In September of 2017, in what he termed “A Special Edition for JazzBoston,” Leonard Brown reflected on the birth and 40-year history of the John Coltrane Memorial Concert, the longest running tribute to Coltrane anywhere. As the first concert without Leonard approaches on Oct. 5, you can hear his voice in his words.
JCMC co-founder Leonard Brown’s Reflections on 40 years of celebrating ‘Trane
A Special Edition for JazzBoston
Well…who would have ever thought I would sit down to write something about the legacy of the John Coltrane Memorial Concert forty years after its first manifestation? I shaw ‘nuff didn’t. When we hit at the loft on that hot Sunday night, July 17th, 1977, all of us – dancers, spoken word artists, musicians, visual artists, etc. – were caught up in the majesty of ‘Trane’s legacy and excited that we had pulled it off, hoping to create and express to our best we could what we did. The “it” I am talking about was the first John Coltrane Memorial Concert held in Yedidiyah Syd Smart’s, “Friends of Great Black Music Loft”, which was located on the 3rd floor at 164 Lincoln Street, right off Chinatown.
The idea to do the concert had jelled primarily between three friends who shared some common goals and beliefs: Yedidyah Syd Smart, Hayes Burnet and myself. We had played together in various gigs, some in the blues and jazz traditions, a few in the “fusion vibe” and others in the “new music” concepts and approaches that were manifesting at the time. We also shared common awareness, knowledge and understanding of the roots of these music traditions in the experiences, beliefs, wisdom and world-views of Black people and their cultural heritage. Black nationalism and Black cultural pride had a big influence on us and Syd’s courage, vision and ability to make the Friends of Great Black Music Loft a reality opened the door to untold creative possibilities.
Need I remind you that Malcolm X, Dr. King and Fannie Lou Hamer are some of our heroes. Harriet Tubman, Nanny of the Maroons, Nat Turner and Frederick Douglas are our Great, Great grandmothers/fathers. Emmett Till, Trevon Martin, Tanisha Anderson and Muhammad Ali are our big and little brothers and sisters, sons, daughters and grandchildren.
By the time the Loft opened in the spring of 1977, Duke had given us “Black Brown and Beige”, Sun Ra had “outvestigated” Mars, Venus, Jupiter and beyond, Randy Weston’s “Uhuru” had embraced the ancestors, ‘Trane had reminded us with “Spiritual”, James Brown taught us to say proudly, “I’m Black and I’m Proud”, Abby and Max’s “Freedom Now Suite” had insisted we listen, pay attention and do something. Sonny had given us “Freedom Suite”, Oliver Nelson had given us “Afro-American Sketches”, Ornette had given us the shape of jazz to come, Nina had the courage to compose and sing “Mississippi Goddam” and Roscoe, Malaki, Lester, Joseph and Philip had created the one and only Art Ensemble of Chicago.
We decided to do a tribute to ‘Trane because he spoke to us so deeply and wonderfully, in ways that made us know that he KNEW and encouraged us to KNOW too. ‘Trane was HAPPENING and so hip and powerful and sweet. He was the master of the saxophone and the vision for the future. His SOUND brought us to new and exciting places that we had not been before and influenced us to dig deeper in hopes of getting (aka attaining), on our own, access to some of those places he knew so well.
The first concert was an exciting event. Many of the creative arts community in Boston and Cambridge came to perform and many, many more came to listen. The Loft was on the third floor and it was a walk up – no elevator. I remember there were people packed on the stairs from the entrance all the way up to the third floor Loft entrance. We had to step over folks to get in.
Reflecting back, I remember the performances were wonderful and magical that night. Not that there may have been some glitches and missed notes or downbeats, but overall it was a great thing. We wrapped up in the early morning hours, with people milling around outside on Lincoln Street, wondering if we were going to do a little more.
Later. when reflecting on the event and sharing experiences, we were blown away by the audience reactions as well as those of our fellow performers. So we decided to do another one and folks came out. And then we decided to do another one and folks came out again…and then we decided to do another one, and then another one…
And here we are forty years later, with the same intent as we had in 1977, to recognize the majesty of John Coltrane’s musical and spiritual legacy. In between then and now, we have had some fascinating experiences and have presented many world-class artists, including McCoy Tyner, Frank Foster, Yusef Lateef, Shirley Scott, Gary Bartz, Terri Lyne Carrington, Alvin Batiste, Ravi Coltrane and Cecilia Smith. You can see a full list by visiting our website at friendsofjcmc.org, clicking on the “About Us” tab and then selecting “History of FJCMC”.
We have also networked with the Coltrane family. In 1990, Professor Tommy Lott and I visited Alice Coltrane in her California Ashram to seek her guidance in the future of the JCMC, as we saw the possibility that this thing could have a life of its own and we did not want to fall into the well of exploitation. In that meeting, Alice laid out specifics as to what we could and not do with the concert. We have stayed true to those specifics.
Alice also linked us with John’s cousin, Mary Alexander, aka “Cousin Mary”. Mary was living in Philadelphia on North 33rd St. in the home John bought for his mother after he left the Navy in 1946. Mary and her husband, Billy, had started the John W. Coltrane Cultural Society of Philadelphia, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to educating people of all ages to Trane’s legacy. Much of this was accomplished by the infamous “Backyard Concerts” they held at the Coltrane house, featuring great Philly musicians. They also provided in-school educational programs for elementary and secondary populations.
We went to Philadelphia to meet with Mary and the connection was immediately positive. We established a strong relationship that brought Mary, her now deceased husband Billy, and other members of the John W. Coltrane Cultural Society to our JCMC here in Boston for over a decade. We also collaborated and appeared on some of the John W. Coltrane Cultural Society events in Philly. Mary’s last appearance at the JCMC was in 2006 when McCoy Tyner and Gary Bartz were our guest artists. Shortly afterwards, she had a stroke which has left her paralyzed. I still visit her in Philly.
Over the last 40 years, we have presented Trane’s legacy in a multitude of formats and ways, including dance via the Art of Black Dance and Music; spoken word via Amiri Baraka, Brother Blue, Guru’s Jazzmatazz and poetry via Michael Harper; and visual art as in 1999 when the artist Nancy Ostrovsky painted the concert live on stage. We have commissioned works for the concert as well as bringing in special groups such as Anthony Brown’s Asian American Orchestra from Oakland.
One of the most memorable concerts was the 1993 “Coltrane’s Ashe”, the brainchild of “Sa” Davis where we presented Coltrane compositions in Afro-Cuban and Afro-Latin arrangements and featured some of the leading latin jazz performers including Danilo Perez, Giovanni Hidalgo, Santi DeBriano, Kamau Adilifu, Diego Urcola and Carlos Cordova. Later, an edited version of the concert’s recording was selected for broadcast nationwide over WBGO’s JazzSet for two consecutive years on Coltrane’s birthday (September 23, 1994 and 1995). It is estimated that over 400,00 listened to that show.
In the concert presentations, we have always strived to put together a core group of musicians that represent some of the best in the Greater Boston. All are experienced, recognized for their musicianship and musical accomplishments, confident in their own sound and understand the intent of the JCMC. The list of area “killas” who have consistently appeared on the JCMC is formidable. Saxophonists include Stan Strickland, Bill Pierce, Billy Thompson and Carl Atkins (and myself). A recent addition is the exciting Bobby Tynes. Brass masters have included Bill Lowe, Mike Peipman, Jeff Galindo, Larry McClellan, Jason Palmer, Rick Stepton and Gary Valente.
Frank Wilkins is one of the original members of the JCMC ensembles, Rollins Ross has appeared numerous times and George W. Russell Jr. has blessed us with his keyboard wizardry for close to two decades now. Consuelo Candelaria, Laszlo Gardony and Danilo Perez have also handled the JCMC piano duties. Bassist John Lockwood has been with us forever, as had the late Tim Ingles, and Ron Mahdi has blessed us with his musicianship many times. Yedidyah Syd Smart and Vincent “Sa” Davis anchored the percussion and rhythm section for decades until Sa’s passing a few years ago and Syd deciding to cut back in performances.
The late Keith Copeland was one of the original JCMC drummers and later was joined by Keith Gibson. More recent times have seen Terri Lyne Carrington, Yoron Israel, John Ramsey and Ron Savage bring their outstanding musicianship. The late, great Armsted Christian was a founder of the JCMC and blessed us numerous times with his wonderful singing and arranging as well as alto sax and flute performances. And let us not forget the many contributions of Semenya McCord.
And let me not forget to acknowledge Eric Jackson, who has served as host for the JCMC for over thirty years, and Jose Masso, who has emceed the concert multiple times. Each of these hermanos will appear as hosts for this year’s October 6th and October 7th concerts.
There have been times when we may have, as the Rev. Doctor Emmett G. Price, III says, “Needed just one more rehearsal”, especially when you have large ensembles of 12 to 15 pieces and only four to six hours maximum to rehearse new music and/or new arrangements of Coltrane compositions. But the great majority of the performances we have done over the last four decades have come off strong and good and memorable, which is the primary reason folks like YOU have continued to come. If the music was not happening, the JCMC would not have survived. We have a legacy of playing music that can be trusted to be sincere, has integrity, and touches the listeners…just as did John Coltrane.
The repertoire we do is predominantly Coltrane’s work. We have featured John’s compositions in traditional and innovative formats, ranging from small groups, such as quartet and quintet, to solo and duo to large ensemble and orchestra. And we have had “Electric Trane” too. A common factor in all the performances is to play the music with serious intent and in honor of John’s legacy of using music as “a force for good.” All the musicians are expected to bring their “AAAA+++” game to rehearsals and performance. “Why?” one may ask. The answer again is, “Because that is what ‘Trane did”.
Coda: In these times when bigotry, ignorance and cruelty have been unleashed in our country, I leave you with this quote from John Coltrane and remember, listening to Coltrane will brighten your day and may help give us ALL the courage to engage and get active in making the world a better place for all living things.
May we never forget that in the sunshine of our lives, through the storm and after the rain, it is all with God. In all ways and forever. With love to all, I thank youJohn Coltrane
Peace, Leonard Brown, JCMC co-founder
The 42nd John Coltrane Memorial Concert, “Transition(s)”, will pay special tribute to Dr. Leonard L. Brown, co-founder and artistic JCMC visionary, who passed earlier this year. It will be directed by Leonard’s son, Omrao Brown.
Saturday, October 5, 7:30 PM
Blackman Auditorium. Northeastern University
Tickets in advance: premium reserved $35, general reserved $30, general reserved (student & senior) $25. [A $3/tix service charge applies to all purchases; an additional $5/tix on day of concert for walk-up sales.] For tickets: mytickets.northeastern.edu, 617-373-4700; further information: www.friendsofjcmc.org, 617-671-0789.
By JazzBoston | Sept 13, 2019