The News – November 3, 2018
On Saturday morning, I woke up and unsuspectingly checked my facebook page. I was in for a shock. A friend has posted that Roy Hargove, the premier jazz trumpet player of his generation, died the day before, Friday November 2nd. He was 49 years old.
“Why?” Was my immediate response. It still is. How and why did this man, this young man, pass away like this. Why did he have a such premature death? Am I in mourning? No not yet. It is not real to me yet. I have not fully grasped what has been lost. (my hope is by the end of writing this essay I will.) What is real are the vivid memories that I have of Roy during my days on the jazz scene in New York. I want to use this piece to visit those memories and see through them the Roy Hargrove, and the other Young Lions, who were a part of the New York City jazz scene of the late 1990s and early 2000s. I want to use these memories to reflect on the jazz term “young lion,” and to understand the significance of the young men who are bestowed with this title to African America. Before I begin, however, I must say that this is not a Roy Hargrove biography. I will leave that work to others. This is not a memoir about Roy Hargrove – I did not know him well enough for that. It is rather a kind of ethnomusicological field journal, or a jazz memoir, that includes recollections of and reflections on our Brother Hargrove, and the young jazz musicians who swirled around him, from the perspective of a cultural insider who was there. I, Maya Cunningham, the jazz vocalist and now ethnomusicologist, will tell what I saw of Hargrove, from the perspective of a participant observer in the music-culture known as “the jazz scene.” (I know the term ‘participant observer’ sounds very formal. But it is rather fun to employ an official term from ethnomusicology that researchers use to refer to their role as field workers.) Of course during those younger days of mine, such a position or perspective never entered my mind. I was simply a young twenty-one-year-old, in New York City, and on a mission to sing jazz… (Did you catch that I said that I was twenty -one?) Yes. This tale begins a few years before this landmark birthday and ends several years after. Expect to hear the interweaving stories of young love, New York City adventures, youthful mistakes, (mine and others) and all of the zaniness of the DC and NYC jazz scenes during that time. That is why I have changed all names of the people who I talk about in this memoir. This is also an interactive piece. I have included excerpts from some of the recordings that I mention. I invite you to click and listen as you read. With all of that being said, let us step back into time and visit the year 1996 when I first heard my brother Roy Hargrove play his horn.
I have to be honest. Ever since I was called to jazz by my father’s Miles Davis and John Coltrane CDs at age twelve, I have had a keen interest in jazz musicians. Aside from the gargantuan challenge of becoming a jazz singer, which is a task that is in itself filled with intrigue, I have had a curiosity about the men, the black men, who make the music. Until I became a student at Washington DC’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts, I had never met any real – life jazz musicians. My young world was filled with gospel pianists and singers at church, and R+B throwback hits on the radio. Then, on the first day of my freshman year at Duke Ellington the time had come. As I walked out of the building with friends at the end of the school day I spotted a brown Nissan Maxima that was slowly riding on the left-hand side street of the school. The car snatched my attention because of the strains of a piano solo that floated out of the window. It was not only the bebop that the car stereo was blasting into the atmosphere that drew my attention, but also the young brown men inside, with big afros hanging out of the windows, who were doing the blasting. Interesting. I took notice and then continued on with the business of being fashionable and looking cute in my stacked wooden clog mules as I made my way to the bus stop to go home.
Because my mom dropped me off at the school super early sometimes, for some reason I began making my way to the third floor of the school where the music program was located to eat my breakfast. (Perhaps I passed by once and the music arrested my attention.) The jazz band rehearsed before school, and as I am I writing this, I remember that I used to sit near the doorway to enjoy the lively sounds. One morning, a very tall, robust, caramel colored young man with glasses and a chiseled face stepped out of the jazz band room. He looked down on me from his six plus feet (I was and still am 5’1) and produced a deep and rich “Hello,” with a facial expression that was a combination of reticence and amusement. He was holding a saxophone (I don’t remember if it was an alto or tenor). His name was Curtis Lewis, and as I am sure you have picked up from my earlier foreshadowing, he would become my good friend the next year. The jazz band at a specialty arts high school like this seems to be a kind of crucible in which potential Young Lions are nurtured. And now I pause to define this term. A Young Lion of jazz was a term that came into wide use in the 1980s. These were the young black men who were carrying forward the earlier be-bop and hard bop jazz traditions. I will talk more about this definition a little later in this essay. At least one of those musicians in that band room would grow into a professional jazz musician, a friend of Roy Hargrove, and would join the ranks of the other Young Lions who were coming of age in the late-1990s.
Until I became friends with Curtis early in the next school year, my only two jazz recordings were the Birth of the Cool and A Love Supreme that belonged to my father. As a thirteen-year-old with no job, transportation or freedom to go where I pleased, I had no wherewithal to acquire a jazz collection. There was no Amazon.com in those days, no internet shopping at all (not that I had a credit card) - no internet period! So, I had to make do with what I had. I also would not have known whose records to buy. I had been singing gospel all of my life, but the more I listened to those records, the more that I wanted to sing jazz. I started towards the end of my sophomore year with an audition for jazz department with a rendition of Summertime. (My grandmother is a jazz vocalist who plays piano, and we had practiced it over spring break during my visit to her home Richmond.) By then, I had been hanging out with Curtis for months (who had since graduated and was a college freshman at Howard University). The truth is that I thought that he was exciting. He had a whole group of jazz musician friends who called themselves “the brothermen” and the “GMA.” GMA is an acronym, which I now find to be hilarious – it is short for the “Grown Men’s Association.” These were the guys who blasted the jazz in their cars after school. Now that I recall, all of the “brothermen” were trumpet players except for Curtis. He was the only sax man. A side note. You should know that in jazz lore (or jazz philosophy?), musicians have different personality, and even physical, characteristics, according to the instrument they play. Alto sax players tend to be moody, temperamental and intense (Charlie Parker...Eric Dolphy). I have always observed that the tenor sax players, tend to be on the mellow side. Some are extremely deep thinkers and philosophers (Yusef Lateef…John Coltrane). They seem to be more stable than other musicians and are often tall. Reference young Curtis, Javon Jackson, Craig Handy and so on. (btw – I hope you are getting a kick out of this like I am - smile) Bass players are often the quiet, introverted type (but not always). Trumpet players, however, who are often the highest, loudest and/or most noticeable of the jazz ensemble, often have personalities to match their musical part. They are the peacocks of the gang, and stand out with either their verbosity, swagger, forthrightness and/or plain hubris. I guess they have to be that way to play the horn like that. It seems they must have those kinds of personalities to be able to reach those high notes. Reference a Miles Davis! And there are different kinds – outspoken confident and quiet confident. We will see that when we get to our brother who just passed. But anyway, moving on with the story.
In ethnomusicological terms, Curtis had become my “interlocuter” of sorts. I learned all kinds of information from him. He explained jazz terminology like “riff” and “lick.” A “riff” is a repeated line that the horn players play behind a soloist (often in big band jazz). A “lick,” or “licks,” I should say, are short melodic motifs that are literally the language of jazz. Soloists might extemporaneously draw on these ideas to improvise a solo. He also explained that “quoting” is when the improviser plays a small part of a melody from another song in their solo. He would often point this out during our listening sessions, or quiz me on the song that the soloist had referenced. Through the listening we did, I learned how to identify a horn player and pianist just by their sound and style. (I easily did this with the vocalists on my own.) Curtis also took me to the one place in the DC area where “Real Books” could be purchased and bought me one. A “Real Book” is an unofficial, pirated publication that contains jazz standard lead sheets. (The place was somewhere in Bethesda, MD I think). Our favorite thing to do was to go to jazz clubs and hear the music. I think my first visit to any jazz club was at Twins Lounge (now Twins Jazz), at the old 14th street location. I constantly listened to WDCU 90.1 FM, one of the city’s two jazz radio stations. (I was trying to train my ears away from R+B). When they announced that the first caller would win tickets to a Blues Alley show, we would tag team and call in. That is how we ended up going to a JJ Johnson and Betty Carter show at the notoriously expensive supper club for free. Curtis had an extensive jazz collection, mostly on cassettes, and we listened to the recordings in his car, whereever we were going (this was a different car – not the brown maxima). He often liked to listen to the Young Lions who were based in New York City in the mid-1990s. He and I loved Joshua Redman’s recording of Sonny Rollin’s “St. Thomas.”
I vividly remember pulling into a parking space at Twins, with Antonio Hart’s song “91st Miracle” sounding out into the darkness and the cold of that winter night. I can clearly hear that melody in my head, even though it has been years since I last heard the recording. The young lions, and jazz musicians in general, always give their songs very creative names – the song is like a painting. Their sound is like the brush stroke. The harmonies a colorful tone palette – sometimes bright oranges and greens, sometimes reds or violets. Hart’s “91st Miracle” was cool, light blue with greys, warm indigo and streaks of chartreuse yellow.
I also remember how we listened to what is now my favorite Roy Hargrove recording – Roy Hargrove and the Tenors of Our Time. At this point, the music was new for me – which made it extremely exciting. (It still is). And there was nothing more exciting than Roy’s solo on “Valse Hot” (another Sonny Rollins tune), which he recorded with Branford Marsalis. That thang was baaad. I have a clear memory of hearing the climax of his solo at the corner of Military Road and Connecticut Ave, just around the corner from my house at the time. The man’s flugelhorn that he used to deliver “When We Were One” ignited in my heart such longing and melancholy, and alerted my artistic sensibility to the emotions that can be conveyed with the music. I was sixteen years old...
Through their recordings, the Young Lions were officially a part of my life. And their recordings filled my mind and heart with the sound and feeling of New York City, where they were making this music. My Betty Carter CDs, that brought the sounds of Cyrus Chestnut, Craig Handy and others, and Curtis’ tapes of Roy Hargrove and Antonio Hart, were pure excitement. Little did I know that in just a few short years, I would end up knowing and performing with some of these musicians. The young lions had called forth the ‘lioness’ in me. As for jazz, I had to have it. And before I knew it, I was on my way.
During my last year at Duke Ellington I enjoyed my three great loves – painting, printmaking and singing jazz. Even though I had been singing all of my life, I was just starting out in jazz, and I am glad that Duke Ellington gave me that early practice and exposure. The jazz director, Davy Yarborough often invited well known jazz musicians to our school. The mainstay of these visits was Wynton Marsalis. And as I look back as an older person with more business savvy, Jazz at Lincoln Center had a perfect model for selling their curricular products. They probably engaged every specialty arts high school in the country in their Ellington Youth Festival. It seemed that Wynton had his fingers on the pulse of every artistic nest in the country that was cultivating young black jazz musicians. (He also showed up at Howard, every once in a while, when I was studying there.) He seemed to know everyone who was “coming up,” so to speak, and gave performance opportunities to students with exceptional talent. I heard that he “discovered” Roy Hargrove this way, and that is how our brother ended up with a recording contract and thriving career at such a young age. For those who needed it, like myself, Wynton gave honest and forthright critiques. The man is as blunt as iron. I was wise enough to take to his words to heart and to apply every single thing he said to me on one of those visits. (The critique came after I was crazy enough to call Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints” to sing for him- and took a scat solo!) The guidance he gave me that day is the primary reason why I decided to pursue jazz studies as a major at Howard. The year after Wynton came (or later that same year) Roy was one of the visitors. He was there to perform with the jazz band in the fall for a fundraiser concert, and probably gave a master class that day. I remember Mr. Yarborough introducing me to him back stage. I was to sing “C Jam Blues” with the band in the early part of the evening, which is why I was back there. I was very shy of him. He was eleven years older than me (but seemed older), a man and a famous jazz musician. He was wearing a gray suit and holding his trumpet. When he went out on stage, he played – I mean he wailed into that thing. I remember that another trumpet player who had graduated from Duke Ellington was also there – Troy Johnson. I think he was going to play that night as well. He and Roy were talking. That is the way the jazz tradition is. The younger musicians always seek out the older, more established players, mostly before or after their performances, to ask them questions or to get practice tips. This was my first-time meeting Roy, and it would not be the last time that I would see him together with Troy.
I saw Roy the following spring at Blues Alley. There is an elaborate explanation for how I ended up on the bass players guest list, so here it is. It has to do with my friend Crystal. I would often go to different jazz places with Crystal, who was a pianist. By hanging with Crystal, who was being mentored by many of the jazz musicians in the city who were in the generation before us, I met them too. Aaron Walker (a drummer who is still my friend today), Vince Evans (who became my voice/music theory teacher) and others. We went down to New Orleans to her audition at the University of New Orleans and hung out with Jason and Delfeayo Marsalis. (The plan was to even stay with the Marsalis parents, but that fell through – we ended up on campus.) We also spent time with the other brother, Wynton, when he came into town, who once doled out advice to us in his luxurious hotel living room. His guidance was the typical kind that would be given by a young uncle who is the “sport” of the family. He was the successful, “Don Juan” type who gave sage advice to nieces who were beautiful and blossoming young women at the brink of adulthood, and who were entering into the very male dominated jazz world. One evening Crystal and I went to a chic jazz spot in the city called The Nest Lounge at the Willard Hotel. I think she was there to meet and talk with Mulgrew Miller. (Again the tradition of the younger musician seeking out the older). Somehow, I met a bass player who was there named Reuben Rogers. He was a student at Berkley and was touring with Roy. He invited us to Blues Alley to hear him play with the Roy’s band. Ron Blake was on tenor saxophone, sporting a Sonny Rollins kind of goatee. I had never seen men such as this. I think we all might have gone to the One Step Down on Pennsylvania Avenue, but I do not remember anything else about the evening.
I saw Roy later that year in Europe in the summer. The fundraiser was obviously successful because the entire Duke Ellington School of the Arts jazz band traveled to the Hague in the Netherlands to perform at the North Sea Jazz Festival. It was a wonderful trip. I loved the festival – there were multiple stages, featuring Shirley Horn, Jon Faddis and others. Again Crystal, who was one of my best friends at that point (although our relationship often drifted into the “frenemy” zone) knew some of the older instrumentalists there. There were vendors there who had crafts from all over the world and we enjoyed shopping. The band moved through the festival in our uniform – khaki pants and tee shirts with a photo of Duke Ellington on the front. All of the performers were staying in one hotel and they played at a jam session in a lounge on the ground floor in the evenings. Some of them wanted to know who the kids were in the Duke Ellington shirts. There I was, crammed in that lounge with the other jazz kids, and about a hundred other people, watching that jam session with wide eyes. It was so crowded that the onlookers pushed the first row right in front of the bandstand. That is how I ended up standing directly in front of Roy as he played. His trumpet was pointed at my forehead. The man’s sound was so intense coming through that horn that it felt as if it would split my head open. It was like concentrated energy. I don’t know what to call that. Pure energy. And Roy Hargrove was a bantam weight. How did that small man produce such a loud and intense sound?
2002 – The Jazz Scene in New York City
The next time I saw Roy Hargrove was in New York City. I had graduated from Howard with a degree in jazz, and as soon as I could, I hot tailed it up north. By then, Troy Johnson the trumpet player had become my good friend, through a strange and serendipitous sequence of events. Now, my tenor sax friend before him was on the quiet side: steady, stable, responsible and tall. Troy, however, was a true-to-form trumpet player. Since Louis Armstrong, many of the jazz trumpeters have been short, brown and bombastic black men. Troy was definitely not an exception to this rule. Dizzy Gillespie might have been a little taller than the others. But picture him along with Fat Navarro, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown (although he might have had a milder personality), Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and Woody Shaw. Wynton Marsalis. They are all physically similar, and loosely similar in personality.
Where did these intersecting groups meet? At the jam sessions. Each session had a different energy and could potentially result in different levels of exposure that led to performance opportunities. One scene was in Harlem. Harlem had ‘been there’ jazz clubs and places from its hey-day that had been ‘reinvented.’ St. Nick’s Pub (147th and St. Nicholas Ave) was a ‘been there’ club that had a session on Monday nights I think (And, I later found out, an outdoor area frequented by crack cocaine users.) Two others were at reinvented clubs. The Lenox Lounge, on 125th and Malcom X Boulevard, had a Tuesday night jam, and Showman’s, on 125th street near Amsterdam, had a Thursday night jam. The hosts at most of these sessions were usually ‘old heads’ and longtime Harlemites, who rotated from club to club all around uptown. (One named Bill Saxton, a saxophonist, has proclaimed himself “Harlem’s Jazz King” on his website.) The jam session at Showman’s, however, was hosted for a brief time by a trumpet player named Keyon Harrold. In my senior year of college, during one of my visits to NYC, I went there to sing and met him. He and Troy went to the New School together. Keyon is the trumpeter who played the soundtrack for the recent Miles Davis movie, Miles Ahead, that came out in 2015.
There was another jam session on the Upper West Side at 93rd street and Broadway at a club called Cleopatra’s Needle. There is always a “prime” jam session where the young black male musicians frequent (I refer to them as “the Core”). They are the “in crowd” so to speak. Now, my feminist-minded sisters, please do not get up in arms. The fact that they are men reflects the Africanity of African American culture. There is the cultural reason that explains why they are all men, which I will explain in more detail later. At that time, this was the session where the ‘core’ (they call themselves “the cats”) came weekly to play. Cleo’s had sessions every night, late night, but they came to the Thursday night session because it was hosted then by jazz trumpeter Jeremy Pelt. Pelt, as they called him (or at least Troy did) had extraordinary technique and a clean smooth sound. He was very much influenced by Freddie Hubbard. The last I heard, Jeremy was signed with the Max Jazz label. He was one of Troy’s counterparts on trumpet, along with Keyon Harrold, Kenyatta Beasley, Leron Thomas, Antoine Drye and a few others. They all knew Roy. I believe that Leron was in his big band. (Also, Cleo’s is no longer the ‘prime.’ The last I heard, it was the Zinc Bar in the Village, but it might have moved on from there. Not sure).
With this Cleo’s example I come to my point. Who is this “core”? They are the young black musicians who continue to carry the music forward. The Young Lions. They are the nucleus of the music, and they have always been. These are the musicians who followed Roy Hargrove’s example – the musicians that he hired as his sidemen. The musicians who played in his big band. The trumpet and sax players that he would call to the stage to “sit-in” (play one or two songs) at his shows. These were the young men that met and played with each other at these key jam sessions. Some were even roommates, and they often called each other by last name or nick name. When talking to others, they referred to each other by full name and instrument. (Jazz singers are called vocalists). This was the jam session where the new cats in town would go to show their chops and to gain exposure. The leaders of the session, and the participating “cats” either accept or reject you. Acceptance means being hired and recommended for gigs. It means having a career. There are probably more structured and official ways to go about establishing a jazz career at this point. Competitions and IAJE-like programs (International Association of Jazz Education – now defunct). However, when I arrived, I was following the original tradition to the tee – and so were many others. Cleo’s was one of the hot spots. When the established musicians finished their gigs at Lincoln Center, or whereever, they would often end up there. Another place like this was the Up Over Jazz Café in Brooklyn. I think this jam session was on Tuesday nights. It was through performing at this jam session, and subsequent work with pianist Anthony Wonsey, that I ended up performing the Freedom Now Suite at Jazz at Lincoln Center with drummer Ali Jackson (another Young Lion at the time). Another key jam session, for a while, was on Monday nights at a place called the Jazz Gallery in lower Manhattan. It was there that I ran into Roy Hargrove again, just before my Lincoln Center debut.
Let me take the time to explain the history of these jam sessions, and how important they are to the music. In his autobiography, Miles Davis describes the jam session at Minton’s Playhouse that Bird, Charlie Parker, and Diz, Dizzy Gillespie, hosted in Harlem. It was on 118th Street between St. Nicholas and Seventh Avenue (and is now a “reinvented” club). As for the original Minton’s, those who had just arrived to New York from Chicago, LA or East St. Louis, like Miles, had to prove themselves at this session. In Miles: The Autobiography, he shares the following (all curse words have been substituted):
Minton's was the behind kicker back in those days for aspiring jazz musicians, not The Street like they're trying to make out today. It was Minton's where a musician really cut his teeth and then went downtown to The Street. Fifty-second Street was easy compared to what was happening up at Minton's. You went to 52nd to make money and be seen by the white music critics and white people. But you came uptown to Minton's if you wanted to make a reputation among the musicians. Minton's kicked a lot of musician’s behinds, did them in, and they just disappeared—not to be heard from again. But it also taught a whole lot of musicians, made them what they eventually became (54).
The way the stuff went down up at Minton's was you brought your horn and hoped that Bird and Dizzy would invite you to play with them up on stage. And when this happened, you'd better not blow it. I didn't. The first time I played there I wasn't great but I was playing my behind off in the style I played, which was different from Dizzy's, although I was influenced by his playing at this time. But people would watch for clues from Bird and Dizzy, and if they smiled when you finished playing, then that meant that your playing was good. They smiled when I finished playing that first time and from then on I was on the inside of what was happening in New York's music scene. So after that I was like an up-and-coming star. I could sit in with the big boys all the time (60).
Bird and Diz were ‘the cats.’ Their role as the bebop innovators made them the leaders of the music. And they were the Young Lions at the time. The older generation that was also playing on 52nd street included Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Roy Eldridge and others. As we just heard from Miles, the new cats to the scene took solos at that jam session. Approval from Bird and Dizzy meant that the musician was incorporated into the fold of the jazz elite. If they did not, they were out. They had to go back to the “shed” until they got better. “The Shed” is a jazz musician’s time of practice and abstaining from public performance. The term refers to Charlie Parker’s legend – he is said to have developed be-bop through fourteen-hour days of practicing in a literal woodshed in Kansas City, Missouri. The jam session is why we have a Miles Davis.
Roy at the Jazz Gallery played the same role as Bird and Dizzy during those early days. Approval was granted when an instrumentalist (or singer) proved adept at the language of jazz. This meant delivering a skilled solo that was infused with be-bop and post-bop melodicism. Affirmation from Roy might have been a “Yeah!” during a solo or other positive commentary (when I, and another young lady, sang he said “beautiful!”) However, true approval was if he asked for your contact information to call you for gigs in the future. I saw him do this when a male jazz singer delivered a rendition of Eddie Jefferson’s version of “Body and Soul” (which is based on Coleman Hawkin’s solo on his famous recording.) Approval from Roy, or a Wynton, meant performance opportunities and exposure, just as it did at Bird and Dizzy’s jam sessions fifty years before.
Winter 2003 – Late Night Hanging Out
My next to last memory of Roy was after his performance at a venue in Brooklyn (the name of the place has faded into the hazy shadows of memory forgotten). I was there with my friend Monica. I do not remember one note of the show. I only remember what happened after. Troy, with whom I had an on again off again kind of relationship, at that point, was there that evening. Things happened to be “off” around the time of the concert. However, when he and Roy were making moves to hang out after the show, I (and Monica) suddenly decided that things between us should once again be “on.” That is how, Roy, Monica, Troy and I ended up in downtown Manhattan at twelve midnight in the West Village, getting food to go at one those all-night places. I think Troy drove us in his car. We might have gone to another club after leaving Brooklyn, which is why we ended up in the Village so late, but I can’t remember. I do remember Roy Hargrove. He was quiet. And he seemed to always be smiling just a little. He was a small-framed man and he was very, very hip. Cool. His clothes were extremely fly. He was dressed in whatever the trend was of the day – I think the Diesel brand was popular. He was probably “Dieseled” out. Like I said, he didn’t talk a lot. This was so long ago that I only have impressions of him. We took the food back to his apartment – which I think was on the Village or in Chelsea. As our entourage walked into his posh apartment building, the white folks walking through the lobby glanced at us, regarding us with proud and knowing smiles. I am sure we might have been the center of attention. I was wearing a waist length, blond rabbit fur coat, a fitted black skirt that showed my round brown legs, definitely high heels, and a 1940s era jazz diva hat. Monica was tall, striking and dressed in her own finery. Troy sported his well-known “hipper than thou” attitude that was exuded through a pompous facial expression and deep “pimp walk.” We all were walking in with one of jazz’s most famous musicians who had his own serious swag. Of course they smiled at us. Fame smooths the way for everyone.
We all spent hours talking and Monica captured Roy’s attention. He was very sweet, and told her that the yoga pose that she demonstrated was “beautiful.” I mean no disrespect to Brother Hargrove’s wife, but what I am going to share was fifteen years ago. That evening led to my having two different close friends (who did not know each other), who were both dating Roy Hargrove! My other friend, Ayanna, met him a few years earlier and became his paramour through some other circumstance. They were both were seemingly his type; very fashionable, accomplished and on the light side of the brown bag test. This was a crazy time.
2008 – Vicksburg, Mississippi
I withdrew from the jazz scene the fall of 2003. It was not only my own unhealthy relationship to the music, it was the viciousness of some musicians. I noticed that some of the “cats” on the scene loved to gossip, especially about the women in jazz, who were usually very attractive singers. I wanted out of my relationship with Troy. In the middle of my struggle to pull away, a stinging piece of gossip, about me, got back to me in the worse way. However, these were not the primary reasons. I just had to get Maya together. During those early years in New York, every emotional issue and trauma from my childhood and teens had manifested in that destructive relationship I was in, and in a sequence of poor decisions on my part. I hit rock bottom that summer, emotionally, physically and financially. I wanted to change, but I didn’t know how. Ironically, that spring, I ended up studying with well known alto sax player in the graduate jazz program I had just started at the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College. He invited the class to attend his church, Emmanuel Baptist, in Brooklyn. When I visited, I wore the same black dress from that late-night hang with Roy. I heard the pastor’s words and responded. The combination of reading the New Testament, and people becoming Christians around me, including the professor, led me to give my life to Christ. A change had come and my new life began. By the power of God, I walked away from that relationship with Troy. My new faith also led me to change my goals. I was convicted to stop singing certain songs. Songs that are worshipful of a man. This is called idolatry. I don’t sing “Body and Soul.” When I sing the music known as jazz, I perform all of the songs with Christ as the focus of my heart. I sing “I’ve Never Been In Love Before” about the Lord. I sing “500 Miles High” about the Rapture of the church. Carmen Lundy’s composition, “Old Friend” is about my relationship with the Lord Jesus. Sometimes a song, like Lee Morgan’s “Desert Moonlight,” is simply about the beauty of the melody.
But going back to that time in 2003 and 2004, I was still singing in my jazz program at Queens College, a very structured and professional setting. I was studying with Sheila Jordan. The professor who I mentioned before was very encouraging, like a strict older brother, and forced me to become more disciplined with my musical presentation. He required me use a ruler to write out my charts and offered expert training. After this I began to work with children and launched an evangelistic, arts-driven outreach program in Harlem, called the Little Lights Children’s Arts Workshop. I joined a prayer group for Christian jazz musicians, which was led by Greg Tardy (also a young lion in the generation before me). I began to teach music, which led to becoming Program Director of the Roberta Flack School of Music. It is through this position that I saw Brother Roy for the next to last time. I had the great idea to take my students to the Alcorn State Jazz Festival in Mississippi (These were also Greg’s students – he taught them woodwinds.) We had a concert that Roberta Flack attended, and the whole thing ended up being profiled in the New York Daily News. That exposure catalyzed thousands of dollars to pour in towards the trip, including a ten-thousand dollar check from Yoko Ono. When we arrived in Jackson, Mississippi, I found out that Roy was headlining the festival, with a guy named Montez Coleman on drums who I had met during my earlier jazz scene days. I had matured into a more composed, poised and confident young woman. Alcorn State held a reception for the musicians after. The lady who I arrived with, one of the festival organizers, was running around taking photos with Blue Bell Ice Cream (I have no idea why.) I remember sitting around the table, with my purse in the only available empty chair, listening to Montez’s “rap” (he had grown up in church, so I am sure the “church girl” I had become intrigued him). Roy noticed the change to. He said to me “What are you doing down here, leading the choir?” and “Can I please sit down in this chair??! ” (the one holding my purse). I remember his playing that night. He had a powerful sound and was so musical. Sometimes, after he delivered a line, he would dance a little back step. Soul. And now, with that last memory, the memory of the last time I saw him perform, I feel the remorse. I understand what we have lost. Our leading Young Lion is gone. And we can never hear him play or witness his extraordinary musicality again. His last rhythm section were guys that I came up with in school in DC, or who I knew from by post-born again days in New York: Sullivan Fortner (piano) Ameen Saleem (bass) and Quincy Phillips (drums).
The African American Nyamakala Class (or Black American Jaliya)
I contend that African American jazz musicians, and blues musicians, form an artisan class that is parallel to the Nymakala class of Jalis in the Manding cultures of West Africa. Jalis are Nyamakala artisans who work with words and music. (Other artisans work with leather, wood and are potters). The art of the Jalis is called Jaliya. In traditional Manding society, one must be born into a Jali family. Only Jalis are permitted (traditionally) to play instruments like the Kora or Balafon. Only Jalis are the keepers of family lineages. Only Jalis are praise singers (some extemporaneously compose songs to praise prestigious leaders or families.) Boys are trained from early childhood to play these instruments, so by the time they are young adults, they have not only masterful technique, but a command of the melodic language, improvisatory techniques and a huge canon of songs committed to memory. Being a Jali is central to their identity. In African America, our jazz musicians are like the Manding Jali class in many ways. In jazz, masterful technique by early adulthood is usually the case. (Hence the term Young lion). Jazz musicians must have a command of the music’s melodic, rhythmic and harmonic language in order to be “accepted” into the group. Virtuosity is required, and musicians must know from memory the expansive canon of jazz standards. Now I will make the point that I alluded to earlier for my feminist readers. Jazz has gendered musical roles that are the same as those in the Manding tradition (and all over West Africa). In Manding cultures, the women who are Jalis sing and dance. It is men who play instruments, and sing sometimes as well. However, women do not play the kora, balafon or any of the other Jali instruments. This is why it is more common for men to play the instruments of jazz and blues and for women to sing. This is an Africanism. (In the cases when men sing jazz, they almost always heavily engage in be-bop scat singing, or intricate harmonics in their improvisation, as a “proving” platform – reference Eddie Jefferson, Kenneth Hagood, Billy Eckstine, Kevin Mahogany, Miles Griffith and others.)
Just like the Jalis, jazz musicians have lineages. Roy Hargrove was a musical descendant of the Clifford Brown trumpet lineage – Clifford Brown to Lee Morgan to Freddie Hubbard to Booker Little to Woody Shaw to Roy (and others). A musician becomes a part of a lineage through diligent practice, listening to the predecessors, imitation and then establishing his own voice on the instrument. The amount of talent and practice that is required to join these lineages, and the sheer musicality that it takes to find your own sound, makes these musicians very rare. Those in the Brown lineage still mourn the loss of Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown. Clifford Brown was tragically killed at age 26 in a car accident. Lee Morgan was shot and killed by his girlfriend in a jazz club in the East Village in lower Manhattan. I have observed that trumpet players speak with such loss about their deaths (especially about Lee Morgan’s). When they talk about Lee, they woefully shake their heads, not only because he is gone (and by the hands of a crazy woman), but because they will never hear the music that he would have created had he lived. And now we have lost Brother Roy. It is hard to believe that he was forty-nine because he looked very youthful and was always very stylish. Forty-nine. The Young Lion is gone.
The Young Lions – A Jazz “Pride”
I would now like to meditate on the use of this term Young Lion. Where does it come from? Not Sure. But it sure is reflective of the young jazz musicians that I knew. Wayne Shorter, Lee Morgan and others recorded an album entitled “The Young Lions” in 1961, so they coined the term first. A quick internet search reveals why it seemed to come into wider use: “In establishing the Young Lions jazz movement in the early-80s, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis chose to reject the post-1965 avant-garde and 70s fusion sub-genres and lifeless examples of the jazz art form” (jazz100.sffjazz.com). Now, this statement is loaded with judgments. However, it is true that Wynton took a purist kind of stance about the music in the eighties- in no small part to the direction the elder jazz musicians had taken. Herbie Hancock, who had recorded masterpieces like his “Mimosa” and “Jack Rabbit” compositions, in addition to all of his stuff with Miles, had “gone commercial.” He had videos on MTV like “Rockit.” People like Kenny G were calling themselves jazz musicians. (When they were actually playing instrumental R+B or “smooth jazz.”) Seeing the direction that the music was moving in, Wynton became what ethnomusicologists call a revivalist. Terrance Blanchard and his brother Branford were his counterparts, among many others. And the younger musicians followed them. I remember that when Terrance Blanchard came to Howard, he said that even though he and Wynton were deep into the pre-1970s jazz tradition, but they thought they were going to have to make their living as studio musicians, because there no longer seemed to be an audience for the music. I did not know it then, but I was raised in and by the young lion generation. I was taught a very purist concept of the music. Jazz had boundaries that were defined by vocal approach, a canon of songs, the sound of original compositions and the use of a jazz language rooted in earlier styles, from Pops (Louis Armstrong) to Bird and the hard boppers. In the purist approach, jazz is defined by instrumentation, and whether or not the music is acoustic. The fact that jazz of the 1980s and 1990s was led by youthful men who at that point were only in their early to mid - twenties, and then early thirties, also sheds light on the young part of the “Young Lion” term. As I reflect on this, Roy rose to fame when he was barely twenty years old. Definitely young. But what of the lion part? Why lion? I have three thoughts on that.
First, let us think of the characteristics of a lion. Lions are calm, confident and sure of themselves. Miles said about Bird, …he was cool, with that hipness he could have about him … Plus, he had that confidence that all people have when they know their stuff is bad (57). Lions are strong and powerful. They are quiet until it is time to roar. When it is time to roar, or to hunt, they move fast and they are bold. Again, I turn to Miles’ description of Bird to illustrate this point. And, man, I was amazed at how Bird changed the minute he put his horn in his mouth… he went from looking real down and out to having all this power and beauty just bursting out of him. It was amazing the transformation that took place once he started playing (58). Lions have dominion over all of the other animals. To get up and play, to extemporaneously create those solos, one must be bold. Like a lion. Also, lions work together to hunt. They live together, groom each other and make their life as a family. Quite unlike tigers, who are solitary. Compare lions, who act as a family, to the close networks of jazz musicians who work together and are often roommates on the current scene. This happened historically as well. Miles said that many jazz musicians lived at the Cecil hotel next to Minton’s. Betty Carter also described the “jazz hotels” where she and the other musicians on the scene lived. Also, jazz is a community music. The music is performed by a group of musicians who work together.
Another point to consider is that groups of lions are led by an alpha male. My travel and research in Botswana sheds some light on this. In the Setswana language, the word for the male leader of a lion pride is Tautona. But the word another meaning. When the presidential system was instituted, the word was also used to refer to the president of the country. Thus, for Black Americans, our Tautonas would be Martin Luther King, Ralph Abernathy, Congressman John Lewis, Obama and others. And I think we all know who the Tautona of jazz is today (and certainly in the early 2000s) Wynton Marsalis. Through his role as the Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln, and his own solo career, Wynton has gained an incredible, expansive and far reaching platform to mold, mentor and make the careers of many, many young black jazz musicians. He “discovered” Roy Hargrove and launched his career, has employed many in the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and has connected his associates with directorship positions of university jazz programs all over the country. In turn, they continue to mold young jazz “cubs” according to Marsalis’ ideals. He indeed is the alpha male lion of jazz. Also, in a lion family, the young male lions learn their gender role from their alpha male father. But after they come of age, they have to leave the group and start their own families. Look at how Miles left Bird’s band to blaze his own trails. He worked with Trane to develop “modal jazz,” and then Trane left and developed another direction for the music. The same is true today. Young lions who have been nurtured under the influence of Wynton, move forward with their own music and in new directions. They start their own bands and record.
Finally, let us consider how a family of lions is called a “pride.” Lions are African. They only live on the African continent, yet people all over the world know about them and use them as a reference to many things. There are also Asiatic Lions in the Middle East and India, but those are not the type that are commonly depicted in illustrations. In parallel, the Young Lions of jazz are African. African-American (an intra-ethnic African community living in the Diaspora). This brings me to my closing point. The first time I visited Elmina Castle in Ghana, many people in our group cried. Elmina Slave Castle was a Dutch-operated factory of human bondage. They trafficked human beings for hundreds of years in this building. With Elmina serving as an intermediate purchase and resell destination, countless West Africans were captured and sold into slavery, chained to the bellies of ships bound for the New World. I saw the Door of No Return. I smelled the lingering stench of blood and human body fluids in the dungeons for men and women. It is a horrible place. As I said, many in our group cried. But as my friends and I sat on a staircase after the tour, we were filled with joy. Why? Because we survived. The African people who came here in chains, survived and flourished, and as my friend Lisa said in that moment, “Created jazz!” When she said that we laughed with joy, I waved my right arm up in a church-like “testify” motion, and all three of us felt an exhilarating surge of happiness.
Our musicians, our Young Lions, carry forth the sound and song of our people. The Young Lions are our pride – the pride of Black America. And that is what we lost in our brother. He captured, mastered and demonstrated our brilliance, our collective testimony, all across the globe. That is what our Brother Roy has done for us. His lions roar called out so far, and so loud, that people all over the earth expressed sorrow and shock when they heard he passed away. He had been in a coma for two weeks before he died. Right up to this point, he, with his many bands, blazed ahead in the music. That sound that came out of his horn was strong. Strooong. Like liquid, light beam energy.
But the Young Lion’s bellowing roar has gone silent too soon. And even though we will not hear him again, his recordings, and his memory, still tell our story, and testify of who we are.
The glory of young men is their strength - Proverbs 20:29