Arts & Events
"The power of poetry, the pizzazz of jazz" ... UpSurge! jazz and poetry ensemble will be performing a "NY Goin' Away Gig" for their founder, poet Raymond Nat Turner, this Friday at 8, Freight & Salvage in downtown Berkeley.
Turner, a thoughtful, genial man, spoke about the group he started 22 years ago, its influences, the relationship with Oakland and the East Bay, and moving to the Big Apple after so many years based in the Bay Area—as well as what UpSurge! will play on Friday.
UpSurge! began with Turner fronting a small combo with his poetry (as a solo performer, he once opened for James Baldwin), soon after joined by fellow poet Zigi Lowenberg, originally from Queens. "The concept comes really from an experience I had when I was a teenager. My mom ran a youth center down in LA, which became the nucleus of the Southern California branch of the Black Panther Party. She hired Panthers as the assistant director for the Federal Anti-Poverty Program. Her take was always to expose young people to what there was out in the world, with no limits, no barriers, no red lines—everything, including martial arts—and Mao Tse-Tung's Red Book! She took us on a lot of field trips, once to the LA County Museum for an outdoor concert by the Ornette Coleman Trio. It was so mesmerizing, those three men outdoors, creating all that music. As a kid, I thought that would have taken a big ensemble."
The "early incarnations" of the group included trios of Berkeley High students: "David Bramble, Phillip Byers, David Ewell ... For the first five years when we were rolling, we were working with a bunch of kids from Berkeley High ... Howard Wiley, Geechi Taylor ... I dubbed it The Jazz Factory. It later went to Richard Howard [on tenor saxophone, also producer], Babatunde Lea on drums, Ron Belcher on bass for 14 or 15 years, principals right there.Later, Michael Jones on bass. At the time of our second CD, 'Chromatology' [from Abolition Media; the first CD is 'Hands On Deck'], Ron Belcher wrote 10, 11, 12 tunes involving a piano. I hadn't been in favor of a piano; they vary so much from place to place. Maybe you get an old piano not been tuned in years. But those tunes required piano. We've worked with Dee Spencer, Tammy Hall, Fred Harris, Glenn Pearson ... "
Another East Bay music figure who proved important was drummer Donald "Duck" Bailey. "When I started out in this area," Turner recalled, "I used to work for Duck. I first saw him perform in LA with Harold Land and Bobby Hutcherson. Then when I went to school up in the Northwest, I went up to Seattle and saw a double bill with Dexter Gordon, who went to school with my father, Chico Hamilton, and Carmen McRae—and Duck was the drummer for both of them. Then found out he'd played with Jimmy Smith for eight years, with Carmen for four ... "
When Turner came to the East Bay, he saw Bailey play again "at Arizona Bay, a club at the Berkeley marina. he was subbing in. Afterwards, I started talking with him for so long, I helped him with his drums. He gave me a ride ... So I started working for him, setting up his drums, getting the bands booked. I learned a lot from him, like how to be fair—he'd been a sideman for so long, before becoming a leader. Just running with him, I got a chance to meet Stanley Turrentine, Billy Higgins, Billy Hart, Max Roach, Betty Carter, Dizzy Gillespie ... He knew them all, and had worked with all the Philly guys, like Odean Pope. he was definitely a mentor, also like a big brother, not just for art stuff, but also life. And he'd tell it straight. He called me Poet: 'Hey, Poet, it wasn't happening tonight,' he'd tell me. He was really candid. I trusted him. When things were happening, he'd be our biggest booster."
Turner recounted his influences in poetry, too: "Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Amiri Baraka—and, say, [Allen] Ginsberg, too—when he'd come to the Bay, I'd come out and see him; he always had something to say. He broke the conventions of the Academy. I loved that about him. He and Baraka—same generation—brought that out. Those guys are rebels, man. Like Whitman!"
Looking back at more than two decades of UpSurge! shows—including the Monterey Jazz Festival (with Duck Bailey) and the Panafest in Ghana, West Africa, besides playing at Harvard, Tulane, CUNY and Brown Universities—Turner takes "special pride" in of a couple of performances in Oakland: "In October 2001, when Barbara Lee received death threats for her lone vote against the carte blanche to war ... Ishmael Reed, Maxine Hong Kingston, Danny Glover, Alice Walker were there. We opened the rally in Ogawa Plaza; KPFA broadcasted it live ... And in 2003, the big rally against the invasion of Iraq—we opened that one as well, playing on a flatbed truck in Mosswood Park. Harry belafonte said he'd come out if it was held in Oakland instead of San Francisco. I did meet him, an honor—one of the continuers of the [Paul] Robeson tradition."
Both Oakland and Berkeley have isued proclamations praising UpSurge! and its contributions, declaring special days to honor the ensemble.
Turner also mentioned a little bit of what UpSurge! has in mind to play on Friday at the Freight: "A new piece on fracking we did at the Dissident Arts Festival in New York City in August. We broke it out there to feature drummer Darrell Green. I'm leaning more towards the environmental stuff now that's impacting all of us. And we'll do some fun things. We have a request to do 'Oak Town Blues,' a theme song, kind of an anthem—a funny thing; people really identify with it."
And finally, why the move now—after so many years here—to New York? "For one thing, my son's a professor of education at the University of Massachusetts. I'll be closer to him. But it's been on my mind a long time. I've reached—not a glass ceiling, but saffron, or velvet. I can't go any further. There's a lot more happening there, a lot more opportunity. Being in the right place, a lot more can happen."
UpSurge! at Freight & Salvage, 8 p. m. (doors open at 7) Friday. 2020 Addison (near Shattuck). $20.50-$22.50. 548-6712; thefreight.org; wireonfire.com/upsurge/ (or on Facebook)