Sista's Place: A Jazz & Cultural Beachhead in Brooklyn (Part One)

In first of a two-part series, Willard Jenkins interviews people behind the scenes at the cooperative music and cultural center in Brooklyn

Some weeks back an invigorating, spirited Saturday evening was spent at Sista’s Place, a cooperative black enterprise at 456 Nostrand Avenue (corner of Jefferson Avenue; by subway take A or C train to Nostrand Ave. stop) in Brooklyn. The occasion was an all-star band including trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, violinist Billy Bang, pianist D.D. Jackson, tubist Bob Stewart, and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Needless to say, with such fire breathers onstage the action was ferocious. And this was an audience that fed the fire in equal turns. Though comfortably mixed, the audience was decidedly African American, and a constant amen corner further stoked the musicians; their delight at playing for such an encouraging audience was palpable on the artists’ faces and in their playing. There’s nothing quite like a thoroughly engaged audience to coax high caliber performances.

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Writer and radio host Willard Jenkins introduces Jason Moran & Bandwagon at the 2010 Rosslyn Jazz Festival
By Lee Mergner
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Sista's Place in Brooklyn, NY

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Then on a recent Sunday afternoon we had a return visit to Sista’s Place for a book signing with Randy Weston for our book African Rhythms, the autobiography of Randy Weston (Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins; Duke University Press). Once again the Sista’s Place audience was thoroughly engaged, delighting in Weston’s vivid recounting of his life in Brooklyn and in his quest of the spirits of our ancestors.

Located in a very pleasant and spotless corner storefront, with adjacent food cooperative, Sista’s Place can comfortably accommodate about 75 patrons at small tables; that close proximity lending further credence to the amen corner. The walls are adorned with many of the jazz masters who’ve performed at Sista’s, and looming over all is the patron saint, John Coltrane. At Sista’s Place the philosophy of “Jazz, a music of the spirit” is blessedly alive and well. Jazz has a true home at Sista’s Place, a vibrant community center, cultural gathering place, and political pow-wow of sorts where the jazz series runs on Saturday nights. Sista’s Place officially opened for jazz, in its nearby former incarnation, on September 23, 1995 — John Coltrane’s birthday, another reason for Trane’s honored position in the Sista’s pantheon.

As part of our ongoing Brooklyn jazz archives project for the Weeksville Heritage Center (www.weeksvillesociety.org), we had the enlightening pleasure of conducting separate interviews with three Sista’s Place principles — founders community activist Viola Plummer and attorney Roger Wareham, and Sista’s artistic director of jazz programming, trumpeter-bandleader and Sun Ra alum Ahmed Abdullah. This is part one of their commentary on the development of this increasingly rare venue — a black-operated and oriented community house for jazz music. I had previously interviewed Wareham for the former IAJE Journal back in the 90s, at the behest of the former BET Jazz major domo and current BET executive Paxton Baker who had funded Sista’s, so I was familiar with their first locale. Bringing Viola Plummer and Ahmed Abdullah’s voices into the commentary along with Wareham shed much further light.

The whole feel and philosophy behind Sista’s Place recalls the former Brooklyn cultural edifice known as the East, the life of which was detailed in a previous Independent Ear interview with Jitu Weusi, also part of our Weeksville project (check the IE archives). As was the case with the East, Sista’s Place was developed on a political foundation, in this case known as the December 12th movement. We begin with the mother of Sista’s Place, Viola Plummer.

Why is your organization known as the December 12th movement?

Viola Plummer: Some years ago there was an incident in upstate New York where the guards in the Orange County Jail house put on Ku Klux Klan outfits and abused two African American and one Latino prisoner. At that time three of our brothers were on trial in Goshen for weapons’ possession and we had a judge that was from hell. So when we went to court for our three brothers, the mother of one of the victims in the county jail heard us take on the judge. After that she said to us “You know, these young men were brutalized… and nothing has happened… This was in Newburg, NY in ’87 and we need some of your spirit up here.” So we began to talk to her about how we take on the county jail apparatus in Orange County. We had a subsequent date for our three brothers [who were on trial].

Talk about the December 12 movement in terms of arts & culture.

VP: One of the things is that we — because of our politics — we understand that culture is the transmission belt of struggle, of understanding who you are, what the value of it was. Our advent into needing to have somewhere musicians could play is that we had a series in Harlem called “Jazz Comes to Fight Back,” and the first person we [presented], at the old Music & Arts High School, was Wynton Marsalis when he first came [onto the scene]. Because we understood that jazz expressed who we were, and talked about our humanity and our values; it was in the music, it was in the rhythms, it was in the melody and the riffs. For December 12th it was the way in which we could say to the people that struggle is for liberation and that there is no struggle for struggle’s sake; art is that expression, and the music… sister Thulani always says, and it’s so true, that music saved our lives. From the blues to the gospel, to jazz, to R&B… it really saved our lives. And for the December 12th movement people heard our politics better [as a result of the music]. From Africa, to Brooklyn, to Harlem, to Goshen… it was always the music, it was always the dance…

In the whole development of your efforts through the December 12th movement, what have been your activities in the area of arts & culture?

Roger Wareham: Politically one of our slogans or mantras is that “culture is a weapon.” For every struggle for liberation one of the most important components, if not the most important component, is culture. And that takes many forms. I always remember a lecture that Amilcar Cabral, who led the liberation struggle in Guinea-Bissau, gave in the Cape Verde Islands. He started off the discussion talking about [Nazi commander Herman] Goebbels, and how whenever the Nazis had a discussion and the issue of culture came up, Goebbels took out his gun and put it on the table because he was really clear that if you were going to suppress a people, to conquer them you had to destroy their culture. We always saw culture as a key component for our struggle for liberation. So the theme of Sista’s Place is “culture is a weapon.”

We opened on September 23, 1995 on John Coltrane’s birthday; we start our season around then and we’ve always had artists who reflect some degree of consciousness of the nature of our struggle. So we’ve never separated the art from the culture. It’s been mainly music, but we also have poetry; Luis Reyes Rivera conducts poetry workshops and we’ve had different people producing plays. But we’ve never separated — and we don’t want those who enjoy the culture to separate culture from the history and the struggle that created it, it’s a part of it and it also feeds and energizes it.

What was the decision behind determining that Sista’s Place was going to have a jazz presence?

VP: We thought that in this community, after the East was gone, after all the music places were gone… and remember, we had started [the jazz policy] in Harlem [with] “Jazz Comes to Fight Back” because we feel that it is jazz that really expresses, at least for us old people, our culture; it’s the music that grew out of struggle, that got interpreted, and that some of the brothers and sisters [jazz musicians] that are still alive didn’t play in our community, because there were no places to play [jazz in the black community of Brooklyn] when we started. I said the music I like best is jazz, so they called me the jazz policeman; I thought that was the music that was needed in our community.

When we were in the former location down the street, there was a brother who worked for the railroad who had three boys and he would bring them every [jazz] night. Then there was another lady who has passed away, her nephew would come and they would be awestruck at how these brothers had conquered their instruments, and they would listen… they HEARD the music!

RW: I’m from Harlem [laughs]… When you say you’re from Harlem you don’t deal with Brooklyn; Brooklyn was like you needed a passport to come to Brooklyn back in the day. I don’t know chapter and verse, but I understand the richness of Brooklyn’s contribution to jazz, and maybe more so than Harlem because a lot of folks who played there weren’t indigenous to Harlem, whereas a lot of folks emerged out of Brooklyn. Our first [Sista's Place] spot was on the corner of Jefferson and Nostrand. Jefferson begins at Claver Place, and Claver Place is where the East was, at 10 Claver Place. So you just walked from the East right up to Sista’s Place; so it’s almost a geographic and physical part of that [East] legacy.

Ahmed Abdullah, when you moved to Brooklyn in 1970, what was it like for jazz in Brooklyn at that time?

Ahmed Abdullah: I came in on the decline of the golden era. I’ve talked to other people who were involved in the earlier jazz in Brooklyn when all the other clubs were around. During that time [1970] we had the Blue Coronet, there was the Muse on Bedford Avenue near Lincoln Place; people like [saxophonist and late brother of Kenny Barron] Bill Barron, [bassist] Reggie Workman, [saxophonist] Roland Alexander, and [poet] Louis Reyes Rivera were all at The Muse. Bill Barron ran jam sessions there and it was one of the places that I got my roots in music because he was very gracious in allowing musicians to come and play. There were some great musicians who played there; [pianist] Danny Mixon, for example, would come and play there all the time; all of the cats that were part of the [Muse] staff would also come and perform in these jam sessions. So the Muse was a very important cultural institution, and Reggie Workman was in fact the administrator of Muse at that time.

In the 1970s many of the musicians lived around Williamsburg, around Broadway and Bedford. Rashied Ali had a group there called the Melodic Art-Tet, and the group actually consisted of [saxophonist] Charles Brackeen, [bassist] Ronnie Boykins, and Roger Blank, and we used to rehearse at Rashied Ali‘s place; he had a loft in Brooklyn. This was before he got his loft in Soho that became Ali’s Alley in the mid-70s.

Would you say those enclaves of musicians and subsequent performances in such spaces were kind of an outgrowth of the Black Arts Movement?

A.A.: Oh definitely, because there was a lot of cultural awareness happening in the 1970s and we were definitely picking up on what had happened in the 1960s and in fact instituting some of those actions in institutions. The 70s was a realization of the activities of the 1960s in many ways. The East certainly was that, and certainly what we were doing at 1310 Atlantic Avenue was that; it was a very rich time. I played the East a number of different times; I played the East with a group called the Brotherhood of Sound, with a group called the Master Brotherhood, with the Melodic Art-Tet, and I played there with Sun Ra. My very first performance with Sun Ra was at the East, in April 1975. This is a very [ironic] thing, playing at the East; I’m now teaching a block away from the East at PS3, and a block away from that is Sista’s Place! So there is a spiritual connection. I came to the East in 1975, to Sista’s Place in 1998, and I started teaching at PS3 in 2005. All of these things are stacked up in a row on that avenue.

Info & complete performance schedule for the Saturday Night jazz series: www.sistasplace.org

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