It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, nineteen-seventy something, and I’m riding home on the public bus from White Plains, New York, a freshly purchased copy of Rufusized in hand. Little did I know that I would be blown away by the excitement of the opening track, marveling at the audacious vocals of a unique singer that would soon become one of my lifelong favorites.
“Once you get started, oh it’s hard to stop…”
And I never have stopped loving the shouts, growls and soulful purring of the artist who has influenced generations of R&B singers. I followed that fateful purchase with the earlier Rags to Rufus, then anxiously awaited every subsequent release from Rufus, followed by Chaka’s solo albums throughout the eighties. Rufus’ sound featured Chaka’s lead and multi-tracked background vocals. This wall of Chaka is well represented here on Sweet Thing, just one of her numerous signature songs. Tony Maiden adds a memorable guitar lick to this classic.
Mary J Blige, an R&B giant in her own right, pays homage to her hero in this fine cover from her 1992 release What’s The 411?
Mary J later teamed up Chaka on their high energy performance Disrespectful from Chaka’s 2007 album Funk This. The duo complement each other with a lively call-and-response featuring perfectly executed vocal hand-offs throughout.
The tie in with jazz and WRVR? To tell you the truth, I’m not sure if I ever heard Rufus on WRVR, but Chaka’s style and sound crosses so many genres, and she has displayed a great affinity for the jazz form. No less than the immortal Betty Carter praised Chaka’s scatting on Be Bop Medley from her eponymous 1982 release.
This stunning performance followed the release of one of my all-time favorite albums, What Cha’ Gonna Do For Me from 1981. On full display is Chaka’s unequaled skill at transforming even classic compositions with unique arrangements and dynamic interpretations. Check out her twist on Dizzy’s And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night in Tunisia), followed by her elevation of the Beatles’ We Can Work It Out.
Here is the list of personnel on classic cover of the be-bop classic (Worthy of special note is the synthesizer solo by Herbie Hancock):
Track 6 “And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night In Tunisia)”
Drums – Casey Scheuerell
Bass – Abraham Laboriel
Electric Piano – Ronnie Foster
Keyboards [Clavitar Solo, Break], Synthesizer [Oberheim Bells] – Herbie Hancock
Percussion – Paulinho da Costa
Synthesizer [Mini Moog Bass, Prophet 5] – David Foster
Trumpet – Dizzy Gillespie
Getting back to fact-checking: Chaka on WRVR? Maybe…
Chaka as musical legend? No doubt!
Mama wore red to deny my blues
My Mama wore red to deny my blues
Blues born of whiteness that defines the rules
We had the talk, my Mama and I
Said we had the talk, my Mama and I
Son, you need to learn the game, if you don’t wanna die
Kneel before Jesus, then you kneel upon me
Lawd! you kneel before Jesus, how can you kneel upon me?
Crushing weight of centuries, prone limb of the hanging tree
But times have changed, things can never stay the same
Yes, things done changed, they can never stay the same—NO!
Though the oceans flow with blood, ancient drums call out my name
Old rugged cross, a void, an inflated tear,
raised fist, a defiant stare
This is worth sharing. The words of James Baldwin have echoed across the decades as of late. The WBGO selection includes the following jazz inspired works:
Notes and Tones by Arthur R. Taylor (Da Capo Press)
Blues Legacies and Black Feminism by Angela Davis (Vintage Books)
Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever by Salim Washington and Farah Griffin (Thomas Dunne Books)
To Be, or Not…to Bop: Memoirs of Dizzy Gillespie by Dizzy Gillespie (Univ. of Minnesota Press)
Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams by Tammy Kernodle (Northeastern Univ. Press)
Black Music by Amiri Baraka (Akashic Books)
If You Can’t Be Free, Be a Mystery: In Search of Billie Holiday by Farah Griffin (One World)
The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings by James Baldwin (Vintage International)
Here’s the link to the WBGO article:
From the publisher’s site, notes on Baldwin’s collection:
Since my son Cliff has been better able to express his thoughts and feelings on the movement, I’m sharing his latest poem with the hope it sparks change, and provides inspiration to jump start my own writing.
We are each but one voice
Screams into shielded faces
Words calculated and calmly spoken into a lens
Each but one voice
Gaining power as it transforms into a chorus
Attempts to silence
I can’t breathe
My eyes cannot forget
A man’s death over loosie cigarettes
I can’t breathe
The glassy eyed stare at the onlookers
A badge meant to protect and serve
As he choked the life of a man
I can’t breathe
The words become louder
The crowds rise like an ocean tide
And somehow this feels different
It has to be different
A time for change
Hands up, don’t shoot
Bullets fly and pierce through flesh
A crime to be in one’s own home
Black voices that can fill your soundtracks
Black hands that can catch your ball
Black bodies in your uniforms
Defending your freedoms
But you won’t extend the same liberties
Because of the color of their skin
So one voice
Which makes way for more
Until the voices of the unseen
Drown out all others
Respect the flag
Simply veiled racism
And now the cover has been lifted
Exposing the wounds
Hundreds of years of injustice
For all to bear witness
Voices in unison
Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter
Black Lives Matter
Until the words sink in and are truly heard
In celebration of International Jazz Day, remembering the contributions of jazz icon Ella Fitzgerald. Ella’s artistry and improvisational skills are amazing, and while she may not have invented scatting, there’s a good reason Ella is usually the first artist who comes to mind when referencing the form.
Throughout my childhood, Ella was everywhere, on T.V. and performing at pop and jazz festivals all over the world. If you are a boomer of a certain age, your parents and grandparents were likely huge fans, so you may have viewed her in the same way as Louie Armstrong, Nat King Cole and other great artists who later in their careers were seen first as entertainers.
Ella’s ability to hold her audience in thrall in no way detracted from her soaring vocal gifts. The story of her breakout performance, performing at the Apollo Theater is well documented, and her 1938 performance of the children’s nursery rhyme A Tisket A Tasket recorded with the Chick Webb Orchestra became a jazz standard.
Here’s a lighthearted performance of the song taken from a scene of the 1942 Abbott and Costello movie Ride ‘Em Cowboy:
Ella’s voice was angelic, pure and clear, and her timing and phrasing were jazz inspired; her delivery often evocative of a trumpet or trombone. In the tradition of other instrumental soloists, Ella expands on her free-form riffing while interweaving samples from other popular songs, snippets of familiar sounds, and even cultural stylings.
Nowhere are her scatting skills and vocal stamina better displayed than in this live performance of How High The Moon. Ella branches off on several bars of Bird’s classic Ornithology, drops in Have You Ever Seen a Dream Walking, a short bugle call, a gravelly trombone section, and even a snake charming, far-eastern inspired change of pace, as she bounces and swings through the entire song.
Unlike other artists whose voices reveal artifacts of strain and aging, cracking or scratchiness, or a lowering register, Ella’s voice maintained a girlish quality and purity of tone her entire life. I have a memory of Ella from the twilight of her career, though I’m not sure if the venue was at Avery Fisher Hall in NYC, the Palace Theater in Stamford, CT or a tribute special to Ella on television, but I do remember she took the stage looking a bit frail and unsteady. However, once the music started she seems to draw energy from the musicians and audience until you could feel the joy of performing flowing through her.
Such is the magic of Jazz, the magic of the jazz artist Ella Fitzgerald, our First Lady Of Song…
In the tradition of legendary cutting sessions between stride piano masters like James P. Johnson, Jelly Roll Morton and Willie the Lion Smith in Harlem during the early days of Jazz, I present a challenge of classic compositions from modern masters Thelonious Monk and Horace Silver.
From Monk, I present Crepuscule With Nellie, from the album Criss-Cross and featuring Charlie Rouse on sax, followed by Silver’s Lonely Woman, from Song For My Father. Both albums are on my list of all-time favorites. Please vote for your favorite by commenting below.
If you’re interested in reading more, here’s a link to a great article on cutting sessions:
Keeping with Tanya’s Marigolds theme, –visit Soul Symphonies Marigolds in May–and my failed attempts to hurry Spring along, I decided to torture myself by writing a sonnet, the first I’ve ever attempted.
Sunflower staggered under mass of suns
Shoulders the weight of a solar hour
Forlornly lusting over meadow runs
Tournesol to shun the cosmic bower
Shedding the burden of the sunflower
You burn with inextinguishable joy
Ne’er bowing to incinerate power
Seeking universal laws to destroy
Corolla of daisy’s ringed yoke ensnares
A dark core of isolation within
The day’s eye opens while the Buddha stares
Contemplating a freed soul void of sin
Marigold! Sun and flower incarnate
Light and color embrace my garden gate
Life may seem to have a plan, but for the most part it’s pretty random. We’re thrown together on this big old rock, then try to connect in a variety of ways. Our reach has expanded through technology, but the desired result has never changed; we are looking for friendship and love, an understanding ear, and a sense of belonging though shared experience.
Last week I lost a dear friend. Kim passed quietly in her sleep, after her brave battle with lung cancer. Kim and I never met, our relationship was built on emails exchanged over a period of many years, and I only spoke with her twice, after she informed me of her illness. Yet, now that she’s gone, I feel like a part of me went with her.
Drifting back to 2002, my son is planning for college. My wife and I are anxiously awaiting a call from the adoption agency and China to notify us when we will be able to travel to adopt our yet unknown baby girl. So it goes that a boy from the northeastern United States meets and marries a girl from the tiny country of Guyana in South America, and they have a child together. Over sixteen years later a baby girl is born in the middle of China, to become part of this family nearly two years later.
Spin the wheel of life…
About this time, during a quiet period at work, I’m posting a review to Yahoo Movies about The Sixth Sense. The next day I see a response on the message board from another fan of the movie. Like me, she never saw the surprise ending coming. From that unlikely exchange grew our friendship as we discussed and recommended other movies and music. Kim was a fan of soul music, which led me to nickname her my little soul sister, but more about that later…
I started a little guessing game, beginning with my first email where I assumed that Kim was a guy. She quickly corrected and playfully reprimanded me for my sexist presumption that only a man would be adventurous enough to leave his home country and study abroad. Explaining the process of trying to transform a complete stranger into a friend, I recounted to Kim an experience I had many years ago in what was then the famous Folk City in Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan.
Folk City was this dark little club where Bob Dylan made his NYC debut and the atmosphere defined bohemian. A friend from work had introduced me to the club, and one night I decided to visit on my own. I sat at a small table between the bar and the stage and nursed my drink while taking in the local musical talent and atmosphere. To my immediate left a girl, maybe a few years older than me, sat alone at her table also surveying the scene. I cautiously peaked at her out of the corner of my glasses, then noticed she was doing the same thing. If this was a movie, she would have smiled, and I would have been emboldened to go over to her table and introduce myself. Alas, for me at least, real life is never like the movies. Instead, she maintained a stern, suspicious expression and I eventually backed down from the staring contest.
I told Kim we were a lot like those two people in the club, carefully glancing at each other on opposite sides of the world, trying to piece together some understanding of the person behind the words and pictures.
Over the years, it became almost comical how often I was incorrect with my guesses. The picture below is a perfect example. When Kim posted it on Facebook a few years ago, I was so excited for her that I commented, “Congratulations?” That started a deluge of follow up comments in English and Chinese, “Are you?”
No, she wasn’t, to my disappointment, as I can’t think of anyone more suited to motherhood; it was only a bit of wind puffing out her blouse. In my defense, it was an honest and well meaning mistake. Besides, look at her thoughtful expression as she contemplated her future. Kim had her share of fun with this game, commenting that since I’m an American that I must listen to Madonna. OK, maybe she was a little better at guessing than me.
17 years…more than one-third of my adult life’s experiences shared through a thread of electrons. Kim and I shared stories about family and work, but also discussed philosophy and religion. After an early career in IT, Kim decided to move in a different direction pursuing her seminary studies in the U.K. and Hong Kong as a path to help others. Later, when she moved to the San Francisco bay area with her husband Dan, she obtained her counseling LPC so she could provide support to the Asian community. With this, my reference to Kim as “my little soul sister” took on a deeper meaning.
Filling in the earlier years of our lives, I told Kim the story of how I met my wife Bibi at work, smiling at each other from across the room. Kim summed up the experience nicely as, “Love at first sight and last forever…” as she reflected on her own love life and hope for the future. She eventually met and married Dan–I know nothing of their courtship, having learned of their marriage through Facebook–but, Dan was by her side, right until the end. I know the past few months were especially difficult for both of them.
As I said, Kim and I never met, and I never really said goodbye. There is no wake or funeral for me. I can’t be there to read her eulogy. Once I learned of Kim’s disease I spoke with family and friends about her, and about our friendship as long-time pen pals. I think this helped give the whole experience some substance. In the end, I was left with a few inadequate words to Kim to explain what her friendship has meant to me:
In recognition of Black History Month, remembering Martin Luther King’s historic appearance at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967 which was covered by WRVR radio.
Article from the New Yorker recalls King’s anti-war speech.
Audio of the full speech:
Also, sharing an interesting article from 1978 that fills in additional history about WRVR’s transition from Riverside’s classic jazz, to Sonderling’s jazz hybrid format. Not everyone was a fan of the change.
Archived copy of the article can be found here: