By Herb Boyd
The Black World Today, June 2006
Harlem--Olu Dara, a folksy, multitalented performer, told listeners at the Jazz Museum here last Thursday that he was tired of playing music when he arrived in New York City in the mid-sixties, which is just about his age right now. But given his appeal and several generations of musicians in his family tree, it was a calling that neither he nor his ever-expanding legion of admirers was going to abide.
"I didn’t come to New York City to play music,” Dara (nee Charles Jones III) said between sips of a colored drink. “Basically I was tired of playing music since I had been performing since I was seven. Back then I was billed as ‘The Great Midget.’”
Olu Dara, second from the left, shares fond memories with Loren Schoenberg, to his right, and Wilhelmina Grant and Greg Thomas. Photo by Herb Boyd
The Great Midget is now among the giants of the performing arts, having made his mark as a jazz musician with such luminaries as the late percussionist/leader Art Blakey; as an actor in films and on stage; and fronting his own bands, including Okra Orchestra (“that’s my favorite vegetable”) and his current ensemble the Natchezsippi Band.
But another amusing facet in the Dara repertoire is his ability as a storyteller. And his mix of irreverent humor and insight kept the packed room at the Museum in stitches as they pondered his wit, never knowing when the griot was recalling a fact of his life or pulling their legs. When interviewer Greg Thomas asked him about coming of age in the small towns of Mississippi (he was born in Louisville but spent much his youth in Mississippi) if there was an outhouse on his farm, Dara chuckled a bit before responding.
“I didn’t appreciate our old outhouse,” he began. “It was too mysterious for me. I’d find somewhere else to relieve myself, behind a tree or in the bushes.” Furthermore, he added, “I didn’t like wiping myself with pages from a Sears and Roebuck catalog. I preferred cotton bolls. But you gotta be sure to get all the prickly stuff out of the boll before you use it.” This brought howls of laughter.
When Dara attended Tennessee State University he said he was first attracted there because of the marching bands, which unlike the major white institutions had a band that pranced with style and wasn’t confined to the music of march master John Phillip Sousa. “But it was often so cold that I was reluctant to press my lips against the cold metal of my horn,” he laughed. “There were so many in the band that I just pantomimed my part.”
There was no pantomiming when he later began performing in the Navy band, where he did a four year hitch, and later with the likes of Carlos Garnett, Henry Threadgill, Oliver Lake, Hamiet Bluiett, Bill Barron, Freddie Waits, Sam Rivers, and other prominent jazz innovators. “But Art Blakey was the best band leader I ever played with,” he declared. “He allowed me to fully express myself, to play what I felt.” Even so, Dara said he didn’t truly discover who he was, as a musician, until he left Blakey.
“Leaving Blakey was like leaving my mother,” Dara explained. “Not until you get out from under your mother’s wings will you find out who you are, where you can get your freedom to express who you are.”
And what about his children, particularly his son, Nas, the noted rap artist? “People always ask me how I might have influenced him, but it’s really how he’s influenced me,” Dara said. “He once told me that the music I was playing sounded like a soundtrack to a horror movie, and he was only seven then.” On several recordings, the father and son have blended their styles, which have worked to increase their following.
Dara said he never practices on the variety of instruments at his command, including guitar, cornet, harmonica, and an assortment of horns from Africa and Australia. “I guess it’s because of I started playing music with a man named Evander Kinds,” he recalled. “He would hum a passage and ask me to play it back on my horn, and that’s the way I learned to play and to read music.”
That process has evolved over the years, giving Dara all the largesse he needs in concert with a poet such as Rita Dove, playwright Oyamo, or dance legend Dianne McIntyre. “I remember when I first met Dianne, she assumed I could play every instrument, so I went over the piano and hit a string of notes, and it worked for her. It was the first time someone gave me credit for being human.”
Ms. McIntyre, who was recently saluted for her contributions to the arts, is just one among many who now recognize Dara’s humanity, even if, as his name is known in Yoruba as “Good God, hit me, I can’t stand myself.”