Vocalist Leon Thomas recently brought a unique sound to the bandstand that was never heard before. He was placed in the same category as male jazz vocalists Babs Gonzalez and Eddie Jefferson, but their similarities quickly evaporated when Thomas commenced to his unique yodeling call. That rhythmic offbeat yodeling was so intense yet done so effortlessly. It was a sonic spiraling tempo (of jazz and scat) that hijacked listeners’ ears. For such a vocal feat, Thomas should be immortalized with a statue in his hometown of East St. Louis or a statue in Harlem, where so many of us often stopped to chat with him as he cruised the hip streets with his larger-than-life African walking cane. 

In honor of his undisputable contribution and dedication to the spirit of his ancestral roots, Sista’s Place (456 Nostrand Avenue) will pay tribute to Thomas on May 13, with two sets, at 9 p.m. and 10:30 p.m. 

Thomas’s most impressive songs will be resurrected by guitarist Kevin McNeal, pianist Ian MacDonald, bassist Hill Greene, and drummer Allan Mednard, featuring vocalist Miles Griffith. Like his predecessor, Griffith is an improvising vocalist, who riffs like a blazing saxophone. He is drastically under-rated among most critics, but his devoted cult following suggests his name should be glittering on every top marquee around the country.  

Thomas recorded on two of Pharoah Sanders’s most renowned albums: “Karma” (Impulse! 1969), his vocals on their co-written song “The Creator Has a Master Plan” and “Hum-Allah” on the album “Jewels of Thought” (1970). His contract signing with Flying Dutchman Records began his solo career. His debut album “Spirits Known and Unknown” (1969) was a well of spiritualisms with resistance. He often approached writing lyrics as a means of social commentary: “You just have to be more than an entertainer. How the blazes can you ignore what is happening around you?” he said. 

All seven debut tracks are gems, such as the protest song “Damn Nam (Ain’t Goin’ to Vietnam)” and the intense “Malcolm’s Gone.” This ode to brother Malcolm X (el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz) is just as moving as Nina Simone’s “Why? (The King of Love is Dead).” This collector’s item features the iconic drummer Roy Haynes, alto sax James Spaulding, bassist Cecil McBee, Sanders under the alias “Little Rock,” and Lonnie Liston Smith on piano. This was followed up with four other Dutchman releases. 

For reservations, call 718-398-1766.  

NEA Jazz Master alto saxophonist and composer Donald Harrison will make his presence heard May 16–20 at midtown Manhattan’s Birdland jazz club (315 W. 44th Street). His able musicians, up to the task of swinging hard with new material for new dimensions, will include pianist Dan Kaufman, drummer Brian Richburg, and bassist Nori Naraoka.  

Harrison’s latest CD, “Congo Square Suite,” was just released under his ceremonial title Big Chief Donald Harrison, Jr. of the Congo Square Nation Afro New Orleans Cultural Group. “This release merges my experiences as the Big Chief of Congo Square, classic orchestral music, and the history of jazz into a unique multi-genre experience,” said Harrison during a phone interview. The saxophonist was made a chief in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Africa, in 2019 by Queen Diambi Kabatusuila.

Harrison has been a mentor to artists as diverse as the Notorious Big, Jonathon Batiste, Christian Scott, Trombone Shorty, and Esperanza Spaulding. Having created Nouveau Swing and two other influential styles of jazz, his music is just as varied as the young musicians he has mentored over the years. 

For more information, visit the website birdlandjazz.com or call 212-581-3080. 

The Metropolitan Opera isn’t known for presenting rough pugilistic themes with boxing rings, trash-talking, and flying knockout blows, but with a new sense of diversity, performances such as Terence Blanchard’s Champion for its 2022–2023 season were welcome premiere productions. “Champion” follows Blanchard’s successful masterpiece from last year, “Shut Up in My Bones.” “Champion” is the melodramatic life of the undisputed welterweight champion Emile Griffith, whose struggle with sexuality became an albatross once his opponent Benny “Kid” Paret (played by baritone Eric Greene) disgracefully made homophobic slurs in front of the press corps at the 1962 weigh-in for their welterweight championship fight at Madison Square Garden. After the weigh-in, the young Emile, played by bass-baritone Ryan “Speedo” Green, attempted to explain to his manager Howie Albert, played by tenor Paul Groves, why Paret’s words were so hurtful, but that was something men did not discuss. As Howie leaves the dark room, Emile sits dejected as he belts out the emotional blues ridden “What Is a Man,” with the deep flair of a lonely riffing baritone saxophone.

The exciting staged fight is a multi-media conversion of actual fight night video clips (March 24, 1962) outside Madison Square Garden, buzzing with all its hoopla. Choreographer Camille A. Brown (from Blanchard’s “Shut Up in My Bones”) created an all-out dazzling extravaganza, with dancers in colorful outfits and high-steppin’ stilt walkers. Indoors, the ring was all-a-glow, with fight night video-clips and Brown’s creative choreographed fight having both men swinging blows in slow motion. It was the unforgettable 12th round when Griffith dropped 72 ferocious blows to Paret’s head before Paret dropped to the canvas. Paret was in the hospital for 10 days before he died. In his later life, Griffith (portrayed as older by Eric Owens, also in “Shut Up in My Bones”) remained haunted by that fight and hampered by his questioned sexuality in the eyes of himself and the public. One of his key lines was “The world forgave me for killing a man and the world hated me for loving a man.” 

As a young man, Emile leaves his native St. Thomas for New York in hopes of finding his mother Emelda. Ironically, he does run into his mom while walking the busy streets of New York (a great choreographic scene of scurrying dancers, vendors, and street performers). Emile and his mother (soprano Latonia Moore, also from “Shut Up in My Bones”) get into a rousing soprano-baritone duo riff. Unfortunately, Emelda doesn’t recognize Emile as one of her seven abandoned children, but once those old memories are sparked, she becomes the compassionate mother, trying to make up for those years of abandonment. “In this production, my character had an opportunity to enjoy herself—something I can relate to that wasn’t the case with the complicated theme of ‘Shut Up in My Bones,’” said Moore. The adolescent Emile was played by Ethan Joseph, who enjoyed a few good scenes.  

In a meeting, Paret’s son (also played by Eric Greene) forgives Emile for his father’s death. His forgiveness allows Emile to finally let go of his guilt over the tragic death.    

Blanchard’s multi-layered music embraces the many rising and subdued emotions that embrace Emile, from socializing in gay bars to childhood reflections, dream-like states, and memories that allowed Blanchard to open up his music arsenal. He was able to expand his jazz vocabulary, resonating in the choruses of crowds, reporters, and workers. His orchestral passages were experienced through Emile’s journey for forgiveness and redemption. 

“I want to be involved in stories that are relevant,” said Blanchard. “The issues experienced in Emile’s life remain relevant today. We are still having the same discussions today as it relates to issues of sexuality and the LBGTQ community.” 

The librettist was Micahael Crisofer. The outstanding sets were designed by Allen Moyer, also an alumnus of “Shut Up in My Bones.”  

This piece about “Champion” is dedicated to the classical music critic for the New York Amsterdam News Raoul Abdul, whose column was titled “Reading the Score.” Abdul was a concert baritone and German lieder expert who studied voice with William Warfield and Marian Anderson. He founded Coffehouse Concerts in Harlem and performed at Carnegie Hall and in Europe. Abdul served as Langston Hughes’s literary assistant from 1961 until Hughes’s death in 1967.

During his years with the Amsterdam News, Abdul covered classical music and opera performed by prominent singers and composers such as William Grant Still, soprano Camilla Williams, and baritone Simon Estes among the many classical/opera artists who performed in his Coffee House series. He probably covered Leontyne Price’s inaugural performance for the opening of the Metropolitan Opera House in 1966. He promoted and shared his knowledge of opera music for years and was well aware that a Black audience existed and was agitated over the fact that major opera houses in NYC and around the country were not more inclusive. But despite its shortcomings, Abdul would have rejoiced as the Met has finally become more inclusive and welcomed its first Black composer, Terence Blanchard, after over 130 years. Thank you, Abdul, for keeping the legacy of opera alive in the black community and around the world (1929–2010).

“Be satisfied to serve art without regard for financial rewards—they will come in time,” said Abdul in an interview some years ago.

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