HARRY BELAFONTE: A FILM CELEBRATES HIS AMAZING LEGACY
By Dee Dee McNeil
May 1, 2023
I clearly recall one February evening in 2012 when I drove to the Pasadena Laemmle Playhouse Theater to review a documentary film titled “Sing Your Song.” It was a movie that traced the life and times of the great and memorable singer, actor and activist, Harry Belafonte. On Tuesday, April 25, 2023, at the age of ninety-six-years old, Belafonte took his final bow. He passed away at his New York home from congestive heart disease, with his third wife, Pamela, by his side.
I was raised listening to Belafonte’s amazing calypso records and hearing my Aunt Doris gush about how sexy and good looking the man was. On top of being good looking and talented, he had a revolutionary, humanitarian spirit.
“What more could you want in a man?” my revolutionary, forward-thinking aunt exclaimed, while playing Harry Belafonte in the background. She was spinning a 33-1/3rpm album where Harry sang, “Matilda, she take me money and run Venezuela.”
Belafonte’s extraordinary documentary film was produced by Susanne Rostock and it traces Harry’s life, beginning with his birth in Harlem on March 1, 1927. He had Jamaican roots. Like many immigrants, his mom came to America seeking a better life for herself and her son, originally named Harold George Bellanfanti Junior. However, when Harry was a small boy, she returned to Jamaica. While living on that tropical island, Belafonte was drawn to music and soaked up the folk songs he heard. They would eventually propel him to fame.
At the beginning of World War II, Harry, his mother and a brother returned to New York. Now, in high school, Harry had trouble adjusting to New York’s fast-paced, hectic life and American society. He dropped out of school and joined the Navy. After his discharge from the Armed Services, young Harry Belafonte returned to New York and searched for a job, settling on a Janitor’s position. One unexpected day, Harry’s employer complimented him on the fine job he was doing and gifted Harry with a ticket to the American Negro Theater. That evening, while watching those black actors entertaining a spellbound audience, Harry Belafonte was hooked. Not only did he decide to start acting, he also planned on becoming a singer, because singing came easy to him and music made him happy. In a matter of months, he was performing in New York clubs and pursuing a career as a jazz singer.
Most entertainers and musicians explore other venues and listen to other acts. One unpredictable day, Harry Belafonte witnessed a show by Huddie Ledbetter. Later, known as “Leadbelly,” the man was wailing on his guitar at the famed Village Vanguard, while singing folk songs, slave songs and blues. This music was completely different from the polished jazz music Harry was singing, but it inspired him.
Totally captivated by Ledbelly, Belafonte decided to explore folk music and to perform culturally rich songs from his Caribbean childhood, instead of jazz standards. This transition from jazz to Calypso/folk music would garner him six gold records, including one for his extremely popular calypso song, “Day – O (the Banana Boat Song).” This genre was completely his, because no one was performing and recording that kind of Caribbean music in the 1950s and 1960s except Harry Belafonte.
While pursuing his singing career at night, during the day Harry was going to various auditions and trying to land an acting role. His first leading role was in a play called “Juno and the Paycock.” In 1953, he debuted in film as co-star with the gorgeous and talented, Dorothy Dandridge in a movie titled, “Bright Road.” Next, Harry won a Tony Award in 1954 for his outstanding performance in the musical revue by John Murray Anderson, “Almanac,” where Harry Belafonte used both talents, singing and acting. Familiar names like Polly Bergen and Orson Bean were a part of that all-star cast. Belafonte was rumored to be on his way up the stairway to the stars. For that show, he became the first black male Broadway actor to win a Tony Award. He was also the first black matinee idol and the first recording artist to sell over a million records.
Harry Belafonte was more than a talented actor and a gold record recording artist. He was a thinker and an activist. The blossoming entertainer was seriously concerned about his community and his country, the United States of America. This filmed documentary reflected on Harry’s activism and how close Belafonte became to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The film is peppered with amazing, historic clips of Belafonte marching arm in arm with Dr. King and a host of popular celebrities who Belafonte himself recruited. For instance, I viewed film footage of super stars like Marlon Brando, Tony Bennett, Anthony Perkins, Shelly Winters, Sidney Portier and too many more to list here. All were part of peaceful protest marches led by Dr. King. Along with Harry Belafonte, these Hollywood celebrities were lending their voices and star-quality in support of civil rights. Harry helped organize the march on Washington that featured Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Many people don’t know that Dr. King was arrested for a minor traffic infraction during his protest marches in the South. He was prosecuted in DeKalb County, Georgia and sent to serve time on a chain gang as punishment. The film documents how Belafonte went to Robert Kennedy and got the young politician involved. Belafonte introduced Kennedy to the terrible injustices that African Americans were facing in the 1950s and 60s. Due to Harry’s insistence, Kennedy arranged Dr. King’s release and the charges were dropped. Robert Kennedy also became a staunch supporter of the civil rights movement, thanks in part to the determined Mr. Belafonte.
The “Sing Your Song” documentary explains how Belafonte had short-lived success with a 1959 television show called “Tonight With Belafonte.” They included clips from the variety show where Harry featured a multi-cultural cast and showcased folks like the great jazz singer Gloria Lynn and the extraordinary folk singer, Odetta.
Harry Belafonte was the first black man to win an Emmy Award in 1960 for the Revlon Review on his Tonight With Belafonte Show.
During those days, an integrated television show was frowned upon. Advertisers immediately objected to the white and black mixed cast, especially the mix of white women with men of color. Harry Belafonte had a way of rubbing the entertainment powers the wrong way. Another time he stirred up controversy was when Petula Clark invited him to be a guest on her show. While performing a song together, she was filmed clutching Belafonte’s ample bicep in 1968. It was on her own Petula Clark television special and company executives and advertisers went absolutely berserk. It is sad to admit that only fifty-three years ago, we had such terrible prejudice and racial divide in our great country, and some of that continues today.
Belafonte fought for equal rights until his demise. He had the ear of great people like actor, singer, activist, Paul Robeson, Eleanor Roosevelt (wife of the 32nd President of the U.S.), Nelson Mandela (former political dissident and eventual President of South Africa), dynamic South African singer, Miriam Makeba, Senator John F. Kennedy (who would become President) and many more.
As a humanitarian, one of Belafonte’s endeavors was to assist gifted, but poor Africans. After visiting the continent, Belafonte established a non-profit that brought thirty or more African exchange students to America, so they could pursue educational opportunities. This popular organization actually sponsored the man who would become former President Barack Obama’s father. He was part of Belafonte’s humanitarian project. Who could have guessed that the senior Obama would bring forth a child who would later become the forty-fourth President of the United States?
Harry Belafonte fought for equal opportunities in the Hollywood system, targeting the motion picture industry, on-stage in theatrical venues, and worldwide. Despite being put on the ‘Un-American list’ during the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s, Belafonte never gave up fighting for justice and equal opportunities for all. During the film’s preview, I was hypnotized by the film clips that historically traced Harry’s amazing rise to fame in movies. I saw him acting with Dorothy Dandridge, Ethel Waters, Sidney Portier and Dianne Carroll. I watched him featured on the Ed Sullivan Show and enjoyed watching him sing and dance on the Cavalcade of Stars television production. Bellefonte established his own production company to produce, direct and hire people of color for movies.
It was Belafonte who came back to America from an African visit and inspired Quincy Jones and other hugely notable people to create a song, with the proceeds donated to fight poverty in that drought-stricken country. The result was the unforgettable hit record of “We Are the World.”
This is a documentary film that will open your eyes to, not only a man and his music, but to the depth of Belafonte’s activism. In later years, Harry Belafonte even tackled the difficult project of addressing gang violence in both the black and Latino communities of America.
After the film, there was a short Q & A period, with one of Belafonte’s children hosting the discussion. It appears Harry Belafonte has passed the spark of humanitarianism on to his children. In 2012, Gina Belafonte had been carrying on the work with gang intervention for over a decade.
Harry Belafonte received the National Medal of Arts in 1994 and in 2000, the two-time Grammy recipient was honored with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Awards.
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Harry Belafonte and second wife, Julie Robinson with children Gina and son, David. Other child is from the first marriage
Shari & Gina Belafonte with their father in 2003. – Photo by David Buchan/Shutterstock
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By Dee Dee McNeil
April 1, 2023
When Robert Kyle isn’t recording his own albums, he’s busy producing, arranging and playing on other people’s projects. For example, recently he recorded all of the saxophone and flute parts and created horn arrangements for the New Zealand based ensemble, ‘Groove Express’ on their hit release, ‘Amsterdam.’ The ‘Groove Express’ album surged up the Billboard contemporary Jazz Chart to number one. Recently, Robert also produced an album on iconic jazz pianist and vocalist, Betty Bryant to celebrate her 88th birthday titled, “Project 88.” Betty’s music is the opposite of contemporary jazz. She’s rooted in Kansas City blues and that project showcases Kyle’s diversity as a player and producer. Kyle can play it all.
In addition to recording with historic icons like Lou Rawls on his “Christmas Is the Time” album., Kyle performs regularly with a number of diverse and popular musicians including trumpeter, Tony Guerrero’s Quintet; pianist, producer Billy Mitchell; the Heartbeat Brazil group, and his own bands including work with his better half, pianist, singer Alyse Korn. They have recently released a new album titled, “Tuesday’s Child” on Robert’s ‘Dark Delishious Music’ label. Robert Kyle and Alyse enjoy playing instrumental Brazilian jazz, contemporary Latin arrangements, and their own original compositions. In fact, their recent project features several of their original compositions. Kyle’s original music has been recorded by Alessa, Betty Bryant, Bobby Zee, Zoe (Bob Soler), Leslie Paula, Miguel Gutierrez, Larry Williams, and Anna Estrada. Additionally, his compositions have been featured on television shows like “Earth Angel,” an ABC movie of the week, “White Hot,” the Jayne Mansfield Story, Miscellaneous shorts on The Playboy Channel, “the Young & Restless” and the ER television shows. In movies, his music enriched the Cinemax production, “Molly & Tina,” the film “Let It Be Me,” “Night shift” and a Walt Disney Picture titled “Giving Up the Ghost.” Additionally, his compositions have been used to enhance international commercials.
Alyse is also a composer. She wrote the opening tune on their “Tuesday’s Child” album. The composition is titled “Gratitude” and its warm, Brazilian arrangement wraps musical arms around me. She has a sweet voice that caresses the melody, singing along with the piano part at the top of the song, wordless, but emotional.
Unlike Robert Kyle, who was born and bred in the San Fernando Valley area of Los Angeles, Alyse was born and raised in Miami, Florida.
“My grandmothers were both classically trained pianists and my dad played trumpet. He was a real jazz aficionado who had an incredible collection of jazz LPs. My earliest jazz memory was listening to Monk. I used to dance to his music (Lulu’s Back in Town from the “It’s Monk’s Time” album), so my family nicknamed me Lulu. I was exposed to all this incredible music, not only from my dad’s albums, but also growing up in Miami, hearing Cuban bands and Puerto Rican bands, Jamaican music, Trinidadian music, you know, such a rich culture.” Alyse shared.
Drawn to the piano, Alyse Korn took lessons and started playing on stage at age fourteen with the local Mike Ramirez Big Band. She cut her teeth working with community college jazz bands who needed a piano player. While attending the University of Miami, she got calls to work in trio settings. One of those experiences was performing with Dr. Ed Calle, a Latin Grammy Award Winner for Best Instrumental Album and a reedman who is a five-time Grammy nominee. She also honed her craft working at various hotels, playing solo piano gigs. After earning her BM from the University of Miami in Studio Music and Jazz, she moved to Los Angeles and earned her MFA from Cal Arts in Jazz Piano performance. When California musicians realized she could play Salsa, Alyse found herself working with some of the most popular Los Angeles based Latin bands like Susie Hansen, Orchestra Opa Opa and Son Mayor. Additionally, the busy pianist was hired to play Brazilian music with Sonia Santos and Anna Gazzola for their Brasil Brazil shows. She also played with Jennifer York’s jazz quintet and toured Japan with contemporary jazz saxophonist, Sonya Jason. Alyse was featured on Chilean composer and guitarist Waldo Valenzuela’s contemporary jazz album titled, “The Light of the Sixth Sun.” Lately, Alyse and Robert have been performing with Brazilian guitarist, Valenzuela, and vocalist Téka. Below is a video from a recent performance with that band in Ojai, California.
Similar to Robert Kyle, Alyse enjoys composing and has contributed three songs to their new album release.
“Ron Miller, a former composition teacher at University of Miami, was the one that encouraged and inspired me to start writing. He became my mentor,” Alyse told me.
NOTE: Ron Miller was Professor Emeritus of Jazz Studies at the University of Miami. His compositions have been performed by iconic artists including Red Rodney, Pat Metheny, Ira Sullivan, Stan Getz, Joe Lovano, Billy Hart and many more. He is a published author: “The Music of Ron Miller,” a song book and his academic book, “Modal Jazz Composition and harmony Vol. 1 & Vol. 2”.
Robert Kyle spent a decade as the Musical Director for blues singer and actress, Linda Hopkins.
“Oh my God. It changed my life, really. When she first got back from performing on Broadway doing “Black and Blue” it was my first time really playing with her. That was 1991. We did a week at the Cinegrill and then after that she invited me to go to Japan with her, where we played at the Keystone Corner. Then, I went on my first European tour with Linda Hopkins in 1992. We did six weeks all over Europe, at summer festivals and clubs. From there on, I did pretty much everything she did, performing with her small band until 2005 to 2006. when she had a couple of small strokes. During that time, for six to eight years, we were doing this show called “Wild Women Blues” featuring Linda, Maxine Weldon, and Mortonette Jenkins. We played all over Europe. It was a great experience. It was more structured than the small band work. Linda Hopkins was a great lady! She taught me how to work with an artist, understand what they need and what they want and how to get the band to do what the band needs to do,” Robert Kyle reminisced.
Robert has found his way onto a number of stages playing his reed instruments. In the early 2000’s he participated in the televised Emmy Awards show. In 2003, he played as part of the band for the BET Awards Show, and he has also been a part of the ensemble behind the scenes of the popular television show, “The Voice.”
So, how did these two diverse musicians get together? Alyse recalled the first evening they had a meeting of the minds.
“It was June of 2014. I was working at Picana Grill in Burbank with the artist, Alessa, who sings Brazilian music. I noticed that Robert’s name was on their charts. Alessa said Robert Kyle was going to come by the club that night and sit in with us. Later, he quietly slid up on our stage and started playing. We had a great musical connection and after the gig I suggested we go hear friends who were playing at a nearby restaurant in a Cuban band. Rob said, yeah, I’ll go,” Alyse recalled.
“That night we discovered we have a lot in common. In addition to jazz, we enjoy Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music. I thought that was very special,” Robert chimes in.
The pair would soon find they had even more in common. Kyle was a private reed teacher and Alyse loved working with youth. She taught classes for ten years under the umbrella of the Suzuki Institute of America, offering her Childhood Music Program for Young People ages zero to four-years-old. Her job with Suzuki Institute took her all over the United States, Canada and Brazil. She also enjoys mentoring teens in jazz piano. Additionally, the couple discovered they both leaned towards using their music to heal and calm the spirit. Robert discovered Yoga in 2002 and told me it really changed his life.
“It healed my chronic back pain. … Entertaining can take a toll. We’re not only playing and performing, but our job involves a lot of driving, plus loading and unloading gear. Yoga has really been helpful to me, as a practice, and with my breathing,” Kyle was enthusiastic when he spoke about Yoga.
Alyse Korn chimed in: “I introduced Rob to the Alexander Technique. That was one thing that brought us up here to Ojai, where we live. We’d come up for getaways and Alexander lessons with our teachers, Michael Frederick and Carol Prentice,” she said.
NOTE: The Alexander Technique is taught at Juilliard School of Performing Arts in New York, at the Royal College of Music in London, and the Boston Conservatory of Music among others. Even the Mayo Clinic uses it. This technique addresses pain in our bodies and teaches how to remove it, based on having awareness of our body. Poor posture has a lot to do with it and changing bad habits and releasing tension in the body. It teaches how to become more aware of your body movements. Nikolaas Tinbergen, winner of the 1973 Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine, devoted a major portion of his acceptance speech to the benefits of the Alexander Technique. In the music world, it can help singers, pianists, horn players, violinists and all musicians.
I noticed on Alyse Korn’s website that she was an ‘Advanced Biofield Tuning Practitioner.’ I asked her what that was, and she explained it this way:
“So, I am certified in Sound Therapy. I use medical grade tuning forks that produce sound waves to calm the nervous system. You might compare it to a crystal sound bowl, have you seen those?” she asked me.
As a matter of fact, I had seen the Tibetan singing bowls. She told me she places the forks near the body, but they don’t have to be on the body. It is a method she learned from Eileen McKusick.
“The forks are similar to your normal tuning fork, but kind of on steroids. They’re bigger and thicker and they vibrate really much more loudly than the tuning forks we’re used to seeing and dealing with,” Robert shared his opinion on the tuning forks.
This is a picture of a tuning fork.
Alyse added, “It’s just a powerful approach to health and well-being and it helps in relaxing and restoring the nervous system.”
During the pandemic, that both petrified and paralyzed people worldwide, musicians needed something to replace gigs, relax and to occupy lockdown time. Alyse and Robert found solace in their music. During the COVID scare, they worked on songs as a duo.
“We chose songs that I would say are in the medium to slower vibe, because I think we wanted to express the way we felt, being out here in the more rural community of Ojai. There was so much craziness and chaos in the world. We started out just recording the album as a duo. We found a great studio in Carpinteria, California which is 25 minutes away, and we recorded the tracks. Somewhere along the way, we decided it would be fun and it would enhance the music if we added some musical friends to play on it,” Robert said.
Hussain Jiffry brings his bass to the party on “Vivian’s Danzon,” however it is Kevin Winard’s tasty percussive licks that wrap this package of Latin goodness with bright ribbon colors. Kyle’s exquisite flute dances stage center and captivates. Alyse Korn shows off her piano technique during a brief but provocative solo, with a couple of licks that remind me of the Thelonious Monk style. I was surprised when Robert told me they had added the other musicians to the mix by internet downloads. The tracks actually sound very natural, as if the group is playing in the same space together.
Track #3 (“Your Light”) is a lovely ballad with beautiful changes. Korn’s piano tinkles in the upper register and teases our senses as an introduction. It makes me want to lean forward to hear what’s coming next on this Robert Kyle composition. Kyle wrote this song to capture the grace and kindness he finds in Alyse, his wife. The title tune, “Tuesday’s Child” has an intriguing melody and the harmonics that Kyle has in his head are magical and completely on display during this arrangement. It’s just the two of them, and together, this husband-and-wife team, project a feeling of tranquility, love and peace of mind.
“There’s a lot of turmoil in the world today. We hope that when people listen to our music, they will feel the peace that we feel when we play it,” Alyse explains their musical point of view.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
I first met Maxine Waters in the early 1970s. That’s six decades ago. At that time, Maxine and her three siblings, Julia, Luther and Oren, were a popular background singing group, often called into studios across Los Angeles to add their magical voices to projects by legendary artists like Michael Jackson, (they worked on the “Thriller” project) Paul McCartney, Guns N Roses, Whitney Houston, (they sang on the film soundtrack of ‘The Bodyguard’), Adele, (adding their tight harmonies to her “21” album) Barbra Streisand, George Harrison, Bobby Womack, Julio Iglesias, Donna Summers, (on the Bad Girls Album), Lionel Richie, Teena Marie, Rod Stewart, Rick James, and the list goes on and on. Maxine and her sister, Julia, are the background voices who sang on Diana Ross’s farewell record, as the diva waved good-bye to the Supremes singing the Johnny Bristol produced hit record, “Someday We’ll Be Together.” Maxine and her siblings are multi-generational voices who are excellent no matter the genre. Maxine and her sister, Julia Waters, famously toured with Neil Diamond. They joined his band in 2005, singing along with background singer, Linda Press and added their strong voices to the Neil Diamond stage. They toured Europe with Patti LaBelle on her first solo tour. In 1991, it was their magnetic harmonies that sang with Paul Simon on his historic concert in Central Park.
When I was a publicist at A&M Records, one of the record company’s smokin’ hot acts was singer Gino Vannelli. Julia and Maxine Waters sang behind his big hit, “I Just Wanna Stop.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z8e1SjBHSUM (video of that Vannelli song)
Their impressive vocal talents made them an on-demand, self-contained, duo or, when their brothers joined them, a tightknit group. Their silky, smooth vocals have added to the recordings of Johnny Mathis, Natalie Cole, Neil Young, Katy Perry and Harry Styles.
I had an opportunity to talk with Maxine Waters-Willard recently and I asked her when she first became a backup singer.
“Well, you know when we came up my mother always gave us music lessons. So, I play piano and I play cello too. Luther and Oren both play cello and Julia took singing lessons. Anyway, Julia was the first one to get called in to do a recording session. I don’t know how she managed that. As I recall, a lady named Dorothy Berry who was married to Richard Berry (his Louie Louie song and all that) do you remember him?” she asked me.
Of course, I did remember him and that 1957 hit record, “Louie Louie, we gotta go” started rolling around in my head.
“Well, Richard Berry’s wife called Julia to sing. Oh, this was way back in the sixties. Dee Dee, we sang on “You Lost that Lovin’ Feeling” with Phil Spector producing. We were part of a choir of voices including Sonny and Cher, Darlene Love and Edna Wright. Our cousin Wilbur Wade was on that session. It was so far back, I can’t remember all the details, but Julia got me on that session and word of mouth started from that experience. Suddenly other people were calling us. Julia and I were singing around town.”
“Nobody remembers this guy, Dee Dee. His name was Jimmy Holiday. He had a song called New Breed,” Maxine sang a little of the song to me and I remembered it right away.
“He started asking us to back him up during his live show at the California Club. That was the time when Joe Tex was popular. Remember he had that hit song and they used to have the Skinny Leg contests?” (we laughed).
“That was actually not a recording session, but our first ‘live’ stage stuff that we did with Jimmy Holiday at the California Club. Then, we started getting calls for recording sessions. I worked for the phone company at that time. And it got to the point where I had so much work singing, I couldn’t lie about why I couldn’t come to work anymore. Because you know, I would call in sick when I had a session,” Maxine Waters recalled and we both burst into laughter again.
“And then at night, I was going to college to be a kindergarten teacher. That’s what I really wanted to be for most of my life. I didn’t get anywhere close to getting there, but I was on my way. Then I got that opportunity of going on tour with Dusty Springfield. That was a hard decision to make, but I had to choose. I did a recording session with Dusty, and she was putting together her backup group. Me, Alex Brown, and Shelly, the three of us went on tour with Dusty. I let my job go and college. That was my first tour on the road.”
Lorena, the mother of Maxine Waters encouraged her to take a chance on singing. She knew her daughter was talented and told her she could always get another job when she came off tour. Their mother was widowed at the young age of twenty-seven with four young children to raise alone. Her husband was a Lieutenant in the United States Army and was killed during the Korean War.
“Luther Napoleon Waters Sr. was a first Lieutenant,” Maxine proudly told me. “He was up for the next commission when he died. Our father was a career service man. That’s why our baby brother was born in Japan. It was unusual in those days for a black man to be an officer. The last time I saw him, he moved us to L.A. when I was four. We lived on 115th off San Pedro and Avalon. This was before Locke high school was built. I went to Freemont high school and I was President of my class and Homecoming Queen in the eleventh grade. I was popular and always liked people. My mother sang and was a church soloist at the church we grew up in. It was a Presbyterian church on 118th street in Los Angeles. Later, I was Minister of Music for eight years at my church. I attended Vermont Square United Methodist Church, located on Vernon and Budlong streets. Tina Marie and I were really close. She was baptized at my church,” Maxine recalled fondly.
Everything around Maxine Waters played like music falling perfectly into place. Her life was spiritual, adventurous, exciting, international, harmonic, and lucrative. More and more doors opened. Maxine’s voice is heard on one of the longest-running sitcoms on television, (The Jefferson’s sitcom) and it is Maxine’s family voices that croon “You’ve Lost that Loving Feeling” on the Righteous Brothers’ hit song produced by Phil Spector. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uOnYY9Mw2Fg Righteous Brothers produced by Phil Spector
They sang on the motion picture “Avatar” (the 2009 release), that became one of the highest grossing films in Hollywood history. When record producers wanted to fatten the sounds of well-known artists, they knew who to call: The Waters girls or The Waters group! Their voices were added to the Jackson 5 hit records “Who’s Lovin’ you?” and “Never Can Say Goodbye.”
But their harmonic voices didn’t just color and lift pop and R&B songs. Maxine Waters did jazz sessions often, adding choral beauty to projects by Gene Harris (of the Three Sounds fame), drummer extraordinaire, Chico Hamilton and vibraphone master, Bobby Hutcherson. At that time, those were all Blue Note Record artists, and that exposure swiveled the heads of United Artist/Blue Note executives. They noticed these popular background singers.
“At first, we were doing work separately. My brother Oren was in a group called the Doodle Town Pipers. He was singing around with them, and Julia was singing with a group called Rock Flower. We were all doing different stuff, including studio sessions. Keg Johnson, a producer at Blue Note, said why are you guys running around doing all different gigs? Why not do a group project? Keg produced all those acts on Blue Note for Dr. George Butler, and he hired us to sing on jazz tracks. He’s the one who encouraged us to record as a group. Keg says, why don’t you just call yourselves The Waters?”
With Johnson’s help, they landed a record deal with Blue Note Records in 1975 called “Waters.” They were the first jazz vocal group ever signed to that label. This was followed by a deal with Warner Bros. Records in 1977 as The Waters, and Clive Davis at Arista Records signed them to his label and released “Watercolors” in 1980. The Waters family were on a roll, doing their own concerts and promoting their own records. Their final record deal was with Waterwheel Records in 1988 titled, “Welcome Home.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RdQQ63dpPMc (The Waters)
During this prolific time, while becoming frontline artists, Maxine and her family members continued to work as session singers.
“We sang on several jazz artist albums like percussionist Coke Escovedo, Shiela E’s uncle. We did two albums for him. We recorded with Santana and were blessed with a gold album off one of the two Carlos Santana Albums. ‘Amigos’ was one of them. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lUwCUITkGwo&list=OLAK5uy_llsg5uABSZbQar_JmcdGNugyM1UQgORUs&index=1
“We worked with Quincy Jones and recorded two albums with Herbie Hancock when David Rubinson was producing him and producing Patti Labelle. Rubinson produced our album “Watercolors” too. We actually had started another album for Clive Davis because Larkin Arnold was over there. Songwriter, producer Skip Scarborough was producing it. But Larkin Arnold was changing labels and leaving Arista. We got caught in the middle, so Skip never completed production of that album. In between touring, we recorded on a Bennie Maupin album and do you remember when Willie Bobo and Lola Falana were on the Bill Cosby’s television variety show? I worked as one of three contracted, permanent, background singers on that show. Marti McCall, me and Julie Rinker.
“When I think about jazz, I think about Patrice Rushen and Ndugu. We worked with them. I always think about Reggie Andrews when I think of Patrice and Ndugu. Reggie and I grew up together from five years old on. He and his family went to my church. His mother was my Brownie and Girl Scout troop leader. We also worked with great drummer, Alphonse Mouzon and we sang on Merry Clayton’s latest Christian album that was nominated for a Grammy. You can see us with Merry on Youtube if you type in NPR TINY DESK With Merry Clayton,” Maxine told me.
Merry Clayton and The Waters group were featured in the 2014 Oscar Award winning documentary, “20 Feet From Stardom.”
I asked Maxine Waters what she is doing currently.
“Dee Dee, one of the things we’re doing now, we did multiple podcasts talking about working with Michael Jackson because they re-released that album Thriller a couple of months ago to celebrate its 40-year success and the greatest selling album of all times,“ Maxine told me. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BufGPHMGrEk (the Thriller Podcast featuring the Waters)
“Just before the COVID lockdown, Neil Diamond retired and that ended our long-time association touring with him. Julia and I have been travelling with him for years. His life story is doing very well as a Broadway musical right now. I’m so proud of him. I hope it comes to L.A. It’s called ‘Beautiful Noise’ a title taken from one of his songs.
“Another thing we’ve been doing is recording with a huge group called ‘The Fallout Boy.’ They’re a rock group. My grandchildren immediately knew who they were. Also, we worked on that 50th anniversary for the Good Times television show. Oren is the one who originally sang the duet on their theme song. They had a choir of young singers and they put me, Oren and Julia in there with them. We really had a wonderful time singing with those young singers. When we work with the young vocalists, they want to know all about the music history. This young generation, they really absorb everything. I’m glad they’re interested. I give them little tips. I say ok you guys. Just stay in the cute zone if you want to work a long time. It’s true. That will keep you on the scene. You have to look the part and sing the part.”
Maxine Waters has taken her own advice. She still looks great and her voice is as strong as ever. Her Altadena home is full of awards, trophies and gold records. Now, semi-retired, she is resting proudly on her laurels and thinking about writing down her legacy in an upcoming biography.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
January 1, 2023
Tuba master, Jim Self, has a new album out titled “My America 2: Destinations” that incorporates songs with American city, state and area titles that were formerly hit tunes in their day. This is not a unique idea for Jim. His original album titled “My America” was released twenty-years ago as a novelty album, and celebrated songs that were associated with Americana like “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad” and “When Johnny Comes Marchin’ Home Again.”
“It featured songs from the various parts of the country where I had lived and worked. I asked composer, arranger Kim Scharnberg to write the charts. At the time, he was working in the Los Angeles area. … Musically, it covered a lot of styles from Dixieland to Country to silly and humorous. Kim has a brilliant musical sense of humor and command of styles. Each tune had a slightly different group of musicians, all L.A. top studio guys,” Jim Self affirmed.
The first song of this new album opens with his tuba sounding like a freight train plowing down the tracks and setting the mood for a song we know quite well, “Chicago.” The arrangement is once again by Kim Scharnberg and brings back the Ragtime jazz-feel of the “Roaring Twenties.” Self and Scharnberg open with this tune because Chicago was a city whose jazz scene greatly influenced Kim Scharnberg early in his career. This was the biggest city near to where he grew up. Scharnberg employs a Dixieland arrangement that mirrors the early jazz style that tugged at his creative ear and mirrors a retro-ish version of a wild ride on the ‘L’ train.
“This CD is dedicated to my life-long friend, Daniel Perantoni. We met as members of the tuba section of the US Army Band in 1965. I looked up to him for his great playing and beautiful solo tone,” Jim Self recalled.
“Today, he is Provost Professor of Tuba at the Jacobs School of Music, Indiana University. … Mr. P., as his students call him, is a legendary tuba artist, teacher and pedagogue, as well as a trailblazer in a variety of genres including work as a solo recitalist, chamber musician, jazz musician and instrument designer. He was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the executive board of I.T.E.A. … My life has been enriched by his friendship,” Jim Self bragged about one of his mentors and close friends.
This is Self’s twentieth solo recording where he features his prowess on tuba and Fluba instruments. In 1983, Jim Self produced his very first album titled “Children at Play.” Featuring his unique jazz tuba and a harmonica. This album received world-wide acclaim. On his second recording, (1988) he dived into fusion jazz. This recording was called “New Stuff” and was birthed as a CD on the popular Discovery-Trend label. “Tricky Lix” was his third album, released on Concord Jazz label, and the music just kept pouring out of Jim Self like honey from the cone.
“I get to play melodies and improvise in the low register of my instruments and play them with emotion and beauty. It’s a very personal quest!” Jim expounds with genuine excitement.
On Track 2, Jimmy Webb’s “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” becomes a quick favorite of mine. This ballad gives Jim Self time and space to introduce us to his talented tone on his rich, bass instrument. Jim Self pleasantly recalled this song in the liner notes.
“I have fond memories of this lovely song from my days on the road as a bass player,” Self remembers when he used to play both string and electric bass instruments.
Jim Self and arranger, Kim Scharnberg, surprise us on Track 3. It’s titled Kansas City, but it combines two different songs of the same title. The medley begins with the Richard Roger’s song, at a moderate tempo, plaintively singing the melody from the Rogers & Hammerstein Broadway version of Kansas City. About a minute into the arrangement, Scharnberg borrows a lick from the duck-walking-artist, Chuck Berry, to introduce us to the familiar shuffle arrangement of Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s version of Kansas City. The Los Angeles based band takes off and swings hard!
“This tune shows off the swing and shuffle grooves the best. While there are lots of solos, the rhythm section of John Chiodini, Steve Fister, Bill Cunliffe, Lem Wild and Kendall Kay are the stars here,” Jim Self asserts.
Jim has performed on several Randy Newman albums, and he loved the idea of including Newman’s iconic song, “I Love L.A.” into his project. On it, Self plays his cimbassos in F and BBb with Bill Booth adding euphonium parts and Brian Kilgore spicing things up on percussion.
Jim Self has made Los Angeles his home-base for forty-eight years and he knows all these contributing musicians like the back of his hand. As an on-call studio musician, Jim Self has worked for all the major Hollywood studios, performing in over fifteen-hundred motion pictures and on hundreds of television shows and a vast assortment of recording dates. His solos are featured in major films you are probably familiar with including Jurassic Park, Home Alone and Home Alone 2, among several others.
When you listen to this recent release that celebrates the United States and American music traditions, you will hear a variety of arrangements and styles. Another of my favorites on this album is the medley of music he calls “King of Route 66” that’s a lovely swing arrangement combining two pop classics; Route 66 (of course) and “King of the Road.” They blend deliciously, like toast and butter. “Blue Bayou Bossa features Ron Stout on trumpet and Tom Peterson on tenor saxophone and the arrangement perfectly melds the tune Blue Bossa with Blue Bayou. Jim Self has included one song he has composed. It’s titled “S.L.O. Blues” a piece inspired by the tiny but beautiful California town of San Luis Obispo where he has a vacation home. His neighbor, rock guitarist Steve Fister plays an outstanding solo on this tune.
Jim Self is past president of I.T.E.A., a former faculty member of the University of Tennessee and a former member of the United States Army Band. A native of Franklin, PA, he was born in 1943 and holds degrees from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, Catholic University and he is a Doctor of Musical Arts from the University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music. There, he continues to be an adjunct professor of Tuba and Chamber Music. His educational credits are dynamic and impressive. Self was voted the Most Valuable Player Award for Tuba on three occasions by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). He is also brilliant on bass trombone, cimbasso, contra-bass trombone and at times in his impressive career has played both string and electric basses, as well as the Steiner EVI (electronic valve instrument). On this project, he will introduce you to his talents on the Fluba instrument. If you can, picture a tuba-sized flugel horn, you will have an idea of what the Fluba looks like. Self is also the author of the chapter titled “Doubling for Tubists” in the Tuba Source Book. An energetic musician, composer and arranger, Self has written about sixty titles for brass, string and woodwind chamber music. His arrangement charts include works for band, orchestra, solo tuba and trombone.
Jim Self is another musical hero in our Southern California community whose horn needs to be tooted. “My America 2: Destinations” is a musical journey across America, but it’s also a unique way of taking us on a trip into possibilities and creativity. Every tune Jim plays becomes a closer look into the beauty and potential of the tuba, the Fluba and the man himself.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
December 1, 2022
California is the home of exceptional jazz musicians and vocalists. Many amazing recordings were released this year. I invite you to check them out and reacquaint yourself with the magnificent international talents who live right here in our own California backyard. These recordings will make great stocking stuffers and support local musicians! I celebrate recordings by guitarists Jim Witzel’s Trio & quartet, Doug MacDonald, & Grant Geissman. I review vocalists, Nica Carrington, Cathy Segal Garcia, Tierney Sutton, Carmen Lundy, & Roberta Donnay. You will also read about The Skipper, Henry Franklin with Robert Turner and Carl Burnett; Oscar Hernandez and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra; Reed master, Azar Lawrence and the historic recording of the Dave Brubeck Trio. I also recommend The Josh Nelson Bob Bowman Collective who reminds us tomorrow isn’t promised and The Scott Whitfield Jazz Orchestra West sends us postcards from Hollywood and the album Hubub by Bay Area pianist Ted Kooshian. Enjoy. I list all the players, because it takes all of these brilliant musicians to create these unforgettable projects.
JIM WITZEL TRIO & QUARTET – “FEELIN’ IT” – Joplin & Sweeney
Jim Witzel, guitar/composer; Brian Ho, Hammond B-3 organ; Jason Lewis, drums; Dann Zinn, tenor saxophone.
Bay area guitarist and composer, Jim Witzel, offers the listener a combination of his modern jazz compositions and a handful of cover tunes including “I Love You, Porgy” and “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.” Inspired by a group of guitar players who he labels, ‘the Great Eight,’ Witzel grew to love the guitar listening to Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, Kenny Burrell, Joe Pass, George Benson, Pat Martino, John Abercrombie and Pat Metheny. Seasoned and strong in his own talent and style, Witzel opens with the swinging, title tune, “Feelin’ It.” He’s the composer. It sets the tone for his energetic Straight-ahead music style. Jim’s trio follows up with “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” that also ‘swings’ hard, inspired by the Sonny Rollins and Jim Hall version. Witzel lets us catch our breath when he performs the Lennon/McCartney hit song, “Norwegian Wood,” arranged at a moderate tempo with his guitar singing the lovely melody. Witzel has a warmth to his style and a precise technique that brings clarity to any melody before exploding with improvisation. He grew up in San Rafael, California and started practicing guitar as a preteen. In high school, he began to study jazz guitar with well-known Bay Area educator and artist, Dave Smith. Jim Witzel spent a decade in the Los Angeles area, paying dues freelancing with notable jazz players like Bob Sheppard, Scott Colley, Henry Butler, Richie Cole, Casey Schuerell and Clay Jenkins. At the same time, he was working clubs and concerts with busy saxophonist Dave Lefebvre and his six-piece jazz-fusion group.
This new album features Witzel’s awesome composer talents. His song “Beyond Beijing” sounds like a jazz standard and so does “Ms. Information,” inspired by Wayne Shorter. This is another hard-hitting, Straight-ahead jazz tune, clearly rooted in the blues. This arrangement invites Dann Zinn to competently explore his tenor saxophone after a rousing solo guitar performance by Jim. This original composition by Witzel also spotlights the talents of Jason Lewis on drums. I enjoy the camaraderie between Brian Ho on Hammond B-3 organ and Jim Witzel. One of this reviewer’s favorite things is an organ trio and this one is spectacular. I love the way they have arranged “If Ever I Would Leave You” as a Bossa Nova that gives Brian Ho a platform to shine and showcase his organ excellence. The tender, passionate way that Jim Witzel plays “I Loves You, Porgy” is stunning and memorable. As he plays a clean, clear melody line, he accompanies himself on rhythm guitar. Witzel’s style and technique sparkles, clearly showing us he needs nothing more than his guitar instrument to both entertain and please our ears. Every tune on this album is well-played, beautifully arranged and Jim Witzel’s original compositions are well-written and remind me of hard-bop days in a very wonderful way.
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NICA CARRINGTON – “TIMES LIKE THESE” – Independent Label
Nica Carrington, vocals; John Proulx, piano/arranger/producer; Chuck Berghofer, bass; Joe Labarbera, drums.
It’s pleasant to hear a voice so pure, so clear and unpretentious. Nica Carrington brings a freshness to old standards, starting with “Skylark.” With the accompaniment and arrangements of pianist John Proulx, they begin as a duet and the other musicians join in later. Carrington offers no vocal acrobatics or intricate riffs and runs. She just sells the song. As a child, Nica Carrington was infatuated with Frank Sinatra and his wonderful way of lyrically telling stories. She has incorporated that quality into her own style and presentation. Her honesty shines through on tunes like the obscure Mal Waldron and Billie Holiday composition, “Left Alone” and the more familiar, “When Sunny Gets Blue” or “We’ll Be Together Again.” Carrington has been a long-time jazz fan for years. Before the COVID lockdown, Nica Carrington began taking vocal lessons. She had always wanted to sing, but finally decided to hone her naturally beautiful voice. Once teacher and student could no longer meet in person, she went Online looking for a Plan B. That’s when she discovered L.A.’s very own, John Proulx.
“He’s so supportive and encouraging, so I took a chance and asked him if he would work with me on an album. It turned out to be a great move,” Nica mused.
Proulx became her arranger and producer for this project, bringing on board the wonderful Chuck Berghofer on bass and renowned drummer, Joe LaBarbera. Both are popular L.A. session musicians who have worked with people Nica Carrington had only heard on records. Berghofer has played with Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Peggy Lee and even Carrington’s favorite, Frank Sinatra. Labarbera was a member of the Chuck Mangione Quartet and has worked with jazz icons like Jim Hall, Phil Woods, Art Farmer and Toots Thieleman, to list only a few. The awesome thing about working with John Proulx, he is not only a gifted pianist, but he’s an amazing vocalist himself with several albums to his own credit. So, surrounded with this trio of historic excellence, Nica Carrington plunged into the work of creating her own jazz legacy. The one thing I love about Nica Carrington’s voice is her warm intimacy and her truthfulness when she sings these songs. She’s vulnerable. This is a voice you will remember and the old standards she sings will make you believe you are hearing these songs for the first time.
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DOUG MACDONALD – “I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS” – Dmac Music
Doug MacDonald, guitar; Tamir Hendelman, piano; John Clayton, bass; Jeff Hamilton, drums.
Doug MacDonald’s quartet rejuvenates an old tune called, “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” MacDonald’s guitar is beautifully supported by three of the top musicians based on the West Coast; Tamir Hendelman on piano, John Clayton on bass and Jeff Hamilton on drums.
This quartet’s interpretation of Duke Ellington’s bluesy “I Got it Bad (and That Ain’t Good)” unfolds like shiny Christmas paper. Their lovely musicianship is the present wrapped inside all that glitter and glam. On “Don ‘Cha Go ‘Way Mad” they shuffle down the road, slow swinging their way along, while happily dragging the listener by the ear. John Clayton takes a bass solo, concentrating on the melodic structure with his bow sliding against the strings in a stellar way. When Tamir comes in, with his funky, blues-driven solo piano, his excellence is prominent. Doug MacDonald is no newcomer to the music scene. He has over two dozen album releases as a bandleader and his crisp, individualized style on guitar always appreciates the melody. This is obvious on these nine well-produced songs. On the composition, “My Ship,” the quartet surprises us with an up-tempo Latin version of this song, highlighting the brilliance of drummer Jeff Hamilton. Another highlight of this album is Doug’s original composition “New mark” where the group settles into a rot-gut blues introduction that snatches my attention and takes the music all the way back to its roots. I was so happy that MacDonald chose to include his original and celebrate the blues. Then, he changes the groove and swings his way into another key and another groove that steps out of the blues and changes into a straight-ahead groove, perfect for swing dancers to enjoy. Clayton’s walking bass locks into Hamilton’s driving drums and the party is on!
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SPANISH HARLEM ORCHESTRA – “IMAGENES LATINAS” – Ovation Records
Oscar Hernandez, piano/arranger/Musical Director; Marco Bermudez, vocals/coro/composer; Carlos Cascante, vocals/coro; Jeremy Bosch, vocals/coro/flute; Jerry Madera, bass; Jorge Gonzalez, bongos; George Delgado, congas; Luisito Quintero, timbales/maracas/güiro; Mitch Frohman, baritone saxophone/flute; Juan Gabriel Lakunza & Doug Beavers, trombones; Alex Norris & Manuel “Maneco” Ruiz, trumpets.
I always know I’m going to have a good time when I listen to an album by the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, led by the awesome pianist and orchestra leader, Oscar Hernandez who is based right here in Southern California. The Spanish Harlem Orchestra is culturally rich, energized, and powerful. Their music just simply demands you feel joyful. Led by composer and Musical Director, Oscar Hernandez, this three-time GRAMMY winning Spanish Harlem Orchestra honors the tradition of great Latin music. They are one bright light of the salsa reconstruction movement. Some of my favorite tunes on this album are composed by Oscar Hernandez including the melodic “Romance Divino” with voices and harmonic horns telling the story with gusto. The percussion is driving and demands you take to the dance floor. Jorge Gonzalez on bongos, George Delgado on congas and Luisito Quintero on timbales, maracas and Guiro pump the band with excitement. “Como te Amo” is a slow, beautiful mambo composed by Hernandez with lyrics by Marco Bermudez. “Mambo 2021” is another Hernandez original with a wonderful baritone sax solo from Mitch Frohman. Another favorite is Track #10, “Mi Amor Sincero” co-written by vocalist, Marco Bemudez and Gil Lopez.
Here is an all-star band of musicians who put spice and authenticity into every note they play. The Hernandez arrangements are superb, and the repertoire is uplifting, happy and sincere. You will play this album more than once and come away smiling broadly every time.
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GRANT GEISSMAN – “BLOOZ” – Futurism Records
Grant Geissman, 1966 Epiphone Riviera guitar/tambourine/shaker/composer/1965 Gibson SG guitar/ 1966 Martin OO-18 acoustic/1954 Gibson Les Paul goldtop; Jim Cox, Hammond B3 organ/piano/ Wurlitzer elec. piano; David Garfield & Emilio Palame, piano; Russell Ferrante, Fender Rhodes electric piano; Trey Henry, upright bass/1968 Fender Precision bass; Kevin Axt, upright bass; Ray Brinker & Bernie Dresel, drums; Tiki Pasillas, congas/timbales/shakere; Kevin Winard, congas/bongos; Robben Ford, 1954/1959 Gibson Les Paul conversion guitar; Josh Smith, FlatV1 guitar; Joe Bonamassa, 1952 Fender Telecaster elec. Guitar; Randy Brecker, trumpet; Tom Scott, tenor saxophone.
Guitarist Grant Geissman winds back time with his “Preach” tune, that ambles on the scene, straight out of the 1960’s music era. Geissman is even playing a 1966 Epiphone Riviera guitar. Randy Brecker adds his more contemporary trumpet solo to the mix, and it works! The song, “Side Hustle” is another throw-back tune. There was a dance craze in the 1970s (The Hustle) that took the country by storm when Van McCoy had a big hit record of the same title, “The Hustle.” It was played in every discotheque across the globe. The Hustle was a so-called ‘Line’ dance, similar to the Electric Slide and the Wobble, contemporary dances that are popular today. Grant Geissman has composed all the music on this album, borrowing from various varieties of the blues. You’ll hear everything from Rock-a-Billy to ‘Down-home’ blues. On “Time Enough at Last” he slides into a more jazz fueled blues. Then on “Fat Back” We’re back to 1970-style blues. Geissman adds Tom Scott to the mix on this one to pump more soul into the tune. This is a retro album that turns back the hands of time to when soul music and jazz locked hands with the blues and groups like Les McCann and Eddie Harris soared to popularity. You may recall the tune Mercy that raced to the top of the charts. Geissman also incorporates the 1950s and 1960s rhythm and blues grooves into his compositions. It’s a nice blend of “Blooz” for his album of the same title. This is an album rich with history, funk, nostalgia and just plain fun.
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ROBERTA DONNAY – “BLOSSOM-ING!” – Village Jazz Café
Roberta Donnay, vocals/producer/co-arranger; Mike Greensill, piano/arranger; Ruth Davies, bass; Mark Lee, drums; José Neto, guitar; David Sturdevant, harmonica; MB Gordy, percussion.
At the first phrase of “Roberta’s Blues” I hear the tone and phrasing that brings to mind jazz vocalist, Blossom Dearie. This is an album that celebrates Ms. Dearie’s music using the talent and creativity of Roberta Donnay. She has a similar, little-girl innocence to her vocal presentation, one that Dearie always exhibited. Award-winning Roberta Donnay has released this, her tenth album to remind us of the iconic Blossom Dearie and her jazz legacy.
Donnay is more than just a vocalist. As a composer, she was recognized by the prestigious ASCAP Composers Award for her song, “One World” selected as a world-peace anthem for the 50th Anniversary of the United Nations. She frequently performs with the Prohibition Mob Band, a swing dance band that portrays, with costumes and music, the era of speakeasies back in the 1920’s and 1930s. Her “Bathtub Gin” EPK exhibited this side of her musical repertoire.
“Blossom-ing!” is a fresh labor of love for Donnay, who features a similar vocal style as her predecessor, but adds her own sassy tone and bluesy interpretation to this repertoire.
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AZAR LAWRENCE – “NEW SKY” – Trazar Records
Azar Lawrence, tenor/soprano/Alto saxophones/composer; Munyungo Jackson, percussion; John Beasley, keyboards/composer; Sekou Bunch, bass; Tony Austin, drums; James Saez & Gregory Moore, guitar; Greg Poree, acoustic guitar; Destiny Muhammad, harp; Nduduzo Makhathini, piano; Lynne Fiddmont, Calesha “Bre-Z” Murray & Oren Waters, vocals.
I have been a fan of Azar Lawrence’s music since the early seventies. He has been consistently creative and innovative for half a century. This production is no exception.
“All of my skills … gathered throughout my career, have been a journey and all of these energies that have been acquired throughout that journey are coming together in a focused manner. This new album expresses that,” Azar writes in his liner notes.
Opening with “All in Love” Azar mixes cultural influences, lending his saxophone sound to a minor melody and improvisation that embraces Middle Eastern roots. Munyungo Jackson lays down his always creative splash of percussive brilliance and a feature solo by guitarist James Saez is both exciting and provocative. Azar Lawrence has composed or co-written all the tracks. Track #2, “Peace and Harmony” becomes a platform to spotlight the exceptional musicians Azar has included on this project. John Beasley executes a flurry of dancing notes on keyboard and Sekou Bunch is featured on a notable bass solo. “New Sky” is a more contemporary arrangement featuring vocalist Lynne Fiddmont singing lyrics by Tiffany Austin. Tony Austin’s drums put the funk in place and Azar Lawrence uses his saxophone talents to put the ‘J’ in jazz. His mastery of reed instruments is upfront and obvious as he plays alto, soprano and tenor saxophones on this project. Azar’s also a competent composer. Songs like “From the Point of Love” are a beautiful blend of contemporary jazz mixed with Lawrence’s haunting saxophone that sometimes reminds me of something Yusef Lateef would play. On “Birds are Singing” Azar’s horn mimics the beauty of bird calls, trembling fluidly across space. Another favorite on this album is the closing tune, “Revelation” that lasts eight minutes and is closer to the bebop, straight-ahead jazz I love to hear Azar Lawrence play.
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CATHY SEGAL-GARCIA & PHILLIP STRANGE – “LIVE IN JAPAN” – Origin Records
Cathy Segal-Garcia, vocals/composer; Phillip Strange, piano.
This is a project recorded nearly thirty years ago, (1992) but it’s still fresh and exciting. The ‘live’ performance shows off the very best of Cathy Segal-Garcia’s range and style. It also features the wonderful and inventive piano playing of Phillip Strange. It’s a 2-CD set, opening with “I’m In the Mood for Love” where Cathy sings the original melody, with quite a few of her own twists and complimentary turns. The song arrangement quickly stretches to embrace James Moody’s famous rendition (Moody’s Mood for Love). This is a jazz duet that is fresh and complimentary with both artists innovative and improvising on musical themes spontaneously. After all, that’s what makes jazz so wonderful. The freedom it reflects and the intricacies of transforming the music into something fresh and new can be quite exciting. For example, they play “You’ve Changed” as an upbeat Latin number. I enjoyed their take on “When You Wish Upon a Star.” The two musicians, offer us twenty-three songs in this double CD set. Cathy is constantly playing with time, stretching meters like taffy, but you can clearly hear the sweet comfort level and warm camaraderie between these two musicians during this ‘live’ performance.
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DAVE BRUBECK TRIO – “LIVE FROM VIENNA 1967” – Brubeck Editions
Dave Brubeck, Piano; Eugene Wright, bass; Joe Morello, drums.
I got so excited when this album came across my desk, because I saw the photo of Eugene Wright on the cover with Joe Morello and Dave Brubeck. This photograph brought a bright smile to my face. I remember singing many a night with “The Senator” (as we fondly referred to Eugene Wright) with Karen Hernandez on piano at a small club called The Money Tree in Southern California. That was many years ago, when I was a working jazz vocalist. What an extraordinary bassist he was! in the press package, we were reminded ‘The Senator’ was the last surviving member of the Dave Brubeck quartet until December 30, 2020.
This historic album was recorded ‘live’ in Vienna back in 1967 and is the only available album that features Dave Brubeck in a trio setting. What an extraordinary rhythm section! It seems that Paul Desmond got distracted the night before, when he hung out with a friend in Hamburg, Germany and missed their morning flight to Vienna. As a trio performance, these iconic musicians are given plenty of space to solo and show off their amazing talents individually.
“I think, if our dad were alive to hear this Brubeck Trio recording now, he’d be flashing his famous, big smile. He would be extremely proud to hear how, more than half a century ago, he, Gene and Joe got thrown a curve ball and knocked it out of the park!” Chris Brubeck said of this historic musical treasure.
It is absolutely awesome to hear Dave Brubeck and his trio perform in their tight, cohesive way. Without the horn, Dave Brubeck explores and embellishes each piece they play with rich improvisation and elongated technical brilliance. This is an unearthed treasure. It belongs in every jazz collector’s portfolio.
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TIERNEY SUTTON – “PARIS SESSIONS 2” – BFM Jazz
Tierney Sutton, voice/arranger/co-producer; Serge Merlaud, guitars/arranger/co-producer; Kevin Axt, basses/co-producer; Hubert Laws, flutes.
This “Paris Sessions 2” album was recorded over two days at Val d’Orge Studio in the City of Lights and during the pandemic lockdown that took over a million American lives. Tierney and her new husband, Serge Merlaud, open this album as a duo, with Jobim’s “Triste” lighting their fire in Latin brilliance. Tierney Sutton’s voice dances around the tune, improvising with scat whispers. With an international audience in mind, she sings these lyrics in Portuguese. Track #2 takes a lyrical turn towards the French roots of Serge Merlaud. It’s a unique medley combining the composition of Vernon Duke and Yip Harburg, (“April in Paris”) with Joni Mitchell’s “Free Man in Paris.” The familiar “April in Paris” is arranged as a very slow ballad, giving Tierney Sutton time to taste each poignant lyric from the 1932 Broadway musical, Walk a Little Faster. It’s a delightful medley with the unexpected Joni Mitchell flavor added like pepper to the slow boiling stew.
Their duet work continues on the Gershwin song, “Isn’t It a Pity (we never ever met before).” These lyrics perhaps mesh with the duo’s corresponding life path. Serge Merlaud’s guitar-fills are beautifully placed between the lyrical Sutton vocal interpretations. Merlaud is a sensitive and technically astute player. Their entire quartet makes its appearance on Jobim’s tune, “Zingaro” and features Hubert Laws on alto flute. This is a precious merging of Tierney’s high soprano notes that tinkle warm against the richness of Hubert’s flute. Tierney Sutton offers this fifteenth album release as a leader. She has dedicated it to the memory of the late Marilyn Bergman, who passed away in January of 2022. Other Bergman songs she has included are “Cinema Paradiso/I Knew I Loved You,” an Alan and Marilyn Bergman composition with Ennio Morricone, “Moonlight” which the married songwriters wrote with John Williams and “A Child is Born” where the Bergman’s collaborated with Dave Grusin. Tierney and Serge are playful on “Pure Imagination,” where their musical comfort with each other continues to be palpable. Tierney scats her way through Serge Merlaud’s arrangement of “Doralice,” letting her voice double with the guitar. She also uses vocals to set the bass line and establish the tempo, before Kevin Axt enters with his own superb bass support. The solo by Hubert Laws flies through space like a wild and beautiful bird. Serge Merlaud takes time to showcase his own unique interpretation of this familiar standard during his brief but power-packed guitar solo. “Paris Sessions 2” is so well-played I didn’t even miss the drums.
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HENRY FRANKLIN, ROBERT TURNER & CARL BURNETT – “3 MORE SOUNDS PLAY RAY CHARLES”- SP Records
Henry Franklin, bass; Robert Turner, piano; Carl Burnett, drums.
This is my kind of trio, bluesy and swinging! These three incredibly talented musicians have chosen to celebrate the unforgettable brilliance of Ray Charles. Well, to do that you have to be able to play the blues, drenched in gospel, and also know how to swing. No problem! Each of these players are more than proficient in doing just that! Opening with “Let the Good Times Roll,” this trio splashes on the scene with confidence and credibility. You have to be amazing players to pay tribute to the legendary Three Sounds, a jazz group originally comprised of Gene Harris, Bill Dowdy and Andy Simpkins. These three gentlemen were some of my favorite jazz musicians on the planet. Franklin, Turner and Burnett wave the “swing” flag brightly and precociously. Each is a master musician and technical expert on their instrument. Just listen to their take on Ray’s “Unchain My Heart” or “Hit the Road Jack,” flush with gospel flavor, straight-ahead arrangements, and solid jazz swing. When they play, “Georgia” I am captured by the dexterity and deep, blues inuendoes that Robert Turner plays on the piano. What a wonderful and uniquely talented pianist he is!
Henry Franklin has long been a mainstay of jazz bass in the Southern California community. At age eighteen, he was the bassist with the now historic Roy Ayres congregation.
“Roy had the Latin Jazz Quintet that included Bill Henderson (piano), sometimes Elmo Jones on piano, me and Carl Burnett (drums),” Henry recalled.
Henry has worked with Billy Higgins, Willie Bobo, and was part of the Hugh Masekela ensemble that recorded the historically famous “Grazin’ in the Grass” hit single. He recorded with Stevie Wonder on the “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants” album and recorded with Gene Harris for Blue Note’s “Soul Symphony” release and “Live at the IT Club.” Franklin has toured with jazz nobility like Freddie Hubbard, Archie Shepp, O.C. Smith, Count Basie and Al Jarreau, just to name a few. He continues to be an in-demand, Southern California-based bandleader and sideman.
Carl Burnett, the drummer in this 3 More Sounds group, has also experienced an illustrious career and is based right here in the Los Angeles area. Carl’s drums have backed artists ranging from Sarah Vaughn, Freddie Hubbard, Billy Childs, Art Pepper and Eddie Harris to Marvin Gaye and O.C. Smith. He can be heard on albums by Horace Silver, Art Pepper, the Three Sounds, Freddie Hubbard and Kenny Burrell, among others. Together, these three very impressive gentlemen offer an album beautifully produced and exquisitely played to tribute not only Ray Charles, but the unforgettable memory and music of The Three Sounds.
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JOSH NELSON BOB BOWMAN COLLECTIVE – “TOMORROW IS NOT PROMISED” – Steel Bird Records
Josh Nelson, piano/composer; Bob Bowman, bass; Steve Houghton, drums; Larry Koonse, guitar; Bob Sheppard, saxophone; Clay Jenkins, trumpet.
Here is a group of musicians and close friends who have come together to create a project of beauty and depth. Bassist Bob Bowman first met trumpeter, Clay Jenkins in 1972 at North Texas. Shortly after, he made the acquaintance of drummer Steve Houghton and a little later, woodwind player, Bob Sheppard. As fate would have it, they all turned up in Southern California at about the same time. In Los Angeles, Bob would meet guitarist Larry Koonse. The young musician was still in high school. Eventually Bowman would meet and play with Josh Nelson. He felt an immediate connection to the pianist, and they talked about recording a duo album. All these years later, this group of seasoned jazz musicians and old acquaintances wound up in Talley Sherwood’s studio to finally make this album.
They open with the title tune, a pensive reflection on the times we live in. Josh Nelson is the composer and penned this tune during the challenge of COVID infections worldwide. Today, the beauty and blessing of living life continues to be challenged by war and rumors of war, political disparities and cultural changes. So, as he reminds us with this music, “Tomorrow is Not Promised.”
Josh said, “The title of the album seems more relevant than ever these days. …I strived to convey a sense of uncertainty and mystery, but also a feeling of determination and resolve.”
Bob Sheppard composed Track #2 titled, “Your Night Your Music.” It swings hard. “Sometime Ago” is a beautiful waltz and the tinkling beauty of Nelson’s piano magic leaps into my listening room, with Bob Bowman’s bass setting the pace and establishing the groove. When Bowman steps into the spotlight, his solo is innovative and imaginative. Larry Koonse has contributed his composition, “Blues for Albert E” to the project. Bob Sheppard’s saxophone interpretation puts a capital B in Blues and Clay Jenkins displays his bright talent on trumpet Bowman has written “Yae San” and plays the introduction a’ cappella. The arrangement on this tune embraces Asian influences, like the title. Koonse uses his guitar to pluck the recurring melody before soloing. The ensemble reinvents popular tunes like “Weaver of Dreams” where drummer Steve Houghton steps into a bright spotlight to display his talents and they arrange the familiar Miles Davis tune, “Blue in Green” in an unforgettable way, brightly featuring Josh Nelson and Bob Bowman. It’s got to be one of my favorite tunes on this album. You can tell that these musicians know each other very well and find comfort, inspiration and creativity playing together on this project.
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THE SCOTT WHITFIELD JAZZ ORCHESTRA WEST – “POSTCARDS FROM HOLLYWOOD” – Summit Records
Scott Whitfield, trombone/bass trombone/bandleader/arranger; Jeff Colello, piano; Jennifer Latham, bass; Kendall Kay, drums; Rusty Higgins, alto & soprano saxophone/flute/piccolo; Kersten Edkins, tenor & soprano saxophone/clarinet; Brian Williams, baritone saxophone; Tony Bonsera, lead trumpet/flugelhorn; Dave Richards, lead trumpet; Kye Palmer & Anne King, trumpet flugelhorn; Gary Tole & Ira Nepus, trombones; Rich Bullock, bass trombone. SPECIAL GUESTS: Pete Christlieb & Rickey Woodard, tenor saxophone; Dick Nash, trombone; Brad Dutz, percussion.
This project has pulled several favorite songs from motion picture scores and titled the project, “Postcards from Hollywood.” You will hear songs that became popular from films like Gone with the Wind (1940), Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961), and Cleopatra (1963). Prior to his arrival in Southern California, Scott Whitfield developed a keen interest in film soundtracks. He even wound up studying the art form at a UCLA Extension course.
“My goal with this recording is to pay homage to a cross-section of the greats, through the medium of my Jazz Orchestra West. Some of these themes will be very familiar to the listener, while others are much more obscure. In some cases, I stayed pretty close to the original concept of the piece. In others, the muse led me on a much more circuitous route,” he wrote in his liner notes.
The Scott Whitfield Jazz Orchestra West opens with “The Magnificent Seven,” a main theme from the movie of the same title. Kye Palmer makes a soaring statement on his trumpet solo and Kendall Kay is magnificent on drums. “Sally’s Tomato” from the “Breakfast at Tiffany” film is a warm, lilting, Latin arrangement where Jennifer Latham takes a memorable bass solo and Scott Whitfield’s trombone shines in center stage. Whitfield has included special guests in this production and familiar names on the Southern California scene like Rickey Woodard and Pete Christlieb on saxophones, Brad Dutz on percussion and Dick Nash on trombone. The bandleader has also built a band that celebrates the wealth of Los Angeles talent including respected names like Jeff Colello on piano, and Anne King playing trumpet and flugelhorn. Speaking of King, she plays beautifully while soloing during the “Tara’s Theme” arrangement as does Rusty Higgins on soprano saxophone. Other favorites on this album are arrangements of “A Time for Love” plucked from the “An American Dream” film. Kirsten Edkins offers a lovely tenor saxophone solo and Kye Palmer plays a mean flugelhorn. But it’s Whitfield who sparkles and swings in the spotlight on his trombone solo. With the strong bass support of Jennifer Latham on her upright instrument, Whitfield puts down his trombone and shows off his vocals, singing “Spellbound” from the movie of the same title. On “The Pawnbroker” Rickey Woodard plays with his usual soulful dexterity and emotional sincerity on his tenor saxophone solo. This might be my favorite tune on the whole album.
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CARMEN LUNDY – “FADE TO BLACK” – Afrasia Productions
Carmen Lundy, vocals/composer/arranger/ guitar/percussion/ keyboards/horn arrangements/backing vocals; Julius Rodriguez, piano; Matthew Whitaker, organ/keyboards/string arrangement/programming; Kenny Davis, acoustic & electric bass; Terreon Gully, drums; Curtis Lundy, acoustic bass; Giveton Gelin & Wallace Roney jr., trumpet; Morgan Guerin & Camille Thurman, tenor saxophone.
Lundy has composed and arranged all of the material on this album. She opens with “Shine A Light,” dedicated to the first responders and hospital workers who showed their selfless bravery during a time of worldwide health crisis. The melody is catchy and has a few challenging intervals thrown-in, they do indeed shine a light on her composing skills. Lundy has a way of mixing straight ahead and contemporary jazz. This first song is one of my favorites. “So Amazing” is very contemporary and Lundy’s voice uses its full range to sing the message with joy and competence. “Daughter of the Universe,” with its blues groove and strong bass line captures my interest immediately. I enjoy the way she doubles the vocals in specifics places and celebrates her alto voice range. This song and the one that follows, “Ain’t I Human” were inspired by Harriet Tubman’s famous “Ain’t I a Woman” speech. This was during Tubman’s struggle for freedom and equality, as not only an African American, but as a woman in a man-controlled world. The tune “Reverence” is another one of my favorites and is a referendum on privacy. Lundy’s lyrics float like colorful, revolutionary flags above chords that set a groove pattern beneath the flapping cloth of truth. This is music with a message and Carmen Lundy is a woman with a purpose and a strong creative opinion. She is also a visual artist. Ms. Lundy has designed the cover of her CD and hosted art gallery premieres of her paintings and sculptor work. As a multi-talented artist, Carmen Lundy is quite striking.
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TED KOOSHIAN – “HUBUB!” – Summit Records
Ted Kooshian, piano/electric keyboards/composer/arranger; Greg Joseph, drums; Dick Sarpola, double bass/elec. Bass; David Silliman, percussion; Jeff Lederer, tenor saxophone; John Bailey, trumpet; Katie Jacoby, violin; Summer Boggess, cello; Jim Mola, vocals.
Ted Kooshian is a pianist who grew up in the Bay Area of California and was greatly influenced by his band director in junior high school.
“In the seventh grade there was a new, young band director at our junior high school, who wanted t6o start a jazz band. He played an Oscar Peterson record for me and it completely turned me around. I immediately thought, man this is what I want to do!” Kooshian recalls.
Surrounded by his longtime friends and musical colleagues, Ted Kooshian opens with an original composition that he wrote back in 1992. The title tune, “Hubub!” struts onto the scene, swinging hard and introducing the listeners to each musician as they step forward to solo, beginning with John Bailey on a spirited trumpet solo. Jeff Lederer on tenor saxophone steps up to the microphone next. Jeff and Ted Kooshian are longtime buddies and Lederer has appeared on every one of Kooshian’s recordings. Next coms Kooshian, tickling the 88 keys and keeping the ‘swing’ alive and in your face. Dick Sarpola is a sensitive bassist who pumps his solo out of the double bass, spreading joy sweet as jam. Then comes Greg Joseph on trap drums, trading bars with the band members and showing off his skills. Ted Kooshian has composed all the music, with the exception of the familiar tune, “Somewhere.” He has contracted violinist Katie Jacoby who is a member of the Ed Palermo Big Band, which is a band Kooshian has been a primary member of for nearly thirty years. But jazz is not his only choice of music. Ted Kooshian has toured with rock icons, ‘The Who’ and has worked with Aretha Franklin, Chuck Berry, Blood, Sweat and Tears, Marvin Hamlisch, Edgar Winter, Sarah Brightman and II Divo. His musical sensibilities and reading skills have landed him in several Broadway orchestra pits including Mamma Mia, The Lion King, Aida, Come Fly Away, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Spamalot. Seemingly a musician for all times, this album celebrates his composer talents, as well as his piano skills.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
November 1, 2022
John D. Stephens has a quiet spirit, but inside his head is swirling with music. He’s a composer, arranger, producer and big band leader. Stephens plays a wide range of woodwind instruments including alto, tenor, soprano and baritone saxophones, flute, clarinet and bass clarinet. Born in Beaumont, Texas, he grew up twenty minutes away in the small town of China, Texas. It was there, he started out as a member of his high school band, playing saxophone.
“In Texas, I played with Rhythm and Blues bands and because we were near the Louisiana border, right there at Lake Charles, I played some Zydeco and French music too and some Delta blues,” John told me.
“My mom played piano, and I had a brother who was a bandleader. There were six boys and a girl in my family. My dad was killed in an automobile accident in Texas when I was five. About three years later, my mother re-married and I had a wonderful stepfather. Consequently, our family grew. As a teenager, I was playing tenor saxophone in the high school band and around town. When I graduated, I joined the Marines and they dropped me off in San Diego, California. I had signed up for a four-year commitment. I had another friend of mine from Beaumont, Texas who joined the Marines around the same time. He got out a month ahead of me and he convinced me to go to school for music at Cal State Northridge. I had been playing in the United States Marine Corps Band for those four years and I was ready to expand my knowledge and get my B.A. music degree.”
John Stephens took to Southern California like a duckling to water. Beaumont and China, Texas had been small ponds, but here he was at the foot of the Pacific Ocean and swimming around with all these big fish.
“One morning I was getting ready for college and my phone rang. I got a call from an unfamiliar voice. He said, your friend, Grover Mitchell suggested I give you a call. I need a baritone sax player for my band and we’re about to go on tour. Well, I stood there in shock. The voice wanted to know if I was available. I couldn’t believe my ears when he told me who he was. It was Count Basie! I told him that I had promised my mom I’d finish college before I went on the road. Mr. Basie said he understood and respected me for respecting my mother’s good advice. I’ll never forget that call, as long as I live,” John reminisced.
Stephens had roots with R&B music back in Texas, and with his degree finally in hand, the first major tour he joined was as part of Marvin Gaye’s aggregation.
“Marvin Gaye’s tour was the first major group I had ever worked with. It was on the 1976 “I Want You” tour, playing in the band with folks like Leslie Drayton, David I, and Nolan Shaheed. Eventually, here comes Buddy Collette and Gerald Wilson stepping into my life along with Teddy Edwards. They became my mentors. Gerald Wilson was teaching the history of Jazz at the college. That’s where I met Ernie Watts. Ernie Watts sat next to me in the Gerald Wilson band. I was a little slow on my horn and one day Ernie took his hand and hit me on the leg and said, ‘Come on man. Let’s go.’ He said it firmly, but in an encouraging way,” John laughs recalling that moment.
John Stephens admits that the study of music and working with so many iconic big bands was awe inspiring. He loved the big band sound, their intricate harmonies, the swing, and the charisma of so many musicians blending together to make beautiful music. He was hired by the Gerald Wilson big band, Buddy Collette’s band, and Benny Carter’s band. John was infatuated with orchestration, and he was good at writing it.
“I worked with a guy once who knew I could write orchestration and he knew I was struggling to get in the business. He had an inroad into Solar Records. At the time, Leon Silvers was producing artists over there like Shalamar, The Whispers and Dynasty. Leon would cut the rhythm tracks and give them to my friend. He’d run them over to my house for me to orchestrate, with the promise that I would get arranging credit. I also contracted some of those sessions, but I never got credit for those orchestrations or arrangements. Live and learn. I guess you could say I was a ghost-orchestrator.
“I started a big band to showcase my composer and orchestrator skills. I actually play all the saxophones, and I was always a good reader, but not such a great improvisor. I didn’t get the gig calls that I wanted. After a while, I said, I’ll start my own big band and feature my own orchestrations. Today, I’ve got so many charts I’ve written and I’m grateful to the lord who gave me time to do this.
“I’m dedicating my time and energy now to keeping my current project going as a musician and bandleader. The John Stephens Big Band is working on a new project, “Songs & Tunes of My Mentors.” It’s an album concept. Currently I have two singles from that album that I released in October,” John explained his current project.
I listened to his two singles. One is titled “Come On In” that he arranged and composed. It’s a Latin-tinged song with a fluid tenor saxophone solo by guest artist, Rickey Woodard and a trumpet solo from Dr. Bobby Rodriguez. Drummer, Lance Kellogg propels the piece, and the horn arrangements are warm and act as a plush, harmonic cushion for the melody to bounce upon. The other single is titled “It’s You” and it’s a big band arrangement featuring a Buddy Collette composition. Once again, Lance Kellogg mans the drums and the tune swings hard, in tribute to the extraordinary talent of my friend and mentor, the iconic Buddy Collette.
John Stephens & Buddy Collette from the John Stephens collection.
What a blessing for John Stephens to have worked with music masters like Buddy Collette, Gerald Wilson and Benny Carter. I asked him about his time playing with Carter’s band.
“Benny Carter was such a gentleman with his music. I did four tours with him to Japan. On one trip I got to hang out with Dizzy Gillespie. Also, Marlena Shaw was on that tour and the Little Giant, Johnny Griffin. Wow. I was thrilled! We did a gig at the Hollywood Bowl that featured Cleo Laine and her husband John Dankworth, who played clarinet and was a magnificent arranger. We did two dates for the Playboy Jazz Festival and on one of them, Ella Fitzgerald was the headliner of Benny’s band. We played first and Benny played his alto. After a while, they introduced Ella and she came out and started talking to the hushed audience about losing her eyesight. She was going blind and she shared that with her fans. Then she started singing and in the middle of the song she started literally shouting the song and Ella hit a note I’ll never forget. It was almost like a scream into the night.
“Anyway, all these people helped me along the way. They influenced me and mentored me and I’m grateful for every experience. That’s why I’m putting all this energy into my soon to be released album that tributes some of them,” John reminded me.
For more information about The John Stephens Big Band project, he is fundraising at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tLBSdkE8h6E
The Southern California-based musicians who are working on this project include: RHYTHM: Greg Poree, guitar; Yuko Mabuchi, piano; Trevor Ware, bass; Lance Kellogg & Al Threats, drums. SAXOPHONES: Mike Nelson & Cindy Lee Bradley, alto saxophone; Dave Thomasson & Derek McLyn, tenor; Dennis Kaye, baritone saxophone; TRUMPETS/FLUGELHORNS: Ron Barrows, Jeff Kaye, Curt Sletten, Bob Parino. TROMBONES: Les Benedict, Christopher Johnson, Dan Weinstein, George Thatcher. SPECIAL GUESTS: Rickey Woodard, tenor saxophone and Dr. Bobby Rodriguez, trumpet.
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CARMEN LUNDY FINDS VALUE IN THE ANCESTORS
By Dee Dee McNeil
October 1, 2022
Carmen Lundy is one of those productive people who is highly creative, gifted and artistic. Born November 1st in Miami, Florida, it didn’t take little Carmen long to discover music tantalized her ears. From day one, there was music in their house and she had a song in her heart. At Age four, her tiny fingers plucked out melodies on the household upright piano. Carmen’s mother was also full of song and a role model as the lead singer in a gospel group called “The Apostolic Singers.” Her auntie, Emma Teresa Miller, was a pianist for that gospel group, and she inspired Carmen to love the instrument. In fact, Carmen has always found value in lessons from the ancestors.
“My mother is the oldest of fifteen children and I am the oldest of seven siblings. When she wasn’t doing the eight-hour job-thing, my mother would do housekeeping on the side. The lady that she did that for was a classical piano player. That lady offered me piano lessons without having to pay for them. Mrs. Leslie Bloss was my first piano teacher. She also was Curtis’s first teacher,” Carmen referred to her famous brother, jazz bassist Curtis Lundy.
“I took lessons from Mrs. Bloss until I was about eight or nine; maybe ‘til the age of ten. From age twelve to about fourteen I studied piano with Mr. Poznanski. But pianist, Emma Miller, my mother’s sister, was throwing down the gospel stuff from the time I was four or five. That’s probably where I picked up playing piano, from watching her. I never studied with her. I was just amazed at her facility. You know, people always ask me who are your influences? And I have to say, a lot of them are people the world doesn’t know. They were the ones who showed me the music informally. My grandfather played guitar. My grandmother played the organ. An in-law named Joe Louis was somewhere in between B.B. King and George Benson. He had a mellow sound, but he could also ‘rip” on guitar. He would electrify the whole room. We were church going folks, and music was the salvation and expression that got us through another day,” Carmen told me about her musically inspired, youthful years.
After graduating from the University of Miami and moving from Miami to New York City, for nearly eighteen years Carmen Lundy acted as a clinician at the Betty Carter Jazz Ahead Program. Betty Carter brought her Jazz Ahead program to the Kennedy Center in 1998. It has helped launch the careers of several of today’s stars, including Cyrus Chestnut, Kendrick Scott, Jason Moran, Jazzmeia Horn, Nate Smith, Arco Iris Sandoval, and Matthew Whitaker, among others.1 I asked Carmen Lundy about that exciting time in her life.
“Well, you know Curtis, my brother, gave that program the name Jazz Ahead while he was working with Betty Carter. She started the program at Brooklyn Academy of Music, up the street from where she lived. Dr. Billy Taylor became the Artistic Advisor of Jazz at the Kennedy Center and this was around the mid to late nineties. So, Dr. Taylor invited Betty Carter to bring her Jazz Ahead Program into the Kennedy Center in April of 1998.2 Betty Carter passed away in September of 1998. She had just gotten her foot in the door of the Kennedy Center, and she was gone. So, my brother, Curtis Lundy, came in and became the helm of Jazz Ahead that year. Curtis recommended me, because I think it made sense that there should be a female representation, since Betty had started it, and it just so happened that I was also a jazz vocalist.”
Of course, it also helped that Carmen Lundy had graduated from the University of Miami where she received her B.M. degree in studio music and jazz. She started out as an opera major but changed direction and became the first jazz vocal major at the University of Miami. Ms. Lundy had also been performing since her college days, first in Miami and then at jazz hot spots all over New York City. She reads music and is accomplished in composing and arranging. Not to mention, at the time of her appointment, she had record releases to her credit. Carmen’s credentials made her the perfect fit as faculty for Betty Carter’s program.
“Dr. Taylor was smart. He knew that the Kennedy Center people needed that credential like he had, so he invited Dr. Nathan Davis from the University of Pittsburgh to oversee the Jazz Ahead Program, along with me, Curtis Fuller and George Cables who were all part of the faculty. Then, the question became, where are we going to get these kids from? Where will we get these musicians? Betty Carter was handpicking everybody, so what do we do? We started a submissions program. Everybody was submitting from all over the world, and they were sending their cassettes with their bios and all that good stuff. We would sit there with boxes of cassettes delivered to our front door. We would have to listen to hours upon hours of submissions. In fact, that’s how I met pianist, Julius Rodriguez who’s on my CD and trumpeter Giveton Gelin and Matthew Whitaker on organ and keyboards,” Carmen credited some of the young musicians from the Jazz Ahead program as being part of her new album. Speaking of her new release, Lundy has composed and arranged all the material on her latest album, “Fade to Black.” She opens with “Shine A Light,” dedicated to the first responders and hospital workers who showed their selfless bravery during a time of the COVID worldwide health crisis. Her opening melody is catchy and has a few challenging intervals thrown-in for good measure. Melodically, these unexpected intervals do indeed shine a light on Ms. Lundy’s composing skills and vocal range. Carmen Lundy has a comfortable way of mixing straight ahead and contemporary jazz. This first song is one of my favorites. “So Amazing” is very contemporary and Lundy’s voice uses its full range to sing her message with joy and competence. “Daughter of the Universe,” has a blues groove and a strong bass line delivered by Curtis Lundy on the introduction. The bass line captures my interest immediately. Inside the song, Kenny Davis plays bass. I enjoy the way Carmen doubles her vocals in specifics places and celebrates her alto voice range. This song and the one that follows, “Ain’t I Human” were inspired by Harriet Tubman’s famous “Ain’t I A Woman” speech that reflected Tubman’s struggle for freedom and equality, not only as an African American, but as a woman in a man-controlled world. The tune “Reverence” is another one of my favorites and is a referendum on privacy. Lundy’s lyrics float like colorful, revolutionary flags above chords that set a groove pattern beneath the flapping cloth of truth. This is music with a message and Carmen Lundy is a woman with a purpose and a strong creative opinion.
Lundy’s latest recording is her sixteenth album release. She admits, getting record deals has been an up-hill struggle. Carmen Lundy shared her personal determination to succeed in the music business.
“It was 1978 when I moved to New York City. All the guys I went to University of Miami with were finishing school and moving to NYC. So, I did the same thing. But my goal was to make records. The first year I got there, I sang every weekend in NY for fifty dollars a night at a club called Jazz Mania. It was a loft thing and a gig for everybody. I met Kenny Barron there, Walter Bishop Jr., and an endless list of players. Day after day, I went to every major record company that was making jazz records. I submitted to every, last one of them and every one of them turned me down. As a matter of fact, the third demo tape I submitted to Columbia Records turned out to be my first record. They gave me a licensing deal. But they originally turned down the same record that they could have put out and helped me to establish myself in the 80’s.”
Carmen explained, “What happened was, Father Peter O’Brien was managing Mary Lou Williams for most of her career. Mary Lou Williams passed in 1981. I saw Mary Lou perform in summer of 1979 and in 1980. Father O’Brien read a Village Voice cover article about me in 1983 and he contacted me. He was doing a concert to honor Mary Lou Williams with Jon Faddis participating and he asked me to sing some of her music. After that, he took a shine to me and became my manager. So, Father O’Brien handled the whole thing with Columbia. He was the one who was smart enough to know what to do when they passed on me as an artist. He was the one who contacted Herb Wong at Black Hawk and that’s how I got that ‘Good Morning Kiss’ record released, through Father O’Brien. It was a distribution deal and stayed on the Billboard chart for weeks.”
With the guidance of Father Peter O’Brien, Carmen Lundy’s career blossomed.
“In part of Mary Lou’s Will, she requested that the legacy of her music be passed on to children. Father O’Brien asked me to teach Mary Lou’s Mass to young people. He was then the Chaplain at Fordham University. I went into the Parochial school in Harlem and hand-picked the voices to teach them Mary Lou’s Mass. I also worked with the Harlem Boys Choir and the New York Boys Choir. I acted as the soloist for anything that required a soloist in Mary Lou’s Mass, and I performed Mary Lou’s Mass for a good twelve to fifteen years. When Father O’Brien hooked up with Geri Allen, then Geri and I started doing the mass together. Before Geri, Marian McPartland was at the piano chair when we did it at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., with David Baker conducting. Mary Lou wrote two pieces based on Martin Luther King speeches. One of them is called, I have a Dream, which we all know. The other one she wrote is called ‘Tell Them Not to Talk Too Long.’ Those two, Father O’Brien commissioned me to write the chorale arrangements. I did, and we performed them in Los Angeles with the Master Chorale.
I asked Carmen Lundy what made her leave New York and relocate to Los Angeles.
“I moved to Los Angeles in the early nineties. I was burned out. The Crack thing, that epidemic, had decimated the New York Community. My manager at the time booked me on the Duke Ellington Broadway “Sophisticated Ladies” show that was Phyllis Hyman’s role. They had a National company and they had a European company. I ended up doing the European tour. That was a great way to know and live Duke Ellington’s music. The first run was twenty-nine shows without a day off. I had a six-month contract. I did make a record for a label called Arabasque. It was an independent label. When the record came out, it was around the same time I had moved to Los Angeles.”
“I came out to L.A. to visit my friends who had made their big hit in Ain’t Misbehavin’ with Nell Carter, Ken Page, Amelia McQueen, Andre DeShields, Charlayne Woodard, all the cast from Ain’t Misbehavin’. They were all coming back and forth, trying to get into film and TV out here. A lot of them did well with film and television. While visiting, I got sent on an audition by my agent in New York for a TV show and I got the part. They gave me a car, they gave me an apartment and a nice piece of change. So, I said, oh – L.A. isn’t so bad after all. Twenty-something years later, I’m still here.”
Although the television pilot Carmen shot never materialized, she settled into West Coast living and has continued to be productive as both a singer, actress and a visual artist. She also produces short films and in September she debuted her film, “Nothing But the Blood – The True Story of the Apostolic Singers of Miami,” at the Regal Theater in downtown Los Angeles. It’s a story of her Miami musical family.
As a visual artist, she has painted and designed several of her album covers, including this recent “Fade to Black” release. Her extraordinary art and multi-media sculptures will be featured as part of the upcoming “Shifting the Narrative: Jazz and Gender Justice” exhibit, opening at Detroit’s Carr Center on October 14, 2022. You can check out an eye-opening gallery of her visual art at her website: www.carmenlundy.com.
As our conversation wound down, Carmen Lundy offered these thoughtful words of wisdom.
“The beautiful thing is the value of a mentor. Having Betty Carter as a mentor, ok?! My mother as a mentor! Once you get here, it’s the result of your standing on somebody’s shoulders. Generations that are moving forward must regard and respect their ancestors for giving them everything that they can. It benefits us and enriches us. I just have to say, the value of what we do is on the shoulders of those who have walked this walk and carved this path for us.”
True to her own counsel, Carmen Lundy is doing the work, creating the art and offering opportunity to youthful talent by example, by teaching, by employing and by believing, as ‘the ancestors’ did, in the evolution and support of our blossoming, new generations.
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By Dee Dee McNeil
Sept 1, 2022
Not only is she Director of the Watts Towers Art Center Campus, Rosie Lee Hooks is also a gifted singer, a filmmaker, an arts administrator, photographer, educator, a first degree black belt in Tang Soo Do karate and the producer of the Annual Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival and producer of the Day of the Drum celebration. Currently, Rosie Lee Hooks is rolling up her sleeves to produce both festivals. They will celebrate 100 years of L.A’s treasured Watts Towers, singularly built by Simon Rodia and world renowned, these famous towers have inspired this Los Angeles County community art space.
I asked Rosie Lee Hooks what these Watts Towers festivals mean to her and to the community.
“Watts is truly amazing. Everybody talks about the rebellion of 1965 when they mention Watts, but the Watts community is rich in culture. We have the famed Locke High School, a facility that has mentored so many talented musicians like Patrice Rushen, Ndugu Chancler, Reggie Andrews, Raymond Pounds, two recent members of the Earth Wind and Fire horn section, Tyrese Gibson, Billy Preston, Musical Director Rickey Minor and so many more. Ever since I’ve been here, for the last twenty something years, I’ve been working hard to make sure people understand we are more than 1965. We deserve recognition for being an area where more artists, in all disciplinaries, have developed from this very Watts area.”
Rosie Lee Hooks has credentials as deep as the cultural roots of the Watts Community. It was Rosie Lee Hooks who produced the very first Central Ave Jazz Festival. This was during the time she was Director of Festivals and Gallery Theatre for the City of Los Angeles Dept of Cultural Affairs. She told me about that.
“You know I’ve done about twenty something films documenting culture here in L.A., to include many of the festivals like the Central Ave Jazz festival, the Mariachi Festival, the first three Cuban Festivals, the first three Puerto Rican festivals, the Armenian Festival and more. I’ve produced a lot of Festivals here in the City of Los Angeles and I’ve documented many of those festivals in film and put them on-line. They show on the Youtube channel.
“I had already started the jazz mentorship program and Mayor Tom Bradley, during his tenure, asked us to focus on music. He brought together educational institutions, commercial institutions, radio and private institutions. Mayor Bradley brought us together to say, we want to make ‘live’ music available to the constituency in L.A. and what can we do? What programs can you design? I was working for DCA, (Dept of Cultural Affairs) and we designed the jazz mentorship program.
“As you know, Los Angeles is full of master musicians, and they are the crème de la crème of musicians. So, we chose these masters to go into places where young people were. We focused on the youth, whether it was in schools, community centers, juvenile hall, or otherwise. We went to young people wherever they were, to bring them ‘live’ music with live musicians. When we asked the kids, have you ever been to a ‘live’ music concert, all the hands would go up, but we quickly discovered they meant ‘live’ on television. I said, no. ‘live’ where you can bring your instrument and play. We encouraged young musicians to bring their instruments and get on stage with Patrice Rushen, Buddy Collette, Ndugu Chancler, Nedra Wheeler and Bobby Rodriguez. That was our initial core that we started with. The first sessions were at the California African American Museum. They used to have a theater there called Kinsey Auditorium. It’s not there anymore. But the first four concerts were done there around 1992. After the Watts rebellion, they were not letting people congregate at all. Anytime black people or minority people congregated, there were helicopters buzzing and all of that. So, we invited a lot of the housing project community, and those young people were encouraged to attend with adult supervision. We did the first four jazz mentorship programs in association with the African American Museum. After that, we ventured out to those other schools and community centers. The program was also sponsored by the Musician’s Union. And when those funds dried up, we had to transition. We transitioned into that first production of the Central Ave Jazz Festival.
“I had all of those people from the Mentorship Program involved in producing that festival. I also filmed it. Documentation is important. June of 1996 was when it began. Again, the model was what I had already done while working at the Smithsonian Institution. We did have a panel on stage with Buddy Collette and Patrice Rushen as the moderators. We had Melba Liston on stage, Roy Porter, Clora Bryant, and Bobby Rodriguez. I conceptualized, developed and produced that festival based on what I was doing at the Smithsonian Institution (years before) and focused on the different aspects of black life in our community that included sacred and secular music, community activities, and the marketplace. We do a lot of things in the marketplace; cooking, hair braiding, woodcarving, all of those kinds of things, storytelling, things that are part of our life and allow us to express ourselves culturally,” Rosie Lee Hooks told me how the Central Ave Jazz Festival began.”
That festival was only one of more than three-hundred multi-cultural and multi-discipline festivals that Rosie Lee Hooks has produced, along with special events and various theatrical programs. Her Jazz Mentorship Program is now thirty-plus years old, and still growing with the goal of exposing youth to America’s indigenous and celebrated musical art form of jazz. In Washington D.C., she was employed by the Smithsonian Institution from 1972 to 1977, where she honed her talents in festival production and cultural activities.
“When I was working for Educational Projects and Research Corporation, I travelled domestically throughout the United States. When I went to the Smithsonian, I travelled for the International Department with an official passport to carry the official invitation from the Smithsonian and the United States of America to ministers of Institution in Africa, the Caribbean and South America. I worked directly with the Ambassadors of various countries; the Ministers of Culture in mostly West African nations including Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierre Leone, Gambia, Ghana and maybe a couple of others. I didn’t know where I was going, a little colored girl from Alabama, but I knew I was going somewhere. Every door that opened, I went through it.”
During those ‘walk-through’ years, she pushed open doors and was unafraid to explore new paths and opportunities. Rosie Lee Hooks shattered glass ceilings with her head held high. She is the first female Director of the Watts Towers Arts Campus.
Her early background was in Childhood education, working with Head Start Programs for youth, then moving to administration and producing. She was probably very comfortable working with children, because Rosie Lee Hooks grew up with twenty-three siblings. Her family was more like a tribe, based in Bessemer, Alabama. When she moved to Washington, D.C., she sang with the popular, award winning all female group, “Sweet Honey in the Rock.” Once relocating to California, she acted in movies like The Bodyguard, Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman and appeared on television shows like NYPD Blue. Believe it or not, acting came into her life because Rosie Lee Hooks wanted to overcome her natural shyness.
Always seeking ways to expand and share knowledge that uplifts her community, Rosie Lee Hooks came up with a unique plan to spread the word about jazz and jazz artists.
“Along the way, you know, I’d never seen a bookmark with black people on it, so wanting to disseminate information and leave something with those young people in our Jazz Mentorship Program, I started to design bookmarks. The first bookmarks were Buddy Collette, Patrice Rushen, Ndugu Chancler, Melba Liston, Billy Higgins, Horace Tapscott, Clora Bryant and Bobby Rodriguez. Each student was given a bookmark. Dorothy Donegan was one of them too. I remember taking Dorothy Donegan to Crenshaw High School with a young bassist, Nedra Wheeler. It was very interesting. Dorothy was a character. At the concert, Ms. Donegan started out with blues, playing piano, and then she put that leg up on the piano and kept on playing; then she went right out of the blues and into Rachmaninoff.”
I could hear the wonder and artistic appreciation for pianist Dorothy Donegan echoing in Rosie Lee’s tone of voice. I too have experienced Ms. Donegan ‘live’ and she was an unpredictable ball of talent that rolled across her spellbound audiences with energy and brilliance. What a blessing and an inspiration for those young people to experience that kind of genius in person, thanks to Rosie Lee Hooks.
Rosie Lee Hooks has received several prestigious awards. I asked her about the NAACP Image Awards that she has won.
“The first one, I think, was for 227. I created the role that Jacqui does on television. I created that role in a theatrical production and I got the Image Award for that role. Then, I got one for “Moliere’s Misanthrope.” The other one, “Knock Me a Kiss” was where I played W.E.B. Dubois’ wife. I received a Cast Award for “Knock Me a Kiss.” I think I’ve won three Image Awards out of five nominations,” Rosie Lee told me.
Her work has been honored with other Awards, including the Rainbow Award from the Los Angeles Women’s Theatre Festival. She has also received numerous Community Service Awards from the Black Hollywood Education and Resource Center, the Charles Drew School of Medicine Foundation, and in 2011 she was appointed a Southern California Freedom Sister by the Museum of Tolerance.
This year’s Annual Free Watts Towers Jazz Festival and Day of the Drum Festival are events that the whole family will enjoy. On September 24 through September 25, 2022, free Valet Parking will make the festival easily accessible from 10AM to 6PM.
“The Day of the Drum Festival is very special. It gives us an opportunity to pay tribute to traditional culture and will feature Aztec Traditional dancing, the One plus One Duo that’s a mix of Middle Eastern and Persian percussion, the La Bamba Collective, which is Afro and Puerto Rican drums and dance, as well as a tribute to drummer, James Gadson. Mr. Gadson is eighty years old now and he’s never really been recognized properly. So, we’ll be honoring Mr. Gadson and Munyungo Jackson is putting together that ensemble,” Rosie Lee explained about the Day of the Drum Festival.
“Our Masters of Ceremony will be James Janisse and Torrence Brandon Reese. The Simon Rodia Watts Towers Jazz Festival opens with a Yoruba Ground Celebration uniting all cultures based on common ground and principles. We’ll feature the prized Watts Willowbrook Strings, under the direction of pianist/producer/educator Billy Mitchell, who’s doing a wonderful job down here teaching them classical music. Since the Watts Towers were singularly hand-built by an Italian artist, we always include an Italian entertainer. This year it’s the wonderful jazz singer, Jasmine Tommaso. Also, singer Wendy Barnes will be here with the Influentials. We’ll have the jazz mentorship all-stars performing. Patrice Rushen will pull that together. The day will end with The Ark, founded by Horace Tapscott. Reed man, Michael Sessions is contracting that group. We’ll have a food court and a shopping area. Also, there’s a children’s area where we’ll be teaching people about native plants, succulents and doing mosaic tiling activities. Kenzi Shiokaza recently passed, but he was a big part of our Watts Towers Garden, and our garden art center was built around his work. The children will enjoy art projects and be introduced to our turtle pond where we house a twenty-year-old African tortoise,” the excitement in Rosie Lee Hooks voice is contagious.
I’ll see you at the Annual Watts Towers Jazz Festival, where you can meet Ms. Rosie Lee Hooks, strolling around the campus, like the perfect hostess that she is, making sure everyone is having a good time.
CELEBRATING LOS ANGELES LEGENDS: WASHINGTON RUCKER
By Dee Dee McNeil
Aug 1, 2022
WASHINGTON RUCKER is a name you may not have heard lately, but one we should never forget. He was born Washington Irving Rucker in Tulsa, Oklahoma on March 5, 1937 in a small room above a neighborhood grocery store. His maternal great grandfather was part American Indian Creek and moved to Washington, D.C. to become a professional translator for the tribe. He fell in love with the District of Columbia and named his son Washington. That name was passed down the chain of the Barnett Black Creek Freedmen to Washington Rucker from his great grandfather.
The young Washington Rucker developed a love for music and became infatuated with drums before he was five years old. It happened when he heard a bandmember in the famous Tulsa Booker T. Washington Parade band. They called the legendary drummer Crazy Red, but his given name was James Williams. Washington’s eyes became wide with excitement when he heard how the drums propelled that band. He used his mother’s cast iron skillet, a knife and a fork to mimic what he heard Crazy Red playing on those drums. Ms. Georgia Barnett indulged her son, seeing how happy he was creating rhythms. She had her hands full, because Washington Rucker was one of eight children.
Washington was taken under the wings of a world-renowned Tulsa drummer, Clarence Dixon, who saw his potential and inspired the young man. Dixon was voted the number two drummer in the world, right under Chick Webb, from 1937 to 1942. He taught Washington Rucker the basic elements of drumming. One thing he pounded into Washington’s head was belief in his own potential.
“You can take a pair of sticks and go anywhere in the world if you want to go,” Mr. Dixon promised.
Washington Rucker eventually became the drummer for that same Booker T. High School Band, the one that had originally drawn his four-year-old ears to music. It was 1952 when Cecil McBee, the clarinetist, invited sixteen-year-old Washington Rucker to play drums with him at Love’s Lounge in Tulsa. McBee knew about the young drummer because Washington attended junior high school with his sister, Shirley McBee, and everyone was talking about Washington’s mad talent on the drums. But playing in the Booker T marching band and playing a set of trap drums were two entirely different experiences. Washington Rucker said it was Cecil McBee who taught him how to play a back beat. He landed his first professional job in his teens, playing drums with a local bluesman, Jimmy “Cry Cry” Hawkins. They toured all over Oklahoma playing juke joints. After graduating high school, Washington Rucker joined the Navy. That’s where he discovered the “Navy School of Music,” and that opportunity redirected his life.
“So, I go to the Navy School of Music. There were 150 drummers, my name was 147, and I had to climb that high up. That’s when I really became a real musician, because I used to practice and study almost twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Didn’t hang out, didn’t do nothing, I just played in the band,” Washington Rucker explained to the Voices of Oklahoma Historical Society.1
Once out of the Navy, Washington Rucker spent time in Pennsylvania and Washington D.C. He relocated to Los Angeles in September of 1966. He had been living in Washington, D.C and was the house drummer for the famous Howard Theater. In that position, Washington, the drummer, pumped his rhythms into every well-known entertainer you can imagine from James Brown to Marvin Gaye; from Otis Redding to Chuck Jackson, Sam Cooke and Bobby Timmons. He played with the best of the R&B, Blues and jazz acts. When his marriage ended, Washington left D.C. and headed for the West Coast. One of his first gigs was at Dupree’s on 42nd Street and Avalon with Curtis Peagler on saxophone and Roy Brewster on baritone horn. Preston Love had heard good things about Washington Rucker’s drum skills from the bandleader at the Howard Theater. He knew Washington could read music and called him, asking if he’d like to tour with Stevie Wonder. In 1969, Washington went on tour with Little Stevie Wonder and became the drummer on Stevie’s first overseas gig. Washington told me he loved Stevie and thought he was a genius, but Motown’s money was short and their respect for musicians, in those days, was even shorter. When he returned to Los Angeles, Nancy Wilson’s Gal Friday called him and said Nancy had heard about him and asked if he would tour with her.
“Nancy paid four-times more money than Motown,” Washington told me.
“Don Trenner was her Musical Director. They had just fired Mickey Roker and Buster Williams. We went to Las Vegas for six weeks. I toured Europe with Nancy Wilson in 1970 and 1971. I also played at the Ambassador Theater with Linda Hopkins and Bradley Bobo on bass for that play, ‘Me and Bessie.’ I believe I was the first drummer to play with Linda on that gig. We also took that act to Europe,” Washington Rucker shared with me.
“I think Hampton Hawes was the best be bop piano player I ever played with. He called me up one day. Told me Jimmy Hopps had recommended me and told me to come over to his house to rehearse. I took a snare drum, a high hat and some brushes. He lived in East L.A. in what appeared to be a Latino area. His wife, Josie Black, was a Latino. He had a fake fireplace and up there on the mantle was a Presidential Pardon from JFK,” Washington Rucker remembered that meeting like it was yesterday, during an interview with John Erling, of Voices for Oklahoma .
When Washington Rucker asked Hampton Hawes how he got that Presidential Pardon, Hampton told him he’d had a drug problem and was sentenced to five years in prison. Hawes wrote to President Kennedy and reminded him of Howard Rumsey’s “Concerts by the Sea” a California Club where Hampton Hawes used to perform. John Kennedy often popped into that ocean jazz club to hear Hampton play. Hawes asked President Kennedy if he could help him. The result was, a month later, Hampton Hawes received the Presidential Pardon.
Washington Rucker has played with a variety of artists in every genre of music, from coast to coast. His credits include Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Stitt, vocalists Sherwood Sledge, Joe Williams and Maxine Weldon; the iconic Ray Charles, gospel artists Rev. James Cleveland and Shirley Caesar, and jazz trumpet master, Freddie Hubbard, to name just a few. He recorded with B. B. King and played on three or four albums with Big Joe Turner. Washington Rucker released one album as a bandleader called, “Bridging the Gap.”
When I asked him who were some of his favorite Los Angeles-based artists he told me, bassist, Larry Gales for bebop and Bradley Bobo was one of his favorites on the electric bass. He also praised pianist Randy Randolph.
Rucker added. “I really enjoyed working with saxophonist, Curtis Peagler too. I had my own quartet that featured Herman Riley on tenor saxophone and Art Hillary on piano.”
Washington lived for a while in Europe and this video was during a television special appearance on Romanian National TV.
1981 was the year he graduated from UCLA. He won the Frank Sinatra Award for Jazz and Pop music in 1981 and he started the Jazz for Wee People in 1981 to inspire youth and teach them the beauty and historic relevance of jazz. He taught at UCLA briefly, for two years and in 1998 Washington Rucker was inducted into the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame. The multi-talented Washington Rucker is also an actor. He studied acting, cosmetology and clothing design. He appeared in a movie called “Mob City” and he portrayed Papa Jo Jones in the Clint Eastwood film, “Bird.” As an author, he wrote a now, out-of-print biography titled “Jazz Road.” Here is a Los Angeles-based Living Legend of immense talent whose legacy must never be forgotten.
By Dee Dee McNeil
July 1, 2022
As a reviewer of jazz product, I am sent a number of CDs each week, featuring artists from all over the world. A plethora of the products are from the East Coast. Most of those CDs reflect a certain style and a music mode that is recognizably East Coast flavored. What I have seen, so far this year of 2022, is the variety and breadth of art that West Coast musicians record. Here are a few examples.
BILL ORTIZ – “POINTS OF VIEW” – Left Angle Records
Bill Ortiz, trumpet/flugelhorn; Matt Clark, piano/Fender Rhodes; Brian Jackson, piano; Carl Wheeler, Hammond B3 organ; Marcus Shelby, bass; Marc van Wageningen, electric bass; Dennis Chambers, drums; John Santos, percussion/lead & background vocals; Javier Navarrette, percussion/background vocals; Terrie Odabi & Christelle Durandy, lead & background vocals; Juan Luis Perez, Larry Batiste & Sandy Griffith, background vocals.
The first music arrangement of Bill Ortiz is robust and rolls out with the propulsive rhythm of Dennis Chambers on drums. He punches the funk into place. The ensemble introduces the Eddie Henderson composition, “Sunburst” and it’s a great way to begin this album. The trumpet of Ortiz announces the melody, like a breath of fresh air, and calls my ears to attention. The arrangement dips and dives, with interludes that calm the tempo until the drums kick back in and continue driving the piece forward. On Track #1, these musicians create a lovely blend of fusion, with the more traditional straight-ahead jazz sprinkled into the arrangement like spicy hot sauce. Bill Ortiz is one of the Bay Area’s most dynamic, multi-genre trumpeters.
On this CD, Ortiz has his feet solidly planted in several jazz styles. This is not surprising since he has spent forty-plus years playing a variety of musical genres. He toured for sixteen of those years with Santana and was part of that ensemble when they walked away with the multi-Grammy winning “Smooth” album. This is his first solo album since leaving the Santana group.
Bill Ortiz has recorded or performed with a long list of iconic names like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Chick Corea, Tito Puente, Pete Escovedo, Boz Scaggs, Buddy Guy and R&B stars like Tony Toni Tone, TLC, En Vogue and Destiny’s Child. Each of the ten pieces on this Ortiz album was chosen to become a vehicle that showcased the Ortiz personal voice on trumpet. He explained:
“…Music makes people feel something. I wanted “Points of View” to feature important pieces that have been overlooked or forgotten; songs I felt could document the sounds and artists that were important to me in forming my voice, while updating and bringing my personal style to them,” Ortiz said.
To assist him, Bill Ortiz has selected a stellar ensemble of musicians including the flying fingers of Matt Clark on piano. Clark is always innovative as a soloist and complimentary as a solid rhythm player and accompanist. You hear this throughout, but on Track #4, “In Search of Truth” a sweet and lovely ballad you will enjoy piano lines cascading like small waterfalls. L.A. based, Azar Lawrence, is on tenor saxophone and sings the melody in unison with Ortiz on trumpet. On Track #6, “A Toast to the People” written by Brian Jackson and Gil Scott Heron, they feature Terrie Odabi on lead vocals. She adds her special flavor to the mix and rejuvenates this Gil Scott Heron gem of a tune. Track #9 is a favorite arrangement of mine, composed by Wayne Shorter, and titled, “Oriental Folk Song.” It’s taken from one of my favorite albums by Wayne Shorter titled “Night Dreamer.” Azar Lawrence takes a star-studded tenor solo and the theme of “John Coltrane” is sung throughout in my head.
I also enjoyed Track #3, the Wilton Felder tune, “Ain’t Gon’ Change a Thang” that features another inspired solo by Lawrence with Bill Ortiz spicing it up by adding various effects to his arrangement. All in all, this is a delightful mix of talent and repertoire.
The mastery of Bill Ortiz on trumpet and flugelhorn is awesome and spellbinding. Perhaps Ortiz described his project best when he said:
“I like players who, like me, color outside the lines and strive for exciting interactions that make people listen and react, so that every time they play it, it tells a different story and goes to fresh, unheard places. I wanted these guys to play off each other and jump into the oblivion of the unknown. Afro Cuban music is a huge part of my life, and I welcomed genre greats like John Santos, who could inspire me to take that passion to the next level.”
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PETER ERSKINE TRIO – “LIVE IN ITALY” – Fuzzy Music
Peter Erskine, drums/composer; Alan Pasqua, piano/composer; Darek Oles, bass/composer.
The concert opens with an original composition by Alan Pasqua, “Agrodolce.” It’s sultry, pensive and drenched in classical music. Pasqua opens, playing solo piano for the first half of this arrangement. When the other two musicians join him, Peter Erskine’s brushes brighten the tempo and Darek Oles steps up to offer us a salty bass solo that’s both lyrical and relaxing. There is something comfortable and warm about this Peter Erskine Trio. The ‘live’ concert music draws me in and I feel like I’m seated front row center. Track #2 is titled “New Hope.” It’s another Pasqua original with a laid-back tempo, but beautifully written and played. “Old School Blues” struts onto the concert scene with Darek’s bass walking briskly beneath the groove. Peter Erskine lays down a strong, clean and sturdy rhythm, delicious as Italian red sauce on homemade spaghetti. I tap my toes along with his swinging beat.
This is an easy listening trio of jazz played by three iconic gentlemen and recorded before a ‘live’ audience in Camogli, Italy, on November 19, 2021. This was one of their concerts during a two-week Italian tour last year. It was the trio’s first tour after the coronavirus lockdown. The delectable menu, of mostly original compositions, features the pepper-hot drums of Erskine splattering across their arrangements, with both sticks and brushes. He takes several solo opportunities to sprinkle his talent over the captive audience. They reward Peter Erskine with appreciative applause. The legendary drummer has composed “Three-Quarter Molly” that gives a platform for Pasqua to showcase his piano skills. The tune “Turnaround” by Alan Pasqua is more energetic and tumultuous; a perfect platform for Erskine to thump, tap and tickle his drums. The percussion opens the famed Dizzy tune, “Con Alma” tap-dancing on skins that double time beneath Pasqua and Oles. Darek Oles spotlights his bass in a dramatic solo. As the concert comes to an end, their audience responds with explosive hand claps. The people demonstrate how they love what they hear, and I concur.
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ESTHESIS QUARTET – “ESTHESIS QUARTET” – Orenda Records
Dawn Clement, piano; Elsa Nilsson, flute/vocals; Emma Dayhuff, bass; Tina Raymond, drums.
I have to say, the opening tune, “Cricket” sounds more like a boxing match than a chirping cricket. However, I enjoy the energy and excitement that this all-female quartet produces. At the intro, Elsa Nilsson chirps like a cricket on her flute. But very quickly, Tina Raymond punches the drums in all the vulnerable spots and the staccato breaks remind me of gloves swinging and colliding with flesh. Emma Dayhuff solos on bass and the energy grows. Nilsson’s flute flies in a flurry of punches and I’m caught up in the splendid excitement these four musicians create. When Tina takes an extended drum solo, I can clearly see the two boxers duking it out at the end of the tenth round and then, boom! Knock-out! The tune abruptly stops.
“Two Moons” is track two and it’s moody and played sweetly on Elsa Nilsson’s flute. This arrangement is burrowed in thigh deep blues. The story behind the title is one that celebrates an American Indian Cheyenne chief. He traveled to Washington, D.C. many times to discuss and negotiate for the future of the Northern Cheyenne people. In fact, it is the man, “Two Moons,” who is featured on the American Buffalo Nickel coin. Dawn Clement is brightly featured on piano during this arrangement, shining with creativity. Clement and Nilsson have collaborated on the composition, “Partial” with Nilsson writing the music and Clement has penned the lyrics. Elsa Nilsson vocalizes this song.
The quartet’s name ‘Esthesis’ means elementary sensations of touch. They were formed as a creative support group during the pandemic. This project kept compositions coming and creative juices flowing during the awful COVID-19 lock-down. After spending several sessions together, using the Zoom app, the members headed to Los Angeles and recorded this, their debut album.
Dawn Clement is a Denver, Colorado-based pianist and educator. Currently she holds the role of Assistant Professor and Area Coordinator of the Jazz and American Music Department at Metropolitan State University in Denver. Drummer, Tina Raymond is currently Assistant Professor and the Director of Jazz studies at California State University, Northridge. Raymond blends traditional jazz percussion vocabulary with African polyrhythms and classical percussion techniques. You hear this powerful blending on the quartet’s arrangement of “We Watch It All Burn” written by Nilsson. Nilsson, who is now New York City based, originally came to the States from Gothenburg, Sweden. She is an adjunct professor at the New School Paul Rauch and performs regularly at various New York venues. Bassist, Emma Dayhuff, is a graduate from the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz Performance and only the fifth woman to ever participate in this prestigious program. Dayhuff lives in Chicago and is pursuing a DMA at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Illinois. She takes an extended solo journey during the “We Watch It All Burn” tune, exploring the full range of her upright bass and displaying her unique creative instincts. Raymond is by her side the entire time, fueling the solo piece with percussive intensity. The song ends, like someone just blew out a candle and the burn abruptly stops. Drummer, Tina Raymond, has composed “The Gardener” and it’s passive and precious introduction by Nilsson’s sensuous flute makes me want to gather my watering can and my spade, then venture into my own garden. There is a peacefulness to this quartet’s music. The sixth and final tune on this very enjoyable musical concert is titled “Finding What’s Lost.” This song tributes Elsa Nilsson’s father, who passed away and her journey to finding a path back to life out of grief. She vocalizes the melody, without words, using scat as her language and dancing above the track in melodic whispers. This album was released May 27, 2022.
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ADA BIRD WOLFE – “ODD BIRD” – Independent Label
Ada Bird Wolfe, vocals/composer; Jamieson Trotter, piano/musical director/composer/arranger; Dan Lutz, bass; Peter Buck, drums; Scott Mayo, saxophones/bass clarinet/flute.
Ada Bird Wolfe is a lyricist, composer, journalist and lover of jazz. On this, her third CD release, she has co-composed all songs with her musical director, Jamieson Trotter. They have worked together for several years and their comfort level is obvious during this production. “Odd Bird Bop,” their first tune, suggests that Ada Bird Wolfe and Jamieson Trotter are lovers of Bebop. It is reminiscent of Thelonious Monk’s style and something Charlie Parker might play and expand upon. Wolfe has celebrated jazz legends in the past, presenting concerts that included “Monk 0-Sphere,” another called “And the Word Was Mingus” and finally a tribute to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. This series of live shows was called “Giant Shoulders.” This current CD was conceived during the pandemic lockdown via ‘Zoom.’
Dan Lutz opens track two, “In the Shade” with his big, bad bass setting the mood, the tempo and the tone. This quickly becomes one of my favorites of these original compositions. It’s just Ada Bird Wolfe and the bassist, singing duo together. Very effective. It showcases the beautiful melody and the poetic lyrics. Lines like: “The taste on your lips, like the kiss that the blackberry brings” are beautifully written.
Joining Wolfe and Trotter are an A-list of Los Angeles musicians listed above. There is magic and excellence in every arrangement. As a former jazz singer myself, I can tell you that many of these compositions are challenging melodically like “Something Fast, Something Light” where Scott Mayo sparkles on flute. Peter Buck sings his own rhythmic and entertaining song on his trap drums.
Vocally, Ada Bird Wolfe exhibits a breathy singing style and often slides to the notes. Consequently, sometimes the notes get lost. That’s a shame because many of these original melodies deserve to be heard. “Ericolloquy” is a tribute to Eric Dolphy’s amazing talent and style. He is one of Wolfe’s favorite artists. Trotter’s piano solo is bright and exciting and his accompaniment is supportive. Their tune, “Ashes Ashes” was sadly inspired by the California wildfires. Ada Bird Wolfe studied several instruments, including piano, cello, guitar, saxophone and flute. Although I appreciate her poetic lyrics and Trotters wonderful arrangements, Ada Bird Wolfe is not a jazz vocalist. But I do think she is a talented songwriter. I would love to hear a serious singer interpret some of these songs.
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PECK ALLMOND QUARTET featuring ED KELLY – “LIVE AT YOSHI’S 1994” – Eastlawn Records
Peck Allmond, tenor saxophone/trumpet/producer; Ed Kelly, piano; John Wiitala, double bass; Bud Spangler, drums; SPECIAL GUEST: Kenny Brooks, tenor saxophone; R.J. Spangler, co-producer.
Yoshi’s is one of the most popular and historic jazz clubs in Northern California. Peck Allmond is multi-talented and plays trumpet, saxophone and flute. If that wasn’t impressive enough, Allmond is often in demand for his valve trombone talents, clarinet and bass clarinet mastery. This is an historic album, tracing back to 1992 when Peck made a move from the Bay Area to Brooklyn, New York. As a competent band leader and composer, he quickly became a highly sought-after sideman. A year later, on July 5, 1994, Allmond returned to the San Francisco Bay Area to perform at the famous Nightclub, Yoshi’s.
“Hearing this lovely music now, with a distance of three decades and 3,000 miles, I’m grateful. Grateful I grew up in the SF Bay Area, where an incredible public school music program allowed me to fall in love with jazz,” Peck Allmond wrote in his album liner notes.
This magnificent tribute to the straight-ahead jazz of the 1990s opens with Peck Allmond flying through the changes of the Sonny Rollins tune, “Tenor Madness” quick as a 747-jet plane. Ed Kelly takes a spirited piano solo. Ed was a highly respected musician on the Bay Area jazz scene, who performed with Pharoah Sanders, Bobby Hutcherson, John Handy and many other iconic names.
“Ed Kelly was … a mentor. He, of course, is one of the giants of Bay Area jazz; true royalty. I had been listening to him since high school. When he began hiring me a lot around 1987, I felt unready to play with him. But he was patient. Playing with him and just hearing him each night was a masterclass,” Peck Allmond recalled.
The band is inspired by Allmond at the lead and the able drums of Bud Spangler. Spangler made his debut in Detroit, Michigan first, as a radio personality and music producer. He added ‘musician’ to those credits, playing and producing for such labels as Strata Records and Tribe Records. In the Bay area, Bud Spangler continued his radio career at both KJAZ and later, KCSM radio as a disc jockey, producer and engineer. Spangler produced several Grammy-nominated recordings, including work with Shirley Horn, Denise Perrier, Mimi Fox, Ed Reed, Mary Stallings, Cedar Walton and more. His drum talents are a welcome addition to the swing and straight-ahead spirit of this music.
The bass solo on “Like Someone in Love” showcases John Wiitala’s awesome creativity and talent. John was a member of Peck’s regular working band for years. There is a special camaraderie and comfort between the two. Wiitala has also performed with James Moody, Jessica Williams, Arturo Sandoval and Joe Henderson to list only a few. Peck’s solo on this tune, as well as all the others, is clever and hard-bop to the bone. Allmond weaves in a piece of “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” seamlessly. Listen for it. When the band silences, to let Ed Kelly soak up the spotlight, he mesmerizes me and the ‘live’ audience with his solo piano brilliance. This band is smokin’ hot! Everything on this album is dynamically played and soulfully infused with each musician’s raw emotions. For example, their interpretation of the blues ballad, “I’m confessin’ (that I Love You)” with Allmond’s sexy saxophone caressing our ears, hearts and minds is impressive. Wiitala’s upright bass dances beneath the mix in the sweetest way. At the second half of this tune, Allmond picks up his trumpet and blows our minds with his brilliant talent on this horn too. I am totally entertained by the follow-up of Ed Kelly’s solo piano arrangement on “Moment’s Notice” and the group’s unique interpretation of the familiar tune “Invitation.” This is an album of music I will play over and over again. What a sparkling, historic gem for any jazz collection!
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BRIAN LANDRUS – “RED LIST” – Palmetto Records
Brian Landrus, baritone saxophone/bass clarinet/flute/alto flute/bass flute; Nir Felder, guitar; Geoffrey Keezer, Fender Rhodes/organ/piano/synthesizers; Lonnie Plaxico, electric & acoustic bass; John Hadfield, percussion; Rudy Royston, drums; Jaleel Shaw, alto saxophone; Ron Blake, tenor saxophone; Steve Roach, trumpet/flugelhorn; Ryan Keberle, trombone; Corey King, vocals.
Often times, music is used as a method of calling attention to some cause or life challenge. Baritone saxophonist, reed master and bass clarinet player, Brian Landrus, has composed and arranged fifteen tunes dedicated to the preservation of some of our endangered, Earth creatures. This is Brian’s eleventh album released as a bandleader. It reflects his spiritual connection to earth and the animal kingdom in a warm, jazzy way.
“I’ve been an animal lover since I was a little kid. I recently began researching the many endangered species on our planet. It broke my heart to learn that there are only eight vaquitas, sixty-seven Javan rhinos and fewer than 850 mountain gorillas left on earth. Spreading awareness of this tragic global situation is part of the impetus for this album,” Landrus explains in his press package.
Each composition title exemplifies this purposeful album of music. Landrus opens with “Canopy of Trees” that has a very orchestrated, smooth-jazz feel. You can picture a forest of green, with the Landrus horn becoming the prowling creature beneath the lush canopy. On the title tune, “Red List” John Hadfield’s driving percussion energy fuels the arrangement, along with Rudy Royston on drums. Landrus delivers strong melodies and arranges the horns with tight harmonies that balloon the music like helium. This small ensemble sounds much bigger than it is and lifts me. As I listen to the “Giant Panda,” composition, tenderly featuring a delightful Landrus bass clarinet solo, or “Tigris” pumping us up with a bright tempo and featuring the beautiful guitar talent of Nir Felder, the composer transmits the beauty and importance of protecting all life on earth. He gives us a taste of his flute talents on “The Distant Deeps” and features the warm, husky vocals of Corey King. I note that His arrangements exhibit a diversity of genres, embracing Straight-ahead jazz in some parts, (especially when Landrus is soloing) blending in easy-listening horn arrangements to buoy the tracks, along with smooth jazz grooves. For example, when he arranged “Save the Elephants” the jazz arrangement embraces a reggae beat. As I soak up this music, my imagination conjures up the elephant families lumbering along towards a drinking pond. Brian Landrus offers us music that is much like life itself, multi-faceted, colorful, uniquely different and beautiful.
When he’s not composing or recording, Brian Landrus has taken his saxophone talents on the road with other jazz acts such as Esperanza Spalding, Fred Hersch, Billy Hart, George Garzone, the Maria Schneider Orchestra and his mentor Bob Brookmeyer. Landrus is not only a multi-talented musician, who has mastered several reed instruments, but he’s adept at various musical genres. Brain has toured with national pop acts like The Temptations, The Four Tops, The Coasters, The Drifters and Martha Reeves.
He holds a doctorate from Rutgers University and is currently on faculty at the School of Music, California State University Sacramento.
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DAN OLIVO – “DAY BY DAY” – Ava Maria Records
Dan Olivo, vocals; Ian Robbins, guitar; Lyman Medeiros, bass/ukulele/vocals/arranger; Joe Bagg, piano/Hammond B3 organ; Kevin Winard, drums/percussion; Kyle O’Donnell, tenor saxophone; Jamelle Adisa, trumpet; Garrett Smith, trombone; Renee Myara Cibelli, vocals.
Dan Olivo has a smooth, comforting voice; one you might hear and enjoy at a supper club or an intimate jazz room. He has surrounded himself with an amazing cast of musicians who create tight, jazzy tracks and feature bright, outstanding instrumental solos. Dan has chosen a dozen familiar songs for his repertoire. He sings each one with sincerity and the well-written arrangements by Ian Robbins compliment Olivo’s vocal delivery. Dan Olivo opens with the title tune, and the small band swings as hard as a big band. Olivo has a strong handle on music, having played saxophone in his Junior high school band and beyond. It was during that period of his teen life that Dan was introduced to Harry Connick Jr. Young Olivo watched and listened in awe as Connick Jr. fronted his big band and the teenager felt that he could do that too. Soon he was also listening to Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Nat ‘King’ Cole and Michael Bublé. You clearly hear these influences in this album presentation. I enjoyed his rendition of the Latin flavored tune, “Sway” competently colored by the drums of Winnard Harper.
Olivo is also an actor with work in theaters, on film projects and appearances on television shows. He blends his love of acting with his love of music, picking tunes like the 1924 song, once performed during Vaudeville stage acts called, “How Come You Do me Like You Do?” and the popular tune from the Broadway play, “The Great Magoo” titled “It’s Only a Paper Moon.” He delivers each composition with crystal clear enunciation. This smooth, male vocalist could be categorized as a new-comer to the ‘crooners’ society, although he does a good job of swinging his way through tunes like “L.O.V.E.”, “I’m Walkin’” and the up-tempo version of “Time After Time.”
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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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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.