Completing the Mwandishi Band Circle: A Conversation with Fundi (Billy) Bonner
While writing “You’ll Know When You Get There: Herbie Hancock and the Mwandishi Band,” I extensively interviewed band members, their producer, recording engineer, and others. But I was unable to locate the person who drove and served as sound engineer on the road, Fundi. A few months ago, Fundi’s stepson Vince Ector contacted me and put me in touch with Fundi. My publisher was good enough to send Fundi a copy of the book. Last Thursday evening, the phone ring. It was Fundi. He had just received the book and a card I sent him. We talked for quite some time on the phone. It was a wonderful chat.
Fundi has lived a life embedded in the history of jazz in Philadelphia and beyond. The grew up in South Philadelphia, went to junior high school with such luminaries as Henry Grimes, Bobby Timmons, and (Albert) Tootie Heath. Tootie is the drummer of the famous Heath Brothers (saxophonist Jimmy and bassist Percy). Fundi (then Billy) was close friends with saxophonist Sam Reed and his band, The All Stars; he hung out with the band, traveling with them on out-of-town gigs. Reed led the house band at the Uptown Theater on North Broad Street, which was a major venue in the city for R&B and subsequently, jazz. One of Fundi’s memories about the All Stars is hearing McCoy Tyner sit in for Bobby Timmons. Fundi was present the first time that Lee Morgan and Clifford Brown played together.
Big band leader Tommy Roberts was an organizer of rehearsal bands for young Philadelphia musicians. (for more information about this, see Jeffery S. McMillan’s article “Musical Education: Lee Morgan and the Philadelphia Jazz Scene of the 1950s” in the Spring 2001-2002 issue of the journal Current Musicology). Fundi remembers Roberts not only creating opportunities for underage musicians to perform, but for them to also hear the major visiting jazz musicians and bands who played gigs at the City’s clubs. Roberts arranged for those musicians to also play a venue open to young people.
Fundi would later make soundboard recordings of the Mwandishi band, but as early as 1955, he recorded shows by Tommy Monroe’s big band, Johnny Coles, and other musicians, using a Webcor tape recorder he had acquired.
Here’s how Fundi’s life intersected with Herbie Hancock: Fundi moved to New York City in the 1960s and worked moving furniture, “which allowed me to have time to live my own life, spend time with musicians and hear them play. When Tootie Heath moved to New York from Philadelphia, I hung out with him. Tootie had told Herbie about me.” Heath was a member of Herbie Hancock’s original Sextet in 1969 (which included Garnett Brown, Johnny Coles, Joe Henderson, and Heath, plus just two members who stayed on into the Mwandishi era: Hancock himself and bassist Buster Williams). “When Tootie went to LA to play with the band, I checked in with his wife to be sure everything was ok. She told me that Herbie had sent a message that if I wanted to drive for his band, meet him at the airport with a van. I did.”
During that 1969-1970 period, Fundi served as the band’s driver. Along with the others, he assumed his Swahili name given the band members by Heath’s nephew, Mtume. Mtume, a percussionist who later joined Miles Davis’s band, served as assistant to US Organization’s Maulana Ron Karenga, an organization that promoted reclaiming African heritage among African Americans; Karenga crafted the winter festival Kwanza. Heath, Mtume, Hancock, trumpeter Don Cherry and others made a recording during this period, Kawaida, that reflected Karenga’s philosophy. Fundi played a bamboo flute on the recording, one given him by Tootie Heath, who had purchased in Los Angeles.
Pivotal to the emergence of the Mwandishi band’s musical approach was a month-long November 1970 stand at a Chicago steak house, The London House. “I recorded the band every night at The London House. The band would listen after the shows.” Sadly, the cassette soundboard recordings were stolen when someone broke into the band’s van, parked in New York City next door to Nelson Rockefeller’s place. A propos of the recordings, Fundi remembers further details about a story recounted by Herbie Hancock in my book. There was a man who attended nearly every one of the shows. One night he went into a trance while listening to one of the recordings. That night, he “had just gotten married. He arrived at the show late and requested (Julian Priester’s tune) ‘Wandering Spirit Song’ but the band had already played it. So this was the only time the band played it twice in one show since they played it for him again.”
Fundi remains proud of his time with the Mwandishi band. “I made two trips to Europe with the band. We traveled across Europe once by train and the second time we drove.” After a period of time as driver, his role expanded to include sound engineer. Here’s how he describes this coming about: “I used to set up the band with the mixer right by Herbie so he could play and also do the mix himself. But at the Cellar Door in D.C., the bandstand was too small, so Herbie had me sit by the mixer and do the mix. It stayed that way ever since that night. The mixer had an Echoplex. I could listen for what was happening and turn on the Echoplex to effect the mic of any one of the musicians. During breaks I would ask how that was for them. They’d say: “do it more!”
The band was known for its elaborate quadraphonic sound system with elaborate capabilities. San Francisco Examiner critic Philip Elwood (August 9, 1972) wrote: “Fundi controls an impressive Maezzi built panel (from Italy) that looks like a surrealistic cigarette dispenser, and balances the sound pouring from the stage through Hancock’s own four speaker amplification system.” Pat Metheny remembers the system, which he experienced in Kansas City as a young man, being “incredible.” Onaje Alan Gumbs recalls Fundi’s abilities with the soundboard, its pans and effects from a show he heard in Buffalo: “It was like he had ESP with the band.” Mwandishi drummer Billy Hart adds: “He could throw the band into echo whenever he wanted … a guy could take a solo and all of the sudden his whole environment would change…”
Fundi vividly remembers how, when, and where the sound system was acquired: “Herbie had bought a Shure sound system. The band was in Yugoslavia and then flew to Bergamo, Italy. The gear never showed up. The band couldn’t do a sound check since the sound system wasn’t there. I walked down the street and saw the new sound system in a space nearby. The system was called “Hollywood 2000.” It was too late for that night, but I talked told Herbie about it. I asked how much it would cost and was told $5000. I talked him down to $2500. Herbie then talked him down to $2000. The band went next to Milan and picked up the sound system where it was sold. The store also sold guitars and other instruments. Pepo (Julian Priester) bought a guitar.”
After Fundi’s departure from the band, he went on to work with Hancock’s former employer, trumpeter Donald Byrd, right before the forming of The BlackByrds. He traveled with Byrd to Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe; Fundi also traveled with Freddie Hubbard to Japan.
Fundi particularly remembers his close relationship with Herbie Hancock and with other band members. “I once drove Julian to purchase his alto trombone. I used to stay at Jabali’s (Billy Hart’s) parents’ house in D.C. Buster would trust his bass to me. I was the only person he would trust with it. When he flew to a gig, I would drive it in the van.” Fundi’s affection and admiration for the Mwandishi band is captured in his aphorism: “I used to say that I get paid to listen to that band every night.”