The story of Griot Galaxy & a renaissance for Faruq Z. Bey
by W. Kim Heron (June 2003)
He’d gone to see saxophonists John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders the year
before at a place on Dexter called the Drome Lounge, and their wail was like
nothing he’d ever experienced before: magnificent, powerful, polyrhythmic,
polytonal, polychromatic, emotional, form-shattering … the purest music he’d ever
experienced before or since.
And when the word went out that Coltrane had died on a Monday in July - or gotten
so heavy he’d fallen off the planet, as some wags would have it - it was only fitting
to call for a memorial party. A dozen or so fans worshipfully played records and
made music through Saturday night at the cramped apartment on Chicago
Boulevard where he lived with his wife. Around daybreak came the sound of cars
speeding away from Lord knew what, and being reckless guys, they went to check
out the commotion and soon found themselves at the epicenter of the brewing
Detroit rebellion of 1967. It was a revelation:
“The people who were rioting in the street, they moved like one mind. It was
almost like a hive of insects moves. It was like a wave; it just moved, but that
whole episode put me in a frame of mind of thinking about our position here as a -
quote - subculture, and how to deal with that. And since music was always an
interest of mine and seeing how our music defined itself and our relationship to the
greater environment as well … ”
The issues all seemed intertwined.
A couple days later with the riot still raging he became the owner of his first
saxophone, a Martin tenor, for the uncharacteristically low price of $80.
Asked whether, in the parlance of the time, the saxophone had been “liberated,” he
laughs dryly. “I got it during the riot,” he repeats.
Asked whether this all seemed prophetic - Coltrane dying, the memorial, the riot,
the saxophone - his eyes widen as if it’s obvious. He laughs again: “It was
significant, I’ll put it that way.”
Life seemed to take on a new seriousness. “Before that I was just floating and
having fun doing what was expected of me by the culture at large and the tradition
and yadda yadda,” he says.
Within a few years, Jesse Davis would have new names. He would become Malik
Z. Bey then Faruq Z. Bey. His marriage would dissolve, as would two more during
the ’70s. He’d become part of an artistic, spiritualist, pan-African political milieu;
he’d eventually become a sort of poster boy for that set. He’d read his poetry to
rapt listeners, pontificate on the meaning of life and culture, play in more bands
and jams than anyone can be expected to keep track of. He’d impress a lot of
folks as brilliant and charismatic; he’d attract talent like a magnet. He’d garner a
rep as a ladies’ man. He’d live wildly, nearly die, watch much of what he’d worked
for unravel, and slowly recover.
And roughly two decades after its demise, one of his bands, arguably the best jazz
band to never make it out of Detroit, just may be on the verge of getting its due...