Archives for category: Reviews

DSC_0195Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main Photo: Dave Burrell and Hamid Drake
 
I’ve been covering the 2016 Vision Festival daily so far as part of Suga’ in My Bowl Radio’s on air coverage. If you missed it, check out the festival preview or the installments on the opening night highlighting bassist/violinist/poet Henry Grimes, day two’s report on the Sun Ra Arkestra’s set, or day 3’s report, and Day 4’s report focusing on Michele Rosewoman’s New YorUba. Suga’ host and executive producer Joyce Jones has been on the scene as well, and it’s largely her photos you see in these posts.
 
The pyrotechnics began early Saturday evening, as saxophonist Hamiett Bluiett drew the early evening set, leading a quartet with pianist DD Jackson, drummer Hamid Drake, and Bob Stewart on tuba. Poet David Mills read some of his work in a following set, including one epic-length poem, “Blues People” dedicated to the late Amiri Baraka.
 


 
The tone of the evening took a turn when trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith took to the stage, matched with a quartet of viola players including Jason Kao Hwang and an artist named Hardedge on electronics..
 
The set displayed one of Vision’s core principles: being open to highly experimental work that pushes the boundaries and occasionally demands a lot from the audience. Such was the case with this combination. Aside from the unusual (for jazz, at least) mix of instruments, the music itself was complex and demanded a lot of attention to appreciate the subtlety, such as Smith’s matching the notes of the violas in one part of the composition. The overall mood, however, was one of serenity and contemplation. Smith ended the set verbally imploring the audience to find beauty in everyday life; an appropriate coda to the performed piece titled “Pacifica”, itself inspired by the Pacific Ocean and, in Smith’s words, “the depth at which light penetrates water.”
 
The final set of the night was a duo between pianist Dave Burrell and the indefatigable drummer Hamid Drake, returning re-energized after his electrifying performance in the night’s opening set with Hamiet Bluiett.
 
The two performed a suite titled “Paradox of Freedom”. It started and ended with the title piece, with compositions titled “Cheap Shot” and “Long Time Coming” in the middle.
 
Burrell alternated between sharp, angular notes and more melodic playing, using several different repeated phrases as an entry point for improvisation and exploration. Drake was the perfect partner, responding to Burrell’s thoughts, filling in with spots of color where appropriate, and using his ability to react quickly to changing textures to the maximum effect.
 
Jazz duos can be difficult for listeners, and likely players as well, since the task of moving the narrative forward rests on fewer players. Conversely, duos make it easier to concentrate on the contributions of each to the whole. Interaction becomes key and intimacy between players is warmly rewarded. The latter advantages were on display and the two sounded like a much larger combo, with Burrell using the percussive nature of the piano to complement Drake in places.
 
It seems trite to observe that Drake is a master drummer, but he is. He responded seamlessly to Burrell and displayed an astonishing range of textures on the drum set. He was allowed to cut loose for a brief moment near the end of their set, however, and rewarded the audience with a thunderous solo. While drum solos are often a formality (and at worst are something to be endured) Drake is the type of drummer who can indeed make the most of a solo, organically advancing ideas and building complex narratives that feel fresh and compelling. This is what, I would imagine, all musicians aspire to. The crowd that nearly filled Judson’s main auditorium was rewarded for their attention.
 

 
This wraps up our daily Vision coverage, but we’ll check back in with a full review including the final night’s closing performances. Be sure to tune in to our next Suga’ in My Bowl show with drummer Andrew Cyrille this Sunday at 11 PM EST on WBAI and streaming worldwide online.
 
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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.
 
Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.

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Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main Photo: Michele Rosewoman
 
I’ve been covering the 2016 Vision Festival daily so far as part of Suga’ in My Bowl Radio’s on air coverage. If you missed it, check out the festival preview or the installments on the opening night highlighting bassist/violinist/poet Henry Grimes, day two’s report on the Sun Ra Arkestra’s set, or day 3’s report. Suga’ host and executive producer Joyce Jones has been on the scene as well, and it’s largely her photos you see in these posts.
 
Friday night’s closing set belonged to pianist Michele Rosewoman, who returned to Vision, this time with an 11-member version of her New YorUba ensemble in tow and playing both old pieces and a new work receiving its first public performance at Vision.
 
The set started with “Old Calabar” from the Abakuá tradition, a version of which appears on her New YorUba release. New YorUba melds jazz improvisation with Afro-Cuban rhythms, drawing heavily on sacred music. The inclusion in this year’s Vision broadens the scope of the festival and what one might think of as jazz avant garde.
 
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Appropriately enough, Rosewoman introduced the second piece, “Oru De Oro”, composed with the help of a Chamber Music America New Jazz Works grant and receiving it’s public premiere, explaining that “although this is not of the free jazz tradition, it grows out of that tradition”. Drums–especially African percussion–were at the center of the piece.
 
The piece evolved organically around the expansive rhythm section, buoyed by an impressive brass lineup including Stacy Dillard and Roman Filiu on saxes, Chris Wasahburne on trombone, and Alex Norris on trumpet. A sacred sequence of rhythms (called the Oru Igbodu) played on bata drums set the tone for the piece along with Cuban folklorist Roman Diaz’s expressive vocals.
 


 
“Reza a Ochun (Prayer for Ochun)” closed the set. Amma McKen returned to the stage to sing lead vocals and her deep, soaring voice formed the centerpiece of the song. In this song, the big band took a turn in an incredibly funky direction, showing that they can swing as hard as anyone. Rosewoman played off McKen’s vocals in an almost call-and-response pattern in a song that seemed to end way too soon.
 
Vocalist Amma Mcken

Vocalist Amma Mcken


 
The ensemble showed yet another way of approaching the idea of a big band. Instead of leaning on the sheer power of an expansive brass section, New YorUba drew out the subtlety and complexity of the music, which, at times, sounded pleasantly sparse, concealing the incredible difficulty of the exchange.
 
While we’re now seeing renewed interest in what’s called Spiritual Jazz (thanks, in part, to the breakout success of saxophonist Kamasi Washington) New YorUba reveals a basic element of spirituality and jazz: one that many musicians would argue is at the core of their work. In this case, it’s a return to the very roots of the musical tradition.
 
Earlier sets included drummer William Hooker’s ensemble, accompanied by dancer Goussy Celestin; vocalist Fay Victor’s Sound Noise Quartet; poet Bob Holman and bassist Todd Nicholson’s collaboration in memory of late violinist Billy Bang; and multi-instrumentalist Cooper-Moore’s ensemble with percussionist Michael Wimberly.
 

 
See the full schedule at Vision’s site for info on Sunday night’s sets and tell friends: Vision’s largely a grassroots effort.
 
We’ll be reporting from Vision throughout the festival and I’ll have a wrap-up when it’s all done. If you haven’t caught it already, you can hear our Vision Fest preview show with Marc Ribot, Geri Allen, Lisa Sokolov, and Andrew Cyrille discussing Grimes’s influence and festival organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker talking festival logistics. And, tune in to our next Suga’ in My Bowl show with drummer Andrew Cyrille this Sunday at 11 PM EST on WBAI.
 
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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.
 
Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.

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Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main Photo: Steve Swell
 
I’ve been covering the 2016 Vision Festival daily so far as part of Suga’ in My Bowl Radio’s on air coverage. If you missed it, check out the festival preview or the installments on the opening night highlighting bassist/violinist/poet Henry Grimes and yesterday’s report on the Sun Ra Arkestra’s set. Additionally, Suga’ host and executive producer Joyce Jones has been on the scene as well, and it’s largely her photos you see in these posts.
 
Bill Cole’s Untempered Ensemble was joined by Douglas Dunn’s dancers for the opening set. Percussionist Lisette Santiago started the set with shimmering bells. Cole joined her on his trademark digeridoo and the steady, hypnotizing drone set the stage for Ras Moshe’s saxophone. The ensemble improvised freely throughout their single piece that constituted the set. Moshe revealed after the set that–in typical Vision style–that during rehearsals the plan was to just let things unfold and react to them. The trio has been playing for quite some time now, with semi-regular gigs at the Brooklyn Commons. Here, they were joined by Dunn’s dance troupe, who reacted to the music and interacted with the audience.
 
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New Orleans native poet Tonya foster wrapped up her set with “New Orleans Biography” from her new book A Swarm of Bees in High Court, a stream of consciousness gumbo of cultural references, delivered alphabetically, that seemingly took one into the mind of a new Orleans resident through the last post-Katrina decade. Rejecting elegy or simple categorization, Foster’s piece reflected on the entirety of life Black residents might experience, with joys, sadness, anger, frustration, and mundane thoughts all rolled into one epic experience.
 
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Trombonist Steve Swell’s Quintet came out swinging hard before settling into a softer, more meditative pace for their first composition. Drummer Chad Taylor and pianist Connie Crothers, and bassist Larry Roland all made repeat Vision appearances. Roland started from off one piece and was soon joined by Taylor, which led the way for Rob Brown’s explorations on sax, complemented by Crothers’s angular playing. Swell was content to sit back and let the piece evolve before taking a solo. that was far from Swell’s only mode, however, as he played like a man possessed at times, seemingly pushing the instrument to its limits with a sax-like intensity and speed. It resulted in one of the memorable performances of the festival so far.
 
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In the night’s final set, saxophonist Kidd Jordan was in the center of the storm, though drummer Hamid Drake was, nominally, the leader. Jordan has the wonderful ability to alternate seamlessly between playing “out” and settling back into melody. The ensemble repeatedly fell into the Blues in the wide-ranging, freely improvised set consisting of a single, constantly evolving piece. Drake again showed his mastery on the drums, seemingly effortlessly reacting to the changing tempos and feel as the music evolved.
 


 
If you missed last night (or the entire festival so far), the good news is that there’s plenty more action this weekend before the Sunday evening closing. See the full schedule at Vision’s site and tell friends: Vision’s largely a grassroots effort.
 
We’ll be reporting from Vision throughout the festival and I’ll have a wrap-up when it’s all done. If you haven’t caught it already, you can hear our Vision Fest preview show with Marc Ribot, Geri Allen, Lisa Sokolov, and Andrew Cyrille discussing Grimes’s influence and festival organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker talking festival logistics. And, remember our next Suga’ in My Bowl show with Andrew Cyrille this Sunday at 11 PM EST on WBAI.
 
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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.
 
Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.

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Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main Photo: The Sun Ra Arkestra
 
On Wednesday night, poet Quincy Troupe took to the stage without introduction and launched into his work, reading from two unpublished collections of his work. Troupe, invited by jazz trumpeter Miles Davis to co-write the musician’s autobiography, has deep connections with jazz, infusing his work with references to musicians and even reading with musical cadences. Troupe knows improvisation, collaboration–and even the need to listen and work as part of an ensemble–as he’s collaborated with musicians before, having worked with trombonist and AACM member George Lewis and including guitarist Kelvyn Bell and saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett on his 2011 SOUNDART release. His set-closing poem “Blue Mandela”, dedicated to Harlem-based artist Xenobia Bailey’s installation in the NYC subway’s new 34th St.-Hudson Yards station, brought Troupe a standing ovation as he exited the stage.
 
Pianist Connie Crothers’s set was (as promised) an exercise in free improvisation building on her angular, shimmering piano styling nicely complemented by Warren Smith’s solid drumming and Michael Bisio’s standout performance on bass.
 
The Sun Ra Arkestra returned to Vision as the closing set for the night–fortunately, at an earlier scheduled time than last year, when they took the stage well past midnight.
 
No strangers to finely honed (and theatrical) performance, the Arkestra entered the hall single file, chanting “this is the planet dream of the Earth Galaxy” as they filed through the standing room only crowd to take the stage. It could also be seen as a continuation of earlier in the day, when the Arkestra was one of the highlights of what’s becoming a Vision tradition of having a parade starting in the adjacent Washington Square Park cross the street to Judson. Marshall Allen, the Arkestra’s 92-year-old leader and conductor, finished off the first song with a positively celestial sounding flourish on the Electronic Valve Instrument (EVI), which Allen uses to supplement his saxophone and has become an acknowledged master at. The sound meshed perfectly with Judson’s acoustics, which are challenging to large ensembles such as the Arkestra. Indeed, the sound was a challenge throughout the set, as musicians signaled for more volume for their instruments. Part of the challenge is the difficult acoustics of Judson itself, a large open church with hard surfaces and high ceilings. Allen seems to have mastered the tricky acoustics, though.
 
The Arkestra’s “Discipline 27-II” kicked off with the sampled voice of none other than Ra himself sending a missive to the “People of Planet Earth”.
 
The Arkestra then launched into “Angels and Demons At Play”, with vocalist Middleton’s rich, deep vocals meshing with the synthesizer. Saxophonist Knoel Scott was inspired enough to put down his instrument and step to the front of the stage to show off his dance moves. Multiple roles and talents are simply par for the course for Arkestra members. As vocalist Tara Middleton explained to us after the set, there is no set list with the Arkestra, following how things worked under Ra himself. The band just responds to the vibrations present at the time and chooses songs accordingly.
 
The next piece matched Middleton’s scatting vocals to Allen’s upper register sax squeals in the bass and electric guitar – heavy tune that had the Arkestra swinging hard.
 
A bluesy acoustic bass solo kicked off “Blues in the Night”, eventually giving way to flute and electric guitar solo by Dave Hotep that allowed Middleton to show off her Blues chops.
 
The Arkestra classic “Love in Outer Space” followed and “When You Wish Upon a Star” was given the Arkestra’s unique, slightly atonal treatment and gave Allen the space to kick off the latter with a solo.
 
The final set-closing medley of “We Travel the Spaceways” and “Space is the Place” with the Arkestra leading a second line through the audience came all too soon.
 
Despite the issues with sound and acoustics, the Arkestra put in a strong performance, with Allen still playing with a force, intensity, and enthusiasm that defies his age. I’ve written that a few times about the Arkestra before, but it remains true and it’s something I hope to continue reporting for quite a while. However, with the addition of Middleton and other members who’ve been with the Arkestra a long time, Ra’s prodigious back catalog, fresh tunes composed by Allen added to the performance rotation, and the release of the Babylon CD/DVD set, the Arkestra looks set to be continuing traveling the spaceways for quite a while to come.
 
We’ll be reporting from Vision throughout the festival and I’ll have a wrap-up when it’s all done. If you haven’t caught it already, you can hear our Vision Fest preview show with Marc Ribot, Geri Allen, Lisa Sokolov, and Andrew Cyrille discussing Grimes’s influence and festival organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker talking festival logistics, which she’ll discuss on our colleague Basir Mchawi’s Education at the Crossroads show on Thursday at 7 PM EST. And, remember our next Suga’ in My Bowl show with Andrew Cyrille this Sunday at 11 PM EST on WBAI.
 
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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.
 
Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.

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Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main Photo: Vision Fest 21 honoree Henry Grimes
 
Bassist/violinist/poet Henry Grimes famously doesn’t talk much nowadays: at least not to journalists like myself. To be perfectly clear, it isn’t an issue of him being inaccessible or thinking he’s too good or his time is too valuable: on the contrary, he’s usually in attendance at almost any event having to do with free/avant garde jazz in New York City–usually with his wife and manager Margaret at his side–and is just there digging the music even if he isn’t on the bill or has finished his own set. It’s just that he doesn’t talk a lot, period. An affable smile and recognition is all you’re likely to get. That’s fine since his body of work fills in much of the story. Still, those of us itching to dig deeper and get some of the history he’s been involved in won’t walk away with much more than we see on the bandstand.
 
Personal testimony isn’t the only story, though, and what your peers say about you counts for a lot. And Grimes’s peers have a lot to say about both the man and his work, which makes focusing the 2016 Vision Fest’s spotlight on Grimes all the more valuable since you’d be hard pressed to find someone with bad things to say about the man as either a person or musician. That’s rare in any industry.
 
Grimes’s remarkable story of walking away from the jazz spotlight before reemerging 35 years later has been told elsewhere, so I won’t repeat it here. The point is that Grimes is the type of artist who’s easy to overlook if one isn’t deep into jazz — much less the free improvisation that he revels and excels in. All of that makes Vision’s choice to highlight his career this year a good one, especially since he’s been a mainstay at the festival since his return to high level performance was punctuated by a Vision appearance over a decade ago and he’s been a mainstay ever since.
 
Grimes stood on the bandstand throughout three sets to kick off Vision on Tuesday night as both the honoree and center–figuratively and literally, as he occupied center stage–of all of the performances.
 
After Vision’s traditional opening invocation, the evening started with an ensemble pairing Grimes with pianist Geri Allen (in her Vision debut), Vision veteran Andrew Cyrille (who’ll be interviewed on Suga’ in My Bowl on Sunday 6/12) on drums, and Graham Haynes on coronet. Grimes alternated between bass and violin, showing equal comfort on each instrument. Allen showed, unsurprisingly, that she can keep up with the best improvisers out there and is as adept at playing more freely as she is in more structured environments. Cyrille, meanwhile, added a solid base for the group’s explorations and punctuated their second song with a steady rhythm on the cowbell.
 
Grimes has also written a fair amount of poetry, which was the focus of the second set, featuring vocalist Lisa Sokolov’s songs and Grimes’s poetry. Grimes accompanied the Sokolov-led choir of Imani Uzuri, Karma Mayet Johnson, Dwight Trible, and Mixashawn.
 
The night’s final set featured Mixashawn on saxophone, Melanie Dyer on viola, flutist Nicole Mitchell, and cellist Tomeka Reid joining Grimes’s frequent trio collaborators guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Chad Taylor. The ensemble produced some of the night’s memorable performances. The first song of the set built to a crescendo riffing off of Mitchell’s repeated flute phrase with Ribot filling in the colors while Grimes kept a steady hand on bass. The set’s third (and last) piece started with a solid beat by Taylor, joined by Mitchell, then Ribot and Grimes. Taylor’s steady rhythms kept driving the group forward as they all set a frenetic pace.
 
Through it all, Grimes remained impassive, focused intently on the music at hand. While he may be a man of few words, Grimes “speaks” loudly and authoritatively on bass, violin, and written words. All of which were on display tonight.
 
We’ll be reporting from Vision throughout the festival and I’ll have a wrap-up when it’s all done. If you haven’t caught it already, you can hear our Vision Fest preview show with Marc Ribot, Geri Allen, Lisa Sokolov, and Andrew Cyrille discussing Grimes’s influence and festival organizer Patricia Nicholson Parker talking festival logistics, which she’ll probably discuss on our colleague Basir Mchawi’s Education at the Crossroads show on Thursday at 7 PM EST. And, remember our next Suga’ in My Bowl show with Andrew Cyrille this Sunday at 11 PM EST on WBAI.
 


 
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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.
 
Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.

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Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main Photo: Will Calhoun working the drum kit.
 
It would be inaccurate to call the opening of Will Calhoun’s first collaborative visual art show at the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education gallery a homecoming because the Bronx native never really left. Nevertheless, the reception and performance had that sort of feel, as it drew family members, friends, and even former schoolmates to the South Bronx location on Friday April 22nd.
 
Calhoun, known to many as the drummer for the resurgent rock band Living Colour, has fashioned a solid career for himself as a jazz bandleader (with an eagerly anticipated album of Elvin Jones songs on Motéma Records due this summer) and side projects ranging from Jungle Funk with vocalist Vinx and Living Colour bandmate Doug Wimbish to his collaboration with fellow Living Colour bandmate Vernon Reid as part of the latter’s Power Trio.
 
Calhoun has long had an interest in visual art, however, and said that he began exploring photography about ten years ago. Indeed, his Native Lands CD came packaged with a DVD documenting a decade of his travels.
 
All of the above has happened while the busy family man (his teenage son is a regular presence at New York area shows) has spent a fair amount of his time in between projects doing research on the African continent and its musical musical traditions — many of which are incorporated into his work in one way or another.
 
Given that history, the trip to a seemingly unlikely spot on the sixth floor gallery perched atop a Bronx school makes sense. Christine Licata, Casita Maria’s Performing and Visual Arts Director, said that they came to know Calhoun through his music over a series of Latin Jazz concerts presented in the area by the Blitz collective, featuring Calhoun and acclaimed pianist Arturo O’Farrill. Showing Calhoun’s visual art was a perfect fit for the gallery, given his Bronx roots, musical connections, the organization’s goals, and the connection with the attached school. Licata referred to art as a “tool to open up the way youth see the world.”
 
The process of creating the pieces in the current show came from a collaboration with the Los Angeles-based SceneFour visual art team, which has done similar collaborations with several other musicians. After recording videos of him drumming with lighted sticks, the resulting canvases were created from his actual movements. “What you see” on the canvases, said Calhoun, “is a map of me playing.” He also suggested that the project adds a different way of seeing himself as an artist. He’s used to capturing the audio of his work, but seeing and interpreting the movements offers a fresh look at his artistry and way to appreciate the physicality of drumming.
 

 
The result is 11 limited edition pieces that convert the sense of rhythm, motion, color, and excitement that Calhoun’s music creates. Ethel, for instance, is generated from Calhoun’s movements playing the wave drum and is inspired buy his sister, who dances ballet and African dance. The piece emphasizes vertical, rather than horizontal movements, and the swirling lines tracing his hand movements suggest the movements of a dancer. Calhoun revealed that it’s one of the more popular pieces.
 
My Own Free Will, on the other hand, has Calhoun seated at the drum kit, working his magic and was meant to convey the total improvisation both rhythmically and visually. Calhoun’s face and silhouette are visible in the center of the canvas, his calm visage in contrast to the swirling blue lines from his drumsticks. The title is a play on both his first name and the idea of an artist’s freedom of expression and the risks involved in creativity and pushing the boundaries of your work. To be successful as an artist, “you can’t be afraid to fail”, said Calhoun, and “you can’t be afraid to make mistakes”. The canvas effectively conveys the tension between the competing demands of an artist: the quest for hitting the right note or getting the pleasing balance of visuals and pushing the boundaries of how far out one can go before failing.
 
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My Own Free Will. Will Calhoun/SceneFour. Hank Williams Photo
 
In Sundance, vibrant swirl of yellow on the white background is punctuated by bold splashes of contrasting orange and black highlights in the center of the piece. It conveys the feeling suggested in the title of brightness, light, and sunshine with a playful quality.
 
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Sundance. Will Calhoun/SceneFour. Joyce Jones Photo
 
Calhoun demonstrated part of his end of the composition process in a solo performance of three pieces that evening. He introduced one song with the promise of playing “a little bit of Bronx music for y’all”, a pledge faithfully delivered with a rendition of hip hop-inspired break beats. Another piece, clearly inspired by his North and West African travels began with seamless alternation between drumsticks and brushes. A stint on the wave drum and synthesizer transformed Calhoun into a multidisciplinary DJ, the resulting beats recorded as the base for his accompaniment on the drum kit. A final piece had Calhoun switch to the special drumsticks with embedded LED lights, resulting in a Technicolor and sonic whirlwind.
 

 
When asked how it felt to have his first show open in the Bronx, Calhoun replied that “it feels amazing because that’s where I’m from”. “What you’re seeing is my life’s work”.
 


 
For a deeper dive into Calhoun, see Joyce Jones’s 2013 interview with him on the Suga’ in My Bowl show.
 
AZA is on display until July 21, 2016 at the Casita Maria Center for Arts and Education. Will Calhoun’s next effort as a leader is a a tribute to drummer Elvin Jones, scheduled for a summer 2016 release. Calhoun will be appearing at New York’s Blue Note jazz club as a guest with pianist McCoy Tyner on Tuesday April 26. He’ll also be at City Winery on June 1st and 8th for acoustic sets with Living Colour as part of their world tour for their new release, SHADE, tentatively scheduled for fall 2016.
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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.
 
Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.

Left-Right: Gary Burton, Wendy Oxenhorn, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Linda Oh, Catherine Russell, Jimmy Heath, Karriem Riggins

Left-Right: Gary Burton, Wendy Oxenhorn, Pharoah Sanders, Archie Shepp, Linda Oh, Catherine Russell, Jimmy Heath, Karriem Riggins


Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.
 
2016 marks the 50th year of the National Education Association’s annual Jazz Master Fellowship Awards, and the traditional tribute concert, held on April 4 this year at Washington DC’s Kennedy Center, paid homage to the new honorees in style as they joined a select group of figures from the illustrious history of the music.
 
The awards grew out of NEA’s support for jazz, which started in 1969 with a grant to George Russell and the realization that despite its central cultural role in the US, jazz as a form had fallen on hard times in the 1960s with diminished audiences and little support. The Jazz Master Awards themselves began in 1982 to formally honor musicians who have achieved a particularly high level of achievement. Nominations can actually be made by anyone, though the awardees are selected by a panel of jazz experts.
 
This year, saxophonists Archie Shepp and Pharaoh Sanders, vibraphonist Gary Burton, and Jazz Foundation of America executive director Wendy Oxenhorn were awarded Jazz Master Awards.
 
It was special for us at Suga’ in My Bowl because of the amount of former guests on our radio show represented at the ceremony. We interviewed Archie Shepp this month and Pharoah Sanders, Gary Burton, David Murray, Randy Weston, Billy Harper, Lakecia Benjamin, and Catherine Russell are all former guests.
 
The concert which is streamed live over the Internet (and will be archived online soon) featured arrangements of signature compositions by the honored musicians played by ensembles made of former jazz masters and younger musicians. The format highlights the continuity of the music and also provides the opportunity for interesting combinations that might not otherwise happen.
 
Shepp was the first of the new awardees profiled and the ensemble played a medley of his pieces ending with “Blues for Brother George Jackson” from the Attica Blues album. Shepp’s funky, soulful tribute to the Black Panther Party member killed by California prison officials.
 
Pianist Jason Moran (also the event’s host), trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, bassist Linda Oh, drummer Karriem Riggins, conguero Pedrito Martinez, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and saxophonists Rudresh Mahanthappa and David Murray interpreted Shepp’s work for a big band, which Shepp himself revisited with new ensembles years later.
 
David Murray played Shepp’s part, while the robust rhythm section handled the strong backbeat the piece is known for. Although piano wasn’t part of the original, Moran’s part added welcome texture to the piece.
 

Archie Shepp: What is the relevance of jazz music if it reaches no further than middle class homes that can afford musical instruments and music instruction?

Shepp’s brief acceptance speech mirrored the politically engaged themes of the chosen song and much of his work, calling for the need to reach out to poor communities and engage them with the music:
 
“Finally we might ask ourselves what is the meaning of the arts and humanities if they are only available to a class of people. What is the relevance of jazz music if it reaches no further than middle class homes that can afford musical instruments and music instruction? It is essential that our schools universities and institutions reach out to the ghettoes the wretched communities which frequently languish outside their doors. They must create hope where there is despair, lest this world become what you see a virtual reality show.”
 
Shepp’s comments clearly reverberated among the performers and audience, with several others on stage acknowledging or echoing his points. He also had kind words for Pharoah Sanders. “We go back a long way”, said Shepp, “and he’s really like a brother to me”.
 

2016 NEA Jazz Masters Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp

2016 NEA Jazz Masters Pharoah Sanders and Archie Shepp


 
Vibraphonist Gary Burton was the next recipient introduced. Pianist (and Jazz Master) Chick Corea and vibraphonist Stefon Harrris were tapped to recreate Burton’s “Crystal Silence”, which he and Corea recorded together.
 

Gary Burton: “This generation that Chick and I were part of was around when the pioneers [of jazz] were still around. I feel that we’re in a unique position to carry on and pass on what we’ve learned”.

The meaning wasn’t lost on Burton, who joked that it was strange to actually hear his own work being played. “I’ve been playing that song with Chick for over 40 years”, he recalled.
 
Burton also reinforced the idea of social responsibility in his remarks. “This generation that Chick and I were part of was around when the pioneers [of jazz] were still around. I feel that we’re in a unique position to carry on and pass on what we’ve learned”.
 
Pharoah Sanders was introduced next. Jason Moran handled the introduction, pointing to the innovative work that came from Sanders’s collaboration with John Coltrane, especially on the latter’s groundbreaking Ascension album.
 
Pianist Randy Weston and saxophonist Billy Harper rekindled their collaboration for their Roots of the Blues project to honor Sanders. While most of the musical selections interpreted songs composed by the recipients, Weston instead selected something from his own catalog with “The Healers”. It was an appropriate choice, given Sanders’s heavy focus on spirituality in his work.
 
After Weston introduced the melody, he was joined by Harper and the duo went through the introspective piece that was a reminder that although Sanders is remembered for his fiery compositions of epic length and virtuosity, there’s a contemplative side to him as well.
 
Sanders, generally a humble man of few words, appeared overjoyed at the honor. “All I can say is the creator has a master plan”, he quipped, referencing one of this classic songs. “I just want to say thank you with a lot of peace and life to all of you — and to my family”. With that, he looked at Harper and Weston, who he suggested were his musical family.
 
Wendy Oxenhorn was the last recipient introduced and received the NEA’s A.B. Spellman Award for jazz advocacy. Several video tributes stressed the important role the Jazz Foundation of America has played in supporting musicians who cannot work or need financial help.
 
The program ended with Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel To Be Free” performed by saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Lakecia Benjamin, pianist Justin Coughlin, bassist Linda Oh, drummer Kareem Woods, and Catherine Russell’s vocals. The interplay between Heath and Benjamin highlighted the intergenerational nature of the event with the elder sax master generously encouraging Benjamin to take solos, seemingly pleased with her playing.
 
The event also kicks off the Smithsonian Museum’s annual Jazz Appreciation Month, meant to teach, highlight, and create excitement around the music. Lots of resources and educational material is available at the Smithsonian’s jazz website.
 
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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.
 
Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.

The Vernon Reid Power Trio at work at Iridium

The Vernon Reid Power Trio at work at Iridium


Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND.
 
Guitarist Vernon Reid began the set of his “Power Trio” at Manhattan’s Iridium club on Saturday March 12 by explaining that it was the first time that particular combination of musicians had played together in 20 years. That didn’t mean that they were unfamiliar with each other—on the contrary—they were indeed so familiar with each other that the set had the feel of a jam session more than anything else as inside jokes floated around and musicians finished each other’s sentences. This was a good thing and set the tone for an intimate night of intense music.
 
Reid and drummer Will Calhoun have been official on-and-off bandmates in Living Colour for decades now in addition to sharing numerous stages for smaller projects, such as this one. The connection between Reid and bassist Melvin Gibbs is incredibly deep as well, as both are alumni of the late drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society band and the Punk Funk All Stars. All three are members of the Brooklyn-based Black Rock Coalition.
Guitarist Vernon Reid

Guitarist Vernon Reid


 
All of this is to say that to hear them playing means hearing a group of musicians so incredibly in sync with each other that verbal communication is secondary to the musical connection that happens on stage and emanates from deep listening and reacting to each other.
 
The second overarching theme of the evening was the legacy of drummer Ronald Shannon Jackson, whose songs provided the base for several of their explorations.
 
Indeed, the trio began the set with one of Jackson’s songs, with Reid setting the tone on guitar, backed by Gibbs’ distinctive distorted bass lines and Calhoun’s drumming.
 
Next came an innovative cover of Miles Davis’ version of “Freedom Jazz Dance”, which was perfectly suited to their treatment, as Reid stretched the familiar melody to the limits. The song finished with a back-and-forth between Reid and Gibbs, backed by Calhoun’s heavy foot on the bass drum.
 
There was also a song dedicated to the late percussionist Nana Vasconcelos, who Reid described as “a magician” who would “recreate the [feeling of] the rain forest” when he played. It began, appropriately, with a solo by Calhoun on an enormous mbira.
Drummer Will Calhoun on mbira

Drummer Will Calhoun on mbira


 
Gibbs jokingly introduced a cover of the blues standard “I Ain’t Superstitious” with the rejoinder that they were now going to play some American music. Reid’s capable romp through Willie Dixon’s classic lyrics proved that he can carry a tune as well as play a guitar like a man possessed. It also showed the range of the players as Reid and Calhoun effortlessly sunk into the blues rhythms, then exited just as quickly as the song ended in a glorious haze of distortion.
Bassist Melvin Gibbs

Bassist Melvin Gibbs


 
The set finished, appropriately enough, with a cover of Ronald Shannon Jackson’s “Street Priest”, led off by one of Calhoun’s trademark thundering drum solos.
Drummer Will Calhoun

Drummer Will Calhoun


 
Iridium’s bio of Reid accurately predicted the night’s set, noting that he’s “done a great deal to undermine stereotypical expectations of what music Black artists ought to play; his rampant eclecticism encompasses everything from hard rock and punk to funk, R&B and avant-garde jazz, and his anarchic, lightning-fast solos have become something of a hallmark”. And the group indeed delivered on pretty much all counts, with diasporic nods to Nana Vasconcelos and Africa thrown into the mix as well.
 
The early set drew an audience that nearly filled Iridium and was rewarded with a strong performance. Reid has curated an occasional series of guitar-based shows at iridium and promised a return engagement for Saturday night’s lineup, though had no definite date for the latter. Let’s hope that comes to fruition and if you missed this set, you’d be well advised to keep an eye out for the next one. Here’s hoping that the incredibly busy schedules of all three don’t result in another 20-year wait.
 
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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.
 
Joyce Jones is the executive producer and host of Suga’ in My Bowl. She is a graphic designer and her photos have been published in Black Renaissance Noir.

JazzLoft_Film_Marquee
What do you get when you cross a professional photographer driven by an obsessive (some might say self-destructive) work ethic, a rotating selection of musicians from the golden era of jazz, a ramshackle New York City loft, archive of roughly 40,000 photos and 4,000 hours of reel to reel audio tape? The answer is a book, public radio series, and—finally—documentary film that provides a fascinating look at its subjects and unearths some visual and audio documentation of an important piece of jazz history.

WNYC Radio producer Sara Fishko listened to around 400 hours of the tape from W. Eugene Smith’s collection to put together the original radio documentary and the film.

W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978) was an award winning photographer best known for his photo journalism, including several essays published in Life magazine during its heyday and a stint as a paid staff member: a plum job.

While Smith is the central figure in the film, an equally important character is the ramshackle loft at 821 Sixth Avenue that Smith inhabited from 1957-1965. The building happened to be an after hours hangout for jazz musicians and had the perfect environment for them. At the time, the area was the center of the wholesale flower trade and largely uninhabited at night. Large, spacious loft spaces without neighbors to complain about after work jam sessions—which meant the wee hours of the morning for working musicians—drew several jazz luminaries. Charles Mingus, Zoot Sims, Bill Evans, and Thelonious Monk were all drawn to the space and Smith captured some 300 musicians on tape, including Roy Haynes, Sonny Rollins, Bill Evans, Roland Kirk, Alice Coltrane, Don Cherry, Paul Bley, and Ron Free.

Smith originally moved in to the loft (abandoning his family in the process) to focus on his work and finish an ambitious project he had been commissioned to do: a photo essay on Pittsburgh, PA for its bicentennial. This period is where the film begins in earnest. Smith’s experience in Pittsburgh is probably an equally apt metaphor for his life and approach as is his prodigious output and awards.

Meant to be a fairly quick and lucrative project, the Pittsburgh photo essay drew him in. Instead of the two to three weeks and 200 photos he was contracted for, he stayed for months (later returning for more photos) and took some 17,000 photos. Smith, driven to prove his artistic chops after quitting his staff position at Life over creative differences, had taken on a Sisyphean task—and one that he would not complete in his lifetime.

While the film doesn’t dwell on the point, Smith’s obsession with work took priority over his family. It’s probably an understatement to say that he wasn’t the ideal father.

When telling stories like this one, it’s difficult to avoid falling into the twin traps of painting an uncritically nostalgic picture of the magic of the loft scene or reducing it to a story of tragic artists consumed by their work to the exclusion of all else.

To Fishko’s credit, the film avoids value judgments, instead allowing the subjects to tell their own story and viewers can come to their own conclusions.

Still, the film points out the toll that the loft life took on the musicians. Drummer Ronnie Free is interviewed extensively and was in the midst of the loft activity. Free ended up in Bellevue Hospital’s psychiatric ward. Exactly why isn’t explained, but Free and others recount the prevalence of drugs on the scene and a generally unhealthy vibe. Following his release, Free got out of NYC and never returned. It marked the end of his jazz career, but it’s suggested that the decision may have saved his life.

Toward the end of the film, Smith’s son returns to recall that toward the end of his father’s stay in the loft (he was evicted in 1965), he finally had to put firm boundaries on their relationship. The elder Smith would call in distress and the son would rush down in the middle of the night. He put a stop to it to preserve his own family — and sanity — from the type of disruption that, viewers can presume, took its toll on the elder Smith’s family.

thelonious-monk-the-thelonious-monk-orchestra-in-town-hall
The centerpiece of the film, however, is an account of preparations for pianist Thelonious Monk’s 1959 Town Hall concert and collaboration with Hall Overton, who helped arrange Monk’s complex music for the large ensemble. Rehearsals lasted for three weeks and the loft was the headquarters for the effort. Historian (and Monk biographer) Robin D.G. Kelley is interviewed and the helpful context he provides for Monk is a welcome addition.

As usual, Smith was there and kept the tape rolling as musicians worked through the arrangements and debated how best to adapt the more challenging parts while several microphones Smith had embedded all over the space captured the sounds. The musicians’ comfort level with Smith was high enough that he just blended into the background, his camera clicking away, visually documenting preparations for what ended up being a historic performance.

Saxophonist Phil Woods appears throughout the film both on Smith’s audio recordings and in a recent interview reflecting on the loft. It’s an unexpected but welcome treat considering his recent death.

Kelley and Woods shed light on the difficulty of Monk’s music and the task of translating his idiosyncratic phrasing into work for a large ensemble. Monk and Overton collaborated on this and the film chronicles their working relationship and process extraordinarily well.

The large segment devoted to Monk in the middle of the film threatens to derail the storyline, but it goes safely back on course.

One major unanswered question of the film is left to a police officer walking his beat who climbs the rickety stairs to Smith’s loft to ask what’s going on. Why record all of this stuff and document it all so obsessively?

Smith’s quick reply to the bewildered officer—recorded on reel to reel audio tape by himself of course—is that he’s writing a book. While Smith did complete a photo essay of street scenes shot from his loft window for Life as a freelancer, whether or not a full length book was truly his quest is something only Smith could answer for sure. The same goes for exactly why he began capturing everything possible decades before technology would progress enough to provide viable platforms to display his obsessive documentary efforts.

Smith’s departure from the loft seems almost anticlimactic and minimal space is devoted to it: a wise choice, considering the film’s focus.

To a certain extent, it’s the end of an era. Jazz declined precipitously in popularity in the late 1960s and artists were having an increasingly more difficult time supporting bands and finding work. Sixth Avenue, with the elevated railway becoming a more distant memory and with its rebranding as Avenue of the Americas, was in the process of becoming the more upscale strip it is today and less amenable to quirky spots like the loft.

The loft scene itself would continue, with musicians simply moving elsewhere: Ornette Coleman’s loft downtown and Larry Rivers’ Studio Rivbea as just two examples.

What we’re left with is a film that does an admirable job of assembling several diverse storylines into a coherent whole. Expert editing combines Smith’s wonderful photos and impressively good audio into a very watchable package.

The Jazz Loft According to W Eugene Smith captures a snapshot of a New York that’s largely disappeared, an important era in jazz history, and an artistic mad scientist who aimed high and didn’t always meet the impossibly high goals he set for himself, but left an astonishing body of work in his wake. The film does justice to all of that.
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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.

H_Masekela_JJPix2

Words by Hank Williams | Photos by Joyce Jones. Creative Commons CC-NC-BY-ND. Main photo: Hugh Masekela.
 
“What you see us do may look like we’re having fun, but we’re working hard”. That was Hugh Masekela‘s way of giving a polite hint that it was time to get out of the green room and let him and pianist Larry Willis take a breather after the night’s second set. It also accurately summed up their appearances last week at New York’s Jazz Standard, where they indeed made the difficult look deceptively easy.
 
Masekela and Willis initially met as students in the early 1960s at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. Although the institution has embraced jazz and now sports a substantial program in the field, at that time conservatories took a dim view of jazz — when they even acknowledged it. Masekela recalled that his initial meeting of Willis was at a rehearsal for an opera, which the latter was training in at the time.
 
Aside from being the only other Black student in the room, Willis — according to Masekela — was wearing a ridiculous outfit required for the production that made him look “like George Washington”.
 
“Man, you have no idea what it was like at that time”, Willis confided after the set. “If they caught you playing jazz in the practice rooms, they’d kick you out”.
DSC_0003
Fortunately, New York offered a rich hands-on training in the form, including ample listening opportunities. Masekela recalled the ability to work one’s way downtown for an evening, going from club to club along the way.
 
One perk of being a student was that clubs offered free admission, clustering them all around the bar in a section called the peanut gallery. Masekela soaked up all the lessons the city had to offer — formal and otherwise —while seeing the great musicians of the golden age of jazz in their prime.
 
Masekela recalled the advice he got from Miles Davis, which would prove crucial in the shaping of his sound. He originally wanted to play bop. Instead, Masekela took Davis’s typically pithy words to heart: “If you combine the shit [African musicians are] doing there with the shit we’re doing here: shiiiiiiiit ….”

Masekela weaved biographies of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller and shorter reflections on Miriam Makeba and Herbie Hancock to introduce each song

He did just that and the result was aptly reflected in the night’s program, which was a seamless diasporic view of both African and American currents in jazz, punctuated by a master class in jazz history as Masekela weaved biographies of Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller and shorter reflections on Miriam Makeba and Herbie Hancock to introduce each song in addition to revealing all of the above.
 
Masekela’s signature song, “Stimela” was done to perfection with Masekela alternating between singing, playing the flugelhorn, and cow bell. It didn’t suffer at all from the lack of a larger ensemble, with Masekela and Willis filling in all the gaps themselves. It’s a song that seems wrong to enjoy, given all the suffering that was necessary for Masekela to be able to document the history of Black South African coal mine workers as he does.
 
Masekela honored Armstrong’s legacy to jazz with a version of “Sleepytime Down South”, pointing out his crucial role in the shaping and popularity of the form.
 
A cover of “Until the Real Thing Comes Along”, popularized by Fats Waller, similarly allowed Masekela to step back into the dual role of griot/djali and master musician that he clearly enjoys and does well.


Masekela was in good form throughout the set, displaying his command of the flugelhorn (his chosen instrument for the night) and his vocal ability, still intact after decades of performance. Masekela’s unmistakable voice showed excellent control and seemingly undiminished range, as he alternated between storytelling and singing, with just a hint of rasp and the deliberate addition of the occasional growl for texture or to punctuate a point.
 
Masekela and Willis ended the set with a cover of Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island”.
 
Willis left the bulk of the storytelling to Masekela and most of their communication was musical. But, after 55 years of friendship, not much needs to be said and their musical conversation made extra commentary unnecessary.
 
Masekela will be the featured guest on Suga’ in My Bowl on November 15 from 11 PM – 1 AM EST on WBAI Radio.
 
Masekela and Willis are on tour in the US through early December 2015 and return to the New York City area on November 14 and 15 at Monmouth University in West Long Branch NJ and the Landmark in Port Washington Long Island, respectively.
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Hank Williams is an associate producer for Suga’ in My Bowl on WBAI Radio and webmaster for the Suga’ and Behind the Mic sites. He is also a PhD candidate in English and Africana Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center and teaches at Hunter and Lehman Colleges and The City College of New York.

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