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Meet Abby London Crawford

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper By

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I had an assignment to photograph Miles’ tombstone for an article in Japan’s Swing Journal. When I got to the cemetery I found that Miles was very close to the grave of Duke Ellington. No one was around, and it was so peaceful, so I sat down in the narrow path between them to be in their presence and thank them.
Abby London Crawford is just the sort of Super Fan this column was created for. A jazz hero, she can be seen all over New York city at live music events, radiating love and positivity. But being a listener alone has never been enough for Abby, who's found numerous ways to nurture and support the music and the people she holds so dear. Never one to draw attention to herself, she exemplifies the old adage, "still waters run deep"; if you didn't think to interview her for a column you might never find out she's been deep in the scene, breaking bread and rubbing elbows with a pretty astonishing cast of characters!

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am a native New Yorker, growing up in the Bronx and then Queens. My dad and mom were working class people, often with more than one job at a time, so my older sister, younger brother, and I were latchkey kids.

I went to Queens College, majoring in theater, my first love. My second love was singing. I sang everywhere I went, often just to myself. I learned popular Broadway songs like, "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," for a talent show at school when I was about eight years old. To cover myself when I forgot the words, I insisted that the audience sing along!

I've lived in Manhattan nearly 50 years, except for three-and-a-half years in Mexico, right after college graduation, with my late husband, the journalist and editor Marc Crawford. From the time we returned to New York in 1971, until 2012, I worked with young children, first in after-school programs, then in public day care, and later in elementary schools, often as a founding teacher who started the school. I would sing with my children all the time in the classroom—even my instructions! I created a more formal chorus that met on my own time or at lunchtime, and would teach the kids songs I loved. I coordinated an instrument instruction program for many years, too, and when I was out of the classroom for a few years, I taught a music appreciation course for the whole school. A fond memory at a graduation was when a parent thanked me for teaching her son about jazz. Though I'm retired now, I still go back weekly to my former school, The Ella Baker School, to conduct the chorus. I was also a member of the New York City Labor Chorus until 1996.

What's your earliest memory of music?
I remember always liking music and singing and dancing along to everything. I loved to listen to the radio, especially in the car. But my dad was very irritated by the static and would shut it off, so I would mime the words, humming and moving to the rhythm I still felt inside, and my parents would say, "There she goes again."

When I became a teacher, I appreciated having had live music in my own school life, and having seen Broadway and off-Broadway shows as a child, because I knew what I wanted to pass on to my students.

How old were you when you got your first record?
I basically inherited my parents' collections, so I don't have a clear memory of purchasing records on my own. My mother and father had these 78 records, very thick and heavy, mostly Bing Crosby, Perry Como, Rudy Vallee, operetta records, cantorial music, Broadway show tunes. But once my sister took over the phonograph we listened to a lot of rock and roll, mostly Elvis "Pretzel," as I called him.

Radio was the way I heard a lot of artists, like Otis Redding, who literally cured me of a very bad illness when I heard him sing "Try a Little Tenderness." I got out of bed, and was healed.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
There wasn't necessarily one album. The way I initially heard a lot of music in those days was on the jukebox. There was a bar and grill we hung out in near our apartment before we left for Mexico, and their jukebox had a lot of Monk. I couldn't stop playing his rendition of "Remember," or Tony Bennett's "Georgia Rose."

During the 30 years we were together, Marc inspired my interest in jazz, often through the musicians he knew personally and wrote about. He inspired me daily, in his commitment to being a writer, and I became an editor of the literary magazines he created. The executive editor of our main magazine, Time Capsule, was James Baldwin.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?
I have been going out to hear live music since the late 1960s. After returning to New York from Mexico, where I also heard a lot of live music, I went to places like Slugs,' and heard the newer music with Rashied Ali, Larry Young, and others. Later, Rashied's son, Billy Bang's son, and John Hicks's niece became students of mine.

How often do you go out to hear live music?
My desire would be to hear live music every day but other commitments get in the way. My realistic goal is to try to hear live music at least three or four times a week.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
There is truly nothing like it for the satisfaction you can get being there and literally "breathing" with the performers, taking an adventurous journey with the musicians, joining in their conversations as a listener. I'm very aware when I'm at a gig that it will be a unique experience, never duplicated, even if I've heard the performers before.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?
High focused energy, passion, allowing for surprises, trusting the environment, yet challenging the audience. The exchange, conversation between the members of the group, making the audience move in body and spirit. The balance between being a recipient as an audience member and the sharing that is inevitable when you are tuned in to what you are hearing.

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?
In a busy place like New York, there will always be regrets, especially when there are numerous venues you would want to be at on the same afternoon or evening. Even though I truly love jazz, I also love a wide range of music. I so often wish I could be in more than one place at a time.

What makes a great jazz club?
I remember how impressed I was at a popular club in Denmark, where all business transactions stopped when the music was playing.

Here in New York, Barry Harris's Jazz Cultural Theater was a very special place, both a performing space and a school, open day and night. Because there was no alcohol, children could be there, absorbing the music. It was very homey, like a large living room. Folks hung out to discuss what was happening, related to issues around music and life. I was there when James Baldwin was introduced to Nica Rothschild de Koenigswarter.

Which clubs are you most regularly to be found at?
I don't often go to clubs except when someone I truly want to see, who wouldn't be booked anywhere else, is performing. I like more informal settings, like house concerts, art galleries, small concert halls, lofts, churches, libraries, where there's more emphasis on listening on the music. The Brecht Forum, The Commons, The Stone, The Firehouse, Andrew Drury's or Alain Kirili's house concerts, Zurcher Art Gallery, 17 Frost, Jack, Cornelia Street Café, Shapeshifter Lab.

Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?
The Five Spot, Fat Tuesdays, Lenox Lounge, Slugs' Saloon, the Knitting Factory. Each one had its own character and environment. Barry Harris's Jazz Cultural Theater—I was very upset when the landlord asked Barry to vacate so that he could bring in a more lucrative operation, and the place stood empty for several years. It was pure greed. Think of what could have been there in the interim, even if eventually they had to leave.

What is the most trouble you've gone to to get to a jazz performance?
Traveling to Paris from Belgium and through Germany to hear Dave Burrell play. But because the train system was so good the connections turned out to be fairly easy. A wonderful concert and evening, well worth the effort to get there.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?
I would have to choose Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell and Miles Davis—all great innovators—mainly because I first "heard" them through the lyricism and dynamism of Marc's writings in Downbeat, Ebony, Life, Look, Swing Journal, Jazz Podium, and the British New Musical Express. Monk and Powell passed on before I could hear them live. In Miles's case, I was unable to see him due to time, place, life's restraints. I felt cheated.

There were also the after-hours hangs. Marc's younger sister, Mary was a night club dancer and worked with the likes of artists like Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington. I loved listening to her stories about that backstage world. She was also the girlfriend of the artist, Prophet, who painted several Eric Dolphy and Max Roach album covers, and she was a renowned cook. Many of the musicians would head to her house after a gig, first in Manhattan, then in Brooklyn. Wish I could have been at those dinners. But she taught me her recipes, which I later tried out on James Baldwin when he came to dinner.

How do you discover new artists?
Mostly through going out to concerts of people I don't know, or to see people I do know who are playing with people new to me. I don't do this in a vacuum, since I go out with friends who have varying musical tastes. Ras Moshe Burnett has been instrumental in introducing me to so many artists through his own playing, and by sharing his vast CD, tape, and vinyl collection.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?
Whenever an instrument is played well, I imagine I am playing along when I am listening. I regret not taking guitar, flute, piano, or violin lessons. Unfortunately, my family didn't have a heritage of playing instruments, and my father acutely remembered the time my grandfather cracked a violin over his head because he was "so bad" at playing it. An awful thing to do.

You have some unusual involvements with jazz. Tell us about them.
Over the past 19 years I've been producing concerts and festivals, with my partner Ras Moshe Burnett at the Brecht Forum and The Commons; as an officer of Hell's Kitchen Cultural Center, Inc.; or on my own. Presently, I am involved with the Sanctuary Arts Initiative at Metro Baptist Church in Manhattan, where I produced two wonderful concerts recently with artists T.K. Blue, Zaccai Curtis, Dick Griffin, Michael Wimberly, Elektra Kurtis, Curtis Stewart, Kenny Davis, and Reggie Nicholson; and with Steve Swell, Rob Brown, Jason Kao Hwang, Jim Pugliese, Robert Boston, Tomas Ulrich, which was a live recording for Silkheart Records of Sweden. I hope to be able to continue to do this. I am also one of the farmers on the church's roof producing vegetables for a free food pantry. I love it!

I became a producer of films through contacts I made while traveling in Europe in the '90s, interviewing musicians while I was there. My first film was Femmes de Jazz, directed by Gilles Corre, which was made for European TV, and had not been seen in U.S. since its premiere at the Woodstock, NY Film Festival in 2001. But recently there were screenings in Montclair, NJ, and Germantown, NY.

I am also an associate producer and screening coordinator of Stephanie J. Castillo's 2016 award winning documentary, Night Bird Song, the Incandescent Life of Thomas Chapin, about the late great jazz saxophonist and flautist. It's been screened all over the US, in Canada, and in Europe. I want to get it seen everywhere, especially by young people. It is an inspirational story about creativity and the power of music.

I can do very little myself to create music, but I can try to help in a small way to support the artists who do. What gratification!

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?
Max Roach was a friend of my husband (Max and Oscar Brown Jr. had laid out the first plans for the Freedom Now! Suite in Marc's Chicago apartment), and he knew that Clark Terry and Marc, who had the same birthday, always celebrated together. One year, Clark was playing at the Village Vanguard on his birthday. Max, who had been eighty-sixed from the Vanguard, arranged a dinner at a restaurant nearby, including the dean of the NYU program, who also had the same birthday, and who had been instrumental in arranging for Marc to have his Jazz Appreciation course at the Village Gate and produce jazz concerts at NYU. A terrific fun evening before Clark had to leave for his gig.

I was so honored when Max played at Marc's memorial service at St. Peter's 1996. He literally beamed with joy when he came up to me after performing. He made me smile with pride and happiness.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
Perhaps musicians who keep on discovering and rediscovering their capabilities, advancing their development through playing with others. Exploration, having a "change is good" attitude. Playing standards, and then also deconstructing them. Growth does not happen in isolation, even if it is sometimes necessary to focus on yourself and be away from others. A strong, positive energy is vital. Make our spirits dance! Not allowing jazz to be boxed in, steering clear of or not buying into the commercialization or a hyped up criteria, or joining in the petty hierarchies that have nothing to do with passing on to new listeners the joy of this communal act. Building a new committed audience is so important, so that live music becomes a regular happening.

Striking the delicate balance between getting a jazz education in a school and not allowing the music to become institutionalized, more formulaic, less spontaneous. I am reminded of the scene in the documentary, Jackie McLean on Mars, where he's talking with his students at the Hartt School, using Sun Ra as an example of how to develop your own distinctive approach to the music and avoid getting institutionalized by your schooling. I think of this a lot because I know how necessary it is to make jazz a common, "popular" music again by educating children early.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...
Soulless. Unimaginable. I can't walk down the street without it.

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