It’s August already! The year seems to be flying by. The summer has been a mixed bag of events but it’s also been a period visiting galleries, gaining inspiration and working on a few pieces including the musical themed works above. This follows the recent work with Darryl Yokley on ‘Pictures at an African Exhibition.’ Please visit Darryl’s site for the CD and further details. I’m looking forward to sharing a wider spectrum of work with you over the coming months. So, for the time being, just keeping up appearances and reaching out! Wishing you and yours a happy, healthy and relaxing month ahead.
The result of my collaboration with Darryl Yokley is released this April 20th and all involved are excited with up and coming performances and promotional events in New York and beyond. Keep an eye out on Darryl’s website for updates. I hope to see some of you at these gigs! The first single ‘Ubuntu’ will be streaming on band camp. You can download the single by visiting this link and pre-ordering a physical or digital copy of the album. Wishing you a great day!
Saying hi and hoping you’re having a healthy, happy and positive week so far.
I’m looking forward to being in London this week for the EFG London Jazz Festival. Again, the line-up includes a number of great artists including Herbie Hancock, Marcus Miller, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Pat Metheny and Robert Glasper.
Celebrating its 10th year, the Festival’s signature opening-night gala showcases a stellar cast of voices performing incredible tunes in this celebration of singing and song. The list of past guests stretches from Boy George, Jacob Collier and Paloma Faith to Gregory Porter, Dee Dee Bridgewater and Kurt Elling.
Guy Barker’s 42-piece orchestra will provide the setting for a star-studded clutch of vocalists, including Seal, Liane Carroll, Mica Paris, Miles Mosley, Tony Momrelle, Vanessa Haynes, Angélique Kidjo and Mads Mathias in a spectacular celebration of the singer and the song, playing Guy’s arrangements that continue to thrill and surprise.
A great time to be in London, despite the cold weather! For further info please visit the official London Jazz Festival website.
One thing I love about New York is the number of talented artists it hosts, particularly jazz musicians of pure quality and depth. One of these is Philadelphia’s Duane Eubanks, an extraordinarily talented jazz trumpeter, composer, arranger, producer and recent recipient of the Philadelphia Education Fund EDDY Award.
Knowing he has also performed with mutual friends, I’ve been following his career and have the pleasure of owning his albums “Things of that Particular Nature” (2015-Sunnyside) and “DE3-Live at Maxwell’s (2016-Sunnyside). I recently had the pleasure and honour to speak to him about his career to date and what’s next on the horizon.
One of the questions artists are asked is how they chose their medium but we already know it’s in your blood; Your mother is pianist Vera Eubanks and your brothers are celebrated trombonist Robin Eubanks and guitarist Kevin Eubanks. I guess my first question is why did you choose the trumpet over any other instrument?
I have a twin brother, Shane… He and I began playing music at the same time. Our brother, Kevin, played trumpet before he played guitar. Robin has always played Trombone. My twin is taller than me by 6 inches, our brothers had old instruments at home so, when it was time to choose instruments, Shane got the longer instrument (the trombone) and I got the shorter instrument – trumpet. I think each instrument has a certain personality that relates to prospective musicians that play them. I feel a special connection to the trumpet. My height was a plus in this situation.
You decided to read business at the University of Maryland. Did you always see yourself becoming a musician and was that choice purely for academic merits?
I studied Business in college because I was fairly good at maths and was impressed by my dad’s corporate dealings and the level of stability with which he lived his life. I was very confused about being a musician when I entered college. I wasn’t even playing when I entered college. I had my years of teenage rebellion and I stopped playing for 6 years (14-20). I missed the very formative years so I had to work really hard to get my playing on a certain level. My brother, Shane, convinced me to join the school band and I became obsessed with the instrument and thus a change of heart in terms of my lifelong ambitions.
Describe your experience studying jazz at Temple University with Dr Billy Taylor and subsequently working with Mulgrew Miller’s Wingspan?
My time at Temple was specifically an attempt to prepare myself for my move to New York. I wanted to be on a certain musical level before I made the move. Temple University awarded me the time to learn and practice. It also awarded me the opportunities to meet and perform, through master classes, with Dr. Billy Taylor and Wynton Marsalis.
I had the absolute honour to perform with the great Mulgrew Miller. I was a member of his band, Wingspan, for ten years. Words cannot express the gratitude I have for Mulgrew taking me under his wing. I grew immensely from this experience and learned in abundance about the realities involved in being a musician, bandleader, and I got to witness, first hand, a genius at work and how he carried himself as a human being. It was a blessing that has shaped me as a musician and I will NEVER forget the experience or him.
You are a recipient of the Philadelphia Education Fund EDDY Award. Can you explain the initiative/award further and the importance music education plays in furthering the careers of young musicians?
The Philadelphia Education Fund stands very firmly for all aspects dealing with high quality education. They are advocates for quality teachers, quality learning environments and the overall quality of students’ learning experience.
I received an EDDY award as an advocate for education. It was an honour to be chosen along with my brothers, Robin and Kevin, to receive this education award. Education is the key to our nation’s future. I have accepted the responsibility to share the information that I have gained through my years of experience to ensure the proper information is passed in order to sustain the high level of the music that I love. The generations before me did the same so I could learn. Prospective musicians have a right and a responsibility to learn and those with the experience have a responsibility to share/teach. I, personally, put the responsibility on both student and teacher.
That’s very admirable and congratulations on receiving the award. I’ve heard American jazz artist talk about the popularity of the genre declining but surely this isn’t the case? Moreover, jazz continues to be very popular globally. What’s your view?
I think the popularity of jazz will always be an issue being discussed. Many have no idea that jazz WAS the popular music in the early part of the century. It has lost its place in popular music but is still very relevant to a number of people. If it wasn’t , there wouldn’t be so many musicians trying to learn the art form. In Europe, where I think cultural values and advances are praised, supported, and upheld, communities have far more access to things of artistic expression (music, art, literature, etc.) I don’t see that kind of dedication to the uplifting of the minds of the American people. Jazz music gives the listener the opportunity to open their minds, think freely, and absorb a different approach to a general situation. The emphasis on the importance of the arts has been gravely overlooked. I think it’s hindering the advancement, exposure, and the quality of the arts and society as a whole.
To date, not only have you worked in jazz but across many genres, at many venues and with a number of notable artists. What has been the highlight of your career to date and why?
I am extremely proud of the fact that I have worked in many different genres of music in many different settings. I think it is very important for musicians to keep an open mind when it comes to crossing genres when performing. It allows you to grow as an artist and opens yourself to prospective fans of your craft. I have to say that working with the legendary Elvin Jones would have to be at the top of the list. I constantly thank my man, Bassist, Gerald Cannon for making it possible for me to be a part of Elvin’s band. I still wear the shirts we had to wear. I got to witness, first hand, the spiritual element of the music. I guess it was easy for him from playing so many years with John Coltrane, but it was an awesome experience to watch him play his heart and soul every night on every tune. It made me aware of the fact that music is spirit and the lack of it in today’s artists.
Who is at the top of your list to work with next if you’re given the opportunity?
Work with next? I have ALWAYS been on a mission to learn as much as possible from my predecessors. I have a list of guys in mind…. George Cables, Victor Lewis, Billy Hart, Harold Mabern, to name a few. I have worked with Dave Holland’s Big Band. I would love to experience that again and would embrace the opportunity to do a smaller group with him. I would also like to do a something different like 3 trumpets with incredible talents that walk with humility (no ego – I can’t do egos, especially trumpet egos) perhaps Josh Evans and Roy Hargrove… that would be fun.
I forgot to add, working with my brothers Robin and Kevin. I think that is something not only I would look forward to but many in the industry as well. Also Roy Haynes!! The thing about music is that there are plenty of ways to learn, people to learn from and plenty of music to make.
Following the successful release of ‘DE3: Live at Maxwells’ and ‘Things of that Particular Nature’ when should we expect another album?
I am very proud of my latest releases. They were well received and a lot of fun to produce. They were much needed learning experiences. You can expect something in 2018. I am performing a weekend at Smalls December 15 & 16. These dates may become commercially released performances.
Are you happy to share anything else currently in the pipeline?
Someone very wise and very close to me advised me not to share everything that I was up to. While you are working out your plans, someone has already implemented them. I am working on music for a number of recording ideas. One specific recording project I am really excited about. Everyone will know when things get put into motion. I now realize the importance of being creative when promoting myself. That being said, we did a mini documentary with the intention to draw some attention to my willingness to teach. This mini documentary has been accepted by a few independent film festivals. In general, keep your ears open for future recording projects. They are coming!
I look forward to witnessing more from Duane and wish him the very best with his career. For further information please visit his website. www.DuaneEubanks.com
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.
For further info on the festival please visit http://stluciajazz.org
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 Jazz Moon, 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.
I thank Joe for his interview and wish him well with his book. For further info please visit http://www.joeokonkwo.com