Sunday evening we attended an onstage conversation between poet Amiri Baraka and bassist Reggie Workman at Oakland's Eastside Arts Center. Actually it wasn't onstage but the esteemed gentlemen were part of the circle of artists, intellectuals and community people who turned out for the event.
Since I declined to speak at the event, I am posting my comments now. Since the age of fourteen or fifteen, I have listened to jazz. Of course I heard it growing up, especially my family moved from Fresno to Oakland's 7th Street, but was turned on to jazz by a heroin addict friend, Ronald Williams. In between shooting dope, Ronald and his friends used to listen to jazz and discuss Islam. What a potent mixture! I didn't indulge the dope, but I listened to the music and conversation. Sometimes we'd be a a little cafe on Whitesbridge and they would play Nina Simone's I Love You Porgy over and over.
Once in Oakland and living on 7th Street in the back of my parents Florist business, jazz filled my world, especially as a Cub Scout hustling Jet and Ebony magazines up and down 7th. Of course I recall the signs on the wall of Slim Jenkin's Club advertising such artists as Josephine Baker and Father Earl Hines. I'd heard my parents discussing Jo Baker many times. Not much jazz was played in our house, but I did hear the big band music of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Up and down 7th I could hear music blasting on the juke box, blues and jazz, especially that B-3 Hammond organ. The Hammond took my soul into another zone. Poet Avotcja has a poem and play called Oaktown Blues. It is a masterful piece but somehow she never mentions that organ music by Jimmy Smith and others. When I think of West Oakland music culture in the late 50s, I think of the B-3. It seemed to dominate the scene. I understand this was true in Newark, New Jersey and other places as well.
My association with jazz continued with lessons from my high school girlfriend, Sherley A. Williams (RIP), who had an access to her sister Ruby's extensive collection of blues and jazz, Sherley turned me onto Hank Crawford and a few others.
In 1966, playwright Ed Bullins and I established Black Arts West Theatre in San Francisco's Fillmore. We were soon joined by a host of musicians, e.g., Dewey Redman, Earl Davis, Oliver Jackson, BJ, Monte Waters, Rafael Donald Garrett, et al. In freestyle, they accompanied our plays and went outside to play in harmony with the street sounds, car horns, human sounds, the wind and fog.
They helped free us poets, playwrights and actors from the white supremacy esthetic as per formal drama. They smashed the very concept and made us conscious just how free one can be if one will just go there. They told us thespians, just do your thing and we will come in and out as we desire. They went from stage to audience, in the best manner of what would become known as ritual theatre, similar to the circle at Sunday's conversation at Eastside Arts.
After Black Arts West Theatre went under, Eldridge Cleaver, Ed Bullins, Ethna Wyatt (Hurriyah) and myself founded Black House on Broderick Street in SF. The Chicago Art Ensemble performed at Black House, which the hot political/culture center during 1967. After introducing Eldridge to Black Panthers Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, Black House soon became the SF headquarters. The artists were kicked out due to ideological differences: cultural nationalism versus political nationalism. Sometime later the Panthers would understand the necessity of the cultural revolution--this was after they attended the Pan African Arts Festival in Algeria. But soon after the fall of Black House, many artists, musicians, poets, fled the negative atmosphere of the Bay for New York. Ed Bullins fled to New York and joined the New Lafayette Theatre in Harlem. I fled to Toronto, Canada as a draft resister. After about six months, I returned underground to Chicago, hanging around OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture) and Phil Koran's Afro-Arts Theatre. OBAC poets included Don L. Lee, aka Haki Madhubuti, Gwen Brooks, Hoyt Fuller, Carolyn Rogers, Jewell Lattimore, et al.
I was in Chicago when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, but soon fled to New York when I found out the FBI was closing in on me. Ed invited me to work at the New Lafayette Theatre as associate editor of Black Theatre Magazine. Much like Rumi meeting Shams, or Malcolm X meeting Elijah Muhammad, I met Sun Ra and my world has never been the same. With Sun Ra I discovered the depths of drama, the integration of poetry, music, dance, lights, costume, mythology. Sun Ra taught the necessity of artistic and personal discipline to be one's creative best. During this time I met drummer Milford Graves. He frightened me to death with his aggressive drummer, so bold that he was banned from playing downtown New York.
Milford's music was so political, it was then that I finally realized the musicians and arts were the vanguard of spreading revolutionary consciousness. The politicos had much to learn from them. The arts gave the musicians and poets more mental balance and especially more spirituality.
The essence of Sunday's conversation at Eastside Arts was that musicians, poets, rappers must know our history and stay connected with the people. Amiri Baraka pointed out that we are still slaves, although Elder Ed Howard would argue that we are not slaves, rather simply Africans caught in the slave system. For example, Ed would say how could slaves or free slaves publish a newspaper called Freedom's Journal in 1827? How could a slave write David Walker's Appeal, 1829? How could a slave write the Frederick Douglas classic What to a slave is the 4th of July?
Workman and Baraka stressed Jazz is the only American music, the other music is European, only jazz is American. James Baldwin said in my 1968 interview with him, "We're the only thing that happened here, nothing else happened here but us!"