Charles Fambrough: A Friend Unlike Any Other, R.I.P.
He appeared to be in excellent shape at the packed tribute for him at the Philadelphia Clef Club in December 2010with Stanley, Lenny, Mike Clark, Pat Martino, Wallace Roney, Gary Bartz, John Blake and Buster Williams headlining, along with so many others. It was a joyful time. I read a moving prayer that Eric Gravatt had sent (he was touring at the time), and I played a tune for Charles with Stanley and Lenny and a few others. He was all smiles.
All of the above does not do justice to his greatest accomplishment and gracetransformation. After all the jazz is done, the schmoozing, the last notes played, the bandstand empty, the egos put to bed, there was Charles Fambrough the person. At the end, Charles was Love. It was in his eyes, if you dared to look past the imaginary. It was in his aura. His life, which had consisted of immense machinations just to provide for his family, had now turned towards self-transformation.
During his penultimate hospitalization I brought him a DVD of Oscar, and two of Herbie. He was just like a kid. He looked up at me, tears in his eyes, put out his arms and with the openness of a child, said "I love you!" My reciprocation was alarmingly real (for me, anyway.)
When did my relationship with Charles become so real? This has bearing on Charles as a human being.
Remember that he and I met at an active time of the Civil Rights movement. Racial commingling was happening, but somewhat unusual in the extent we experienced it. Given my history, i.e., the last white kid (aged about eleven or so) in North Philly, I knew there were differences and biases between and among races/cultures. However, I always lived in a world of abstract ideas, concepts, and naïve wonder. Neither liberal nor conservative, I was too theoretically inclined, too artistically driven, to give race or racism any time. Yet, as a young jazz musician, I came to recognize that no matter what my ability or appreciation of the art-form, I was the outsider in jazz. No matter how much I was moved by what I heard in the heroesColtrane, Miles, Monkthere was something else much more culturally powerful that these icons represented to young jazz musicians of a darker color than I. Yet, Charles would not hear of it. This is the same Charles who was acutely aware of the meaning of jazzfrom that standpoint.
Let it be known that he was mortified that many of the black youth of today had forgotten the very meanings which defined our craft and inner hopes. He breathed, at the most basic level, the potential significance of Jazz to express and right social injustice, to express a potent beauty from the black perspective. He knew the taste of a jazz performance which did that, and a jazz which did not. But there was much more in him. He loved all that lived and so he was naturally conflicted at taking a militant party line all the time. He knew that there was a time for addressing social injustice with militant talk and action, a time to play the middle, and a time to let it all gojust to be. He brought this perspective to Muhlenburg College for many years where he treated all of his students, regardless of background, as near-family. Doug Ovens, the one-time department head there, struck gold when he offered to hire Charles, and Charles accepted.
For the first ten years of my friendship with him, the subject of race had been muted. Then one day he blurted out, "Mark, you are a white Ray Bryant. You not only have it, you get it." (Huh? What do I say?) Once he had made Philadelphia home again, we talked nearly weekly, and played often. We felt comfortable talking about everything, including racial issues, in great depth. I could not help but notice when he vented (which was not often) and he'd say "we," as if he and I were temporarily militantly "black." Catching himself about 20 years ago, he came right out and said, "I can say this to you, because, you are one of us!" Friends will be friends. For myself, I was still searching for an inclusive social identity.