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OPINION: Playing heritage festival all about jazz

August 11, 2011
By MARK J. MILLER - Staff writer , The Herald-Star

I don't like to blow my own horn much, and I try to write about aspects of music that I think the general readership would appreciate.

But in this column I'm going to talk about how much I and my three bandmates in my jazz group, Four Swingin' Jazzbos, enjoyed playing the annual African-American Heritage Festival at Steubenville's North End Field on Saturday.

The band - which includes myself on guitar, Rick Call on clarinet, Bill Cattrell on second guitar and Jeremy Howard on viola - was asked to perform for an hour at the festival while at the same time educating those in attendance on some of the great African-American jazz musicians and composers who composed the pieces we played. We played to an appreciative crowd, to say the least.

We enjoyed first-class treatment from the members of the Brothers and Sisters Intelligensia Crew, including the organizers, Dawud Abdullah, president of B.A.S.I.C. Circle, and Justice Slappy, vice president. I've known the guys in B.A.S.I.C. Circle for a long time, going all the way back to the days of Autnoyz, the ground-breaking hip-hop band from Steubenville led by the Silent Stepchild, otherwise known as Kareem Ellis.

I got to know about B.A.S.I.C. Circle through hanging out with Kareem, who was a member, and playing guitar on some Autnoyz tracks. Kareem eventually left Steubenville, but the others I met in the organization soldiered on here.

I remember my first telephone conversation with Justice about four years ago, a conversation that lasted about an hour and included how much we loved the music of jazz saxophonist John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane, especially their later - and very spiritual - work on the Impulse! label.

Anyone who knows Justice understands he's all about the spiritual. I always get a great vibe from Justice - it's impossible not to - and he's got the right idea - educating the younger, African-American generations about their heritage, especially when it comes to music.

And he's exactly right in his attitude. African-American music didn't begin with hip-hop in the 1990s, like many young people may think. Black music in America has its roots firmly intertwined with just about every other major American music, including blues, jazz, soul, rock, R&B and even country music. It goes all the way back to the founding of our nation, to the music of hope and defiance in the slave fields, to the grittiness of urban blues and jazz as played by African-American musicians in the 1920s through the present day in musical hotbeds such as Chicago and New York City, the Mississippi Delta and the clubs in Harlem.

Justice knows this, and he's got a retro attitude when it comes to his promotion of peace, love and togetherness as well as importance of community. In fact, this is what B.A.S.I.C. Circle is all about - it's a light in the community, and it shines brightly.

Jazz is a uniquely American art, co-founded by African-Americans with the assistance of musically progressive white artists and advocates, inspired by the innovations of jazz pioneers such as the great trumpeter Louis Armstrong, the first jazz "star."

Then came the second wave of progressives, such as saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, both giants in modern jazz who possessed an intellectual and sophisticated approach to music that scared the previous generation to death with be-bop's complex chord changes and rapid-fire, terrifying tempos.

Personally, I especially love jazz from the 1950s to the 1970s, and the hard bop created by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Charlie Mingus and all the African-American jazz artists on the Blue Note label, as well as the timeless music of Duke Ellington and Count Basie. These guys were towering figures in jazz who still cast a long shadow even today, and they were revolutionaries as well as African-American intellectuals of the highest order. I guess the festival as a celebration of heritage is what's needed, and I'm glad I was able to play a small part in that education.

An example during the festival - a young girl, probably about 8 years old, came up to me and asked if we were going to play any Beyonce songs. The innocence of asking four middle-aged white guys to play a Beyonce song was funny enough, and there were chuckles all around.

Then she was disappointed and lamented that we were going to play "old people's music." Well, she was right in a way - the younger generation doesn't know what "jazz" is, and she's probably never heard a lick of it in her short life. That certainly wasn't her fault.

The interesting thing was this - this young girl stayed for almost the entire set in the front row. Her response gradually went from the sheer boredom of "I'm-so-over-this-old-people's-music-thing" to clapping and virtually dancing to the music by the end of the set. That's right - she's dancing to music by Miles, Coltrane, Ellington and Monk as played by four "old" white guys.

Of everyone's response to our set, that was my favorite. We introduced a young girl to music she's probably never heard before, and she dug it! Who knows? Maybe we just inspired a future violinist or jazz pianist. Stranger things have happened in the world of music, and an artist always is inspired by someone.

Playing the festival and sharing my love for these African-American composers and players was one of my favorite playing experiences. I hope B.A.S.I.C. Circle asks us to play again next year.

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