Monday, December 22, 2008
The Sacred Stomp: Nailah Live
You know if you were there December 7, Nailah's Jazz Bakery, Jazz on the Sacred Side debut was such a glorious explosion of light and sound, even in this cold weather we're having you probably still feel a glow two weeks out. I truly stayed lit up for days, and literally I just sat in the back of the club that afternoon, tickled, selfishly tickled that I just get to curate a series that personally brings me such joy and fills my soul so completely. Annie Lee captures my hallelujah time in one of my favorite paintings of hers below...
Thank you Nailah, for your voice, your lyrical vision, your choice of such a powerful band, featuring Deron Johnson on piano, Justin DiCenzo on bass, Paul Legapsi on drums, and Matt DeMerrit and Tracy Wannomae as a two man horn orchestra. These are the program notes from that magical afternoon....
There’s a ritual taught by the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, called “The Five Touchings of the Earth,” where gratitude is offered to all generations of blood family, to spiritual teachers and spiritual ancestors, to the land. The ritual then calls for a transmission of energy to all those you love as well as an offering of compassion and reconciliation for all who make you suffer. I mention this because you start talking sacred jazz with Nailah, you better be ready for something that feels like a five part Earth Touching ritual right before your eyes. Right away when I ask her what comes to mind when she hears the words “Sacred Jazz” she says it makes her think of all that the elders who started this art form had to endure “to play and sing and be musicians.” She says it must have been a sacred calling for them to be able to entertain in venues where they could not walk in the front door, perform in hotels where they were refused a night’s rest. She wonders out loud about the decision to claim the greater dignity of allowing God to speak through them, enabling them to perform for people who may not have recognized them as full human beings, “to me, that just makes it so sacred.”
Touching the earth...stomping the earth...that church foot stomp was one of the most memorable sounds for Nailah, as a girl in North Carolina, attending St. John’s CME. Though she was drawn to the music of the Southern Baptist and Pentecostal choirs, Nailah says there was an elder’s choir in her more reserved Methodist church that had a huge impact on her. It was informal. Somebody would stomp a foot, somebody would moan, someone cross the church would match the moan with a “heyyyyy’ then “all of a sudden you’d hear these crazy harmonies. Years later, I’m listening to African music and choirs and I heard those same harmonies...it dawned on me that the harmonies I grew up listening to in my church, that the elders would sing were passed down from the slaves.”
You hear that stomp, that rootedness to the south, the need to compassionately explore all the suffering and sweetness of her Carolina soil in Nailah’s lyrics. You will hear about her blood relations. Please listen for Uncle Cool Jack. When Nailah first moved to Los Angeles from D.C, to pursue her music full time, leaving behind a meaningful and lucrative career as a Capitol Hill lawyer, she had a moment of doubt so great she went back to the safety of her Uncle Cool Jack and Aunt Katie’s Winston Salem home. After telling them how hard it was out west in the industry, Uncle Cool Jack got quiet. And serious. Then says to his niece: “You know I was 45 before I could look a white man in the eye? You don’t know nothin’ about no pain. You better get back out there and finish what you started. Stand up and finish.” Have mercy. And thank god she listened. Nailah came back to Los Angeles, was emboldened by the proud and profound energy of Leimert Park’s Jazz community, fortified by the spiritual wisdom of her Agape community led by Reverend Michael Beckwith, and is here today with us transmitting the energy of all she’s experienced from North Carolina to Capitol Hill, to Culver City with love, with compassion, with gratitude.
"I do not fit into form, I create form"
This line from the poem “Papa, The Lean Griot” written by our Leimert park genius elder poet, Kamau Daaood, written in dedication to his Leimert Park genius elder jazz master, Horace Tapscott, resonates so sweet for me this week as I consider Nailah in the legacy of her genius elder vocalists who recently became spiritual ancestors, Odetta and Miriam Makeba. Nailah’s musical influences have given her permission to create her form rather than fitting into any one form. She gives praise to Sarah Vaughn for the fierceness as well as elegance of her instrument. She then swings from Sarah to Nona Hendryx, sharing how much she loved Labelle, but in that group she was always listening for the bottom, listening for Nona’s harmonies. And again the “fierceness of them stepping out in space suits!” I do not fit into form, I create form. Curtis Mayfield and Gil Scott Heron are teachers for their songwriting, their political insight and courage as well. Regarding Cassandra Wilson (who, I swear if my father were alive and heard Nailah sing...he’d say “Cassandra needs to step aside”...he’d say it with the greatest love for his Mississippi homegirl Cassandra and as the finest compliment to Nailah) Nailah gives thanks to Cassandra for making her “feel like it was okay to bring my southern roots into it....the space, the openness and richness of her voice...and somebody who says, you know, I don’t have to holler to be heard.” And, look, if there’s ever a drought, just play James Taylor singing “Carolina” for Nailah, and she will weep monsoon like tears for his soulful crooning about the home state they share and celebrate. Finally, Nailah lifts up Bill Withers, “He’s a black man with a guitar, singing simple songs about Grandma’s hands when everybody was doing funk?!” I do not fit into form, I create form. Nailah eases into the stomp and moan that begin Bill Wither’s “Grandma’s Hands” and the circle is complete. Touching the earth to remember and give thanks and transmit love and healing through song, that’s Nailah. Now, listen close....
For more on this extraordinary singer and to purchase her latest musical offering: “Life in Session”, please visit Nailah’s site: nailahmusic.com
Two books to check out referenced above are 1. Thich Nhat Hanh’s “Creating True Peace: Ending Violence in Yourself, Your Family, Your Community, and the World” and 2. Kamau Daaood’s “The Language of Saxophones.”