Sunday, October 11, 2009

A Tribute to American Diversity: A Man Called Chuck


We tend to give politicians all the credit for who we are as Americans. But the fact is, politicians with all their self-serving agendas, more often than not, stifle the American spirit rather than enhance it. It is the Average American, doing what they do in their daily lives, that makes us who and what we are. So as a tribute to those Americans, I’m launching this series called “A Tribute to American Diversity”.

A Man Called Chuck

I’d like to take a moment to give a little something back to a magnificent old swinger. Being from the old school, and born and raised in Los Angeles, jazz has always been a major force in my life. So when Chuck Niles, of radio station KKJZ left this Earth, it represented the eternal silence of yet another force that went into molding what I think of as me.

In my mind, jazz, Chuck Niles, and who I am today are all a part of the same continuum. Rahsaan called us "Eulipians"- a brotherhood of writers, poets, musicians and uncommon drunks, who thrive on a riff, and passionately embrace the proposition that man’s thirst for knowledge will someday overwhelm his lust for stupidity.

I can't begin to describe the impact that this grand old cat has had on my life over the years. I first came across him when I was a kid listening to "The Knob"- Radio station KNOB. I’ve heard people talk about how tough KBCA was, and indeed it was a powerhouse of jazz, but nobody in the history of radio swung it like The Knob. They had people like Tommy B, Tollie Strode, Stevo, and of course, the ever swingin' Chuck Niles.

Man, those cats swung it 24-7 like it was their last day on Earth, and every one of them had an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz. So there was never a lull in the music - Bird, Monk, Miles, Dexter Gordon, Jackie McLean, one after the other, all day, and all night long. I mean, these guys would be smokin’, and every time you thought they couldn't possibly get any tougher, they'd kick it up a notch. As a youngster, I couldn’t live without them, but even back then I understood the meaning of sacrifice - so I’d sleep on Tuesdays.

Chuck and his cohorts at The Knob not only provided me with a Ph.D. in the world of Jazz, but they also laid a foundation for a way of life that has served me quite well over the years. By the time I was 16 I had gained a wealth of knowledge into the beauty of what contributed directly to who I am. Jazz became a hook upon which I could hang other knowledge - both historic and political. I became curious about such things as what kind of political environment led to the development of a Charlie Parker or Thelonious Monk. That, in turn, led me to consider the realities of my own political environment.

Then later in life, during those moments when life became funky, I'd only have to consider my roots to know that I had what it took to carry on. The love of jazz, and the cultural message it related, taught me to take pride in my ability to deal with hardship. It also taught me to never have more respect for anyone else’s ability to think than I had for my own. It put a swagger in my outlook that has stood up to the most severe adversity, and a love and respect for knowledge, creativity, and achievement that has allowed me to truly overcome.

After all, any group of people who could navigate the chord progressions of any tune ever written, and at breakneck speed, couldn't possibly be inferior - and I was one of those people. So I never felt the need to convince the world that "I am somebody" - thanks to people like Chuck, I simply knew it.

So these cats didn't just spin records, they were educators. They provided a foundation and a philosophy of life upon which many young cats like myself have based our entire lives. And at the same time, they also promoted a tradition that assured the viability of modern jazz - an unassailable tradition, that stands as a monument to the creative genius of Black people.

Chuck Niles, even though he had white skin, was as dedicated to that proposition as any Black man I've ever known, and he continued to stoke the flame right up to his final days, with a new generation of believers at KLON (now KKJZ) on the campus of Cal. State Long Beach (a listener supported station that’s always in dire need of our support).

Today we live in a world of hip hop, Nikes, and jogging suits. But Chuck represented a different world - a world of bebop, Florsheims, and Brooks Brothers suits. His was a world of unspoken class, magnificent ladies, and shinny new Cadillacs glistening against the Moonlight; of Ray Brown's sweet bass struttin' down uncharted avenues of the blues; of Charlie Parker's bittersweet serenade to the angels; and of course, a passionate young Miles with his muted horn, sweetly brooding to Stella By Starlight, into a smoke filled night.

When I think of Chuck, I think of beautiful days and sweeter nights; a time when the promise of tomorrow was more tantalizing than the chilling passion of the night before. So the passing of this swingin' old warhorse also represents the passing of a magnificent era; an era reminiscent of an elegant lady - a lady that Chuck now, lovingly, escorts into the mist.
Religious bigotry: It's not that I hate everyone who doesn't look, think, and act like me - it's just that God does.

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