With each passing day, I keep thinking of Nat Hentoff, who died two weeks ago.
I keep thinking Nat would know what to write…
Onstage the a few nights ago at Symphony Space, emceeing a “Musicians Against Fascism” concert, I invoked Nat’s legacy and felt his presence through a sense of purpose that linked ideas, action and music.
Here’s how I began my own remembrance of Nat at The Daily Beast:
The death of Nat Hentoff at 91 on Jan. 7 was, to me, one final act of defiance.
According to his son Nicholas, Hentoff left us in the company of that which he loved dearly—surrounded by family, listening to Billie Holiday recordings.
And I suppose that Hentoff, who wrote with as much passion and insight about the Constitution as he did about Holiday’s music, simply refused to stick around to see Donald Trump take the presidential oath of office.
I imagined Hentoff whispering something like: “I fought against the Vietnam War. I spoke out during the Reagan administration, against George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, and in defense of true liberalism and the Bill of Rights. This fight is yours.”
As an author, journalist, jazz critic, and civil libertarian, Hentoff’s intensity was matched by his productivity and range. He inspired me early on through his voluminous essays and books. And I was lucky. I got to know the man, who, by then, had a weathered face bordered by greying hair and beard, his piercing eyes softened only by his easy smile.
On the flight home from Havana last month after the Jazz Plaza Festival, pianist Arturo O’Farrill and I talked about the country to which we were returning.
Donald Trump would soon take the oath of office as president. We each felt uneasy (scared , really), not to mention indignant and insulted. We both also felt motivated—to speak up more forcefully and with greater focus about what we believed in, and to try to strenghten our sense of community with musicians, writers, thinkers and the decent people who read and listen and care.
O’Farrill called me up the next day. He was putting together a concert a Manhattan’s Symphony Space, he said, scheduled for the night before the presidential inauguration, under the banner, “Musicians Against Fascism.”
“Anything I can do to support this?” I asked.
“Yeah, you can emcee.”
I told him that I’d certainly write about the concert, and that maybe I could step up and say a few words. We talked a bit more and then hung up.
I called right back. “Of course I can emcee. I should do it. I’ll do it.”
I’ve been political on the page for at least a decade, writing about, among other things: jazz and American identity; the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba; about indignity, rights and the promise of culture in New Orleans after Hurrican Katrina, and about Islam as heard through music after 9/11.
I’ve spoken truth to power in public at panel discussions and conferences. It seemed high time to quite literally step up and speak out.
It was good to do. I wanted and needed to do it. I’d do it again. I will do it again.
You can stream the whole thing here.
In the midst of Havana’s Jazz Plaza festival in December, I took a break with Yosvany Terry, who has lived in New York City since 1999 and whose music helps define a cutting edge there. He grew up in the Camagüey province, where his father, Eladio “Don Pancho” Terry, was a violinist with Maravilla de Florida’s Charanga Orchestra and a master of the chekeré, the beaded gourd used for percussion. Yosvany and I drove to Havana’s Mariano neighborhood, a quiet, almost rural area where his father and mother now live. There, Don Pancho sang old boleros while Yosvany played piano. Don Pancho demonstrated the “ritmo guiro,” an innovation of his that lent a more folkloric flavor to the charanga sound by the highlighting the raspy sound of the guiro, a serrated gourd that is scraped with a stick. “All of this music,” Yosvany said, “has influenced my music.”
And much more, not to mention Terry’s work with saxophonist Steve Coleman.
Bohemian Trio, Terry’s latest endeavor, is a collective with pianist Orlando Alonso and cellist Yves Dharamraj, in which Terry plays soprano and alto saxophone and chekeré.
Here’s my Wall Street Journal review of the group’s genre-defying debut CD, “Okónkolo.” Continue reading “Bohemian Trio Leaps Across Borders”
When pianist and composer Arturo O’Farrill (pictured above) asked me to help mount an event at Manhattan’s Symphony Space on Jan. 19—the night before the presidential inauguration—to express resistance to all that the coming Trump administration represents, and to help build community along those lines I said yes first and asked questions later.
“Musicians Against Fascism“—the banner here is “No, We Refuse to Accept a Fascist America!”—will feature a dazzling lineup of artists, along with O’Farrill: I’m told the list thus far includes: Vijay Iyer, Matthew Shipp, Jen Shyu, Claudia Acuña, Fabian Almazan, Lakecia Benjamin, Stephan Crump, Peter Evans, Mary Halvorson, Amirtha Kidambi, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Roy Nathanson and the jazz passengers, Arturo O’Farrill, Somi, The Westerlies. More surprises to come, I’m sure.
I’ll be up there, helping direct traffic as well as trying to inspire positive action and incite resistance against the many ways in which a Trump presidency threatens all that I write about and believe in—honesty, decency, humanity, responsibility, democracy, and, yes, artistry of the type that will be on display.
I will not watch what goes on in Washington, DC on Jan. 20, when Donald Trump lays his hand (which may or may no be unnaturally small) on a Bible. Much that is unnatural and unholy should flow from that moment.
Jan. 19 is OUR inauguration. Each of us can determine what we will individually inaugurate—what we will swear to uphold and protect, and how.
Let’s gather to begin building community and a common sense of resistance and commitment.
And if that F-word scares you, it should. This is a benefit for #RefuseFascism.org, and, well, I thought twice about that word, too. But what’s promised by this new administration—what’s already in process befits the term. And it should scare you.
Spread the word. Show up.
http://www.symphonyspace.org/event/9581/Music/no-we-refuse-to-accept-a-fascist-america Tickets: $30.00 (For those who cannot afford a ticket, 15 minutes prior to the concert, any unsold tickets will be made available on a pay-what-you-can basis.)
In November, I ended a four-part conversation-and-music series at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem titled, “NYC: The Afro-Cuban Beat.”
My animating ideas were that to cover great music in New York City means, as much or more now than ever, listening closely to Cuban musicians who live here and to many other musicians who mine Afro-Cuban traditions—and that these rhythms, of hand drums and folklore and dance, course underneath the current New York City jazz scene as surely as the subway courses beneath the city.
Sometimes, my editors ask me why I write so much about Cuban musicians and Afro-Cuban music.
There are the obvious answers: Great music and superior musicianship, period.
Yet also, and more importantly, I’ve worked hard to unravel storylines that say: This is not exotic. There is no “Latin jazz” if there ever was. There is a long and deep cultural history that glues together an entire hemisphere and is still both largely untold and developing new chapters. The section of that story involving the U.S. and Cuba is yet more fascinating (though also disturbing) for its strange and estranged politics, which make it good to write about, and a good metaphor for politics of exclusion and the cultural truths of inclusion.
Also, Cuba (like New Orleans) is one great example of the African root of nearly all music from this hemisphere.
That’s a very long way of saying: My recent trip to Havana woke me up and taught me more. Here’s how I began my piece in The Daily Beast. Continue reading “Back From Cuba: In and Around Havana's Jazz Plaza Festival”