Wine, Rivers, and Jazz: An Introduction to the Great Cal Massey

By: Benjamin Barson

Did you know it is illegal to irrigate grape vines in France? French growers have noted that vines that are excessively and unnaturally watered by irrigation systems do not exhibit the same resilience and strength as their dampened counterparts. Where water is not excessive, vines must dig their roots deep into the ground to search for new water sources. The plants that survive are the ones that can ingeniously and intuitively traverse through limestone, granite to create their own nectar of life.

The journey becomes part of the life of the vine itself, and the grape tastes of the ancient stone it comes into contact with. The coveted minerality found in old world wine is, in fact, the product of this painful but fruitful process.

Nature has a quiet way of humbling humanity with little windows into its lessons like these, and vines are only one part of a story that is repeated in theatres the world over. Rivers, too, share a similar story. Young ones lie straight-but if nestled between mountains, they will have to curve to survive. Runoff from mountains block the direct passage of the river, and they will adapt or die by pressuring enough water in a perpendicular direction until a new passageway is formed. As these rivers age, they became curved, storied, and filled with interesting and unexpected geological resources-and as many a sommelier will tell you, instrumental in the production of good wine.

It does not surprise me that the struggle of African Americans, a people who have traversed mountains of slavery and racism, have repeatedly turned to the resilient river as a metaphor for their own hard-fought journey. Consider the lyric the prolific Black poet, Langston Hughes:

 I've known rivers:

I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the

     flow of human blood in human veins.

 My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

 I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.

I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.

I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln

     went down to New Orleans, and I've seen its muddy

     bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

 I've known rivers:

Ancient, dusky rivers.

 My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

 -Langston Hughes, "The Negro Speaks of Rivers"

For Hughes, a tumultuous but continuous river extends from the days of the Egyptian empire to the Middle Passage to the Civil War in the United States. In the fight for survival, the soul of his people has grown deep, sinking roots down in complex and varied ways.

But even more than the written word, it was the music of this people that has been the journey's scribe. Perhaps there is not a single more powerful global cultural force in the modern era than African American music. Every major development in genre and style of American music has had Black Americans to thank, from the spirituals and blues to jazz, R&B, and rock; from funk to hip-hop and beyond.

The music's power comes from its ability to reflect the river's journey. For instance, jazz manifested the urbanization of Black American life following migrations from the South. Hip-hop reflected a changed city landscape, in which the police were on the offensive, incarcerations rates skyrocketed, and developments like the I-87 in the Bronx overpass blighted whole communities. So with the river, so with the song, songs that are always one step ahead, surging pass the mountain's impasse. Put together, they remain America's greatest contribution to global culture, as W.E.B. DuBois penned so long ago:

The Negro folksong - the rhythmic cry of the slave - stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas. . . . it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.

As the rivers have turned, so too have the musicians. A jazz trumpet player by the name of Calvin Massey crossed the biggest one of them all, and in 1967 flew over the Atlantic Ocean to return to Africa. His destination was Algeria, to attend the historic Pan-Afrikan festival.

If you had been in Algiers, Algeria's capital, from July 21st to August 1st, 1969, you would have borne witness to a revolutionary musical festival that would have made Woodstock look like Disney World. Simply put, Algiers '69 was the place to be!  Hosting a collective of artists and movements from around the Earth's surface, the roster was filled with delegations from 31 independent African nations and six active independence movements. South African bands and dancers performed with American jazz musicians, Indians with the Cubans, the whole world came together and felt like it was being born anew. Jamming, dancing, singing, they made strategy and spoke of global freedom in an age where anything seemed possible. The mission was nothing less than to decolonize the mind, the soul, and the spirit.

This was the scene Calvin Massey entered in '69. And it was here that he decided to compose his epic opus, The Black Liberation Movement Suite. Co-written with the Italian composer and socialist Romulus Franceschini, it remains one of the greatest works written in the 20th century, a lost gem in the jazz cannon whose breadth and scope can only be compared to Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington.

Many haven't heard of Cal Massey, but his influence and impact on jazz and American music was deep and real. A mentor and collaborator to so many of jazz's greats in the 1960s that included John Coltrane, Archie Shepp, Lee Morgan, Cal was a groundbreaking composer whose primary goals weren't commercial success and recognition. He played in fundraisers for churches in Crown Heights and Bed-Stuy, raising money for community playgrounds and other programs, and produced soulful, majestic melodies that empowered his people and infused them with the passionate desire for justice. He was a hero in the community, earned the respect of local gangs and even, at times, brought them together. He brought his gifts to Harlem as well, whether he was playing at the original Red Rooster, or at benefits for churches or the Black Panther Party. No stranger to the politics of the time, Cal was commissioned the suite by Eldridge Cleaver of the Panthers when the two met in Algiers.

The parallel journeys of African Americans and nature's stories grapes cross paths at the contemporary Red Rooster, a beacon of Black culture and history in the heart of Harlem that is also committed to bringing quality food to a neighborhood blighted by McDonalidization. Obesity rates are endemic in low-income communities of color in New York and Harlem is no exception. Marcus Samuelsson has made it a mission of his to educate children in the Harlem community, often brining in local schools and giving cooking classes. For Marcus, our food system is "no longer treating food as nutritional essentials for the worldwide population. The market sees food as a commodity and food production is determined based on what will garner the most profits instead of keeping the important farmers and consumers in mind." Similarly, huge media companies do not treat music as the spiritual nutrition of humanity, offering us a monoculture of self-obsessed artists who jam the airwaves.

It is thus with great excitement that Marcus and I collaborate with one of today's visionary and revolutionary artists, the world-renowned and Guggenheim award-winning saxophonist/composer Fred Ho, to bring Cal Massey's The Black Liberation Movement Suite to you at the Red Rooster this February 22nd and 26th, 2012. We could not find a more fitting work than which to embody the history of one of jazz's great storytellers and community healers, one whose roots in Black America go so deep that he was a regular performer at the original Red Rooster. We feel that it is fine time to bring this majestic work and the history it represents to the wider public and celebrate the rivers and roots that have brought us together. Just as the great grape plant digs deep roots through history so ancient and magnificent it expands the grape's beauty forever, so, too, do we at the Red Rooster hope to dig our roots deep, deep into Harlem's history and culture, deep into the history of a proud and dignified people whose soul is deep, so deep, like the rivers. And from there, maybe we can at last sing.

For more information about the concerts, click here.

For more inspiring stories, follow me on Twitter (@MarcusCooks)