A mid-summer’s evening in 1970

It was a hot and sunny early evening in Central Park, July 31, 1970. I was at the Wolman’s Skating Rink in New York City, to see an outdoor concert. My Uncle Milt was bringing my cousin Wendy and me to one of my first rock concerts. It had been a month since my final piano lesson as a young conservatory student. I had spent my previous six years of weekends at the Julliard School of Music and, after it moved downtown, one final year, at Manhattan School of Music, which had assumed residency in the building.

That I would attend a rock concert was highly unusual. Well, it had been highly unusual until this summer. Only a few months prior, my musical life had been turned around when I first heard Jimi Hendrix. After years of musical exposure limited to Classical music, where I had grown bored and disaffected, these new musical sounds shocked and surprised me. What captivated me about Hendrix was the tightrope walk I felt he took with every note, wavering between pitch and noise. I was more excited than words can explain. My musical future was clear: leave Julliard in search of these new sounds.  This, plus my Uncle’s eagerness to explore new things with his children and nephews explains my attendance at the concerts in Central Park.

Drummer Billy Hart’s recollection is that as I traveled to the concert, he was spending the afternoon exploring Central Park, anticipating his first gig with the Herbie Hancock Sextet. With only a brief announcement: “The Schaefer Musical Festival Welcomes Herbie Hancock and his Sextet,” the band went on like clockwork at the stroke of 7pm. We were sitting in the higher priced $3.50 seats in the orchestra section. The audience was thin, with people milling in as the band played. They were coming to hear the headline band, Iron Butterfly, eagerly anticipating the band’s signature drum solo on their single hit tune, Ina Gadda Da Vida, and showed little interest in the unusual display taking place at this moment. On the stage, in front of a largely white audience in their teens and early 20s, was a group of black musicians, intensely focused. The opened like a whirlwind, or maybe surging ocean waves lapping at a cliff. The saxophonist (probably Bennie Maupin, but possibly still Joe Henderson; I have further research to do on this) played intense, surging, jagged, long melodic lines. The rhythm section of Billy Hart and bass player Buster Williams were right on his heels, nudging him ever forward. The ballad Maiden Voyage slowed down the pace, allowing the two brass players to stretch out, with longer tones, seemingly well in keeping with this lazy summer night.

This was my first experience hearing a jazz ensemble perform live. My previous experience of jazz was limited to my father’s Count Basie records, particularly ones featuring his favorite singers Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. There was actually one other prescient experience relevant to the topic at hand. I had also heard Miles Davis’ newly released ‘Bitches Brew’ just a few months prior. At the time, still a conservatory student and still reeling from hearing Hendrix, I found “Bitches Brew” (which I soon came to totally love) baffling. It was something for which I had no reference point or moorings. The Herbie Hancock Sextet was more accessible, even captivating. Yet the air was thick was pungent smoke, the audience talking loudly as they ignored the performers on stage, and it was difficult to focus on the music at hand. I found Iron Butterfly to be a bore and thus the memory of the evening quickly faded. Faded until I stumbled upon a flier for the concert a few months ago, while researching this book.

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~ by bobgluck on May 29, 2010.

6 Responses to “A mid-summer’s evening in 1970”

  1. Bob — So the Herbie fixation started early! As did audience disinterest in what he was about back then. Someone told me about seeing Herbie and the group at Howard U. around the same time, and when he started playing “Maiden Voyage,” they started booing! The mind reels! But Herbie apparently took it in stride and said, “OK, y’all, see what you think of this,” launching into some funkier number, and then all was right with the world again. Or at least Howard + Herbie.

    Anyway, I cranked Crossings — twice! — this past weekend. I also gave a good listen to Miles’ Dark Magus and, at this point, as far as I’m concerned, what the Mwandishi band was exploring, Mr. Grant’s contributions notwithstanding (or maybe withstanding!), was well beyond Miles’ polyrhymthic vamps on drones he settled into. Everyone’s so great on that, but since you mention him here, three words: Jabali Billy Hart! His underappreciated contribution to this band and so many others over the subsequent decades truly deserves a book of its own.

    • Well, Howard University vs. the audience in Central Park, viva la difference! It does seem to me that Herbie has always been able to take a strikingly good natured attitude towards how audiences react, assisted by having a broad enough palette as to be able to shift gears when desired. I’ve also seen him play in a setting where the audience (rude and quite impressed with the very light duty warm up folks who preceded Herbie’s appearance) was rather unfriendly, but he stuck to his chosen path without being deterred. I do agree that the period of Dark Magnus, right around the end of that point in Miles’s work, was particularly intense, exploratory and collectively minded – and thus a fascinating parallel, albeit with a somewhat different flavor and chemistry. The parallels are interesting since the more obvious connections people make are with On the Corner, maybe largely because of the (no doubt intentional) presence of some Mwandishi personnel at the sessions. But I honestly believe that this is not the best comparison, if any is really possible. If another Miles comparison is to be found, I think that its really the openness of the 1965 and later Miles Quintet, with you know who at the piano. As for Jabali Billy Hart, I agree that there have been very, very few drummers of his caliber and depth – and I find him to be an exceptionally astute musical and historically minded thinker. He’s also one of the hardest working musicians and educators on the planet, and yes, under-appreciated – and for that, shame on us.

      • Sleeping Giant!
        Glad you’re writing about the Mwandishi band.
        A severely neglected part of the history of this music.
        They were ahead of their time….but the music they made will live on.
        You’ll Know When You Get There….
        Ras Moshe

  2. Thanks, Ras. Thanks for your encouragement. Its been interesting to discover how many musicians were inspired by them. Really interesting. And the tunes are really fun to play. You can hear some of what I’ve done with them on my website, if you follow the history or jazz links – and then mwandishi link. btw, I gather that you and I have more than a few overlapping friends : )

  3. I am just going through and reading this again. I really like the personal memoir mixed in with your astute observations. It is very rich.

  4. I fell in love with ‘Crossings’ in 1974. I still love it. From ‘The Prisoner’ -> ‘Sextant’: Herbie’s most intergalactic period: creativity, composition, bandleading, collective ethos. Looking forward to the book.

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