Interview: Trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah Discusses Involvement with Sun Ra Arkestra, Arts Direction at Sistas’ Place

Cisco Bradley:     How did you first start working as Music Director of Sistas’ Place?

Ahmed Abdullah:        I became the Music Director of Sistas’ Place in 1998. I had just finished my work with the Sun Ra Arkestra, actually, my wife, Monique Ngozi Nri and I were trying to revive the Sun Ra Arkestra. We had formed a production company that we called Melchizedek Music Productions. That’s what I’ve been doing since that time while, of course, performing and developing myself as an educator and seeing the need for that in different places. For example, I teach at an elementary school and I teach at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music, as well. I teach a course on Sun Ra at The New School and I teach general music at the elementary school. The connection is that I got the job at The New School in 2002 and that came out of work I had been doing around my association with Sun Ra. My role as the Music Director of Sistas’ Place also came from working on my memoirs around my work with Sun Ra.

Cisco Bradley:     So when you were getting going with Sistas’ Place was there a certain scene that you were sort of hoping to bring into that space?

Ahmed Abdullah:        Yes, absolutely. I was involved in what I call the Loft Movement. In the 1970s there were a number of venues on the Lower East Side of New York City. Sun Ra had a house down there, however, by the 1970s he had moved down to Philadelphia. We’re talking about 1972 on and Sun Ra was in Philadelphia by 1971.

Cisco Bradley:     Okay.

Ahmed Abdullah:        So he didn’t have anything to do directly with the Loft Movement. Indirectly, however, he was a part of the generation of musicians who preceded the Loft Movement.

There were people like Sam Rivers, Joe Lee Wilson, Rashied Ali, John Fischer, Charles Tyler – they either managed or owned lofts during the particular time we’re talking about. And, there were venues where we, artists who were just getting our feet into the business, could find a place to play. We couldn’t play in the clubs because the clubs wanted to make money and our music was not money making, necessarily. It was artistic. And so we didn’t find that the clubs opened their arms to us so musicians actually had to support musicians and find venues where we could play at. And that’s what our whole generation had to learn to do. We had to learn how to produce our own recordings, produced our own gigs. We had to learn how to do everything because no one was going to do it for us.

And it was during the Loft Movement that I developed the know-how of music production that I tried to bring to the Sun Ra band after Sun Ra left the planet. It was a very, very valuable gift that I got in learning how to present my music and develop it, you know, being able to get it to the public. ‘Cause we had to do everything.

Cisco Bradley:     And so the generation you’re talking about included the people you were just mentioning? Rashied Ali, Sam Rivers – like that generation?

Ahmed Abdullah:        Well, they were the generation before us. And they saw the need to do this for the coming generation behind them. You see, Rashied Ali played with John Coltrane, as you know, so he had enough money to be able to own a loft space. And Sam Rivers had a place. He had a place that he… I don’t know whether he owned or rented Studio RivBea. But, he opened his doors so musicians could come in and perform there. Joe Lee Wilson had a place right down the street from Sam Rivers. Charles Tyler managed a loft called The Brook on 17th Street, which wasn’t too far away. John Fischer, a pianist had a place called Environ, which was on Broadway by Spring Street, in what now is called Soho

All these places were available because musicians were the first in that area and, you know, the real estate was cheap during that period of time. So it was accessible.

Cisco Bradley:     So then your generation was coming up behind that but facing a very different kind of economic situation for musicians, right?

Ahmed Abdullah:        The ‘70s was a different— difficult time. Yeah. I mean, the difficulty may have started in the ‘60s but certainly the ‘70s was a really difficult time for anybody to be able to get their name out there, so to speak – you know, to be able to find venues to work at and to continue what it is— whatever path they wanted to pursue. So, yeah. And working in the lofts helped me to develop my ability to play well enough to be able to work with Sun Ra. You know, you can’t just pick up a horn and play with a major player like Sun Ra. You have to be able to develop to work it out in front of audiences over time.

And that’s what the lofts provided for me, an opportunity to develop my craft. I worked at the lofts from 1972. In 1975 I started playing with Sun Ra.

I worked with this band called The Melodic Art-Tet – a record of which just came out (2014) on the No Business label out of Lithuania – and it was composed of musicians whose names are Charles Brackeen – brilliant, brilliant writer/saxophonist; bass player Ronnie Boykins and drummer Roger Blank – both of them had worked with Sun Ra in the 1960s. And so I was in that band from its inception.

When In 1974, the band played in Philadelphia, Sun Ra heard me play and he got my number and I started playing with him from 1975 on, you know, like that. My first gig with him, April 1975, also turned out to be around the time my twin sons were to arrive. During the two weeks we did at the Five Spot in June of 1975, they had come on the planet.

But had I not been able to work at my craft and play in those loft venues, I doubt that I would have been in any place where he would have wanted me to play with him.

Cisco Bradley:     So who was attending the shows in those times?

Ahmed Abdullah:        The audience was quite mixed. It was people who were really seeking adventures in music. Many of the people were artists themselves in different disciplines of the arts – poets, painters, dancers – and a whole array of people who just loved the adventureness of the music.

Cisco Bradley:     So a fair number of non-musicians as well?

Ahmed Abdullah:        A fair number of non-musicians. Yes, absolutely.

Cisco Bradley:     So people just kinda knew about these loft shows or they were advertised locally?

Ahmed Abdullah:        The venues were advertised locally. People knew about them because there were papers like The Village Voice with writers like Gary Giddens. There was a paper called The Soho News that had writers like Pete Ochiogrosso and Stanley Crouch, who would regularly write articles on what was going on in the lofts. Amiri Baraka wrote about the music and Downbeat covered the things that were going on in the lofts, as well. Robert Palmer wrote about the lofts for the NY Times so events were pretty well publicized. It was the new generation. And it was very different from the popular music of the time … what do they call it … fusion, is what they were calling it, and that was the popular music of the day. But the loft music was a continuation of what people might have called modal music. It was a continuation along those lines.

Cisco Bradley:     How long did that loft scene last?

Ahmed Abdullah:        There are two different discussions about that.

In the 1960s there were lofts where musicians actually performed and people like Bill Dixon, for instance, very important person as far as a precursor to the lofts because he organized musicians in this thing called the October Revolution of 1964. Bill Dixon and a number of other people including Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Roswell Rudd… I wanna say Mike Mantler, Paul Bley, Archie Schepp… quite a few musicians who were considered avant-garde, they were involved in this organization that was called the Jazz Composers Guild. So they were the ones who really initiated playing in lofts because they had to find a way of getting their music out there, right?

Cisco Bradley:     Yeah.

Ahmed Abdullah:        And so the generation that came behind them, which was us, we then took that whole loft thing to another level. The previous generation was about to break in to the industry by the 1970s. People started seeing them as being acceptable. Things had shifted. By the time I played with Sun Ra in 1975, he was playing in clubs, he was playing at the Five Spot. A short time after I played with him, I played two weeks at The Five Spot Café.

So they had broken in but they had broken in by using lofts, yeah? By the 1970s they had abandoned the lofts because now they were part of “the establishment,” so-called, at least they had enough name recognition to be able to work in clubs.

Cisco Bradley:     Yeah. They were getting somewhat regular work.

Ahmed Abdullah:        So I would say the loft movement started with that generation. The 1960s generation – what people call avant-garde. And it continued right on up until about 1978. We, the musicians of the 1970s, and the musicians before us in the 1960s, became the permanent avant-garde because the folks who came after us sought to play the music of their grandfathers. I think that the last loft probably was Rashied Ali’s place.

Cisco Bradley:     Where was that?

Ahmed Abdullah:        Ali’s Alley was on 77 Greene Street. It’s Soho now. Chic Soho, you know? It’s probably worth a few million dollars, I’m sure. And his place was huge. It was probably the biggest club that we had in the city at the time.

Cisco Bradley:     How many people could it accommodate?

Ahmed Abdullah:        Oh, probably well over 100. Which is large for a club, right? He had a bar. He had food. You could have a big band on the stage. I was able to get a week’s worth of work with my own band there ‘cause he would have music there from Sunday right on through Monday, you know, like that. So it was a major, major venue for the music.

The reason that I even wound up getting any kind of attention is because I did a week at Rashied’s place. I got a big review from that gig, written by Robert Palmer in the New York Times. And the first recording I ever did came as a result of that. It was called Life’s Force on About Time records.

Cisco Bradley:     So that was from a live show?

Ahmed Abdullah:        I did a live recording of a performance at Ali’s Alley. That was released as my second recording, though it was actually my first recording.

Cisco Bradley:     I see.

Ahmed Abdullah:        The recording actually came out on Cadence Records around 1980 as their first release. Vincent Chancey, who is on it, was just here last night, we were hanging out. The other musicians on that date include Chico Freeman, Muneer Abdul Fatah, Jerome Hunter and Rashied Sinan. Rashied Ali had a fabulous place. And, very important for the musicians ‘cause we could work there. You could work a week, and you made money from the door but if you hustled, you could make some money. There was no guaranteed salary.

Cisco Bradley:     Did the lofts ever really encounter problems with the authorities?

Ahmed Abdullah:        Well, I know that Rashied did encounter some but I can’t give you facts about it. But I know he had some problems with authorities.

Cisco Bradley:     Like what were the issues? I can imagine the bar being an issue. Or just the sound or—

Ahmed Abdullah:        I don’t know what the nature of it was because I wasn’t involved in all that. I mean, there were rumors that they had some problem with garbage collection or… You know, there are a lot of different laws, which you have to deal with when you’re running a venue.

Cisco Bradley:     Right. So then what brought the loft scene to an end?

Ahmed Abdullah:        A number of different things. There was a place called The Public Theater, which opened around 1978, and they were providing guaranteed money. Studio We was another loft I did not mention, which was on Eldridge Street run by James Dubois with people like Juma Sultan and Ali Abuwi, assisting him. Studio We, in fact, was one of the earliest lofts. They would get grants. Sam Rivers would get grants from The New York State Council on the Arts … or other organizations like that. But many of the lofts weren’t able to do any more than provide you a venue and you basically had to bring in the people and that’s how the lofts would pay you, from whatever came in at the door.

So the fact of getting a guaranteed amount of money was a real issue. You know, making sure that you had a guaranteed salary because if something happened like rain, or snow, you might not have an audience, right?

Cisco Bradley:     Right.

Ahmed Abdullah:        So The Public Theater actually provided musicians with a guaranteed income, a venue to play at with lights and a good sound system, good publicity – you know, the whole thing. So that was one of the things.

The other thing was there was a bit of controversy between Stanley Crouch who was a writer, he was managing the place that Joe Lee Wilson had called the Ladies Fort which was right down the block from Sam Rivers’ place. The problem was that some of the same acts that were booked at Rivbea were duplicated at the Ladies Fort, a block away. That controversy led Sam to shut down his series and shut down his place as venue for the music. This happened in 1978. Sam Rivers’ place was a major, major mecca. We did a recording there called the Wildflower Series in 1976. And many of the people who are major artist today, who were unknown at the time, recorded in that series. There’s a five record set that was released some time in 1977.

And that would be my first recording as a leader. There’s a 12-minute cut that I did, called Blue Phase. And many other people like David Murray, Roscoe Mitchell, Henry Threadgill, Joseph Jarman, Kalaparusha, Hamiet Bluiett, Oliver Lake, Julius Hemphill, Byard Lancaster, Olu Dara, Andrew Cyrille, Leo Smith, were recorded live during several days of recording. There were some known artists like Marion Brown, Randy Weston and Sam Rivers, as well. This May, we’ll be celebrating the 40th anniversary of that recording.

All of us were just getting our names out there and we were all featured to some extent on that recording that was done at Sam Rivers’ Studio RivBea. Sam Rivers’ wife was Beatrice Rivers and so he named the place Studio RivBea. Interestingly enough the building 24 Bond Street where this occurred is still standing.

Cisco Bradley:     So then things started moving public and people just stopped having shows in the lofts?

Ahmed Abdullah:        Yeah. Pretty much that was it.

People saw that the lofts were a really prime living or commercial quarters so the price of real estate in that area went up. One no longer had the kind of access that people had in the 1970s, as we moved into the 1980s.

Things were changing. Things were really, really changing in America. Ronald Reagan became the president in 1980. A whole conservative force took over the country. People started looking backwards. As the politics moved backwards, so did the people’s taste as far as art is concerned or what folks wanted to put out there as art was concerned. Things became retrograde.

Wynton Marsalis came on the scene playing with Art Blakey in the 1980s. So, really, different kinds of forces moved the music into another kind of sphere, another kind of thing , which created a different reality for the 1980s.

The 1980s musicians like myself who wanted to survive had to then align themselves with other musicians who had name recognition.

A whole series of cooperatives bands was formed in the 1980s. I was involved with one that was called The Group, which featured Marion Brown who’s a holdover from the 1960s. He recorded with John Coltrane, as I’m sure you know.

Cisco Bradley:     Right.

Ahmed Abdullah:        Sirone, who’s a bass player who played with The Revolutionary Ensemble. Andrew Cyrille, who was a drummer with Cecil Taylor. And Billy Bang and myself, we were the young folks who came out of the 1970s. So we worked together and we created a band called The Group. Fred Hopkins from the band called Air (Henry Threadgill, Fred Hopkins and Steve McCall), also was involved in The Group.

Now, it’s an interesting thing because we were able to work for a couple of years in the 1980s – you know, 86 we came together ‘till 1987, 88 when we fell apart – but we never recorded in the studio. However, there was a tape that I had from a live performance done at a place called the Jazz Center, located at 380 Lafayette Street and run by another very important person in the music, during that time, whose name is Cobi Narita. She had an organization called the Universal Jazz Coalition that sought to help musicians. It wasn’t until 2013 that the same label, the Lithuanian label No Business, released a recording called The Group Live. The recording came from a performance done on September 13, 1986 at Cobi’s venue. It is a rare occasion to hear the band along with Fred Hopkins and Sirone on basses as well as Marion Brown, Billy Bang, Andrew Cyrille and I.

Cisco Bradley:     You know, I think I have the record.

Ahmed Abdullah:        Do you?

Cisco Bradley:     Yeah.

Ahmed Abdullah:        Do you have the CD or do you have the vinyl?

And the same thing with the Melodic Art-Tet, I wrote the liner notes for both – the Melodic At-Tet and The Group – and a lot of the information I’m speaking to is right in those liner notes. I spent a lot of time doing that. If you have the CD, just look in the liner notes on either one of those – the Melodic Art-Tet or The Group – and all the history is there. I felt it necessary to put this history down before I got senile and forgot everything.

One of the reasons I’m teaching at The New School is because when I left the Sun Ra band, I felt there was such a turbulent period of time that I spent the time working on my memoirs, working on the time that I spent with Sun Ra and just putting it all down and researching the history. The period of time I covered was before my time with Sun Ra right on up until after he passed. I think it’s an important part of the history of this music. And a lot of it is not been documented.

Cisco Bradley:     Yeah.

Ahmed Abdullah:        In the Sun Ra band, there isn’t anybody, as far as I know, who is really documenting the history of that organization post-Sun Ra and the people who were around are dying, you know? So pretty soon nobody will even know the true story.

Cisco Bradley:     Do you have plans to eventually publish that?

Ahmed Abdullah:        I do. I haven’t found a publisher. I did try to find a publisher at one point. But, for me, it was more important that I documented the times. And I guess eventually I will find a publisher and it will be put out there. But for right now, you know, it’s just a matter of making sure things are done accurately.

I did a lot of interviews with people, researched it. In fact, I used the period of time that I began working at Sistas’ Place as a means of interviewing many of the artists who were around during the Loft Movement period and the 1980s. In the early years at Sistas’ Place, while I was still working on the memoir, we created a forum called Conversations, which had several goals. One was to inform the audience in Bedford Stuyvesant about the musicians who were coming into the venue. Audience development. The other goal was to interview the artists and archive the interviews for historical purposes and of course the other goal was to use the information for the memoir.

Cisco Bradley:     Were you from Bed-Stuy originally?

Ahmed Abdullah:        I was born and raised in Harlem for the first 16 years of my life and then my parents moved down to the Lower East Side. That’s where I actually met Sun Ra – on the Lower East Side. I was all of 18 years old when I first heard him at Slug’s. I’d been going to this place called Slug’s, which was on 3rd Street, 242 East 3rd Street between avenues B and C. The Nuyourican Poets Café is now a few doors away on 236 East 3rd Street. I would go to Slugs regularly to hear Sun Ra. He played there on Monday nights from 1966 until the early 1970s.  

We’re talking about the 1960s now. I would go hear him. And I was amazed by his music. I wasn’t quite ready to play with him. It would be 10 years later before I would be ready to play with him. His music was fascinating to me, very interesting, and very different.

And so my coming from Harlem to the Lower East Side opened up a whole new world of possibilities ‘cause so many artists were on the Lower East Side in that period of time. Same thing, cheap rent. People who are artists need a place to live and to survive.

Cisco Bradley:     And then what led you to Brooklyn?

Ahmed Abdullah:        A couple of things. One, is I was working at a day care center at 1310 Atlantic Avenue. Before I left the Lower East Side, I was living on my own on 10th Street and, then I had to leave that apartment in 1968. The same year, I moved up to the Bronx and I started working at 1310, which was a very progressive day care center. When I look back on my life, I see that I was involved in education from my teenage years, really.

The commute from the Bronx to Brooklyn was a bit tedious so we found an apartment in Brooklyn in 1970.

I started living in Brooklyn, in 1970. I lived in Brooklyn from’70 until ’77 or so and then I moved back to the Lower East Side for another 10 years and then I came out to Brooklyn and I’ve been in Brooklyn from 1988 since. Brooklyn has really been my adopted home. I love it out here.

Cisco Bradley:     Yeah. So the place on Atlantic you mentioned that you’re working at, so 1310 Atlantic, where is that?

Ahmed Abdullah:        It’s between Nostrand and New York.

Cisco Bradley:     So that’s a really culturally vibrant area. It’s been like that for a long time, right? I mean, I feel like there’s different clubs that went way back to the ‘20s or the ‘30s in that area.

Ahmed Abdullah:        Yeah, it is a culturally vibrant area. No question about it. I mean, you go a couple of more blocks to Fulton Street, that whole strip along Fulton Street, from Franklin right on to Brooklyn Ave, had a number of clubs, you know, very well-known clubs right along Fulton Street. So, yeah, that particular part of Brooklyn, has a lot of history.

One of the people who tapped into that is Robin DG Kelley, who wrote the book on Thelonious Monk. He deals with that rich history. Monk, like many other musicians, could not play in Manhattan so he had to play in Brooklyn because Brooklyn didn’t have the kind of labor laws that they had in Manhattan. He didn’t have to deal with the cabaret card in Brooklyn. So in researching Monk, Robin Kelley had to research Brooklyn and he found all of this history. Monk did a lot of work in Brooklyn.

Cisco Bradley:     So that spot on Atlantic, was that near The East? Did you spend a lot of time at The East?

Ahmed Abdullah:        I did. I did. I performed at the East. And 1310 Atlantic Avenue was actually in existence before The East as a school that was very involved with cultural events and trying to do something for children to give them a head start. That’s what The East was doing.

The East, Uhuru Sasa Schule, took what we were doing at 1310 much more in depth. It wasn’t just a day care, it was actually a school. At 1310 we were dealing with day care and kids, children from three months right on up to four years old, and so we were trying to get them culturally acculturated, you know? Trying to get them to understand who they were during that period of time. Black Power was the thing.

Cisco Bradley:     Right.

Ahmed Abdullah:        So we did that at 1310 Atlantic Avenue. And The East came into existence after that. I certainly worked at The East as a musician during that period of time. And the very first performance I did with Sun Ra was, in fact, at The East. That was April of 1975.

Cisco Bradley:     Wow. Okay. So a lot was happening. And so then you went back to the Lower East Side after spending a while in that area. Were you still coming out to Brooklyn to play?

Ahmed Abdullah:        I would, though I played mostly on the Lower East Side by that point. So, I was on the Lower East Side from the 1960s until, what, 1968 and then I went away, came to Brooklyn from 1970 to 1977, then I was on the Lower East Side again from 1977 to 1988. So I’ve been moving back and forth throughout those zones… throughout my time on the planet.

Cisco Bradley:     What brought you back to Brooklyn in ‘88?

Ahmed Abdullah:        In 1988, when I came to Brooklyn, that was about trying to find another place. The relationship I was in had broken up and so I was trying to find a place on my own. And that’s what brought me to Brooklyn in the 1980s. And that’s where I’ve been. I was in the Fort Greene area of Brooklyn then.

Cisco Bradley:     What was happening in Fort Greene at the time?

Ahmed Abdullah:        Not a lot. My wife Monique, will tell you, when I first came back to Brooklyn in late 1980s (we got married in 1992), I would say there was nothing happening in Brooklyn, right? So I would always go to the Lower East Side, I would always go to Manhattan for any music. And then we started talking. She said, “Well, why don’t you try to make something happen in Brooklyn?”

And that’s when I started actually to look into possibilities of making this Brooklyn thing become more vibrant.

And Sistas’ Place just fell in my lap as a means of being able to do that. That was, you know, 10 years after I’d been in Brooklyn. 1988 was when I moved back to Brooklyn but it was 1998 when I started working at Sistas’ Place.

Cisco Bradley:     Were you curating stuff before ’98?

Ahmed Abdullah:        No. The only thing I was doing was working with the Sun Ra band in trying to reignite the spark in that band while helping to develop an audience for the band, once again. So, yeah, that’s basically what I was doing as well, I was trying to develop my own bands. However, by 1998 it seemed as if our efforts were no longer needed so I went on and did something else. I went on with my life and worked on trying to develop Sistas’ Place as a viable institution.

I had spent at least 22 years working with the organization – 1975 until he passed in 1993 and then from ’93 into ’97 I worked on reviving the band because the band really had no life after Sun Ra. I mean, how do you sell the Sun Ra band without Sun Ra, right? It was a major, major thing.

I worked on helping them to get their feet back on the ground ‘cause most of the people who were in the band – and certainly Marshall who was leading the band and John Gilmore, before him who was leading the band – I felt that they had minimal background as far as business , organization and marketing and so it was a very, very difficult thing. It was touch and go for a number of years after Sun Ra left the planet.

But I don’t think our efforts were completely appreciated by them so I just moved on and did what I’m doing now, which is working on developing myself, a lifetime thing, right?

Cisco Bradley:     So you’ve mentioned The Group. And then what were the other bands during or after that period?

Ahmed Abdullah:        Well from 1972, I’ve had my own band. I called my band Abdullah which was the name I used for my first two full recordings Life’s Force and Live At Ali’s Alley as well as the Wildflower recording.

And then I was able to record for this other label called Silkheart Records out of Stockholm, Sweden. The first recording I did with them was a quartet in 1987. This is very interesting ‘cause you asked about the people who would frequent lofts. The guy who headed Silkheart Records, Lars Gustaffason, had come to hear the Melodic Art-Tet playing at one of the lofts and he loved the band. But when he had his record label he decided he would put me in the leadership role with Charles Brackeen as the tenor saxophone player with me. And he gave me Malachi Favors as the bass player and Alvin Fielder as the drummer, great players, for a quartet date.

So it was my band, you know, I was leading the band, but it was a different thing to what he had heard as the Melodic Art-Tet.

And, for some reason, he put Charles Brackeen with another trumpet player, Dennis Gonzalez, playing Charles Brackeen’s music. He recorded Charles Brackeen at the same time. So he reet player, right, you know, playing Charles Barkin’e had heard as corded both of us but he recorded both of us as leaders, not in the context that he had heard us many years before, right? It should be said that Charles Brackeen did work with my band Abdullah, in fact, he is the saxophonist on the Wildflower recording done in 1976.

Cisco Bradley:     Interesting.

Ahmed Abdullah:        So there was never any documentation until 2014 when No Business decided to put out the Melodic Art-Tet, in its pure form. And that’s a recording that happened in 1974 live on WKCR, Columbia University’s radio station.

It does give you the pure Melodic Art-Tet, what was happening then, you know? Most of the music we were playing in the Melodic Art-Tet was Charles Brackeen’s music. William Parker is the bass player on that recording as opposed to Ronnie Boykins who was the bass player for most of the history of the Melodic Art-Tet. Ronnie left the band just about at the end, before the band broke up.

So that was one band, the Melodic Art-Tet, and then The Group and then I formed my own band, another band which was a continuation. My bands just evolved over the years. I mean, same concept, you know, different evolution in terms of my thinking.

I had a band called the Solomonic Quintet that I recorded for Silkheart Records, as well, with David S. Ware and Charles Moffett, Fred Hopkins and Masujaa who is a guitar player. And we were able to actually get some work… The recording did quite well. We did a couple tours out of that. And now were are talking about 1987, 88, you know, after The Group, which had given me a little more prestige so that I could work in different venues. I was able to work in some clubs in New York.

Cisco Bradley:     And then into the ‘90s you were still working with Sun Ra Arkestra.

Ahmed Abdullah:        Interestingly enough, I went back into the Sun Ra band on a full time basis from 1988 until Sun Ra died. I had a dream about him. In the dream he came to me as a mentor and I was told in the dream that I was supposed to stay with him and learn all I could from him, right? And it was so clear. I never remember dreams and this dream was so clear that I followed it and so I went back in the Arkestra. Even though I had this recording and I was doing quite well, The Solomonic, and I was getting work, I went back to do the Arkestra full time.

I wound up working with him and working my own band, The Solomonic. So I would be traveling around with Sun Ra and somebody would ask me, “Can you bring your band here?” and I wound up taking my band to different places that Sun Ra had been. It was a really good thing for me.

But the key was that I would sit with Sun Ra, very differently from when I was in the band in the 1970s. I would sit with him and I would pick his brain. And that became the source of material that I used in my memoir later on. Because I understood that I was supposed to be around him and learn as much as I could from him. So that’s what I did right up until the time that he passed in ’93.

And that’s why I was so motivated to try to help the band get back on its feet because I saw that what he was doing was important and I thought that the institution, the Sun Ra Arkestra, needed to survive.

Cisco Bradley:     So then after you withdrew from your involvement in the Sun Ra Arkestra, did you jump into working with Sistas’ Place on a much more serious level?

Ahmed Abdullah:        1998. Yes.

Cisco Bradley:     And then also I suppose working with your own bands as well?

Ahmed Abdullah:        That’s right. That’s right. By 1998, my band was called Diaspora, which is interesting. The Solomonic evolved into Diaspora, right? And the reason that happened was because I had built the Solomonic around drummer Charles Moffett. Charles Moffett was a very wise drummer. And so he and I always said that it was Ahmed Abdullah’s Solomonic featuring Charles Moffett. And we had a really close relationship because I could write a song and he would put a drum rhythm to it that was like amazing. Because he played with Ornette [Coleman] and from childhood was a brilliant, brilliant cat.

He was also a teacher in the public school system. And so I got that from him too – that teaching is an art, much like playing. You have to develop your ability over time. Charles passed in 1997 and when he passed, I did what they do in basketball, football, I retired the name and, you know, took on the name Diaspora.

Now, that’s an interesting thing in and of itself because what I was doing with Diaspora was I was playing the music of the African diaspora and I would infuse it with some poetry and wise sayings from different parts of the diaspora.

When I left the Sun Ra band, Sun Ra came to me in a dream again, right – this is 10 years later – and he said that Diaspora is an acronym. It means Dispersions of the Spirit of Ra and you need to play my music. And I was like, wow…

And so I started then— Because I had approached the guys in the Sun Ra band about doing an all-star project, the Sun Ra All Star Project, to try to revive the band once again, right?

Cisco Bradley:     This is ’95?

Ahmed Abdullah:        This is ’97, ’98. ‘Cause we had been doing some things and I left the band. So I approached them about this project. And we actually got some gigs. We had the North Sea Jazz Festival, we got the Detroit, Montreux Festival in ’98. And they were, you know, they were resisting the idea for some reason

So I did it without them. I called it the Sun Ra All Star Project. I took it to North Sea Jazz Festival, I took it to Detroit, Montreux, right?

There was a lot of controversy around it. They tried to stop me from doing it and they were attacking my reputation so what I did was I made sure that I was going to win— I knew the business far more than they knew the business, so I made sure that they couldn’t use the name Sun Ra until I did those performances. And so I was able to prevail and to do those gigs at North Sea and Montreux. People erroneously put out that I was trying to take over the band but the only thing I was attempting to do was to move the band forward and for that my reputation was maligned.

After those gigs, Sun Ra came to me in a dream once again and he said that Diaspora is an acronym, right, for Dispersions of the Spirit of Ra and you need to play my music. So I realized I didn’t have to play his music by calling it the Sun Ra All Star Project. I could play his music within the context I had already created. And that’s when I started using the name Ahmed Abdullah’s Diaspora and I’ve been using it ever since.

And so what I do with the band now is I play the music from the African diaspora and I play the music of Sun Ra all mixed in together and it works. You know, I use poetry, I use Sun Ra’s lyrics and his music.

In 2013 I performed with the Arkestra at Lincoln Center so I hope we cooled out the negative history.

Cisco Bradley:     And so when you say music of the African diaspora, are there specific things… I mean, there’s a lot to be included in that, right?

Ahmed Abdullah:        It’s a lot to be included so that’s why I say it’s Ahmed Abdullah’s Diaspora. It’s music that I had found in my research. It’s music that I felt really epitomized what I consider to be the African influence in music.

It might be a song from South Africa, it might be a song from Trinidad it might be a song from Jamaica … you know, anything with an African-Caribbean feeling to it – like that.

Cisco Bradley:     And then infused that with sort of a jazz—

Ahmed Abdullah:        Yeah. And then I make— I play one of Sun Ra’s songs, you know, like that. That’s basically where I am today, Ahmed Abdullah’s Diaspora.

Cisco Bradley:     I want to check out some more of that. That sounds really interesting.

Ahmed Abdullah:        I did a recording of all Sun Ra’s music under that name, Ahmed Abdullah’s Diaspora in 2004.

And I got some of the people who had been playing with Sun Ra to play with me. Like Craig Harris is on it, Billy Bang is on it, Radu Ben Judah is the bass player on it and he played with Sun Ra. My wife, Monique Ngozi Nri, who I met in 1991 while performing with Sun Ra, sings and does poetry. I used other people who didn’t necessarily know Sun Ra but knew of his music like Cody Moffett (Charles Moffett’s son), Salim Washington, who helped me with some of the arrangements. Louis Reyes Rivera, who also did poetry.

And I had a young student from The New School who’s now very well established. His name is Owuor Arunga. He took my class for four years. Every semester he was at The New School, he would take my Sun Ra class. He’s somebody who’s taken that information and is going on with it. He was with this rapper from the West Coast, from Seattle who got a Grammy in fact. What’s his name… Macklemore, in any event, Owuor has taken this information and he has utilized it in his own approach to the music. And he’s from Kenya, in fact, and he moved back to Kenya and he’s working to do what he wants to do with the music.

Cisco Bradley:     Thanks for all of that. Could we talk about Sistas’ Place? I’ve tried to recreate from the historical record the kind of shows that you’ve had there. I was wondering if you could talk about the scene in general that you’ve tried to create there and how you see it connecting with other things that are happening.

Ahmed Abdullah:        Well, you know, the thing about Sistas’ Place is that it’s different from when I was a person playing in the loft… era of the Loft Movement of the 1970s.

Sistas’ Place is located in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The Loft Movement was located on the Lower East Side. So, we have a very different clientele.

It’s an Afro-centered clientele, which changes the music because you have to play differently. It’s like people tell you, playing at the Apollo is different from playing anywhere else in the world because the audience is a very critical audience. They heard lots of music and they also give feedback in another kind of way, right? It changes the direction that the music is going. So one of the things that I discovered is that we were creating something that was unique.

And after about seven, eight years of doing it, about 2004 or 2005 we actually were asked to take what we were doing at Sistas’ Place and bring it to Milano (Italy). There was a producer there who picked up on what we were doing from the internet and he wanted us to produce a Sistas’ Place festival within his own festival. And so he asked me to choose some of the groups that he thought would work and I chose about four or five of them and we had them in his line-up.

And that’s when I realized that what we were doing there was something that was really special. And I came up with the thesis I call Jazz: A Music of the Spirit. Now we say that’s what we do at Sistas’ Place. We do Jazz: A Music of the Spirit.

This is also related to Sun Ra because he never had a problem with the name jazz. You know, many musicians have said that jazz is a name like the name negro. It’s a name that’s been imposed on black people.

Sun Ra didn’t feel that because he understood numerology and astrology and Etymology – he studied all of these things. And so he took the name jazz and broke it down. J is the 10th letter of the alphabet. A is the first letter. And Z is the 26th letter. If you add them all together, you get the number 9, yeah? J is 10, A is 1, makes it 11, and 26 and 26 is 52. You add them across, and 11 and 52 you get 63, which is a 9. 9 is the most powerful number that you can have because if you take 9 and you multiply it by anything you get 9.

The essence of jazz is spirit. Spirit is all pervasive, all-powerful, all wise, like that. The fact that people like Duke Ellington, Max Roach and Randy Weston had problems with it meant that maybe we wouldn’t change the name but we might want to put an addendum to it. So I thought of Jazz: A Music of the Spirit, yeah, like that. And that’s what I say we do at Sistas’ Place.

Because, the musicians that we bring there are mostly African-American, Afro-Caribbean and they play very differently in front of that audience. It’s not an audience they get everywhere. They play very differently in front of that audience. So the vibes are very, very high. The music that you find is almost like going to church, on Saturday night. It’s a sacred kind of thing. And that’s the kind of thing that we’ve built up over the years. The people who run Sistas’ Place, and it’s spearheaded by a powerful sister named Viola Plummer, understand that culture is a weapon. And certainly we know that to be true. So we say that we have Jazz: A Music of the Spirit and Culture is our Weapon, like that.

Cisco Bradley:     And how do you see that sort of thing being implemented?

Ahmed Abdullah:        Well, it’s implemented by finding the people … We came up with eight progenitors… eight people who we can say that if you wanted to understand what Music of the Spirit is, you need to look at their work.

And all of these progenitors are people who are no longer on the planet.

Cisco Bradley:     So who were the eight?

Ahmed Abdullah:        Sun Ra is one of them, John Coltrane is another one, Duke Ellington is one, Jackie McLean is the other one. So they’re all used for different reasons. That’s the four male progenitors. And then we have Abbey Lincoln, we have Mary Lou Williams, we had Betty Carter, and we had Nina Simone. Those are the four female progenitors.

So the thing is if you study their work, if you look at their work, you will understand that what we’re encompassing is a whole history of 20th century music, of the art form of the 20th century.

Duke Ellington, you know, goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. The 1920s is when he started his bands. Sun Ra certainly goes back to the early part of the 20th century. And then John Coltrane picks up another period of time. Jackie McLean, we use because of the fact that he was an institution builder. What he did in Hartford is still ongoing. And many musicians came out of that. And they come and they play at Sistas’ Place, in fact, and they love it because he has trained them to be discerning artists. Rene McLean, Jackie’s son, in fact, calls his band Pentagram Music of the Spirit.

The voice, the vocal quality that the ladies encompass, but not only that, Mary Lou Williams was known as a great teacher for many of the beboppers. So we use her work in that way. Nina Simone had real political understanding. Betty Carter also was a mentor to many of the younger artists. Aminata Moseka aka Abbey Lincoln also had a deep political understanding and wrote some powerful lyrics.

John Coltrane is just … you know, thorough  as far as the music was concerned. His mastery of it all. And that’s something that they all have. All of the… Eight of them were people who were very thorough at being able to move this music forward in some kind of way.

Cisco Bradley:     So you mentioned the thesis. You used the term ‘we’ when you’re talking about it.

Ahmed Abdullah:        Yes. ‘We’ would be Louis Reyes Rivera  who is no longer living. He’s a poet who worked very much with the band Diaspora. In fact, the recording I mentioned in which we do the Music of Sun Ra, he’s a part of that. He also worked with me with my memoirs. “We” is also my wife Monique Ngozi Nri. Her input was essential. She understood that we couldn’t have a comprehensive thesis and not include women creative artists as progenitors.

The reason that I am the Music Director at Sistas’ Place has a lot to do with Louis Reyes Rivera, Monique Ngozi Nri and Viola Plummer because Louis was at Sistas’ Place before I was. In fact, he lived right around the corner. When I needed someone to help me with the craft, I talked to Amiri Baraka,  who I’d known, and he offered up a couple of names and one of them was Louis Reyes Rivera. When I went to Louis, he had me come to Sistas’ Place and that’s where we worked on my memoirs. We would sit out in front of Sistas’ Place and we would work. We did this for about four years, right?

After about the first year or so, Viola Plummer who was the leading force there, she asked me if I would be the music director. Carlos Garnett had been the music director from its inception, 1995. He was there for about a year and a half, maybe two years, and then he left and she was left without anybody to do that. They wanted a musician, so as a result of me working on my memoirs, I got to be the Music Director of Sistas’ Place – a job that I’ve had for 17 years now. If you remember I said that my wife Monique had planted the seed years before that I should be more proactive as far as the music of Brooklyn was concerned. Sistas’ Place was the perfect venue for that work. The job of Music Director doesn’t pay any money but it certainly offers a grand opportunity, yeah? It’s a total giving back to the community.

Cisco Bradley:     Right.

Ahmed Abdullah:        Like that. So I used all of the expertise that I’ve had over the years from the Loft Movement, from working with Sun Ra, to book a place like that.

Cisco Bradley:     You mentioned many times Sun Ra as a mentor and teacher. Could you give some examples of particularly profound moments you had with him? As you reflect back, what were the deepest things you learned from him?

Ahmed Abdullah: One of the deepest things I learned from Sun Ra is that one should have a respect for leadership. He always emphasized that the problem we had as a people was our lack of respect for people in positions of leadership. The most glaring example of that which comes to mind occurred during our two week visit to Lagos, Nigeria during the Festival of Arts and Culture of 1977 also known as FESTAC. We were invited to the country by the Nigerian government, they were our host. Fela Kuti, the great musician, was in opposition to the government for various reasons. Sun Ra had warned us not to go to Fela’s Shrine because of his opposition to our host. One would have thought that we would have more in common with the musician Fela than the military government of Nigeria, however, Sun Ra’s position was that the government, not Fela, was providing us with a place to stay and food to eat and they paid for our transportation to Lagos. They had organized the event. They were the Leaders and he was the Leader of our organization and it was our responsibility to follow his lead. As much as I wanted to visit Fela’s Shrine, even at that young age, I thought Sun Ra made good sense and so I didn’t go. Two weeks after FESTAC, when all of the international guests had left the country, the government brutally destroyed the Shrine and murdered Fela’s mother. As awful as that was, the lesson was clear.

Cisco Bradley:     So you talked about the power of culture. A weapon for what purpose? Given the kind structural violence that exists coming from the white establishment today, coming from police violence, the way that African American history and identity face a constant barrage of degradations, how have you seen culture push back?

Ahmed Abdullah:        Yeah. It means that our culture is a tool to empower the community, to regenerate and revitalize and to appreciate the great historical legacy our music comes from so that we have greater respect for who we are. I think culture permeates everything that does go on. I mean, there’s a culture in the police department, which does allow for violence to be created, which has allowed for the movement Black Lives Matter to be created.

Culture can be whatever it is that you want it to be. And so what we’re trying to do is create a culture that is African-centered and positive that springs from the fact that … the African people are the center of humanity and we have to understand that.

So given that responsibility … There’s a responsibility that comes along with that. You know, if you are in a position of power, you can’t abuse the power. You have to use that power to inform, to nurture, to embrace, to bring people together in some kind of way. So that’s how I see it. I see it from being in the position that we’re in. You also have to keep it strong. You can’t dilute it. You gotta keep it powerful enough so that it can do what it’s supposed to be doing, yeah? It can do its job. And that’s the incubator that we’re in at Sistas’ Place.

So people come there on a Saturday night. They get strength, spiritual strength. They get energized being in that environment,  you know, hearing the music that we bring there.

It’s very similar to how I would feel working with Sun Ra. He would call … I wouldn’t have even asked where we were going, how much money he was paying anything, you know, that it was gonna be a great experience, right? And travel around the world with him. And I did that for many years because I knew that it was something that was gonna be spiritually elevating for me. So that’s the kind of culture I want to bring to people.

Cisco Bradley:     So it’s interesting, I was thinking again about your band Diaspora and you were talking about how you take a song from South Africa or you might take a song from the Caribbean or from various places…

Have you seen a sort of transformation of the local culture by bringing in this…

Ahmed Abdullah:        Not necessarily because that has to do with another kind of culture. And I don’ think that we have power over that. You know, we can’t…

There’s a circle of influence, you know, and a circle of concern. Yeah. We have influence over the people who come into Sistas’ Place. You know, we may be concerned about the surrounding population but we can’t necessarily influence that.

We can influence the people who come in to Sistas’ Place, who want to sit at the table and listen to the music and, they can go on to perhaps influence the area that they’re in, yeah? You know, the area that they could have some influence over. You know, they may be concerned about other things but they may not …

We can’t necessarily change the politics of America but we can change the way some people think and, hopefully, that will eventually initiate change in the social structure.

Cisco Bradley:     Who do you say your clientele is in terms of… Is it mostly people from Bed-Stuy or is it even more local than that? Or, do you get people coming from further away?

Ahmed Abdullah:        That’s the thing about it. Bed-Stuy is changing. I teach right now in a school a block from Sistas’ Place. The elementary school I teach at is on Jefferson between Bedford and Franklin and, Sistas’ Place is on Jefferson between Bedford and Nostrand, yeah? So I teach a block away.

The real estate along Jefferson Avenue is like… cost a million dollars to get, a house on the street, which the politics of that means that many black folks are not going to be buying real estate, in Bedford-Stuyvesant.  That may be of a concern but you can’t do anything about if you don’t have a million dollars, right?

You know what I’m saying?

Cisco Bradley:     Yeah.

Ahmed Abdullah:        So the people who come to Sistas’ Place, they may be from anywhere but they’re people who understand. And it’s like a mecca. You know, it’s a place where you can come and you can get your battery re-tuned.

Cisco Bradley:     Yeah. So I guess maybe the follow up question is how has the clientele changed from, say, ’98 when you first started working as a director there up to today?

Do you see any sort of meaningful differences in who is coming?

Ahmed Abdullah:        I think that there are some people who come more often, some people who become regulars over the time. And we become friends as a result of the fact that they show up and we talk and, you know, like that.

And there are some people who just come in for, you know, one concert, come in because they like one of the artists who were there. So it’s a broad mixture. I mean, the place is small. It holds 50 to 70 people soaking wet. So it’s not a large venue. It’s a very intimate venue.

Cisco Bradley:     So in terms of ages, I mean, do you have people of all ages?

Ahmed Abdullah:        We do have people of all ages but I would say that the dominant age group is 40 and over. Those are the people who I think are more drawn to the music. Younger people will come if they hear… if there’s somebody who’s younger who brings them in as an audience. But I would say that in general we have a more mature audience.

Cisco Bradley:     What do you see as the next stage for what you hope to do there?

Ahmed Abdullah:        I’m still working on that. I’m still working on that. The way my life has developed, stages come from the stage I’m in. You know, the natural evolution. I don’t know where it’s going from here and I’m content to work on it until I can see where I’m supposed to go. I don’t think I’ve completely exhausted the possibilities right here with Diaspora and where I’m supposed to go with it. So I’m still working on that.

Cisco Bradley:     Do you ever record the concerts live at all or…

Ahmed Abdullah:        My concerts?

Cisco Bradley:     Yours or others.

Ahmed Abdullah:        I do… I try to record my own concerts as much as I can. Yeah, I try to document what it is I’m doing as much as I can.

Cisco Bradley:     Thank you so much for sharing your recollections about your earlier work and for talking about the current happenings at Sistas’ Place and your recent musical work.

Ahmed Abdullah:        You’re welcome.

Cisco BradleyInterview: Trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah Discusses Involvement with Sun Ra Arkestra, Arts Direction at Sistas’ Place

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