By Hakim Abdul-Ali
The Spoleto Festival USA has a reputation of showcasing some of the world’s greatest entertainers and performers covering many genres. This year’s programmatic format was definitely a continuation of that process with the inclusion of jazz saxophonist giant Charles Lloyd, tap dancer Ayodele Casel and the esteemed pianist Henry Butler and trumpeter Steven Bernstein, along their fellow band mates, “The Hot 9.”
These stars collectively dazzled the Spoleto audience on their respective performance dates with verve and elegance which was and is indicative of their individualistic musical and creative skills they possessed. They were awesome.
First, I must begin with Charles Lloyd, a man who I’ve known for almost fifteen years and a gentleman who I truly do call a friend. This seventy-nine-year old tenor great is a national treasure in the world of jazz and he’s a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master who’s still doing his intensified thing.
He performed in a solo performance for the Festival at the Charleston Gaillard Center’s Martha and John M. Rivers Performance Hall on Friday evening June 2, 2017. Before a packed house, Mr. Lloyd and his group including drummer Eric Harland, pianist Gerald Clayton and bassist Larry Grenadier delivered what was considered a great repertoire of classic Charles Lloyd unique tunes and resonate sounds by those in attendance.
Ever expanding his music range, Mr. Lloyd related to me in an interview at his Charleston motel before his concert that being a musician was all he ever wanted to be. He’s a native of Memphis, Tennessee, a place that seems to always draw a reflective and most respectful response from this saxophonist and flutist legend.
Mr. Lloyd, a practicing Buddhist, is full of very respected feelings about life in general. He’s a delight to interview because you never quite know where the conversation may end because Mr. Lloyd is a lover of peace and harmony, especially as it relates to respect for nature and for human compatibilities.
His aura exudes a status of what he is as a giant in the field of music who’s still doing his remarkable musical thing. The fans of his music were treated on June 2 to what it means to understand and appreciate what the great Charles Lloyd has been doing over these countless decades and that is presenting jazz as he feels it to be without compromise. They love the show.
I interviewed Ayodele Casel on Thursday, June 1, 2017, and it was a spark of joy because this young lady, a native of “The Bronx,” New York, but raised in Puerto Rico, is a breath of exuberant excitement. Listen carefully, you can’t help but feel the spirit`ed energy from this Afro-Latin American sister, who’s father was an African-American and her mother was Puerto Rican.
When interviewing her, you automatically know that she a very proud Afro-Latina soul. She’s full of vital life and vigorous energy radiates from her as she talks about her love of tap and how it has made and has had a stimulating impact on her life.
Ayodele related to me that she initially wanted to be an actress but she caught the tap dancing bug early on and started pursuing the tap dancing craft with intensity. She eventually got a gig as the female lead in tap phenom Savion Glover’s “Not Your Ordinary Tappers,” and the rest is history.
The late great tap icon and actor, Gregory Hines, who died in 2003, labeled her as one of the top dancers around. That was quite an honor to receive and that recognition was very obvious and evident in the last of her five Spoleto Festival USA performances that I saw on Sunday, June 4, 2017.
She also performed solo shows on June1-3 and concluded her Spoleto Festival USA presentations with two shows on June 4. She has performed at the White House, Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall among her notable past performances.
Her presentations before this year’s festival audiences were ones that reflected her life’s story in her one act, hour-long shows. In the performance that I saw, complete with magnificent background Power Point presentational vignettes of her and her family, the Bronx and other personal images, was a well-crafted story of who she was as she adroitly tapped and monologued the show’s changing scenarios telling the story of life’s journeys thus far.
I must admit that I’m affirmatively biased toward the Puerto Rican culture in and from a very personal perspective. My very own grandchildren are of African-American and Puerto Rican heritages, and I’m immensely proud of them, and I’m sure someone like Ayodele Casel would serve as role model for them, as well as for any other ethnic females, be they Latina or not.
Ayodele Casel is a strong, talented and wonderfully polite young lady who I was glad to have met, see perform but, most of all, she’s a person who I had an opportunity to interview. Her birthday was June 5, and at now 42-years-old, this budding young tap dancer and choreographer is on her way to greater success in whatever she chooses because she’s that good.
Steven Bernstein and Henry Butler are two of the easiest going gentlemen who you’d ever want to meet, furthermore to sit down with and interview. They are what you call true, special musicians who know what they are about when it comes to laying down their blended music before an audience.
I had the pleasure in briefly interviewing them both before their concert on June 1, 2017, and they didn’t disappoint. Their love of their collaborative music projects and their mutual respect for each other was clear to see.
In talking with them it was like a taking humble journey back in time in discussing what the past elders of the jazz idiom created and what they and “The Hot 9” are presently expanding upon. Mr. Bernstein, originally from the San Francisco Bay area reminded me of what it was like when peace, struggle and respect for all meant something.
Being that I’m a Muslim and Mr. Bernstein, who’s Jewish, we both agreed that work needs to be done from both of our respective perspectives in the nation and the rest of the world to absolve some of the hatreds that are abounding. This acclaimed trumpeter and bandleader is one talented musician who is also more than just being a performer. He’s a guy with a lot of character, and I mean that very openly.
Now to the one and only Mr. Henry Butler, a jewel if there ever was one on the current music scene . This New Orleans soulful musician is total class and an intellect to go along with it.
Meeting the great pianist and singer Henry Butler was a special treat for me. You see, American classical music great Ahmad Jamal had spoken highly of Mr. Butler’s talent to me in a conversation about a month before I met Mr. Butler.
To interview Mr. Butler makes you appreciate life in so many ways because this man is a teacher in so many, many norms. Even though he’s blind, his comprehensive worldview is full of so much interesting insights and intellectual wisdom that it gives light even to the smallest reality in a conversation.
Henry Butler can talk about any subject from music to sports to politics with the aplomb of a skilled professor. I especially loved his natural articulateness as he discussed the viability of the New Orleans music scene and life-in-general.
Also, I loved the spiritual essence of this man, and I felt that I was in the presence of legitimate music royalty. Words are at not hand to tell you what a joy (and privilege) I had in meeting this great musical talent and even greater human being. He’s the best.
The Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 concert was a pure mixture of traditional New Orleans music and early 20th century blues, with a little R&B added to the musical offering. The Spoleto audience cheered on this bunch of seasoned and accomplished musicians through every tune. The show was a smashing success.