Bright Moments with Fred and Jazz

By Bill Herbert

Rahsaan Roland Kirk said it the best at the Keystone Korner in San Francisco in 1973:

“Bright Moments is like hearing some music that ain’t nobody else heard, and if they heard it they wouldn’t even recognize that they heard it because they been hearing it all their life but they nutted on it, so when you hear it and you start popping your feet and jumping up and down they get mad because you’re enjoying yourself but those are bright moments that they can’t share with you because they don’t know even how to go about listening to what you’re listening and when you try to tell them about it they don’t know a damn thing about what you’re talking about!

Is there any other Bright Moments before we proceed on? Testify!….”

In the spirit of Roland Kirk, it is time to testify about Bright Moments with Fred and jazz.

Bright Moments was being educated by Fred. It is telling that he asked for his musical instruments to be donated to the Oaktown Jazz Workshops to bring Bright Moments to its students.

Fred never wanted anyone to miss all those beautiful Bright Moments emanating from jazz and other styles of music. Thankfully, he largely succeeded in getting us to listen. His method was similar to the message of Roland Kirk in his lyrics added to the Charles Mingus composition Goodbye Pork Pie Hat:

He put all of his soul into a tenor saxophone,
He had his way of talking, ’twas a language all his own,
Life’s story, love and glory, if you listen, when he plays it for you,
Now listen and listen and dig it, can’t you dig it?
Lester Young is playing what he’s feeling
Dealing and dancing.

Now someone might have told you, Lester Young he’s out of style.
But now I’m here to tell you, tell you, Prez is happening now.
Life’s story, love and glory if you listen when he plays it for you.
Now listen and listen and dig it, can’t you dig it?
Lester Young is playing what he’s feeling.
Dealing and dancing you home.

Knowing Fred meant knowing his great love for discovering, enjoying, and sharing music. Bright Moments. It was part of his rich multi-faceted life that included family, friends, and labor and social activism. At his core, Fred was a teacher in the broadest sense. It is one of the many reasons Fred and Sue are such an extraordinary couple.

Regardless of how he entered your life, Fred opened you to his broad and discerning musical tastes from Fela to Lucinda Williams, Marley to Ornette Coleman, Otis to Tom Russell, Coltrane to Linton Kwezi Johnson, Aretha to Abdullah Ibrahim, Taj to the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Osibisa to Howlin Wolf, the Meters to Albert Ayler, Makeba to the O’Jays, and Parliament-Funkadelics to Mark Knopfler. Of course, the list goes on, and on. I am sure you have many examples of your own. Bright Moments.

Fred followed the binary system laid down by Duke Ellington: “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.” Like Ellington, Fred recognized that the sound of the music is what matters, regardless of artificial labels placed on it by the music industry or the tribalism perpetuated by consumerism.

If you want to hear an album that exemplifies the breadth of Fred’s taste in jazz styles check out the album From Ragtime to No Time by Beaver Harris and The 360 Degree Music Experience. Producer Timothy Marquand described the album as “a circle of communication, an underlying sense of community that improvising musicians feel when they gather to express themselves.” It is a relatively obscure jazz recording but well worth listening to.

There are, of course, many other jazz albums to remember Fred by including the later recordings of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman’s Free Jazz: A Collective Improvisation, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, A.A.C.M., Great Black Music-A Jackson in Your House, most recordings by Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy or Ella Fitzgerald, and Roland Kirk’s Volunteered Slavery. The cover of the latter recording by Derek Trucks was a gateway for Fred to the wonders of the Tedeschi Trucks Band. And in remembering Fred, we cannot forget the blues from Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor to Stevie Ray Vaughn. and the wonders of the San Francisco Blues Festival. Bright Moments.

We ignored Fred’s musical suggestions at our detriment. In the mid-70s, he encouraged me to go hear the Wailers in New York’s Central Park. Due to my ignorance, I thought he wanted me to go hear a sea shanty group known as the Whalers, and I declined. My loss. Around the same time, he sat me down at his turntable and turned me on to artists like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Taj Mahal, and Roland Kirk. Sometimes, it just took faith in him. Like the time he compelled me to go hear Eddie Jefferson at Joe Lee Wilson’s loft in Manhattan despite my resistance. Bright Moments. Other times, it took decades to catch up with his musical discoveries but once you got there you understood. Bright Moments.

Bright Moments was being with Fred for over four decades searching the bargain binds for vinyl, cassettes, cds for the known (and better yet the unknown) artists at remarkably discounted prices. An important factor in determining the “risk” of purchase of an unknown artist or recording was the price. Was it really worth .99, 1.99, 2.99, 3.99 or OMG, 4.99? Bright Moments was also when he gave you a cassette or cd of music that he was sure you would like.

I can clearly recall the day decades ago in a record shop on Steinway Street in Astoria when he strongly advised (a euphemism) for me to buy a Sam & Dave album and Manu DiBango’s Soul Makossa. Both were cut-outs, naturally, and they blew me away. He repeated that feat many times in record stores from Brooklyn and Manhattan to San Francisco, with no stop in between. Bright Moments.

Many years later, trips to the Bay Area to visit Fred and Sue were not complete without visits to the Tower Record outlet in the Mission, and later Amoebas. Bright Moments. Fred had an uncanny memory when it came to musical artists, who played with whom, who played which instrument, who produced what, and who wrote what song. Being by his side in the hunt for music, and being educated by him, was one of the great privileges of my life. Bright Moments.

Fred, Sue, and I lived together in Buffalo in 1976-77, and survived the blizzard of ‘77. It was Fred’s genius to have us go out and get food (and another necessity) in advance of the storm. The necessity came in very handy as we wound up spending three days in our apartment mostly listening to music. We spent hours listening to Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, which had come out a few months before. It included the celebratory song Sir Duke:

Music knows it is and always will
Be one of the things that life just won’t quit
But here are some of music pioneers
That time will not allow us to forget
For there’s Basie, Miller, Satchmo
And the king of all Sir Duke
And with a voice like Ella’s ringing out
There’s no way the band can lose.

During that year in Buffalo we were fortunate to hear many jazz greats perform live including Mary Lou Williams, Dexter Gordon, Anthony Braxton, and Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Bright Moments. After he returned to New York, Fred produced jazz shows at NYU’s student center. He was great at it, despite the challenges. One of those concerts was MU III, with Don Cherry on trumpet and cornet and Ed Blackwell on drums. During that time, we continued to go hear jazz in Manhattan offered by the Jazzmobile and attended shows at lofts like Sam Rivers’ Studio Rivbea.

Fred always remained open and came around to music he did not think, at first, was good music. He had little tolerance for traditional bluegrass but loved it when the group Run C & W played soul music bluegrass style, and he attended the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival for a decade (but tended to stick to the hardly strictly side of the program). Richie Becker and I were very lucky to have been able to attend those festivals with Sue and Fred. Many Bright Moments!

Fred’s jazz teachings had many dividends. In 1989, I bought a cut-out (what else) of Phil Alvin’s Unsung Stories at an Albany record shop, based solely on the fact Alvin was backed by Sun Ra and his Arkestra and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I recorded a copy and sent it off to Fred, who loved it as well. He, in turn, discovered Phil’s brother Dave Alvin and their band The Blasters. This led us to hearing the Blasters together (sans Dave) at a San Francisco club, and hearing many wonderful sets by Dave Alvin at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. The last time we heard Dave Alvin together, I turned and asked Fred whatever happened to Phil. Before he could answer, Dave Alvin announced his special guest Phil who then sang a fantastic version of Marie Marie. Bright Moments

During his years in San Francisco, we spoke often over the phone about the jazz and other music Sue and he went to hear at venues like Yoshi’s. He often referenced the great Dr. Anthony Brown and his Asian American Orchestra. Fred was particularly proud of the time he recognized and spoke with Abdullah Ibrahim at the San Francisco airport. The great South African composer and pianist had come to town to perform, and Fred was returning from Seattle after the WTO protests. Fred went over to Ibrahim at the airport and explained that he had listened to him for years and was a great admirer of his art. Ibrahim responded by giving free tickets for Fred, Sue, Herschel, and Naomi to hear one of his shows at Yoshi’s. After the show, they had an opportunity to speak with Ibrahim on the street. Bright Moments.

The last full set of jazz I heard with Fred was on October 8, 2017 at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. It was a celebration of Ornette Coleman with his Prime Time band led by his son Denardo Coleman. Fred knew the name of every band member and explained to me their role in the evolution of the band. Bright Moments.

To emulate Fred’s completism, it is appropriate to list the band’s full line-up: Charlie Ellerbe, guitar, Jaamaaladeen Tacuma, bass, Al MacDowell, bass, Badal Roy, tabla, Denardo Coleman, drums with special guests Marc Ribot, guitar, Wallace Roney, trumpet, and David Murray, saxophone. And for the record, the jazz followed sets by the great Jon Langford, a pioneer in cowpunk and festival favorite of ours, and Big Freedia, known as the Queen of Bounce. Bright Moments.

One way I have been processing the loss of Fred is to listen to the great music he turned me on to, which fills me with joy and sorrow. Another has been examining ways to honor and remember him. One important way is by supporting Sue, Herschel, Naomi, their partners, and extended family, and for Fred’s community to remain a community by befriending each other and engaging in action consistent with his values and principles. There is plenty of work that needs to be done, and to quote Lou Reed, There is No Time.

But most importantly, we must continue to create Bright Moments in Fred’s memory and for ourselves. Hope you’ll join me next time at Amoebas, and at the 2019 Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Bright Moments!

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