The benefit concert for and tribute to pianist Nate Morgan at the newly opened Jatkodd Cultural Fine Arts Center in the Crenshaw District on Sunday was most newsworthy for the window it provided to a generally unnewsworthy dimension of L.A.'s African American community. The art center sits in a formerly abandoned structure just north of 43rd Street on Crenshaw Boulevard and houses a huge working space with a loft, high walls and vaulted ceilings.
Patrons eagerly paid $20 a head to see scores of Morgan's friends and band mates perform--perhaps as many as 40 in all over the course of the night. Each delivered highly emotional sets, which often fused music with powerful elements of poetry or vocalese. There was food, drink and plenty of loud chatter. From the loft to the stairwell and out into the streets an exuberant, restless, standing-room-only crowd never seemed to stop mutating with new colors and shapes, like a single, living entity.
Among the crowd were luminaries of jazz, such as Pharoah Sanders and Arthur Blythe, and from the local poetry scene, Ojenke and Otis O'Solomon Smith, all of whom performed. And too, there were many of Morgan's family and friends present. There was little distinction between the crowd on the floor and the crowd on the stage throughout the night at Morgan's combination birthday celebration and rent party.
The event seemed to highlight qualities of character that occur with great frequency, but mostly without great fanfare throughout L.A.'s African American community. Poet Kamau Daa'ood, one of the events performers and organizers, may have put it best: "This is nothing new," he said, during one of the night's breaks. "The tradition of the community coming together to help its own at the time of need is an ancient tradition.
"And basically that's what we're tapped into and that's what we're working with here. This is a labor of love--a labor of love for Nate."
Morgan, who turned 49 on Saturday, is a Los Angeles native and product of local music schools and traditions. The talented pianist's highly textured sound has been characterized in The Times by jazz critic Don Heckman as "discreetly subversive" and "rhapsodic."
But now Morgan is in the midst of a profound health crisis. The father of six had been diagnosed with high blood pressure in 1999.In December, he was rushed to the hospital following a performance at a Christmas party.
The paramedic who took Morgan's blood pressure on the night of his emergency asked the pianist if he was still taking his blood pressure medication. "I said no," recalls Morgan, "and he told me, 'Well, you're about to kill yourself. You're about to have a stroke.'" It was not a stroke, but kidney failure that Morgan suffered. "Now I'm on dialysis four times a day and the bill keeps going up," Morgan says, "even though I don't have the money for it. I don't know how long that'll last."
Morgan's financial plight, he said, is illustrative of the fate of many Los Angeles-based musicians. Long-term bookings are increasingly rare and many club owners prefer to pay cash, bypassing the musicians' union, which provides medical coverage to members working under contracts that require the employer, such as a club owner, to pay into the union's health and welfare and pension funds..
The benefit drew a succession of inspired performances. Notable among them was the big band ensemble with which Morgan is most associated, The Pan Afrikan Peoples Arkestra--commonly known as the Ark--under the direction of Michael Session; and the Great Voice of UGMAA (Union of God's Musicians and Artists Ascension), directed by and featuring stand-out vocalist, Dwight Trible. The Ark, by any measure a remarkable ensemble of singers and musicians (and poet Daa'ood), and the accompanying Voice of UGMAA may be one of L.A.'s most neglected local treasures.
On this night, Morgan was a beneficiary of an informal, yet effective grass-roots effort that binds the artist together with his community in a system of support. The most influential exponent of this reciprocal arrangement was the late jazz pianist and composer, Horace Tapscott, who founded the Ark and who died in 1999.
Mentor to Morgan and many of the other musicians, singers and poets on stage at the Jatkodd center, Tapscott's policy was simple: When the community is in crisis, the artists must respond, and when the artists are in crisis, the community must do likewise.
This, opined Tapscott, is the way a community and its artists grow rich and prosper. Following one of his many sets in the evening, Trible said, "Number one, when you get involved in this music, you're not involved for the money in the first place. So that's why I can say there ain't nobody richer than me right at this moment."
Jazz scholar and author Steven Isoardi, who has written two books on the history and significance of jazz in Los Angeles, characterized the Tapscott self-help doctrine in this way: "It has always been a struggle. But the thing that has attracted me to this music was that element of selflessness; of serving something higher than yourself; of a rejection of all the values of capitalism that are so sickeningly pervasive now. Horace stood for an alternative. And a lot of people supported that and came around it. And you can tell by the people here today and the feeling inside that it lives through these people. You can feel it in the music."
Poet Daa'ood said, "You know, Nate has served this community for over 30 years. One of my mentors talks about being 'wounded with a blessing.' I think the work that Nate is doing in terms of serving a given community is important work. It feeds people at a very basic level. And this society has to find ways of doing what a lot of other societies have been doing since ancient times, and that's supporting the artists that feed people and nourish people's spirits. And that's why we're here today. It's to help Nate in a time of need with his six kids and his wife at a time when he can't work. We're here to lift him up like he's lifted us up through his music over the years."