no jazz in utah (and other basketball stories)
The NBA all-star game brought "I love this game" excitement, much-needed out-of-state money and laudable good will campaigns (wherein 7-footers in windbreakers hammered nails, read to schoolkids, and showcased the many worthy nonprofit efforts around town). I guess I was remiss in not posting this piece of mine, which ran in the New Orleans Times-Picayune:
Links between basketball and jazz run deep
By Larry Blumenfeld
One striking absurdity of the National Basketball Association is this fact: The team from Utah wears the jerseys emblazoned with "Jazz."
That name originated in New Orleans, of course, where the Jazz played its first five seasons in the late 1970s. Back then, the shirts made fundamental sense -- and not just as a nod to the city's iconic art form.
Anyone with knowledge of both basketball and jazz recognizes natural affinities between the two pursuits: a marriage of form and improvisation, of individualism with teamwork; a primacy of rhythm (watch how basketball players dribble the ball before taking foul shots to re-establish a sense of tempo); and a requirement that players respond to one another's choices and to rapidly changing situations in real time.
The NBA will celebrate the connections with an All-Star Game music roster that reads like a Jazzfest jazz tent Sunday lineup, including the Rebirth Brass Band, Harry Connick Jr., Kermit Ruffins, Jonathan Batiste and Branford Marsalis.
The predominance of jazz might surprise viewers and even players used the the game's more customary hip-hop and R&B soundtrack. But at least one former NBA All-Star -- Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who played on six championship and 19 all-star teams during his 20-year career-- grasps the links between basketball and jazz quite deeply and completely.
"I was always conscious of those connections," said Abdul-Jabbar, sitting in a midtown Manhattan NBA conference room, his 7-foot-2 frame tucked improbably into a Herman Miller chair. He recalled how he used to listen to the music of saxophonist Sonny Rollins before practices.
Abdul-Jabbar's fondness for jazz is no secret. He was born in Harlem, the son of a Juilliard-trained trombonist and singer who rubbed elbows and made music with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie at nightspots including the legendary Minton's Playhouse. In 1987, Abdul-Jabbar made a short-lived attempt to start his own jazz record label, Cranberry Records, with Gillespie on its planned roster.
In his affectionate liner notes for the 2004 CD "Monk 'Round the World," Abdul-Jabbar recalled first hearing legendary pianist Thelonious Monk on New York's long-gone WRVR-FM, then making "a seventh-grader's ultimate sacrifice: laying down three bucks for an LP."
Harking back to his high-school days, he pulls out a photo of himself -- not as the dominant center leading Harlem's Power Memorial Academy to 71 straight wins, but as a background figure, towering above reporters clustered around a table at which sat Martin Luther King Jr.
"It was a summer program aimed at showing the kids how to make Harlem a better place," he recalled of that 1964 scene. "And I was in a journalism workshop, so I'd earned a press credential. That's when I became a black historian. And that's still my gig."
At 60, Abdul-Jabbar keeps a hand in basketball's future as a special assistant coach for his former team, the Los Angeles Lakers. And he's followed through on that initial gig, sharing his interest in the past through a series of books, including 1996's "Black Profiles in Courage" and 2005's "Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes."
With "On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance," published last year, he mined basketball's past and linked it with jazz through a common history of black achievement rooted in the cultural ferment of the Harlem Renaissance -- and highlighted through a literal convergence. The book is staked to the story of the New York Renaissance Five, better known as the Harlem Rens, a trailblazing all-black team named for Harlem's Renaissance Casino, whose second-story ballroom served as their home court.
"There'd be jazz mixed in with the games," Abdul-Jabbar said. "After the first half, there'd be a warm-up band. After the second half, people would dance to Count Basie until 3 or 4 in the morning."
Between 1922 and 1949, the Rens compiled a record of 2,588 wins and 529 losses. The team played a cunning and determined style of basketball, in contrast to the entertainment-oriented ostentation of the Harlem Globetrotters, whom they beat along the way to winning the first world professional basketball tournament, against the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars, in 1939.
Among other things, "On the Shoulders of Giants" connects the big-money, tattoo-and-hip-hop-inflected world of today's NBA with its humbler, jazz-affiliated legacy.
"I'm definitely trying to bridge a consciousness gap," Abdul-Jabbar said. "I want to create a time tunnel to transport people from the ESPN world to the Harlem Renaissance. And I think jazz can do that."
Abdul-Jabbar is hopeful that the presence of this year's all-star game in New Orleans will keep a spotlight on a city that "deserves more, and more positive, focus." Just as he was so often mischaracterized by the press during his playing days -- his shy and dignified demeanor often interpreted as unfriendly and aloof -- New Orleans has too often and too easily been caricatured by media accounts, he said.
"On a basic human level, we owe New Orleans the care and consideration and compassionate aid that was missing in the response to Katrina," he said.
In terms of the history Abdul-Jabbar mines and the culture that flowered during the Harlem Renaissance, he acknowledges a huge debt.
"Without New Orleans, we don't have jazz. And it's more than that," he said. "There's a certain essence of joy and a pride in achievement -- it says that despair cannot be the last thing we will experience in life, that we can overcome anything -- that I think has firm roots in New Orleans."
Abdul-Jabbar has almost completed a documentary based on his latest book. Already available is the four-volume, eight-CD, "On the Shoulders of Giants: An Audio and Musical Journey through the Harlem Renaissance", which makes use of archival tapes of Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois, among others, and new spoken commentary by the likes of Maya Angelou.
The audio book also highlights a newfound connection between Abdul-Jabbar and New Orleans: Its soundtrack features four tracks composed by students in the inaugural class of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance at Loyola University.
And Abdul-Jabbar is anything but shy these days. His new blog (www.latimes.com/kareem) shares everything from tips on "care and maintenance of the over-50 athlete" to a five-step guide to mastering his signature "sky hook" shot. And it includes complex musical reflections such as this one, about the Grammy-winning CD by his friend, pianist Herbie Hancock: " 'River: The Joni Letters' represents Herbie's expansion beyond the race-based straitjackets of nomenclature imposed on American musicians. American music has such a rich and varied foundation, it is really grotesque to try to define it as R&B or rock or pop or metal or Latin or Reggae or country or blues."
In New Orleans, as during the Harlem Renaissance, he said, we can best grasp the category-defying nature of American music, and of the arc of American culture in general.
Abdul-Jabbar's sky hook, perhaps the most graceful innovation basketball has ever known, surely is one artifact of that culture. Like jazz innovators from Louis Armstrong on, he approached his role by transforming it, thus changing the game.
New Orleans has a new team now, the Hornets, whose style of play is not only winning these days, but distinctly jazzlike, full of the tempo changes and spontaneity one expects from a swinging quintet. And maybe that classic NBA mid-'80s five, Abdul-Jabbar's Los Angeles Lakers, can be thought of in the same terms. If so, how would Abdul-Jabbar cast himself in the band?
"I'd be the bassist," he said, "who soloed a lot."
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