I woke up on Saturday morning May 28, 2011, totally feeling my jazz life oats.…
I woke up on Saturday morning May 28, 2011, totally feeling my jazz life oats.
I had been living in New York for just under four years after accepting a dream job as Program Director of Real Jazz at Sirius XM. After producing some records in my hometown of Chicago, the first album I produced in the Big Apple was just days away from being released on a major jazz record label. Plus, I was due to record Carlos and Cindy Blackman Santana later that night. They were to read copy I wrote for a John Coltrane radio special I was producing.
The job was and still is very demanding which has always made it hard for me to pursue all the many creative ideas that still constantly gnaw at me to pursue. I could always rest on the amazing job I have instead of adding more creative deadlines, but as Jessica Rabbit famously said, “I can’t help it, I’m just drawn that way.” I’ve been employed in broadcasting for 40- years and for every one of those days I’ve had a writing or music project going alongside the to-die-for day gigs I’ve maintained.
[caption id="attachment_39297" align="alignleft" width="1000"] Mark Ruffin[/caption]
Four years into it, it was still freshly surreal how unbelievably cool this jazz-on-steroids job was. I was playing jazz on the radio for the whole continent, in a studio located in the heart of Jazz at Lincoln Center, Wynton Marsalis’ House of Swing. Being in New York City was also a major part of what made my experience at the time otherworldly for good and bad reasons.
I got sticker shock when I first looked for an apartment in Manhattan after I moved in 2007. There was no way I was going to pay all that money for the small box-like cut-rooms that are called apartments in NYC. A friend, Kirk Young, who started with me at WBEZ/Chicago in 1980, told me to come see him in Forest Hills, Queens
“It looks just like Oak Park,” he said about the Chicago suburb and the town that was a 45-minute subway ride from my new job.
He was right. I even moved to Austin Street which coincidentally is also the name of the street that divides Oak Park from Chicago. I still paid a lot of money, but I had a real apartment. Friends from Manhattan would visit and ask for a tour. Using my time wisely on those 45-minute subway rides into Manhattan, I wrote a lot of my recently released book, “Bebop Fairy Tales: An Historical Fiction Trilogy on Jazz, Intolerance and Baseball” on the subway. I had planned to use most of this particular Saturday to make a dent in the notes I’d written on public transit. The only issue this weekend was the job was so demanding I had to go into the city early to tie up some loose ends at the studio. At work the week was spent writing the massive amount of copy that Cindy and Carlos were reading later that night. They were going to be in a studio in Hawaii recording while I supervised over the phone. It was nearly 10 pages of one-liners like “This is Carlos Santana, you’re listening to John Coltrane Radio on Sirius XM.” Since they were on Maui time I had all day to make the 4 pm Hawaii-time appointment, which was 10 pm Eastern time.
Whenever I rode underground to work, I made it a habit of making sure the first thing I saw coming out of the subway at Columbus Circle was the giant sign that said “Jazz at Lincoln Center.” I pinched myself daily that this was the place I spent at least eight hours every day. I hated coming in on Saturdays, but I had to because I didn’t finish putting together “Miller Time,” Marcus Miller’s show on the channel that runs on Sunday.
It was a little after noon when I entered Jazz at Lincoln Center. My phone was pinging as three of my college buddies had all left me messages. I didn’t’ consider that two of them were in L.A., where it was early morning. I just thought whatever it was could wait until I was done working.
I proceeded to the main Sirius XM broadcast studio, which was right down the hall from the back entrance to the world-famous jazz nightspot Dizzy’s Club. Through the giant glass window that separated the rooms I could see working in Studio Two was my co-worker Eulis Cathey, who just passed away last month.
It wasn’t a surprise to see Eulis in on Saturdays. He regularly used the giant Sirius XM database to record rare songs for his very popular show “Sunday Night Music Mix” which aired in New York on the terrestrial station WBGO. Even through the two heavy soundproof windows I could hear the loud vibrations of his music. Since I wasn’t turning on a microphone, I didn’t need to tell him to turn it down. Instead I waved hello and proceeded to work.
About an hour after being there I got a very cryptic text from Jeff Levenson: “You better tell Joe Fields to get that record out.”
Mr. Levenson worked as a record producer and executive for the Blue Note Entertainment Group, which owned the chain of Blue Note nightclubs around the world. They also owned Half Note Records, one of the many record companies including Blue Note Records that turned my Gil Scott-Heron project down. I was very, very proud of my first New York-made album and it was coming out on High Note Records, which was owned by Joe Fields.
I didn’t know what to make of his note until I guessed, “He must’ve finally heard the demo and now wishes it was coming out on Half Note.”The Revolution Will Be Jazz: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron by Giacomo Gates had an official release date of July 19, but copies were going in the mail to press and radio within two weeks.
As it states in the liner notes, I had a long professional relationship with Gil. I considered him an idol and mentor. There’s no question that he was the person who convinced me that I had a voice as a writer which I state in my new book and on this record. The liner notes also clearly state that I had a rift with him, and that this music was to be part-apology, part-token of appreciation. In my youth I used my position in journalism and radio to talk to my heroes, especially Gil. I did as many stories on Gil as I could including a big one in the Chicago Sun-Times in the 80s. He knew my ex-wife, he held my oldest son as a baby, and I once stopped him and his brother, Denis, from fighting in a downtown Chicago hotel. These were just some of the situations that put us just a bit past the casual journalist-artist relationship.
By the time I got to New York City in 2007 Gil was in really bad shape. He became many of the things he used to warn so many people about. Drugs owned him. Besides his royalties, his main source of income seemed to be two European tours a year and gigs booked by producer Jill Newman. Not long after I arrived, it was at one of those shows, at the famed lower Manhattan club S.O.B’s, where we had some pretty intense words.
I hated to see him drugged out and told him so. His performance was atrocious. And worse, he didn’t seem to give a shit. We got a bit heated when he said something to the effect that if his words and early life did so much for me, I should appreciate it, accept it and let him live his own life.
“Fuck you, Gil,” I said.
A few months later I realized he was right. That was the moment the album was born.
I had heard that Gil was pretty easy to find walking the streets of Harlem. I wanted to find him, apologize and create a small amount of royalties for him by artistically showing my appreciation. The plan was for Giacomo and me to hand him a copy of the disc. I did not want “fuck you” to be the last thing I ever said to my hero.
[caption id="attachment_39300" align="alignleft" width="1280"] Getty Images/Tidal[/caption]
Needless to say, four years later I was on a cloud as I left the studio after putting the finishing touches on Marcus Miller’s show. Before leaving I wanted to give my regards to Eulis. His back was to me and the vibration through the glass door was super loud. I knocked on the door before entering the Twilight Zone.
Gil’s voice came flooding out of the control room. I think the fact that it was an obscure song, “A Sign of the Ages,” made everything suddenly click. Eulis didn’t have to say a word as life went before my eyes; Levenson’s text, my college friends unchecked messages, even my music-minded sister and best friend had called. I let go of the heavy door and reeled back against the wall outside the studio
“You didn’t know?” Eulis asked aware of my shock after opening the door.
I could only shake my head. He sat there holding the door open with me against the wall in the hallway.
“How?” was the only word I could manage.
I was determined not to let this ruin my day of writing. He wouldn’t want that, but I was hurt. I went back to the engineer room and cried as I just started printing all the obituaries that had I could find from all over the world. Most were just a rehash of whatever the Associated Press had put out, but there were other more detailed ones. He had died the night before, but I had my head down working and missed the news.
The subway ride back to Queens was pretty packed for a Saturday afternoon. Instead of sitting I stood at a door and pulled my giant stack of papers out to read the memorials to Gil. There were quite a few personal memorials I had gathered too. It was enough to keep me occupied when the train stopped at the busy Roosevelt Avenue station.
Most of the train emptied there but I remained standing as I was really engrossed in the amazing New York Times obituary which I was reading when the doors closed.
When I finished, I noticed next to me was a character out of central casting. He was just too easy for me to judge and allow my internalized biases to come forth.
He was a light-skinned black man, I’d say in his mid-40’s. He was wearing a pair of very loud long checkered Bermuda shorts totally mismatched with expensive dress socks and wing-tip shoes. As I’m leaning against the door and he was looking straight ahead in his seat, my instinct told me there was a briefcase at his side.
When I saw I was right I pegged him as one of those spoiled bourgeois brothers who is a lawyer or accountant who probably looks down on every black person, light or dark, who doesn’t meet their standards.
I remember thinking, for lack of a better term, real Black. It was Gil’s death.
I knew I had to do better as a Black man, and Gil’s death only reinforced these thoughts at this moment. I began to feel the guilt for not apologizing to Gil. I then realized at the moment that it was I who was exhibiting the Black self-hatred thing , not the self-imagined upper crust snooty snob next to me. I didn’t even know that brother. I wonder if he knows who Gil is? He has to, I thought. I decided not to question him but just offer the reading material.
“Yo man,” I started in a greeting I’ve habitually used had since I was a teen, “don’t know if you know but Gil Scott-Heron died and I’ve got a bunch of the obits if you want to read them.”
He looked up at me and actually puckered down his lips and with as much distain as he could muster said, “I only read the New York Times.”
“You asshole” rang the thought in my mind but didn’t come out. “This is the New York Times,” I said with an exaggerated tone of “harrumph,” as I crossed over to the opposite seats.
I didn’t have time to even notice his response as the person to the right of me across from him was holding a large newspaper up high. I couldn’t see his face but what I did see was a large story with a headline about Gil.
I was trying to read it at an angle and was so tempted to ask the guy for it. But I thought I’d try to read until one of us gets off and then I’d ask for it.
At the very next stop, a tall, older Indian man revealed his face from behind the paper as he stood up folding up his paper.
“Excuse me sir, do you mind if I have just that page of your paper please?” I asked
“You take it. It’s yours,” he replied in a sharp British accent.
”No, no sir, I just need that page,” I assured him.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said handing me the paper and smiling. “This is Sunday’s paper. I’m the North American editor of the London Observer, I’ll get another.”
“There’s another great retrospective story about Gil Scott-Heron inside,” he said before looking directly at the Bermuda shorted preppie and smirking, “We have so much more than The New York Times.”
“Whoo…” I exclaimed on the burn as the guy walked off the subway.
Sure enough there were two incredible, insightful pieces on Gil in the Sunday, May 29, London Observer.
Instead of going home, I went to have the articles laminated. I remembered not writing much at all but playing and remembering Gil most of the evening and reminiscing with friends.
At 10 pm I took my call with Cindy Blackman and Carlos Santana. I had a time limit, so I didn’t want to bring up any – to paraphrase a Gil album title – small talk from 77th & Austin in Forest Hills. We moved through the copy quickly until we got to the very last page. There was only one segment and it was for Cindy to read. I had forgotten about that copy and was shocked as soon as the last page turned. “This is John Coltrane Radio where it’s Trane 24/7. Up next is a vocalist who didn’t write lyrics to a Coltrane song, instead he wrote his own about John Coltrane. This is Gil Scott-Heron with “Lady Day and John Coltrane.”
“Didn’t he just die today?” she asked.
“Yes Cindy,” I acknowledged but said nothing else. I remembered thinking I didn’t want to talk about it. I whisked them off the phone and wondered if Gil’s spirit had been with me all day. PROLOGUE “The Revolution Will Jazz: The Music of Gil Scott-Heron” was released and shot up the radio airplay charts at Jazz Week and stayed number one for six weeks. The record earned me the “Producer of the Year” title from the Chicago Music Awards and was so successful for High Note Records they let me produce Giacomo’s next three albums.
Personally, the months after the release of the music were bittersweet. The acclaim and success were great. However, it bugged me to no end to hear two questions: How did you do a memorial album so quickly? And how could you let a white man do a memorial to Gil?
Plus, I never did get to apologize to him.
The irony with the race question was that one of my purposes in making the record was to show Gil’s relationship to the vocalese sub-genre of jazz singing. Anybody who brought me grief about Giacomo’s race was quickly reminded by me of the dearth of Black male jazz singers and the shame that there are not singers of color to fill in the big shoes of vocalese godfathers Eddie Jefferson and Jon Hendricks. No matter how much Giacomo and I tried to tell anyone that this was not meant to be an in-memoriam set, the record was always introduced as such. The lost meaning of the project spurred me to do a real memorial album to Gil. I had no singer and no money but if I couldn’t apologize to Gil, I felt I had to at least do that memorial to him to replace the apology I could never deliver.
Just like the day he died when I felt his spirit following me around, his aura propelled me to complete Offering: Songs of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson by Charenee Wade.
It was the biggest challenge I ever mounted in producing a record, partially because all of the financials were my responsibility. I ended up making what I still think is by far the best album I’ve produced, including my GRAMMY-nominated collaboration with René Marie. It was amazing how quickly everything came together from the crowdsourcing to the amazing array of guest stars who performed gratis including Marcus Miller, Christian McBride and Malcolm Jamal-Warner.
I have been a part of producing nearly 20 albums. My goal has always been for each project to be the best album of that artist’s career. Charenee’s project is that for me. It was nominated for a British Jazz FM Album of the Year award and spent ten weeks in the top 5 on the Jazz Week peaking at number two twice.
I felt Gil was smiling on me the whole time. I think he accepted my apology.