On a misty morning of clouds, more than 1,000 people, dressed primarily in African garb, stood regally in a tremendously long line, waiting for admission into Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church to celebrate the life of Dr. Yosef Alfredo Antonio ben-Jochannan, affectionately called “Dr. Ben.”
Dr. Ben passed away March 19 at the Bay Park Nursing Home in the Bronx. He was 96.
He was a scholar who lectured on ancient African history and the Egyptian origins of Judaism. He was an educational warrior.
He took the challenge to give the truth while challenging European myths and outright untruths. His words hit some historians like sharp daggers, ripping apart their cloaks of falsehoods.
“Dr. Ben is now an ancestor,” said Dr. Leonard Jefferies Jr. “We have to restudy who he was. His work is a serious study in which we celebrate this brotherhood of life.”
Dr. Ben wrote 49 books. Some of his best known works are “Black Man of the Nile,” “African Origins of the Major ‘Western Religions’” and “Africa: Mother of Western Civilization.”
For an international scholar, Dr. Ben was extremely accessible to the public. As he walked the streets of Harlem with a briefcase filled with books, he often stopped for conversations.
Flautist Bobbi Humphrey, before performing her beautiful rendition of “Amazing Grace,” reminisced about her breakfasts with Dr. Ben at Pan Pans Restaurant. Vocalist Eunice Newkirk offered her version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.”
Throughout the celebration, the drums spoke as the congregation moved to its spirited inspiration, and shouted “Black power!” and “Ashe!” The pianist/composer Randy Weston and flautist T.K. Blue dedicated his original tune “The Healers.” He later shared with me, “Dr. Ben gave us the history of Africa and he was very aware of the music.”
Dr. Ben marked the end of an era, following Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Elombe Brathwaite and Gil Noble, who diligently focused on the truth. Noble was a media warrior and television pioneer with his show “Like It Is,” which gave both Dr. Ben and Brathwaite a major platform for the truth from New York City to Africa.
With so many of Dr. Ben’s former students in attendance, it seems his legacy will continue. As we move forward, Jefferies will be leading the charge.
On the music front, Weston will continue to keep his music swinging and offer the history of Africa in the tradition of his mentor.
“To study with Dr. Ben is to know who you are,” stated Sonia Diaz of the African Poetry Theater. Proclamations were given by state Sen. Bill Perkins and Rep. Charles Rangel.
The Rev. Calvin Butts noted, “This is quite a befitting celebration for one who has left an impression on so many.”
Dale Kelley Fitzgerald, the daring co-founder of the Jazz Gallery in 1995, who introduced some of the most exciting young guns of the time, including Roy Hargrove, Marcus Gilmore, Robert Glasper and Jonathan Blake, died March 20 at Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, N.Y., after a long struggle with cancer. He was 72.
Fitzgerald was the nonprofit organization’s executive director until 2009. After his rein at the Gallery, he had more time to spend with his family.
He couldn’t be missed in a crowd; he was the tall guy with the hip goatee and baritone voice. What separated him from most jazz club executives was his Ph.D. in anthropology from the University of California, Berkeley (1976). His dissertation was titled “Spirit Mediumship and Seance Performance Among the Ga of Southern Ghana,” where he lived for two years.
He took his Ph.D. on the road, teaching at Brown University, Lehman College and the New School for Social Research.
After leaving the world of academia for something a tad more swinging, Fitzgerald took a job at the legendary jazz club, the Village Vanguard. He also managed the tenor saxophonists Pharaoh Sanders and Nick “Big Nick” Nicholas.
In 1988, he began what would be a 26-year business relationship with jazz trumpeter Roy Hargrove, as his business manager, along with business partner Larry Clothier. In 1992, he leased a practice and rehearsal space for Hargrove at 290 Hudson St. in Greenwich Village. Fitzgerald, Hargrove and Lezlie Harrison discussed using the space as a venue where the intersection of experimental jazz and jazz-influenced visual artwork could be explored. The result was the not-for-profit Jazz Gallery.
The original Jazz Gallery was a real cultural center, linking art, photography and music together as it should be. It gave Fitzgerald an opportunity to use his academic and business skills, as well as his keen eye for art.
Fitzgerald, Harrison and artistic director Rio Sakairi began hosting a multi-ethnic array of New York’s young jazz musicians when they did not yet have access to major clubs, providing artist-in-residence opportunities, composition commissions, mentorship programs and inexpensive rehearsal facilities.
“It has been three weeks since my hip, cool, smart, dapper, funny, daring, stubborn, generous, complex, ride-or-die friend of 26 years, Dale Kelley Fitzgerald physically departed this Earth,” said vocalist Harrison. “Our friendship was founded on our love for jazz, art and culture. We turned that love into creating the Jazz Gallery.”
The Jazz Gallery continues to be the most innovative jazz club in New York City. Fitzgerald presented the first New York performance by Cuban jazz pianist/composer Chucho Valdes in 1996.
It foreshadowed a “Jazz Cubano” series that featured original music by a cohort of recent arrivals from Cuba and other Caribbean and Central American nations, who have since made their mark on the international jazz scene.
One of those musicians was Dafnis Prieto, who earned a MacArthur “genius grant,” as did Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran and Miguel Zenon, after performing at the Jazz Gallery during their formative years.
“Dale was a lover of all things indigenous, the world over, and his anthropology background ensured that he took the history of the music way more literal than most,” stated Kim Smith, public relations consultant. “His contributions will continue to make themselves known for years to come. We have lost a true soldier in the fight against mediocrity.”
Fitzgerald was always the guy at the Jazz Gallery who greeted you with a big smile, had a sharp wit and was ready for a good joke. His laugh resembled deep bass notes. He was one of a kind.
Dale Kelley Fitzgerald was born Dec. 23, 1942, in Wakefield, R. I., to Zella and Paul Fitzgerald, who ran Point Jude Boats in Wakefield. He received his undergraduate degree from Wesleyan University.