Meet Mike Black

Tessa Souter and Andrea Wolper BY

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Human beings have always found a way to make a joyful noise. We hum, we sing, we whistle, we clap our hands and stomp our feet. The universe vibrates all around us and through us.
Mike Black might not be the first Super Fan we discovered on Twitter, but he is surely one the most enthusiastic about, well, everything! Apparently born with a positivity gene, Mike waxes fondly about a Brooklyn childhood steeped in jazz, the current scene in his adopted home, and the wonders of a little thing called the Internet. Embracing jazz and technology with equal enthusiasm, our International Jazz Day Super Fan even turned our desert island disk question on its ear—read on to find out how.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I'm a Brooklyn native, but my family emigrated from the Caribbean and Central America. I relish my roots because they are multi-cultured, multi-racial, and a little bit multi-lingual. These inherited influences opened my taste buds at an early age to experience music, food, dance, literature, history, science, art, and film with a curious and open mind. I call Atlanta, GA home now.

I'm a father, and a very proud "girls' dad." Like my father and mother before me, I'm thankful that my children have absorbed the spices of their multicultural heritage through the experiences that we've shared together. I'm now in my early 60's and humbled when they remind me of some of those experiences that I've forgotten.

I've worked in tech for most of my adult life. I love how digital technologies have provided the tools to explore and curate the 100+ years of jazz we can enjoy today. You will find scores of my custom curated playlists on YouTube celebrating jazz centennials, seasonal and historic holidays, ultimate covers of standards, and annual awards like the Grammys and critics' choice.

What's your earliest memory of music?

I'm a Jazz Head. It's a chronic condition I inherited from my dad, absorbed while he and his friends dissected Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, and Dave Brubeck—all this at the age of five.

In the early 1960s my Dad had a killer component stereo system that he assembled while traveling for work as a merchant seaman. Marantz amplifier, McIntosh tuner, Empire turntable, custom speakers, open reel tape deck. His crew would gather at our place because that sound system flawlessly reproduced the mesmerizing vibrations of those brilliant artists. At Dad's knee, my mind became tuned to higher frequencies.

As if that weren't enough, Dad and his friends would tune in to the great New York City jazz radio stations of the '60's: WEVD and WRVR. DJ's like Mort Fega, Ed Beach, and Symphony Sid infused me with an aural history of SavvyJazzerati. I had no choice in the matter. "Jazz Head" was branded on my big forehead at an early age. Couldn't be more thankful.

How old were you when you got your first record?

I honestly can't remember what record I purchased first, partly because I inherited my dad's vinyl collection. As a pre-and early-teen I listened to a lot of Motown, British Invasion, Monterey and Woodstock festivals, rock and folk rock. The Beatles' Let It Be was the first album I received as a gift, for middle school graduation.

In my mid-to late-teens, I discovered a great jazz record shop in the basement of a small electronics store on Park Row across from City Hall in Manhattan, J&R Records. That's where I started filling in Dad's vinyl collection with pieces from Miles Davis' electric period. '60s hard rock, progressive rock, super funky soul, and sizzling salsa had opened me up to the improvisational fierceness of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Santana, Chick Corea's Return To Forever, and Donald Byrd's electric period.

I combed the bins at J&R and discovered all kinds of electric and acoustic goodies. Tower Records became another source when I started replacing vinyl with CDs. The Columbia & BMG music clubs were treasure troves for converting the vinyl library to digital. Sadly, all the vinyl and CDs are long lost. Don't ask—it's a sore point.

What was the first concert you ever attended?

My very first concert was a Jazzmobile event on a playground in the projects of Brooklyn. Couldn't have been more than 10 years old. I'm pretty sure my Mom was hovering around, watching over me. Years later, as a young adult, I'd trek up to Grant's Tomb on Riverside Drive in Harlem to catch their Wednesday night, summertime showcase. Caught the young Marsalis brothers there with Art Blakey one night.

A few years ago Jazzmobile celebrated their 50th Anniversary. What a great institution.

Was there one album or experience that was your doorway to jazz?

It wasn't just one album. It was growing up in a household where jazz, Latin jazz, bossa nova, and calypso were part of everyday early childhood development. Probably grew a 'smarticle' or two because of it.

How long have you been going out to hear live music?

Over 50 years, if you count Jazzmobile at the age of ten. Never really took inventory of all the portals I've crossed for jazz music. Not sure I can remember them all, but here goes, in no particular order. In New York: Jazzmobile at Grant's Tomb and other sites across the five boroughs, Carnegie Hall, Town Hall, Blue Note, Sweet Basil, the Village Vanguard, the Village Gate, The Public Theatre, BAM, Wollman rink in Central Park, Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park, The Bottom Line, Beacon Theater, Jazz At Lincoln Center, Iridium, Winter Garden in the World Financial Center. Outside of NYC: Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Saratoga NY; New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, House of Blues; Atlanta Jazz Fest, The High Museum, Churchill Grounds, Café 290, City Winery, Venckman's, Variety Playhouse.

How often do you go out to hear live music?

These days it's almost monthly because of a great program that Atlanta's High Museum hosts every 3rd Friday. Jazz, art, cocktails, and beautiful ATLiens. And every Memorial Day weekend, family and friends swoop in to The ATL to dig into Atlanta Jazz Fest.

What is it about live music that makes it so special for you?

I'll listen to anything, but my ears are tuned to seven higher frequencies:

  • virtuoso musicianship;
  • angelic/thrilling voices;
  • witty, soulful, and blue lyricism;
  • tight arrangements (whether complex or simple);
  • imaginative, commanding improvisation;
  • swing, clave, a sweet funky groove;
  • the artist(s) being able to "bring it" in live performance.

What are the elements of an amazing concert?

A brilliant concert will get thumbs-up on 5 of the 7 higher frequencies. You know it when you hear it. That music captures your attention instantly, has lasting impact, and sometimes is even life changing.

What's farthest you've traveled to get to a jazz performance?

In the mid-'90s I went to the New Orleans Jazz Festival twice. I was still living in NYC at the time. But it was no trouble at all because it came on the tail end of a business trip. The jazz gods were smiling on me.

I'd love to do an International Jazz Day host city one day. I'd also like to do the jazz scenes in London, Paris, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Cape Town, Panama, San Francisco, Chicago, DC and Portland.

Is there one concert that got away that you still regret having missed?

Too many missed, but no regrets. At age 15, I got grounded for bad behavior and missed James Brown at Albee Sq., Brooklyn.

If you could go back in time and hear one of the jazz legends perform live, who would it be?

Not a fair question. I'm giving you four. (1) Eric Dolphy, Booker Little, Mal Waldron, Richard Davis—Live At The Five Spot. (2) Lambert, Hendricks & Ross—Live with the Count Basie Band either in France or on Hugh Hefner's PlayBoy after dark TV show. (3) Miles Davis, John Coltrane with Gil Evans Orchestra performing selections from Kind of Blue on the CBS TV show The Sound Of Jazz hosted by Robert Herridge (4) OK, not jazz but, might as well be because it hit all seven higher frequencies: Jimi Hendrix' Band Of Gypsies, Live at the Fillmore East.

What makes a great jazz club?

The ideal would be a place that books talent with something to say, and that has great acoustics, great sightlines, great finger food, is cigar friendly, has a great selection of aged things that pour, an outdoor patio, friendly/knowledgeable staff that makes me feel like a regular even if I've never been there before.

That might be the most detailed response we've ever had to that question! So which club(s) are you most regularly to be found at?

It's not a club; it's The High Museum in Atlanta, because of my membership privileges. Local DJ Jamal Ahmad of WCLK does great programming of fresh local and international artists.

How do you discover new artists?

I can't overstate this: the Internet. The Twitter jazz community has introduced me to great resources. JazzWeek covers new releases weekly. I look forward to year-end jazz polls from NPRMusic, DownBeat, and JazzTimes. Of course, Grammy nomination season is full of good and bad surprises. Then there are the streaming services. There's also the web site, JazzStandards.com, for historical research. [Ed. note: And, of course, there's a world of information right here at All About Jazz.] All possible because of, wait for it, the Internet.

Vinyl, CDs, MP3s?, streaming?

It's streaming all the way for me now. Mainly Apple Music and YouTube. But Pandora filled a tremendous void in jazz discovery for me in the mid-late 2000s. Plug in a song title or artist name and discover great music. The Music Genome Project saved me from the disasters that befell jazz radio in the 1980s.

If you were a professional musician, which instrument would you play?

The guitar. Why? Because Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana, John McLaughlin, Grant Green, George Benson, Al Di Meola, Prince. And because I could carry my guitar anywhere and serenade the butterflies.

What's your desert island disc?

You're thinking about this all wrong. In the 21st century, I carry 60 gigs of music in my pocket at all times. My iPhone is water resistant. Even without a waterproof case it has a fighting chance of surviving the swim to shore. My trusty backpack has a solar recharging panel and is itself water resistant. I don't have to pick one desert island disc. Technology solved this age-old problem years ago.

What do you think keeps jazz alive and thriving?

Again, the Internet. Pick any streaming service, paid or ad supported, and you'll find 60 million songs, including massive jazz catalogs. Thousands of hours of historic film footage in documentaries, televised programs, dramas, comedies, and adventures are available on Netflix, Amazon Prime, and YouTube. The calendar of live jazz events world-wide is in your next Google or social media search. Millions of jazz fans connect across the globe in real time. Why? Because, the Internet.

Finish this sentence: Life without music would be...

Hard to cope with at first. But human beings have always found a way to make a joyful noise. We hum, we sing, we whistle, we clap our hands and stomp our feet. The universe vibrates all around us and through us. The music will come out—we can't help ourselves.

Is there anything else we should know about you?

I think I've said enough. *smiles wryly* But wait! I'm always looking to share my love for jazz as a guest speaker, curator, or program advisor. Podcasts, radio, museums, and institutional inquiries welcome. I'm currently working on a jazz film concept and would love to connect with an experienced executive producer. Connect with me, TheJazzHerald, on Twitter, FaceBook, Instagram and at YouTube.com/TheJazzHerald for SavvyJazzerati playlists and global jazz related postings. I love to keep the conversation going.

Many thanks to Tessa and Andrea and All About Jazz for the invitation to contribute to the Jazz Super Fans series. And many more thanks to all the great musicians, fans, and music professionals who are keeping jazz bonfires burning around the world for 100 years and counting.

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