I have lived a very comfortable life. I am also pretty satisfied with what I have. I too often remain in my soft place and just get angry when things go wrong.
Then there are others who stand up and make a difference. Sometimes it isn’t easy.
Painting by William Hahn
One who goes before, as into the wilderness preparing the way for others to follow.
HUGH MASEKALA, JAZZ PIONEER,
TRUMPETER AND ANTI -APARTHEID ACTIVIST
This past week Hugh Masekela, 78, died. During his life he tore up the jazz scene in South Africa and the USA with both his trumpet and with his voice against injustice. He never hesitated to venture down new paths and was definitely a pioneer of South African jazz. He was part of the be-bop sextet, The Jazz Epistles. This group broke new musical ground and attendance records in Cape Town. Their success came to a screeching halt when the South African government banned public gatherings of more than 10 black people. The ban was put in place following the massacre of 69 protesters by police in a township near Johannesburg. Soon after black artists were forced underground Hugh Masekela left for the USA and New York City. He never forgot the richness and the trials of his homeland, and his music remained rooted in both the discord and the sounds of Africa. He is quoted as saying, “I was marinated in jazz and I was seasoned in music from home”.
I remember hearing him play in a jazz concert in Detroit and then later when he was featured with Paul Simon and Ladysmith Black Mambazo on the Graceland tour.
His song Bring Him Back Home made me aware of the struggle to free Nelson Mandela, who was languishing in a South African prison. Hugh Masekela returned to live in South Africa in 1990 , the year Nelson Mandela was being freed and apartheid was ending.
He ventured out, clearing a way that made it easier for others.
THE DARK CONTINENT
Growing up in a somewhat rural suburb of Detroit I knew of the existence of Africa through Tarzan movies and later the Joseph Conrad novel, The Heart of Darkness . Africa was mostly referred to as the dark continent. It was a mysterious land that was accessible by snake filled rivers winding through dense jungles. At least to a young mind, that was the impression. Geography class brought some light, and then at some point I heard Miriam Makeba and Hugh Maskala’s powerfully emotional music. There were suddenly a lot of bells going off. There was a lot more to this world than I had known before.
To get to know a country and its people listen to the music and the musicians.
ANOTHER ARTIST TO LISTEN TO AND LEARN FROM
a Detroit clarinetist and saxophonist and jazz pioneer who at 75 is alive and thriving. Coming off his great January gig at the Dirty Dog, he got the news this past week that he was the 2018 Kresge Eminent Artist. This is a lifetime achievement award with a $50,000 cash prize.
Detroit drummer Gayelynn McKinney, also a member of the Kresge Arts in Detroit Advisory Council says, “Wendell is like the Energizer Bunny,” said , which made the final selection of Harrison as this year’s Eminent Artist. “He never slows down. He’s always striving to learn more. All of us in my generation have learned a lot from him. He’s inspired me to go after what I want, and he instilled in us that you have a responsibility to pass along the information to those who come after you.”
Mostly known with preserving Detroit’s jazz legacy, Harrison had spent time in the thriving New York jazz scene before returning to Detroit. In New York he performed with such impressive artists as Grant Green, Big Maybelle, and Sun Ra. Back in Detroit he co-founded Tribe, a record label and artist collective. Tribe documented our city’s freewheeling jazz sound and served as an outlet for the black political consciousness.
In 1971, when Wendell returned from New York he reconnected with Marcus Belgrave, Harold McKinney and trombonist Phil Ranelin. Together they.formed the Tribe record label and artist collective. The group also included drummer and composer Doug Hammond, pianist Kenny Cox, trumpeter Charles Moore, pianist David Durrah, and bassist Ron Brooks. These Detroit stalwarts in Tribe started a new dialog in the jazz community and didn’t hesitate to address social change.
Tribe took on a broader community focus with the publication of Tribe magazine, which explored subjects such as economic injustice, school busing, abortion and police brutality.
“I’m just trying to carry on the tradition,” Harrison said in the news release. “I’m trying to represent the high caliber of artists from Detroit dedicated to jazz improvisation.”
Wendell Harrison, 75, is still searching to find the African roots in the rhythms of Detroit jazz. He has new realms to explore. Pioneers just don’t stop being pioneers.
Like Wendell says,It’s been a long journey — sometimes challenging but sometimes very rewarding,” Congratulations Wendell.
I am struck by the similar paths that these two pioneers have taken. Both have been great musicians, social activists, seekers of truth and ceaseless pioneers in jazz.
Every day jazz musicians around Detroit pack up their gear and head out into the night to their gigs, sometimes into the known and sometimes into the unknown. They may be playing standards with a well practiced group one day and then breaking new ground the next day. Regardless, jazz artists always have something to say. We listen a little more intently when they push the envelope and pioneer new ideas.
COMING THIS WEEK TO THE DIRTY DOG JAZZ CAFÉ
Jan 31 – Feb 3
Ian is a Detroit based pianist, composer, producer and educator. He’ll be playing a mix of Jazz standards and his own compositions. In past gigs at the Dirty Dog Ian has created and played an original piece for the occasion. Ian is a class act.
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