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The Jazz Museum took a giant step on Thursday, December 21, 2006 with the appearance of NBA legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar as the honored guest for its 65th Harlem Speaks event, held for the first time at the Museum of the City of New York (MCNY). Introductory remarks were offered by by MCNY president and director, Susan Henshaw Jones event host Maxx Myrick of XM Satellite Radio, and Lloyd Williams, President of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce and new addition of the jazz museum’s board. They then welcomed Jazz Museum in Harlem Co-Directors Loren Schoenberg and Christian McBride. McBride led the interview along with jazz writer Larry Blumenfeld.
Next the towering guest appeared, to thunderous applause. Williams told Kareem that the people of Harlem love and respect him, and are happy that he’s moved back home. And that not only was he an inspiration as an athlete, an author, actor, and long-time supporter of classic African-American music, but that Williams himself stood on the shoulders of Kareem’s father.
When Williams was a cocky teenager attending Brooklyn Tech high school he, on a whim, decided to pass through the train turnstiles uptown without paying the fare. Jabbar’s father, a police officer, slammed him against the wall and asked for his identification. Once he saw that Williams attended the prestigious school, he said, “So you must have some sense, young man. You’re never going to do this again, are you?” “No sir!” was the quick reply. Not long thereafter William’s grandmother took him to see a performance in which Jabbar’s father was playing drums! Williams found out that Jabbar’s father, Ferdinand Lewis Alcindor, Sr. knew his family very well, so when he and his grandma approached the band stand after the set, he was apprehensive. His grandmother says, “Have you met my grandson?” “Yes,” said Kareem’s father, “and he’s a fine young man.”
Jabbar spoke with candor and fond memories about his young years growing up in Harlem and Inwood, where “there was always music on the turntables. Eckstine, Sarah, Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Duke.” Louis Armstrong tickled his early fancy, because “he was swingin’. He was cool.” His parents were very much into bebop, and were ensconced in the jazz music community. Jabbar recalled babysitting for drum great Ben Riley when Riley played with Thelonious Monk. That association led to Jabbar attending performances at the Village Vanguard for free. He and a teen friend would get a kick out of imitating Monk’s dancing and idiosyncratic arm movements, which alarmed Vanguard owner Max Gordon because of the notorious laws forbidding dancing in clubs without a cabaret license.
Other highlights of the discussion included: remembrances of shows at the Apollo featuring Sarah Vaughan, “Little” Stevie Wonder, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane; Sugar Ray Robinson’s waving at kids from his lavender Lincoln Continental convertible; Art Blakey, looking up at the tall teenager and saying to his father, “You mean this is the little kid in the stroller?”; his book and documentary, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” about the influence of the Harlem Renaissance on American culture and his own life; connections between jazz and basketball, and how jazz was the soundtrack he heard in his mind when practicing and playing ball; his mentorship by his high school coach, and UCLA basketball legend, John Wooden (“a saint who didn’t have a biased bone in his body”); how playing with Irish basketball players in high school taught him to leave friendship at the edge of the court; why he converted to Islam from his Catholic upbringing; his early historical research experience at the Schomburg Center in 1964 as sports editor of a teen Harlem youth publication for a program sponsored by the HARYOU Act; how Wilt Chamberlain took him under his wing, giving him clothes, letting Jabbar borrow his car, taking him to the club that Wilt owned, Small’s Paradise, and buying him Singapore Slings; his pleasure at seeing then-Boston Celtics center Robert Parish slug the “annoying” Bill Laimbeer, and the referee taking his time breaking it up; playing basketball with bassist Ron Carter when Carter’s first child was born; witnessing John Coltrane’s Kulu Se Mamarecording session in 1965; and hilarious tales about drummer Philly Joe Jones, who replaced Riley one night for Monk.
“Philly Joe was nodding at the drum set. Monk called out for him to wake up but he didn’t budge. So Monk finally counted down the number and right on cue Philly Joe began playing, and took a great solo with brushes. I was amazed.”
Jabbar also drew upon his trove of historical findings, revealing that Fats Waller learned how to play organ at the Abyssinian Baptist Church because his friend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. would let him practice late at night; that Cab Calloway was an excellent athlete who owned a baseball team and tried out and made the Harlem Globetrotters, but had to decide between a career in athletics or music; how black basketball players and entertainers stayed at black rooming houses on the road because of segregation, and formed many bonds of affection thereby; and that the Harlem Rens was actually the first team from New York to win a national basketball title, back in 1939.
Blumenfeld recalled Jabbar once telling him that if he played an instrument in a jazz band it would be a bass, taking a lot of solos. When McBride asked Jabbar to name the one band he would have loved to have played in, Jabbar told him “Dizzy’s band that traveled to South America.” McBride also asked Jabbar what he thought of young players in the NBA. “The younger players, like the younger generation in the cities generally, are not getting the type of educational foundation they need. They don’t understand Malcolm X’s evolution and the significance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I came to a deeper understanding of King myself once I saw the movie Ghandi.” He also remembered hearing King speak to a group of young people working on the above-mentioned Harlem youth publication, saying “You’ve broken out of the mold already. Just continue to search and things will begin to change.”
He mentioned Pete Maravich and World B. Free as the most improvisational players he ever saw, and wryly reminisced about one of the most memorable moments of his basketball career, in 1985, when his team, the Los Angeles Lakers, beat the Boston Celtics on their home court for the NBA championship, the first team to ever do so. When McBride asked him to name his starting five all-time jazz quintet, he called McBride “wicked,” and then chose Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Paul Chambers, Bud Powell and Elvin Jones or Tony Williams.
Jabbar showed himself a humorous, demonstrative, intellectual and reflective giant of man with a deep love for jazz, black American culture and history, and an abiding appreciation for Harlem and its people.
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