posted by Justin Scoville-musician,composer, educator,blogger
CAL MASSEY 1928-1972
Imagine the mid-1960’s in Brooklyn. You are strolling down New York Avenue to St. Gregory’s Church, where a benefit concert is being held to raise funds for a neighborhood playground. You are surprised to see John Coltrane’s Quartet playing A Love Supreme, with the great Rashaan Roland Kirk on the bandstand as guest artist. Not only that, but Thelonious Monk is hanging out in the wings, ready to play a few tunes as well. This is no ordinary charity event. Who could have organized such a performance? Who would have the clout to pull such heavyweight players in for a community benefit? Duke Ellington? Tadd Dameron, perhaps?
Wrong on both counts. You are surprised to see Trane greet a short, somewhat overweight gentleman holding a trumpet who seems to be in charge of the event. Tapping the shoulder of the person next to you, you inquire who Trane is talking to. The incredulous response: “Why, that’s CalMassey. He’s a living legend.”
Fast forward to the present day. Few casual fans of Jazz recognize the name. Sadly ignored by countless Jazz critics,Massey (1928-1972) was revered by the foremost musicians of his day as a genius of composition and a solid trumpeter. John Coltrane, Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, Archie Shepp, and many others actively performed Massey‘s works. He was a forceful activist for the Black Liberation Movement and was seen as a pillar of his community.
Who was CalMassey? What is his legacy? How can a man simultaneously be ignored by many but held in high regard by such luminaries as John Coltrane and Archie Shepp?
Massey‘s family moved to Philadelphia in his teenage years, where by a chance encounter he earned a spot in Jimmy Heath’s big band trumpet section. This particular group featured an alto saxophone player that immediately captivated Massey: John Coltrane. The two became lifetime friends. Family and friends recall the two talking about music for hours on end.
During the 40’s and 50’s, Massey began to hone his craft as a composer. Under the tutelage of Freddie Webster and constant interaction with the giants of his time (like Miles Davis, Coltrane, and others), Massey distinguished himself as a musical force to be reckoned with.
It was during this period that Massey met Romulus Franceshini, an Italian-American musician and socialist. The two formed an important musical and ideological partnership until Massey‘s passing, with Franceshini often conducting Massey‘s groups.
An Underground Hero
Fred Ho, the late baritone saxophonist and Massey expert, relates that in the early 1960’s, Massey stepped into an elevator with Francis Wolff, co-owner of the iconic Blue Note records. According to Massey‘s wife Charlotte, Massey attempted to speak to Wolff, but Wolff ignored him. Out of frustration, Massey kicked Wolff as he left the elevator. From then on, Massey was effectively blacklisted by Blue Note and other prominent record labels. If true, this would perhaps explain Massey‘s relative obscurity in the Jazz legacy.
Despite his troubles with the music industry, Massey was entering his most creative period. He contributed to Coltrane’s Africa/Brass sessions, notably “The Damned Don’t Cry,” which would become part of his seminal work The Black Liberation Movement Suite. Massey collaborated extensively with the young lion of the time Archie Shepp, whose discography is populated by many Massey originals. Like Massey, Shepp was a musical activist, as illustrated by the acclaimed Attica Bluesalbum and other self-produced recordings.
The Black Liberation Movement Suiteis Massey‘s masterpiece, thrusting him onto the same level as fellow composers and contemporaries Sun Ra and Charles Mingus. It was premiered at the first of a series of benefit concerts for the Black Panthers, but has rarely been performed since the 1970’s. More recently, Fred Ho rerecorded the suite with a large group ensemble, Each movement has a close connection to the B.L.M., with some numbers dedicated to heroes of the Civil Rights movement like Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.
Massey constantly was battling poor health and succumbed to illness in 1972, beloved by his community and peers, but unknown to many.
If the opinion of a musician’s peers count for anything, then CalMassey certainly deserves to be held in the highest regard, carrying on the tradition of Ellington, Mingus, Hubbard and other geniuses of composition in the Jazz tradition. Critical acclaim does not necessarily equate to artistic greatness, and sometimes an artist’s integrity to his or her beliefs may alienate the recording industry.
Massey took matters into his own hands, either self-producing his albums or performing music directly to his family and community, eschewing profit for artistic greatness. As time goes on, hopefully the Jazz community at large will perform and appreciate Massey‘s works for many years to come.
posted by music journalist Robert J. Carmack photos credits: Robert Carmack and Sol Washington
You know, one of the benefits of living in Los Angeles or Southern California period, is the weather. This particular Sunday was no different than the 54 Summers past I have lived in California.But this one was very special though. The World Stage was celebrating 25 years of existence in Leimert Park (Los Angeles).and honoring one of the people wholly responsible for its foundation and support over the many years he was alive. That person was none other than, master musician Billy Higgins.One of the most storied and active drummers for a very long time at the highest level of performance.
Everybody knew he was one of the most recorded drummers in the history of jazz, But not enough knew of his tireless devotion to the community he grew up in and served one hundred fold. That is the real reason he’s being honored. If you are looking for a review of the concert, well.. this is not it! Because I was around the World Stage during its early days of Los Angeles , Post 1992 Uprising in the streets of L.A. I watched Billy in action a lot as he brought his musicians around to the stage, then around to the coffee House known as 5th Street Dick’s (my hang) There he would hold Court on why it was important that whenever they came into town to gig, they had to come to the World stage on an off day to play or teach a youngster about music. I witnessed this on many ocassions and Billy knew a lot of musicians cats.
Once I was in 5th street Dick’s Coffee house working on some poetry and listening to JMD & the Jam Master Band,(a local bad-ass group) when Billy brought in Chick Corea, Bennie Maupin and Larry Coryell to check out the music .. So I started reciting poetry with the JMD Band, all of a sudden Chick Corea got up and took over the Keyboard player’s axe, Larry Carlton cracked out his guitar and before you knew it, we had a “thang” going on.. prov-like all spontaneous… Jazz is suppose to do that to the human spirit. I looked at Billy, and He was just smiling ear to ear.. It wasn’t until much later, at another time, I realized why he was smiling so much that day. He knew then, he knew he had hooked those guys too. And soon, they were coming around a lot ,even if Billy was not there . Whenever Billy was on the road, someone at the World Stage had the responsibility to make sure the musician guests of Billy had no problems getting comfortable helping Kids or playing an afternoon concert on a Saturday before their night gig. That was how it worked for years. Jackie Mclean and Billy had long history as fellow musicians.. but Jackie always checked to make sure someone was holding down a class or something before he settled into his hotel to wait on his gig. No Billy Higgins in the community standing in the Gap, This place or listening space don’t happen! SO, if you want to know why Him??, Ask that long line of young drummers that have learned so much from being around and asking questions to a working drummer/legend. Seek out that long list of drummers and musicians in general who are very prominent Jazz musicians and Band leaders also today. Some of those same drummers could not afford a full set of drums to practice or work.. They got what they needed,, encouragement, inspiration and sometimes money. “Smiling Billy the person, the MAN” was the one being honored and respected by a legion or army of admirers and peers Sunday August 24th. Yes Sir! A Spiritual Experience for sure!!
what better way to honor the man than to allow the fruits of labor performed 25 years ago spawned great talents that was displayed on stage on that beautiful Sunday afternoon beginning with the world stage’s own African Drum Workshop . S.H.I.N.E. MAWUSI Troupe, they were the very first act we experienced. it was electrifying, as it was vivid and sublime.
It was at this point where award-winning Patrice Rushen accompanied veteran jazz singer Carmen Lundy in two riveting duets that in my opinion, should be recorded together and toured. One of the originals was played on acoustic guitar by Carmen Lundy..OMG!!
By the time Dwight was through with his performance,we were all levitating in the audience. I wish I could have sat closer so I would not need the flash. we could not shoot if we had flash .
shown on the left is Kamau Daaood Poet Laureate and John Beasley Music Director/Pianist
Near the end of the evening’s show Hubert Laws came out before his accompaniment. and played a rendition of LUSH LIFE with the most clear & pure tone on Flute with the best and most sublime solo I’ve ever heard on any instrument.
On Billy Higgins: By Lew Tabackin
“Playing with Billy was like heaven. He was the greatest collaborator in the history of jazz. He played exactly right for you at exactly the right time. His dynamics were perfect, he balanced his energy off of your energy. It was the perfect ratio between his intensity and your intensity. I remember one time a friend of mine played with Billy. I said “hey how was it playing with Higgins.” He said, “you know I was expecting more energy.” I said, “no man that’s not the way it works. He plays off your energy. He your energy is low, he’s not going to kick your ass.
I did a month tour with Billy and Charlie Hayden and every night was perfect. There wasn’t one time where you thought; “we’ll he’s not having a good night.” I’ve never experienced anything like that since. That consistently musical swinging creative reality. I could hear the harmony when he would play the drums.”
We haven’t featured a jazz musician for a while and today’s spotlight falls on one of the best, alto saxophonist Sonny Criss. A contemporary of Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker — in fact, he played alongside him in the early years — Criss was an early bloomer musically, but his career reached a sad and abrupt end when he took his own life at just age fifty.
William ‘Sonny’ Criss was a Memphis native who hit the ground running, moving to Los Angeles at age fifteen and working his way into the music business soon after. It was right in the middle of World War II so that might have helped create some openings in bands, but Criss had the talent to make it in any case. He was still in his teens when the war ended and along about then was playing in a band with Parker and other pros, guys…