Pictures At An African Art Exhibition – Darryl Yokley’s Sound Reformation, the Wind Ensemble and myself. (above) Please check out our recent interview with Occhi Magazine about the album and the crowdfunding initiative. Your help in completing the album and project will be appreciated. http://occhimagazine.com/pictures-at-an-african-exhibition/
I’m looking forward to attending the St Lucia Jazz festival. The event is now in its 25th year so I’m excited to be on the island, attending the concerts, being inspired by the arts programme and soaking up the Caribbean sun.
The first St. Lucia Jazz Festival in 1992 was an idea to attract tourists over May and June, apparently seen as relatively quiet period in the calendar. The event was inspired by the launching of the October Jazz Festival in 1991 spearheaded by Luther Francois as Musical Director.
The event now ranks second in the Caribbean after the Trinidad Carnival as an attraction, with artists such as Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Lauryn Hill, Courtney Pine and India Arie performing over its 25 years. The line up this year includes the legendary George Benson.
In 2013, Saint Lucia Jazz was rebranded as the Saint Lucia Jazz & Arts Festival. The rebranding included a fashion show branded as Saint Lucia HOT Couture, the Cultural Explosion, Saint Lucia Sound Stage, and Blu Session. Dance, art, theatre and culinary arts now form part of the festival experience.
Those of you familiar with Harlem in New York have probably seen it’s transformation over recent years. Walking around the area, you can see a difference from how it was over a decade ago. The area is yet another example of the gentrification of urban environments with increased rents, an array of expensive condos and luxury apartments purchased by upwardly mobile city workers. Of course, no area of the city should be exempt from developments or regeneration projects if they further the goal of more sustainable communities, benefiting society’s most disadvantaged. However, there is a legitimate concern for generations of local families being forced out of an area full of history, artistic expression and a sense of place. I’m very interested in the many views held by stakeholders and continue to observe how Harlem, as an historically and artistically rich area, benefits from change. This brings my focus to how Harlem is celebrated as an arts and cultural hub by contemporary writers.
There are numerous resources capturing the essence of the Harlem’s Renaissance, the cultural, social, and artistic explosion that took place in the 1920s and 30s. The latest is Joe Okonkwo’s novel JazzMoon, set against the backdrop of the renaissance and glittering Jazz Age Paris. The novel will be published by Kensington Books this May.
David Ebershoff, author of The Danish Girl and The 19th Wife has called Jazz Moon “A passionate, alive, and original novel about love, race, and jazz in 1920s Harlem and Paris — a moving story of traveling far to find oneself.”
Jazz Moon’s author Joe Okonkwo is a graduate of the University of Houston with a B.A. in theatre and an MFA in Creative Writing from City College of New York. Joe made his living in theatre for a number of years as an actor, stage manager, director, playwright, and youth theatre instructor.
His short stories have appeared in a variety of print and online venues including Promethean, Penumbra Literary Magazine, Cooper Street, Storychord, LGBTsr.org, Chelsea Station, Shotgun Honey, Best Gay Stories 2015, Rind Literary Magazine, Em Dash Literary Magazine, Best Gay Love Stories 2009, and Keep This Bag Away From Children. His short story “Cleo” has been nominated for a 2015 Pushcart Prize.
Continually fascinated by Harlem’s rich history, I was intrigued to quiz Joe on his perspective and his ability to capture the essence of this notable period of African American history in the book.
Q.What books have most influenced your life?
James Baldwin’s Another Country was a big influence. I read it in high school, but not as part of any curriculum. It was the first gay book I ever read. When I finished it, I was depressed because I had really entered into the world of that book and found other people like me and I didn’t want to leave.
Toni Morrison’s books have been a big part of my life, especially Beloved. Historians and sociologists talk about how black Americans continue to be scarred by the experience of slavery. That was certainly something I believed, but more in a theoretical sense. Then I read Beloved and I saw that it’s not just a theory. Morrison captures the personal side of slavery and how it destructive it was—not just on a grand scale, but on a very personal level. Slavery destroyed individuals. It was a destruction that doesn’t heal easily or quickly. It’s a destruction that filters down the generations. I think Beloved is the most powerful book I’ve ever read because it takes the theoretical and puts human faces on it.
Q .What was the hardest part of writing this book?
JO- Jazz Moon is a historical novel, so making sure I had my facts correct was probably the biggest challenge. Making sure the characters’ language and slang was in keeping with the times. I reference a lot of real songs in the book, so I had to make sure that they had actually been composed by the time Jazz Moon begins (1925). Making sure descriptions are historically accurate.
I think the major challenge for any writer of historical fiction is sure to blending the historical research in to the story in a seamless and creative way. You don’t want the novel to feel like a history book. It’s historical, but still needs to read like fiction. I get extraordinarily irritated when I read historical fiction that feels like I’m reading a chapter from a history book. I do want to be instructed, but I don’t want to feel like I’m being instructed.
Q. Tell us briefly about your forthcoming book Jazz Moon.
JO- It started as a short story in 2004. It’s set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age Paris. It’s part coming-out story, part love story, part personal and creative odyssey.
I love the Harlem Renaissance. If I had a time machine and could go back to any era, it would be the Harlem Renaissance. The 1920s were a very difficult time to be black in the United States, but it was a very culturally and politically fruitful time nonetheless. Literature. Art. Broadway. Jazz, of course. And it was during this period that the foundations of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was laid. It was during the Harlem Renaissance that people—both white and black—realized that black was beautiful and, in terms of Broadway and the recording industry, marketable.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Harlem during that period (and something I focus on extensively in Jazz Moon) was gay life. It was mostly underground, but not completely. There were gay bars and an annual drag ball that was one of the social events of the year. There were places called “buffet flats,” which were the 1920s equivalent of sex clubs. You’d go to a house or an apartment and in each room were “performers” engaged in a different sexual activity. Could be hetero or homo. As an audience member, you selected the rooms and activities that piqued your interest the most, hence the “buffet.”
People were not pro-gay in the way we think of pro-gay in 2016, but they were certainly aware of the gays and mostly took the attitude of live and let live—as long as gays weren’t too open.
Q.Tell us about the book’s protagonists? Was there a real-life inspiration behind Ben Charles and his devoted wife Angeline?
JO- There was not a real-life inspiration behind Ben and Angeline. Jazz Moon is not based on real people. That said, there is absolutely a lot of me in many of the characters, especially Ben. I didn’t realize just how much of me was in these people until I was near the end of the process. Some of the characters are who I am. And some of the characters are who I want to be.
Q. What other real-life inspirations did you draw upon if any?
JO- Jazz Moon is, in part, a coming out story, and Ben suffers greatly during this process. I did draw on my own coming-out experience. I realized I was gay when I was thirteen, denied it like crazy till I was seventeen when I came out to myself, then “formally” came out at age twenty-one. While working on the novel, whenever I hit an emotional roadblock about Ben’s coming-out, I’d delve into my own experience, which was, at times, painful, lonely, and confusing.
Q. Much is being made of the gentrification of Harlem. Since 2000 particularly, the number of historically black, blue collar residents has fallen notably, especially in central Harlem. Whilst capturing the spirit of the renaissance, do you feel Jazz Moon contributes to forwarding the discussion of heritage, sustainable communities or a resistance to change?
JO- I don’t know about sustainable communities and resistance to change. But I would certainly like to think that Jazz Moon can start people thinking about heritage. As I’ve already mentioned, the Harlem Renaissance was a culturally and politically rich period. It’s a period that deserves study and recognition. We’re starting to see some recognition, I’m happy to say. Queen Latifah starred in a biopic about the great blues singer Bessie Smith last year. Audra McDonald is getting ready to open on Broadway in a version of Shuffle Along, which was produced in 1921 and was enormously important in the development of the black Broadway musical. I would be honored if Jazz Moon’s legacy is that it contributes to the continued rediscovery of the Harlem Renaissance.
Q. What are your future projects?
JO- I just finished a short story called “Picnic Street.” The first draft was based very closely on a childhood incident, but in subsequent drafts, the story veered pretty far from that incident. The story just started to write itself, which is exactly what you want: to give in to the story.
I have another short story that’s writing itself in my head right now. It may end up being a novella. I’m not sure yet. It involves politics and love and how (or if) people of differing ideologies can also have a successful relationship.
My next novel will again be set in the Harlem Renaissance, but this time it’s about a real person from the era: Gladys Bentley. She was a pianist and a blues singer and a drag king. She was known for wearing a white tux and white top hat and performing at a gay Harlem club called The Clam House. She would dirty up the lyrics of popular songs and flirt with women in the audience. She claimed to have married a white woman in an Atlantic City ceremony, but no one knows the identity of this woman. In the 1950s, Bentley gave an interview to Ebony magazine, renouncing her lesbianism and claiming that taking female hormones had “cured” her. She had an amazing, entrancing voice. She makes a cameo appearance in Jazz Moon and my protagonist is hypnotized by that voice.
There’s still so much to know and learn about the Harlem Renaissance. I’m not done with it yet.
Q. What advice would you give to young enthusiastic writers?
JO- READ. Read everything. Literary fiction. Genre fiction. Thrillers. Biographies. History. Read the news. Read politics. I’m a political junkie. I read up on political affairs every day and I’ve found that reading politics makes my fiction writing stronger. Political writers have to get to the point, get the facts across, and accomplish that in a way that’s engaging and keeps the reader reading. That’s valuable for a fiction writer. But to the main question: just read. Stephen King says that if you don’t have the time to read, then you don’t have the time or the tools to write.
A few years ago I had the pleasure to blog about the very talented Fae Simon, whose track ‘New Londinium’ featured on my video Let’s Jam. We caught up recently to discuss her music, her career to date and future projects we can all look forward to knowing more about.
Q- Since your debut album ‘Melodrama’ you’ve been extremely busy touring and collaborating with various artist. What’s the theme and general inspiration for your second album?
FS- My inspiration for Outrospective was my observations of all the people I encountered while on tour with Yarah Bravo & Jehst. I saw first hand the true power of music in action; as it didn’t matter wherever we went and performed the love of music unified us all. It is also a critique of my environment, as I believe it is the responsibility of all good creatives to do so, and to try and affect change though our art.
For example, ‘Running’ is dedicated to Mark Duggan and the residents of Tottenham, following his death and the subsequent riots. I was actually stuck in the studio for 5 days unable to get home, as they’d blocked off the whole of Tottenham High Road, so it allowed me to reflect on the situation and write the song for the album.
Q- Has this album been easier to produce?
FS- No, not at all. Besides personal issues I had during the creation of the album, I had some unforeseeable and predictable obstacles to hurdle to complete it.
It was more stressful trying to get the administration of the initial collaborations finalised than actually writing and creating the music. I had to re-record some tracks with the band but they were the most fun to do and nothing can touch the sound and feeling of live music, so it worked out as it was supposed to.
Q- You’re a multi-disciplined artist. Apart from promoting the new album, what else does the immediate future hold for you?
FS- my new single ‘The One That Got Away’ is due for release in April, produced by CloudFistConceptz, with remixes by DJ Raw Sugar, Shaun Ashby & Beyond Tone. The video is due for release in 2wks, directed by Chiba Visuals.
I am making my acting debut on March 19th at the University of West London for national storytelling week, in a production called ‘Soweto Voices’. It’s raising awareness of Apartheid and celebrating South African culture.
The cast are all 25 and under, so I’m the only artist/tutor who also gets to perform, so I’m extremely excited, having studied drama from GCSE to degree, and this being my first professional drama production.
I am also raising my fine art profile this year. I have been commissioned for murals and exhibited in London, New York and Berlin, so I know I have a market, I just need to build my portfolio this year. I have been offered an exhibition in Copenhagen with a certain amazing fine artist called David Emmanuel, so I should be ready to take on the art world by then.
. Q- Yes, the Scandinavian connection is still in the making! lol You’ve spent time in Germany, amongst other places recently. In light of the very public discussion over a lack of diversity in the arts, do you have any particular views or experiences that support a call for a greater degree of representation?
FS – I think all people who are of an ethnic background who live and work in the West feel underrepresented.
Of course that is something that needs to be addressed, as only last week, for the first time in a long time, there was a black family in anadvert (I believe it’s the new Samsung ad) and other black people noticed enough for them to comment.
It’s a sad state of affairs when that is a noticeably surprising occurrence on television in the 21st century, so how can we be too surprised when no black actors or directors are nominated for Oscars?
I think it was last year or the year before there was public outrage when Viola Davis was called “not classically beautiful”, as opposed to Kerry Washington. Both beautiful black protagonists in major US dramas, but I guess Viola’s features were considered too classically African to be classically beautiful?
As someone who studied dance and drama to degree level, I was very much used to being the token representative for my whole race in a lot of circumstances; or the class or project would reflect the country on a microcosmic ethnic level. It amused me, as stereotypically black people are artistically creative, yet I would always be 1 of 1 or 1 of 3 – from the age of 8-21.
Since I was a child representation has meagrely improved, or is still prejudiced to the point of subliminal, (i.e. Zayn Malik’s Pillowtalk video) so we can only continue to take a stand, make some noise and continually voice the injustice or our silence will be misconstrued as acceptance.
In 2012 I wrote a blog about the talented vocalist Nancy Goudinaki aka Nancy G. I’m glad to say one of my treasured recent gifts is a signed copy of her new album entitled ‘I Wanna Be Your Star.’ I’ve been listening to it quite a bit in my studio recently. I was quite excited to get the CD ! In addition to the great music, it has great sleeve artwork, a portrait of Nancy, by the very talented visual artist Gina Nelson.
The CD adds up to be a worthy addition to my ever-growing music collection and certainly lives up to expectations. Listening to the album only reminds me of Nancy’s talent, energy and natural synergy with jazz music; a unique development of moods, ambiances, and phrases. The album showcases her flexibility as an artist, her freedom of expression and the virtuosity of her band featuring Orrin Evans on Piano, Tenor Saxophonist JD Allen, Rudy Royston on drums and the late great Dwayne Burno on bass. The album also features the talents of vocalist Miles Griffith, percussionist Daniel Sadownick and bass player/album producer Richie Goods.
Each track is very different. Some, such as ‘Milonga’, appear to have a more authentically European and folk influenced through their orchestration while others such as Billie Holiday’s ‘Fine and Mellow’ have a rich classic component. Nancy’s vocal tone and style seems reminiscent of notable artists such as Abbey Lincoln or Lena Horne.
‘I Wanna be Your Star’ is template for any female jazz singer/songwriter. I’ve found it an intimate and emotional album that is uncompromising, intense and comforting. For further info on Nancy G visit www.jazzynancyg.com or to buy your own copy please http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/nancygoudinaki
Back in the UK and just in time for one of November’s highlights- The London Jazz Festival. The EFG London Jazz Festival is the capital’s biggest pan-city music festival, presenting famous world-class artists well as emerging stars who perform at notable venues such as the Barbican, Royal Festival Hall, Ronnie Scotts and the Albert Hall. The festival has being going since 1992 and emerged from the long-standing Camden Jazz Week created in 1970 by Serious, the live international music producers.
This year’s show includes a photography exhibition by David Redfern and the talented Edu Hawkins, which I encourage you to see if you’re local. Redfern, the only non American to feature in the Jazz Times ‘ Special Collectors Edition’ has selected just a small but quality selection of limited prints for sale. His career began in the twilight jazz clubs of 1960’s London, photographing artists such as Kenny Ball and George Melly. Further to his work on TV shows, nights spent at 100 Club, Marquee or Ronnie Scotts and being an official tour photographer, he has amassed a portfolio of work featuring icons of jazz such as Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Blakey and Duke Ellington.
The show runs for the duration of the festival (10th -24th Nov) at LONDON Southbank Centre / Foyer Spaces Belvedere Road London SE1 8XX. For further details on concerts and talks visit http://www.londonjazzfestival.org.uk/
You may have seen my video entitled ‘The Conversation” featuring the talented singer songwriter Lifford David Shillingford. Lifford is one of the UK’s most talented singer songwriters and I’m excited to see him on the verge of releasing a new EP and album later this year. ‘Sinking Swimming’ is the first release from Lifford’s down tempo solo project called Blue Dye – Soul Sessions.
His first release ,aged just 17, was a collaboration with MC Mushtaq on a track called ‘Take You Home’ which fuelled his new passion leading him to become the front man in a group called Public Demand. Public Demand was signed to ZTT through a development deal. During a writing trip in America the group penned a song that captured the interest of Trevor Horn who duly took the track into the studio. ‘Invisible’ was critically acclaimed as a breakthrough single and considered brave, mature and ahead of its time.
Lifford’s success continued with his collaboration with the Artful Dodger, most notably on the track ‘Please don’t turn me on!” He recently took time out of his busy schedule to have a chat about life and his chosen art form.
DEN: Congratulations on your track and forthcoming album. Tell me about your promotional schedule for the coming months?
LS: Thank you David, we have a busy few months in store with the release of an EP in the summer and an album later on in the year. My priority this year is to get some Soul music out for people to get into. Plans are taking place for a promotional tour in the summer to work along side the release of the EP with a launch party in July. Dates and times will be confirmed very soon. We’re just testing the water with this material to see how it’s received.
DEN: You gained success as the front man for Public Demand but you’re synonymous with the Artful Dodger and the tune “ Please Don’t Turn me on.’ What impact has it had on your career to date and has it been easy to follow on with equally successful songs?
LS: Yes Public Demand was a great time for me as was the Artful Dodger song. It gave me huge exposure and a great platform to work from which is still working for me today. It’s always hard to follow a massive tune with something equally as good. The group Artful Dodger was of its time and was the most successful Garage act with a platinum selling album. I’m happy with my writing now and have some gems to drop this year that I’m really looking forward to.
DEN: It’s been a few years now but are you in touch with the Artful D?
LS: Yes I’m touch with them all; they’re all doing different things but everyone’s well.
DEN: You’re a talented singer and songwriter. For me, your work reflects a truly sincere expression of feelings and emotions. Where do you gain your inspiration to produce material?
LS: Thanks David, I write about my life and the people around me, conversations I have and thoughts I process. I try to be as honest as possible about music and words. I find this so much easier than trying to create something I can’t relate to. I have to create honest music.
DEN: You’re open to discuss your experiences in dealing with depression. Would you mind talking about this and some of the charities you’re working with to help raise awareness of depression and mental illnesses?
LS: I’ve been suffering from depression since I was a child and its something that I’ve finally learned to deal with over the last few years. It’s a part of my life, sometimes more prominent than others. Depression has taken me to some dark places, questioning my self worth and my existence as seen on my blog but it has also helped to make me stronger, realizing and appreciating all that is good about my life too. I make a conscious effort to count my blessings and be around people who I feel good around. I have to keep an eye out for my triggers, the things which could make me take a fall or throw me off track but generally I’m managing it. Time to change have posted my blog up and have been really supportive as have been mental health charity ‘Mind.’ I’m also doing some speaking for some non-profit organisations for the youth, singing and sharing my experiences with mental health.
DEN: What have been the biggest obstacles if any in your career as an artist?
LS: The biggest obstacles for me as an artist would be funding without a doubt. Just getting someone to inject some cash into my projects is a lot harder than it was when I first started in this game.
DEN: You’ve collaborated with a number of recognised artists including Chaka Khan, Jocelyn Brown, Bluey (Incognito) Charlene Anderson and Omar. Are there any artists in particular who inspire you?
LS: I’m inspired by Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding, Nina Simone, Miguel, Antony Hamilton. Anyone who gives their all on and off stage.
DEN: Who ideally would you like to collaborate with?
LS: I’d love to work with Miguel, Antony Hamilton, Chaka Khan, Aretha Franklin, Al green, Marvin Gaye, Frank Sinatra, Bob Marley… anyone I could learn from .. Ooo could go on for days ..
I wish Lifford the greatest success and good fortune!