Books Music New York

Harlem History Part III

Here’s a new segment of Destination Harlem TV. In this excerpt I talk about the immigrant history of Harlem, the Great Migration, and the beginnings of the Harlem Renaissance.    Check out the website to catch up on the previous full Episode 2 if you missed it before, and to connect with the show to get updates about forthcoming episodes.


Richie Havens (1941-2013)

courtesy of the Richie Havens Facebook page

I am saddened to hear about the loss of Richie Havens. His music means so much to me, as it does to so many people around the world who are mourning his death today. I first heard of him back in 2002, shortly after I moved to New York. I was watching a documentary about Woodstock, and I saw this bearded black folk singer furiously strumming away and singing his heart out while drenched with sweat.  I didn’t fully realize what I was watching then, but later I would come to realize the significance of his set at Woodstock.  I sought out more of his music and became a huge fan over the next several years. I got the opportunity to see him perform live a couple of times, at B.B. King’s Restaurant, and on a beautiful summer afternoon outdoors at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s R&B Festival at MetroTech Center in Brooklyn.

One of my dirty little secrets is that I fiddle around on the guitar sometimes, and I learned to play it in the unorthodox style that Richie Havens plays. It is a credit to his incredible generosity as an artist that I know how to do that at all. Richie was always very open about giving away his secrets. He posted lessons on his old website and released an instructional DVD showing everyone how he figured out his own unique Open D style of playing. He was a remarkable human being, and I hope that people will continue to be inspired by his courage and creativity for years to come.

Music New York Sun Ra

It’s Spring! Springtime Again!

Today felt like the first real day of spring here in NYC. It was the kind of day that allows me to lower my defenses and finally accept that spring is really here.  Being a native Southerner I am always on guard against the late season winter blasts that sometimes happen up North.  My defensive strategy against the winter doldrums is never to get my hopes up about warm weather until we are well into April.  Yes, I know The Purple One reminded us that “Sometimes it Snows in April,” but I think we may finally be in the clear on the East Coast.   And so, I celebrate with two versions of one of my favorite Sun Ra tunes, “Springtime Again.”  This is a song that I would offer up as an invitation for those who may have been led to believe that Ra’s music was all noise and cacophony.  This is one of his most beautiful melodies, and there are many more strange and beautiful songs just like this in the Sun Ra discography.

Music Sun Ra

Afro-American Studies 198: The Black Man in the Cosmos

I’m talking about something that’s so impossible it can’t possibly be true.  But it’s the only way the world’s gonna survive, this impossible thing.  My job is to change five billion people to something else.  Totally impossible.  But everything that’s possible’s been done by men, I have to deal with the impossible.  And when I deal with the impossible and am successful, it makes me feel good because I know that I’m not bullshittin’. – Sun Ra

Many thanks to Kazembe Balagun, outreach coordinator at The Brecht Forum, for posting a note on Facebook with the actual reading list from “Afro-American Studies 198: The Black Man in the Cosmos” a course taught by Sun Ra in the spring of 1971 at UC-Berkeley (and the inspiration for the title of this blog).

John Szwed’s wonderful biography Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra, is an impressive study of Sun Ra’s work (no small feat since Ra could be a difficult character to get a handle on). A good brief introduction to some of Sun Ra’s recording is this short guide written by Szwed in the Village Voice.

In Space is the Place, Szwed listed the works Sun Ra assigned in the Berkeley course and described the course this way:

“Although a respectable number of students signed up, after a couple of classes it was down to a handful…But a large number of local black folks regularly attended, always distinguishable from the students by their party dress.  The classes ran like rehearsals: first came the lecture, followed by a half hour of solo keyboard or Arkestra performance.  But it was a proper course – Sun Ra had after all trained to be a teacher in college – with class handouts, assignments, and a reading list which made even the most au courant sixties professors’ courses pale.”

The Egyptian Book of the Dead

Bill Looney, Radix (a book of astrology)

Alexander Hislop, Two Babylons

The theosophical works of Madame Blavatsky

The Book of Oahspe

Henry Dumas, Ark of Bones and Poetry for My People

Black Fire: An Anthology of Afro-American Writing, edited by Leroi Jones & Larry Neal

David Livingston, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa

Theodore P. Ford, God Wills the Negro

Archibald Rutledge, God’s Children

The spring 1971 issue of Stylus (vol. 13, no. 1), a black literary magazine of Temple University

John S. Wilson, Jazz: Where It Came From, Where It’s At.

Yosef A. A. Ben-Jochannan, Black Man of the Nile and His Family

Count Volney, The Ruins, or, Meditation on the Revolutions of Empires, and the Law of Nature.

The King James Bible (which was listed on the syllabus only as “The Source Book of Man’s Life and Death”)

P.D. Ouspensky, A New Model of the Universe.

Frederick Bodmer, The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages.

Blackie’s Etymology

[…and other recommended books on hieroglyphics, color therapy, the Rosicrucians, Afro-American folklore, and ex slaves’ writings.]

(pp.294-295, Space is the Place: The Lives and Times of Sun Ra.  New York: Pantheon Books, 1997)

The collection Sun Ra: The Immeasurable Equation: The Poetry and Prose is an expensive and rare anthology.  I’m saving up my pennies to get a copy at some point, but if you look at the Amazon and Google Books previews you can get a glimpse of what’s in it.  Along with Ra’s prose and poetry there is also a bibliography of his book collection compiled by Arkestra member James Jacson and other scholars after Ra left the planet in 1993.  Szwed’s biography gives a good portrait of Ra’s voracious reading habits and his insatiable thirst for books on music, history, religion, the occult, science, language and just about anything else he could get his hands on.

I’ve been especially thinking about Sun Ra’s music this week what with the uprising going on in Egypt. Of course Egypt was near and dear to his heart and its ancient history was the source of the Arkestra’s mythology.  Here’s a selection from an Arkestra concert in Egypt in 1983 with Salah Ragab and the Cairo Jazz Band.

All Power to the People.


UPDATE: You can listen to one of the lectures from the course here:


“Message from Albert Ayler”

“The music I bring to you is of a different dimension in my life.  I hope you will like this record. Through meditation, dreams and visions I have been made a universal man through the power of The Creator who made us all.  The music I have played in the past I know I have played in another place at a different time.  And I was sent once again to give the people of Earth a spiritual message.  The message I bring to you is one of spiritual love, peace, and understanding.  We must restore universal harmony.  Everybody is only thinking of themself, a selfish ego.  We must have love for each other and our fellow man.  Woe, woe unto the false prophet that prophesizes out of his own heart.  This is a sin against the Lord. We must understand this.  We must get ourselves together soon because there will be nothing left.  Pray to the Lord, repent, pray again, and repent.  Please do that, for your sake.”

[From the track “New Grass/Message from Albert Ayler” on the album New Grass]