these funky, danceable compositions that Chris has penned and arranged. Still, Standring’s ability to seamlessly combine jazz, funk and dance music is ever evolving. When his album “Don’t Talk, Dance!” was released back in 2014, it was a crowd pleaser. What I love about Standring’s creative perception is that although he loops his grooves, he also spontaneously improvises. He is free and creative, like any great jazz player would be. He doesn’t get stuck in that groove. His technique on guitar shows the world that his jazz chops are strong and intact.

On his album, “Soul Express” Standring rearranges the standard jazz tune “Giant Steps” in a very creative way.

Back to his current release, you hear the softer side of Chris playing the pretty ballad, “A Thousand Words (for Samantha)” that features Kevin Axt making a guest appearance on upright bass. The melody is compelling and the bridge is absolutely beautiful. Chris has composed all eleven songs on this new recording. It’s his 14th CD release as a bandleader. I found each one of his compositions to be a sparkling gem. As a prolific composer, Chris Standring has penned or co-written over one-hundred compositions to date. I asked him when he started composing music?

I actually think of myself as much of a composer as a guitar player these days. I’ve always written music, going back to when I was a teenager, playing in pop bands. The music of the time, back in England, was more progressive rock music. It wasn’t so much about jazz. Everybody was taking chances and doing these crazy things that really didn’t always make musical sense. It was just interesting to take that very free approach to things. That really inspired me as a composer. Today, when I’m composing, I don’t have the luxury to have another guy, by my side, to play everything. So, I’ve certainly gotten good enough on keyboard and programming tools to execute ideas I hear in my head. Yeah – that’s the great thing about being able to write and have a studio. I can just go in there and put things down,” Chris explained.

 

In 2021, Standring reached back to his early jazz roots and recorded a group of jazz standards for the first time on an album titled, “Wonderful World.” On this project, he incorporates a full orchestra and it’s an absolutely beautiful production.

In 2022, his “Simple Things” album is scheduled for a May release. One song he created, “Too Close for Comfort” was written after he experienced a health scare last year. Chest pains and a trip to the hospital reminded Chris how fragile life really is. Thus, the title of this album, “Simple Things” is a reminder for him to appreciate every moment of life and to spend time with loved ones and be present in every moment of each day. “Simple Things” (the album) is a musical message I will enjoy listening to and playing over and over again.

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By Dee Dee McNeil

Barbara Morrison has been a mainstay in the Southern California jazz community for nearly half a century. She cared about the music and she cared about uplifting her neighborhood. Barbara insisted on treasuring the legacy of our musical contributors and passing that knowledge on. Years ago, I remember Barbara sharing with me that she wanted to own and operate her own performance space. In 2009, that dream became a reality when she established the Barbara Morrison Performing Art Center (BMPAC) at 4305 Degnan Blvd, Suite 101 in Los Angeles. A few years later, she expanded to the building next door and established The California Jazz & Blues Museum in the heart of this artsy Leimert Park area of L.A. She opened up these two facilities in a people of color community, with much support and appreciation from the local neighborhood. Barbara was concerned with promoting the historic legacy of jazz, a music created by African-American musicians that is revered and respected worldwide. Proudly, jazz is America’s singularly recognized classical music artform, established by the United States congress, in 1987, declaring jazz a national treasure.

For a while, Ms. Morrison served as an associate professor of jazz studies at UCLA and that university launched the ‘Barbara Morrison Scholarship for Jazz’ in 2020.1 She also inspired up-and-coming talent at her Performance Art Center and as a private mentor. Barbara welcomed the Dolo Coker Foundation auditions to her space; a non-profit organization headed by Sybil Coker that awarded scholarships to young jazz musicians. Morrison happily allowed her art center to be used for educational purposes, for community workshops, rehearsals and even celebrations of life for those families who needed a space to remember loved ones. She welcomed jazz jam sessions that allowed fledgling musicians to play on-stage with seasoned veterans of the jazz and blues community. Morrison also performed in and supported musical theater on her stage.

“She helped a lot of young people … her classes often were free … if you wanted to learn the music business or jazz, Barbara Morrison was there to teach. If you didn’t have the money, no problem,” said KBLA host Tavis Smiley.

At the same time, while managing her performance space business, this tenacious and talented lady was appearing worldwide as a jazz and blues vocalist. I’ve seen Barbara Morrison host an event in Leimert Park and then grab her packed luggage and head to LAX Internation Airport, catching a plane to perform at some jazz festival in Europe. Barbara Morrison performed at numerous jazz concerts worldwide including festivals in Nice, Pori, at the North Sea Jazz Festival, the Sydney Australia Opera House, the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Detroit Montreux Jazz Fest, New York’s Carnegie Hall and just too many more to mention. Barbara Morrison wore many hats, juggling her business savvy with her extraordinary vocal career with ease.

It was over a decade ago when Barbara was diagnosed with diabetes. They call it the ‘Silent Killer’ because this disease sneaks up on you. You can walk around and have diabetes without even knowing it. It attacks the eyesight, the limbs and the heart. The result of that disease caused Barbara Morrison to become a double amputee. But that didn’t stop her from continuing to run the Barbara Morrison Performing Art Center (BMPAC), performing locally to packed audiences, and even travelling and perform overseas. You would see Barbara Morrison rolling down Degnan Avenue in Leimert park, operating her wheelchair with a wide, beautiful smile on her face and giving a warm greeting to all she met. Determination was this lady’s middle name. Ms. Morrison was a soldier!

Barbara was a dreamer and she was determined to make those dreams come true. It started a long time ago, in Ypsilanti, Michigan where Barbara Morrison was born on September 10, 1949. She was raised in a suburb of Detroit called Romulus and knew very early in her childhood that she wanted to sing.

Morrison reminisced in a recent article, “When I was 9 years old, I entered this contest on the radio — the first Black broadcasting station in the United States. I sang a Stevie Wonder song and got attention from the R&B community. Stevie comes over to see me sometimes, so we’re still going on.” 

She wanted to be an artist on the Motown Label and when she couldn’t make that pop and R&B dream manifest, she chose blues and jazz. But Barbara could sing it all. She was as soulful as Irene Reid, (with a similar tone) and as jazzy and powerful as Dinah Washington, who Morrison greatly admired. Barbara even performed a tribute musical play at her performance space to celebrate the legacy of Dinah Washington. I attended that sold-out musical play and Barbara Morrison proved to be a formidable actress as well as an amazing singer.

At age twenty-three, Morrison arrived in Los Angeles (from Michigan) and immediately landed a job singing with Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson’s band. Between 1973 and the early 1990s, Barbara recorded a slew of albums with the iconic Johnny Otis. In the mid-eighties, this soulful vocalist toured as part of the Philip Morris Superband. The band toured Canada, Australia, Japan and the Philippines with a legendary cast of characters. Jimmy Smith was on organ, James Moody was the saxophonist, Kenny Burrell played guitar, Grady Tate was on drums and Jon Faddis was hitting all those extremely high notes on his trumpet. It was a dream-come-true jazz band.

Barbara always kept the company of legendary and iconic musicians. She found herself on stages, performing or recording with such notables at Cedar Walton, Nancy Wilson, Joe Williams, the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra, Doc Severinsen, David T. Walker, Esther Phillips, Houston Person, Gerald Wilson and his Orchestra, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Charles, Ernie Andrews and Ron Carter, just to scratch the surface of her illustrious career.

Morrison’s first recording was released in 1984, when she was featured with the Leslie Drayton Orchestra on an album called, “Love is a Four-Letter Word.” On the title tune, they used Barbara’s voice to express spoken word instead of her songstress skills. But you hear her crystal clear, soulful and swinging vocals on “When Will You Be Mine?”

This recording was followed by twenty-one more albums that Morrison released as a bandleader. She also established and managed her own record label. As a guest vocalist she recorded an additional seventeen albums with such remarkable artists as Kenny Burrell “The Road to Love” on High Note Records and she sang three duets with the great Bernie Pearl on his “Take Your Time” album. Barbara appeared as a guest on the mark Winkler, “Sweet Spot” album and Henry Franklin’s “Home Cookin’” release where she sings “Philanthropy.” Ms. Morrison shows off her blues chops with Doc Severinsen’s Big band recording of “Every Day I Have the Blues” and the Teddy Edwards standard, “Don’t Touch Me.” Barbara told me once, that was one of her favorite tunes to sing.

On Al Aaron’s and the L.A. Jazz Caravan album of 1995, she sings “Back Door Blues” and “Make the Man Love Me.” Her final album release was a duet with L.A. based pianist Stuart Elster called, “Warm and Cozy.”

Barbara’s legacy will be cherished and preserved by these amazing recordings. However, the real legacy of Barbara Morrison’s work was her consistent dedication to her community and to propelling the music forward through education, entertainment and by example.

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By Dee Dee McNeil

Since March is Women’s History Month, it seems especially appropriate to celebrate Martha Graham. This amazing dancer and choreographer was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania (a suburb of Pittsburgh) on May 11, 1894 and Marth Graham died on April 1, 1991 in New York City. She is remembered reverently as an American modern dance master and choreographer who reshaped American dance with her famous Graham technique. This trailblazer danced and taught for over seventy years. Ms. Graham was the first dancer to perform at the White House for President Franklin D. Roosevelt and she received the acclaimed Presidential Medal of Freedom. She founded her dance company in 1926 and remains famous for her evolving form of modern dance that is still being taught today. She was the first dancer to receive a Guggenheim Scholarship (1932). In 1990, at age ninety-five, Martha Graham was still going strong and choreographed Scott Joplin’s “Maple Leaf Rag” with costumes by famed designer Calvin Klein. On March 19, 2022 at the Soraya, an artist concert space in California’s San Gabriel Valley, The Martha Graham Dance Company will premiere the Re-creation of Canticle for Innocent Comedians: a lyrical celebration of the natural elements: the sun, moon, wind, Earth, water and fire. Using dance and music, they also celebrate the cycle of death and rebirth. Some choreographic excerpts survived from this original 1952 Martha Graham production. However, the music had not been secured. To re-create “Canticle,” The Soraya co-commissioned a new score of original music for solo piano by none other than Jason Moran. This music and the accompanying dance digs deeply into the menace and challenge of climate change and how it affects our world today.

Jason’s original score will accompany the choreography by the Martha Graham Dance Company. I was not surprised to hear about Moran scoring this program called “The New Canticle for Comedians.” Let me tell you why.

Pianist, composer and educator, Jason Moran, is known for challenging the same old thing in jazz. His reputation proceeds him as he confronts contemporary audiences and their notions about what a classic jazz trio represents. Martha Graham also challenged the status Quo and what people thought dance should be. Like Jason Moran, she was innovative and creatively colored outside the lines.

Let me give you some background on the talented and innovative Jason Moran. While performing as co-bandleader with Greg Osby, pianist Moran recorded a soundtrack album titled “Human Motion” on the Blue Note label back in 1999. That release launched his recording career as a bandleader.

Jason and his two musical comrades at that time began to bring something fresh and innovative to the jazz scene in the late 90’s. They formed a unit. By the early 2000s, Jason Moran, Tarus Mateen and Nasheet Waits had been performing and recording music under the banner of The Bandwagon. In 2003, they recorded a ‘live’ album at New York’s Village Vanguard named “The Bandwagon.” But even before that album, Jason Moran and his trio were joined at the hip. Working with the iconic saxophonist and pianist, Sam Rivers, that talented trio recorded “Black Stars” in 2001. That album was named one of “The 50 Most Important Recordings of the Decade” by National Public Radio. It was quite an honor for young Jason Moran and his trio. Moran was only twenty-six years old at that time.  

This accomplishment was followed by “Facing Left,” released in 2000. As I mentioned above, he was solidly hooked up with his trio partners. Shortly after their release of “The Bandwagon” album, Moran won the Jazz Journalists Association “Up-n-Coming Jazz Musician Award. That was in 2003. From 2003 to 2005, Down Beat’s Critic’s Poll voted him Rising Star Jazz Artist, Rising Star Pianist and Rising Star Composer.

Moran’s love of music and especially jazz, has led him down many creative and diversified paths. His digital learning lessons are available on You Tube and are stuffed with inspired verbal and musical information, available to everyone with a computer. He’s a formidable educator.

In 2011, the Expanded Critics’ Poll of Jazz Times Magazine voted Jason Moran second place in their “Artist of the Year” category and first place as “Pianist of the Year.” His career was continuously blossoming. There were many more awards and celebrations of his talent for all the years in between. Then, in 2018, Moran composed the score for “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates, based on his critically acclaimed book. Jason had scored soundtracks for seven films before that important assignment. So, Jason was well prepared. In fact, to support my comment about Jason Moran’s diverse talents, “Refraction” is a score he wrote for Alonzo King LINES ballet. And if all those credits aren’t enough, in addition to being an award-winning musician, Jason Moran is also a visual artist and painter.

Yes, Jason Moran is a very busy man. He has been on the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music since 2010. At the Kennedy Center, he has been the Musical Adviser for jazz since 2011. In 2014, he became their Artistic Director for Jazz. That was once the position of the great Billy Taylor. So, as I said before; it is not surprising that he would be the perfect candidate to create a score for the historic Martha Graham Dance Company. You are invited to attend this extraordinary Martha Graham Dance Company production, intersecting music, visual art and dance with the score for “The New Canticle for Comedians” composed by Jason Moran. This event has its world premiere on March 19, 2022 at The Soraya; 18111 Nordhoff St.; Northridge, CA at 8PM. The Soraya (Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts) is a beautiful concert facility located on the campus of California State University/Northridge in Los Angeles. They proudly host a variety of the most iconic and artistic characters at their popular performance center. You can view their entire line-up of performances at their website. https://www.ticketsonsale.com the-soraya valley-performing-arts-center

During Women’s History Month we proudly celebrate The Martha Graham Dance Company.

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By Dee Dee McNeil

When I think of Spanky Wilson, I think of someone who can swing a song as hard as Muhammad Ali punches. But she can also vocally caress a lyric with so much emotion that it stuns an audience into absolute silence. Her musical legacy stretches over a period of six decades, because her very first recording was made when she was only four-years-old. But I’ll let her tell you that story.

SPANKY:My father played guitar and sang. He sounded just like Nat King Cole. My mother told me I used to hear Nat King Cole on the radio and I used to point and say, ‘Daddy. Daddy.’ He had that smooth, soft voice like Nat Cole. He was in a group called The Four Blotches. I used to tease him and say, no wonder you all never made it with that name. He used to say, well, it wasn’t my idea baby. He said they chose that name because of the Ink Spots. They all played guitar and sang. No piano or drums. My mother loved him ‘cause he was a real handsome guy. She was from Lewistown, Pennsylvania and daddy was performing in Lewistown. Daddy was there to entertain the troops and mom went to one of those dances and that’s how they met. After they got married, she started getting jealous, because all those ladies were flirting and fanning their you-know-whats in front of him. So, she wanted him to quit singing. I told him, daddy, I don’t know if I could ever give up singing for anybody. But he gave it up, and started working on the docks in Philadelphia. He really loved my mom. He would come home from work and we’d sit on the steps in the evening. He’d teach me all these songs. Just me and him and his guitar. I was three or four-years-old.
“I keep telling’ people this, but they don’t believe me. Back in Philadelphia, you used to be able to go into a music store where you could buy the sheet music and 78rpm records. You could go in there and they would have booths and the walls were glass. You could make a record of your own for a certain amount of money. It was a 78 rpm and you could do two songs; one on each side. You paid them and you would leave with the record. I asked daddy, after I started singing and moving around, what happened to that record we made when I was four years old? ‘Cause I remember the song was ‘Knock Me A Kiss.’ The other song was Without a Song.”
NOTE: In 1942 Erskine Hawkins had a 78rpm record out with vocals by Ida James of this song, “Knock Me A Kiss”.

SPANKY: “Oh, I was the daddy’s little girl and my brother was mama’s boy. Daddy’s the one who gave me the name Spanky, ‘cause my real name is Louella you know, like Louella Parsons, the journalist from back-in-the-day. Remember her? She used to write a gossip column. I asked my mother, why would you do that to me? You couldn’t even find that name in the baby book. I was always getting into trouble. I was a tomboy. So, he named me Spanky, after that television show, ‘Spanky and Our Gang.’ “

Several amazing entertainers were born and raised in Pittsburgh like Billy Eckstine, Paul Chambers, Kenny Clark, Earl ‘Father’ Hines, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, Erroll Garner and Ahmad Jamal. Spanky Wilson, although a native of Philadelphia, was raised in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania around all that great jazz. As a teenager, she gained notoriety singing around town. Although she loved to sing, she was still shy and insecure about performing on stage. But the local musicians took note. They recognized her blossoming talent and unique voice. That’s how Stanley Turrentine heard about her.

SPANKY:Stanley Turrentine gave me my first gig. It was on the weekend, Friday and Saturday. The musicians around town knew I could sing, but I was always scared to sing. So, he was looking for a singer and somebody recommended me. When he got in touch, I couldn’t believe it. We played at a famous club on Fulton Street. That was a very popular street in the heart of the black community. It was 1957 and I was seventeen. I remember very well, because Angie (my daughter) was born in 1958. Every time I’d leave my husband, we’d break up and then I’d sneak off with him and make-up. Next thing I know, I’m pregnant and I end up going back to him. I have four children. My last daughter is by my second husband who plays guitar.”

But settling down and being a homemaker was not in the cards for Spanky Wilson. The music bug had bitten deeply. She was hungry for pursuing a singing career. In 1967, she joined the Jimmy McGriff band. They piled into a car and drove across the country, gigging from city to city. After a six-week tour, it was June of 1967 when they rolled into Los Angeles.

SPANKY: “We were at Shelly’s Manne Hole. H. B. Barnum heard me there and expressed an interest in my talent. After the gig, I left and went back home, thinking I would never hear from this guy again. In September of that year, he called me and said he was ready for me to come back to California and record. I couldn’t believe it. So, he sent for me and I came out here to make a record. I was supposed to be out here no more than two months. So that’s when I went to Smitty’s house.”

Note: Smitty is Howlett Smith. He was a prolific L.A. based composer who wrote hit songs for both Spanky and Nancy Wilson. His ‘Let’s Go Where The Grass Is Greener,” was recorded by Nancy Wilson.

SPANKY: “I went to Smitty’s house every day to learn all the songs he had written for me. I went there for five weeks studying songs and then H.B. would choose the ones he liked the best for our session. Meantime, he started getting me these background gigs with O.C. Smith, Lou Rawls, and the great African singer, Letta Mbulu. I kept saying, hey, I wanna go home. I mean I have children. I want to see my kids. So now it’s the end of November, almost Christmas. I said either you send for my kids or I’m leaving. So, he ended up getting me a nice house in West Covina. I didn’t want to live in the city because they had more decent schools in Covina. I moved here in 1967, brought my kids out to California and re-established myself. I was just giggin’ around town, but I was happy doing that.”

The move to Los Angeles proved lucrative. H. B. Barnum’s production garnered Spanky Wilson an unforgettable jazz record in 1969. Howlett Smith’s hauntingly beautiful song, “The Last Day of Summer” went soaring up the music charts. Jazz stations all across the country were playing it like crazy. It was followed by an album on the same Mothers Records & The Snarf Company label titled, ‘Spankin’ Brand New.’ Her career was on fire. The next album was titled, “Doin’ It,” released in 1969 and followed in 1970 by her third album titled, “Let It Be.” After this release, Spanky decided to leave the label.

In 1975, Spanky signed with 20th Century/Westbound Records. The new album was “Specialty of The House,” and the title tune was released as a popular single. Spanky sounded wonderful on this album. Her voice was bell clear, the songs were well-written and the production was lush with horns, strings and background vocals. There were plenty of songs on this album that could have been big hits for the crowd-pleasing singer. However, in the record business, unless you have a strong promotional team in place, a record can die on the vine. Spanky poured her heart out on “I Think I’m Gonna Cry.” There are some songs that were obviously produced in the Motown vein, with Diana Ross type productions like, “I’ll Stake My Life on You Boy.” Spanky rose to the occasion, showing that she could sing anything and proving she had cross-over ability.
For a few years, she toured America, spending quite a bit of time in my home town of Detroit, Michigan and working at Watts Mozambique jazz club owned by Cornelius Watts. Later, she appeared at Richard Jarrett’s club, “Dummy Georges.” During that time, she was a guest on a recording by Houston Person and Etta Jones titled, “Live at the Club Mozambique” for Eastbound Records. She also was recorded by Ace Records on a compilation album, pairing her with a list of all-star artists including Jack McDuff, Melvin Sparks, Gary Chandler, Etta Jones, Houston Person and Bill Mason titled, “Together.”
Anybody who’s been in the business of making records knows that the real money an artist makes comes from being on the road, not from selling records. While record companies are busy raking in the cash from the artists’ talents, an artist has to perform in concerts and clubs to pay the bills. Ms. Wilson let no grass grow under her feet. She’s performed in thirty-five countries including Algeria, Angola, Belgium, Brazil, Cameroon, Canada, the Congo, England, France, Germany, All over Japan, Luxemburg, Madagascar, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Portugal, Scotland, and in virtually every big city in Spain, Switzerland, Taiwan, Thailand, Tunisia and coast to coast, all over the United States. She worked with Teddy Edwards and also toured with the great Benny Carter as part of his “All Star” band.
I asked Spanky about her time leaving the United States and living in France.

SPANKY: “I went there in 1985. Sweets Edison got me a gig there. I had left H. B. Barnum’s label and also the 20th Century Records deal was done. – Red Holloway used to use me at the Parisian Room and then Sweets Edison used to get me opening act gigs. That way, I was working all the time. So, Sweets and I got to be friends. I was one of the ‘cats’ with those guys. Sweet’s started telling me I should go to Europe and they would love me over there. But I said, hey – I don’t know nobody in Europe. I’d been to Japan and Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. But I said, ok – hook me up, man.
“He got me a gig with the Woody Herman Band in the South of France; in Nice. So, I get there, but dig this, but Woody Herman’s hands were messed up. He had the arthritis real bad. He couldn’t play, so he sang a little bit. Consequently, he didn’t need a singer. So, I’m there, but I’m not going to sing. OMG. I thought, what the hell am I going to do now? I can’t turn around and go back to Los Angeles after I told everybody I was going to this gig in France. But wait a minute, I knew this guy who had something to do with the jazz festival and he said let me see what I can do. Well – the musicians all stayed in the same hotel. I used to sit in the lobby and try to learn the language and practice my French speaking. You know those dogs that used to save people that had the little canteen around their neck? St. Bernard! Well, I love animals and one day I’m sitting there in the lobby and this guy walked by with this big, huge dog and I said Oh my God, he’s so beautiful. Is he friendly? So, I started talking to the dog. And every day, he would walk down there with the dog and I didn’t know anybody but Sweets and the musicians. Funny, but me and the dog got to be friends. Finally, the dog would see me and break a-loose from whoever was walking him and jump up on me. To make a long story short, Sweets says hey, I made an appointment for us to go up and see the head man who runs this hotel; The Meridien Hotel. I said ok. He took me up to the guys suite and we knock on the door. Some guy opened the door and here was the dog. He jumped up on me and was so happy. He weighed about 500 pounds. That was a huge dog. But this really handsome man steps forward and says, so you’re the one that my guy was telling me about. He had heard there was a lady that sits in the lobby that his dog was in love with this woman. I said, Oh yes. That’s me. So, the hotel manager says Sweets tells me that you can really sing. I’m just going to take his word for it. I don’t need to hear you sing. How would you like to work in Paris? I said I’d love to work in Paris. He said I’m going to send you to the Meridien Hotel there and the group is already working there. You can sing with them. I said OK. That’s fine with me. So, the next day, I went to Paris. The Lord works in mysterious ways. They hired me for two weeks. That was in July. I wound up staying there until September. Just like we celebrate the Fourth of July here. Well, everybody that lives in Paris, they leave to go on vacation in the summer, so they never have an international act in the Lionel Hampton room in the summer. They only had a local band. I was working with them. They were called The Four Bones and it was four Trombones and a rhythm section. Francois Guin, Jean Christophe Vilain, Benny Vasseur, and Raymond Fonseque were the trombone players. The pianist with him and the bass player with them was like my brother. While I was there, people were coming from different clubs who had heard about me or whatever. And I got work in other clubs after I finished working there. That’s how I ended up staying for a while.”

Our artform of jazz is highly respected and revered in Europe. Spanky Wilson found steady work and appreciation overseas and she found love. After living together for several years, she married her musical conductor, Phillipe Milantia.
Spanky’s time in France ended when both her mother and father became ill. She returned to the United States to care for them. Her French husband did not want to live in America. He thought America had a racist society and refused the idea of moving to the USA. After the death of both parents, Spanky decided to return to Los Angeles. As we know, life always happens while we’re making plans. Without any warning, just as she started gigging and getting settled into L.A. living, Spanky was diagnosed with an illness that threatened her life. She returned to Pennsylvania to be with her children, unexpectedly leaving Los Angeles and her career for a few recuperative years. Currently, Spanky Wilson has retired to Nevada.
Ms. Wilson’s discography features eleven albums (State-side and in Europe). They celebrate her rich contribution to music along with additional recordings as a guest vocalist with several iconic musicians including Teddy Edwards. They solidify her jazz legacy.


Dee Dee McNeil & Spanky Wilson at Maverick’s Flat – August 2016, when Dee Dee produced her concert.