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Monday, January 18, 2016

Harlem Nocturne for MLK

-- By Tom Phillips

Billy Harper
We didn't plan it to coincide with Martin Luther King Day, but somehow it all worked out.  Last night my wife Debra took me out for my birthday, to the local jazz and supper club, Smoke, at 106th and Broadway.  The music was the Billy Harper Quintet, a group I'd never heard.  But I saw Harper's picture -- slim, gray-haired, serene -- with his tenor sax, and I just had a feeling.

Sure enough, the music was right up my alley -- wild, Coltrane-like solos spilling out over a calm, steady dance rhythm kept by the bass, with the drums and piano darting into the cracks in the chord structure and the beat.  And the faces of the band were nearly as expressive as the music.

The pianist was a young German-Italian woman, Francesca Tanksley, who looked more like a teacher (which she is) than a jazz hipster, bending quietly over her keyboard, seemingly thinking out every change in the instant before she struck the keys. The bass was Corcoran Holt, a wide-eyed, bespectacled young guy with a white shirt and suspenders, vigilant with the tempo, walking the big neck of the bass with fingers that never flagged, never hurried.  Billy Harper himself was tall, straight and slim, 73 years old in a black leather jerkin, like a monk, smiling faintly as he'd lay out the melody he wrote, then blow it away in a furious variation.  The trumpeter,  Freddie Hendrix, started his solos mellow, almost muted, and then built them to a scream where he'd nearly split the trumpet in pieces, forcing it past its normal range, spitting out sound like a machine gun.  Done, spent, he'd stand back and close his eyes, tragic, but nodding to affirm the others.  Drummer Aaron Scott, who's been playing with Harper since the 1980s, filled out the tunes with one rhythmic invention after another.  Alert for the openings, he would crash through them like an explosive running back, then pull back to let the tune speak.  He never took a solo except for one military-style tattoo that faded into the distance to end Harper's "Thought, and Slow Action."

All the musicians were African-Americans, except Tanksley, the European, and an Israeli student named Assaf who sat in, mimicking Harper's saxophone solos and then taking off on his own. Introducing him, Harper said, "He understands the music."

Understanding the music is beyond me.  All I can say is that jazz is the most astonishing art form in the world -- a spontaneous combustion of African polyrhythms and western classical music, a synthesis of cultures constantly changing and re-inventing itself.  And for the first time last night, I saw the African-American story as a heroic tale -- a people coming out of slavery to appropriate and re-create western culture, at a height of creativity never dreamed of by western artists.  The music brought them together, and they made something new.

Music brought the world together for last night's seance at Smoke.  On either side of us were a pair of young French women, tourists, and a young African-American couple from Baltimore, in town for a church conference.  A few feet away was a table of Chinese students from Columbia. Greeks and Brazilians were celebrating next to the stage, the bar was lined with Harlem hipsters, and there was no shortage of us bearded white intellectuals.  The atmosphere was festive, presided over by the genial Harper, who insisted on taking questions between tunes.

Martin Luther King Day is about justice for African-Americans, justice that is still denied for many.  And it's also about a dream -- of people of all races sitting down at table together.  One of the songs the quintet played last night was titled "I Do Believe."   To hear it in a 1995 version, click here.

-- Copyright 2016 by Tom Phillips
Photo by Getty Images