Jazz -- straight up and straight ahead, crisp – does a moment get any sweeter as fingers fly, hesitate, and continue to fly across the keyboard? Letters form into words that string into sentences to bring understanding, if only to my own mind while the melodic sounds of Charles Lloyd 1966 Monterey surrounds and lifts me away: Forest Flower – Sunset.
It was around 1960 when I fell in love with a genre of music known as jazz; a music that was cool, smooth yet undulating, my first triple entendre. As a child, my home was not unlike every other on the west side of Detroit -- filled with good smells, good flavors, and good sounds. Our music was most often heard coming from a large, wooden hi-fi that my parents bought and paid for “on-time” at Sears, Roebuck and Company. Whether gettin’ down or bemoanin’ life struggles with a broken heart thrown in for good measure, the music rippled through body and soul touching every nerve ending. But this “new” music awakened and touched my mind and imagination as well as my itty bitty soul; I was thirteen – a very young thirteen in today’s world. The family’s vinyl 78s and 45s said it all. And when the records were carefully placed back inside their paper wrapper, it was the AM radio that continued the Call along with the station’s griot, better known as the local deejay. Neat stacks of music by a variety of greats were kept close by: Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington, The Platters, Roy Hamilton, Earl Bostic, The Drifters, Clyde MacPhatter, Bill Doggett, Brook Benton, Lionel Hampton, Count Basie and on and on.
A short walk onto 1962: it was a coffeehouse that Helen had heard about, we had to go! It was soon to be her sixteenth birthday, and she talked about it endlessly. I had read about such places being far away in the likes of New York City but yet there it was, in our town and full of promise in the guise of jazz! We were kids to the likes of those who hung out at such places, but we made up our minds and Helen gathered together a couple more of the girls – they agreed to join us if we could pull it off. Back when, there was the mom-factor, not quite like today. Permission had to be garnered and rides arranged. Miraculously, after phone calls galore, the moms agreed, and we were driven, collectively the night of the group’s gig, yeah, gig! And so we teenage girls spilled out of a huge family car with a mom behind the wheel that had pulled up to a building in a part of town unfamiliar to us all. Timidly, we walked together in a tight little group into a rather plain, unadorned building and stood quietly in a darkened room full of smoke and music. We four out-of-our-league young ladies were greeted and shown to a table by a smiling, if not patronizing waitress – patronizing worked for us that night; we were glad for it, believe me. And though the music was playing, I was lost; the place, so strange, so large, so dark, so full of grown folks unknown, I was completely overwhelmed. Focus Girl, focus – that much I knew to do. So, I focused on the drummer. I knew drums, drums were a good place to start and that’s where I started, and then as though on cue, the drummer looked up and gazed back, and then he smiled the smile of a big brother, a kind big brother, nodded and went back to the business at hand. It was then that a man holding a flute, bobbing his head up and down stepped up to the mike and began to blow a sound so completely familiar yet so absolutely new that my heart raced. He meant nothing to me; I didn’t know who he was at the time. For me right then, it was all about the flute and what came out and what the other musicians brought forth together and separately. We were listening to Herbie Mann and never since has a flute sounded so fine as it did at those precise minutes at the Minor Key in Detroit, Michigan that night.
The months that followed brought me back there again to witness musically what would enrich and influence me the whole of my life. And on uneventful schooldays, I went to the magical turntables at the public library on Woodward Avenue, a place where I would retreat by skipping classes just so I could listen to more of the same. There, I discovered the Modern Jazz Quartet, Bill Evans, Miles Davis and all varieties of cats and young lions that were on the scene. Summer came and went; college was only one year away, so I promised myself that I would have the personal freedoms that waited in the likes of New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. There were enormous freedoms being marched and struggled for during that time, not only down south but up north; civil and human rights were continuously denied me and mine, this fact was not at all lost on me. Yet jazz, be it cool; Latin; Brazilian; or free – was for me like catching a wave through an escape hatch not unlike the one taken by Miss Alice where all things were possible – and the impossible were made real.