December 2nd 2010
New York City
My great uncle was born in 1890. He was an artisan who cut the names and last statements of the deceased into their resting stones. I lived with him for the entirety of my 6th year and visited on many weekends. He taught me so many valuable lessons passed down from 'old folks sometime long ago' in stories, songs and folkways. My experiences with him saved me from falling into the generation gap. I return in my mind always to his shotgun house on Gov. Nicholls St. in New Orleans with its lack of hot water, 1930's appliances, and big super-cooling house fan.
I can still hear the morning news radio with his personalized and pungent commentary on every story; can still smell his morning coffee, feel the hand mower he made me use to cut his lawn. 'The War' for him meant WW1, and all of the great technological achievements of the 20th century were 'miracles.' His fascination with these new things was tempered by a sense that there was still a lot to develop in the human condition. He loved to say things like, "We can put a man on the moon but can't fix one block of asphalt." He was not in any accepted sense of the word 'cultured'. But my great uncle had a general sense of Americana that included everything from the Gettysburg Address to the Ballad of John Henry to stories of Marie Laveau the voodoo queen to countless Creole songs. Yes, he knew many things, but he never so much as mentioned Buddy Bolden and Jazz. You see, he was Creole and Creoles didn't put too much stock in Buddy Bolden's kind. And through that inbred underestimation, he missed or misunderstood the most significant thing to happen in New Orleans (besides the Robert Charles riots and the closing of Storyville) in his time. In a way, when I first realized this, I felt like the English bluesmen who came to America in the 1960's and saw that many of us were completely ignorant of the blues, in large part due to a traditional undervaluing of our darker brothers and sisters. But my great uncle was an everyday working class man, and though he had a keen sense of what was going on in the world (at least it seemed from what he told the radio), he was not looking to be a crusader for peace or education, or looking to save the soul of the American people. He was living and being himself. And some kind of way, he clearly understood and could articulate that 'who he was' was in the stories he told and the songs he sung and in his humor. He would say," that's just the way I do it." Well he died in 1982 and I wish he was alive today so I could tell him about Buddy Bolden and Jazz and what he missed… And he would've loved it, if the story was well told. He used to say, "I'm gon tell you this one with my own tongue" which meant absolutely no reading.
My uncle Alphonse, lived art with no pretensions to being any more sophisticated than the next stonecutter. He knew that art goes hand in hand with survival because 'what people do' becomes art. And the ceremonial practice of 'what people do' becomes essential to maintaining and enriching a way of life. We are always in a crisis and its always time for a renaissance.
When grown men and women debate and fail to find common ground on anything except the necessity for graft; when laws replace ethics and every law is for sale; when the educated abuse the uneducated at every turn; when the old no longer know their own young and all that is and was seems to have never been; when the volume becomes unbearable and we are detached from all rituals from birth to death to rituals of courtship to rituals of worship; when we lift our voices to sing after profound national tragedy and no collective song emerges; no hint of the fiddler's reel of Davy Crockett or of the plaintive wail of a western ballad, or the deep moan of the Negro spiritual or the joyous jump of a swinging band; no tinge of Whitmanesque breadth, Faulknerian irony, Ellingtonian largeness of spirit. We are lost and have no idea how to be found. Like Europeans of the 14th century searching in vain for causes of the Black Death when it was crawling all around them, we look to everything but the source. It's time to return to the center, to home. Home is about stripping down, being naked. For a people, that home is the collective memory, the stories and ways that make us who we are; the symbols that speak to our soul. When these stories and myths are no longer a part of the national consciousness, the national discussion—-people are in trouble. It's time for Buddy Bolden. He taught us how to speak our mother tongue. He showed us it was alright to be yourself. His music was designed to respect and inspire other folks' individuality and creativity even as it highlighted his own. And Buddy always told the truth when he opened up his horn:
"I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say, pick it up slow and take it away. I thought I heard him say. If Buddy tells you then you been told. Cause what he says don't ever get old. His horn stays hot its never cold. Please Mr. Bolden play."
They say that before Buddy Bolden played his famous cornet call. He would say, "It's time to call my children home."
And let us reflect on Concord, New Hampshire and the 15th anniversary of the Capitol Center for the Arts.
I love towns of the North East, especially in the fall. Colonial style houses, red, burnt umber (frank stewart's word), and gold leaves speckle the grass and are strewn about clean-cut streets. This cacophony of terra-cotta and yellow, frames the solitary majesty of trees in various states of undress starkly against the clear baby blue sky.
Its 6am. Frank and I are going to meet a friend for breakfast in Fairhaven. The morning air slaps you into the freshness of a day. Just a few hours ago we were on the stage swinging and working things out for patrons of the Capitol Center. The feeling was one of deep, small-city soul. We love playing community theatres because a tight-knit group of die-hards is always at the center of activities. They make great sacrifices for the arts knowing that concerts, plays, museums, shows, ballets, etc. bring people together for something meaningful. Now, everyone may not understand or may not even like everything that's on the stage, but they love the fact of it being there. People here know each other and each other's kids and grandkids.
The Capitol Center raised over $2million from 1990 to 1995 to renovate their historic theatre. The 2mil was still not enough to paint the ceiling, so more than 3000 volunteer hours were expended to make thing stylish and right. The Center brings all kinds of people I love from BB King to Alvin Ailey American Dance to Metropolitan Opera House broadcasts. The gig was relaxed. It was uncommonly happy for a black tie gala. People in Concord make this house part of their lives. It's evident in the natural way they inhabit the space. We are joined by Bobby Allende and Christian Rivera on timbales and congas for several red hot songs and the band is glad to be on the road playing for folks. After the gig we go to the reception and meet people and enjoy them enjoying themselves and the success of the Center.
Here's some of what I hear. "Mr. Marsalis this was my first jazz concert and it wasn't bad. Wasn't bad at all." Now that's not, "I just loved it," but it's an honest 'that was ok and I might check it out again'. You don't have to give me no more than that, if you don't feel it. One gentleman told me I played with his high school band some years ago and it impacted his life in a very meaningful way. I thanked him and explained that you never know if all those many years of encouraging young people to play has any effect. He spoke with such sincerity that his wife began to get full and she brought me to the edge of getting full too.
The band at the reception started playing 'Brick House'. I must have played that song 10,000 times in high school. It took me right back to so many wedding receptions, and proms, and dances. Damn! (Time is no enemy but a friend) I reminded myself. Flo Woods said, "Mr. Marsalis, working in this theatre is my golden retirement plan….and I LOVE IT." Evie showed me her name tag and said, ".....Well, I had y'all on my bucket list. I'm almost ready to go now." Young Chris Burbank who was at Juilliard (playing all kinds of trumpet just a few years ago) came with David, a high school student he is mentoring.
I always love to see musicians in their twenties leading teenagers into the music and into an understanding of what it means to be a young adult. David was excited to meet me. I said,"Stop bullshitting son" (my standard line to kids who think I'm a big deal). We both laughed and talked about the importance of reading and developing your intellect. Yeah, it was a special night. I was telling Ryan at sound check that I played these types of community theatre's all over America throughout the 80's and 90's. He just looked slightly over to me and nodded.
Executive Director Nicki Clarke summarised it all in her beautiful opening remarks when she further rallied the troops in saying,".... as we embark on the Capitol Center’s journey through the next fifteen years and beyond, what continues to remain at the center of our work is the transformative power of that moment of live performance when the audience becomes one with an artist. That is the core of who we are. A couple of weeks ago a young women who had not spoken for many months finally did so with the words ‘thank you’ after attending a performance….." That's what we say to everyone in attendance in Concord on thursday. Yeah.
It's 7:30am. I'm ironing a suit and going out to vote-looking at a worn stone my great uncle who was born in 1883 and died in 1982 carved, 'Don't be Discourage'. He was a stone worker for the cemeteries in New Orleans. I look at that when facing a seemingly futile proposition or a corruption so great, you feel paralyzed. Alphonse was his name. We called him Pomp.
He was known for not taking shit in the days when that WAS your identity if you were black and out of your lane. He believed in voting and following the news on the radio.
Hmmm…news? It's all entertainment now, but he was never cynical. Pomp said 'make 'em cheat you to your face. Never stay home'.
We need a revolution.
I became serious about playing the trumpet at age 12. My teacher was John Longo. At our first lesson he played two albums: the Chicago Symphony's performance of Ravel-Mussorgsky's 'Pictures at an Exhibition' (Adolph Herseth principal trumpet) and Clifford Brown with Strings. "Lil brother, that's what a trumpet should sound like."
I listened to that Clifford w Strings everyday and learned every note on it. Basin Street and Brown and Roach Inc. and anything with Clifford is inspirational. His sound has such warmth, clarity, and pure intelligence—humanity. You have to love him. We have a picture of Branford at about 2yrs old in diapers holding a copy of Clifford and Max on Basin Street. In high school Book and I loved to play Powell's Prances and I loved Time and Sweet Clifford and Joy Spring and everything. Damn! Clifford can play.
Those recordings were rare in the early 70's. I remember my high school band director, George Marks (he was a trumpet player), borrowed my fathers Clifford and Max records. He didn't want to give them back! He said, "listening to these are like finding treasure." Yeah. Even though the music is available everywhere now, it is still treasure. Clifford's son Clifford Jr. is a pure credit to his memory and one of the greatest friends jazz has ever had. He brings a feeling and a soul to every occasion. His way of being extends his father's lyrical legacy of kindness (the most eloquent of all human actions). Every note from Clifford's horn is a gem. I love him and everyone who loves music loves him.
Happy Birthday Clifford.
Yeah. Keep playing.
I want to thank everyone for the beautiful birthday wishes. It was and is uplifting and each one was greatly appreciated and felt. Today is Dizzy Gillespie's birthday.
He was one of our very greatest, valuable and unique jazz people. From his embouchure to his way of speaking to his way of weaving a story, Diz was an original. Not only an unsurpassed trumpeter and innovator, Dizzy was a great dancer, teacher, wit, and spiritual presence. He believed in consolidating musicians and the music, in celebrating and extending its traditions and in bringing its enlightening impact to as many people as possible as often as possible.
We talked many times about small band vs big band.
He would say, "the big band has a small band inside of it…....losing your orchestral music should not be considered an achievement." Dizzy told me Louis Armstrong GAVE gifts on his birthday and that Pops once gave him a shoe box of excellent weed on that occasion. Dizzy was for real on his horn and in life.
In that birthday tradition of Armstrong, let's receive all the love, insight and excellence Dizzy put out here for us for so long and listen to some Diz today or read come of his 'To Be or Not to Bop'.
Happy birthday Diz.