This is a tribute to two master musicians – pianist/composer Billy Childs and trumpeter Oscar Brashear. They stand out among the many in our extended family for their performance on and off stage. These brothers are working artists who influence me in a profound spiritual sense. To be a working artist requires mediating the delicate balance of forces between the seen and the unseen worlds. Billy and Oscar are like green lights at the intersection of these worlds. They generously provide a physical and a psychic model for how artists honor their craft navigate many contradicting and seemingly compromising situations on the path. My daughter Janinah calls them our Catdaddies, and it fits.
On Friday in Los Angeles in October 1994 Billy Childs was the featured artist at a free concert at the art museum on Wilshire Boulevard. After work I rushed to Hamilton High School on Robertson Boulevard to gather up my sophomore daughter and her crew of friends, all of whom were aspiring jazz musicians. The music was excellent. Billy came over to our table and talked to the group about the business of music and how to prepare. Coincidentally he attended Hamilton High School also and corroborated their stories. They had a long conversation about the necessity to break down barriers to succeed. Many academic institutions challenge rather than support the brilliance of our young artists. Billy gently encouraged the young adults to get what they can from their school experiences, then go out and do whatever they pleased. My daughter and her friends got more from the message in one cool conversation with Billy’s practical experiences and natural rhythm than they had gotten in a full semester of high school.
As Billy left us to play another set he turned to me and asked, “Imani are you still writing poetry?”
“Yes, I am. I have an entire collection I’ve put together.”I shared.
“I’ve got this ballad that I need some words for,” he continued, “send me something.”
He threw the words over his shoulder like a pinch of salt tossed for good luck after spilling something precious. I gathered each grain of his good will, intent and promise and smiled.
Autumn came and caught my daughter and me in the crossfire of her 10th grade assignments, and my job directing a philanthropic leadership program for executive directors of youth programs. Janinah had her sights fixed on wining one of the few slots in the vocal jazz ensemble at her school. The week before her audition I saw Billy Childs playing a duo gig with trumpeter Oscar Brashear at the Jazz Bakery. The exposed beam and brick walls inside the venue made the space feel more like New York than a photography studio in what used to be the Helms bakery in a nondescript section of Culver City, CA. When my friend Elizabeth and I entered I glanced into a small room behind the rows of white resin lawn chairs facing the stage and caught the eye of Oscar Brashear. His eyes were so electrifying that even
though I wasn’t surprised my voice escaped from my lips as if I was.
“Oh you’re Oscar Brashear”, I remarked as if he didn’t know.
He smiled and said “Yeah”.
I continued “I’m Imani, remember me from Memory Lane?” like the brother would remember me out of all the
people he meets in clubs. It was all I could come up with, the truth masquerading as a question.
Memory Lane is a club on Martin Luther King Boulevard in LA that was O.C. Smith’s mainstay in the days when he was singing God didn’t make little green apples and it don’t snow in Indianapolis in the winter time. Back then Marla Gibbs owned Memory Lane. In the years since then O. C. Smith became a minister and successfully led the congregation of the City of Angels Science of the Mind church, then made his transition to the next world.
I remembered how Oscar’s presence dazzled a Memory Lane in black leather from head to toe. Now I gazed at his shoulder-length locks, neatly coiffed and caught in a pony tail gracefully fell over his unstructured grey shirt made of natural fibers. In a split second the memories seemed to soak in then bubble to the top and we exchanged the most genuine smiles. He laughed deeply and asked two questions in one, both in a voice punctuated by a lingering south side Chicago lilt. “How’ve you been? What have you been doing?”
“I’ve been working, writing a little poetry every chance I get, and raising my born on my birthday daughter” I responded. “How about you?”I inquired.
“Playin’ the music and staying on the path,”Oscar said, “and doing my yoga everyday to keep this body temple together, that’s it!” he continued.
I introduced Oscar to my friend Elizabeth and then told him we would see him after the set. Even though he was cordial, it was maybe ten minutes to show time and I didn’t want to blow his concentration with small talk.
We found good seats in the center of the house on the sixth row. The house was filled to capacity when, jazz singer and proprietor, Ruth Price mounted the stage “It gives me great pleasure to introduce two fine musicians who are collaborating here for the first time - recording and performing artists - Billy Childs and Oscar Brashear,” she announced.
The house lights dimmed, the white spot lights came on and the crowd burst into robust applause. Billy, with his wiry 5 foot 9 inch frame and short natural hair, was already seated at the grand piano, wearing a plaid shirt, grey pants and a navy blue V-neck sweater. His wire-rimmed aviator glasses framed his narrow face and he looked more
like a computer genius than the general mythic description of a jazz musician. Oscar stood at the front of the stage to the right of a music stand, the spotlight casting a soft shadow on fine six- foot tall frame. His black framed readers sat on his nose giving him an astute and professorial appearance.
Billy counted “one and a two and three” and the house lit up with the syncopation of a rhythmically and swinging tune. A smooth ballad followed, without a break. Oscar spun notes from his flugelhorn like sheets softly turned- back on a soft bed. Billy turned the piano into several different instruments at once with chord changes, runs and arpeggios
dancing melodically on the piano. The music was so pure that it brought tears to my eyes. Elizabeth, who was brave enough to join me for this week night outing, closed her eyes and merged with the music so completely that I thought she had nodded off to sleep. No one in the entire audience said a word from the beginning of the concert until the
end. Only intermittent applause between tunes underscored Billy’s playful announcing of the selections. After the set both men, wet with sweat, looked exhilarated and triumphant. The renewing power of the music of this handsome and harmonious duo was awesome.
My friend and I joined the crowd of folks in line to thank Billy and Oscar for their performance. Billy saw me out of the corner of his eye, turned with a jerk from the circle of people standing in front of him, to give me a big hug and his almost ear to ear smile.
“How’s your daughter?” he asked. Billy knew Janinah was a singer and as an artist he knew, understood and supported the muse that starts early, extracts perfection and stays up late at night coaxing creativity.
“She’s singing jazz!!” I bragged, “Billy, you sound so great!” I added.
“Thanks, thanks.” he said as if the compliment caught him by surprise or was wonderful new information. I cherished Billy’s boyish depth at first sight. We became buddies in 1980 when he was a student at University of Southern Californiaand gigging with Freddie Hubbard’s band. I was teaching an experiential education class there in the school of public administration. I saw him on campus a few times playing on the yard for special jazz exhibitions. We enjoyed long talks about the Harlem Renaissance poets and how rich it is to blend poetry and music together for special effects. We made a promise then to collaborate someday.
“Imani, I’m going into the studio to record this album tomorrow. I still don’t have any words for this ballad. If you want to send me something you better hurry up.”
He jotted his address and telephone number down on a raggedy piece of paper and handed it to me through the crowd. I sent him two poems the next day: don’t mess with this moment, and the last time lucy cried. He called me
as soon as he got them to say he loved them but wanted to use a poem to “call out” his untitled ballad. He said he would send me a tape so I could hear the tune.
On a rainy Monday morning two weeks later, I had the blues and decided to stay home from work. The mail lady brought me the antidote for my blues, the tape of Billy’s ballad. I spent the day enveloped in the music of Billy’s ballad.
Meanwhile my daughter Janinah had to rise to the challenge of her audition for the vocal jazz ensemble – her first. The night before the audition we received the music she had to be prepared to perform. The music was over both of our heads and there was no time to lose. We needed a miracle. I called my girlfriend Ramona and asked her if her husband, George Bohannon the trombonist, could help us, but he was on the road traveling with Eddie Harris. Ramona suggested that I call Oscar Brashear because he was a man who gave back to the community and might be able to help us. I reached out to Oscar and he laughed warmly and said he remembered me from Memory Lane, from the Jazz Bakery and from way back. On the spot Oscar invited my daughter and I to come to his house in Baldwin Hills.
When we arrived at his Baldwin Hills home, Oscar got right to work with Janinah. He sat at the grand piano in his living room facing a huge picture window that revealed a panoramic view of Los Angeles. She stood by his side behind the stand that supported his three beautiful horns - one of them brass and black. He played the piano for her, sang with her, supported here and gave her confidence as they shared the secret language in the music. I perched on the sofa absorbing the view of the city of angels, listened to Billy’s untitled ballad on my headphones with one ear and listened to what Oscar and Janinah were doing with the other. Oscar repeated, “You can do it, yeah, it’s a piece of cake, right,” as she scatted and sang along with him. Then he said “okay now you do it” and she would solo. If she faltered he joined again until she was able to lock it in on her own. A miracle was in the making. Oscar and Janinah practiced for hours and when they were finished I shared Billy’s untitled ballad with them. We listened to it a couple of times and nodded at one another as the lights of the city winked at us like fire flies.
To call out Billy’s ballad I wrote a poem about our community being whole and in tact despite organized malevolence waged against us for over 400 years. I wrote about forgiveness for the transgressions of any oppressors, balm for internalized anger and, understanding for misplaced aggression. I wrote word symbols to connect to Billy’s musical symbols that connect us to our community, our ancestors and all who are vibrating to that primal chord of knowing who you are and that what you are is good. I felt freer than ever before with my craft and my style. My daughter watched all of this with wide-eyed wonder and honed her knowledge, skills and abilities as a creative artist in the midst of real life role models.
By spring 1995 Janinah, the only African American female in the forty five member vocal jazz choir at Hamilton High School, sang the opening number in the jazz choir concert, soloing on Fat’s Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose”. She tore it up from the first note to the last. And my poem, closer to bliss came out in the liner notes of Billy Child’s compact disc on the GRP label, I’ve Known Rivers.
closer to bliss
more than a kiss behind closed eyes
awakens a dream deferred
the legacy of soul heals the need
visible in a heartbeat
I do love the faith
your hand in mine
(we come) closer to bliss
than a kiss...
more accustomed to change than evolution
memories map rough sides of mountains
resilient tears turn to stone
penetrating clear vision
a light in the dark
I do keep the faith
this moment is for living
your hand in my hand
(take me) closer to bliss
than a kiss...
more like a prayer than a promise
the blessing of life gives us grace to be free
this legacy of soul heals the past
audible in a major key
I do trust the faith
your hand in mine
(we grow) closer to bliss
than a kiss...
Hotness in July 1996 saw Billy Childs and Oscar Brashear playing at the World Stage on Leimert Boulevard in the Crenshaw District with Richard Reid on bass and Richard’s sixteen year old son, Damion Reid*, on drums. Oscar bends back, curves his body into the shape of an “s”, and lifts his right leg to hit high“c” again and again. The audience inhales a healing and invisible tears escape from collective souls to brush across our faces like branches from a weeping willow tree. You don’t know what love is until you learn the meaning of the blues oozes on the crest of Billy’s piano solo. We dance the ritual dance of as our most sacred and secret emotions are released by the music. This is both church and therapy as we surrender everything and shift our bodies and heal our hearts in reverie.
In this present tense where there are many stories to tell I am privileged to reconstitute this memory to salute Billy Childs and Oscar Brashear, two extraordinary Catdaddies I know and love. They are already immortalized by prolific discography. I place these words beside those accomplishments on the altar of family as a testimony of the kind of love and resilience in community that often goes untold. Thanks Brother Catdaddies, thanks for everything…
*Drummer extraordinaire Damion Reed has recorded with Robert Glasper and is currently touring with Rudresh Mahanthappa and Apex.