I had gotten mad about jazz when I was a very young man and taking piano lessons in Dallas from Van Cliburn's mother's best friend, a Mrs. Kirby. She was teaching me to play Bach, von Webern, Chopin (I played one of his etudes at my first recital), and Czerny scales, which I couldn't stand--playing the classics that is. Listening to it was fun, but playing it was no fun. I wanted to play like Nat "King" Cole, one of the best damn piano players I had ever heard, and still alive at the time, though he had become a successful singer by then and only played the piano on certain occasions, like sometimes on his teevee show. Oscar Peterson would agree with me to this day about Nat Cole being a damn great pianist, I guarantee you. So, I started playing jazz piano, trying to play with a blazing right hand and an inventive bass line in my left hand.
When I came to New York, that was what I thought I would do. Play the piano. I had led a jazz trio in college in Texas, then later on a motel tour from Texas to California, and then a full-time gig with my trio in a bowling alley in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I had played with an old Brew Moore, one of the early unknown great saxophonists, and once with Paul Gonsalves and Joe Mondragon, who were both from Santa Fe.
I had always intended to come to New York, not as a piano player but rather as a writer since while I lived in Mexico City I had done some stringer work for Time Magazine so I had a connection in New York with an editor at Time. I didn't know any musicians in New York.
I moved to New York City in March of 1969, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Panthers still active, the Black Liberation Army still active, the Weather Underground putting bombs by banks and blowing out their windows late at night when no one was around, and then one day blowing themselves up at a townhouse down in the Village. All of that action was going on, H. Rap Brown was still raising his fist and shouting "Black Power" and advising the only way to fight the white man was with fire, the fire of gunfire; Huey Newton was still with us; Angela Davis (what happened to Angela?) was still active, along with the Jacksons, and Joan Baez and her boyfriend were refusing to pay a part of their taxes because it was going to the Viet Nam War effort, though that didn't work; the IRS scared the hell out of Joan and she shut up about that, though I think Joan's boyfriend did some prison time for that action. What happened to all those revolutionary spirits? They're still around; I saw Joan Baez trying to make a comeback on the Mountain Home teevee music show out of Wheeling, West Virginia, but she wasn't political at all. Money makes a conservative out of the most outspoken revolutionary. That's what starts revolts, being poor as Job's turkey and being hungry for fame. You don't expect the fortune but when you get it, you cool your heels. You're a Capitalist pig then, just like the critters you revolted against. Where's Hanoi Jane? Where's Tom Hayden? Where's the young John Kerry who threw his Nam medals away? I know what happened to the real revolutionaries, Stokely, Huey Newton, Eldridge Cleaver, Timothy Leary, yep, I know where they are, in the ground dead--except Tim Leary who's in outer space.
So I came to New York City in the middle of the revolution that even then wasn't being televised and I started hanging out at jazz clubs. Jazz was my passion. A more intellectual music has never been conceived; I mean you need facile brains to play jazz the correct way--you don't have to read music, you have to KNOW jazz, which really was the essential music, the essential self-expressive music, the music that comes solely from your solar plexus through your cranium and out through you body and into your instrument.
After I went and heard Jaki Byard, the pianist, one night at Art DeLugoff's Top of the Gate down in the Village, I went down to Time the next day, checked in, and got a job writing ad copy for Time-Life Films. My wanting to be a jazz pianist was over, but not my love of jazz.
One of the first dudes I met at Time Inc. was my boss's closest friend, Frank Conroy. Frank had a novel just out called Stop Time, a jazz novel, plus, he played the piano himself and down in the Village. I hung around Frank a lot and then I started going around every night to all the jazz clubs, the Top of the Gate, the Gate, the Cedar Tavern, Michael's Pub, Slug's, Knickerbocker's, Eddie Condon's, the Half Note, Jimmy Ryan's, the Metropole, the Vanguard--yes, there were that many jazz clubs in New York then. At those clubs I heard Dizzy, Mingus, Jimmy Rushing, Roy Eldridge, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Junior Mance, Art Blakey, Jaki Byard, Mose Allison, Zoot Sims, Max Roach, Sam Jones, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman...Cripes, and I thought I was coming to New York to make it as a jazz pianist.
Then in 1969, my brother got rich and sent me some bucks and I used them to enter New York University in the spring of 1970 taking a publishing course they offered led by Sam Johnson, who at that time was publisher of Doubleday, and a writer named Anatole Broyard. I also signed up for one of Sam Eagle's film classes, but I couldn't cut that, so I cut it. But I never cut my publishing classes and after class, I got to going over to a bar on Thompson Street called Googies.
It was in Googies one night that I met a bass player named Junie Booth. Junie dropped word that night that he had landed a gig with Art Blakey and the Messengers coming up at the NYU Jazz Festival held every year in the spring those long ago days at the Loeb Student Center, the NYU union building, or student lounge. I went.
It was just after 1 pm when I went into the Center. Wow, I was amazed. I walked in. The room was large and full of couches and armchairs, no folding chairs, and you just found an empty seat, I found one on a couch with a bunch of women; yes, of course, that's what attracted me to it. Toshiko, the Japanese woman pianist, and her husband, Lew Tabackian, and their big band were playing. Actually it was their last tune, which didn't bother me since I wasn't into white jazz players in those days, though, hell, Toshiko was a good piano player and Lew Tabackian, he was OK, a little too many harsh notes for me, but he was OK.
As soon as they finished, they stayed and mingled with the crowd. I went up and met Toshiko. She was much older looking than I figured her to be because when I first read about her in Downbeat when I was in high school, she was very young and very pretty. Now she was seasoned, and that's as polite as I can put it. She was a cigarette smoker and I think the cigs were drying her out.
I stayed on the couch and watched as the faces of the crowd changed. The women on the couch left me there by myself. Then I saw Junie Booth come in with his bass. I went up to him and he acted like he didn't remember me, but he was friendly and introduced me to the pianist George Cables, at that time very young, and then trumpeter Freddie Hubbard. Wow. Meeting Freddie Hubbard was the big thrill. They all got set up. I can't remember who the sax was with Art that day, though I think it was Carlos Garnett, though Frank Morgan sticks in my mind.
Then, in walked Art. Holy cripes, he was decked out in the very latest hip stuff, a wild, wild shirt, a hugely complicated African necklace that rumbled, tinkled, and jammed all around his shirtfront. He was also surrounded by a bevy of very beautiful young black women, one of whom I was immediately attracted to, a sweet face, short reddish bleached hair, and dressed so hip, half Cherokee to me and half hippy, with a bright, beautiful smile. Oh my God, I couldn't take my eyes off her. She was going about being introduced to people, especially the group of black women that had come in with Buwana.
The band set up, tuned up and got ready to play. The festival dude took a mic and announced the Messengers. Immediately, the young ladies broke loose and started heading for seats. The woman I had had my eyes and dreams on, son of a bitch, she walked right over, smiled down at me and asked, "May I sit here?" Hell, yeah, you can sit here. And she did. She sat down right by me.
Blakey played a couple of tunes. I was amazed by Cables. Being a pianist, you remember, I was knocked out of my socks by his crafty manipulations, reminding me of a young pianist, Kenny Barron, who I had met in New Orleans in the 60s when he was 18 and with Dizzy Gillespie's Quintet, with James Moody and Chris White and Les Spann. What a group!
There was a large lull in the proceedings. I introduced myself to this beautiful woman right to my right, close enough all I had to do was reach out and touch her. She told me her name was Nikki. What do you do? I asked her. I'm a poet, she replied. Cool. I am too; I published some poems a few years back, 21 to be exact, and I went on about myself, being as charmin' as I knew how. She told me her first book was being published as we spoke. Great, I said, when's it coming out? I hope this fall; I'm working on the galleys now; it's so good to see your work in print. It sure is. I went on and told her about the first time one of my poems hit, in the Piggott, Arkansas, newspaper; Piggott is where Hemingway's second wife was from. I can't read Hemingway, she said. He's too damn white for me. I dig, I said, trying to be as cool as possible with my favorite author being slammed by this young poet who was so pretty, so alive, so lovely of smile. I was turned on high. I got bold. I ask her if she would give me her phone number and could I call her? She said, instead, why didn't I come hear her read from her new book at the Roundtable on Broadway, where Birdland once was, where she would be reading with a whole bunch of revolutionary women poets. She gave me a brochure and a ticket to the event, which was that Sunday evening. Damn right, I said, I'll be there. I'll look forward to seeing you.
Art Blakey started up again and Nikki and I got deeply into the music, snapping our fingers, saying "Yeah" a lot, and me dropping an "I hear ya" once or twice. Then Blakey announced the last piece of their set and then it was over. Nikki said, well, I have to go meet my friend over there--it was a woman--but it was fun, really fun, and really, come see me Sunday. I will, I will.
She left. I got home and read the brochure. She was Nikki Giovanni, from Cincinatti, had just graduated from Fisk, and her first book that was coming out was called Gemini.
I didn't go to the Roundtable that Sunday night. I wanted to go, but I was married at the time; yeah, I forgot to say I was married, didn't I, and I hadn't cheated on her yet and wasn't going to that Sunday evening either, so I stayed home like a good husband and never saw Nikki Giovanni again, though when her book came out, I bought it and read it twice, it was that interesting. She was a really interesting writer; she had a strong voice and her essays and poems had the beat, the jazz beat, the 4/4 rhyme in a forceful style that, to me, precedented what would develop out of the rap studios that were in NYC at that time, places where you went and joined a room of other people and you just started "rapping." That's how it started, in the rap clubs. From there it surfaced in music with Gil Scott Herron and the Last Poets--Gil Scott was a master pianist and poet whose "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised" really shook up my roots and made my tree grow a little wilder and more improvisational.
Just this week, I saw a PBS rerun of program honoring Nikki, telling of her life, with her talking about growing old, her grandmother, and her sister, Gary, and saying, no, she didn't understand hip hop, that she still listened to jazz, but that the kids didn't listen to jazz--they didn't listen to Hawk, or Coltrane, or Dizzy...she didn't mention Charles Parker, but, I caught her drift. She said the difference between the jazz generation and the hip-hop generation was that the jazz dudes were fighting for civil rights while the hip hop generation were business people, making themselves successful off their music then taking the style into clothing lines, restaurants, movies, and management teams--then she mentioned Puffy (now Diddy), Russell Simmons, and Tupac Shakur--and then she read her poem to Tupac Shakur--she didn't however show her "Thug Life" tattoo.
Just today I read where Nikki just survived lung cancer, having one of her lungs removed, but surviving it. "Hell yeah it was scary," she says. Chemo ain't no fun; I know that from having my best friend in NYC dying a few years ago of esophagus cancer--I sat by his bed in Sloane-Kettering (show up you'r dead) Hospital while he took his chemo. His once beautiful black body turned dark blue. He said it felt like an electric current going wild throughout his bloodstream. Then I read on and found out Nikki's sister, Gary, the one who first called Yolande Nikki, had the same cancer that Nikki beat and that she was going through chemo therapy at the time of the piece I was reading, about Nikki's appearance at the University of Missouri on Martin Luther King's birthday--she told that crowd that she'd like to hear a rapper rap Martin's "I Have a Dream" speech. Yeah. Me, too.
Nikki Giovanni now has published too many books for me to list them all. Just start with the autobiographical Gemini like I did; you will not be able not to keep on reading as many of her books as you can.
I became a writer after all and never did ever become a jazz pianist in NYC. I did become a fairly good singer and was lead singer for a clap-trap cult band that had a brief moment of fame down in Tribeca before the movie stars, lawyers, Cristo, and stock brokers discovered it and turned it into another place artists and musicians made charming and artsy fartsy and now is being commercialized, trendified, and, as far as I'm concerned, ruined.
Mister Mu Sic
for The Daily Growler