Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Persistence of Dreams

I stumbled into a dream when I was a kid. 14 years old, playing percussions, got to audition for Duke Ellington School for the Arts. I got in. First girl drummer. Wallace Roney was in my band class. Debbie Allen was teaching dance there. Totally creative environment. I loved it.

But I and many other students were turned away from our dreams by unscrupulous people. I was suckered into walking away from the one thing I cherished.

1990, motherhood, my son is born. I never pushed him towards music, just tried to expose him. But since the age of 14 he's pursued it with such amazing intensity, I'd swear those unfulfilled musical dreams were birthed into him.

By 6th grade (his 2nd year of playing) he could read more music than I ever could. And by 7th grade, it was obvious something was up with that kid. He had the goods. He really had potential. He had a couple of odd traits — memorizing pieces of music after he saw them a couple of times, and also a strong interest in what was going on around him musically. He would come home going on about what the flutes were doing in a particular song, or about the clarinet parts. And, this was classical music. He's never had a strong interest in classical. But he put himself into it completely, even though he was dying to play jazz in those days.

That told me the kid was really a musician. He could have done what I did in band class at those ages — tune out. He didn't. And today at 20, he's still the same way. Puts himself into every piece he plays.

And the dream that I walked away from at 14, continues.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Bad Brains - from Jazz to Punk

One of the best jazz bands I've ever seen, went on to become one of the greatest punk bands in history, according to many fans of punk music — particularly fans of DC Hardcore.

Bad Brains were called Mind Power when they were a fusion band, and they played music similar to Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever. I hung out with them for a bit when Bad Brains were just starting out, and I visited their house and heard them play jazz — amazing jazz. And while part of the ethos of the punk movement said that anyone could start a band, even without musical skills, Bad Brains stood out among punk bands as guys who could really play their instruments.

Darryl Jennifer (bass), Earl Hudson (drums), and Dr. Know (guitar — he more recently worked with Mos Def), were phenomenal young musicians — some of the best in the DC area at the time. They grew up in the Landover area of PG County (Maryland), at that time a very white county. Among the black kids who lived there, there seemed to be a universal love for fusion — people like Tommy Bolin, Billy Cobham, and Lenny White. The DC area had been known for such beastly musicians as guitarist Wilbur Harris and drummer TC Tolliver, and kids knew that if they were going to pick up an instrument, they'd better practice and get good. This is the environment that Bad Brains grew up in, so it's not surprising that while they embraced the sounds of punk music, they rejected the idea that being a good musician didn't matter.

» More on Bad Brains

Remembering Keter Betts, Bass Player for Ella Fitzgerald for 24 Years

Keter played at Charlie's Georgetown often — the jazz club I worked at in the early 80s. But I never actually met him back then, and it wasn't until shortly before he passed away that I finally had the chance to get to know him.

We were set to work on a project together, but he passed away 2 days before our first meeting. I did get to talk to him by phone a number of times in preparation for our meeting. Those phone calls weren't very productive — I was worried about organizing a very difficult project, but after Keter found out about our Charlie's Georgtown connection, all he wanted to do was tell me stories. And I was very eager to hear them.

Jazz stories, all of them. Keter talked about Ella, about the shows they played, places they'd been, and about the rich musical history of Washington, DC. Once he got started, I couldn't get a word in. And I didn't care. I loved listening to Keter's stories, and hearing the delight in his voice from re-membering so many great events in his life. And about how he got his name — people called him Sketer ('mosquito') when he was young, and at some point Sketer became Keter.

One of the last times I saw him, we were both attending a garden performance by a traditional African group from Rwanda — a group that I later became manager of, Samputu Ingeli. Keter loved the group, and was fixated on and fascinated by the drummers, and at one point I heard him say "now see, he's not just PLAYING the drums, he's BECOMING the drums."

Here's a shot of Angela Bassett, me, and Samputu Ingeli (from Memphis, Tennessee, at the 2004 Freedom Awards.)

» About Keter Betts

Visits from Webster Young

There are many ways in which I took for granted the presence of jazz in my life as I was growing up. Like when Webster Young used to visit my family, and I had no idea that this man had played with John Coltrane, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, and Bud Powell, and that he was friends with Miles Davis.

Webster likely met and became friends with my step-father at the Howard Theater, where Webster first met and got tips from Louis Armstrong, and where he later played, and where my step-father worked.

When I recently saw some of the old family photos from Webster's visits, I was blown away by how blessed I've been, to have the opportunity to know him and the many other great artists I met in my youth.

» About Webster Young

Band Class with Wallace Roney

I played percussions in middle school and in 7th grade, I stumbled into an opportunity — auditioning for the then-new Duke Ellington School for the Arts in DC, which had opened the year prior. I passed the audition and got in, and I became Duke Ellington's first female drummer. I sat in band class with Wallace Roney. Not long ago Wallace's brother Antoine told me that Roy Hargrove was also at Ellington at that time. But crazy as it sounds, I have no memory of him.

But I remember Wallace clearly. He was a very nice, really quiet and unassuming, and very serious about music. He was very humble — didn't at all act like he was a hotshot, even though several lesser musicians at the school did.

Back in those days (early 70s) Duke Ellington had a very liberal environment. But Wallace seemed to have no interest in being with the 'cool' kids, or getting involved with anything that didn't support his musical pursuits.

I didn't finish my high school years at Duke Ellington, and the next time I saw Wallace was when he performed where I worked, at a jazz club in DC, the now-defunct Charlie's Georgetown (named after part-owner Charlie Byrd.) It was amazing to see what he had worked so hard for, and I then understood why he had no interest in the shenanigans going on around him in high school — he was on a mission, and he wasn't going to let anything distract him.