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Brooklyn's Jazz Renaissance

A Great Day in Brooklyn (organized by Ahmed Abdullah and Bob Myers). Photograph by Lem Peterkin. Courtesy of the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium.

In March 2003, Jazz at Lincoln Center hosted a forum titled “Jazz and Social Protest” that drew a predominantly black, standing-room-only crowd. Moderated by Robert O’Meally, director of the Center for Jazz Studies at Columbia University, the panel consisted of poets Sonia Sanchez and Amiri Baraka and trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater. All three artists made explicit statements against the war in Iraq. Coincidentally, three days later the Los Angeles Times ran an article by critic Don Heckman arguing that there were few jazz musicians out front against the war. From this, he concluded that despite some historic exceptions, the jazz world simply is not that political.

Of course, critics like Heckman who look for politics in song titles, explicit references to world events, or musicians’ commentary, invariably reduce politics to protest. But during the forum, Baraka insisted that the language of social protest obscures the real political meaning of the music. Indeed, the entire panel discussed jazz in terms of building community and sustaining African American culture, mentoring new generations in the tradition, recognizing the democratic, communal, even spiritual nature of jazz performance, and reclaiming and preserving this great African American art form.

If these issues really lie at the heart of the politics of jazz, then a revolution is taking place in Brooklyn. While predominantly white “downtown” audiences squeeze into the Blue Note or the Vanguard to be entertained by the hip, across the bridge Brooklyn’s black activists and artists are reclaiming the music’s roots and employing it for the political, social, and spiritual uplift of the community. Jazz is everywhere in central Brooklyn—at intimate nightclubs like Up Over Jazz Cafe, Pumpkins, and The Jazz Spot; at local coffeehouses like Sistas’ Place; in community centers; even in the house of the Lord. Brooklyn has its own black-oriented jazz magazine, Pure Jazz, edited by the tireless JoAnn Cheatham. And as anyone who has attended the annual Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival can tell you, the audiences for the music are predominantly black, representing all classes and ages. Quiet as it seems, reaffirming the music’s links to black community struggles and social transformation marks a radical challenge to jazz’s current trajectory, which has become deeply commercialized, rendered color-blind and apolitical, and promoted as American high culture.

The key force behind the Brooklyn revolution is the Central Brooklyn Jazz Consortium. Founded about five years ago by a group of black artists, activists, and entrepreneurs, including the late singer Torrie McCartney, trumpeter and composer Ahmed Abdullah, and veteran black community activists Viola Plummer and Jitu Weusi, the CBJC set out to promote “African American classical music” as a collective community project. The CBJC is made up of several club owners, nearly half a dozen churches, and a variety of community centers. More than a business venture, the CBJC was created to spread positive cultural values through the music. Bob Myers, owner of Up Over Jazz Cafe and an original CBJC member, explained, “This is the African way, to promote the culture through the music and arts, and to do so not in competition but in cooperation.”

What the CBJC is attempting to do has deep roots in Brooklyn’s history and its rich jazz heritage. Back in the day, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Lee Morgan, and others played at Brooklyn venues like Putnam Central, the Blue Coronet, the Baby Grand, Club La Marchal, or Tony’s Club Grandean. Trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Lee Morgan helped put Brooklyn on the global jazz map in 1965 with the release of Night of the Cookers, Vols. 1 and 2, recorded live at the Club La Marchal on Nostrand Avenue and President Street. Brooklynites enjoyed occasional concerts at the Paramount Theater, and many danced to big bands at the Elks or Sonia ballrooms. But this barely scratches the surface, for as longtime Brooklyn resident and former musician Freddie Robinson told me, “The music was everywhere. Every little corner bar had jazz.” Some of the better known joints were the Pleasant Lounge, Club 78, Kingston Lounge, and Club Continental.

Brooklyn jazz musicians have also been working cooperatively for at least a half century. Indeed, one of Myers’s models for the CBJC was Club Jest Us, a group of jazz musicians’ wives living in Brooklyn during the 1960s who worked collectively in order to secure gigs for their husbands. A decade earlier, Brooklyn-born pianist and composer Randy Weston recalled working with his neighborhood pals, including drummer Max Roach, to organize musicians’ collectives. Weston and other musicians learned a great deal about cooperation and self-reliance from his father, Frank Weston, who inspired young musicians at his restaurant with stories of Marcus Garvey, Africa, and the continuing struggle to uplift the black community.

During the 1960s and early 1970s, the late Cal Massey, an extraordinary composer and trumpeter, turned his Brooklyn home into a veritable community center. Besides writing explicitly revolutionary pieces like “The Black Liberation Suite,” Massey organized benefit concerts for the Black Panther Party that encouraged the full participation of the community, especially youth, by banning alcohol and providing free childcare. Around the same time, Jitu Weusi, founder and current chairman of the CBJC, promoted jazz as a cultural and political force to mobilize Brooklyn’s black community when he founded The East in 1969. Located in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, The East was a black cultural center where artists such as bassist Reggie Workman performed and held workshops for youth.

During the 1970s and 1980s, in the wake of the borough’s decline due to high unemployment, federal cutbacks, and drugs, black activists who sought to revitalize Brooklyn once again turned to jazz. The Bed-Stuy Restoration Corporation was one of those institutions that helped pave the way for the current Brooklyn renaissance. The Center for Arts and Culture at Bed-Stuy Restoration Corp, for example, trains young people in the art of jazz and runs the Skylight Gallery, where musicians frequently perform. Myers’s Up Over Jazz Cafe is also a space for community building. Neighborhood musicians work out ideas through open jam sessions, and Myers has even hosted several nights of “Hip Hop Meets Jazz,” where singing sensation Bilal jammed with friends, including the equally sensational pianist Jason Moran.

Perhaps the best-known and most politicized community space for jazz is Sistas’ Place on Nostrand and Jefferson Avenues. Run by a collective whose members have ties to political organizations such as the December 12th Movement and the Harriet Tubman/Fannie Lou Hamer Collective, Sistas’ Place hosts a wide range of cultural activities. Any given week one might hear the Sun Ra Arkestra or saxophonist René McLean, or check out a Sunday afternoon panel discussion on reparations for slavery or police brutality.

The jazz revolution in Brooklyn has not led to a distinctive “Brooklyn aesthetic,” largely because virtually all genres are represented—from bebop to avant-garde. Nevertheless, some general characteristics of the music and artists deserve comment.

The CBJC encourages young artists by hosting frequent open jam sessions and promoting conversations between jazz and other musical genres. During the 2003 festival, for example, BRIC Studio on Rockwell Place hosted DJ Logic performing with jazz musicians, and The Jazz Spot committed its entire March calendar to young women instrumentalists. The most important characteristic of the CBJC’s artistic vision is its reverence for black music and musicians throughout the African diaspora and on the continent. Following in the footsteps of native son Randy Weston, a pioneer in the movement to reconnect Africa with African American musical traditions, several of the festival performers incorporate African instruments, Afro-Latin and Caribbean rhythms, as well as various forms of black sacred music. Ultimately, if there is any essential principle behind the movement, it is to celebrate and reclaim black music for Brooklyn’s black community.

For CBJC cofounder Ahmed Abdullah, the very existence of black, community-based spaces for jazz is “regenerating.” Abdullah himself has helped to create these spaces by working closely with schools and churches. In February 2003, Concord Baptist Church held a well-attended tribute to Gigi Gryce and Randy Weston, at which elementary school kids sang Gryce’s “Social Call” and a teenaged band known as Friends and Strangers struggled valiantly with Weston’s best-known compositions. The predominantly black crowd embraced this music with the enthusiasm of a Sunday morning revival. For the last two springs, Concord hosted 100 Golden Fingers in Praise, a concert of sacred music led by pianist Barry Harris and at least nine other pianists, including Bertha Hope, Gil Coggins, and Valerie Capers. Besides Concord Baptist Church, several other religious institutions including St. Philips Episcopal Church, Our Lady of Victory Roman Catholic Church, Jane’s United Methodist, First Presbyterian Church, and Hanson Place Central United Methodist Church have hosted performances as part of the Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival. Last year, Brooklyn’s 651 ARTS and musical director Akua Dixon brought together a jazz ensemble featuring trombonist Craig Harris with the Total Praise Choir and rocked Emmanuel Baptist Church.

For many of the ministers involved with the CBJC, as well as for activists like Abdullah, bringing the music back to its roots in black communities is necessary, both for the music’s survival and for the community’s resurrection. No one is saying jazz ought to be the exclusive property of black folk; it never was. Instead, the music needs to be “allowed to grow in the atmosphere that nurtures its creative juices,” Abdullah explained. This is not a tale of protest but a story of social and spiritual liberation. And for Abdullah, and presumably most of the folks behind the Brooklyn revolution, thinking of jazz as a spiritually liberating force for a community in struggle can serve as a model for the rest of the world: “That’s what the music is about anyway. That’s why it’s loved around the world. That’s why I say in its true essence jazz is a music of the spirit.”

This article originally appeared in the Institute for Studies in American Music (Brooklyn College) newsletter:

Reprinted by permission of author.

The 2005 Central Brooklyn Jazz Festival runs through the end of April. For more information, go to: or call 718-875-1016.


Robin D. G. Kelley

Robin D.G. Kelley is professor of Anthropology and African-American Studies at Columbia University. His latest book is Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination (2003).


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2005

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