Black History Month: Terri Lyne Carrington

Terri Lyne Carrington was born in Medford, Massachusetts in August of 1965. Her father played sax and her grandfather played sax and drums. (Her grandfather once played drums for Duke Ellington.) Ms. Carrington says that her grandfather died before her birth, but that his drums were still in the house. So around age 7, she started playing them. At age 10 she played her first professional gig. Over 40 years later, she has built an outstanding, award winning career. 

Because of her father, Ms. Carrington met some of jazz’s biggest names early in life. Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Al Cohn, Dianne Reeves, Clark Terry. Whenever a big name came through town, her father could take her to the show and introduce her, touting her musical abilities. These connections would help her as she established her career.

She studied at Berklee College of Music under the mentorship of Jack DeJohnette and soon found work in New York and later Los Angeles. Trekking to the West Coast, she became a drummer for the Arsenio Hall Show’s band and for the band on Quincy Jones’s VIBE TV show. 

It’s really impossible to find a musician she hasn’t played with or a style of music she hasn’t successfully tackled. Her work that has interested me the most include Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue and Mosaic Project

Money Jungle is a re-imaging of the famous album of the same name by Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, and Max Roach. Here, Ms. Carrington is accompanied by Gerald Clayton on piano and Christian McBride on bass. The album also features several guest artists providing vocals and spoken word, including author/activist Michael Ruppert and jazz god (and former Ellingtonian) Clark Terry.

The Mosaic Project features a blending of personalities. One personality tends towards complex melodies and harmonies, while the other towards funk and pop. Helping her with this blending of music are Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Nona Hendryx, Esperanza Spaulding, and Gretchen Parlato. Tracks include the Beatles standard “Michelle,” “Echo,” by Bernice Johnson Reagon (of Sweet Honey and the Rock fame), and “Unconditional Love” by Geri Allen. This work received a Grammy in 2011 for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

Hearing Ms. Carrington on record is a treat and a joy. Seeing her perform live is a sublime experience that I cannot recommend highly enough. I had the opportunity last summer, at the Healdsburg Jazz Festival. She played in a concert with Ravi Coltrane on sax and Dave Holland (another personal favorite) on bass. 

On stage tucked in the background sat a piano, in silence. Pianist Geri Allen was to have performed at this show, but the legendary pianist died from cancer a year earlier, in June, 2017. At the start of the performance, they played a video of Ms. Allen projected above the stage. She spoke about music and then began playing a piece. The band picked up the composition. As the video faded, they carried on, continuing her train of thought for her. It was a chilling and beautiful moment.

I couldn’t keep my eyes off Ms. Carrington. As a long-time tabla player, I naturally gravitate towards drummers and percussionists. But her playing was just next level. She melded with her colleagues, supporting them without stepping on them. In particular, she showed a strong rapport with Dave Holland, whom she looked at and exchanged glances with throughout. They’ve enjoyed a long playing relationship, and it showed. Drums can be a very melodic instrument in the right hands, a fact Ms. Carrington demonstrated effortlessly.

Visit Terri Lyne Carrington’s website for more about her amazing music. And check out the video below. She is joined by Geri Allen and bassist Esperanza Spalding—a group they dubbed ACS from their initials—performing in a tribute concert for Wayne Shorter’s 80th birthday in 2013.

Black History Month: Tia Fuller

Diamond Cut, the latest album by saxophone great Tia Fuller, received a Grammy nomination this year in the Best Jazz Instrumental Album category. A well deserved acknowledgement. Ms. Fuller used the platform accorded her by this honor to speak on sexism in the arts in general and in jazz in particular.

In a thought-provoking piece written for NBC News, she describes some of the indignities she has had to contend with during her career. Flirtatious business people. Men upstaging her at auditions. The need for attentiveness about her appearance—a burden unshared by her male colleagues. One comment really stuck with me: the age-old bromide that Ms. Fuller needed to smile more when on stage. Seriously?

I thought immediately of alto sax master Johnny Hodges. His unique playing style “could bring tears to the eyes,” as Duke Ellington remarked at Hodges’s funeral. While on stage, blowing his heart and soul out, Hodges often looked bored to death. The joke among Ellington Orchestra band members was that Johnny was counting seats on the balcony. 

I doubt sincerely that anyone every told Johnny Hodges he had to smile more. I hate double-standards.

Tia Fuller comes from a musical family. Her father, Fred Fuller, plays bass and her mother Elthorpia Fuller, is a jazz singer. She grew up in Aurora, Colorado and came to her instrument while in high school. She continued her studies at Spelman College, where she graduated Magna Cum Laude, and at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she received a masters in Jazz Pedagogy and Performance. While at Spelman, she played in jazz clubs in Atlanta and performed with Ray Charles. 

During her career, Ms. Fuller has performed with Esperanza Spalding, Ralph Peterson, T.S. Monk, Jon Faddis, Rufus Reid, and the Nancy Wilson Jazz Orchestra, to name a few. She is also a member of the all-female band that tours with Beyoncé.

And she is a formidable leader and arranger in her own right. Diamond Cut, produced by jazz drumming legend Terri Lyne Carrington, features a wide variety of tracks. She crones seductively on a luscious reading of “Save Your Love for Me.” And I enjoy the rhythmic dynamics of “In the Trenches” and “The Coming.” The album features among others Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, and Ms. Carrington herself on a few tracks. 

In her essay for NBC News, Ms. Fuller makes the somber point that many women in jazz disappear after they’ve retired or passed away. She lists the International Sweethearts of Rhythm as an example. This is not just a tragedy for the artists but for the music world in general. The music Ms. Fuller creates deserves to win awards and recognition, and belongs in the jazz canon. 

I’m hoping that her generation of female jazz artists will break the pattern of vanishing not only by their outstanding talent, but also because their male colleague simply won’t allow it to happen.

You can find information about Diamond Cut and Ms. Fuller’s other albums and projects on her website.

Black History Month: Regina Carter

For Black History Month, the gar spot will focus on a handful of the many gifted and talented black women instrumentalist who play jazz.

Regina Carter began studying violin when she was four years old. Initially, she studied the European classical repertoire. And then in high school, Carla Cook, destined to become a jazz vocalist, exposed Ms. Carter to the world of jazz. From her friend, she heard recordings by jazz violin legends Stéphane Grappelli, Neil Pointer, and Jean-Luc Ponty. She also came to know and love the greatness that is Ella Fitzgerald.

Ms. Carter grew up in a very musical household. Her grandmother received a degree in music. And home life exposed her to all sorts of sounds, from Motown to Beatles to show tunes. But she credited her friend Ms. Cook with igniting her inner jazz flame. So when she told her teachers at the Detroit Community Music School, where she had been studying classical violin, that she wanted to get into jazz, they grimaced. But she had one champion. 

The school attracted legendary artists to give master classes. As a young girl, she received instruction and inspiration from Itzhak Perlman. As a budding jazz-playing teen, she sat across from Yehudi Menuhin. “She wants to play jazz now,” a teacher sniffed. Maestro Menuhin picked up his violin and started playing blues licks. “Leave her alone,” he uttered.

While primarily known as a jazz musician, Regina Carter has followed a path similar to her mentors Perlman and Menuhin, taking her to all corners of the music world. Like Perlman, she can play a mean bluegrass fiddle. Like Menuhin, she can touch upon the vast musical realm of the Indian subcontinent. In addition, during her 30+ year career she has played with Billy Joel, Mary J. Blige, Dolly Parton, and the late Aretha Franklin. 

However, make no mistake: her jazz credentials are quite formidable. She has played with Max Roach, Eddie Palmieri, and Wynton Marsalis, to name a few. Her albums reflect her broad musical background and training. Improvisational music that some may list as post-bop, to me she is really beyond category. She performs jazz standards, tunes from the Great American Songbook, and original music. And throughout, her playing takes on various personalities, sometimes attacking, sometimes purring, but always blending well with the material.

And she has hardly left behind her classical training. Indeed, in late 2001, as a goodwill gesture after the September 11 attacks, the city of Genoa accorded her one of the highest honors in the violin world. They allowed her to perform with Il Cannone Guarnerius, “The Cannon,” created by Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri for Paganini. With this icon of the violin world, known for its deep timbre, she performed and recorded a program of music by Ravel, Debussy, and contemporary Italian composer Ennio Morricone. She was the first jazz musician and first African-American to play this sacred instrument.

Ms. Carter credits her musical development to the Suzuki Method, learning by ear and imitation, and also learning by improvisation. From an early age, she had to improvise variations of tunes when asked by the teacher. She continues to champion this method of musical instruction. She has taught at Oakland University, her alma mater and the jazz summer camp at the Stanford Jazz Workshop.

In 2018, she was named Artistic Director of the New Jersey Performing Arts All-Female Jazz Camp. “It’s inspiring to see young girls,” she told Northern Express in a recent interview. “It’s a male dominated industry. You might be the only girl in the band. But there are a lot of young women forming support groups.” No doubt she will help many girls in her new role, just as she was helped when she first started in music.

In 2017, she released an album dedicated to her longtime idol Ella Fitzgerald on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Ella’s birth. One of the guest artists is Carla Cook, bringing it all back full circle.

You can find more about Regina Carter on her website, including upcoming performances and her vast and beautiful collection of albums.

Black History Month: The International Sweethearts of Rhythm

For Black History Month, the gar spot will focus on a handful of the many gifted and talented black women instrumentalist who play jazz.

Many can easily rattle off a list of some of the biggest names from the Swing Era. Count Basie. Duke Ellington. Fletcher Henderson. Benny Goodman. Artie Shaw. Lionel Hampton. But one of the biggest names of the period rarely appears on most big band lists. Indeed, many folks have never heard of them.

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm was one of the most successful all-women bands from the Swing Era and one of the biggest names in the business. At their height, they packed venues and sent folks into a Lindy hop ecstasy.

The group started as a bunch of kids playing music together: Evelyn McGee, vocals, Pauline Braddy, drums, Willie Mae Wong, baritone sax, Irene Grisham, tenor sax, Ione Grisham, alto sax, Johnnie Mae Rice, piano, and Helen Jones, trombone. They all attended the Piney Woods Country Life School in Mississippi. The school’s founder, Dr. Laurence C. Jones, Helen’s father, encouraged the young musicians to start playing swing. The group played at school functions and locally, then later, as their acclaim grew, they began playing regionally.

By 1941, the International Sweethearts of Rhythm adopted their famous name, expanded to 17 members, and set out on their own. A multiracial group featuring Asian-American, Latina-American, Native American, as well as African-American and white musicians, they mostly played in black venues from Central Avenue clubs in Los Angeles to the Apollo Theater in Harlem. Audiences loved them and quickly learned that they were not just a novelty act, but serious musicians with hella chops. They knew the music and swung it hard. Newspapers gave them glowing reviews, though usually with the “compliment” that they played “just like men.” 

They traveled the country by bus, including into the Deep South. Pianist and bandleader Earl Fatha Hines would later call the Sweethearts “the first Freedom Riders.” When Duke Ellington took his first trip to the South, he hired a railway car for the band to travel and lodge in, so that they could avoid the indignities of Jim Crow. Similarly, the Sweethearts stayed on a custom-built sleeper bus—built by members of the Piney Woods school. No hotels would put them up nor would restaurants serve the multiracial group. White members, like saxophonist Rosalind Cron, learned that she would be treated like her bandmates of color—refused service at restaurants and the like—if she stayed with them. She chose to stay with the Sweethearts.

During an interview session at the Smithsonian in 2011 with some surviving members of the Sweethearts, one of the musicians recalled that they received more respect from black musicians than from white ones. The white boys ignored them, she said. In general, the Sweethearts were better known in the black community than the white community. As noted, they tended to play in black owned and operated clubs. However, in 1945, the Sweethearts went to Europe and played for the troops, black and white, in France and Germany.

The International Sweethearts of Rhythm lasted through the swing era, breaking up in 1949. Most big bands broke up by that time. Musical tastes had migrated from large jazz ensembles to small rhythm and blues and later rock and roll groups. Jazz similarly turned towards smaller groups, playing bebop and by the 50s hard bop. And despite the Sweethearts’ popularity during their active years, once gone they fell into obscurity. Only starting in the Women’s Rights movement of the 60s and 70s did they enjoy a resurgence of interest into their music and history.

Not many of the Sweethearts’ recordings survive. But here is a Best Of album available on Spotify.

Here is video of them playing on the bandstand:

Camp Witnesses

As World War II came to a close, Allied troops made German citizens who lived in towns near recently liberated concentration camps go to these places of torture to see the horrors their government committed in their names. I remember as a kid seeing a photo of horrified German citizens walking past corpses. I’m not sure if the image above is the one I saw as a kid, but it was similar. In the photo I saw long ago, a woman had a look of horror on her face, much like the woman in this image above. That look of shame and horror has stayed with me.

McAllen, TX

In the last year, our government committed atrocities in our name. In camps made of canvas or concrete, US agencies kept migrant children from Central America in cages. They beat the children to get them to stop crying. They kept them separated from their families. Some of the children were toddlers with little or no language skills. What language did they learn in a cage in a camp? Two children died in custody. This ugliness happened in our name.

McAllen, TX

The US has a long history of separating children from their families in communities considered “undesirable.” Slaveowners ripped babies from their mothers soon after birth, to be sold into bondage elsewhere, like fruit plucked from a tree. Native Americans saw their children taken from them, raised far away, separate and apart from their own families and culture. 

We don’t talk much about these atrocities. When something doesn’t get talked about, it vanishes. When it vanishes, it repeats again and again. 

How do we stop repeating this evil? What will finally make us see the horrors done in our name, that we may never do them again?

Tornillo, TX

A History of MAGA Kids

I had my MAGA kid moment many years ago, also while playing drums. 

One summer day, long ago, I sat on the lawn near Morrison Hall, home of the Music Department at UC Berkeley, and played tabla. Back in the day, when I took summer tabla classes with Maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain, I often would take my tabla outside during lunchtime and practice the latest lessons. I wanted to sound somewhat proficient at that evening’s class. Zakir ji called the compositions he taught us “basic stuff.” I called them finger-twisters. But when I practiced regularly, and turned off my worrying mind, my fingers often knew what to do.

I probably ended up near Hertz because the lawns near the Law School, where I worked, were damp from watering or kisses of morning dew, unable or unwilling to let go of the blades of grass. I didn’t want to get my butt, or worse my instrument wet, so I drifted northward. The pathways held the usual noontime traffic, students leaving one class to another or to lunch. I just kept playing, into what I was doing. And then he showed up. Tall, white, wearing shorts, he looked at me playing and then started shouting things. Or maybe he was chanting things. I tried not to pay attention. I wanted to remain in my zone. I kept playing.

But he continued. Though he stood at a distance, I felt uncomfortable. He wanted a reaction, and I wouldn’t give it to him. Finally, he struck a pose, the crane-like pose that the Karate Kid took in one of the movies, one leg raised and his arms over his head. He wasn’t close enough to hit me, but it still made me feel very uncomfortable. He was laughing. I kept playing. Finally, he got mad that I wouldn’t engage with him, said something snarky about not taking a joke, and departed. 

A joke? To him, perhaps. It clearly was meant to be at my expense. I’ve had folks snap their fingers or even dance while I played. That wasn’t what this dude was about. He didn’t get into what I was doing, he simply mocked it. I could see it in his eyes and self-satisfied smirk. Someone playing music in front of the music building should not have caused such derision. At the same time, I think that if I had been playing Brahms on a cello, he still would have found ways to make sport of it. But a black dude sitting crosslegged on the ground playing hand drums? Fodder too good to pass up.

This incident occurred in the early 90s. How deeply disturbing that nearly 30 years later, in Washington, DC, another drummer, a Native American elder, had his dignity accosted by a white kid awash with privilege. How often has Mr. Nathan Phillips had the eyes of hate invade his space? How often has he had to deflect hostility while simply existing?

Truth be told, MAGA kids have existed throughout the history of this country. They ruthlessly targeted and slaughtered Mr. Phillips’s ancestors. They sneered at 6 year-old Ruby Bridges when she tried to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans, Louisiana. They glared at young black folks sitting at white lunch counters. They burned white with rage while beating Rodney King on the ground. They smirked with contempt while spitting on Congressman John Lewis just a few short years ago as he walked out of the Capitol, a building he has worked in for decades. In 1965 when he was a young man, Congressman Lewis endured a near fatal beating while marching for voter rights on the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The MAGA kids that spat on him probably didn’t know, or didn’t care.

A MAGA kid sits in the White House. He began his presidential campaign with the words, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” while speaking about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Now he wants to building a wall on the Mexico-US border, a monument in celebration of everything MAGA kids hold dear, a symbol of hate and intolerance.

Mr. Phillips’s silent bravery in the face of hate recalls the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And we should celebrate his resilience along with Dr. King’s. But do me a favor. Don’t spend this King holiday weekend quoting “I Have A Dream” unless you are willing to do the hard work of thinking about what you have done or haven’t done to make the dream of personhood for all peoples a reality. The MAGA kid who harassed Mr. Phillips clearly hasn’t done this. I doubt anyone in his life has guided him toward such wisdom.

If we don’t have a conversation about racism, white privilege, hate, and all their manifestations, then 50 years from now we will still have MAGA kids among us, because we will have done nothing to prevent their continued creation.

Kevin Hart Hasn’t Apologized

Folks like Kevin Hart are exactly why I wrote SIN AGAINST THE RACE. Nothing hurts more than when straight, cis black folks turn against their own because of anti-LGBTQ bigotry and hatred.

Nothing he has said or done has made up for the vile remarks he made during his comedy routines or in his tweets. In fact, his “apologies,” including his appears on The Ellen Show, have been all about him, his career, his life, a symphony of “I, Me, Mine.”

Hatred of the sort he spouted emboldens others to commit atrocities against LGBTQ folks. Black transgender women in particular, like transgender women of color across the country, are the frequent targets of violence.

A true apology would include acknowledging this reality and an unambiguous commitment to combat the violence and end it, to save the lives of the most vulnerable members of our community.

I frankly don’t really care whether he hosts the Oscars or not. That’s not the point. The point is that we don’t need another black celebrity normalizing anti-queer hatred and then refusing to own it when he gets called on it.

Until he owns his past and acknowledges how hurtful his words have been to the black LGBTQ community in particular, he has not apologized. He’s simply trying to save his career from criticism. And that’s nowhere near good enough.

Reading: Alfonso’s Birthday

December 16 is the birthday of my fictional character Alfonso Rutherford Berry, III, protagonist for my novel Sin Against the Race. So to mark the occasion, I read parts of the book that reflect upon Alfonso’s 21st, which he spent in hospital. Earlier in the book, police beat him while he tabled at a needle exchange next to Huckleberry Park, putting him in a coma. His father, Ford Berry, never approved of the needle exchange, so as Alfonso lost consciousness, he thought his father had set the police on him as punishment for defying him. The reading deals with the aftermath of all that, and the regrets Ford experiences.

You can hear a little snippet of music during an early part of the reading, “Alleybird” by Anton Schwartz from his classic 2014 album Flash Mob. A slow, expressive blues, for me the tune captures all of the regrets and laments Ford experiences in light of what happened to his son. At this point, he finally starts to put two and two together and question what part he played in his son’s tragedy. Flash Mob was a mainstay for me while writing this book. Buy this great album!

Finally, some exciting news: Sin Against the Race appears on Out in Print‘s Best of 2018 list. I am humbled and honored for this recognition.  Here is the video of the reading. Enjoy!

Posted by Gar McVey-Russell on Sunday, December 16, 2018

World AIDS Day 2018 Reading

For World AIDS Day this past Saturday, December 1, I read an excerpt from my novel Sin Against the Race. The story involves Alfonso Rutherford Berry, III, a young black gay man coming into his own, mourning the loss of his cousin Carlton, a long term AIDS survivor. Here, taken from Chapter 20, Alfonso explains to his African-American Sociology class how Carlton actually died. Check it out!

Click here to learn where you can purchase a copy of the book.

I’m wearing my old ACT UP/East Bay t-shirt. The group started in 1989 in my apartment at that time. We addressed several issues related to AIDS in Oakland and Berkeley, including access to care and education about the disease. My involvement in ACT UP continues to inform much of my writing, including Sin Against the Race.

One of our co-founders, John Iversen, himself a long-term survivor, passed away in early October. John was a stalwart activist for AIDS, healthcare, Native American rights, and many other progressive issues. And he was a supportive friend. I dedicate this reading to him.



Reading Event: Perfectly Queer, Tuesday, Nov. 13

I’ll be reading with Rick and Wayne’s Perfectly Queer November event at Dog Eared Books, Castro next Tuesday, November 13 at 7pm. The date falls on Rick’s birthday and we’ll be celebrating. Join us for readings, wine, and cake! The theme of this reading is friendship. My novel Sin Against the Race is about the friendships my main character Alfonso develops during the story. So come check out my selection.

Other readers include Wayne Goodman, Michael Alenyikov, Genanne Walsh, Alvin Orloff, Rob Rosen, and Rick himself. Please come eat, drink, and by books!

Perfectly Queer “Rick’s Most Excellent Birthday Reading”
Tuesday, November 13 @ 7:00 PM
Dog Eared Books
489 Castro Street, SF