Meet H. Alonzo Jennings

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper BY

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By the time I graduated high school in 1964 I was a full-blown jazz head. I walked around with my shades, pork pie hat, or broke down leather driving cap, always with some records under my arms. I was doing my best Miles Davis act.
H. Alonzo Jennings, artist, photographer, poet, and jazz aficionado, has been photographing jazz musicians since 1976 and going out to support live jazz music for even longer. His photographs include images of jazz legends such as Billy Eckstine, Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughan and Cassandra Wilson. "My objective as an artist/photographer is to provide a visual record of these sublime moments of transcendence, reflecting the purity and honest spirituality of the artist's souls." Music is no less than an entryway to the soul. One particular jazz titan is his daily meditation. Can you guess the title of his desert island disc?

Tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in Paterson, New Jersey, and raised in Georgia from ages two to six, and then in Paterson and Passaic, New Jersey. I currently live in Willingboro, New Jersey, about 18 miles from Philadelphia. I graduated from Montclair State University with a BA in Art Education, and then got my Masters of Public Affairs from Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University. I taught general art, and art for the gifted, at the W. Allen Middle School in Moorestown, New Jersey, for 20 years. I also worked with the Passaic, New Jersey, anti-poverty programs of the 1960's; OIC International, serving in Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria; The Afro- American Museum in Philadelphia; the Whitman Center in Camden, New Jersey; and the Children's Home of Burlington County. I hold occasional jazz listening sessions at my home and have produced jazz concerts, art exhibits, and poetry readings for the Underground Railroad Museum of Burlington County, New Jersey. Now I am retired. I dabble in photography and poetry, and collect vintage jazz recordings. I also co-host a one-hour radio program with my friend Daryle Lloyd on WPPM-FM 106.5 every Monday 7-9 PM. My half of the session is called Jazz From An Eclectic Mind. I only play music from my personal collection, and am prepping to do my own one-or two-hour show soon.

What's your earliest memory of music?
I cannot remember life without music. When I lived in Georgia with my grandparents, there were the church and my uncle's gospel quartet, with his musical friends always around. We lived about a half a mile from the local juke joint, and I would follow my older cousins there, and we would sit outside and listen to the music and observe the good times and the drunk people. (My grandmother was very religious, and she would have killed me if she knew we were there, listening to the Devil's music!) In addition to a jukebox, they occasionally had live bands who played mostly the blues and R&B. Both my cousins could sing, and learned to play instruments by ear, but the music gene skipped me completely. I guess I got the visual art and poetry genes.

When I moved back north my love of music continued to grow. My mom loved the shouters: Big Joe Turner, Jimmy Rushing, Jimmy Witherspoon, Big Maybelle, LaVern Baker, and others. These singers came out of the big bands: Count Basie, Jay McShann, Fletcher Henderson, Jimmie Lunceford, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles. Lloyd Price and other singers like Johnny Ace, Ruth Brown, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. These were my first musical loves.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?
I was a Basie and Duke Ellington fan long before I knew that what they played was jazz. It was just the music that my mother and her friends played and danced to. For the time, and given our economic status, we had a lot of music—all lacquer/shellac 78s. We also had several great jazz stations WLIB, SBLS, WJZ, WRVR. I guess all this was my gateway to jazz.

How old were you when you got first record?
My mother loved music, so we always had a record player, or at least a Victrola (they might have been second-or third-hand, but we had one) and lots of 78s. So I was always around records.

I purchased my first jazz album, Ahmad Jamal's Live At The Pershing when I was about 15. I bought it used from Jamal, a neighborhood junkie, who never left his house without albums under his arm. He sparked my interest in bebop and taught me a great deal about jazz, history, and Africa before he flamed out.

I was hypnotized by "Poinciana," and it never let me go. I could close my eyes and fly. I played the grooves off that record. It is still on my monthly rotation. Jamal prepared me for Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I had simply never heard sounds like that before. It awakened a musical curiosity and passion in me that lasts to this day.

What was the first concert you ever attended?
My first live jazz performance was at a small club in Paterson, New Jersey. I went with my cousin James, who had become somewhat of a local legend on the piano and organ (though he could not read music). I think it was a then-unknown Charles Earland on the mighty B3. I enjoyed it and thought he was good, but not better than my cousin. My first major venue was the Apollo Theater: a group of us went to see the Shirelles, who were from our hometown of Passaic. I was a teenager watching my home girls on stage, and I was blown away.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?
Since I was in high school. Most of the venues my cousins played in were actually bars with a little music on the side. I was the cat that always said, "I'm with the band." I was also mature for my age ("old ass looking little cat," as they called me), so I was never carded or thrown out. It was a different time, and it was not unusual to see young cats on the set. I was 11 months older than Tony Williams—we were both born in 1945. He was recording with Miles in 1963 while I was running track in high school.

How often do you go out to hear live music?
Generally once a twice a week, depending on what is going on, and my health. My wife and I belong to several cultural organizations involving jazz, poetry, and the visual arts—Painted Bird Art Center, NJPAC, Jazz Bridge, Philadelphia Jazz Project, Jazz Journalists Association—so I spread my time among all my passions.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?
The unexpected. The ever- evolving give-and-take of musicians reaching for the fences, and their ability to take us along for the ride. The role of the audience in that exchange is critical. The music, while being part of a particular time and space, also reflects the past and is often a harbinger of the future. Jazz is not static; it serves as a vehicle for transportation and transitions to other realms.

What is the most trouble you've gone to in order to get to a jazz performance?
I bought a car for jazz. I have driven Volvos since 1976, and in 2005 I took advantage of their overseas delivery program; it was an excellent way to get two free round trip business class tickets to Sweden. My wife does not like flying so I took a friend. We flew into Stockholm, and for three days we hung out at two excellent clubs, Fasching and Stampen. We then flew to Gothenburg, where I picked my up car at the Volvo factory. We caught some more great local jazz at a club called the Nefertiti. We then hit the road for a leisurely drive down to Copenhagen, a marvelous city, and its legendary Jazzhus, which so many great American jazz musicians (especially African Americans) have called home. It was the highlight of the trip.

I don't mind traveling to hear my music: The Spoleto festival in Charleston, SC, the Newport Jazz Festival, Saratoga Springs Jazz Festival, The Detroit Jazz Festival, French Quarter Music Festival in New Orleans, the Montclair jazz Festival, Cape May, the Charlie Parker Festival in New York. I have sat in the rain at Newport and other outdoor venues more times than I care to remember.

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?
There are a few. I missed the Newport and Detroit festivals in 2006 when I had triple bypass surgery. I also missed Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert, and Charles Lloyd at the 1966 Monterey Jazz Festival.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be? I never saw Bird, so Jazz at Massey Hall would be number one. I saw Coltrane and Thelonious Monk individually, but Coltrane and Monk at the Five Spot is number two on my list, and Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert is three.

What makes a great jazz club?
Atmosphere, decorum, respect. My favorite club right now is Dizzy's Club Coca Cola, followed by Smoke Jazz & Supper Club, both in New York. Dizzy's feels like a concert hall turned into a nightclub, and the backdrop day or night is spectacular. The musicians seem to dig it and appear to feel at home. In Philadelphia, my favorite is South Restaurant.

Which club(s) are you most regularly to be found at?
I was raised in the New York metro area, and my wife and I still frequent Birdland, Smoke, and Dizzy's. In the Philadelphia area, in addition to clubs like and LaRose, we hear jazz at a number of non-traditional venues, like churches, libraries, colleges, recreation centers, museums, synagogues.

Is there a club that's no longer around that you miss the most?
The Bijou, Show Boat, Peps, The Red Carpet Lounge, Jewels—all legendary Philly spots. In New York, Barbara's, a small club in the Village in the late '60s, and Slugs.

Do you have a favorite jazz anecdote?
On November 27, 1973, I had the honor of being present at the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie's reception for Duke Ellington, following a command performance. I was living in Ethiopia working with OIC International, a group charged with setting up technical schools in Ethiopia. On the reception line, Duke shook my hand and said, "I envy you for living in and helping this historic land." Then I took another step and bowed to Haile Selassie. I served as a personal tour guide to Mercer and a few members of the band around Addis Ababa for two days.

In 1974, following a Transcendental Meditation conference in India, Alice Coltrane came to Ethiopia to visit the ancient churches at Lalibela. We had an internal group of jazz lovers who met monthly at my home. A friend from the American Embassy invited Alice, and she spent an afternoon and evening with us talking about Ohnedaruth (Coltrane's Sanskrit name) and the spiritual nature of jazz. She seemed as fascinated with this odd collection of jazz lovers as we were with her.

How do you discover new artists?
I go to shows, talk to artists. I surf the Internet: Sirius Radio's Real Jazz, Pandora, YouTube. I belong to several jazz websites, like All About Jazz. I follow artist postings on Facebook. I go to local shows, and I am not afraid to dabble in new music. One of the great benefits of my teaching style is that several of my former middle school students keep up with me on Facebook. They send me music that I might not normally hear. I am also on the mailing list of several record companies.

What would be your desert island disc and why?
There is only one: A Love Supreme. That, and John's poem, were my Rosetta Stone to another life. That album has sustained me during good times and bad. It is my meditation. Since I purchased it, I try not to allow a week to pass without listening to all or part of it.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play and why? The tenor saxophone. It is the instrument that speaks to my spirit, my soul, and my intellect. In the hands of a master it can echo the full range of the human voice and emotions.

You're a jazz photographer. Tell us about that.
I started taking pictures as a freshman in college as an adjunct to my studies at Montclair State Collage. I considered myself something of a painter and printmaker. I had bought a second-hand 35mm camera, and was in Newark on July 17, 1967 taking pictures of my girlfriend. I had just let her house when the riots broke out. I took my first serious photographs that evening and over the next few months, all in Newark. After the riots, Newark became the focal point of black America, as Amiri Baraka and Ken Gibson led the cultural and political charge to change Newark. I photographed a great part of it. It was during this period that I started photographing many of the politicos and musicians who came to Newark to support the cause. In addition, I started photographing street musicians around the Village, Washington Square Park, and Mt Morris/Marcus Garvey Park up in Harlem. By the time I graduated college in 1968, photography along with poetry, had become my main creative outlet.

One story: In 1991, I had the opportunity to photograph Mile Davis at Kean College in New Jersey, and to assist in framing interview questions with the New Jersey Network Host. It was a difficult interview, with great restrictions placed on photographing and filming the concert: we had to photograph and film from the back of the auditorium. I was, however, allowed access to the dressing room, where I got my best shots.

Tell us about your vintage jazz records.
I have in excess of 8,500 records, tapes and CD's. I still have the first records I ever bought. I inherited over 200 hundred 78s from my mother, and I used to scrounge yard sales when people were selling their records and replacing them with CD's. I also have dozens of tapes and cassettes that I made before moving to Africa in 1972. I got into computer technology in the early '90s, and have a substantial digital collection I program into a monthly playlist for my iPhone and iPod. I try to walk over five miles a day and my music is critical to that effort.

My collection reflects my eclectic taste in music and life. I love good music no matter the genre. I collect everything from Afro Cuban to Zydeco. The centerpiece of my collection, however, is John Coltrane, followed by Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and, believe it or not, Francis Albert Sinatra. I have perhaps 85 percent of their recordings (maybe 95 percent of Coltrane). I play Coltrane as a meditation almost every day.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?
Jazz speaks to the core of who we are as a species. Despite some evidence to the contrary, we are biologically and spiritually programmed to survive and grow spiritually, even in the most adverse of situations. Jazz was born of a people's struggle and will to survive. They faced mind-stiflingly brutal hardships, enslavement, degradation, and countless attempts to dehumanize them. Yet they constantly found ways to maintain and elevate their humanity, genius, and beauty. They also maintained the quality of forgiveness and godliness. This allowed them to eventually merge their culture and efforts with other cultures so that we would one day have this beautiful collective called jazz.

Jazz is a healing force as well as one that raises questions. In Star Wars terminology, it brings a balance to the force. Music in general, and jazz in particular serve, as a counterweight to ignorance, stupidity and inhumanity. It questions the norm, especially when that norm is repressive and inflexible. I liken jazz to the visual arts in Paris at the turn of the 20th Century and the works of Picasso, Braque, and others that paved the road for the emergence of Cubism, which changed the course of art forever.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...
Beyond tragic, it would not only diminish our quality of life but would constitute the loss of our humanity as well. I think the lights would soon go out.

Is there anything else we should know about you?
I love this music called jazz, and I cannot imagine living in a world without it. My life, my art, my work as a teacher, photographer, and poet, is inspired and formed by it. I taught art to middle schoolers for over 20 years. I started each class with a poem, then played music throughout the day. My choice of music included Coltrane, Miles, Marley, Bach, Cage, Lennon, Willie Nelson, Sinatra, and lots and of Keith Jarrett solo works. I think I found a Jarrett Effect similar to the Mozart Effect with my middle schoolers.

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