Left to right, foreground: Davis Whitfield, Antoine Roney. Background: Dezron Douglas and Neil Clark. Photo: Shaheed A Muhammad
I suppose if there is such a place as the hallowed heavenly realm of jazz where the transitioned ancestral giants of the culture might presently reside, Jackie McLean is there and must have been beaming with the joy of a fatherly pride on a recent Saturday.
His son, RENE McLean, versatile contemporary jazz giant in his own right, was featured with his sextet at the recently acknowledge land-marked “SISTAS’ PLACE”, jazz club/cultural center, at 456 Nostrand Ave. in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, New York. That night the sextet rendered outstanding performances of compositions of legendary jazz masters such as JOHN COLTRANE, THELONIOUS MONK and others.
The band also strutted its stuff on a few original compositions of bandleader RENE McLean. The house was drawn to vociferous ovations of approval after each presentation. As the house roared its approval of the band, the band intensified its playing. As is the culture of jazz, the band feeds off the spirit of the audience and the audience feeds off the intensity and spirit of the band.
The program that Saturday night, November 14, turned out to be a many course, elaborately laid out banquet and we all feasted to full satisfaction. AHMED ABDULLA, the music director at “SISTAS’ PLACE”, summed it this way: “Every Saturday night here at SISTAS’ PLACE we showcase some of the finest representatives of this culture of jazz, music of the spirit, because here, to us, culture is a weapon”.
Headlining the band was world-renowned RENE McLean saxophone/flute, and: accompanying band members NEIL CLARK African percussions; DEZRON DOUGLAS bass; ANTOINE RONEY Alto saxophone; DAVIS WHITFIELD piano; and KOJO RONEY on drums.
That Saturday night session brings to mind a phrase from the world renowned ART BLAKEY, one of our cultural warriors of jazz, now in the realm of the ancestors. ART BLAKEY was and still is known world-wide as a famous jazz drummer and bandleader. It was he who coined the phrase “Young Lions”: those young new comers to the musical culture of jazz who demonstrate the potential and talent to become great ones of the future.
Let’s tie it all together, Lions, Young Lions and Cubs. Well, back to the Saturday night under discussion. Rene rolled into “Sistas’ Place” leading a pride of lions. There were mature lions, young lions and cubs on review that night. Among the lions were Rene McLean, “Baba” Neil Clark, Dezron Douglas and Antoine Roney.
Representing the “Young Lions” was Davis Whitfield, on piano and there were some others but more about them a little later on down the road. The Lion cubs were represented by drummer KOJO RONEY, and there was another about whom we shall also speak a little later.
The program began in the traditional African flava, paying tribute to the ancestors, calling on their spirits to be with us on this occasion, to watch over and protect us. Baba Neil Clark performed the libation, speaking in one of the traditional African languages.
When RENE McLean introduced the members of the sextet he started off with the introduction of an 11- year- old drummer by the name of KOJO RONEY. Watching this little boy step up on the bandstand and sit himself at the drums, adjusting the drums and the seat for his comfort, everyone in the joint was struck with wonder, as to what was to become of this night.
Though, as we watched him prepare himself, it became clear to us that this was no mere boy with a drum set; after all he was sitting there on stage with the fantastic, one and only, RENE McLean. RENE told the crowd that this was his first time playing with the “Young Cub” and he literally meant the first time because they were doing this night’s gig without a rehearsal.
And while on the subject of first- timers RENE introduced a 22 year old “Young Lion” on piano, DAVIS WHITFIELD; RENE informed the house that this was also his first gig with DAVIS WHITFIELD, who was also performing with the band with no rehearsal. There’s an insider’s story about ART BLAKEY which RENE used to pay tribute to DAVIS WHITFIELD that shall be related to, a little further down the road.
Yeah, its true, it appears like there is a little traffic jam developing, a little further on down this road. But be patient, the night was truly a jazz night to recall.
Continuing on, RENE then introduced Master African percussionist “Baba” NEIL CLARK on Congas, DEZRON DOUGLAS on upright Bass and ANTOINE RONEY on Alto-saxophone. And if you are following along, you might ask, RONEY isn’t that also the last name of the 11- year- old drummer, and you would be correct. In this instance it does appear that the proverbial apple truly doesn’t fall far from the proverbial tree; ANTOINE RONEY is the father of KOJO RONEY. And then there was the “Man”, the reason we all came to “SISTAS’ PLACE” this night, RENE McLean on saxophone/flute.
The set kicked off with the bands rendition of a compilation from JOHN COLTRANE’S “Love Supreme” suite. Picking up his sticks, adjusting himself in his seat this 11- year- old, KOJO RONEY, commenced drumming with the sound, drive and bravado of an old pro. It truly was an exciting listening experience and a sight to behold; straight rhythms and poly-rhythms, KOJO RONEY the Lion Cub of the band had total command of them all.
From observing this youngster’s body language, stage presence and skill on the skins one could not help but wonder just where and how in his short 11 young years he could have picked up such mastery? RENE, as most bandleaders, was giving directions here and there, but playing a Coltrane compilation is enough to keep anyone busy and RENE was busy playing his heart out for us.
He was not letting up on his driving and demanding saxophone for the sake of the 11- year- old KOJO RONEY. Yet, KOJO was clearly stating through his playing that he need not be given any quarters; he was not to be left behind.
KOJO RONEY’S drumming that night was assertive and driving, he demonstrated he was capable of going up or down as need be, based on the band’s demand. You would do well to put this young boy’s name in our Rolodex or on your Smart phone as this era dictates: KOJO RONEY.
Still on the first tune of the first set of the night, the “Young Lion”, DAVIS WHITFIELD, on piano had 88 piano keys with which to play in his collaborations and solos from the COLTRANE’S “Love Supreme” suite, and he seemed to have chosen to touch them all. The “Young Lion” demonstrated control, ability and creativity in his masterful rendition of ‘TRANE’S composition, displaying a serious devotion to the musical culture of jazz.
That night it was clear he, DAVIS, and KOJO had done their homework, and then some. He had taken command of that piano, as an instrument to be caressed, tenderly touched and enticed, to express the music and himself, DAVIS, KOJO, RENE, BABA NEIL, DEZRON and ANTOINE; were jammin’ at SISTAS’ PLACE that Saturday night.
As RENE and the band brought the JOHN COLTRANE suite to a slow and gradual end the place was thundering with applause. After the band strutted its stuff on the COLTRANE piece in the midst of the riotous applause of everyone in the packed house, RENE, mic in hand, acknowledge each band member again, giving particular attention to the 11- year- old KOJO on drums and the amazing “young lion” DAVIS WHITFIELD on piano.
When all finally cooled down, RENE repeated to the gathering, “And that was with no rehearsal y’all.”
RENE, at that time, apologized that the member of the band who was billed to be the piano player for the night, the well known and respected, BENITO GONZALES, had an emergency come up to which he had to attend. RENE then segued into the ART BLAKEY anecdote promised at the top of this recounting of that Saturday night; it went something like this: “You know, Blakey had a thing for cats who would show up late for a gig or cats who didn’t show up at all. He would find another cat to substitute, if the cat filling in was a hit with Blakey and the band, when the missing band member would show up Blakey would walk over to the cat and say something like ‘hey baby, you know I think that you’re good enough now man that you should go and start your own band –euphemistically, you’re fired.'”
This was RENE McLean’s way of acknowledging to the “Young Lion”, DAVIS WALKER, you got chops baby and I’ll do a gig with you again anytime.
For a “Young Lion” to be getting props like that from an alpha Lion like RENE McLean, he could take that to the bank. Rene re-cradled the mic and he and the band got back down to business.
NEIL CLARK, the African Master Drummer, KOJO RONEY, the neophyte, ancient African rhythms and contemporary African rhythms combined that night to demonstrate that the drums can talk and all of us present at SISTAS’ PLACE that night, Africans, Asians, Latinos and Europeans got it.
Indeed, the drums can and did talk. Baba NEIL CLARK was coming off the congas with some ancient African poly-rhythms and riffs that spoke to little KOJO RONEY, the neophyte, saying “listen here,” and little KOJO RONEY, the Lion Cub, replied on his drum set with, “I hear that Baba, now do something with this.” Back and forth they served each other riffs, rhythms and beats, and we all fed heartily.
ANTOINE RONEY alto saxophonists was holding his own in the group but how much could he have left to do that was not already done by the overpowering saxophone mastery of the one and only RENE McLean. Whether doing TRANE, MONK, SHORTER or one of his own compositions, ANTOINE RONEY was “Mr. Untouchable”.
I suppose it’s as old vaudevillian performers would say to one another, “don’t go on stage after a child or animal act,” the reason being, those are hard acts to follow. And that night for ANTOINE RONEY or just about anyone else, for that matter, RENE McLean, too, is a hard act to follow. And as with any jazz band the upright bass makes a statement that if it is missing the band’s soul has a hole in it. But this Saturday night’s jam session there were no voids and the bass player, DEZRON DOUGLAS, demonstrated that no void could exist on this stage, this night, because his bass playing skills wasn’t having it. If you were not in “SISTAS’ PLACE” that night, you missed it. And the band played on.
Among the pieces that they jammed with were Monks “Round Midnight” and the final compilation for the first set was a RENE McLean original score “DANCE LITTLE MANDESA”.
The second set started out with ANTOINE RONEY re-introducing the band. He then proceeded to introduce some “Young lions” and one “Lion cub” who were seated in the audience with their horns in hand and rearin’ to go: JORDAN YOUNG, 20 years old, JAVON 22 years old and finally there was the second “Lion Cub” for the night, 15-year-old saxophone phenomena EMILIO MODESTE. All three are saxophone players.
They all proceeded in a procession to the bandstand, axe in hand. The house went wild with thunderous applause and appreciation of the youth stepping forward showing willingness and readiness to take up our culture of jazz carrying it on into the future. As the sextet continued their kick-ass presentation for the second set JORDAN YOUNG stepped to the mic strapped, and proceeded to show why he was up on the stage and a student of RENE McLean and worthy of the title of “Young Lion”.
The phenomenal EMILIO MODESTE was the next to mount the bandstand; he proceeded to huff and puff and to blow the house down during his solos that night. It was again obvious from the patrons frozen bodies seated around their tables, all eyes trained on the bandstand, seemingly under the spell of 15 year old EMILIO MODEST, his horn and the sextet, everyone was struck with amazement by the mastery of the second “Lion Cub’s” of his craft at such an early age.
EMILIO MODESTE handled the music and the tenor saxophone like an old pro. Watching this young boy up on the bandstand with these old pros of the jazz world it was very reassuring that, if this is any indication of the future, the future of the music is secure; as far as having future artists around to practice it in the tradition of the “old masters”.
EMILIO MODESTE was strong, dynamic, very self-confident and so charismatic in his playing. In the midst of EMILIO’S solos the house was drawn again to its feet with ovations of thunderous approval. It should not be forgotten that all the while there was the 11-year-old KOJO RONEY, wailing on the drums.
Once again, one is drawn to ponder regarding EMILIO MODESTE; where in this “young cub’s” 15 short years of life did he pick up such mastery of this craft? What a night, what a night at SISTAS’ PLACE and all this for just 20 bucks.
Next was the long tall JAVON. He approached the mic blowing and taking care of serious business. As a “Young Lion” in the company of the RENE McLean Sextet, which was jammin’ all night long, and a group of Young Lions and Cubs who had already clearly shown themselves to be an exceptional crop of musicians, JAVON, through his playing, made it clear that he was not to be left out of the thunderous ovations.
His command of the music and his instrument demonstrated clearly that he came to roar and be noticed. He also said through his stellar solo presentations that when it came to his study of the craft, he too, did his homework and then some.
At a point, these cultural warriors, Lions, Young Lions and Cubs, were on the bandstand all at the same time playing their hearts out as the cheering and applause became ever more thunderous and gleeful.
This positive reinforcement of the audience was their way of saying to the cultural warriors, our artists, continue to hone your weapons because, as is acknowledged every Saturday night in SISTAS’ PLACE before each jazz show begin, “CULTURE IS A WEAPON”.
If that is indeed true then it must be equally true that our jazz artists are cultural warriors. So then, back to the question of from where do these young “Lion Cubs” get their mastery of the craft of jazz? The answer has to be that they get it from the work done, and is still being done by the “Old masters.”
Old masters who saw it and see it as their task to pass on this culture of resistance, in the realm of the jazz world; just as it is and has been the custom of our revolutionary warriors, in the social realm of our people’s struggle, to pass on resistance to the youth of today and yesterday if the struggle for liberation is to ever, successfully reach its ultimate goal.
The “Old Masters” like ART BLAKEY, CHARLES TOLOVER, GEORGE JACKSON, EL- HAJJ MALIK EL-SHABAZZ, CECIL BRIDGWATE, HARRIET TUBMAN, NAT TURNER, FREDERICK DOUGLASS, THE HEATH BROTHERS, THELONIOUS MONK, ELOMBE BRATH, SONNY –“ABUBADIKA”- CARSON, VIOLA PLUMMER, DIZZY GILLESPIE, JACKIE AND RENE McLean; and others who have done their work and are doing their work, they must become the example for us reading this.
The example for us, is to be like them and breed resistance, resistance and more resistance.
THE Rene McLean Sextet, “Young Lions and Cubs” roared loud in “SISTAS’ PLACE” that night and certainly did mark their territory that night, as the large dominate cats do.
And in conclusion, let’s go back to the top: If there is such a thing as a hallowed, heavenly, realm where transitioned giants of the jazz culture might reside, then for sure, there reside JACKIE McLean, beaming that Saturday night of November 14, with a fatherly pride at the accomplishments of his son, contemporary jazz master and giant, RENE McLean.
JACKIE McLean might well be observed laid back, feet kicked up, fingers of both hands interlaced behind his head, just beaming and commenting to himself “Well done RENE McLean, well done.”