The year was 1968 or thereabouts. I was a skinny 16 year old kid in Newark, N.J. High school was going fine, but the world was changing around me. The Civil Rights Movement was in full bloom. In fact, Martin Luther King's assassination ruined my brother's birthday gathering. At least the family was together for an event that changed everything.
Somewhere around this time, maybe a year earlier, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X for the first time. I recall reading the last hundred or so pages in the wee hours of the morning, tears streaming down my face. I hadn't liked Malcolm when he was alive, but that's another story. I was young(er) then and didn't know a damn thing.
1967 also brought riots to Newark. Didn't affect me directly since we lived closer to East Orange than the ghetto, but it had an impact on my thinking.
As I said, there were a lot of things going on. Among them were the Vietnam war. I was too young to really understand it, and too young to be directly threatened. Anyway, I was going to go to college so the war wouldn't affect me.
But like many young folks, especially black folks, I was developing a certain consciousness of who I was, what my place was, where I fit. And I didn't like where I fit. Things weren't right and were going to have to change. And I was going to be a part of that change.
It was my junior year in high school. Malcolm was dead before I really knew him. Martin was dead before I came to appreciate him. John and Robert Kennedy were dead. But they all died, willingly or not, to make things better for me, or so I thought. I wanted to play a part, so I started a campaign in school to have a Black Assembly program, one that focused on the contributions and achievements of black Americans. My first lesson in politics!
My high school was integrated during my freshman year. I have know idea what it was like before, but it was about 45 percent white, same percentage black, with the rest Puerto Rican, Asian or immigrants from Europe. Most of the whites were Italian and the school was located in the overwhelmingly Italian North Ward. In other words, we integrated their school.
Which means that the idea for the Assembly program wasn't really welcomed, even though it couldn't be denied. It was about time. And so it was approved. And I was in charge. Imagine that!
Which is how I got introduced to Hugh Masekela. And how I came to know jazz existed in a different way. We were assigned a faculty advisor for this momentous event, and he was Mr. Delford Jones. A music teacher as I recall, the leader of the band. And Mr. Jones was way cool!
While deciding on skits, speeches to be read, who was to be represented and all that, Mr. Jones said we had to have a sound track. And he started introducing me to music in a way I hadn't heard it during my freshman year music appreciation class.
Donald Byrd's, "Christo Redentor." "Sanctus," a recording of an African Mass (that I'd love to get my hands on today!). Wes Montgomery's recording of "Sundown", not to mention "A Day in the Life" (now that may have come later, memory fades). Stuff I can't begin to remember.
Needless to say, when the white students walked out en masse during my part of the program (reading a portion of Malcolm's "Ballet or Bullet" and Martin's "I Have a Dream" speeches), the music went largely unappreciated. When there were fights outside, the music fell by the wayside. And when one of the few white students who didn't walk out (all my very good friends) was beaten up by some black students and ended up in the hospital, it wasn't the music that made me go and visit him.
But it's the music, foremost, that is still with me. The music helped me begin a journey that continues today, lubricating the way as no liquid refreshment could. And Who Masekela? Hue Masekela? Hugh Masekela played a major role in those early days. "Grazing in the Grass" was popular and my mother brought home a copy which I played to death. And as nice as that song was, it only served as an introduction to "Bajabula Bonke (The Healing Song)".
And it inspired me to spend a little money on every other Masekela album I could find, especially "The Americanization of Ooga Booga". There I heard "Cantelope Island" for the first time and decided I had to check out this cat Herbie Hancock who led me to some dude named Miles Davis who introduced me to John Coltrane who played "My Favorite Things" and, dare I say it, rocked my world! And then I remembered that Hugh dedicated "Mixolydia" to Miles and Trane and the circle was complete.
Along the way, from time to time, Hugh Masekela has always been there. He never goes away, and when he gets back he has something fresh to say. Whether through his older recordings or later songs. Hugh is the man!
1981 was during my serious photography days. More like the end of them because, without a darkroom at my fulltime disposal, I wasn't long for that world. But my wife and I joined my friend Mitch and his girlfriend at an anti-apartheid concert at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in Manhattan. I forget who all was playing, but among them was Hugh. This was my first opportunity to see him live.
The good news (and the bad news) was that I had my camera in tow. When Masekela was to perform, I approached the stage and got permission to come up for some flicks. The bad news is, once there, I couldn't leave my little spot and so, over an hour later, I found my wife sitting alone (Mitch and friend had long since split), cold and, shall we say, not very happy with me.
But while I was there, I had the good fortune to use up all my fast film, ending up with some ASA100 Agfa film and no flash (I hate flash photos, don't you?). So I put the film in, pretended it was fast film and got two excellent images of Hugh. Fortunately my wife liked the photos and decided to keep me, in spite of it all.