How a Music Book Created a Friendship

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When I got home the other night, there was a voicemail message from my longtime friend Roger St. Pierre, wishing me a belated happy new year and wanting to catch me up on the news. As usual, I wondered what country he was calling from–because Roger is a British freelance journalist, and one of his specialities is travel writing. Dude has the wanderlust of a thousand men! You know–today, St. Croix; tomorrow, Antarctica.

Another of Roger’s journalistic specialties is music–and that’s how we met.

When I started reviewing records and interviewing musicians for JazzTimes and Billboard, not being a musician I knew I damn well better start getting educated about my subject. (I remind you that this was B.I–Before the Internet.) So I began to amass a reference library of books about music. There was no science to it: whenever I saw a book that looked cool and had a great price, I’d buy it.

music reference books

Just one of the shelves where my music reference library lives. Like I said: there was no science to it. Behold the eclectic-ness! (click to enlarge)

One such book was The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Black Music, published around 1982. Its alphabetical entries covered soul, reggae, R&B, blues, disco, and jazz-funk artists with plenty of photos of album covers and artists, plus brief discographies. I found it very useful for reference, but just as entertaining to read for fun, so when I spotted The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Rock and The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz, I snatched those up too. Years later, someone told me that those books had lots of flaws, but I never noticed any. Then again, the professional researcher in me knows never to rely on any one source; I will cross-check in my sleep!

Illustrated Encyclopedia of Black Music

My well-worn copy of TIEOBM, stuffed with assorted relevant clippings. (click to enlarge–and note Roger’s name on the cover)

Anyway, there were eight authors listed for The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Black Music, and although the publishing company was Harmony Books in New York, the copyright page stated that all correspondence concerning the book should be addressed to Salamander Books, in London. This became relevant because a year or so after I bought the book, I took my second big-girl vacation: a return trip to London.

My first-ever vacation had only been the previous year, in 1986. When I’d received my tax refund that year, I decided to dream BIG: “Come on, DP.” I said to myself. “Think of a place in the world where you always, always wanted to go.” I squeezed my eyes shut and thought hard. And I came up with… LONDON!!

(Don’t ask me why a black girl born and raised in the South Bronx would dream of England. At the time, I would have blamed it on my big brother Pat, who as an Air Force man had been all over the world. He was full of stories and slang from the places he’d been, one of which was England. He’d say things like “ta” and “how about a spot of tea?” in his best British accent, and he liked to watch old British movies. Decades later, though, after I discovered that my biological father’s people were from Barbados, I considered that the perfect explanation for my Anglophilia. Case closed!)

Fast forward to 1987, and planning my second trip to London. By that time, I’d been writing articles for about a year; in fact, one of my early articles–a review of Baba Olatunji’s album Dance to the Beat of My Drum–had been for a British music magazine called WIRE. So I decided to use the trip as a chance to do a little business. First, I wrote to my WIRE editor Richard Cook, asking if we could meet. Next, just for the hell of it I wrote to Ray Bonds, who was listed as the editor of TIEOBM, at the Salamander offices. He was kind enough to write back, inviting me to his office–plus he provided the contact information for some of the book’s authors! Luckily, with a few weeks left before my trip, there was time to write letters to a few of the TIEOBM authors, one of whom was Roger St. Pierre. Roger wrote back, inviting me to meet him during my visit to London. It turns out that Roger was a freelance journalist–like I wanted to be–specializing in not only music, but travel, cars, and cycling.

When I arrived in London, I met Richard Cook for lunch, and visited Ray Bonds at the Salamander offices, where he gave me a copy of The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Jazz–making me the proud owner of both the British and the American editions! And on May 16, I met Roger St. Pierre at the Stockwell tube station. He’d brought along his two children, Nicole and Richard, and their dog Sooty. He drove us to Kent, where we had lunch in a 14th-century pub, and then took a walk in the countryside… where I touched my first cow. (I’m a city girl… what can I say?) Afterwards, we went to his house in London, and I’ll never forget his upstairs office, where he had thousands upon thousands of… records!

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L-R: Cows; Nicole; Sooty; DP; and Richard–just chillin’ in the countryside in Kent, England, May 1987. (Click to enlarge and see the herd of cows!)

Fast forward even more, to the twenty-first century. Nicole and Richard are now grown up, and Roger is a proud granddad. Over all these years, we’ve stayed in touch via long letters and telephone calls, but now it’s through long emails and long telephone calls. Plus a visit if Roger passes through New York on his travel assignments.

What a friend. What a mentor. I’m still glad that that one little music book brought us together.

eavesdroppings: Grammy Night 2012

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eavesdroppings: muse-nourishing s**t i hear musicians
(and other creative artists) say

If you feel that artist in you rising up, just go for it–let it come out.

— Gerry Griffith, former Arista A&R manager who scouted and brought Whitney Houston to the label then helped her choose the songs and producers

Rather than go to the best studio down the street in Hollywood and rather than use all the fanciest computers you can buy, we made this one in my garage with some microphones and a tape machine… The human element of making music is what’s most important. Singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument and learning to do your craft–that’s the most important thing for people to do. It’s not about being perfect; it’s not about sounding absolutely correct; it’s not about what goes on in a computer. It’s about what goes on in here [pointing to heart] and it’s about what goes on in here [pointing to head].

— Dave Grohl, Foo Fighters lead guitarist, in Grammy acceptance speech for Best Rock Performance, Walk

Dave Grohl

Dave Grohl

The Little Brown Record Player

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My nephew Kevin and I grew up together. Looking back, it makes sense that even though he was four years younger than me, he influenced my musical tastes. Still, my pride wouldn’t let me tell him that until we were adults.

One Christmas, when he was in his early teens, his parents–my brother and sister-in-law–gave him a portable record player. This was huge. Because the only way you could play a record in our house was in the living room, on the hi-fi: a long, sleek, polished wooden piece of furniture whose top slid open to reveal the record player within. You gently placed the record on the platter (or stacked, under the arm, as many records as you wanted to play), and when you turned it on, the record would gently drop onto the platter, the needle would drop onto the record, and the sound would come from the speakers built into the front of the cabinet. And you BET’ not scratch their records!

(Damn. Having to describe this makes me feel OLD.)

Anyway. Kevin’s new record player looked like a brown suitcase. But when you opened it, the base was a turntable and the lid had speakers built vertically into each side. And when you turned it on? Well, dear reader, that is when I discovered what heaven was, because I was now in the grownup world of STERE-ERE-EREO (as the announcer used to say on WBLS, our soul radio station)! It absolutely delighted me that on some records, you could hear different sounds coming out of each speaker. I craved this, and was never ashamed to position my head between the speakers of the little brown record player to get the full effect.

From then on, I was hooked. I made a rule that any stereo I owned must have separate speakers. I became very snobby whenever I listened to music—I almost wouldn’t respect it unless I heard distinctly different sounds coming from each speaker. I found the first-ever album I bought, Barrabas, to be so well stereophonically engineered so that to this day, I use its first song, Wild Safari, as the test album for any new stereo I get!

And the best part was, we could now listen to *our* records away from the grownup’s collection in the living room–and from that day on, we did! Unfortunately, there is no photo of the little brown record player, so it only exists in my memory. But its legacy is very much fully present.

The cover of Barrabas, the first album I purchased with my own money. To this day I have no idea what this image meant!

The cover of Barrabas, the first album I purchased with my own money. To this day I have no idea what this image meant!

 

The back of the album jacket, which reveals that the band was from Spain.

The back of the album jacket, which reveals that the band was from Spain.

Record Shop Memories

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Back in the day–since you asked, that would be 1972–I attended Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn. At that time, the “campus” was several buildings in various parts of Brooklyn: Crown Heights, Fort Greene. Near our main building, which was the old Brooklyn Prep on Crown Street in Crown Heights, was a little shop on Carroll Street that sold incense, jewelry, hair beads (I had long hair then but no, I didn’t use beads) and… RECORDS! I spent a lot of time in that shop chatting with the owners, whose names I’m sorry I don’t remember, and of course, buying records. Oh, and taking fuzzy photos–here are some that I came across recently. (Click on photos to enlarge.) Happy memories–I can still smell the incense! In the photos I see some of the albums that I bought at that shop… and still play. I’m just sayin’…

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(How many of these albums are in *your* library?)

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A friendly greeting to all who entered

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Always dropping the knowledge, playing a record for you, recommending…

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Betcha she’s listening to something she likes!

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Inventory management… fun times

Earth Wind & Fire: Opened My Eyes

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One of the fun things about the music of the ’70s was the surprise that awaited whenever you bought an album. With self-contained groups, especially, you could never really know ahead of time what the whole album would sound like.

The first album that got to me in this way was Earth Wind and Fire’s Open Our Eyes, released in 1974. Once again, it was my nephew Kevin who brought the album home, and it was the first time we’d heard EWF. As usual, I pretended I wasn’t interested, but after he left the house I sneaked into his room to listen more closely. My favorite song was Mighty Mighty, the first tune on the first side, because there was no intro, no warning: as soon as you put the needle down you had to start dancing… or singing.

Walk around
Why wear a frown
Say little people
Try to put you down
(Put you down)
What you need is a helping hand
All the strength
At your command
How’s your faith
‘Cause your faith is you
Who you kiddin’
To yourself be true
Spread your love
For a brighter day
For what you search
You’ll find a way
Awww, yes sir
Ooh hoo
Ooh hoo
(x2)
We are people of the mighty
Mighty people of the sun
In our heart lies all the answers
To the truth you can’t run from
(Doogey doogey doo doo)

That was my favorite song, but I liked them all. On the first side, the songs (Mighty Mighty / Devotion / Fair But So Uncool / Feelin’ Blue / Kalimba Story) were just what I expected: there was singing, lots of drums and African percussion, they made you dance, and they made you sing. Feelin’ Blue was a bit of a surprise since it was all mellow and vocal, with smooth harmonies but without that aggressive beat of its preceding brethren. But I was okay with that… it fit right in.

On the flip side, the third song–tucked in right behind Tee Nine Chee Bit–was the surprise: an instrumental tune called Spasmodic Mood. It was a cruel trick to play on a teenager’s ears: it started out with African-sounding drumming, so you got ready for some ass-shaking. And then bam! A horn! Then a piano with some drums! Then the horn comes back! And no vocals, nowhere! Huh? Damn, if you didn’t know it was an EWF album you’d swear it was your daddy’s jazz album! And then, as quickly as it began–one minute and forty-one seconds later–it was over, with a final piano punctuation, as if to say “Now that didn’t hurt, did it?”

And somehow it paved the way for the next tune, Caribou, a tune fat with chorally vocals that had no words, only scatting. By then you were sitting down and paying attention, which was the perfect setup for the final tune–the title tune–Open Our Eyes, a beautiful gospel-flavored solo vocal with churchy piano behind. Whoever chose the sequence of tunes knew what he or she was doing. A mind trick of the highest order.

Mind you, I was a kid; my main responsibility where music was concerned was to dance or sing along. I didn’t yet know who these guys were. I was unfamiliar with their jazz pedigree. I only had feelings, and the main one was respect: I could respect this album because it didn’t feed me the same tune times ten–each tune sounded different! If I wanted to feel grownup, there was a tune I could play. If I wanted to feel African, there was a tune on there for me. If I wanted to shake my butt and sing, there was something. If I wanted to feel like I was in church, there was the title track. And if I wanted to play a trick on some stodgy grownup who thought that Earth, Wind & Fire was for bratty-ass kids, well… I could play Spasmodic Mood! And in later years, when I would make countless mixtapes for friends, this song would be a staple I’d sneak in for the jazz purists.

But that’s how it was done then. There were plenty of self-contained groups like EWF, who studied music, who played instruments, who often played more than one instrument, and who wrote their own material. Groups like Santana, War, and the Isley Brothers, whose music fills my shelves. This is the music that spoke to us… And still does.

Which is exactly why my original copy of Open Our Eyes is spinning on the turntable as I write this entry. Oops, gotta go flip it over … excuse me…

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How I Became a Music Journalist

Les Davis
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Recently, someone asked me how I became a music journalist. I promised to answer that question on my blog.

A little back-story:

I’m a native New Yorker. The music I grew up on was what we heard at home, on the radio and records. (Home was the apartment of my brother and sister-in-law, where I lived after my mother passed away when I was eight.) At home, there were lots of jazz records with glamorous photos of people like Nancy Wilson, Lou Rawls, and Cannonball Adderley on the covers. To me they were grown folks’ records, but I remember really liking the mellow atmosphere they created. On the radio, my favorite music was doo-wop, rock & roll, and R&B.

Years later when I moved into my own apartment, I found a radio station, WRVR, that played music I’d never heard before–jazzy and instrumental, but with features of rock & roll and R&B. Names like Weather Report, Pat Metheny, Grover Washington, Jr., and Jean-Luc Ponty became familiar. This music, called “jazz fusion,” became my new favorite music. My favorite WRVR deejay was Les Davis, who not only played the music but explained it too; I began my record library and stocked it because of his lessons.

Then one day–no, it was a certain day. September 8, 1980–the WRVR format changed from jazz to country. Here’s my journal entry from that day:

Monday, 9/8/80
When I got home, WRVR gone country! Oh, I was so, so hurt, I cried & cried. I’d known it was coming & I knew they would go down with their jazz boots on, but it was so sudden. They played it to the hilt–kept it a secret. Oh, how I’ll miss them!!

After the station went off the air, it was Les Davis whom I missed the most. Where had he gone?? I fretted. I needed closure, and I needed to let him know how much he was appreciated. I kept my ear to the ground.

A few years later, while dial-surfing on the radio, I heard his voice! Still in New York, he was broadcasting overnights on an obscure AM station. I wrote him a letter introducing myself and asking if I could interview him for an article. (At the time, I had never had any articles published, but that didn’t stop me.) At first he declined, but I persisted until I got a reply, and an invitation to come to the station. Victory!!

Les was on the air from about 11 PM to 4 AM. I went down to the station, interviewed him, took photos, we had a great time, and it was a true honor for me. I wrote up a nice profile on Les and sent it to the Amsterdam News, on spec, plus I mailed a copy to Les. He sent me a note of appreciation…which was another honor.

Les Davis

Jazz broadcaster Les Davis, after our wee-hours  interview. (click on photo to enlarge)

A few months later, quite by accident I saw a little article in the New York Daily News with the headline “JazzTimes Convention Comes to New York.” According to the article, this was a professional convention of jazz musicians, educators, radio and TV people, and writers all in one place, organized by a music magazine called JazzTimes.

I only had one question: how could I get a piece of that?

The next thing I knew, I was in the Roosevelt Hotel, wearing a press badge in the name of the Amsterdam News, surrounded by the entire jazz industry! Since I was a newbie (and possibly an interloper), my plan was to keep my mouth shut and listen. I drank in the schedule of panels and performances, and wherever I saw a name I recognized, I showed up. Do I need to tell you, I was in HEAVEN???

By the third day, I’d met a few nice people, among them the magazine’s publisher, Ira Sabin. Emboldened by the atmosphere of fun and friendliness, I asked him if his magazine used freelance writers. He said yes, and that I should speak to the editor, Mike Joyce. I found Mike and told him that Ira Sabin had sent me.

Mike smiled at me like he’d been waiting for me all his life. “Do you know Jon Hendricks?”

WHAT?? It was all I could do to keep it together. “I love Jon Hendricks!” I gushed.

Which was no lie. As a young girl, while looking through my brother’s record collection, I had discovered Sing A Song of Basie by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. Why I was attracted to this album, I do not know. But when I played it, I was tickled by what those voices did with that orchestra–and the lyrics made me laugh too. I later learned that that technique was called vocalese, a clever method of dissecting an instrumental tune into saxes, trombones, trumpets, etc., then writing lyrics to the passages that each instrument plays. The end result is that the vocal parts mimic the instruments, and to my young ears it was so cool to hear grownups having so much fun with music and language.

Sing A Song of Basie LP

A closeup of the label of Sing A Song of Basie, my first favorite album, by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross. And yes, this is that original LP I listened to as a young girl.
(click on photo to enlarge)

(By the way: during my visit with Les Davis, I’d mentioned the album and confessed that I had the record, but not its cover. Whereupon Les mentioned that he had the album, and kindly photocopied the jacket for me. This was especially important, because the lyrics were on it.)

Anyway. Standing there with Mike Joyce, I explained most of this. When I finished, he pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of his pocket and handed it to me. “Well, here’s Jon Hendricks’ address and phone number. I promised him we’d do a full-page story on him when we got a New York writer to interview him. You interested?”

And that’s how it all started. Not long after I submitted the article, I was invited to become a regular contributor to JazzTimes… and the rest is history!

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Note of thanks from Les Davis
(click on photo to enlarge)

Les Davis sent me an autographed headshot too...

Les Davis sent me an autographed headshot too… (click on photo to enlarge)

 

Jon Hendricks article

My profile of Jon Hendricks, the first of many articles I would write for JazzTimes magazine.
(click on photo to enlarge)