The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives forever, and we continue to grasp the reality of this horrific situation on a daily basis. The most dramatic heartfelt results are the many lives of the loved ones and great musicians who are being taken from us at an extremely alarming rate.
This is with great regret and sorrow that I have to write five obituaries at one time. This task brings tears to my eyes but most unfortunately, due to space (and being a weekly) I am not able to give these outstanding musicians the space they deserve. Hopefully, everyone will understand and I do apologize.
MANU DIBANGO, the Cameroonian multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, whose infused sounds of traditional African rhythms with jazz and funk influenced the world music stage, died on March 24 in France. He was 86.
Dibango’s Facebook page confirmed his death. It stated the cause of death was complications from COVID-19.
“Soul Makossa” made Dibango a star although it was originally released as the B-side of a song commemorating Cameroon’s advancement in the African Cup of Nations soccer tournament. The lyrics were written in his native language of Duala, including the melodic chant “Mama-ko, mama-sa, mama makossa”) that became the song’s hook, making it a global hit. The beat was so mesmerizing it inspired so many bootleg copies that at one point, nine different versions of “Soul Makossa” were on the Billboard chart at once.
“My thoughts and prayers are with my mentor and his family in Paris and Cameroon, Claire Diboa his manager of many years and his band The Soul Makossa Gang which I had the privilege to record an album with in Paris ‘M & M’ Moreira Chonguiça & Manu Dibango (2017),” stated saxophonist Choguica.
Emmanuel “Manu” N’Djoké Dibango was born in Douala, on Dec. 12, 1933, in French-Cameroon. His father was a high-ranking civil servant and his mother a fashion designer. While in school he studied classical piano and later took private lessons for saxophone which became his instrument of choice (tenor and alto). Following the death of the U.S. tenor saxophone funkster King Curtis in 1971, Dibango released a tribute single acknowledging him as a major influence on his technique.
“I know Mr. Dibango as the genius of African music and brought his light to the world to see the brightest sounds of the continent. May he rest in eternal peace,” said South African trumpeter, composer and arranger Mandla Mangeni.
After he toured France with trumpeter Don Cherry, he recorded his album “Electric Africa” (1985), which featured the hit single ”Abele Dance” with Herbie Hancock. He collaborated with noted performers like Hugh Masekela, Fela Kuti, Tony Allen, Fania All-Stars, Sly and Robbie, and Ladysmith Black Mambazo.
“I arrived at the apartment I was squatting at, opened the envelope at 12 midnight and lost my head. I’m still looking for it,” South African author and critic Bogani Madondo on the passing of Dibango.
Dibango’s wife Coco died in 1995. He is survived by his daughters, Georgia and Marva, and son, Michel.
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BILL WITHERS, the singer and songwriter who had a rhythmic cadence like a Sunday morning Baptist preacher giving a sermon on “Lean On Me,” “Grandma’s Hands,” or “Just the Two of Us,” died on March 30 in Los Angeles. He was 81. According to a family statement given to the Associated Press, he died due to heart complications.
Withers, who was never a celebrity prototype and avoided the glitz and glamour machinery of the record industry, stopped recording in 1985, just 14 years after he became a star with his debut album, ”Just As I Am.”
Clarence Avant (the Black godfather of the record industry), owner of Sussex Records, signed Withers in 1970 and assigned Booker T. Jones to produce the aforementioned “Just As I Am” in 1971. The album resulted in the Grammy award-winning single “Ain’t No Sunshine.” The hit “Grandma’s Hands” was also on the album.
William Harrison Withers was born on July 4, 1938 in the coal-mining town of Slab Fork, West Virginia. He was the son of Mattie (Galloway), a maid, and William Withers, a miner.
He enlisted in the Navy at the age of 17, and served for nine years as an aircraft mechanic installing toilets. Following his discharge, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue his aspirations as a singer/songwriter while working at an aircraft parts factory.
“Ain’t No Sunshine” had started out as a B-side; label reps didn’t see the song’s promise. (“The disc jockeys, God bless ‘em, turned it over, and that’s how I got started.”) Withers’ second album, ”Still Bill” produced two hit singles, “Lean on Me,” and “Use Me.”
In 1975 Withers signed with Columbia Records, but of the five albums recorded for the label only one reached the Top 40, with “Lovely Day” from the 1977 “Menagerie” album. His hit duet with saxophonist Grover Washington Jr. in “Just the Two of Us” was recorded on Washington’s label.
He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015. At the time, he told Rolling Stone: “I see it as an award of attrition. What few songs I wrote during my brief career, there ain’t a genre that somebody didn’t record them in. I’m not a virtuoso, but I was able to write songs that people could identify with. I don’t think I’ve done bad for a guy from Slab Fork, West Virginia.”
He is survived by his wife, Marcia, and children, Todd and Kori.
WALLACE RONEY, the trumpeter whose innate talent reached stratospheric heights as the protégé of Miles Davis, died on March 3, at St. Joseph’s University Medical Center in Paterson, New Jersey. He was 59. The cause was complications of the coronavirus, according to his fiancée, Dawn Jones.
Roney took lessons from master trumpeters Clark Terry and Dizzy Gillespie, who was Miles Davis’s mentor. He studied with Davis from 1985 until Davis’ death in 1991. Roney’s friendship with Davis began in 1983, when Davis was impressed by his performance at a tribute concert at New York City’s Radio City Music Hall. After the concert, Davis invited him to visit his Manhattan townhouse the next day.
In memoriam of Davis, his alumni band with Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams collaborated on the album “A Tribute to Miles” and invited Roney to appear on the album, for which they won a Grammy Award in 1994.
Roney’s 1987 debut “Verses” on Muse Records was an exciting outing of what was to come from his close to 20 albums. On “No Room for Argument” (Stretch Records 2000). Roney encompasses Black heritage, spirituality, and the revolutionary spirit in sampled speeches by Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr. and audio by Deepak Chopra. Roney’s mix of John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” with Davis’s “Files de Kilimanjaro” takes two legendary tunes to new pastures.
Wallace Roney III was born on May 25, 1960, in Philadelphia, to Roberta Sherman, a homemaker, and Wallace Roney Jr., a U.S. Marshal and vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
While living with his father in Washington, he enrolled in the Duke Ellington School of the Arts and attended Howard University and Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.
In 1986, he succeeded Terence Blanchard in Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and later became a key voice in the drummer Tony Williams’s quintet. “We were close compadres and obvious Miles Davis and Tony Williams fans. Since Wallace worked and hung out with both Masters, most of our conversations were built around the musical camps of Miles and Tony,” said drummer and composer Will Calhoun.
“I see my music as an extension of ‘Nefertiti,’ ‘A Love Supreme,’ Tony Williams’s Lifetime, Herbie’s sextet and Miles’ last band,” Roney said in a 2004 interview with JazzTimes.
“You could look at it as if Lifetime had a gig one night, and Miles sat in, and Wayne came and played, and Herbie played and wrote some arrangements, and Joe Zawinul came and sat in too, and Ron and Me’shell Ndegeocello played bass, and Prince, Sly Stone, Bennie Maupin and Mos Def dropped by,” he said. “That’s part of what I’m doing.”
In addition to his fiancée and his grandmother Rosezell, Roney is survived by his sister, Crystal Roney; a brother, the saxophonist Antoine Roney; two half-sisters, April Petus and Marla Majett; a half-brother, Michael Majett; a son, trumpeter Wallace Vernell Roney; and daughter, Barbara Roney.
“The family is looking to have a memorial service to honor Wallace and his musical contributions once this pandemic has passed,” publicist Lydia Liebman said in a news release.
JOHN “BUCKY” PIZZARELLI, one of the early jazz guitarists to play with seven strings during an esteemed career that spanned eight decades died on April 1 at his home in Saddle River, New Jersey. He was 94.
His family informed The New York Times they believe the cause of death was the coronavirus. And the Bergen Record reported that Pizzarelli tested positive for the virus.
As a first call musician dating back to his first gig at 17 years old with the Vaughan Monroe dance band in 1944, he recorded only eleven albums as a leader. The last was recorded in 2007 and entitled “Five For Freddie,” a tribute to Freddie Green who, like Bucky, was a 7-string rhythm guitarist.
“Jazz guitar wouldn’t be what it is today without Bucky Pizzarelli,” said jazz guitarist Frank Vignola. “He and Freddie Green were responsible for a style of rhythm guitar playing that has lasted until 2020.”
John Paul Pizzarelli was born on Jan. 9, 1926, in Paterson, N.J. His parents, John and Amelia (DiDomenico) Pizzarelli, owned a grocery store. He was inspired and taught by his two uncles, Pete and Bobby Domenick, who played guitar and banjo professionally.
The guitarist played on hundreds of recordings from those of Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan to standards like Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me”. The rock and roll era found him backing teen idols Frankie Avalon and Fabian; pop vocal group Dion & The Belmonts; and Brian Hyland, on the 1960 novelty smash “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.”
Pizzarelli and his son John also a guitarist and singer performed and recorded together. They were often joined by his younger son, Martin, a bassist, and vocalist Jessica Molaskey, John’s wife.
They survive him along with his wife, the former Ruth Pizzarelli (née Litchult); two daughters, Anne Hymes and Mary Pizzarelli, another guitarist; and four grandchildren.
“There will be some kind of tribute as soon as we can all get within 6 feet of each other,” his son John Pizzarelli informed the Bergen Record.\
Ellis Marsalis Jr., the jazz pianist and educator, who taught a den of young lions and was a guiding force in New Orleans jazz died on April 1, in New Orleans. He was 85.
The cause was complications of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, his son Branford said in a statement.
In 2011, the National Endowment for the Arts named Marsalis and his musician sons Jazz Masters. It was the first time in its history the award was presented to a family and not an individual (which in a sense anointed them as the first family of jazz). By that time Wynton, a nine-time Grammy winner, had become the founding artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York and he won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1997. Branford was a world-renowned saxophonist and bandleader and three-time Grammy winner; Delfeayo, a trombonist, and Jason, a drummer and vibraphonist, were established bandleaders.
As an educator, Marsalis was an early guiding light for four of his six sons, as well as having taught other young jazz musicians like Donald Harrison, Jr., Nicholas Payton, Terence Blanchard, Reginald Veal and Harry Connick Jr.
Ellis Louis Marsalis Jr. was born in New Orleans on Nov. 14, 1934. His mother, Florence (Robertson) Marsalis, was a homemaker. His father was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and owned the Marsalis Motel in suburban New Orleans. While working there as a student he met musicians like Ray Charles and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rep. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York.
Marsalis played saxophone before switching to piano in high school. He graduated from Dillard University in New Orleans in 1955 and taught at Xavier University Preparatory School.
Marsalis performed and recorded throughout the 1960s and ‘70s with a variety of musicians, including the drummer Ed Blackwell and the horn-playing brothers Cannonball and Nat Adderley.
Marsalis took a position at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond as coordinator of Jazz Studies in 1986 where he remained until 1989, when he returned home to the University of New Orleans to set up a jazz studies program.
Marsalis Jr. is survived by sons Branford, Wynton, Ellis III, Delfeayo, MBoya and Jason, his sister Yvette and 13 grandchildren. His wife, Dolores, passed away in 2017.
Prayers and love to the musicians’ families and all the families from Harlem and around the world battling this horrific coronavirus. Take Faith over Fear as we remain vigilant.