I have some vivid memories of my first foray as a musician. Fourth grade it was. I could join the glee club, but my Afro wasn’t quite right at the time to sing. The other option was the band.
We had two instruments to choose from. By process of elimination I made my selection. I rationalized that only the wackest of the wack played the tambourine. The whole, what does he really do, dude. He must be related to the lead musician, dude. So I picked up the recorder, a near flute. The saying Every Good Boy Does Fine and the acronym FACE helped me memorize my notes and after a few weeks of practice, I’d be on my way. Even got a solo at an assembly. The song was “500 Hundred Miles.” I showed out, but the solo was unexpected. If I knew it was coming, I would have had my show prepared. Didn’t have my shades, cape, choreography or nothing (did get to sneak in some “Strawberry Letter 23,” though.) I’d get them next time. There was no next time. Another cluster of classes was next up to study music.
If only there had been a program around like the Afro Latin Jazz Academy of Music back then. For the past seven years, ALJAM, a year-long residency program dedicated to providing instrument and ensemble instruction to deserving students throughout New York City, has imparted cultural appreciation and pride in the rich musical heritage of jazz. The students even get to rock real instruments—saxophone, trumpet, keyboard, guitar, bass, violin and percussion. Members of the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra form a core team and work with students twice a week for the full academic year.
One of the educators of the team is Grammy Award-winning pianist, composer and educator Arturo O’Farrill. Earning his stripes as a soloist in groups led by Dizzy Gillespie, Steve Turre, Freddy Cole, Lester Bowie, Wynton Marsalis and Harry Belafonte, he established the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra to preserve and expand the principles and heritage of Afro-Latin jazz.
O’Farrill, in conjunction with the Apollo Theater, unveiled a very special project May 21. Dubbed Jazz and Spirit, the evening explored the connections between jazz, spirituality, national politics and activism. O’Farrill won a 2016 Grammy for his first Apollo commission, “The Afro Latin Jazz Suite.” O’Farrill put forth a strong contender to repeat the feat with “The Cornel West Concerto.” It was much more than just a traditional Cornel West speech accompanied by a music bed. Far from it. Cornell West performed. Not one of those look in the mirror as I practice my ad-lib robotic performances. Nah. He performed lyrical content in which he was able to speak to the integrity of the works of Mayfield, The Hutchinson Sisters (The Emotions), Michael Jackson, Prince and Aretha Franklin. He also managed to impart his ultimate agenda as he stated, “Tenderness is what justice looks like in private, just like justice is what love looks like in public.” Like a kid in a candy store, West was able to pick and choose the musical wave he wanted to ride, whether trading notes with the sax and trombone, feeling melancholy with the trumpet, striding to the piano or traveling back home to the congas. Job well done.
Over and out. Holla next week. Til then, enjoy the nightlife.