The Spirit is Still Willing for Veteran Jazzer Jackie Blake
But he's also quite elusive. Ask him about his life and he keenly recalls his childhood home on Central Avenue, and that he started taking music classes at James Hollimon's music studio as a grade-schooler. He'll say that he attended Howard University during the civil-rights era. And he'll reveal that he's been playing classical and jazz music in the Baltimore-Washington area for more than 40 years.
Only persistent pursuit, however, uncovers the particulars, such as the fact that he had learned a significant portion of the symphonic repertoire by the time he was in junior high. Or that at Howard he became involved with the Students Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) through his buddy and freshman dormitory neighbor, a young man from New York by the name of Stokely Carmichael. You know, mundane things like that.
Blake's not being coy; his demeanor is merely reflective of his own thinking. "I've come to the conclusion that it's the physicality of life that gives everybody problems," he says. "It's caring too much about those things that can be qualified that's futile--What do you do for work? What kind of watch do you have? Where did you go to school? It is the spiritual and abstract things that live on, art and its ideas. And those are the sort of things I am more interested in."
It's an outlook that fuels his jazz group Kahana, which has been together for the better part of a year. Composed of pianist Michael Gayle, percussionist Rick Slye, bassist Percy White, and Blake on reeds and flute, Kahana crafts a comfortably loose free jazz that never entirely abandons harmony or melody. It also has a purpose behind it.
"'Kahana' comes from an Afro-Egyptian hieroglyphic meaning 'in veneration of the spirit,'" Blake says. "The idea is to uplift people. Wherever you see a sadness, if you give them something to fill that sadness--a little joy, a little happiness--you can uplift them. We want to do that through music."
Kahana's version of the free-jazz idiom has its antecedents--the stately lyricism and inviting tone of Marion Brown comes to mind--but it remains unique. Kahana's sound is invitingly warm and disarmingly lovely rather than dissonantly challenging (though Blake is as prone to fiery runs as any skronker blowing the top off his head). It's a sound and vibe that Blake hopes communicates the spirit behind the name.
And it's a sound that has been shaped by his entire life. Blake started clarinet instruction when he was 7 or 8--"I'm not too interested in years, only what I took with me from them," he says--because he and a friend wanted to play the music they were hearing on the radio and in church: rags, jazz, operettas, and blues. Instead, he started his long relationship with rigorous formal training. Hollimon taught him European classical theory, but he eventually also passed Blake chord progressions to jazz songs of the time.
Blake says it wasn't a unique education. "The tradition, at least in the black community, was that you played music," he says. "You had music all around you--at church, on the radio, on TV. And if you were in music, you had to measure up. You'd have to know piano theory if you played the violin. You had to be able to play a Brahms concerto if you could swing. You didn't have that narrowly defined name of being a jazz musician. You just played."
What was distinctive, however, was Blake's ability. His "legit" skills were put to use in church and at recitals, while he worked his jazz chops at school.
He studied music with Hollimon until he entered Dunbar Junior and Senior High School, where his music teacher, Robert Anton Smith, arranged a scholarship for the young Blake to study at the Peabody Preparatory School. Afterward Blake transferred to Baltimore City College High School, from which he graduated in 1960.
He met Stokely Carmichael during his first week at Howard--Blake was playing the piano in the bowels of the dorm, and Carmichael came down and requested song after song after song. As their friendship grew, and as Blake's education broadened, he became more involved with civil rights and SNCC.
"You were caught up in it," Blake says. "It was like a match being lit to a fuse. At the time, I didn't really intellectualize it, because it basically crystallized things that I had already known.
"For example, when I was young my mom would take me downtown to go shopping on Howard Street," he says. "And on the way home, we'd try to hail a cab and they wouldn't stop. But she had a technique. She'd wait for a red light, and then she'd jump in a cab and pull me in. And of course I didn't understand back then. But she'd tell me that 'Once we're in, they won't put us out.'
"You never ask yourself why when you're little," Blake continues. "But when you're college-aged and there's all the other people your age who have similar stories, you start thinking about it a little more."
Blake says he wasn't a prominent SNCC figure--"just a foot soldier, really"--but he was active in the organization's activities in and around Washington, where he remained after graduation until he returned to Baltimore in the late 1960s.
He has lived and played classical and jazz here ever since. Along the way, he remembers seeing local giants such as Rivers Chambers and Abdu Rashid Yahya perform and going to see Jimmy Heath, Curtis Fuller, Freddie Hubbard, and Jackie McLean at the Left Bank Jazz Society's Sunday-afternoon concert series. He can recall how they sounded and what he appreciated as vividly as he remembers a version of the "Star-Spangled Banner" he heard over the recent July 4 weekend.
But he doesn't give too much bother to those things extracurricular to music over the years. "The difference between my philosophy and other musicians I've encountered is that I have not put a price tag on the art," Blake says. "That way I've never become frustrated. Not that [my philosophy] is better--in fact, mine may be inferior. I've done different things, but I won't even mention them because they're all in the service of me. I play and I write music, and whatever else I do is all in the service of that."
Blake has recorded as a side player over the years, most recently on Vattel Cherry's album Disciplines, but at the moment his efforts are exclusively in service of Kahana, a group with lofty spiritual goals. "With Kahana we want to elevate by moving you out of your mind," he says. "That's one of the tricks, to come out of your own thoughts. And music is the gift of God, I feel, that allows people to come together and do that."
Kahana's music almost feels too good on the ear to be so good for you. It doesn't sound like spiritual music--it lacks the solemn gravity, stolid pace, and insistence on minor keys that are generally associated with music that is supposed to be good for your soul. Kahana is bouncy, jubilant, and occasionally swinging. It has a bit of the crackle that is associated with Louis Armstrong's Hot Fives and Sevens. You know, feeling good music.
Perhaps Blake is on to to something by making music that seduces the body before the soul. And perhaps it's an idea planted in his brain many, many years ago. When he was about 11 or 12, he started working in a drug store. And he would take his earnings and go to Fred Walker's music store at 327 N. Howard St. to buy records--Dave Brubeck, J.J. Johnson. But one stood out above all others.
"Charlie Parker's records really blew me away," Blake says. "Even as a kid I had heard a lot of different saxophonists. But when I heard Charlie Parker play on my little record machine, I rolled over on the floor. He was just a phenomenal musician.
"I didn't really know it then; as I got older I could appreciate him much more intellectually. But when I was a kid, it was just his sound. I remember hearing 'East of the Sun (and West of the Moon)' and I was just rolling over on the floor uncontrollably. I had never heard anything like it. And I've never heard anything like it since."
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