Saturday, September 19, 2020

Texas Notes: Jazz Break

Hamid Drake

     A musical interlude from our Austin bureau chief, Caren Jeskey.

     Ernest Dawkins and his ensemble took the Velvet Lounge stage and solemnly bowed to each of the four directions. Bedecked in intricately woven golden hued cotton and silk garb, fezzes, and dreadlocks, they began to play. Their hybrid of free jazz, funk and soul reached inside of us and elicited feelings we didn’t know we had. At one moment the upright bass soothed our souls, and in the next, bright sounds of a Treme-style trumpet kicked into full gear and had us on our feet.
     We were at the original Velvet Lounge on Indiana near 21st. With its exposed brick walls and red velvet wallpaper, and a collection of musicians and audience members who are there to truly listen and not just drink, it was a cozy and captivating place to be. When it relocated around the corner to a  swanker listening room on Cermak it still held its power. Fred Anderson, the proprietor, was one of Chicago’s jazz greats and endowed us with his brilliance. He was wise and generous enough to also treat us to a showcase of artists. Only the cream of the crop stood on his stage. When the glass door closed and the $20 cover was paid, patrons were expected to sit down and pay attention to the show, and that we did. Drinks were quietly and discreetly secured between sets. 
     Certain music elicits deep inner worlds where there are no words, but only mystery and  possibility. It shocks the listener into silence, first, by the sheer prowess of the voices and instruments and how they are used and second, by a huge sigh of relief that life can feel so darn good for a stretch of time.
     Hamid Drake is another gifted showman in our midst who I first met at Velvet Lounge— a percussionist extraordinaire. (By ours, I mean yours up in Chicago). He is a towering presence of power often adorned in clothing fit for a king and amulets with secret meanings. Though I more easily picture him in a chariot, one just might run into him at Starbucks on Lincoln and Wilson as I once did (as he sat to wait for his daughter who was in music classes at the Old Town School). The area around him seemed to be filled with a vibrating presence. Perhaps his drums followed him around? I wonder if having such genius in one’s mind takes up more space?
     Hamid’s discography is endless and includes work with The Mandingo Griot Society, Herbie Hancock, Pharaoh Sanders. He is dedicated to the creation of his art and COVID has not stopped him. This year marks the 30th consecutive Annual Winter Solstice Percussion Concert that Mr. Drake and his creative partner Michael Zerang will offer as way to bring reverence to that time of the year. It’s an experience designed to get us off of the conveyor belt of holiday chaos and into a quiet, reflective zone.
     I started going to these concerts back in my Velvet Lounge days, the early 2000s. At that time they were running for 3 days straight— the 21st, 22nd and 23rd of December— at Links Hall on the corner of Sheffield, Newport, and Clark. The first time I went I was hooked and returned as many times as possible year after year. We’d line up at about 4:30 a.m. to be sure we’d have a good place to sit. The doors opened at 5:30 or so, and we’d silently shuffle up the stairs, many of us clutching pillows and meditation cushions. When we entered the dark space, we could just make out two drum kits set on woven rugs in the center of the hardwood floored room. Hundreds of tea light candles surrounded the drum kits. Peppered all around the kits were frame drums, mallets, bells, shells, rattles and other music makers. Floor to ceiling windows overlooked the 'L' tracks.
     I’d sit on the floor as close to Hamid’s kit as possible. Hamid and Michael would silently walk in at about 6 a.m., sit down, and start to play. They'd play on and on through rumbling 
'L' trains as the sun came up. If I didn’t know better I’d think the trance we all fell into was drug induced, but it was not. When it ended we’d feel a sense of well-being, thanks to a combination of the steady, deeply resonant beats and the shared and joyful experience. We were wowed by the unique and unparalleled techniques we’d just witnessed. They played off of each other, speaking in the language of music. Sometimes it was delicate and tinkling, other times thunderous. There were also deep moments of silence. We felt we were hearing a lullaby that drowned out fears and doubts, and replaced them with an emptier mind with more space to rest and breathe. Whether we were heading to brunch or to work the rest of the day would be blanketed in a sense of calm. 
     This year I see that the show is planned to be held virtually at ESS, also known as Elastic Arts, in their Quarantine Concert Series. Who knows where we will be in December of 2020, this mad year? Instead of being glued to the revolution that very well may still be televised, perhaps we can consider taking a break.





10 comments:

  1. Another irreplaceable feature of Chicago life that I've completely missed out on. But I enjoyed the description nonetheless. As a long gone sportswriter said many times, "Woulda, coulda, shoulda."

    john

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    1. Yes! Chicago always had so much more going on than anyone coulda kept up with.

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  2. Caren, thank you for the musical memory. Singers and musicians inspire us and take us on a wonderful journey outside ourselves and our worries into another dimension. And I do believe those ones with genius and charisma occupy that "bigger space" you mention. Without knowing it, they touch those they pass with the sheer force of their personality. Treasure them. Sometimes their lives are not that long. When they leave our own lives are diminished.

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    1. They really do- they make life more worth living.

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  3. Oh, my...Pharaoh Sanders, who played with John Coltrane. That name brings back so many memories. I didn't see him perform live until the mid-Nineties, but Black musician friends introduced me to his music in the late Sixties. They were especially fond of his "Karma" album, which inclues the well-known piece entitled "The Creator Has A Master Plan"...

    The Creator has a master plan...
    Peace and happiness for every man...

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    1. I'll gladly take that one with me on this journey of life.

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  4. Yet another thing I miss. Every visit our son takes us to at least one musical venue. There are the big name places of course but there are so many “hole in the wall” venues that have incredible talent as well.

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    1. So very true! There was a defunct train station in Logan Square where I recall hearing some cool shows, the Hungry Brain, The New Apartment- so many.

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  5. Great memories. The Velvet Lounge was truly an experience, completely animated by Fred Anderson irresponsible spirit. I especially enjoyed the nights when Fred would play. And he did it all, taking money at the door, serving drinks, manually operating the cigarette machine. I loved the sign at the barm “Avoid Mistakes, pay when Ordering.” Once in my rush to get in for the show I mistakenly handed Fred a $50 for the two $10 covers, he found me at the bar ten minutes later after the music had started to give me the $50 back. As a white boy from the suburbs I hadn’t even noticed. What a guy.

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  6. Sweet memory! I actually talked to him on the phone about 2 weeks before he passed... what a strong spirit that man had!

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