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Four Tough Good Byes

By Amiri Baraka

Though “beginning” travels backward into the wherever, this one was Jackie Mc’s. I’ve already written about it for some weird Spanish magazine (Matador ca: Jan 07). That’s the way it goes in the craziness where we live, harnessed to the dead. Those who still walk around with the harshing memory of those who don’t (not visibly) Right now Little Melonnae is playing accidentally (not) on the box. I played it, maybe, the day I got the news. Jackie’s great album Let Freedom Ring (which really marked the high water mark of that generation’s thrust to innovation). The story about how I had to curse out Clerk Eichman at the record store, even to buy the record, is in the Spanish piece. And just before I began* (*physically not philosophically) to type
Whatever this is… this piece, I picked up the old LP sitting on top of the middle aged box & put it on, not really realizing that I was going to work on this piece.

But the crown of it all is the sense of whooom, woooosh, wheeee, gone, that layers it all. Jackie Mc was one of my touchstones, as far as the developing music of BeBop. That sound and presumed whizzing hip panache were valuable to me, I guess, and in me. Jackie was also, for a minute, one of my road buddies, him and his soon to be, lovely, wife, Dolly. This just before we all made our move out of the Lower East Side, of which Slug’s Dopery had get to be the white house.

To mean, I could not think of him gone. Did not want to think of him that way, because his leaving carried some of my life with him too. One cannot remember one’s life as fully as one has lived it. For one reason was that Jackie was fully alive when I knew him best, and still full of all that the last time I saw him. The funeral, weirdly, confirmed that for all the other I’s, entering our lives through all the eyes we looked into at Abyssinia. And ain’t it funny that as unchurchly as all of us was and is most likely to be right now, how the church do seep into our STOPPED lives? (Yet, I pledge not to be buried in the church, if I have anything to say about it!)

But this is not just about Jackie, the great paradigm post Bird BeBopper, whose sharp cutting edge, and in and out of the dope world, at full hoisted banner still wailing for the next deepness, I/WE hoped was Our own! This is about the month of death, or so it seemed. And it really was for the bare extent of my focus. Though death for my generation has been mounting like Katrina’s bath. Each week some other close friend or known personality cuts out. Of the latter, in essence it didn’t matter whether they were positive or negative, with news of their booking it meant still more of our world was moving away. Perhaps that is why old folks sometime seem so grumpy because, minimally, they have fewer and fewer to verify the epiphanies or even the rotten little misfortunes of their lives.

So that a few days later I thought I saw something on the net, naw, forget it, it couldn’t be that. Not …no… what??? But a few hours later…. & I had just seen John at the Iridium, with Grachan Moncur’s group. The piano seemed further away from the whole group, off to the side. It’s probably always there. (It is, but this week checking out Charles Tolliver’s wondrous big band, it was over there on the side but during the last intermission they changed it so the pianist’s back was to the audience! What dat mean?)

After the set John and I sat at the back of the club, while he ate ice cream and I was telling him about a series we planned in Newark of solo piano concerts which wd feature John, Adegoke Colson, Hilton Ruiz, DD Jackson, Vijay Iyer, some of the badder young “Ticklers” (piano players viz early 20th c hip). Talking with our usual subtle undergarment of humor. John was one of the subtlest and sharpest of the walking around musical minds, his casual understated persona quite the opposite of the rushing syncopation of his OH AW FUNK FUNK YEH THAT’S RIGHT! approach to the box. John’s playing, ask anyone who dug him, put him in line to cop the jazz pianist’s equivalent of James Brown’s “The Hardest Working Man in Show Business.”

We’d known each other for many years. He and his wife, Elise, with me and my wife, Amina sat together at many sets, in many joints, in many people’s houses and ran the world back and forth between us. One of the last was at a party given by another partner of mine, the painter, Emilio Cruz, who also split without notice.

I remember John was sitting at the piano and I crept up on him and challenged him to play Billy Strayhorn’s Blood Count. Yeh, he played it straight out, with the kind of lovely lilt that Duke would give it. Or like his own marvelous After The Morning. Then, just to take me all the way out, he invited another fine piano player, Larry Willis, to sit down and they played it again four hands. It was an altogether spontaneous stretch of loveliness to add to that party’s overall hipness.

I’d also gotten John to come over to Newark to play quite a few times. As featured pianist for our multi-arts presentations as Kimako’s Blues People which went on for 15 years, or for private parties Amina and I had. Once for Amina’s birthday. The last time John played here at our house, he wailed far into the night, not only the smoking tunes we know him for, but for the last hour or so he came out of the covers and instead of the constant reference to the church, he went deep into it and the whole place turned into a revival.

It was the suddenness, the it-couldn’t-be quality of John’s get outta here that was so devastating, disheartening. Jackie Mc’s was a deep blow, like Brando hearing his oldest son getting wiped, it is a body punch that threatens to shatter even the pavement you stand on.

And then the music itself trembles, from these disappearances but also from the general dumbed down condition of the whole culture. The New York Times Book Review reads like the possible reject list 40 years ago, with dim-witted professors, right wing hatchet persons, and straight out hacks emboldened with dirty lucre.

Looking at New York City schedules for The Music, in the clubs and wherever, is likewise chilling. Occasionally (of which I’ll speak in a minute) some brightness and actual reflection of real minds reporting, but in the main the headless whorespeepas run amuck. I’ve repeated myself saying that so called fusion is really social & intellectual betrayal.

But we could hear some of the greats passing among us from time to too long a time later, e.g, recently Andrew Hill, McCoy Tyner, David Murray, Abbey is not feeling well we’re told and that in itself is painful. But for two greats, both warm friends, Jackie Mc and John Hicks, those are like some cruel thing going up side your head with two devastating overhand rights.

We went to Jackie Mc’s funeral at the eloquent Rev Butt’s, Abyssinia, where Gil Noble, the dauntless face of Afro America’s television blog, Like It Is, and Jackie’s roadie since their Harlem childhood, was a eulogist of living and instructive memory. Randy Weston evoked a similar lyrical nostalgic New York vibe to seal the blue package.

A scant few days later Amina and I went John’s wake and funeral, at St Mark’s Methodist Church in Harlem, successive days, plus to the tribute at St Peter’s (May). Amina once had to change the title of her poem to John from “John The Baptist”, once he told her to “John The Methodist”. Son of a Methodist preacher! (Still sounded like a Baptist to us.)

The tribute tho it expressed our collective loss was also an expression of great love and warmth the large audience and broad list of celebrants, which included, Larry Willis, Mulgrew Miller, Joe Lovano, Mickey Bass, Lincoln Center’s Todd Barkan, Amina and I accompanied by Amina Claudine Meyers, The World Saxophone Quartet, Buster Williams, Elise Hicks, and our man Cecil Taylor, so there was all that lyrical and funky love, for us to wander out of the place, still stiff with grief but at least given something of value to go with our loss.

But a few days later, was it on the net, the newspaper later, that again a big NO! flashed and fished through us at this further grimness. Again, one of the young classicists of the The Music, and another close friend. How could this be? With the same incredulous terror that stalked us with news of John, unlike the funeral sadness that came with word of Jackie’s going, the news of Hilton’s death was punctuated with an actual terror! The word was that he had “fallen” but a cynical wonder surged across the jazz community, how could a person receive the kind of injury it was reported that Hilton had suffered - the bones in his face fractured, so badly he went into a coma, from which he never fully returned. From a Fall? So that the word “Murder!” was wrapped completely around this news. And no matter what other word came out, for those of us close to him, that lurking horror remains.

A few days before Hilton had gone to New Orleans to publicize a record he made as a benefit for the survivors of the Katrina Bushwacking, my wife and I had dug him up at Cecil’s Place in Orange, NJ, a place where it’s always possible to see some of the best of the Music.

We arrived mid-set and Hilton was at full smoke. A Carnegie Hall performing prodigy at 8, who studied with the great Mary Lou Williams, & made his first recording at 14, Hilton’s playing was always characterized by constant melodic blues shapes driven by an engine of ever changing rhythms. Hilton would leap back and forth from deep funk blues to Afro-Latino boomaloom effortlessly, cracking himself up at the transformative hip. That night, as he finished, he went into a rap that combined peddling his most recent cd (A New York Story issued by the Hilton Ruiz Music Company), to serving as a jazz quiz show mc, rewarding correct answers with copies of the cd. To a question answered by some quick dude and my wife almost simultaneously “What was Clifford Brown’s nickname?”, Hilton laughed, not knowing I was there, “You sound like Amiri Baraka!” At which I called out and raised my hand from the back. That cracked him and the rest of us all the way up.

Between sets we talked about his recent gigs, his sharp sense of politics, in and out of the music, and how proud he was of himself that he no longer smoked, drank or “messed around”. He also had me touch his stomach, to show that now he had become a karate “black belt”. Not only that, we exchanged phone calls and e-mails the next couple of weeks, as I was trying to get his schedule clear so that we might invite him again to Newark. Like John Hicks, Hilton had been to our house in Newark to play several times, in the Kimako’s Blues People series and for our private sets upstairs. The last time he played here, was at a reading, at the Aljira Art Gallery downtown, featuring Amina and myself, with poets Sekou Sundiata and Halim Suliman & grand trombonist, Craig Harris on the set as well. We still have some boss flicks about that wonderful night.

After the first word came, mainly from the New Orleans police, that Hilton had accidentally fallen in front of a spot in New Orleans, which Hilton’s ex-wife and daughter initially seemed to co-sign despite a swarm of queries and suspicions to the contrary (in recent days daughter Aida is now suing several folk in New Orleans citing Hilton’s being beaten by some person or persons). Horrible, whatever the case, especially this great pianist was only in New Orleans to give survivors financial and spiritual aid.

We went to the New York Tribute to Hilton at LQ’s on Lexington Ave. A buncha musicians played, Zon del Barrio, Willie Martinez y La Familia, Craig Harris, David Murray, Frankie Vasquez, and more, poet Papoleto Melendez fetched us from one side of the room to dig a celebrant slouched in a corner seat. It was Bill Cosby, mournfully quiet, making us remember that Hilton had provided the music from time to time for Cosby’s family show and his Detective series.

But as Spike Lee showed in his powerful When The Levees Broke, the madness and horror in that ex-Black city, is another real terror to be attributed to the Bush’it coming from the Caucasian Crib in Washington, D.C.

I mention a generation seeming to fly out at top speed. The last of the Goodbyes here is the death of a close friend of ours, the poet Halim Suliman. The personal relationship I had with all these people makes this a roll call of regret. Particularly, Halim, who was for several years one of the poets on Amina and my poetry-music ensemble, Blue Ark: The Word Ship. From the earliest days of our Kimako’s Blues People multi-arts series, Halim was on the set, reading and even video taping a few of the programs.

With Blue Ark, Halim traveled with us to the Berlin Jazz Festival, where we made a record, Real Song, plus to universities and venues across the country. He was also acted in my one act play, Song, and as part of the company of actor-singers in the Adegoke Steve Colson production of A Cultural Reminiscence, playing several parts & in a group singing the freedom songs of the Civil Rights Movement, in one act of the work, my Dr. King and The Mountain. The entire work features Colson’s music and another act by Richard Wesley. We did that at NJPAC in Newark and also in Paris.

Halim was a poet lit up by the fire of Newark’s faces and places like a rocket straight out of the Black Arts Movement. That is, he was still trying to make Cultural Revolution. He also taught at Newark’s (shd be) world famous Art’s High School where folks like Sarah Vaughan, Savion Glover, Woodie Shaw, Wayne Shorter, Amina Baraka went. He was the mentor for the string of State Champion Newark High School Debating victories.

But ubiquitous where ever there was a heavy reading in this city. In the Poet-On! Series, I put together, at the Newark Public Library and Public Schools, to continue “popularizing poetry” to carry out my work as New Jersey Poet Laureate in 2002, despite the attack by lying pests, Halim, as usual, was one of the stalwarts. How many folks in this city quoted one of Halim’s poems to make their comments on Newark politics, viz, “James/Ain’t never been Sharp!”

So the loss is up close and personal but also a continuing diminution of the forces of an advanced American art. So these sad goodbyes.

8/29/06 New Ark

From September, 2006


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