Chapter four – Buffalo Renaissance


Buffalo Renaissance

Winding up back in Buffalo after three years of cultural starvation was like coming in from the desert to an all you can eat buffet in Emerald City. It was a time when there was a lot of grant money out there for arts programs that integrated into communities.

I read about the Buffalo Jazz Workshop holding free learning lab type of events every Saturday. Jazz. Of course I didn’t really need to do this. I guess I knew a whole lot about music already. After all, I had been playing Virginia Holiday Inns for years. But I showed up with my blue drum and met the leader – a short man with caramel colored skin, bald head except for a shallow row of fringe which he braided into a skinny little pigtail down his neck. There was a twinkle in his eye like they say Santa Clause has and his face was in a perpetual state of patient, quiet, bemusement summed up with a permanent little grin and one exquisite dimple. This was Al Tinney. All musicians in Buffalo in the 70s, 80s and 90s list Al Tinney as a major influence in their work. Sheer dumb luck that that I found myself in his class.

The other learners were male except one woman learning bass. All kinds of instruments and their players were attracted to this group. I learned to tell soprano, alto and tenor saxes apart, coronet from flugelhorn from trumpet and a whole new vocabulary.

It wasn’t a class where you sit down, look at a blackboard and talk about things. You came in, set up your axe (instrument). Al handed out lead sheet charts (the melody written on staff paper with chords over the melody) and we played. We worked on a lot of bop standards – “Blue Bosa” and “Song for My Father” are two I remember. First you play the head (the melody as written) and then you play the whole song over and over while one at a time each horn player, guitarist and pianist took a turn with a solo (making up a new melody over the same chord changes) The closest thing I ever heard Al get to slightly forceful was when one of the horn players took a solo and Al stopped the music and said to the horn player, “Don’t you blow scales in here. That’s for the woodshed.”

Soloists, all musicians, are supposed to practice scales at home, preferably back in the woodshed where you wouldn’t bother anyone. Lordy Lordy if you have ever heard anyone practice scales for hours on end then this needs no further explanation. Most people know one scale – the major scale of do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do like in the “Sound of Music”. In the big wide world, over the centuries, many musicians created and worked with with hundreds of scales. Using just the do re mi scale (that I am betting almost every piece of music you have ever listed to is based on) is like going to a gourmet restaurant and always ordering a burger and fries. Jazz pioneers look to all kinds of assemblages of notes (scales or modes) from which to draw inspiration. Al’s ears were so keenly trained he could hear the guy playing an already created assembly of notes – a scale – instead of just letting his inspiration live there in the moment. Some brain scientists interested in music have categorized jazz improvisation as requiring the most instantaneous cognitive resources and therefore, a very intelligent brain. Okay there is classical Indian raga improvisation but chronologically I don’t know about that yet and besides there are a lot more rules in that genre. With jazz you make up your own rules.

While the others were blowing solos, Al came to the rhythm section (piano and/or guitar, bass and drums) and show by pantomime or singing out parts where the ‘pocket’ was. Sometimes he sat at the piano and demonstrated how to comp (jab chords at just the right time, not so much that the soloist would be drown out, but enough to support or egg him on to new ideas). He could do that by using substitutions (chords that were sort of like the ones on the paper, usually having a note of melody in it, or maybe extending it) (I see my quota of parenthesis is almost used up).

Al Tinney showed me how to swing on the conga. A simple sounding statement, but very vast. Al didn’t have conga chops (okay, one more – chops are your technique, your muscle memory. You get there by wood shedding). Al said several times “the bass keeps the time.” One might think that the drummer is the one to keep the rhythm. He made a strong point about everyone keeping themselves keyed into the bass.

When the tune is ready to end, the leader gives a signal to return to the head or go back to the top. Everyone plays the straight ahead melody as in the beginning, with just a dash or two of raggedy fills left over from the solos. Next time you see a jazz group or any group where there are solos going on, watch for the signal from the leader. It could be a point to his/her head or just a dip of his/her instrument just before the last solo ends. That’s how musicians know it’s time to end the tune. That is the basic form of playing, but like everything else in jazz, it begs to be expanded upon. Some sort of musicality soaked into my skin which was still white, but sometimes felt like it shouldn’t be.

So who was Al Tinney? It turns out he was a phenomenally influential pianist and musical theoretician in the Harlem jazz scene from 1939 to 1943. He played at a club called Monroes. Band members included drummer Max Roach and tenor player Charlie Parker. If you know anything at all about jazz you are now realizing that I have just dropped two huge names. But they were Al’s to drop, not mine. Many of the top players of the era came to hear him play regularly there at Monroes while they were in process developing their own style including Dizzie Gillespie, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk and many others who have stated that Al was a big part of that.

In a video-history titled The “Al Tinney Project” produced by James Patrick in June 1995, Max Roach attested to the significance of Al Tinney and the fact that in the early 1940’s Tinney was further advanced than bebop innovators Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. “When we were working at Monroe’s uptown house, Bud was on the scene, but he wasn’t the dominant force that Allen was. He [Tinney] was the piano [player] of note during that time. He was a very important person in there – and even more important than Charlie Parker and Victor Coulsen in that band.”

“His improvisations were harmonically advanced for the period when, between 1939 and 1943, he had most effect. His playing was light, flowing and occasionally percussive and it seems likely that he influenced the developing style of Bud Powell. Tinney evolved his modernism on his own, without any palpable influences.”

I didn’t know any of this when studying with him at the Buffalo Jazz Workshop. But when I would go out to hear him play I know that his solos made me feel good. It was the first time I ever laughed out loud at a musical joke.

Out at gigs, musicians on break would quote him and tell stories they’d heard. But you couldn’t squeeze a story from Al from back in the day. One night after a gig in the all-night diner musicians usually went to for breakfast, I had the courage to ask him about Billie Holiday and if he ever played with her.

“Yea, Billie…”voice fading off. “You know when I got back from the Army so many musicians were dead from from drugs. I got out.” That’s why he moved to Buffalo, he told me.

Other times, when Al wasn’t there, stories abounded. While I nursed an orange juice til 5am (any bathroom scale will tell you not to eat at night) I watched as the city’s primo musicians dipped toast points into runny sunny-side-ups and tell the one about the flat tire, the one about the time he forgot to put his axe in the case and got to gig with no instrument, the one about showing up at the wrong club, showing up at the right club and it was closed, all of us bending over in laughter and then coming up with one more. Maybe if I wasn’t there the conversation would have turned more toward woman “fans”, but of course I don’t know that. I was usually the only “chick” that hung around. It was one of my favorite things to do – so fun to wind down after a gig, like a cigarette after sex, only better.

Maybe because of Al or maybe because the planets were aligned, for whatever reason Buffalo had a remarkably lively and abundant jazz scene. The more clubs that offered it, the more it was played on the radio, the more people wanted to hear it. For a while there was an incredible room downtown at the Statler Hotel that had very big name players and some of the gigs were broadcast live on WBFO hosted by John Hunt.

One of the names who played that I remember is legendary guitarist, Kenny Burrell, who, when I asked him on a break, some dumb question like, “What do you feel like when you play?” he was kind enough to acknowledge me. He raised his eyes up and said something which I don’t remember. What I do remember is the look upward the slight shake of his head as if to say “No words.” But there was this momentary look of exhalation that gave me chills and is still with me today.

I also distinctly remember watching Mary Lou Williams play on a grand piano. She composed for Duke Ellington and Dizzy Gillespie. Did you catch that? They played her music. She was the first featured woman instrumentalist I had ever heard of, much less play. She was very stately.

One night I was home listening to the live Statler broadcast. Marion McPartland was playing. (still going strong at 90 with her “Piano Jazz” program on NPR) After a time she announced over the air that if there were any musicians listening who wanted to sit in, they were welcome. …5 minutes to find some clothes and pack my drums… 15 minutes to drive downtown and 10 minutes to find parking and schlep the drums in. Can you believe I was the only one who showed up to play with her? She invited me to set up the drums on stage and had them miked before she even heard me play! She was beyond gracious. In my memory it was the moment I felt like a professional musician. On gigs I would sing as well as play, but this was just about the drumming. It was so cool not to have to prove that my gender was capable of playing. I played the whole last set with her. She announced my name on the radio. I can’t say enough about her nonthreatening/non-threatened demeanor. I was only good enough at that point to not not make mistakes. That was all I wanted. I reached my goal. After the set I accepted the very sincere thank you from Mrs. McPartland (yes that’s right. SHE thanked ME)

She was there with a trio. The drummer played very sensitively and gave me lots of room. In other words, he didn’t play constantly but rather left empty spaces so that that I could add a little fill now and then. I struck up a conversation with him. He was a very sturdy, not tall black man with with large round eyes. He had some nervous energy but at the same time there was something very comfortable about him. After the gig he and I went for breakfast (orange juice) at the hotel restaurant. As my grandmother would say, he was always a perfect gentleman. He was simply a guy on the road, happy to have someone to rap with. He was Roy Haynes. Jazz aficionados– close your jaws.

Roy Haynes was in the heart of the new heavy hitting black jazz body. He played regularly with John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, Sarah Vaughn and Stan Getz. Also played and/or recorded with Chick Corea, Miles Davis, Thelonius Monk, Pat Methany, Sonny Rollins and um…Susan Slack.

When he played with Marion McPartland I remember how tenderly he played using brushes instead of sticks. He said he was there for the music, for the person who hired him and so he blended with what ever was being played. No wonder he is the most recorded jazz drummer ever. If you get a chance to hear him on John Coltrane’s “Newport” album you will hear how he totally cuts; takes it out. Now there is an artist. He came through town several times after that and I tried to get to as many of his gigs if I wasn’t working myself. He always seemed happy to see me and we talked late into the night. He reminisced very little about the past, but more about what he was working on – new cymbals, new sticks, new toms, whatever.

I got to talk with other musicians but after a while it got strange. There was an underlying thing going on. I was working with the assumption that as jazz musicians we were all in this big club and it was fun to talk about music. When the subject of ‘let’s take this party home’ I was always disappointed that the talks were leading up to undone zippers rather than the fellowship of the gig. Maybe it came unexpectedly because so many of the guys I had hung with in the City were gay. But now in retrospect I see that I probably wouldn’t have been sitting at their table had I not been a ‘pretty girl’. Guy musicians were not usually invited to the tables. In those days it was understood that I had something to repay for taking up their famous time.

Taking this a step further, they really didn’t owe me or anyone else anything other than the music they played on stage, for which we paid admission. That was the contract. They didn’t know me. I didn’t know them except through their music and celebrity. And also by their genre. Jazz musicians are the cowboys of the music world, the Marlon Brandos of show business (Brando on motorcycles, not on Krypton). They roam the wilderness, free to be where they want to be, sleeping under the stars, reaching for them. Cowboys and motorcyclists all get saddle sores, but as a fans we only get to see them romantically riding into the sunset. I decided that this was not what I wanted to be – a perpetual fan. Probably, like many fans of many celebrities, I wanted to live their lives in some way. Their talent could rub off on me inspirationally but since that was only 10% of the endeavor it was time to find a wood shed.

This was a very exploratory time for myself personally and for the country, both in politics, the arts and socially. There were lots of cowboys and cowgirls out there finding new ways to do just about everything. Again I went with a flow bigger than myself without knowing it. One of the best places to explore, bar none, is the public library. Found books that taught me how to read music. Found lots of music to listen to that I had never heard before. I could sample everything for free. One record that found its way into my hand had a blurry cover picture of an African man with colorful clothing titled, “Drums of Passion”. Could not for the life of me remember the name of the artist. When I put the big flat record on the little portable record player, something came out of the itty bitty little speakers that, although I didn’t know it, would change my life. And of course, me not being an island, I surfed society along with everyone else no matter how much I wanted to be Dale Evans (historical reference – hey if you don’t know who Dale Evans was I am sorry for you. She was a TV cowgirl with fringe skirts and boots and she was married to Roy Rogers) So being unconscious of the fact that there was a national interest in this music, although in it’s very early infancy, I put it on my little record player and listened. Wild. Exotic. Exciting. Passionate. Frightening. African drums. Foreign and yet something that felt like home more than anything I had ever heard; something I had waiting for but was already inside me. Sounds like what someone would say when they meet their soul mate. Heck yeah, that’s what it was.

Of course I had to pursue this. How? I heard about a dance/drum class at the Allentown Community Center which I consequently attended regularly. At first the dance classes offered Graham technique, whatever that was. Classes were accompanied by live conga drumming and one could sit in with them and receive some instruction from their leader, Emile Latimer who played with Nina Simone and Richie Havens. After a good while of attending these classes I was asked by Buffalo State College if I cared to accompany classes for their dance department. I did. In addition to bringing in money I also got to hear lectures on the history of modern dance. Isodora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Doris Humphry, Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham – all cowgirls! Reaching for expression as none had done before. Martha Graham: The one who was responsible for the all my sore muscles. Her technique is rigorous, demanding more than just muscles. It required an internal commitment, cutting deep into the flesh.

I auditioned for a summer job at Artpark in Lewiston, NY about 45 minutes from Buffalo. Just follow the Niagara River after it falls. That plunge of water created a huge gorge – want to say gorgeous here, but I just won’t go there. How about: a small natural wonder running for miles and serving as inspiration for thousands; walls of ancient layers of rocks, strip teased by the surging water to expose itself after millions of years, a little bit of beautiful formations at a time every thousand or so years. Nestled along side this landscape was and is, Artpark, richly funded and well acred. There were several aspects to it including large sculptures or “installations” all over the place, an open air wooded structure in the shape of an L, romantically called ‘the L’ with just a roof and several levels of platforms (a really clever and fancy staircase to accommodate the hilly terrain) and several little workshops where artisans made instruments and pottery and jewelry and classes of all kinds were offered including story telling, mask making and dancing. The main structure on the property was a large performance space with a state of the art stage with seating for 2,400 inside with a roof over your head and 2000 more on the lawn when the rear wall was raised. I did not audition for this stage. I did try out for the first A.R.T. – Artpark Repertory Theatre. I got the gig after lying down about my age which needed to be 25 or younger and I beat the limit by one year. Guess what I did for my audition piece? Never mind guessing, I’ll just tell you – two of the stories I had learned for the bookmobile. Ha! You never know. Our company performed two or three 45 minute shows for families out in the meadow. The genre was called storytheatre, a mix of story telling and children’s theatre.

Every morning everyone in the ART company was expected to meet way up at the back of the big theatre and take mime lessons. The skill was useful for performances and was also a good bonding/warm up. Yes. I did say mime. You know, walking a dog that is not there; pushing against a wall that is not there. To this day, if you ever find yourself in a situation where you have to tell a deaf/hearing impaired person that someone is stuck in an empty refrigerator box – just call on me. I’ve got your back on that one.

I actually liked it but after a while the other people didn’t show up so I went to that same place myself to warm up. There was usually a rehearsal held by the visiting featured artists going on way down below on the stage. I got to dance to several classical groups – just them and me. Very magical. A lot of wonderful dance companies also visited Artpark that summer: Jose Limon Company, Alvin Ailey and the Martha Graham Company. While they warmed up on stage, I warmed up right along with them, hoping they couldn’t see me way up there, or if they did they would mercifully avert their eyes.

On one such day I was cutting through the backstage dressing room area. We weren’t supposed to but it was the shortest distance between two points and I was running late. I passed one of the dressing rooms with an open door and of course I let my peripheral vision scan it. And then it happened. This whole part about Artpark is leading toward this major name dropping event. As I walked past the dressing room, there she was, Miss Martha Graham, she and I breathing the exact same air in that one instant. Too much backstage training training for me to even think about stopping or saying anything. But if I did what would that be? “Hi Miss Graham. I really like your dance technique” or “ Tell me a little about Aaron Copeland” or how about “Oh golly, I’m so thrilled to meet you.” Would she be thrilled to meet me? Would she really want to talk to someone in a pink mime jacket and pigtails with a tendency toward over exuberance who was willing to show her how to pick a flower that wasn’t there? What is your guess?

So I had two, maybe three seconds alone with Martha Graham. I slowed down my gait, turned both eyes in her direction and took a mental photograph. She was seated a bit more than profile to me and I could see her back in the mirror behind her. She wore a long black gown with some sparkly gold dappled through it; hair pulled back and tied with a black ribbon. Her head was bowed down slightly toward her hands which were together, lifted slightly and semi covered in black cloth. I could tell that her hands were disfigured from arthritis. Past the age of 80, she was in full stage make up, red lips above her pronounced chin. In this private moment that she kept, her frailness was less apparent than the pride and history that she embodied. This photograph, this masterpiece still thrives in my internal gallery and I am truly thrilled every time I look at it.

Meanwhile back in Buffalo, dance and drum classes were continuing. Steve Porter, the Director of that program at the Allentown Community Center, made a connection along the way with Miss Pearl Reynolds. She was a member of the Katherine Dunham Dance Company which introduced powerful African & Caribbean movement and music to white America, and returned it to black and brown Americans who might have forgotten. Miss Dunham had been an anthropologist as well as dancer and as she traveled, my guess is that she saw what commonalities there were in the movements and then synthesized exercises that would teach the American body how to do other than the ‘twist’, the foxtrot’ and the ‘whatever’ that had recently become so popular. Pearl Reynolds was in the original company. She was invited give master classes to us every few months. Even if you forgot which day she would be there, you could always tell because everyone had on their best leotards and there was much less socializing. We lined up without a cue. As Miss Reynolds walked into the studio I tried not to breath too loudly. I had never encountered a woman like that. Her face was dark with big round cheekbones and full lips. Her eyes were piercing and focused. She dressed in exotic African clothes. Today if someone were to say to me “African” anything, I more likely than not will ask in a self-righteous, passive aggressive sort of way, what country? What tribe? But back then it was just African – the colorful head wrap and skirts of bold print fabric tucked into itself at the waist; sometimes even ankle jewelry.

More important, she wore regal poise. When her bare feet carried her into the room all stood taller. Without a hello, she counted off to the drummers “five six seven eight” who picked up the rhythm where the next ‘one’ would be and they did not stop for an hour. We went through the litany of standing exercises designed by Miss Dunham, then go to the bar (the ballet barre, silly, not the tap room) and do more. Pearl Reynolds had absorbed all this from Katherine Dunham directly and now we were absorbing from Miss Reynolds.

Forty years later I ran into a woman who had also been in those classes at Allentown in Buffalo. We both spontaneously remarked that Pearl Reynolds was the first black woman we had ever worked with that had commanded such respect just by presence and dignity. She broke a stereotype we didn’t know were were holding onto. Miss Reynolds succumbed to cancer not too long after those master classes, although neither of us heard about it for a long time. All those years, both of us expecting that she was alive somewhere. And so she was.

The teacher, however great, can never give his knowledge to the pupil; the pupil must create his own knowledge.”

Hazrat Inayat Khan


About susanslackblog

Author, drummer, vocalist, dancer
This entry was posted in Buffalo New York, Memoir and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Chapter four – Buffalo Renaissance

  1. Joe says:

    I loved reading what you wrote about Al Tinney. I was a student at Bufdfalo State in the early 1980s and was blessed to have a friendship with Al. As you know, he was as lovely a person as he was a pianist and that is saying a lot! Thanks.

  2. Jerry Raven says:

    Your blog is enchanting (of course a word I always use). Thanks for the Season Card. Tell me more of your adventure into Shabbos Services. material, tunes etc.
    Jerry Raven

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