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Sista’s Place: A Jazz & Cultural Beachhead in Brooklyn (Part Two)

Our conversation with Viola Plummer, Roger Wareham, and Ahmed Abdullah of Sista’s Place, Brooklyn’s vibrant Saturday night jazz series, continues…

The last time I visited Sista’s Place, to hear a rough & ready band featuring Hamiet Bluiett, D.D. Jackson, Andrew Cyrille, Billy Bang, Bob Stewart, and Sista’s artistic director Ahmed Abdullah, I was struck by the energetic synergy between audience and musicians. There was a constant amen corner from the audience and that in turn seemed to feed the musicians to higher heights, and a palpable raised energy level that was apparent not only in their playing but even on their faces. Part two of our conversation begins with that audience/artist relationship fostered at Sista’s Place.

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Inside the Barry Harris Method

As one of Dr. Barry Harris’ weekly New York City jazz workshops was getting under way on a Tuesday night in December, a friendly stranger gave me some advice: “Leave your ego behind.”

For years I had heard about these public sessions where anyone with $15, regardless of ability or previous experience, could spend six hours with the bebop piano legend. After seeing Harris play two exhilarating sets at London’s Pizza Express Jazz Club last August before an adoring crowd, many of whom had attended his master class earlier that day, I realized that I, a New Yorker and jazz pianist, needed to visit the workshop and report on the experience.

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Delfeayo Marsalis: The Last Southern Gentlemen

A fine line separates old school from old hat, and Delfeayo Marsalis’ The Last Southern Gentlemen dances that line from beginning to end. The album is styled as a throwback, its languid mood and program of time-worn chestnuts meant to conjure, as the trombonist states in his liner notes, an era “when men were gentlemen.” Unfortunately, the result, despite some moments of inspiration, has an antiquated feel that warrants only a cursory listen.

The musicianship is not at issue, with the quartet members all contributing strong work. Marsalis’ rounded tone exudes wistful emotion on “Nancy (With the Laughing Face),” and his muted wah-wah effects grant the band’s take on the Sesame Street theme a wonky playfulness. Bassist John Clayton weaves pensive phrases on “I’m Confessin’,” and drummer Marvin “Smitty” Smith breaks out the bongos to give “But Beautiful” a Latin-tinged essence. Pianist Ellis Marsalis’ minor-keyed harmonics lend tension to Delfeayo’s composition “The Secret Love Affair,” and when the trombonist lays out on “If I Were a Bell,” the senior Marsalis rises to the occasion with a fast-paced take on Frank Loesser’s melody.

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Jonathan Butler: The Simple Life

Jonathan Butler’s optimistic music belies a dirt-poor childhood growing up in a South Africa segregated by apartheid. Live in South Africa, a new CD and DVD package, presents a sense of the resulting inner turmoil, mixed with dogged resolve, that paved the way to his status as an icon in his country and successful musician outside of it. Looking back, the 46-year-old Butler says today, the driving forces that led to his overcoming apartheid-the formal policy of racial separation and economic discrimination finally dismantled in 1993-were family, faith and abundant talent.

“When we were kids, our parents never talked about the ANC [African National Congress] or Nelson Mandela,” he says. Butler was raised as the youngest child in a large family. They lived in a house patched together by corrugated tin and cardboard, in the “coloreds only” township of Athlone near Cape Town. “They never talked about struggles so we never knew what was happening.”

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Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane: Evidence

It’s not quite the Lost Ark of the Covenant, but for some time researchers had been aware of the possibility of a long-lost recording featuring Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. In the December 26, 1957, issue of Down Beat there was notice that stated, “Willis Conover and the Voice of America were scheduled to invade Carnegie Hall late in November” to broadcast a jazz concert. Voice of America, the U.S. government shortwave-radio service that broadcasts news and music overseas, would sometimes feature concert recordings that were not aired in the U.S.

In 1996, while doing research for my book John Coltrane: His Life and Music, I found an advertisement in the New York Amsterdam News (a venerable black newspaper) that listed that VOA concert. With the date now in hand-Friday, November 29, 1957-I contacted the Library of Congress, which owns all the VOA tapes. Unfortunately, the LOC had no record of a VOA recording made at Carnegie Hall on 11/29/57, but staffers allowed that as they continued to organize and catalog this huge collection, it might indeed turn up-if it was there at all.

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