2008

2008

BUCK HILL

Roger “Buck” Hill — The “Jazz Postman” or “Wailin’ Mailman.” Jazz saxophonist Buck Hill was born on February 13, 1927, in Washington, D.C. When he was 13, his oldest brother bought him his first horn, a soprano saxophone. In those early years he switched from soprano to alto and then to tenor, but these days he says, “I like the soprano now.” No matter which horn he picks up, however, he is considered to be one of the world’s greatest sax players. Jazz Times called him “a veritable phenomenon whose robust and swinging approach is absolutely irrepressible.”

He started playing D.C.’s famous U Street corridor of jazz clubs when he was 14, and for a short time was a player in the Howard Theater house band. Buck went to Armstrong High School in the Shaw neighborhood and was drafted in 1946. He played tenor sax in the 173rd Army Ground Forces Band in Alabama and North Carolina during his stint in the military.

He returned to D.C. in 1947, got a job at the main post office downtown, got married in 1948, and started a family. He also began playing in clubs again. In 1950, he started performing with Charlie Byrd at Byrd’s Showboat Lounge and became a regular on the local jazz scene. He was considered the top tenor sax player in the area and appeared with Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, and Shirley Horn, among other jazz royalty, when they came through town. Buck appeared on Charlie Byrd’s “Jazz at the Showboat/World of Charlie Byrd” in 1958 and on “Jazz at the Showboat Vol. 2” in 1959. Over his long career, he performed with artists including Sonny Stitt, Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Max Roach, and Cannonball Adderly.

During the 1960s, Buck was married with three children and had a job at the U.S. Postal Service. In 1959 and 1960, photographer William Claxton toured the country to take photos of jazz musicians. During that time, he took an iconic picture of Buck in his uniform, standing on a porch in D.C. and wailing on his sax to the delight of the neighborhood children — illustrating Buck as the Wailing Mailman or Jazz Postman.

Buck was the first person to introduce drummer Billy Hart to the jazz community. Years later, Hart arranged for Buck to finally begin his solo recording career with the Danish record company Steeplechase. He collaborated with jazz greats Kenny Barron and Ray Brown on “This is Buck Hill” (1978) and “Scope” (1979). Other Steeplechase recordings include “Easy to Love” (1981), “Impressions” (1983), and “Northsea Festival” (1977).

He later recorded for the Muse, Jazzmont, and Severn labels and was featured on several Shirley Horn recordings, including “Close Enough for Love” (1988), “You Won’t Forget Me” (1990), “The Main Ingredient” (1996), and “I Remember Miles” (1998). Buck’s recordings as a bandleader include “Buck Hill Plays Europe” (1982), “Capital Hill,” (1989), “The Buck Stops Here” (1990), and “I’m Beginning to See the Light” (1991). He doubled on clarinet, playing Duke Ellington and McCoy Tyner tunes and his own compositions on “Impulse” in 1992. In 2000, Buck released “Uh Huh! Live at the Montpelier” on the JazzMont label. His latest CD is “Relax, recorded for the Severn label, and released in 2005.

Buck never gave up his job as a postman, and he worked for the Post Office for a total of 40 years, taking a break only once to perform in Holland and France. He retired from the Postal Service in 1980, but he never retired from playing jazz. He said, “I still play around…yep… I still have wind.”

Buck received two NEA grants — one for composition and one for performance, and he represented Washington, D.C. as part of the 1986 Pacific Exchange Jazz Showcase. In 1983, Mayor Marion Barry declared October 9 “Buck Hill Day.” Buck lives in Greenbelt with his wife Helen.

ELIZABETH “LIBBA” COTTEN

Elizabeth Cotten was born Elizabeth Nevills on January 5, 1895, in Chapel Hill, N.C., but she began her professional career as a musician some 60 years later. She was a key figure in the folk music revival in the 1960s and won a Grammy in 1984 for “Elizabeth Cotten Live!” on Arhoolie Records. The song “Freight Train,” which she wrote when she was 12 years old, is a fingerpicker’s classic and her arrangements of traditional folk songs are staples of many folk repertoires.

Libba was the youngest of five children. When she was eight, she started playing her older brother’s banjo and guitar. She taught herself how to play and at the age of 12 wrote her most famous song, “Freight Train,” which would influence many local Piedmont blues musicians as well as nationally known musicians. She played a normally strung guitar upside down and left-handed, playing the bass pattern with her fingers and using her thumb for the melody.

In 1910, when she was 15 years old, Libba married Frank Cotten. Shortly after the birth of their daughter, Lillie, she became deeply religious and obeyed when the deacons of her church told her to give up the guitar. The family moved between Chapel Hill, Washington, D.C., and New York City, where Frank worked as a chauffeur and later owned a garage shop. Frank and Libba divorced and in the early 1940s, she moved back to Washington, D.C.

The story goes that she was working in Landsburgh’s department store downtown selling dolls when she found a lost child named Peggy Seeger and returned her to her mother, Ruth Crawford Seeger, author of a well-known children’s songbook and member of the famed Seeger family. They became friends and Libba started working for the Seegers as a cook and housekeeper. During the next few years, she re-learned how to play the guitar. The Seegers considered her an authentic folk music source and nurtured her talents. Mike Seeger began recording Libba in 1952 and produced her first album in 1957 for Folkways Records. The album was called “Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar” (aka “Negro Folk Songs and Tunes,” and now reissued as “Freight Train and Other North Carolina Folk Songs and Tunes,” Folkways). The song Freight Train was becoming famous, but there were some legal problems. Peggy Seeger had performed the song in concert in England and it was recorded by Nancy Whiskey there, where it became a top-five UK hit. However, Libba did not get credit. In the US, the song became a hit for Rusty Draper, who also failed to give Libba credit. The Seegers got involved and Libba got a third credit for the song. Peter Paul and Mary later recorded it and gave Libba full writing credit.

Libba’s “Cotten-picking” was a fairly distinctive style that caught on during the folk revival of the 60s. She performed her first concert with Mike Seeger at Swarthmore College in January 1960. She started performing at concerts, often with the New Lost City Ramblers, sometimes with Mississippi John Hurt, and sometimes solo. She also played at folk festivals with other “discovered” musicians including John Lee Hooker, Jesse Fuller, and Muddy Waters. She performed at the first Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1963 and at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival. That same year she performed at the Ontario Place Coffeehouse in Washington, D.C. with Mississippi John Hurt, Skip James, and Rev. Robert Wilkins.

Libba released “Shake Sugaree,” which she recorded with her grandchildren Brenda, Johnny, Sue, and Wendy, on Folkways in 1967. She performed at the Festival of American Folklife from 1968 through 1971, and she continued to record and perform in the 1970s and 80s.

She received the National Folk Association’s Burl Ives Award in 1972 for her contribution to American folk music. She released “When I’m Gone” on Folkways in 1979 and toured with Taj Mahal the same year. Libba received many honors in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In 1984, she released “Elizabeth Cotten Live!” on Arhoolie Records and that year won a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. That year she also won a National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship award. In 1986, she was nominated for a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Recording. She died on June 29, 1987, in Syracuse, N.Y., at the age of 92.

MISSISSIPPI JOHN HURT

Blues guitarist and singer John Smith Hurt was born on July 2, 1892, in Teoc, Mississippi, one of 11 children. He spent most of his life in a nearby speck on the map called Avalon, but his songs touched a generation of folk music fans and his finger-picking style influenced many guitarists. Hurt had two careers as a professional musician separated by 35 years spent laboring back home.

He got his first recording contract in 1928 but the Depression spoiled any hopes he might have had, and he went back to working in the fields. In the early 1960s, the new folk revival movement “discovered” him, and he was able to record once more.

Hurt learned to play guitar when he was nine years old after his mother bought him his first guitar, a used instrument he called “Black Annie,” for $1.50. He started playing at parties and dances when he was in his late teens. He worked as a sharecropper and as a day laborer, including five months laying railroad ties for the Illinois Central railroad. It was there where he probably learned railroad songs like “Spike Driver Blues” and “Casey Jones.” In 1923, a white fiddle player named William Narmour asked Hurt to play with him at some local square dances. A few years later, Narmour won a fiddling contest and got the attention of an OKeh Records scout named Tommy Rockwell. Narmour suggested Hurt as a potential artist for OKeh, and Hurt was invited to Memphis in February 1928 and recorded eight songs. One 78 was released, “Frankie,” backed with “Nobody’s Dirty Business.” In December, Hurt went to New York City to record 11 more songs, including “Candy Man Blues” and “Avalon Blues.”

Some historians blame OKeh records for only selling a few hundred copies each of Hurt’s songs, saying that the record company tried to sell them as blues songs when they were actually ragtime workups of older traditional folk songs. In 1929, the Great Depression hit, and OKeh stopped operating in 1935. Hurt was back in Avalon, raising a family, farming, and doing odd jobs (including a period with the WPA), and playing guitar when he could.

Folkways Records re-released two Hurt songs in the early 1950s as part of its American Folk Music series, piquing the interest of musicians and musicologists. Dick Spottswood and Tom Hoskins tracked Hurt down at his home in Mississippi and convinced him to begin a new career in Washington, D.C. In July of 1963, Spottswood took Hurt to the Library of Congress, where he recorded 39 songs. When he was 71, Hurt performed at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival and the Philadelphia Folk Festival. He was now officially a living legend and folk music star.

He and his family moved to Washington, D.C., where they lived in a third-floor apartment on Rhode Island Avenue. Over the next three years, he played festivals, folk clubs, colleges, and universities, and recorded on the Piedmont and Vanguard labels. He was a resident guitarist at Ontario Place Coffeehouse in D.C. He bought a house in Grenada, MS, and moved his family back home, where he died on November 2, 1966, at the age of 74.

MESHELL NDEGEOCELLO

(Mih SHELL en-DAY gay-o-CHEL-lo) is a multi-talented musician; she is a composer, bandleader, arranger, singer-songwriter, and rapper, and while she plays a number of instruments, she is best known for playing bass. Her music incorporates a wide range of styles, including funk, soul, hip hop, go-go, reggae, R&B, rock, neo-soul, and jazz. She has been nominated for ten Grammy awards and is a provocative artist who is constantly pushing the boundaries of music and politics.

Meshell was born Michelle Lynne Johnson on August 29, 1968, in Berlin, Germany. She was raised in Washington, D.C., where she attended Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Oxon Hill High School. She adopted the surname Ndegeocello when she was a teenager.

Self-taught on the bass, guitar, keyboards, and drums, Meshell honed her skills on the D.C. go-go circuit in the late 1980s with bands including Prophecy, Little Bennie, and the Masters, and Rare Essence. She went solo in 1993, and was one of the first artists to sign with Madonna’s Maverick Records, which released her debut album, “Plantation Lullabies.” The album, which included “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night),” which was a Billboard Hot 100 hit, and “Outside Your Door,” received three Grammy nominations. Bass Player Magazine named her Bassist of the Year; she was the first female to win that award.

Meshell’s next two albums, “Peace Beyond Passion” (1996) and “Bitter” (1999) received four more Grammy nominations. She released “Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape) in 2002, followed by “Comfort Woman” in 2003, “The Spirit Music Jamia: Dance of the Infidel” in 2005, and “The World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams” in 2007 on Decca.

Her biggest commercial success was a duet with John Cougar Mellencamp on a cover of Van Morrison’s “Wild Night,” which reached #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in 1994. She had a Dance #1 hit in 1996 with a Bill Withers tune, “Who Is He (And What Is He Saying to You)?” which was briefly featured in the film “Jerry Maguire. She had Dance Top 20 hits with “Earth,” “Leviticus: Faggot,” “Stay,” and “If That’s Your Boyfriend.” She also sang backing vocals on Madonna’s I’d Rather Be Your Lover,” on the album “Bedtime Stories.”

Meshell’s music has been featured in film soundtracks including “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “Lost and Delirious,” “Batman and Robin,” “Love Jones,” “Love & Basketball,” “Talk to Me,” “The Best Man,” “Higher Learning,” and “Down in the Delta.” She has been on recordings by Basement Jaxx, Indigo Girls, and The Blind Boys of Alabama. She played bass on the Rolling Stones’ “Saint of Me” on their 1997 album “Bridges to Babylon,” and on Alanis Morissette’s “So Unsexy” and “You Owe Me Nothing in Return” on her 2002 album “Under Rug Swept.”

She is also in the documentary “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” singing The Miracles’ “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me.” In the late 1990s, she toured with Lilith Fair. She also did a remake of the song “Two Doors Down” on the 2003 release, “Just Because I’m a Woman: The Songs of Dolly Parton.”

Content courtesy of Washington Area Music Association.