Saturday, August 20, 2011

Afro.Astro Channel Meets Michael A. Gonzales

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My talented friend and fellow writer Jake-Ann Jones recently interviewed me for her illmatic blog Afro-Astro.Channel. For hours we rapped about my obsessions with funk, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Black rock, Nina Simone and, of course, writing. Recently I wrote about B. in "Black Polaroids on Planet Pop," an essay published in the Dublin-based magazine One More Robot and I'm currently working on another article about Basquiat to be published in the fall.

My upcoming cover story on the great singer Nina Simone will be published in the upcoming Wax Poetics #48, due sometime before the end of the month.
While it would've been difficult to write about Simone's entire life in a magazine piece, my story "Between the Keys" concentrates on her political and personal transformation from naive country girl to a "rhythmic rebel" after befriending playwright Lorraine Hansberry and the New York City crew of Black intellectuals that included James Baldwin and LeRoi Jones.

In addition, the piece explores the real sisterhood she shared with Hansberry, author of
A Raisin in the Sun, and how their friendship helped shape Simone's music, stage persona and personality. For the story, I interviewed Simone's daughter Lisa Celeste Kelly, who has done tributes to her mother under the name Simone, as well as friends and fans Amiri Barakka, Asha Bandele, David Nathan, Dyana Williams, N'Dambi Blue, Alicia Keys, Mister Mann Friby and others.

I'd like to thank my friends Devin Roberson, Asia Minor, Serena Kim and Tomika Anderson, all who helped guide me on the the road to Simone years ago. While I've written many profiles and essays, this 6,000-word piece has a special place in my personal canon. Big-up to Wax Poetics editors Andre Torres and Brian DiGenti for allowing me the space to do Simone right. In the usual Wax Poetics style, the vintage pictures are simply beautiful.

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To access the interview with Gonzo: Afro.astro.channel

For Wax Poetics:
http://www.waxpoetics.com

For the Nina Simone website:
http://www.ninasimone.com

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Monday, August 15, 2011

The Erotic Imagination #3

http://25.media.tumblr.com/tumblr_llhbbcmRVF1qzc87no1_500.jpgLike the visual equivalent of a Cocteau Twins album, the dreamy poetics of the late artist Jeff Jones one-page comic strip Idyl was the first sequential art that fueled my erotic imagination. Drawn for National Lampoon from 1972 to 1975, the strip featured a cast of nude characters that populated a poetic planet where fish could float through the air, animals talked and humans spoke in riddles.

http://spaceintext.files.wordpress.com/2011/05/jeff-jones-idyl-24.jpg?w=380&h=524Unlike more commercial female comic book characters that pandered to the budding libidos of young male fans (i.e. Power Girl), the graceful beauty of Jones' creation was its innocence. The nakedness of the characters within their atmospheric landscape was as pure as Adam and Eve prior to eating that damn apple.
Although I was only ten years old when I first discovered Idyl, there was a charming allure and exquisite weirdness in the work that kept me going back for more.

More than three decades later, the work Jones put into Idyl is still as fresh and exciting as it was then. What was obvious Jeff Jones' work was his obvious love for women. In Idyl as well as in his later paintings, the women in the work often seemed to be contemplating something heavy about life, love and death. Perhaps it was my own curiosity, but I always was intrigued by what was going on in their minds strange women.

Jones, an admirer of fantasy artists Frank Frazetta and Al Williamson, began his career painting paperback covers for romance, science fiction and sword & sorcery paperbacks before branching out to comics, fine art and sculptures. Drawing each Idyl strip in a beautiful pen and ink that resembled nothing else in comics at the time, there seemed to be an almost feminine, non-macho touch in both the drawing and writing style. While the images in Idyl were obviously erotic, there was nothing dirty about the the work; it was, and remains, simply beautiful.
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On May 19, 2011 Jeff Jones died. Below are two links about his interesting life and amazing art...

1. by Michael Nasser: http://michaelnetzer.com/mnop/?p=354

2. by Steve Ringgenberg : http://www.tcj.com/jeffrey-catherine-jones-a-life-lived-deeply
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The Erotic Imagination #2

http://classickicks.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/CD-OhioPlayers07Ecstasy.jpgI never set out to become an erotica writer. In fact, prior to being commissioned by former Random House editor Carol Taylor (whose Brown Sugar series should be a part of your naughty collection), I'd read very little of it. Yet, since my first erotic story "Movie Lover" was published in 2001, I found my new found genre to be both exciting and liberating.

Too much of an egotist to use a pseudonym, I had no problem with folks knowing about the textual freaks dwelling in my brain. Of course, sometimes the reaction of friends, family and strangers could be very funny. Especially, since a lot of non-writers seem to believe that everything is autobiographical and, "you couldn't possibility be making this stuff up."
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However, whenever I sit down to write a new story--the latest finished piece being "Stiletto’s Big Score," about the comeback of retired blaxploitation icon Miki Jamison, which will be published next year--there are certain artists whose work I literally revisit or try to conjure in my head while working. Be it the graphic art of Vaughn Bode, Jeff Jones and Howard Chaykin, savoring passages of Georges Simenon's fiction or re-watching Kar Wai Wong's poetic BMW short film (commercial) The Follow, each has a rhythm and flow that has propelled me creatively. I'm also a major fan of Spike Lee's sexy surreal Girl 6 (yeah, I'm the one), but I'll like to write a full blog about that flick at a later date.

Inspired by the many "hook-ups" I've heard about happening on Facebook, my most recent published erotica story "Serious Moonlight," perhaps the shortest I've ever written (my late friend Jerry Rodriguez used to tell me I wrote the LONGEST short stories he ever read), was published earlier this year in Gotta Have It: 69 Stories of Sudden Sex edited by Rachel Kramer Bussel. As one of the most prolific and respected erotica editors in the business, it was an honor to be selected for Bussel's book. Any inspiring erotica writers should check out Bussel's website, where she regularly posts call for submissions.

In addition, my friend Fayemi Shakur is working on her latest project, an erotica journal called OPEN (of course, I'll be in the first issue) which I think will be an exciting venture for writers, photographers and artists. For more info, check out her Facebook page @: http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=47401062895#!/fayemishaku

Gotta Have It (Rachel Kramer Bussel website): http://rachelkramerbussel.com/writing/books/gottahaveit.php

Jeff Jones:
http://goldenagecomicbookstories.blogspot.com/2011/07/jones-touch-by-jeff-jones-swank.html

The Follow:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mNoYLm3a-nI

Howard Chaykin (Black Kiss):
http://www.comicbookresources.com/?page=article&id=25425

Vaughn Bode:
http://goldenagecomicbookstories.blogspot.com/search/label/Jeffrey%20Jones

Georges Simenon: http://www.nybooks.com/books/imprints/classics/three-bedrooms-in-manhattan

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Thursday, August 04, 2011

On The Crusaders

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After moving to Baltimore in the late-seventies, my mom dated a middle-aged be-bop fiend named Mr. Lee. Riding in his junky tan Cadillac that always reeked of second-hand smoke, I got my first lessons on the art of jazz. Steadily flicking ashes from a filterless cigarette, there was always a steady flow of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Billie Holiday or other old school jazzbos streaming from the speakers. “Now this is music,” Mr. Lee arrogantly assured me.

Flaunting his disdain against the David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and George Clinton albums that crowded my limited musical canon, Mr. Lee helped me to appreciate what I had secretly thought of as “strange noddling.” Later, hoping to impress him, I pulled out the closest thing to jazz in my collection, the stellar 1979 single “Street Life” by The Crusaders featuring vocalist Randy Crawford.
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Spinning the 11:18 album version that I’d borrowed from my new best buddy Walter (dude had a basement full of dusty grooves), I was lost in the velvety textures of bandleader Joe Sample’s piano riffs and guest-vocalist Randy Crawford; years later, rappers Tupac and Masta Ace would sample this groove for their respective hip-hop hits.

As Mr. Lee listened to the entire track (in my young mind the jazzy soul conjured images of a cool neon wilderness populated with hop-heads, pool-hall hustlers and midnight cornerboys straight out of Nelson Algren), his face was blank. “That’s not jazz!” he bellowed. Storming out of the room, I overheard my mom wondering what had happened. “Nothing much, it’s just that boy of yours can’t tell pop music from real jazz.”

Though the Houston, Texas natives had originally called themselves the Jazz Crusaders, there were many purists who thought that these pioneering jazz/soul stylists represented the death of their beloved art. Yet, much like other fusionists in the post-Bitches Brew era of rhythmic rebellion, artists like Weather Report, Return to Forever and Herbie Hancock, the Crusaders were merely trying to forge their own musical identities in the often narrow minded jazz world. First formed in 1954 when pianist Joe Sample, tenor saxophonist Wilton Felder (who later doubled on electric bass) and drummer Stix Hooper were students at Phyllis Wheatley High School and played gigs under the names the Nite Hawks, Modern Jazz Sextet and Black Board Jungle Kids.

In an interview with writer Carina Prange, Sample recalled, “My father was a music lover. My older brother, he was 15 years older, played piano in an all black navy band in the Second World War. So he had records, records, records—every time he came home, he played the piano and I would just watch him. By six years, I told my mother I wanted to begin to play the piano and take piano lessons.”

According to jazz scholar Bob Blumenthal, “The music they played was typical of their hometown - bluesy, soulful, and spirited. They'd get together in the Fifth Ward, where Felder lived, to rehearse; before long, they fell sway to a new sound, by guys like Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach, whose records they'd listen to for hours.

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“Adding trombonist Wayne Henderson, flutist/alto saxophonist Hubert Laws, and bass player Henry Wilson, they changed their name to the Modern Jazz Sextet and sought to master their instruments as the beboppers had done. But they never lost that Southern feel or their gulf basin roots. That group continued playing locally as the members worked their way through college.”

Moving to California in the early 1960s, after it was decided by the group that the New York City jazz scene had becoming too wily and weird as free jazz avant-gardists dominated the scene, they changed their name to the Jazz Crusaders. “The New York players made me realize that we were not jazz musicians,” Sample said years later. “We were territory musicians in love with all forms of African-American music.”

Recording throughout the sixties the Jazz Crusaders made eight albums for Pacific Jazz, where they were label-mates with Chet Baker and Chico Hamilton. Under the guidance of label owner/producer Richard Bock, the Jazz Crusaders released classic sides that included their 1961 debut Freedom Sounds (the title track, which opens this collection, was re-recorded in 1973) and Talk That Talk in 1966.

Yet, in an effort to expand their horizons like their musical brothers over at the progressive CTI Records, the Texas crew dropped the “Jazz” and jumped ship for MCA in 1971. On their first MCA disc simply titled 1, the Crusaders included a cover of Carole King’s pop ballad “So Far Away.”

In a review of 1, critic John Ballon wrote, “With their masterful improvising skills still in full force, the Crusaders plugged in, adding electric piano, electric bass, and most importantly, the electric guitar of Larry Carlton. Keeping their signature trombone & saxophone frontline of Wayne Henderson and Wilton Felder, the band really let loose.”

While some folks riff contentiously about the contributions of Sample and Carlton (whose hypnotic playing on “Scratch,” “Free As the Wind” and “Lilies of the Nile” is legendary), we should not allow there skills to overshadow the contributions of the groups co-creators Stix Hooper, Wayne Henderson and Wilton Felder. “Stix Hooper is perhaps one of the most underrated drummers in music,” says fusion aficionado Antonio Rodriguez. “He had a soulful musicality that other drummers couldn’t match. Stix was able to bridge blues and jazz, but he never sounded generic.”

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Before “Street Life” became the Crusaders biggest crossover hit (the song has been used in neo-noir flicks Sharkey’s Machine and Jackie Brown), Wayne Henderson’s soulful “Keep That Same Old Feeling” from Those Southern Nights (1975) was the song most likely to be played simultaneously at Studio 54, a red-light basement party or a Harlem bar. With the group singing the lyrics themselves (later they would work with vocalists Bill Withers on “Soul Shadows” and Nancy Wilson on “The Way It Goes”), “Keep That Same Old Feeling” has the distinction of being the first Crusaders track with vocals.

Simply called “Trombone” by friends and collaborators (Henderson has worked with Bobby Womack, Joni Mitchell and Marvin Gaye) his contribution to the Crusaders includes their classic “Young Rabbits,” which was later used as the theme to the Academy Award-winning documentary When We Were Kings. Henderson also played drums on Hugh Masekela’s “Grazing in the Grass” and co-produced Rebbie Jackson’s “Centipede” (1984) along with her brother Michael.

The soulful saxophone and electric bass playing of Wilton Felder, a musician who has influenced a generation of players including Greg Osby and Nathan East, is undisputed. From the cool country grooves of “Way Back Home” (where Felder plays both instruments) to the wonderful “Nite Crawler” (which was written by Larry Carlton especially for Felder) to his session work (he played bass on the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back”), Felder was a master.

“I remember the way each of us played and made our sound unique,” Felder told the Virginian-Pilot in 2006 while promoting his last solo disc Let’s Spend Some Time. “There was individual playing within the context of a band. The Crusaders were a unit with each piece of the puzzle standing out.” Playing with one another, the puzzle was complete.
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Wednesday, August 03, 2011

A is for Aja

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It was the winter of 1981 when my best friend and Long Island University classmate Jerry Rodriguez introduced me to the Steely Dan album Aja (ABC Records, 1977). Though I remember hearing the single “Peg” in 1977 blaring on WABC that fall, I really hadn’t paid much attention to the group. Yet, Jerry, as well as his older brother Antonio, talked endlessly about the group’s jazzy influences and beat writer influenced lyrics. In addition, it was the best chill-out soundtrack of that pop period.

One winter afternoon, our math professor, a young grad student name Mr. Harris overheard Jerry saying he wanted to sell his weights and offered to buy them. Though less than ten years older than us, we still had a “teacherly” respect for him. Yet, the night he came by the Cortelyou Road bachelor pad, our relationship changed.

Insisting we call him by his first name, we made a few drinks, rolled a few joints and put on Steely Dan’s gorgeous Aja. It wasn’t until “Hey, Nineteen” came on that Mr. Harris felt comfortable enough to confess his secret crush on one of our classmates, a beautiful Indian girl who always looked stoned. “I’m in love with her,” he slurred, then told us how he stared at her during class and fantasized about them making love.

After he left the apartment, Jerry and I laughed loudly. “Can you believe that guy?” I said. “How dumb can you get?” Returning to class the following later, Mr. Harris was back to being a regular sober dude and the three of us never hung-out again socially. Nevertheless, at the end of the semester, both Jerry and I passed our math class with A’s we knew very well we didn’t deserve. “A is for Aja,” I said. “More like asshole,” Jerry replied.
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Monday, August 01, 2011

On Prefab Sprout

http://p.playme.com/images/album/496175/256/us/PreFab-Sprout/Two-Wheels-Good.jpg?ts=20110701 In the summer of 1985, I worked in the cassette department of Tower Records in New York City. A few months before, my girlfriend of a year told me at a birthday party that I threw for her, that she was sleeping with somebody else. Later, when I asked why she left me, she answered, “You’re too nice. I need somebody a little meaner.”

Still carrying the burden of broken promises and a shattered heart when I met my Tower’s Records co-worker Barry Walters. A student at NYU, Barry also wrote music reviews for the Village Voice. While stacking shelves, he and I would get into these long discussions about pop music. Perhaps picking-up on my melancholy nature, he introduced me to the two discs that became my favorites of 1985: Bryan Ferry’s wonderful Boys and Girls and Prefab Sprout’s brilliant Steve McQueen aka Two Wheels Good.
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While I admired Ferry’s laid back cool, it was the Prefab’s bitterly charming singer/songwriter Paddy McAloon with whom I connected as his compositions “When Loves Break Down,” “Horsin’ Around” and “Appetite” became my instant musical manifestos of post-teen misery. With each subsequent album, Paddy and Prefab’s sound only got better, richer and more ambitious. In addition, it was from reading interviews with Paddy in various Brit-pop newspapers that got me into listening to George Gershwin and Cole Porter.
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Sharing Two Wheels Good with my late friend, writer and director Jerry Rodriguez, who would be celebrating his 50th birthday this month, he too was hooked. Drinking away our women troubles as we talked about our various queens of heartbreak, we both knew all the lyrics and had no problem singing them loud and off-key. It was only a matter of time before we judged all our future friends and girlfriends on whether they liked Two Wheels Good.

Twenty-years later, when Jerry was my room mate and battling cancer, I could hear him playing Two Wheels Good often from his room. More than two decades had passed since we both first heard it and it still sounded fresh.

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On Rickie Lee Jones

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It was in 1979 when I first saw Rickie Lee Jones on Saturday Night Live singing “Chuck E’s in Love.” Lying on the couch in the basement of my mom's house in Baltimore, I was mesmerized by this long-haired chick singing about poll halls and dudes who walked like jazz. Casting an aural spell, Rickie Lee Jones’ popular single was my first peep into the coolsville of American bohemia.

Two years later, when I was a freshman English major living in New York City, Rickie released her novelistic second album Pirates and I became a true fan. At the time, I was hanging-out with an overweight Black girl named Beverly, who schooled me about her hero Tom Waits, the romance he shared with Rickie Lee Jones and how their break-up was the inspiration behind the bitter romanticism and beat poetics of Pirates.
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After class, we sat in Bev’s dorm room drinking Jack Daniels, beer chasers and playing the album continuously. For me, songs like "Traces of the Western Slopes" and “Lonely Avenue” were a gateway drug that led me on to stronger cultural addictions: Jack Kerouac, Charlie Parker, John Cassavetes, LeRoi Jones and others artistic rebels. Caught-up in my own boho visions, I soon dropped out of school and started hanging out in Lower East Side dive bars, going to Alphabet City literary gatherings and dating girls into Godard. In fact, I was doing everything “writerly” except actually writing.

Twenty years later, while working as writer-at-large for Vibe, I went to see Ricki Lee Jones in concert. As she stood on stage of Irving Plaza berating a drunken customer who kept screaming, “Play ‘Chuck E., play Chuck E,’” all those yesteryear memories came back to me as I sipped from a cup of Coca Cola.

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