Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Gil Scott-Heron remembered

While America celebrates February as African American History Month, and Public Broadcasting offers a wealth of fascinating, interesting and provocative programming, just the same I'm reminded of some wry commentary offered by the great poet, songwriter and performer Gil Scott-Heron.

It was the early 80s, and he appeared mid-week at Santa Clara University on the San Francisco Peninsula.
Expecting to see at least a quartet with bass, drums, flute and Gil Scott-Heron singing and playing electric piano, to my surprise he was doing it solo! Sitting at a Fender Rhodes piano, his first set was an informal hour, mostly conversation.

It's been said that a clue to a person with a good intellect is a sense of humor, and Gil certainly evidenced that. His presentation was closer to stand-up comedy than the fiery revolutionary poetry and soulful music I had hoped for, but the audience was engaged, his witty humor an unexpected facet of his personality.

As Mississippi bluesman John Blues Boyd says, "The truth will make you laugh." 30 years later I smile as I recall Gil Scott-Heron describing his search for some good soul music or jazz when he would get to a new city. In the earlier days of his career not every radio received FM, and there was a lot of music on AM, so he described his search for music on the AM dial.

Basically, you might start at the left side where the lower frequencies had more power and often belonged to network stations, but no dice. In order to find Black music you had to go farther to the right, where the stations were crowded together in the less desirable frequencies with low signal strength and some overlapping -- but that's where you could find the funk, the soul, the jazz -- and with careful tuning you were in business.

This then reminded Gil of Black History Month -- after all, out of 12 months of the year -- Black people get the shortest month, February! The laughter of recognition filled the auditorium. Gil Scott-Heron: poet, musician and humorist!

-- Don Baraka

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