Thursday, December 17, 2015

image from the archive

I took this photo of Grant's son about a year before the film was shot. We were on the roof of a loft building in which we lived in Detroit's Greektown. I used a Canon Ftb that was purchased from a former photographer from the Free Press, my former employer. This is my last blog entry for this site. All future entries will be on my Wordpress site. It's time to simplify in a new year. Hope yours is groovy. Stay tuned for more info about the film's premiere in 2016.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

begin here

I am sucker for a good book to which I can return again and again. One such book is May Sarton's Journal of a A Solitude. I first discovered it on a shelf in Books and Books (the location in Coral Gables, Florida). I could not have been more than twenty years old. The book opens with two words "Begin here." Sarton's precision and thoughtful placement of words in this book, which is indeed a journal about her life as a writer, immediately drew me in. I knew it was a book I'd cherish forever when I took a road trip with a coworker through New England. As we pulled into Brattleboro, Vermont, I read a sentence in Sarton's journal in which she announces that she, too, is in Brattleboro. The serendipity left me and my fellow traveler speechless. This kind of coincidence happened just one other time. I will spare you the details now. Years later, owing to my friendship with someone who knew her, I was able to visit Sarton's home in Maine. As I maneuvered through my 20s and 30s and even 40s, I returned again and again to this book, but also another one: Hettie Jones' memoir. I recently read Jones' book cover to cover over the course of three days. I finished it on the beach this past weekend, in fact. I plan to assign it next semester in a course I am teaching at the University of Alabama for the first time. The course is titled "Bebop to Hip Hop: Young America and Music." In this course, the students will be challenged to find meaning in the political and social issues bubbling up behind music created between the late 1950s and the present-day. Jones, a Jewish woman was married to then-Leroi Jones, a black intellectual, in the early 1960s. They met in New York City. She saw up close the beatnik moment in which Grant Green, the guitarist whose life is the subject of a documentary before me, briefly participated in St. Louis before heading east to New York himself. Like Sarton's journal, Jones permits us to access interior dialogues about the particular struggle of individuals trying to navigate a changing world. The Vietnam War, the black freedom struggle, the counterculture movement are in the backdrop of Jones' book. Will the students be able to make connections between such developments, the music being created, the musicians creating the music and their audiences? Will the be able to fully talk through why Kendrick Lamar would be drawn to use the music of a jazz musician like Grant under his lyrics? Are their certain themes that resonate across time, across youth cultures? I will be sorting through such issues with them as I continue seeing this film to the marketplace. Just now I typed three keywords that will serve as tags for this blog entry. Grant Green. Hettie Jones. May Sarton. How does the life of a black musician from St. Louis who came of age in the postwar period intersect with two liberal white women, both of whom are writers? He self-identified as a Muslim although his closest friends said he did not always adhere to the teachings of this faith. Like many, he was a complicated man. We will doubtless learn that this is true about other musicians.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

life coming full circle

I just got back from New York where I had the pleasure of sharing a spoken word piece from a chorepoem first presented ten years ago. I did as much at a salon co-hosted by Lacy James, the musician whose music is heard on this documentary and choreographer-dancer Marie-Christine Giordano. There, I met some incredible artists, among them members of Awaken Dance Theatre, Alexis Robbins and musician Marta Hernandez. The Swiss Consulate donated wine. This recent visit to New York made me think of earlier moments in this city, which I called home early this century, but also the moments when footage was gathered for this documentary. Among that footage was this image of Flatiron building, which is near my old neighborhood. Years after we shot this footage, I lived in a women's residence in Gramercy Park. I passed by this iconic triangular building quite often. This past Saturday, I ate pancakes with my niece, who is pictured below with me and Lacy, and her two kids, near it. Life comes full circle again and again. Stay tuned for the film's premiere date. I've received some emails regarding it. It will be shown publicly in the next few months. I'll open my own bottle of that Swiss wine, which arrived via FedEx yesterday, to celebrate. For now, I'll remember this rich visit, which included seeing Steve Turre and James Carter's tribute to Rahsaan Roland Kirk at the Iridium, the amazing Hamilton musical on Broadway (I told students in my US to 1865 class yesterday that the Constitution suddenly feels like a breathing document that you can touch. It has that much power. The musical reminded me of this) and the New York City Marathon (I cheered for people I knew and didn't know and was reminded, as I told students in my "The Nineteenth Century City" class yesterday, about the power of our "common humanity." I suggested the university shut down for a day and half of us run while the rest cheers and then vice versa. For a few hours, we can see that we're all on the same team no matter our differences!

Thursday, October 15, 2015

going green

During recent trips, I have been struck by how drawn I am to any mention of recycling and the word "green." Given Grant's known love for the word "green" - it shows up on his song and album titles and he drove a green Cadillac, lived in Greenlawn in Detroit and was buried, it is said, in a St. Louis cemetery with the word "green" in its name - I wondered how an album cover riffing on today's interest in recycling might encounter Grant's music. Here's my untrained artistic guess.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

thank you, Rudy

It is almost impossible to not see Rudy Van Gelder's name on the credits for a Blue Note album recorded during the label's hey-day, the first half of the 1960s. We were honored to meet him and hear his memories of capturing Grant Green's guitar playing. It was also simply a thrill being in Rudy's Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, studio and knowing that so many greats had come through this space he designed with the best acoustics for recording in mind. Ever-generous, a couple of months after we left he sent us a photograph of our film's slateboard. I didn't know he was an avid photographer in addition to being an amazing sound engineer. Thanks, Rudy. I still treasure the picture that is now framed. Below is a great Youtube posting of "Perfect Takes," a DVD featuring an interview with Rudy.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

gentrifying detroit...or not

Much has been made in the media about Detroit's comeback. Graduate students in my Gender, Race and the Urban Space course addressed this issue last spring while reading Thomas Sugrue's study on the origins of America's urban crisis. Sugrue looks at events occurring after World War II, namely the uneven distribution of postwar prosperity as a chief source of African American challenges in Detroit. I took the photograph up top in 1994. This store sidewalk sign was near downtown Detroit, not far from Eastern Market. I loved the reference to Alaga, or Alabama and Georgia. It's always interesting to see tensions between the rural and the urban. For example, I recall a chicken place on the east side with Alabama in its name. Save a lay-over at the airport years ago, I have not been to Detroit since 1998. I hope to show the film on Grant there some day. It will be good to see up close the changes, or lack of change, in the city's built environment and people. I know casinos are there as are community gardens. I have also heard there's still work ahead even with gentrification in certain areas. As a historian who is presently attentive to how African Americans leaving the place with which they have long been associated - cities - I wonder about the implications for Detroit. Along the way, I'll continue thinking about the urban spaces that Grant Green saw before death in 1979. He was born in St. Louis and lived in Brooklyn and Detroit. Sounds of the city are certainly present in pop and R & B music, the Motown label included. How does black urban life in America bubble up in his contributions to jazz? It's worth thinking about since so much of what he created was completed during he years to which Sugrue is attentive. How much of his music was a response to the crisis in question? Was any of his music a celebration over merely surviving this crisis and so much more for as long as he could? After all, he did own a beautiful house on Detroit's west side. That said, he experienced many financial struggles as did many musicians. The second photo is of his house on Greenlawn and the third is documentary still shot of Grant Jr. walking on the rooftop on a loft building above Niki's Pizza in Detroit's Greektown neighborhood.

Friday, September 11, 2015

remembering the final comedown

I recently ordered a copy of the soundtrack for the 1972 motion picture "The Final Comedown." Grant performs on it.  Although this period of Grant's career is dismissed by some fans of his music, I look forward to listening to it again (I have a vinyl copy that I never touch) as I continue being curious about his life, his motivations and his music. Directed by Oscar Williams and starring Billy Dee Williams, this film was one of several from the so-called "blaxploitation" era. This CD for this soundtrack had not yet released when we started working on the film years ago.

Wade Marcus composed and conducted the music, which was produced by George Butler for Blue Note Records. The musicians on this album include Irving Markowitz and Marvin Stamm, trumpet and flugelhorn; Phil Bodnet on flute, piccolo, alto saxophone and oboe; Harold Vick, alto and tenor saxophone; Julian Barber and Harry Zaratzia, viola; Seymour Barab, Charles McCracken, cello; Eugene Bianco, harp; Warren Smith, marimba, tambourine; George Devens, vibes, timpani, percussion; Richard Tee, piano, organ; Cornell Dupree, guitar; Gordon Edwards, electric bass, Grady Tate, drums; and Ralph MacDonald, conga and bongos. .

Over the years, I have often listened to a KSD interview Grant did with the late disc jockey Leo Chears. It must have been done in the early 1970s as songs from "The Final Comedown" are heard in the background.

Grant seemed to be in good spirits as he talked to Chears. I remember reading an interview in which he said he wanted to "get with some strings," meaning violins. I wonder if this soundtrack was something he wanted to do, or had to do during this transitional moment in jazz.

At the time of the interview, Vietnam was still a social fact. There was a hostage crisis in progress and it was very hot. Chears mentioned the heat index. It must have been the middle of summer. I also remember Grant talking to Chears like he was an old friend and I suspect he was just that given their ties to the greater St. Louis area. I only learned recently that Chears was a native of Lamar, Mississippi. At the time we met, he lived in East St. Louis, Illinois, just over the river from St. Louis.

Anheuser-Busch Company was a long-time supporter of Chears' show. In fact, many know that he was known as "The Man in the Red Vest," which he wore in part to help promote the brand. The name apparently came about when he wore a red vest to a meeting with beer company representatives to discuss sponsorship. They would eventually purchase several red vests for him.

Prior to working as a disc jockey, he served in the U.S. Army and worked for the U.S. Postal Service. Learn more about his life via this obituary.

Chears was among the many incredible supporters of music made by musicians like Grant. He gave us a tour of East St. Louis while he shared as much as he could about Grant's life. May they both rest in peace.