I AM SITTING IN A TINY NIGHTCLUB at a time when people could still smoke inside. The air is hazy, making the stage look like it is behind a translucent veil. Everyone in the place is squeezed around small black tables; I can barely get my hand up to take a sip from my drink. I agreed to go the club to see what magazines were referring to as an “up and coming” comedian. When he got to the stage, the crowd was still somewhat noisy with conversation. It did not last long. He quickly commanded everyone’s attention with his ability to quickly change from one dialect to another in his stories and jokes. At one point he was speaking like a Russian; he then quickly changed to a British accent before talking like an innocent 5-year-old. It was extraordinary to witness the lightning speed he jumped from one character to another, all the time zinging out joke upon joke. The crowd, including myself, was mesmerized with his performance. Sweat had formed on his forehead and was slipping down his face while his shirt darkened with the sweat being generated over his torso. The evening was a major triumph; I thought for sure this guy was going to be a major star. It was not a long wait before my thought became reality. The comedian was soon after performing at major concert halls, starring in movies and even became one of the founders of a televised charity event. I felt so lucky that I was a witness to his historic rise. I AM NOT SURE EVERYONE FEELS this way, but I love being a witness or participant at an event that becomes historic. Having been part of a peaceful march that became a bellwether to changing times makes me feel honored and proud. Something as simple as a museum exhibit’s record-breaking run gives me joy when I can say I was there. There is an iconic singer who has sold out the world’s biggest stadiums, who starred in film and even has been the subject of a Broadway musical; that I can say I saw her when she was a warmup act. I was there at the beginning; I like the way that sounds. The other aspect about this that gives me such pleasure is the randomness of it all. One might not know they are becoming a witness to a monumental event. Think about those who were at the Berlin wall when it toppled or saw Elvis’ last concert or saw The Beatles when they first were starting out in Liverpool; it absolutely excites me to no end. I feel the same way about this documentary; how I wish I could have been there live to see history being made 100 miles away from the Woodstock festival. ON A HOT SUMMER DAY, A PROMOTOR created and put on a festival in a park in Harlem. What was recorded at that time has never been seen before, until now. Directed by musical artist Questlove (The Roots), this movie was a treasure trove of gold star musical performances. I thought for a directorial debut Questlove did an amazing job of mixing the footage with current scenes; especially when the current artists were seeing themselves from 50 years ago. Some of the musical acts shown were Stevie Wonder, B.B. King, The 5thDimension and Nina Simone. I loved everything about this musical picture; the way it weaved in history, politics and the magic of music. The thing that I found most startling was the fact that this festival footage has never been seen before. Nowhere in history have I ever heard about this festival that was created to celebrate African American music. I hope the entire concert footage comes out on DVD or streaming; I would love to see what took place back in that park in 1969. Too bad, I no longer have any bell bottom pants to wear.
I WAS IN THE MIDDLE OF PICKING out songs for a playlist to give to a close friend. There was one song I remembered from a movie I saw many, many years ago. The song has always stuck with me, though I never knew the title. Searching online I sought out the movie first to see if I could get a list of its song titles. I remembered an older woman in the film sang the song as she stood still in place. It did not take me too long to find the song I remembered and see its title. Once I had it, I typed the title into my computer’s search engine to see what would come up. Little did I realize this was a popular song, because the choice of artists who sang this song went on for pages. Besides having a list of artists, there were also music videos of artists performing the song. I found myself going from one video to another to see what the musical artist would do with the song. It was interesting to hear the multitude of variations; every artist was trying to put their own spin on the song. I was enjoying this musical journey despite it causing me confusion in not being able to decide which performance I wanted to include in my playlist. TIME WAS SLIPPING AWAY AND I was no closer to completing my project. I had no idea how many renditions of the song I had seen or heard; but somewhere in the list of artists I saw this name that I had heard, but I had never heard her perform. I clicked on the link and out of my computer speakers came this rich, earthy, passionate voice. At times it delved into the alto range but would veer right into a tenor level; I think her voice would be considered a contralto. Her voice captivated me because I could not recall hearing a female voice with such a strong lower register. It was as if I was listening to this song for the very first time; it was something fresh and new as the notes hung in the air around me like Spanish moss. Who was this woman who could take a song from the past, from a film musical, and make me feel as if our hearts were beating in synch? As soon as the song ended, I replayed it several times. And once I had my fill, I sought out other songs this musical artist performed. Having this as my introduction, there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to learn more about Nina Simone. WITH PLANS ON BECOMING A CLASSICALLY trained concert pianist, one night performing at a nightclub would change the course of Eunice Kathleen Waymon’s life. Directed by Liz Garbus (Girlhood, Bobby Fischer Against the World), this film festival winning documentary delved into the life of Nina Simone. With archival footage, interviews and performances; I found myself yearning for more musical performances as the movie went on. This biography touched on many aspects of Nina’s life, from childhood to adulthood to political activism; all of it was interesting, but part of me wished there would have been more details offered in the non-musical scenes. The interviews with her daughter, I found to be telling. I read somewhere the daughter was upset about a film that came out about her mother, so she got involved in the creation of this documentary. I am glad she did because not having any knowledge per se of Nina’s life, this film was a beautiful way to learn about her. And I have that playlist I made for a friend to thank.