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The Best of Times, the Worst of Times


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Artists are the gatekeepers of truth. We are civilization’s anchor. We are the compass for humanity’s conscience.
—Harry Belafonte


"April is the cruelest month... " so begins The Burial of the Dead section of T. S. Eliot's 100-year-old poem. "The Waste Land" laments the decline of culture in the world after World War I. In April of 2023, we lost Harry Belafonte and Ahmad Jamal. The loss of these two men is part of contemporary culture's decline. Burying the dead is a theme in "The Waste Land," but rebirth is also present. Great human spirits need to be kept alive for future generations. Both Belafonte and Jamal left us with hope. It is up to future generations to keep their legacies alive.

Part 1: Harry Belafonte—A Renaissance Man

In his '80s Belafonte wrote his autobiography "My Song: A Memoir of Art, Race, and Defiance." A high school dropout, he worked with journalist-author Michael Schnayerson to tell the story of his life and times. It's no ordinary path for a man lacking formal education to become a Renaissance man, but Belafonte took it. Sadly in this age of the oligarch, being a Renaissance man is not the lofty ambition it was for humanists like Leonardo da Vinci and Nicolaus Copernicus.

As a social activist, Belafonte modeled himself on Paul Robeson—a Renaissance man of the first order. Robeson was an All-American footballer at Rutgers and a Shakespearean actor whose vocal of "Ol' Man River" in the 1936 film "Showboat" has more than stood the test of time.

Belafonte's first singing performance was at the Royal Roost—the forerunner to Birdland—in New York City. 1949 Belafonte was a struggling actor who hung out at the Roost. Monte Kay, manager of the Roost, and some musicians including Lester Young, went to see him in "Of Mice and Men" where he played the role of a troubadour. It was obvious he could carry a tune so Kay suggested he sing for $70 a week during intermissions at the club.

Belafonte nervously waited as Prez finished his first set. He strolled onto the stage, followed by pianist Al Haig, who had agreed to accompany him. Before he could sing a note, Tommy Potter joined them on bass, Max Roach sat behind the drums, and Charlie Parker emerged with his sax. The singer's friends had secretly planned to give a boost to his professional singing debut.

I first heard mento-calypso music in Philadelphia, PA. I didn't know the Belafonte song came from the Kingston, Jamaica banana boat docks on first hearing—nonetheless, "Day-O" resonated with me. The song was about the struggle of Jamaicans working in a colonized world.

Belafonte and Quincy Jones assembled singers in the '80s. "Day-O" resonated with them too.

While there is no direct connection between "We Shall Overcome" and "Day-O" the singer-activist and his music helped fund the Civil Rights Movement. Later there will be more said about the financial windfall from Belafonte's most famous call-and-response. His album "Calypso" was the first LP to sell one million copies. Call-and-response has been the mainstay in the role played by music to gain African-Americans their freedom from slavery.

The Belafonte autobiography opens with a trip to Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1964 with Sidney Poitier. Belafonte had raised $70,000 in two days for Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee(SNCC) volunteers after the racially—motivated killing of 3 student activists. Driving to a meeting from the airport Poitier and Belafonte were chased by the KKK. By then the lines of 1956—"Day-o, day-o / Daylight come an' me wan' go home"—had morphed into a civil rights mantra—"Freedom, freedom, freedom come an' it won't be long." Both lyrics were sung in Mississippi when the duo dumped the cash on the table to a roar of approval from the SNCC volunteers.

Singing gave Belafonte a leg up as an actor, as it has done for many others—think Frank Sinatra, Annie Ross, Julie London, and Pedro Infanté. "Odds Against Tomorrow," an excellent black-and-white film noir with a social conscience, was co-produced by Robert Wise and Belafonte in 1959. Wise directed the film. John Lewis wrote the music and the producers employed a 22-piece orchestra for the soundtrack. Milt Jackson, Connie Kay, Percy Heath, Bill Evans, Jim Hall, and Gunther Schuller were in the orchestra.

Belafonte's character—Johnny Ingram—was a jazz musician. There's a scene in a club where he plays the vibraphone. The sound of the vibes is unmistakable; Milt Jackson was never appreciated enough for his virtuosity on the instrument.

Robert Ryan played the racist ex-con criminal Earle Slater—a perfect foil for a black musician with a gambling problem. True to its film noir coda both Belafonte and Ryan are dead at the end of the film. Ryan, a liberal-minded activist, played the villain so well that he was quoted by the Los Angeles Times about having problems playing a character he despised. Ryan was also the heavyweight boxing champion for the four years he attended Dartmouth.

Belafonte's friendship with Martin Luther King included being in the inner circle that determined some of the strategies of the Civil Rights Movement. As part of what we now know as standard practice under J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI used the husband of Belafonte's psychotherapist as an informant. Learning of the subterfuge, Belafonte changed therapists. Having grown up poor with a dysfunctional mother and father in a dysfunctional democracy, life-long therapy was necessary for this mid-20th-century Renaissance man.

After the death of MLK, human rights and racism issues on the African continent became a major issue for Belafonte. He accompanied Nelson Mandela on a tour of the USA at the end of apartheid after being released from prison. His autobiography reveals he had many conversations with Mandela about MLK. Nelson wanted to know about the non-violent political tactics used during the Civil Rights Movement. Some of them found their way to South Africa.

In 1999 on a visit to Cuba Belafonte met with members of the hip-hop community. Afterward, he mentioned to Fidel Castro and the Minister of Culture that Cuban hip-hop artists deserved recognition as an artistic voice in Havana. Consequently, the Cuban Culture Ministry created the Cuban Rap Agency with a studio for hip-hop artists.

In the 21st Century Belafonte continued his social critique of America's foreign policy saying dissent was a necessity in any democracy. He described George W. Bush and the Bush Administration as "arrogance wedded to ignorance"—in my opinion an eloquent description of the then POTUS by a high school dropout.

Part 2: Ahmad Jamal—A Man for All Seasons

Born Frederick Russell Jones in Pittsburgh, Pa. in 1930, Ahmad Jamal was introduced to music by a family member. His uncle was playing the piano as he shuffled by. When challenged if he could do what his uncle did, the 3-year-old prodigy took his seat at the piano and played. He had to wait until he was seven before his family could afford formal lessons. His first teacher was Mary Caldwell Dawson, a New England Conservatory of Music graduate and the founder of the National Negro Opera Company.

Pittsburgh and the Homewood neighborhood were essential to Jamal. He went to Westinghouse High School—the same school as Erroll Garner, Billy Strayhorn, and Mary Lou Williams. Jamal said that growing up in Steel City gave him an appreciation for all types of music, going so far as to name one of his albums and compositions "Pittsburgh." Early on, he coined the phrase "American classical music." He often used those words instead of "jazz" to describe our music.

In 1950, 20-year-old Baptist-raised "Fritz" Jones became Ahmad Jamal influenced by the Detroit Muslim community and trumpeter Idrees Sulieman. The Four Strings (Mary Lou Williams had produced the group's first recording) led by Homewood's classically-trained violinist Joe Kennedy, Jr., needed a pianist—enter Jamal. The Four Strings became The Three Strings when Kennedy left the group to return to Pittsburgh to teach. The Three Strings were created with Ray Crawford on guitar, Israel Crosby on bass, and Jamal on piano.

The Three Strings provided intermission music at the Embers in New York City in 1956. One night a drunken patron sidled up to make a request and spilled his wine glass on the piano. Having had enough of struggling with an impolite and inattentive audience, Jamal and Crosby drove to Chicago. Crawford stayed behind. The evening's events turned out to be the catalyst for the formation of The Ahmad Jamal Trio with Vernel Fournier becoming the drummer.

Fournier said he was setting up his drums when Jamal played a portion of "Poinciana"; Fournier hit the cymbal on the upbeat and played a syncopated rhythm with his right hand. They worked on the tune for a long time. Jamal knew he had something when they added the Crosby ostinato bass line.

A thought stolen from the universal mind of Bill Evans: the first time I heard "Poinciana" in 1958 I felt an emotion I didn't know was inside me. The album "At the Pershing: But Not for Me" paid the bills for Jamal for the rest of his life even though a Down Beat reviewer called it "cocktail music." This is how "cocktail music" looked and sounded in France in 2012.

Soul music DJ Sid McCoy and Jamal talked Leonard Chess, founder of Chess and Argo Records, into doing a "remote" recording at the Pershing. A stickler for literal correctness, Jamal always used the word "remote" instead of "live" since all recorded music is live. The rest is history; the album was on the jazz charts for 108 weeks.

The Ahmad Jamal Trio was an influence in defining the interplay among musicians in piano trios. Bebop's frenetic instrumental virtuosity was in fashion. Jamal used vamps and ostinati to take his "American classical music" in a different direction. Some jazz critics didn't appreciate or understand the evolution, many referred to Jamal's art as chic and shallow.

To any artist admiration by a peer is as good as it gets; Jamal had one of the best who admired his work—Miles Davis. Davis sent his 1955 rhythm section of Red Garland, Paul Chambers, and Philly Joe Jones to hear Jamal's trio. Later, on his creative escape from Bebop, he wrote the modal chord structure for "Kind of Blue." At one time he said, "All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal"—at times Davis used hyperbole to make his point.

Jamal's love for his hometown of Pittsburgh was almost equaled by an affinity for drummers from New Orleans. Three of his drummers—Vernel Fournier, Herlin Riley, and Idris Muhammad—were all from Crescent City.

Fournier joined Jamal and Crosby in Chicago in 1956. They became the stuff of legends until the early 60s. Fournier's drumming, like other NOLA drummers, started in street bands playing for funerals where the bass drum is featured. In 1975, Fournier embraced Islam and became known as Amir Rushdan.

True to his own street band origin, Muhammad thought of himself as a drummer, not a jazz drummer. As a teen in 1956, he played on Fats Domino's recording of "Blueberry Hill." His R. J. DeLuke interview is worth a read. It can be found here.

Herlin Riley had a long-standing run with Wynton Marsalis' Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra from 1987 until 2004. He is the drummer on "Autumn Leaves." Jamal was 86 at the time.

Jamal's concept of being a leader was derivative of his Pittsburgh origin where he listened to both classical music from Europe and American jazz. He thought of the piano trio as an ensemble and himself as a conductor. He used hand signals to signal his wants to players like the conductor of an orchestra. His piano playing was orchestral in structure as well to many who admired him.

The direction Jamal's "American classical music" took found a home in the hip-hop world with artists like De La Soul, Nas, and Jay-Z using it for some hip-hop breaks in their recordings. As a fellow Steinway artist, Jason Moran mentions Jamal's influence on hip-hop.

Seriously committed to the Muslim faith, Jamal practiced Salat—the act of praying 5 times every day and he did not drink. He opened The Alhambra in Chicago after the success of "At the Pershing: But Not for Me." The club was popular, did not serve alcohol, and furnished exquisitely in honor of its Arabic namesake. Jamal's idea was to split the trio's performances fifty-fifty—half on the road, half at The Alhambra. The club did not survive because it was too much to handle to be a musician, husband, and nightclub owner. In his own words, he was always thinking about music, but he wasn't enamored of practicing on the piano. In his late 80s, he spoke about life being a discovery process rather than a creative one—learning something new each time he played his instrument. Not much into social activism, what he had to say about the state of the world and the nation was often profound which is an indication that his prayerful life was insightful.


Belafonte and Jamal were artists in the best sense of the word. They both told stories with their music. Belafonte was a social activist and Jamal was prayerful. Both men were financially fortunate in terms of their success while both followed—to use one of MLK's favorite terms —a moral compass. Of all the things they left behind that may be the most important.

Harry and Ahmad were musical royalty—Belafonte the "King of Calypso," and Jamal the "King of the Ostinato."

The kings are dead. Long live the kings!



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