Saturday, December 29, 2007

More Ujima Photos

Ujima or Collective Work and Responsibility in Nairobi

Tonight was my first Kwanzaa in Nairobi, a small black community in Silicon Valley. You might know it as East Palo Alto, but for the black folks it is Africa.

It was great the way the former Kwanzaa children were now adults with their own children. These Kwanzaa children spoke about what the principles meant to them, and how the work was more important to than the speech which might sound great but it was ineffective.

There were several great musicians playing that evening. One was my friend, Acutan, whom I hadn't seen in a long while. I knew when I saw him that I was in the right place. It was the same when I saw Sister Jeri and Brother Benjamin, both from my Nation of Islam days or shortly there after.

I also saw Malonga's daughter; Malcolm recited a lovely poem about Malonga, a man whose impact on this part of the Bay Area is relatively unknown outside the dance community.

One sister sang a lovely song about Kwanzaa to the tune of Ray Charles' Georgia. Later, there was another solo. The guest speaker, Doris Peeler-Brown, founder of a law school in Oakland. She and her husband were one of the first families to open their home to the community for Kwanzaa. I hadn't known Kwanzaa was originally in people's home, until, as Sister Makinya put it, "People abused this, and the organizers began to host the ceremonies in community centers." Mama Doris spoke about Ujima. She cited four examples of historic black men and women who'd given their lives to uplift African people. What I enjoyed most was when she told all of us to look around us and notice who was there, that we were all resources for one another.

The food as usual was great. I could eat most of it.

Friday, December 28, 2007

More Photos for Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Area

Wednesday, at EOYDC, Umoja was really lovely. The vibe was one Baba Abrams would have loved. The youth were involved from beginning to end--many of the little brothers drumming professionally for the first time. I wondered where the little girls were that night behind the drums and in front, but this question was answered when the dance group: Akili Sankofa Dance Ensemble performed.

What was really special was Greg Hodge's invitation to the community to participate and the setting one that lent itself to such. He is also one of my favorite MCs and libation pourers.

Throughout the evening when the spirit hit folks they were up in front of the drummers dancing--it was so cool! Whereas last night at Kijuchagulia, only professional dancers were invited on stage and it was more a show than participatory. This is not a criticism, well actually it is, but I still felt at home. Brother Sidney was a wonderful MC. He sang songs and told stories which invited our response. At the Malonga event no one asked permission from the eldest man and woman to begin. I don't know how that happened.

Wednesday, at EOYDC, on "Umoja," the two elders were seated on a kente draped throne in the center of the audience and when Greg invited all the boys up the elders were there also in the innermost circle--a man and a woman. The two drank from the libation cup and blessed the assembly, especially the young black boys surrounding them. The focus this year was on the youth, young men who are at risk, not that there aren't girls at risk also. This focus was in response to the call Brother Mateen, principal at Castlemont's East Oakland School for the Arts made earlier this month. There was a video shown, narrated by Ise Lyfe which looked at the lack of tolerance young people have for each other when one makes a mistake, also the random handgun violence. Prior to this there was a tape rolling of young men enrolled in the school presently. It was nice seeing live young men, rather than dead ones.

In the closing circle, the boys were surrounded by the men in the room, who were then surrounded by the women. It was like a group hug. The men and boys all were connected physically through a black thread which all held between their fingers. We then opened up the circle and everyone held hands in a connected lineage. We were instructed to look at each other and greet each other visually.

It was so lovely and the karimu was delicious as well. The children explained what the parts of the Kwanzaa table symbolized as they placed the items on it from the mat to the kinara, corn and gifts. The evening had a homey feeling, the kind one feels at the House of Unity. At the Malonga, the table was already set and there time seemed more predefined. But Baba Jahi had gift bags for those who could answer questions about Kwanzaa. This was a nice touch.

There was poetry at Umoja and people from the audience spoke. I felt instant release from all the stuff I'd picked up this year traveling through America, the bleeding sores were healed, the headaches went away. It was so lovely being with African people. There were no white people there.

We were celebrating our victories with each other. The main one, is that we'd made it! We'd lived another year and we're fortifying ourselves to go out once again on the battle field. It was great to see the returning soldiers. It is also a time to count our losses and call their names. Often one doesn't know who's out there until the battle is won, or there is a slight reprieve like Kwanzaa. It helps to know one is not alone. This for me is the spirit of Kwanzaa. It is also great to see the paratroopers or soldiers in training: the youth.

My ears were hurting and I couldn't talk earlier that day. The battle was long and a little harder this year. I'm feeling better now. The TMJ has subsided. I think I'll take a walk while the sun is shining. I am looking forward to going to Nairobi tonight.

Earlier Wednesday, December 26, I took my nieces to the Kwanzaa event at the Bay Area Discovery Museum. It was fun. They made masks, African design purses and did tie dying. What was really fantastic was the lovely setting just below the golden Gate Bridge at a former fort where battle stations were readier to attack invaders. Now, the spot of regional nature preserves. It's a great example of how an instrument of war can be transformed into a place of peace. We went for a walk on a nature trail where we saw the former prison Alcatraz, another transformed space, and Angel Island, yet another place with an ugly history. Human beings certainly know how to mess up the earth, but then again, there is always, with us, the opportunity for retribution and healing and forgiveness.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Frank Morgan Retrospective

Frank Morgan Dec. 23, 1933-Dec. 14, 2007
I feel like a tree has fallen, several trees in the forest this weekend with the loss of my dear friend, saxophonist, Frank Morgan, and the great pianist, Oscar Peterson (Aug. 1925- Dec. 2007). It took me several days to come to grips with the fact that I wouldn’t see Frank again. I remember when I first met him, he was special guest with Art Farmer on flugal horn, John Hicks on piano, Victor Lewis on drums and Jeff Chambers on bass. This was 7-8 years ago. I was blown away. The sound of the horn was unlike any I’d ever heard before. Immediately enamoured, I couldn’t get enough. Whenever Morgan came to town I was there. He had a quiet presence—not many words, but welcoming smiles and a deep inner peace he didn’t mind sharing. The last time I saw him was at the San Jose Jazz Festival this year in a salute hosted by Red Holloway. I hadn’t known he had prostate cancer—from what I read, neither did he as he was rushed to the hospital in Minneapolis. He’d just returned from a European tour. He loved being on the road he told me. There was nothing greater, so it was entirely in character that he might have worried about his healthn prior to the European tour, but nothing would keep him off the plane. So, this summer when I noticed the chair on stage and how Frank would sit and play, I didn’t think anything of it, Red at 80-something was the elder on stage that day-looking fit as could be, along with Greg Osby and Charles McPherson. The seated musician clearly held his own.

Listen to a great interview with Frank here: Also visit and

Man, Frank’s gone! I still miss Dewey Redman. His picture is on my website. Max Roach, gone. John Hicks, gone.

Now that the prince is gone, Frank Morgan reigns king (2000)
By Wanda Sabir

Dropped by Yoshi’s Frank Morgan and Art Farmer’s last night in town. I just had to shake the hand of the man who knew Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, especially after the concert last night where Morgan breathed golden fire threw his mouth. Even in my half-tipsy state (fatique not alcohol) I couldn’t help but be amazed by his adeptness on the horn and he and Farmer’s syncronicity – the two laced horns and blew beautiful sounds. Victor Lewis – drummer told me that playing and instrument was just knowin how to tell a good story. “There’s elements of drama/character (in the arrangement, in how you do what you do).” All the men live in different parts of the world from New Mexico to Vienna, yet, music makes their world smaller, Lewis said. They’re always in touch. “The music gives you a reason to trust.”

Well they had to trust Lewis, dynamite sticks lit he was explosive! I was so happy that I was sitting at a safe distant, close enough to hear, but far enough away so that I didn’t vanish – some things are that absorbing. Lewis and Chambers played off one another – call and response, what a way with keys he had – a tingle here and tingle there—Ahmad Jamal style silence additional modifiers to Lewis’ nouns, pronouns, articles and Morgan’s verbs. Now Jeff Chambers spoke in complete sentences, extremely articulate, he hushed everyone’s mouth when he chose to – and Mr. Art Farmer created a sense of awe, he was that phonomenal when his breath was just right which was often enough to give us a sense of what it was like when everything was still everything – or maybe it still is.

Frank Morgan and Sunny Fortune at Yoshi’s March 13 through March 16 with George Cables, Henry Franklin, and Steve Johns. (2003)

There’s something about Frank Morgan and Sonny Fortune... two altos saxophonists, with Steve Johns, George Cables, and Henry Franklin There are quintets and then there are quintets… nothing quite like what we experienced Thursday evening as Morgan, Fortune, Cables, Franklin and Johns recalled the greatness of creative black music. The set opened with a swinging San Francisco solo as Frank Morgan danced in crème slacks and plaid jacket.

His back to me, I couldn’t take my eyes off the pianist. Who is that? I thought to myself as I turned over the calendar and saw his name, George Cables – and suddenly everything was crystal clear the vibe, the high level playing the comradery between the men on stage.

Talk about a concert to remember… the evening started out swinging and didn’t stop as Frank Morgan and Sonny Fortune approached the music and their instruments – alto saxophones, with singular precision and complementary results as the repretoire surveyed the greats: Charlie Parker, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis, and John Coltrane – proof why black classics never grow old.

With the men alternating solos first one then the other would open, Morgan’s rendition of “All Blue,” really sweet as he took his time telling the story. Fortune, on the other hand filled all the spaces with notes – complex, layered with notes lengthened and stretched often taunt from the pull Steve Johns exerted as he pushed the artist to impressive octaves – this was true with “Impressions,” fast and faster Fortune literally singing with his horn; Morgan’s playing looser melodies easing gently into the higher register, smooth, and as I said sweet.

Steve Johns would often solo between the alto-saxophonists who ended many songs that evening in conversation between one another – trading solos as rhythm section kept things fluid and open.

A sensitive pianist, Cables knew how to give Fortune space to compose and play when space was less primium, not to say that the saxman didn’t share. Both Morgan and Fortune did. One got the feeling that they wanted to hear the guys on the band stand too.

San Jose Jazz Festival 2007
I arrived in San Jose in under an hour, which was great because I wanted to hear the United Alto Summit with host Red Holloway, featuring Frank Morgan, Charles McPherson and the much younger Greg Osby. They were awesome and so was the fabulous rhythm section with drummer, Jerome E. Jennings, bassist, Corcoran Holt and pianist Luke O'Rielly. When I walked in Frank Morgan was soloing on "All the Things," followed by McPherson’s lovely wistful "Body and Soul." Greg Osby was featured on "Ash," and the band went out on "Blues and Boogie," which was an opportunity for the drummer to strut his stuff. The rhythm section was impressive and it was the first time they’d played with these awesome cats, so it was as special for them as it was for us. I also found out that Red Holloway is a Gemini, May 31, like me. He’s 80 now, a milestone he’s celebrating all year. Afterwards everyone wanted to take pictures with Frank. Pens and paper stuck between the gate as Frank signed autographs and posed for photos.

From an interview last year: October 2006
Frank Morgan is a musical icon. Though he talks about other alto saxophonists with awe, he is clearly the man everyone is watching. A date on the same bandstand with Morgan is worth more than a few semesters at the best academies. He’s a musician who tried to hide from a fate he recognized when he was 7 when he put his guitar down and picked up his first reed instrument.

Like Jonah, one really can’t run. And if the biblical attempted escape is to be believed, then whales, read drugs, prison cells… self-inflicted pain, eagerly waited in the shallow end of the pool treading water, ready to gobble up young Morgan who refused to dive off the high board. However, trust and faith have proved bigger than fear and Morgan is back on the road with his horn and a new CD.

After his teacher and mentor Charlie Parker died when he was 21, Morgan was afraid to walk where his teacher had tread not realizing until he was 52 that the only shoes he had to wear were his own.

72 now, Morgan has been making up for lost time, recording multiple records a year. He has big plans, one of them to record with a string orchestra. He had a concert with a string orchestra in Paris, and now would like have a concert here and make a record. On High Note, the same label which also owned Savoy, Charlie Parker’s label, Morgan has released an album a year for the past three years. Talk about coming full circle. I think Ray Charles says it best in Georgia On My Mind, “the road (turns) back to you.”

Morgan recorded the Ray Charles’ classic “Georgia” on City Nights (2004). This medley features a piece called “Cherokee,” the Miles Davis “All Blues,” Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight,” and closes fittingly with Coltrane’s “Equinox” and “Impressions.”

George Gershwin’s “Summertime," also on this record, reflects the artist’s birth date, December 23, which depending on what hemisphere he’s end could be the first days of summer.

Just back from the Satchmo SummerFest in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast Ethnic & Heritage Jazz Festival in Mobile– Frank Morgan and I had a pleasant conversation last week on the phone from his home in Minneapolis.

Frank Morgan: “I had a great time in New Orleans. The spirit of New Orleans is great. Everybody was out in the streets like Mardi Gras.”

Wanda Sabir: Hopefully more positive things will come out considering it’s been a year since Hurricane Katrina on the 29th of August and so much is left undone. I visited Easter week to see how my family in New Orleans and Mississippi were doing. Everyone on the West Bank was doing okay, but my great aunt’s house in Tremé, the oldest section of New Orleans, is destroyed. Cousin Carrie Mae’s house in the Ninth Ward is still not habitable. They are both staying with Cousin Carrie Mae’s daughter. Relatives in Pearlington, Slidell, Waveland, and Biloxi are in FEMA trailers.

FM: I was just thinking as we were doing The Strut, that all these people were out on the streets all day and all night just like before (Katrina), (yet unlike before), many of these people aren’t going to have a place to sleep.

WS: So true, yet, there’s something about music and art, you could be feeling really bad and good music can make you feel great! And you can carry this good feeling with you when you leave and go back to the cardboard box or room without electricity. It’s really healing. It gives the soul something to chew on. So, you’re providing a really great service.

FM: It works both ways. I believe when people are really listening to you when you are playing, you have the benefit of their energy as well as your own and it helps us to play better.

WS: It’s reciprocal. I’m really happy you like coming here. The last time I saw you was at the Herbst with Sonny Fortune at a tribute to Charlie Parker.

FM: I’m bringing a great trumpet player with me Sean Jones. In fact he just won Downbeat’s Critic Poll. I’ve never played with him, (but) he’s been asking to play with me for the past five-six years. That’s the ideal situation, when someone wants to play with you. I’m just sorry it has taken this long. I asked my manager to set something up for us. He’s playing with Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and he just got back. I guess that’s kind of confining for him; he wants to play straight ahead, to stretch out and he can’t do that with Lincoln Center.

WS: No, not really. It’s another kind of music. I laugh before asking: Who else do you have with you?

FM: Ronnie Matthews. He plays with Roy Hargrove. Roy has three bands, so Ronnie has more time (now). Akira Tana is on drums.

WS: Oh really. He’s great. He lives here.

FM: Actually, Ronnie Matthews and Sean Jones and myself will be traveling to LA to do four days after this and we’ll have Tootie Heath with us in LA. I love Yoshi’s. It’s a beautiful place and I’ve been playing there oh I guess for the last 20 years. They were one of the first places that let me play there after I got out of prison.

WS: Did you have trouble in playing at different venues?

FM: There had been such a lull in my career and in my life from being strung out.

WS: But you were playing, people just didn’t know where.

FM: I was playing, but it was mostly in prison.

WS: True, if they knew you had this great band at San Quentin which did prison tours they could have caught up with your career. Too bad they didn’t make a recording like they did in Angola with the gospel and blues musicians, then everyone else would have known what you were doing.

FM: “You know Art Pepper and I were in there together and Frank Butler, musicians who were really great. Their playing was enhanced by the three meals a day, rest and everything…. They would play their ass off. It’s so much nicer playing out here." Morgan laughs.

“I did my research there. It’s complete. I never really want to go back.” Morgan laughs again.

WS: In California the justice department is looking at addiction as an illness, the goal according to legislation passed is to get people into treatment. Unfortunately there are not enough treatment facilities and programs for those who want them. Imprisonment doesn’t necessarily help you because you can get everything outside which you can acquire inside.

FM: You have to want to change your life.

WS: Yet, the drugs are affecting your body in a way it’s not that easy to kick the habit because it’s an illness, from what I read, you never recover from. You’re always in recovery.

FM: Exactly, there is no such thing as being cured. A cured addict is a dead one.

WS: We both laugh. I never heard that one. I comment.

FM: It’s a gut level decision. It’s so great to be alive. And then traveling all over the world playing, something I love to do.

WS: You know how they say cats have several lives? You’ve had several lives considering you just recovered from a stroke not too long ago which could have been debilitating but you’re back on the bandstand playing.

FM: I’m more comfortable sitting down now. My whole right side was paralyzed initially. My foot turned with the paralysis, which made me have a limp. I had a conversation with the creator, ‘Man if you let me play my horn…why don’t you let me play my horn; just give me a limp or something?’

“He never did answer me, but I’m playing my horn and I’ve got the limp.” He laughs.

WS: It all worked out didn’t it? That's really cool to have the inside track ‘cause obviously you’re supposed to be here.

FM: Well thank you. I feel sometimes now, in my better moments, this iwas worth waiting for. It’s clear to me now why I’m supposed to be here: keeper of the flame.
WS: You are because a lot of your peers – they’re not here anymore, are they?

FM: Just recently John Hicks, Hilton Ruiz. John Hicks and I had just finished playing a week together at Lincoln Center, John Hicks and Curtis Lundy and Victor Lewis.

WS: When I first saw you Victor Lewis was with you at Yoshi’s.

FM: He’s one of my favorites.

WS: You’ve played with some awesome drummers.

FM: Well I need all the help I can get.

WS: It looks really collaborative up there like you’re all helping each other.

FM: Coming in with this band, it’s not rehearsed. I don’t like rehearsing bands. The jazz band plays spontaneously…people getting together putting their heads and their hearts out there together. When you’re playing with people that you like to play with its like that.

I was just getting to know John Hicks. We’d been playing a lot recently and he was such a wonderful musician.

Yes, truly a beautiful man. When I think of Hilton, the first place I played with him was in New Orleans.

WS: He supposedly fell and hit his head.

FM: Well, he’s better off where he is.

WS: I don’t know….

FM: I don’t know either. I like it here. We laugh.

WS: You have a lot of albums with Billy Higgins.

FM: Oh, that’s my good luck charm. One of the last CDs he made, and one of the last CDs Ray Brown made was ‘Love Lost and Found’ (Telarc 1995). That was the first time I played with Ray Brown. You’re talking about ‘worth the wait…’ it was just awesome! And Billy was really sick when we did the last CD. I didn’t realize it, he was playing so beautifully but we took a break and he couldn’t get up from his drums, we had to help him up. He still had that beautiful smile.

“It sure is great to being alive! I’m looking forward to coming to (Oakland.)”

WS: I wondered if you could tell me about “Reflections.” I noticed that you have another album entitled ‘Reflections’ recorded in 1989 on Contemporary with Joe Henderson, Bobby Hutcherson, Mulgrew Miller, Ron Carter, Al Foster. Al Foster is another awesome drummer.

FM: Yeah. I guess this other one will be Reflections II, because just looking back, I feel fortunate about what I am able to do. I’m 72 years old and it feels great to be able to be 72 years old and have your career on the upswing.

WS: Certainly.

FM: I love the road. If it were up to me I’d never come off the road. You’re playing with five musicians everyday, having dinner with them, breakfast with you, plane rides….

WS: You like it all don’t you?

FM: Airports are one of my favorite places.

WS: Airports are your favorite place even after all the security stuff they’ve added?

FM: “That’s right. It gives people more to talk about. It’s so beautiful. It never fails that I end up talking with some lovely human being who just happens to sit next to me, if you’re lucky enough to stop looking ahead and take notice of your surroundings.”

WS: I read in some of the previously published interviews and in the liner notes that this is a rare studio recording for you. Can you tell me about the recording session at the Rudy Van Gelder Studio? I know Van Gelder was there and Houston Person.

FM: It was such a thrill to do a record at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio because it’s practically by invitation only even though you have to spend your money. He won’t take anybody. I found out I was on his list of people he’d like recorded there. I think probably the best record I have out there with regards to sound. He’s a master; the history…like the first time I walked into the Village Vanguard –all those great people who’d played there. I could feel this when I walked into the Rudy Van Gelder Studio.

“It made me feel how great it is to be alive. I’m really big on realizing dreams, mine and others. It’s important to be a part about someone else’s dreams and have something to do with it coming true.”

WS: Barney at High Note, said Houston Person was there.

FM: The first time I met Houston, the great tenor saxophone player; he played with Etta Jones for a few years. I thought they were married, but they weren’t. He one of those mean Texas tenor players – plenty of soul. I’ve never had a chance to play with him but he helped me out with the record date.

WS: How did you decide what songs to have?

FM: This is where Houston Person came in. He suggested the ballads.

WS: You’re the ballad person.

FM: I wanted to do the theme from ‘Love Story.’ My family asked me to do this. You know I moved back to Minneapolis. I left here when I was six.

WS: So you hadn’t lived there since you were six? So when you left to go to Los Angeles to live with your father….

FM: Well actually I left to live with my father’s mother. I was raised by both my grandmothers. In Minneapolis I lived with my mother’s mother. Then when I moved to Milwaukee I lived with my father’s parents: Grandmother Lizzy. (Both were Native American, his grandfather full-blood.)

FM: I’ve been living in New Mexico for six-seven years. I’ve been able to find out a little more about my heritage.

WS: Maybe there were some things you were already doing which you weren’t aware of how they connected to your family.

FM: I learned that under the Native American spirit is the Black Spirit.

WS: Did I read that you played “Love Story” at your father’s or your mother’s funeral?

FM: I played it at my father’s funeral in Hawaii and more recently at my mother’s memorial services in Minneapolis which prompted me coming home. I came home to see my mother a few months before she died. I left because had to go on the road. She died 20 minutes after I left. They called me in Chicago and I came back and a few months after that my family called me and said, ‘We’d like you to come home to live so we can take care of you.’

“God, what can you do with that?”

WS: Wow, isn’t that beautiful?

FM: They kidnapped me. I am so pampered. For example, I was anti-cell phone. I’d never had one. As soon as I walk in the door they hand me one, and say, ‘Here, you’re going to need this. Everybody in the family has one; everyone in the world has one.

I laugh.

FM: My first cousin is an executive at Verizon Express, so everyone in the family is (technologically savvy.) I’m trying to catch up on life, and the love of my family.

WS: I read that you always wanted your family around you, and now you have it.

FM: It feels so great. Coming home off the road it’s so nice to have someone there. They pick me up from the airport, take me there – everything. They were not kidding when they said they wanted to take care of me.

WS: You were telling me about some of the other songs.

FM: A beautiful song I’d hear Billie Holiday sing for many years and never (played) it; Houston brought the music to it. It’s called, ‘Crazy He Calls Me.’ When Billie Holiday would sing it when I was working with her as a kid, she would make me cry every night she would sing. A great experience for a 17 year old.

WS: Did you cry when you were playing it at the recording date?

FM: I was holding back the tears; I didn’t want the guys to see it.” He laughs.

WS: Well nowadays it’s okay for men to cry. So tell me, how was it working with Billie Holiday when you were just a teenager?

FM: Oh, it was great. I was able to grasp as much at the time, being 17. Looking back on it, man her spirit, I can hear it. She meant every word she said, every word. She knew I was bashful. Oh man.

WS: What did she look like, was she beautiful?

FM: Even more beautiful except towards the end. No matter how hard she tried not to be beautiful – not taking care of herself… she was still beautiful. Sometimes I feel like I had too much too soon.

WS: You were so young to be right there on the deep end.

FM: I’m grateful.

WS: Yes, it all went into making you who you are.

FM: That’s right.

WS: And it definitely comes out in your work. So when you play, are you telling some of those stories you’ve experienced in your life through your music?

FM: Oh yes, I’m trying to reflect on it. I put as much into it as I want to get out of it. It’s so beautiful to play, when you can openly lead with your heart. You don’t have to be afraid about being disappointed or anything.

WS: I read that the Thelonius Monk tunes: “Monks Mood” and “Blue Monk” were challenging to you musically, that you hadn’t understood him as a composer but you are getting more into him now.

I think they’re great. I think you’re great on them.

FM: I didn’t appreciate him as a pianist. He didn’t have the flawless technique like Oscar Peterson. He had a different kind of technique. He used those rings on his fingers and would hit the keys (stacking) several notes one on top of the other to give (his music) a more percussive effect. He played with his elbows. I’d feel funny now if I did an album and didn’t have one of his tunes.

“I was like that about Wayne Shorter for a long time (also). It didn’t change how I felt about him. He’s great. I had to find room for Monk. I’m so glad I did.” (Wayne Shorter tunes show up on volume 1 in the High Note trilogy.)

WS: Between this studio recording, the one before this at least 20 years before, and the last two albums before this one are “Live at the Jazz Standard,” do you see or notice any difference between the two studio dates and how you approach the music?

FM: I like recording live better. I miss the vibe off the people.

WS: Yes, you said that. It is really sterile, isn’t it?

FM: “Yeah. Old cold-ass studio. Studios are such horrible places (to make art.)”

WS: What do you do?

FM: It’s like when you’re on the road moving from one place to another you have to find that vibe. That’s why I like to play with people that I really dig. I like to play with people I am compatible with.

WS: Is there anyone else who you haven’t played with whom you’d like to play with?

FM: I haven’t played with Herbie Hancock. There are so many young cats like Kenny Garrett. I haven’t played with him. He’s a bad boy, and of course Charles McPherson.

WS: Is he in Southern California still?

FM: Yes, Charles and I played the Chicago Jazz Festival September 30 last year. Donald Harrison was playing with us and we wondered if he was going to make it. He said he ‘escaped from New Orleans,’ those are the words he used.

WS: I bet that was a heavy concert.

FM: I suggested to the guys that we let Donald stretch out, and he did. He played his butt off.

WS: How is Donald Harrison doing?

FM: I’ve seen him a couple of times. We get to these festivals, and only get a chance to say hi and bye (to other artists).

I’m particularly proud of the opportunity to play with Sean Jones. It’s the realization of a dream for him. He really wanted to play with me and I hope it is the first of many.

WS: It’s really good Yoshi’s records the concerts if you want to do something with it like a “Live at Yoshi’s.”

FM: And we probably will. Yoshi’s is the consummate hall. It ranks right there with Club Dizzy at Lincoln Center. I think.

WS: Now that you’re on the High Note label, did you realize Joe Field, bought out the Savoy label from Arista, and Charlie Parker was on Savoy?

FM: My God.

WS: Did you know that?

FM: No.

WS: I thought, wow, you’re on the same label as Charlie Parker. Historically you’re in the same lineage.

FM: I am certainly going to call and get the catalog. Actually my first record date was on Savoy. I did this thing with Kenny Clark and three quarters of the Modern Jazz Quartet. It was actually a Kenny Clark date, who was the drummer with the Modern Jazz Quartet at that time, and Milt Jackson and Percy Heath. I guess I was about 18. It was in Southern California.

WS: Tell me about Josephine Baker who just had a birthday, the second Saturday in June. She would have been 100.

FM: She sure knew how to make a young man blush. I just played for her once at Club Alabam. We had a benefit on a Sunday afternoon for the NAACP and she was at the Paramount Theater in downtown LA, so she came down and we did the benefit. After the show was over she called me to her dressing room.

“‘I just wanted to congratulate you young man,’ you sight read my music like an old pro.’ She grabbed me and kissed me on both cheeks. She had the most beautiful bags under her eyes, with blush and long eyelashes touched me on the side of my face.”

We laugh.

FM: Don’t you tell nobody that. No, that’s okay. Between her and Billie Holiday, I had no will power. When I look back on all that I see how precious it was. Life is so fleeting.

WS: A lot of the interviews I read talk about your father as a professional musician (Ink Spots) and friend of Charlie Parker’s, how you were a guitarist first before starting out on the clarinet then alto. What was it when your dad took you to see Charlie Parker for the first time that made you realize this is what you wanted to do with your life? I ask Morgan who was seven at the time, Parker, 20.

FM: It’s almost indescribable. It was overwhelming. I didn’t have any choice but to play that instrument, if I wanted to play. I was a guitarist up until that point. When (Parker) took the bandstand and played his first solo, my dad said I turned to him and said, ‘Dad that’s it for the guitar. That’s what I want to play right there.’

“As a matter of fact (Parker) was a friend of my dad’s so he took me backstage and introduced him. He was supposed to meet my father and me to purchase a horn but he couldn’t make it and send Wardell Gray and Teddy Edwards and they picked out a clarinet. What’s ironic is I played with both Teddy Edwards and Wardell Gray. (With Gray I) recorded ‘Introducing Frank Morgan’ with the legendary Carl Perkins on piano, Leroy Vinegar on bass, Larance Marable on drums, Conte Candoli on trumpet, Howard Roberts on guitar. They were Machito’s rhythm section.”

WS: Machito’s rhythm section, I repeat in disbelief?

FM: Yes, Charlie Parker recorded with him.

WS: How old were you?

FM: 18 or 19.

WS: I thought you were young. That’s amazing. It’s almost like you got a calling, like people get callings for religious stuff. I guess it’s not a far stretch, music is spiritual.

FM” Sure. I’ve finally learned to relax with those things. I have finally realized I’m blessed.

WS: You certainly are.

FM: We’re all blessed in certain ways. So I’m working it out with my horn. I sit back and let it play itself and try not to get in the way.

WS: You’re like the conduit. The stuff just flows. Are you ever surprised with what comes out?

FM: Always. Surprised but never satisfied.

WS: You keep on pushing it?

FM: Oh yes, one day I might come close to getting it right. I’ll probably never get it right.

WS: You probably have this ideal your audience is not aware of. It’s like your contract with God after the stroke. I’m really happy on your last live albums that George Cables was there and you recorded his, “Helen’s Song.” The title is after his mother’s name. My mother’s name is Helen too.

FM: That’s one of my favorites. There are two songs I never play with anyone else except George, and that’s Lullaby and Helen’s Song. I don’t think they’d sound right with anyone else.

WS: Are any of these originals on these recent High Note recordings?

FM: They are originals but not by me. I got carried away and didn’t write anything down. But I’d much rather play the beautiful songs written by the composers, people who compose better than I. I’m happy to record their songs in my own way.

WS: I read that you want to record with a string orchestra. Has that been set up yet?

FM: Yes, I do want to do this. It’s a big money project. If I can ever save enough money, I’d be happy to sponsor myself in a big project.

WS: You’ve recorded with Tel Arc and one of their artists, Ladysmith Black Mambazo recorded with a string orchestra in South Africa. Perhaps they might pick it up.

FM: I have to establish my credibility with High Note so I can go on…. When you’ve been places I’ve been you have to prove yourself over and over.

WS: Oh really?

FM: Oh sure. I understand that and I accept the challenge. I’m on a straight and narrow path and stay focused. I hope to be worthy of people putting up the money to do the string thing.

WS: But I was thinking for instance, the San Francisco Symphony has a summer concert series, it’s called Music in the City. You could do something with them, or the Oakland East Bay Symphony….

FM: I played with the Paris Symphony Orchestra. That’s in the archives of France. But it felt quite comfortable…he mentions the conductor (a name I can’t spell).

From Oakland Morgan goes to Los Angeles to Catalina Bar & Grill with Sean Jones, Ronnie Matthews, Tony Dumas, and Tootie Heath, then on to a duo gig with Ronnie Matthews in Minneapolis, then on August 25, he’s playing another duo in New York at Joe’s Club next door to the Public Theatre. Visit his website to stay in touch

WS: I was thinking with Winton Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Orchestra. Perhaps promoters don’t know you want to do a string concert that might be why you haven’t been invited. We need to let them know.

FM: “Yeah you’re right.” He laughs. “Basic communication. Let someone know what you want to do.”

WS: Right. Is there anything else you want to do that I should tell people?

FM: Just tell them I love them and I look foreword to playing my heart out.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Color Purple Closes, An Interview with Sheila Walker, Conductor and Musical Director

After two months in San Francisco, The Color Purple is closing December 9, so if you have been waiting to go, if you want to save yourself the price of airfare to Los Angeles, where it’s headed next week, get you tickets now, the show is well worth the discounted $49.50 for all seats in the house. Call (415) 512-7770 or Groups rates are even lower and other discounts might apply so call or drop by the Orpheum theatre box office, 1192 Market Street at 8th Street, Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For groups sales call (415) 551-2020. Visit Shows are Tuesday-Saturday evenings at 8 p.m. and Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m.

I love this show. There are so many places where this work touches its audience that I don’t have enough room to share what it meant to me to see Alice Walker’s novel translate so well to the stage musically and lyrically. Where the film did a disservice to the development of characters, such as "Mister" whose rage made them erupt on innocent bystanders like Celie, Nettie’s big sister, was a place I wanted to dwell for the joyful ride into redemption. The Color Purple is the hope we look for when we travel through the fire hoping to emerge free. It’s the Sankofa on the other side of the terror and pain—Maafa.

Rereading Alice Walker’s book, watching the film once more and then seeing the play twice, and I’m hoping one more time before it leaves town, I am captivated by the production—I know these people. They are my family. The cast is so phenomenal, especially Jeanette Bayardelle as "Celie" and Felicia P. Fields as "Sophia," Rufus Bond, Jr. as "Mister" and Stu James as "Harpo." These are two powerful black women, whose characters suffer—Sophia suffers because she is strong and powerful and unlike Celie never bows until beaten almost to death. Then there's Celie whose lost spirit returns home once she realizes her sister Nettie still loves her.

The Color Purple is a story that illustrates the power of love. Love doesn’t hurt its beloveth. Love is the healing balm in Zion. It's the secret weapon characters use to fight injustice; it is what saves several characters' souls and humanizes those whose humanity seems irrevocably lost. I watched in awe the sister conducting just in front of me and then I walked up and stood closer when the finale came and people were on their feet, the cast smiling and singing and waving at us. I stayed at the front of the theatre and observed the orchestra perform—they are exceptionally good, all of them, then listened to the shop talk afterwards before introducing myself to the conductor, Sheila Walker, who said, "Sure," when I asked her if I could interview her later on in the run. We were all set to talk when my family's companion and loved one and friend, Smokey Zakat Sabir died that morning. I still miss her. The house is so empty without her. She is buried under the tree in the back yard. (To read her obituary visit Click “blog.”)

A week or two later Sheila Walker and I spoke about her climb to the top of the game through tenacity and lots of work. Walker’s from Dallas and has been conducting since she was a child, through high school and into college where her degree in music education from the University of North Texas, also includes voice, piano and conducting. Yes, the sister can do it all, like claim the position as musical director and conductor and it was hers.

Wanda Sabir: When I saw you at the play I was so excited to have an opportunity to interview you. There are so few women conductors, particularly of Broadway plays. I don’t know how many African American conductors there are, but I just wanted to know how you did it, and what brings you to this particular production.

Sheila Walker: “Let’s see. I’ve always wanted to conduct. Even as a kid I did a lot of church work. It always seems to start in the church for a lot of African American people. I started very early playing piano and conducting at first junior choirs and later on got to where I was conducting at my school and having the choir director have me assist them. When I got to college, I took conducting classes as well as classical piano and voice there. All those things combined into music education.

“I got into a high school for performing arts and was the choir director and conductor. I still wanted to do musical theatre, so I did it on the side in regional theatre and I worked my way into doing summer stock. That’s where you sort of get that opportunity to go on tour. The first tour I got was out for a year and then I decided to move to New York and was there for about 15 years.

During that time I did a couple of Broadway shows but most of the time I was getting shows and going out on the road and then I got back to Dallas, my home in 2002. Although I went to London to supervise the production of Ragtime there in 2003 and did some other guest artist work. I decided to stay off the road for a bit and in 2006, right after the Tony’s and Rhonda LaChanze Sapp won the award for the role of Celie in “The Color Purple” and I was there to visit her, but I also knew Linda Twine who was the musical director. So I saw the show, saw them and they said, ‘There is going to be a Chicago production of this; you need to get your name in the pot.” I said, ‘Oh I would love to,” because I had seen excerpt of it on the Oprah show and I knew several people I had worked with who were in the show. I said to myself, this is the show I need to do, and my sister said, ‘This is the one you need to claim.’

“My sister Sonja is the muse in my life. She is so supportive. She said, ‘You need to claim that piece.’ I said, that’s the one I want to do. We went to visit New York to talk to Linda and before I knew it she’d called me around Thanksgiving and told me, ‘I need you to send all your information to them. We had a conference call and a little before Christmas I had the job. The wheels started turning at that time. I moved to Chicago at the end of February when we started the rehearsals and from there the show proceeded.

“This is how I got there. It’s kind of in a nutshell. It a long (process), you have to work in the trenches at regional theatres have people put their confidence in you as a musical theatre director. You really do have a big responsibility to the show. After the director leaves you’re still there putting the show together, not only putting it together. If you are the musical director and the conductor you continue to maintain the show. Make notes about the music, keep the orchestra together or whatever type of group you are conducting. In some instances you’re a player conductor. If you have a smaller ensemble. I’ve toured with those kinds of groups too. It’s been everything from a small group of about four or five to a group of about 28-30. And it’s been from Texas all the way to Japan and back. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to do what you love doing. That’s my (advice) to everyone. Enjoy what you are doing and you’re do it really well.”

WS: You said your sister told you to claim it. Why did you want this particular show? Was it something to do with this relationship between the two sisters, their relationship?

SW: “Oh yes! You hit right on it,” the conductor says with a smile and laughter in her voice. My sister and I are so close. Every night when I see Nettie coming back to Celie and the music is playing and I’m conducting—the music is so sweeping and it wraps up your emotions, it’s so well done. You see them looking at each other like they haven’t seen each other for years and years. I haven’t been that way with my sister because we see each other whenever we can. There have been times when I lived in New York when there have been months and months before I’d get to see her and it was such a joy. We talk all the time, basically everyday. There are times when we go for a couple of days and she’ll call me and say, ‘What’s the matter, how come you haven’t called me?’

“So I was attracted to that story. The other thing is that, it was intriguing when I heard The Color Purple was becoming a musical I’d read the book, seen the movie, I wondered how they were going to do this. There are such dark elements in this story. Many times you think of musicals as uplifting, delightful. You may have some challenging moments, but this was such a dark story. But, when I was able to see it, I just couldn’t believe it. This was really what it was intended to be, to go to the next level. Certainly the music attracted me to it, more than anything. Meeting the composers: Stephen Bray, Allee Willis, Brenda Russell, it was just a delight. They are as nice as they are talented and says a lot in this business. They’ve gotten so many awards individually and then collectively they have been acknowledged so much for the work that they have done with The Color Purple. I’m just so glad to be a part of the music staff they have worked with this show.”

WS: You’re right the music is really sweeping and you’re right it moves you emotionally all the various stories which are very sad, even though Celie does get through it. Goodness gracious it takes a while to get through it.

SW: “Right. What else can happen to this woman. She does have to spend a long time – it’s to Jeanette Bayardelle’s credit that she shows us a little girl, a young woman and then an older woman. You can see it in the way her body moves. You can see it in the way her voice sounds. You can see it in the makeup they’ve created. All these things create the illusion on stage that makes it believable to the audience. That’s why the story rings so true. It’s so authentic from all those people who have put it together from hair, make-up, costumes, lighting, and the actors themselves and the choreographer and the choreography and of course the composers and the music. Every element, most importantly the direction—Gary Griffin who did the direction, who had the vision to do it. It comes off so well because at this point it’s a well oiled machine.”

WS: I was thinking of the way Jeanette portrays Celie when comes into her power I’m like wow where did that voice come from?!

Sheila laughs in agreement.

WS: When she leans back as if pulling up her roots or chains and tossing off her burdens—then slowly rises, voice coming from a place so far removed from the house where she was a slave to an idea more than a man, that she was unworthy of love.

SW: “I go with her. You don’t know when she’s going to stop, you just get the feel. She let’s you know when she’s going to let that note go. It soars at the very end. The whole piece sets up for that. It shows a lot about her character and its development.

“The mousy kind of sound and at the very beginning she is timid and shy and in the end she is empowered. The song is the 11:00 o’clock number. It shows the empowerment of journey up to then now that she is going to take control of her life. It’s the icing on the cake, Nettie coming back to her at the very end.

“The irony is that the two most important other people in her life, Mister and Shug are instrumental in getting Nettie back and her children too.

“It’s a wonderful story that ties up the loose ends. I think this is why the audience loves it. Everybody has redemption in the end. It shows a bit of redemption and forgiveness and love and that’s why she sings, ‘God is inside me and in everything else,’ at the beginning of the song The Color Purple.’”

WS: It was really nice hearing the song The Color Purple. The purple itself as a color, is a color but it is also a metaphor. Purple as in bruised beyond repair and purple as in lavender and violets, a soothing balm. You’ve got the book and the film which is really pretty to look at, but I was telling a friend of mine that with regards to the characters in the film, Steinberg really wasn’t able to develop them as well on the screen so that the audience knows where Mister comes from. The way he is portrayed in the musical, the play, we don’t linger in the stuff—the pain. We even feel sympathetic about a Mister who is just a bitter man. He’s angry because his dad would not bless his union with Shug, so he married another woman and made her life hell, and then continued doing the same with Celie.

His father came out of enslavement and he wanted his son to do better, so he didn’t get a chance to live his dream. He was mad and he had a right to be angry. He didn’t have a right to ruin Celie’s life though. I don’t even remember that. In the film the father doesn’t have any dignity, so one doesn’t get the same kind of impact when he tells Mister what to do. On stage one can see Mister as a young man trembling at his dad’s feet. It’s the same with Harpo, except Harpo is with the woman he loves which is a key difference.

SW: “That’s so true, as a writer you would think about those things.”

WS: I love the chorus in the form of the Church Ladies.

SW: “They are my Greek Chorus. They keep the story moving and even say a few things we might be thinking or saying as an audience. They are the conscious of everybody else. They say things we might not say out loud, which is why we laugh so hard. And we know church ladies like that even thought they are way out there and they work together as a unit, which is wonderful. Two of them come from Broadway, and already had had the experience of working on the show. The third gal had to work her way into the situation and I’m telling you. It’s like they have always been together. The unfortunate thing is that you work on the road and you do this for a while and people start leaving a show. They do it for a while, after a year, people after giving their notice leave. The road is a tough job.

“But though you loose valuable people, there are always people out there, chomping at the bit to get this opportunity, and with a show this popular and so few all black productions out there for African Americans this is an opportunity to showcase such talent. So though you miss the family, you know other family is coming in as time goes on.”

WS: There are so many black folks working in this production! And there are so many black folks coming to see the show! Black dollars are circulating and flipping multiple times before leaving the community. Maybe in some times, the venues might be owned by African American which keeps the black dollars flipping it even better.

SW: “Yes, yes. I wish the best for this production and I wish it is successful like it has been up to this point you see. I know God has his hand on all of this and it’s a great message and there are great people involved.”

WS: I read some of the reviewers because they’re mostly white men had a little trepidation about going to see the musical, then said the music wasn’t remarkable, that you couldn’t necessarily hum or sing anyone of the songs after you left the theatre, like that of say a Roger and Hamerstein musical. We’re coming to see the play on Tuesday, 27 of us, and then I’m coming again and for my daughter and I this is our second time seeing the play. “Cause we just loved it. It’s so beautiful. It speaks to our hearts. It talks about our people and what’s going on with our people, then and now. It addresses the trauma and the healing and the forgiveness.

SW: “I think you pegged it right when you said, many of the male, Caucasian writers who are reviewing this play may not have a connection to the play because all they see are African Americans in the play and many times they have a tendency, if it doesn’t have a European influence that it is not as good, and they compare it to their own background, their own influences. We don’t see it that way. It’s the difference between somebody seeing it through rose colored glasses or the glass being half-empty of half-full. I understand that people have to review a piece and sometimes people will go to a performance because it has a good review or they’re stay at home because it doesn’t have one. But I think, word-of-mouth is much stronger with this piece than any reviewer can make or break this piece in each city.

“So many people flocked to Chicago to see it from around the country, and that grapevine will travel so that when the show lands in a friend’s neighborhood, they’ll know this is the one to see. I remember when Ragtime was on Broadway. I was a member of Ragtime, but not on Broadway. Prior to Broadway we did LA production. That’s where I met and worked with Brian Stokes Mitchell who was with us until he moved on to Broadway and we went on with our LA company and Vancouver and Chicago. I remember the reviewers, said the same thing that the music wasn’t that outstanding and the lyrics, because you know sometimes they don’t see that story. Ragtime was about Coalhouse Walker was a black protagonist. How many times have you had that in a story. They couldn’t see themselves in it and many times this happens when you have that kind of journalist not looking at the work as a whole and in an objective way.

“I know the music moves people. You can see too many tears falling among those in the audience when I turn around and look when the cast is singing The Color Purple. I don’t pay any attention to those type of comments.”

Jimmy Slater passes

Jimmy Milton Slater

Tuesday, Nov. 27 Comrade Jimmy Slater (b. Sept. 3, 1946) made his transition, and Saturday, Dec. 1 we celebrated his return to the ancestors at a wonderful event hosted by his family, daughter and son-in-law along with grandchildren and many guests.

BJ recalled Jimmy’s arrival in Oakland after successfully working to get the first black mayor elected in Cleveland, Ohio. Here he registered voters and helped with the Bobby Seale for Oakland Mayor campaign. Melvin Dixon spoke about his friend’s co-founding of the Commemorator Newspaper when Huey P. Newton was killed, while Tarika Lewis played “African Village” on acoustic violin. Steve McCutchen spoke of meeting Jimmy for the first time in 1972 at the West Oakland Community Center. His daughter shared a dream she had just as her father was making his transition where she told him to not worry, that the family would take care of her mother and sister. Jimmy’s grandchildren sang original songs, composed for the program. It was one of the most serene and peaceful and loving tributes to a person’s life I have even witnessed. I hadn’t realized the kind man, whom I’d see as I walked the Lake often parked in one of Parks and Rec. trucks, was so African-centered. His family and children know who they are. When we arrived at Roselawn Cemetery in Livermore, when I asked if the family had a plot there, Neico told me that her brother was buried there. Benjamin was killed last year in one of many random, senseless homicides. Jimmy is survived by his wife of 35 years, Cynthia A. Slater, daughters, Neico S. Slater-Sa Ra, and Rashidah K. Slater, son-in-law, Kokahyi Sa-Ra, a brother, grandchildren, and many other relatives and friends.