Kristallnacht and Mauerfall

Last May, to celebrate our 25th anniversary together, my husband and I took a trip to Germany. It was our first trip back in nearly 12 years. We went with a group organized by Dr. Marion Gerlind and JB of the Gerlind Institute for Cultural Studies. We had studied German at the institute many years ago and have been part of many of their other programs. So when the trip came around, we couldn’t resist. It was an amazingly wonderful experience. With eight of us in total, we toured Berlin, Hamburg, and Lübeck. Our group was lively and funny, great traveling companions. And Marion and JB were excellent co-leaders.

My husband and I first traveled to Berlin in 2003. It is a city I cannot get enough of. Lively, vibrant, cosmopolitan, it is truly a world city. During those early trips, internet cafes were still a thing. We met people from all over the world at them while logging in to check email to research places to eat and explore.

Above all, Berlin’s history fascinates me. It bore the brunt of the 20th century, from Nazism to the Cold War. Two milestone events connected with these eras occurred on the same day: the 9th of November.


On November 9, 1938, the infamous Nazi pogrom against the Jews occurred, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. Set up as an act of revenge for the killing of a Nazi diplomat, the government inspired and encouraged two days of looting and pillaging of Jewish businesses and synagogues. In addition to the destruction of Jewish property, 91 Jews died and tens of thousands of Jewish men were sent to concentration camps.

During our trip, we passed by the New Synagogue of Berlin. An imposing structure, it sustained damage after Kristallnacht and the War.

Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue), Berlin. (Photo taken by author.)
“This Synagogue is 100 years old and was set on fire by the Nazis on the 9th of November 1938 during Kristallnacht. During the Second World War, 1939-1945, it was destroyed by a bombing attack in 1943. The frontage of this House of God should forever remain a place of warning and remembrance. Never forget. Board of the Jewish Community of Greater Berlin (Photo & Translation by the author.)
“50 years after the desecration of this Synagogue, and 45 years after its destruction, this House is newly rebuilt with the will and support of many friends in our country and around the world.” (Photo and translation by the author.)

A sad footnote: the New Synagogue, and all of the synagogues in Germany, have 24/7 police protection due to the rise of far right, Neo-Nazi groups in Germany. We all need to shout “Never Again” loudly and frequently, in Germany and around the world.


1989 brought a different event on November 9: the Fall of the Berlin Wall, Mauerfall. In the aftermath of WWII, Berlin became a divided city. The French, British, and American sectors became West Berlin and the Soviet sector became East Berlin. This mirrored what happened throughout postwar Germany, the creation of West and East. This divide took on a literal meaning on August 13, 1961, when the East German government constructed a wall that went through the city of Berlin.

In April 1989, East Germany removed the electric fence along its border with Austria and Hungary. East German citizens also went west via Czechoslovakia, which had opened its borders. In the fall, longtime East German leader Erich Honecker resigned. After many demonstrations, East Germany opened its border with West Germany on November 9, 1989, the result of a misunderstanding at a chaotic press conference.

One can still see sections of the wall or locations where the wall stood in parts of Berlin.

Berlin Wall marker, Potsdamer Platz, Berlin. (Photo by the author.)
East Side Gallery, Berlin. Sign reads: Berlin Wall, East Side Gallery: Erection of the Wall, after 1961; Mauerfall (wall collapse), 9. Nov. 1989; Painting, February – September, 1990; Repairs, 2009. (Photo & translation by the author.)
The author at the East Side Gallery, Berlin Wall, Berlin. (Taken by a friendly Scottish tourist with the author’s iPhone.)

The Day the Bay Shook: Remembering Loma Prieta 30 Years Later

Cypress Freeway, Oct. 17, 1989.

October 17, 1989.

Around 5:02 pm or so, I left my office, old room 349 Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley. I wound through the narrow catacombs that made up the third floor at that time, skipped down the stairs and exited the building via a backdoor between the second and third floors. The door exited to a little patio from where I jogged down another set of stairs that slanted towards the east and emptied into the parking lot behind the building. The North Addition to the Law Building, completed in 1995, now takes up this area.

The parking lot had a respectable grade. I trudged up the incline along the backside of the building, heading to my motorcycle parked on Piedmont Avenue. I had only joined the staff at the School of Law a little over two months earlier. Who knows what thoughts attended me that afternoon. Perhaps the Bay Bridge World Series—Game 3 was about to start soon. Perhaps the weather—I seem to recall that it was a nice, sunny day.

I was still on the steep incline at 5:04 when the earth shook, stopping me in my tracks. It was loud, very, very loud, and the motion pronounced. I suddenly felt as if I were riding a bucking bronco. “Whoa! Whoa!” I called out while flailing my arms. Until then, I had never experienced a major quake outside. How long would this one last? I expected it to continue for a while longer, but then it suddenly stopped. No noise. No shaking. The ground again felt steady under my feet.

I knew earthquakes. My first had been the Sylmar Quake of 1971 in Los Angeles. I was in bed at 6 a.m. when everything started to move. Just a few weeks shy of 6 years old, I had not yet developed a fear of quakes. I recall being rather fascinated by it. The shaking lasted for a good long while before finally easing and stopping. My mother came and checked on my at least twice. Her concern puzzled me. Why wouldn’t I be OK? my five year-old mind wondered.

Dazed by the noise and shaking, I looked behind me, to the west. A large plume of black smoke rose from somewhere in Downtown Berkeley off in the distance. During a moment of confusion, I wondered if it had been an explosion and not a quake that had caused the commotion. No, the quake caused the explosion. A car had fallen off its hoist at an auto shop. Months later, I learned that the car belonged to a retired faculty assistant at the Law School, the very person I had been hired to replace. 

Eventually, I continued walking up the incline to Piedmont Avenue. I was relieved that my motorcycle hadn’t fallen over. I rode a 1983 Kawasaki Spectre 550, black and red with gold trim. I named it Achilles. I would go on to own two other bikes, a 1993 Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 and a 2000 Honda Valkyrie. All were called Achilles; the bike regenerated like a good Time Lord.

As I rode home, many faces filled the streets, on the sidewalks, on bikes, scooters, and motorcycles, in cars and trucks. Confused faces. Shocked faces. Wandering, lost faces. Disaster had united us, briefly erasing our differences. I went slowly, navigating through our collective confusion and humility as I made my way southbound on College Avenue towards my home in Oakland.

When I reached Rockridge BART, I saw men in business suits holding improvised, handwritten signs. WALNUT CREEK. CONCORD. LAFAYETTE. BART had stopped running and they were trapped on the Oakland side of the hills. They were hitchhiking, their signs posing as thumbs.

Around this time, I started hearing sirens. They screamed everywhere. Disembodied sirens. They had an unnerving, agitating effect, like mainlining caffeine spiked with adrenaline.

Around this time, I also learned that a section of the Bay Bridge had collapsed. Then I heard about the collapse of the Cypress Structure (above), the double-decker freeway that dissected West Oakland. I had ridden that peculiar stretch just a few weeks earlier. Can’t remember where I had been going, perhaps my motorcycle shop in Alameda. I was on the lower deck. It felt wonky, wavy. The motorcycle bounced and bounced like a flimsy rollercoaster. Based on that experience, its collapse did not surprise me, but the news put a raw hole in my stomach. All those people. Originally, authorities thought hundreds had been trapped in the rubble of the pancaked decks. In the end, 42 lost their lives in the Cypress Structure. Nearby neighbors and factory workers climbed into the rubble with ladders and fork lifts to free those who had been trapped. In general, traffic was light that evening, because of the World Series. Most folks had left work early to catch the game at home or at a friend’s or at a bar.

I lived near Piedmont and McArthur in a little one-bedroom on the upper floor of a two-story, eight-unit apartment building. What will my place look like, I worried as I climbed the stairs. My very large stereo speakers (that my dad had made many years earlier) sat upon plastic milk crates. I elevated them to ameliorate my downstairs neighbor who complained constantly that I made too much noise. I mostly listened to classical music at that time; she should count her blessings that she missed my heavy metal phase. Fortunately, miraculously, the speakers hadn’t fallen over. In fact, I found no damage in my apartment at all. I was shocked.

But no worries about stereo noise that evening. I had no power. My phone didn’t work well, either. I could make a couple of local calls, but could not call my family in Los Angeles to tell them that I was OK. I asked a neighbor in the building across from mine if I could use their phone. I have a calling I card, so you will not be charged, I said, showing them the card. But they just smiled and said no. I rarely spoke with them after that. I ended up calling my family from a pay phone at the gas station on Piedmont. They had learned about the quake the same way the rest of America had: by watching it live during the start of the World Series telecast. The cameras started shaking then cut out.

I ended up spending time at a friend’s place that night. He lived conveniently close by, just a couple of blocks away. A group of us just sat in the dark, talking, eating cold food. I was new to the area and pretty freaked. Hanging with them helped me feel less alone. Maybe I should have stayed the night, but I went back home around 11ish, I think. I couldn’t sleep once I got into bed. Disembodied sirens screaming everywhere kept me up, along with aftershocks.

Reflections on the Castro Sweep 30 Years Later

photo by Rick Gerharter

Thirty years ago, October 6, 1989, the Castro Sweep happened. And I was there. What started as a fairly routine ACT UP demonstration turned into a police overreach of epic proportions.

I wrote about the Sweep a few years ago in a review/critique of a book by Paul Krassner (RIP), where he wrote about his experiences getting caught up in, and beat up at, the White Night riots. That rebellion happened after murderer Dan White received a namby-pamby verdict for assassinating Harvey Milk and George Moscone. During White Night, the police raided the Elephant Walk bar in the Castro, smashing its windows and randomly beating people.

I saw the Castro Sweep as a sort of sequel to White Night. Many of the same attitudes on the part of the SFPD prevailed: a need to “get back at” the queer community in general and ACT UP in particular. Here’s what I wrote in the Krassner book review piece (from January 11, 2015):

Just over a decade later, in October 1989, the SFPD would reenact the White Night Riots in what became known as the Castro Sweep. And I was there. It started as an innocuous ACT UP march from Civic Center to the Castro. It turned into a police take over of the Castro, with police quarantining people inside their homes, inside the bars, inside Different Light, while they marched down Market and then Castro and beat people. I was on top of a newspaper stand, screaming at them to stop beating a friend of mine. An officer calmly asked me to get down, so I got down. He was one of the few cooler heads in the police crowd that evening. Later, as I was walking to the Castro Muni Metro station, one or two officers charged at us, and we ran into the station. Fortunately, they did not pursue us any further. 

I should add that my future husband was out to dinner that night in the Castro with his then-partner. The police trapped them in their restaurant along with a lot of other bewildered, perplexed, and pissed off patrons out. Shutting down a whole neighborhood over a non-violent demonstration was an outrageous overreach of police authority. Had they allowed us to finish out demonstration at Castro and Market, we would have done our thing, departed, and joined the throngs out for a Friday night.

But the officers responding that night felt a need to act punitively, to put the “deviants” in their place. Just like in 1979 after White Night. Just like in 1966 when they attacked the transgender community at Compton’s Cafeteria. Just like any police raid on any queer establishment, something that occurred with alarming regularity in the years before Stonewall.

Unlike the pre-Stonewall raids or White Night, SFPD received a harsh rebuke from City Hall and the Hall of Justice in wake of the Sweep. Then-Police Chief Frank Jordan demoted his own brother, Deputy Chief Jack Jordan, after the affair. His brother had supervised the night’s activities. And a Take Back the Castro march happened the following night in which several elected city officials joined in, showing their support for the community.

While I’m happy that there has been no sequel to Castro Sweep, minority communities continue to have troubled relations with police departments across the country. Two years after the Sweep, the Rodney King beating happened. Today, we live in the age of Black Lives Matters and the state-sanctioned harassment of immigrant communities. A lot of work has to happen before all minority communities—sexual, racial, immigrant—can feel safe going to those who are sworn to protect and serve without fear of retaliation or violence. 

Herbie Hancock & Friends: Concert Reflections

Herbie Hancock at the Greek, Berkeley

Herbie Hancock entered the recording studio all smiles and excitement. “We’re gonna have a great time!” he enthused. So my brother Robert told me many years after this memorable gig, where he played bass with the Maestro. Mr. Hancock no doubt came in with such charged happiness and positivity to help calm the nerves of his younger colleagues, like my late brother. But he also looked forward to playing with them, because Herbie Hancock loves to play.

Many decades later, at age 79, Herbie Hancock still loves to play. He also still loves to play with younger colleagues, to give them the spotlight, to see them kill it. At Berkeley’s Greek Theater on August 23, he brought two sets of young masters, bands led by Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington. Collectively, they all put on four hours of driving, complex, funky, and compelling music. We couldn’t get enough of their fire. The show was beyond category. A friend and I were able to attend thanks to a free ticket giveaway from KCSM, Jazz 91.

First up came pianist, composer, arranger Robert Glasper. His albums have ranged from straight ahead jazz to hiphop to electronica. Thus, his career has cut across musical boundaries, very much like the Maestro for whom he opened. Glasper commanded from a set of keyboards, supported by drums, a DJ on the ones and twos, a bassist, and a vocalist. In their music, I heard a series of meditations that seemed to melt one into the other. They reflected on the current state of the world while fighting to maintain a center of peace and harmony, to stay true to oneself. I particularly liked hearing riffs from his take of “Afro Blue,” with vocals by Erykah Badu, who’s voice the DJ looped into the mix. It was a beautiful way to start the evening.

Saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s set contained raw power and energy, with two drummers, two keyboardists, bass, guitar, and vocals. And he also introduced his own father, Rickey Washington, who played soprano sax. He launched into various tracks from his celebrated EP Harmony of Difference, including the celebrated “Truth.” All the themes from Harmony–Desire, Humility, Knowledge, Perspective, Integrity, as well as Truth–coalesced in Washington’s playing. At times, the young master blew as if his very life depended on it. And we all ate it up.

These amazing acts took up the first two hours of the show, which started at 7. Thus, the Maestro did come come to the stage until around 9:30. He greeted the crowd as he had my brother and the other session musicians on that long ago recording gig, with excitement and anticipation. From a grand piano and electric keyboards, he brought the house down.

Elements from his long career appeared throughout his set, a riff thrown in here and there from the classics. But when he launched into “Cantaloupe Island,” we all started to groove. Sitting or standing, no one stayed still. And then Kamasi Washington joined him and blew his heart out again. Hancock accompanied Washington wearing a brilliantly white, strap-able keyboard. They played facing each other. It was a magical moment.

At the end of the evening, during the encore, Herbie Hancock played a final chord on his strap-able keyboard and leapt into the air to bring the show to a decisive and exciting conclusion. The man is ageless, my friends and I agreed. Indeed, he’s been doing what he loves nearly everyday for over 60 years. That would make anyone ageless and leap for joy.

Stonewall’s Echo in “Sin Against the Race”

In 1988, I wrote an article for 10 Percent, the former LGBTQ news magazine at UCLA about Christopher Street West. The article also included a bit of history about the Stonewall Rebellion. As I had learned in my Civil Rights History classes, Stonewall did not just up and happen. Stonewall happened in the context of its era, a period of unprecedented rebellion against establishment norms that oppressed people of color, women, and queer folks. And, as with Watts and the Rodney King trial outcome, a series of tragedies led up to the night of June 28, 1969, when folks just couldn’t take it anymore. 

While researching for the 10 Percent article, I learned about a tragic incident that occurred just weeks prior to Stonewall. A young man impaled himself on a fence while trying to escape a police raid on a bar. This tragedy has stayed with me ever since. Indeed, it inspired a scene in my novel Sin Against the Race

Alfonso Berry, III, son of city councilman Ford Berry, was violently arrested by police at a needle exchange, a program his father disapproved of. In light of this tragedy, and at the instigation of Alfonso’s mother Eunice Berry, the city set up a Blue Ribbon Commission to investigate Alfonso’s arrest and beating. In this scene, Sammy Turner, the 60-something year-old store clerk, musician, and spiritual center of the novel, testifies before the Commission. 

He picked a time when he knew Bill and Roy would be in school. Of the familiars, only Charlotte and Mrs. Berry attended.

“Mr. Turner, please feel free to tell us anything that might help us in our search for the truth.”

Sammy spoke in a slow tempo, like the slowest blues he had ever accompanied. 

“By the time I arrived, Alfonso was already in the van. I saw when the officer yanked him out. I heard his head crack against the bumper, just like you can hear on the video. My heart stopped. And then they started beating on him.”

“Is that your voice on the video saying, quote, ‘Great fucking Dizzy! What the hell are they doing?’” 

The panel sat patiently.


“Did you hear any of the officers say anything prior to Mr. Berry being pulled out of the van?”

Another pause before he answered, “No.”

“Thank you, Mr. Turner. Is there anything else you would care to add?”

Sammy sat very still. Scattered coughs and fidgets punctured the silence.

“It was 1959. I was about 12. We lived on Carver Street next to one of the bars, The Owl. It was a two-story joint. I could see into the upstairs room from my bedroom window. I liked watching them dancing.” Remembrance of their tender faces touching while slow-dancing brought a glow briefly to his face. “It got raided one day, like so many bars did. Police started hassling people, hitting them. Some of the guys upstairs jumped out the window to get away. It was a good drop, but they risked it, ’cause if you got arrested, they printed your name in the paper.

“One guy didn’t make it. He impaled himself on a cast-iron fence post. I’ll never forget the way his face looked, tongue stuck out, eyes bulging. His arms and legs flailed for a bit before he went limp. They had to saw off the post to get him down. The newspapers reported the raid, printed names, but glossed over the man on the fence, calling it ‘a minor incident.’  Someone posted flyers telling the truth. I still have one. His name was Stevie Sampson. He loved to dance. Stevie survived four days with that pole stuck inside him before he died.

“I went into shock. Didn’t speak for a month, just played my drums. Finally, my dad come up to me and ask if I’d seen the police raid. I nodded my head and started crying. I couldn’t stop. I don’t think I’ve ever cried so much in my life. My dad took hold of me and said real soft, almost whispering, ‘Shhhh. That ain’t gonna happen to you. When you grown, they won’t be chasing folks out the bars no more. Know why? ’Cause you gonna see a better world, Son. A better world is waiting for you.’”

Mrs. Berry handed Charlotte a tissue behind Sammy’s back and used one herself.

“I’d had nightmares where I was the man on the fence with my eyes bulging and my tongue stuck out. I thought that was how my life would end. I don’t know how my dad knew, but he knew.

“For thirty-eight years, my store on Carver Street has been a safe space for young folks coming out into the life. That’s my contribution to make it better.”

Sammy felt his throat tighten. He squeezed shut his eyes and bowed his head slightly.

“But I couldn’t do nothing for Alfonso!” he shouted.

Mrs. Berry put her arm around him.

“This can’t happen again,” he said softly. “We can’t go backward. Not now. Not now. Not now. Not now.” His voice faded like the last track on an LP. 

“Thank you, Mr. Turner,” Larkin said.

Sammy rose slowly. Chairman Larkin stood, as did the rest of the panel and the audience. All remained standing as Sammy and Charlotte left the room.

from Sin Against the Race, (c) 2017 Gar McVey-Russell

Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS

The AIDS Memorial on Instagram and Facebook invited me to write a post about black gay writers during the height of the AIDS crisis in the 80s and 90s. I came out around that time and quickly saw the devastation the disease caused within the black gay literary community. Writers whose works I came to know and lean on for support suddenly started dying.

I met poet Assotto Saint at the 1st OutWrite writers conference in San Francisco, 1990. He went around to all the young black folks to make sure that we hooked up and knew each other. Thus, he introduced me to poet Alan Miller, who at the time lived half a mile from me in Oakland. We’ve been friends ever since.

Assotto died of AIDS in June, 1994, just four years after we met at OutWrite.

Here is the post. I thank the AIDS Memorial for keeping alive the memory of so many lost to AIDS.

View this post on Instagram

Posted @withrepost • @theaidsmemorial — “Black gay voices exploded in the 1980s: #MelvinDixon, #MarlonRiggs, #EssexHemphill, #StevenCorbin, #AssottoSaint, #JosephBeam. So many others. . Their words — fresh, vital, fierce — sashayed on to the pages of journals, magazines, and books created in their own image, shackled no more by “the invisible chains, linked over centuries, of silence and shame” (Riggs). . Their voices gave me solace when I came out in 1988, provided dignity and pride. “We are coming home with our heads held up high” (Beam). And then, they started to die. . The @lambdaliterary Award-winning anthology ‘Sojourner: Black Gay Voices in the Age of AIDS’ (Other Countries Press, 1993) captured the confusion, anger, and pain of a generation decimated by HIV/AIDS. “I’ve lost the future tense from my vocabulary,” wrote Dixon, who died before Sojourner dropped. . Craig G. Harris, like so many, first lost a loved one: “There is so much unfinished business between us … I still feel like you were the one.” Then he himself got sick: “I try to satisfy myself with video lovers who don’t ask questions.” . In the tradition of #JamesBaldwin, they pulled no punches. They spoke hard truths about isolation from their families, alienation from the white queer community, and a lack of access to medicine many African Americans living with AIDS faced despite the higher rates of infection in their own community. But like Baldwin and #AudreLorde, they spoke with a haunting eloquence. . I have a short story in Sojourner, an excerpt from my novel ‘Sin Against the Race.’ I’m humbled to be on the same pages with these giants. It angers and saddens me that so many are no longer here, their voices stilled not just by AIDS, but by a government and society that just didn’t give a damn. . As a Black gay writer, I am obligated to bear witness to their lives and remember their names. I exist in print because of the trail they blazed with high flung *SNAPS!*” — by Gar McVey-Russell @garmcveyrussell . #whatisrememberedlives #aidsmemorial #theaidsmemorial #neverforget #endaids

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Remembering Ustad Alla Rakha

Two of my greatest musical idols were born on April 29. Duke Ellington, in 1899 and the doyen of the tabla, Ustad Alla Rakha in 1919. As the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of this musical colossus, who brought the tabla to a higher level of respect and dynamics, I reflect upon his music and how I eventually met him.

As a teenager in the late 70s and early 80s, I came to North Indian classical music from the source: the classical and devotional music programming on the General Overseas Service of All India Radio via shortwave. In Southern California, the station’s signal wasn’t always the best. However, some days I got lucky and reception would be clear enough for me to record the music off the air. I learned about the giants during this time. The Dagar Brothers. Ustad Vilayat Khan. Ustad Ali Akbar Khan. And of course Pandit Ravi Shankar and his longtime tabla accompanist Ustad Alla Rakha. My mother enthused about Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha. She had seen performances on PBS.

Fast forward to UCLA. Its Ethnomusicology Department had not quite formed when I was a student in the 1980s, but the School of Music did offer ensemble classes in various musical traditions from around the world, including India. My dream of learning sitar came true under the tutelage of Prof. Nazir Jairazbhoy and his teaching assistants, Scott the first year and Richard (now Antar) the second.

But a funny thing happened at that first class. Prof. Jairazbhoy always had his students start on tabla. He taught us basic phrases. To his amazement, I had very good tone for a beginner, someone who had never touched the instrument. He kept saying “That’s incredible! Nobody ever does that!” I thought he was just flattering me. I only realized many, many years later what it was I had done so well. (For tabla folks: I played “na” and made it ring the first time I tried.)

I played sitar in the class for a couple of years as well as take private lessons on the side. And then another funny thing happened. My sitar instructor went off to India to study sitar construction and insisted that I buy this pair of tabla from him. I did. Soon afterwards, I bought a book and cassette on how to play the drums called “Learning Tabla with Alla Rakha.” I went through the whole book in about a year, teaching myself the compositions, and I never turned back.

The first time I saw Ustad Alla Rakha, or Abbaji as he’s affectionately known, was in the fall of 1985. Soon after starting music studies at UCLA, I learned about The Music Circle, an Indian classical music performance society created by Ravi Shankar and his disciple Harihar Rao. The first concert for that season was none other than Pandit Ravi Shankar and Ustad Alla Rakha together. I was psyched. 

These two masters toured internationally together for the better part of 40 years. They were part of the first wave of Indian classical musicians who brought the music to the West. Their performance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, immortalized on CD and the famous movie, still gives me chills. Theirs was a unique partnership. You could hear rhythm in Pandit Shankar’s beautiful melodies and melody in Abbaji’s rhythms, so they complimented each other perfectly.

The concert was held at Herrick Chapel on the campus of Occidental College near Eagle Rock. Not a bad jaunt from South Central LA, where I lived with my family. Except I did not own a freeway legal vehicle at the time. I had a little Honda Aero 50 scooter. Therefore, I had to figure out a way of getting to Occidental College on surface streets. It took around 45 minutes and involved a lot of twists and turns. I called it a pilgrimage. 

I melted under spell of their nonpareil playing. They bathed the chapel with beauty. After the first piece, Panditji’s son Shubho Shankar, joined them on sitar.

After intermission, Abbaji played a ten-minute solo in rupak-tal (7 beats). He shook the stage with some of his strokes, causing Panditji to raise his eyebrows as he counted out the rhythmic cycle. Abbaji also performed recitation, singing the composition he would then play. This tradition intrigued me on recordings but wowed me beyond words in person. When I got home that evening, I played a bit of tabla—softly so as not to disturb my parents in their bedroom adjacent—inspired by Abbaji’s playing and reciting. I studied his book all the harder after that magical night.

In 1987, I attended a concert in Little Tokyo, not a pilgrimage, but a short jaunt. It featured Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia on bansuri flute and Ustad Zakir Hussain, Abbaji’s son and disciple, on tabla. Both musicians dazzled the audience with a brilliant show, but Zakirji just floored me. So wowed was I, that overcame nervousness and sought out Zakirji after the show just to meet him. He was very friendly, setting my nerve at ease. As I related my amazement at his playing, he said nonchalantly “Just basic stuff.” He also mentioned that he taught summers in Berkeley. 

Guess where I moved to two years later? To be sure, I had the Bay Area in my sights because I wanted to be around other black queer folks and to write. But the opportunity to study tabla with a great maestro and the son of my idol gave me additional motivation for relocating.

Studying with Zakirji summers in Berkeley and Marin was like a dream. We covered mountains of material, enough to last for decades. Indeed, there are compositions I still study and fiddle with these many years later. But I also learned from Zakirji’s example how to live the life of an artist and how to respect your art. These lessons also continue to inform me as a writer. I’m forever grateful for the time I spent studying with him.

Abbaji visited our summer classes twice during my summers in Zakirji’s classes. The second visit I’ll never forget. We met at the Julia Morgan center in a classroom-type space behind the famous auditorium. Zakirji led the first lesson and Abbaji sat to the side and watched us perform. I sat in the front row. “Let’s play the lesson,” Zakirji announced, then we launched into a kaida (theme) that I knew very well. It came from the “Learning Tabla with Alla Rakha” book. Zakirji would later tell us that it was the second kaida he learned from his father.

As we played along, going from one variation to the next, I glanced to my right and saw Abbaji, leaned forward, head tilted down slightly, staring at the front row. Nervously I looked forward and continued to play, but eventually my eyes drifted right again. Abbaji continued staring. Basically, I had 3000 years of Indian music history and tradition staring at my hands. After a few moments of utter nervousness, my wandering eyes drifted toward Abbaji again, just in time to see him close his eyes, nod his head, and lean back. I felt like I had just past the most important test in my life.

None of us sat back and got comfortable for too long, however. When he came up to teach us, Abbaji gave us a piece filled with pauses and odd syncopations. After Abbaji demonstrated the kaida the first time, we turned and looked at Zakirji, who now sat where his father had, as if to say HUH???? Zakirji just shrugged and smiled. I heard in my head, “Basic stuff.”

Abbaji left us in February 2001. I learned of his passing two weeks after it had happened from the website of a friend. I wept, remembering not just his profound artistry but also his kind, gentle presence and spirit. A year later, Zakirji invited as many of us students who could attend to play at a concert in his father’s honor. How wonderful it was to play on stage with Ustad Zakirji and all my fellow students.

Ustad Alla Rakha remains an iconic artist, who will inspire tabla players and all musicians for many, many decades to come. I still reflect with a full heart how his life has enriched mine.

Happy 100th birthday, Abbaji!

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.