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BEE at 20 

April 28, 2018 

Black Earth Ensemble's 20th Celebration 

Received a invitation to come to the twentieth year celebration of Nicole Mitchell’s Black Earth Ensemble at Constellation Chicago. When I accepted the invitation to play, Niki seemed genuinely pleased. I eagerly awaited the opportunity to share in the music of my friend of great accomplishments. I tried my best not to be worried about how I’d do. 

Upon arriving, Black Earth Ensemble was finishing up the soundcheck. When Niki saw that I was there, she urged me to set up quickly, and launched into “South Shore” before I’d gotten fully tuned. The melody came back to me and I found my way into the song and a little solo exploration. Resumed tuning, then settled into my seat as part of the arriving audience. 

Uncharacteristically, Nicole opened the concert by talking instead of playing. It was a joyful, welcoming introduction to the program, during which she explained that BEE was always about change, so the personnel was always changing, including around forty musicians over the twenty years of music making. 

As a retrospective slideshow filled the back curtain, the first tune, “Africa Rising,” opened with the violin work of Samuel Willams/Savoir Faire who, along with Darius Savage, was in the first iteration of BEE. Ugochi Nwaogwugwu was called up, giving rich, spirited voice to Nicole’s lyrics and chants. When she asked the audience if they recognized the song, Niki remarked that the concert could unfold like a game of “Name That Tune.” 

I wish I’d had the foresight to document the set list as the concert progressed. But I was caught up in the power of the music and of my impending guest appearance. At one point, though, I turned my worry into an affiirmation that this moment was not about me and that I could just be open to what could come through me. 

When Niki introduced me, she also called up Ugochi and Zahra to vocalize. They did a compelling introduction to “Three Blue Stones”, while I added embellishments. I kept adjusting my tuning and never really felt that I’d gotten it right. After a while Niki signaled for my solo and I let it flow.  I also soloed on South Shore, as well as playing on the melody. 

Enough about me. Nicole Mitchell’s music was amazing, as was the creativity and musicianship of the band: cellist Tomeka Reid and bassist Joshua Abrams, (who may well be Nicole’s most frequent collaborators); drummer Marcus Evans and percussionist JoVia Armstrong; guitarist Alex Wing and pianist Jim Baker. There were songs with multiple time signatures; passages of dizzying speed and dexterity; and lyrics reflecting these times and imagined futures. At one point, during the second half, Nicole turned to the band and asked, “Wanna get harder?” They agreed, expertly performing compositions that had the front row of musicians in the audience physically trying to comprehend rhythms and structures. 

During the intermission, friends and fans mingled, sharing stories of and praise for Nicole’s amazing career and creative output, including awards, fellowships, international appearances, and a number of performing ensembles. Many of those present remembered the soft spoken woman who has become a powerful bandleader and a veritable force of nature. 

Several musical friends arrived during the second half, probably following gigs of their own. When she realized it, Nicole invited bassist Junius Paul and drummer Isaiah Spencer to sit in, after checking in with Josh and Marcus about relinquishing their spots and instruments. I shouted to Niki that Ben Lamar Gay was also present, so he joined the group on cornet. What followed was a spirited piece, which turned into an exchange between JoVia and Isaiah, which Zahra described as Africa drums mixing with Double Dutch; a moment so intense that Nicole just took a seat in the audience to enjoy it along with us. Master drummers carried us home. 

BEE’s parting song had the sound and feel of South Africa, with a chant that became a communal sing of “Peace and love til I see you again” Zahra and I got to add our energy and harmonies, once Niki heard what we were doing on the sidelines. It was a beautiful ending to a perfect celebration.

Sitarsys at Oakton 


April 21, 2018 

We’re ready to play. 

In her stage debut 

Grandbaby Noni spits up 

As Zahra causes a spill. 

Half the band disappears 

For the dual cleanup. 


The music begins. 

Listeners eat. 

We play to a silent reception. 

Don’t know if we’re connecting 

Until after the music ends. 


Then there is talk of 






How often do we depend on feedback 

To validate our work? 

Don’t we know who we are? 

Healing is not a loud act.



You’ve been playing on my life’s soundtrack for a long long time 

From Mother’s record club arrivals 

I’ve Never Loved a Man 

To college anthems 

All I’m asking for is a little Respect 

Spell it now 

Spirit in the Dark 


Ebony and Jet keeping us apprised of 

Your weight loss journeys (you & Luther & Oprah) 

Your husbands (but Aretha, Glenn Turman was so cute!) 

And your tyrannical father 

I say a little prayer for you 


I saw you once 

At the Arie Crown in McCormick Place 

An awful venue 

Yet, decades later, they’re still 

Staging shows there 


I don’t know who anointed you 

Queen of Soul 

But you wore it well 

Your finest crown being 

The one you rocked at Obama’s 



But the furs Aretha 

Cannot black folk be 

Politically correct too? 

And a fur jacket 


On the Kennedy Honors stage? 



You family 

And we love you 

Happy Birthday

Ella Jenkins 

In 2017 Ella Jenkins was recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts as a National Heritage Fellow. This award was an acknowledgement of over fifty years of artistic and humanitarian work on behalf of the world's children. Ms. Jenkins was a trailblazer, advocate, and innovator in children's entertainment, music education, and multiculturalism. All of us who have worked in these fields are indebted to Ella Jenkins.

Through her amazing recording output of 40 albums on the Folkways (later Smithsonian Folkways) label, children in untold numbers of homes and classrooms have been exposed to rhythms, games and stories from Ella Jenkins' Chicago childhood, her world travels and research in music and culture.

Until fairly recently, she toured as a solo performer, sharing her warmth, joy, and love of music with audiences around the globe. Fellow Chicagoans were especially privileged to bask in her glow, as she was often out and about, performing and enjoying the city. 


My Ella Jenkins Moments:

  • Appearing with her on a local cable TV show. In our short time together, before and after the taping, she gave me years' worth of mentoring and encouragement for my fairly new career as a storyteller.
  • At the National Black Storytelling Festival and Conference, where she was receiving the Zora Neale Hurston Award. Although she graciously accepted the award, she was adamant that she was "a children's musician, not a storyteller."
  • One morning she came into Women and Children First Bookstore while I was cashiering. She insisted that I accompany her back to a nearby restaurant to meet her friends. She presented me to them as "a great storyteller." What an honor.
  • Observing her adoring fans at a 90th birthday concert. She remarked that at least four generations had grown up with her music. At the end of the show, a huge line formed to greet Ella Jenkins and get pictures taken with her.

My friend, Tim Ferrin, is producing a full-length independent documentary on Ella Jenkins. To see a trailer for We'll Sing a Song Together, go to

Let's all sing songs together.


More About the Grammy Telecast 

Janelle Monae has consistently presented herself as a strong, self-respecting, dignified black woman artist/activist. She did us proud Sunday night while introducing Kesha:

Tonight, I am proud to stand in solidarity as not just an artist, but a young woman with my fellow sisters in this room who make up the music industry: artists, writers, assistants, publicists, CEOs, producers, engineers, and women from all sectors of the business. We are also daughters, wives, mothers, sisters, and human beings. We come in peace, but we mean business. And to those who would dare try and silence us, we offer you two words: Time's Up. We say Time's Up for pay inequality, Time's Up for discrimination, Time's Up for harassment of any kind, and Time's Up for the abuse of power. Because you see, it’s not just going on in Hollywood, it’s not just going on in Washington, it's right here in our industry as well. 

And just as we have the power to shape culture, we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well. So, let's work together, women and men, as a united music industry committed to creating more safe work environments, equal pay, and access for all women. 

And as artists so often do, our next performer embodies the great tradition of delivering important social messages through their music. This fearless two-time Grammy nominee inspired so many of us including myself, when she spoke her truth on her album, Rainbow, which was nominated for best pop vocal album tonight. Here to sing "Praying,” joined by Cyndi Lauper, Camila Cabello, Andra Day, Bebe Rexha, Julia Michaels and the Resistance Revival Chorus, we are honored to stand with you and welcome you, Kesha.

Surrounded and supported by a sea of white clad vocalists, Kesha then gave a powerful performance of her song, obviously directed at the man and men who have abused her, and whose grip was upheld in her court battle against them.

This was one of several socially conscious moments in the schizophrenic Grammy show. Women performed; except for Lorde, the only Album of the Year nominee who didn't. Women spoke. But women did not win these career boosting awards in any of the top categories, except Best New Artist.

When questioned about this situation after the show, Recording Academy President Neil Portnow shrugged and said that women needed to "step up." Amid very strong criticism for the sexism of his remark and attitude, Portnow backpedalled, played the out of context card, and declared his undying love and support for women in the music industry.

The fact remains that toppling the patriarchy is needed in all aspects of this society and those in power are not going to let go willingly. So we will sing, shout, speak our truths, as we continue the momentum of our movements as the walls come tumbling down.

A Woman-Centered Grammy Salute 

January 29, 2018

Although it was not apparent from the 60th Grammy telecast on CBS , quite a few women won Grammy awards this year. We were highly visible as presenters and performers, with many standout performances, among them Pink, SZA, Kesha, Rihanna, and Patti LuPone . But only one woman was handed the golden gramophone during the television broadcast - Alessia Cara for Best New Artist.

So here are the others, who you might have seen during the streaming coverage earlier in the day:

Aida Cuevas - Best Regional Mexican Music Album: Arriero Somos Versiones Acusticas

Aimee Mann - Best Folk Album: Mental Illness

Anne Schwanewilms (soloist) - Best Opera Recording: Berg/Wozzeck

Barbara Hannigan - Best Classical Solo Vocal Album: Crazy Girl Crazy

Brittany Howard/Alabama Shakes - Best American Roots Performance: Killer Diller Blues

Carrie Fisher - Best Spoken Word Album: The Princess Diarist

Cece Winans - Best Gospel Performance/Song: Never Have to Be Alone AND                                                       Best Gospel Album: Let Them Fall in Love

Cecile McLorin Salvant - Best Jazz Vocal Album: Dreams and Daggers

Darcy Proper, Jane Ira Bloom and others - Best Surround Sound Album: Early Americans

Erika Ender and other writers - Song of the Year: Despacito

Jennifer Higdon - Best Contemporary Classical Composition: Viola Concerto

Karen Fairchild and Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town - Best Country Duo/Group Performance: Better Man

Lisa Loeb - Best Children's Album: Feel What You Feel

Lynell George - Best Album Notes: Otis Redding Live at the Whisky A Go Go

Patricia Kopatchinskaja with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra: Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance: Death and the Maiden

Rhonda Vincent & The Rage - Best Bluegrass Album (Tie): In Concert Vol. 1

Reba McEntire - Best Roots Gospel Album: Sing It Now

Sarah Anthony, Laura Lancaster, et al - Best Music Film: The Defiant Ones

Shakira - Best Latin Pop Album: El Dorado


In addition, Rhianna was featured on Kendrick Lamar's Best Rap/Sung Performance: Loyalty


Congratulations to these Grammy winners!!!

And to the nominees.

And to every woman who made a recording in 2017 (myself included).







Nicole Mitchell 


I first met Nicole in 1992 when musician friend Maia and I came together to jam at my house. Niki, as she was known then, had attracted Maia’s attention as a busker on an ‘L’ platform or tunnel. She joined us and we hit it off, two flutes and a sitar. 

After we had come together a few times, I was asked to participate in a benefit for Light Henry Huff at the Hothouse, when it was on Milwaukee Avenue. Rather than do a solo performance, I suggested playing with Maia and Niki. We were so well received that we decided to form a group and keep playing together. 

Thus Samana was born. We settled upon the concept of an all-women’s group playing spiritually uplifting music. For eight years we rehearsed almost every Saturday morning at 6, then again on Thurdays at 7 pm. We prayed at the beginning of each rehearsal and worked hard on our sound, with Maia as musical director and me taking care of the business end of things. 

In some of our early performances, Samana would be a group of nine or ten colorfully clad women, including singers, dancers and multi-instrumentalists. Eventually we were more often a group of five: Maia – flute, harp, voice, and vibes; Nicole – flutes and voice; Aquilla Sedalla – voice and clarinets; Coco Elysses – congas and tympani; and me on bass, mbira, and sitar. We all played drums. 

Samana was the first all-female ensemble in the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, which Nicole would later chair). We performed in venues around Chicagoland and throughout the Midwest and released one recording, Samana. 

Samana became a source of frustration for Niki, and I’ve come to regret my part in that. One was that I nixed her composition, “Troot”, from the Samana recording, feeling like the stomps and claps didn’t work. How many recordings since then have featured tap dancers in a jazz setting? 

A second thing I’m aware of was Niki’s desire to take longer solos, when Maia and I held to a prescribed length so that we could stay within the number of minutes we had for any given gig. In one conversation about this, David Boykin said to Niki, “Well, you just need to get your own group.” And did she ever!! 

What was most striking about Niki was how totally absorbed in music she was. While finishing her flute major at Chicago State, she was also pursuing classical flute studies at the University of Chicago. Then she commuted to DeKalb for her Master’s Degree, became a mother, and went from rehearsals to gigs to rehearsals to gigs, seemingly nonstop. I have never met anyone so totally committed to music as Niki. 

I have long said that Nicole is a genius and should definitely have gotten one of those MacArthur grants by now. Nonetheless she has been recognized with awards from the Herb Alpert Foundation and is a Doris Duke fellow. Nicole has performed throughout Europe and North America. She’s received numerous “Best of” designations from jazz critics, polls, and publications; and has been commissioned to create works for the Jazz Institute of Chicago, among others. And she’s now a tenured professor at the University of California – Irvine. 

This month Nicole Mitchell was Artist-in-Residence for NYC Winter Jazzfest, presenting her work in at least four different groups under her name. 

Although now based in California, Nicole maintains strong ties to Chicago and often employs Chicago musicians in her projects. I’ve been honored with an invitation to play with Nicole on a few precious occasions:
Honoring Grace: Michelle Obama, at the Spertus Museum, in the recording studio, and at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival; The music of Doug and Jean Carn at the Hyde Park Jazz Festival; and Chicago’s Green Mill.

As exciting as it’s been to perform with Nicole Mitchell, it’s been even more thrilling to be in her audiences as she presents her commissioned works, such as, in 2010, Intergalactic Beings, Part Two of Xenogenesis Suite: A Tribute to Octavia Butler, and, in 2017, Bamako*Chicago Sound System. I’ve also seen her in many iterations of her Black Earth Ensemble. Nicole’s artistry, musicianship, creativity, and vision are unparalleled, and her activism, especially in championing gender and racial equality, is a model for all of us. 



This morning I opened the Alice Coltrane folder from my earlier research on musical women. I was reminded that, from 1974 to 1979, we exchanged letters (and one telegram). As I planned my California interviews, I inquired about her upcoming performances. Here is her response:

March 19, 1976

Revered Atman:

     May the Lord's peace and blessings be upon you always. I am presently engaged in the service of the Supreme One and I do not expect to be participating in too many musical activities upon the commercial plane.  The highest expression and the highest study I know of is service to the Supreme Lord. And I am actively and presently engaged in such service. I hope that you will become successful in your efforts to fully develop yourself musically. I hope that you will not progress your music to a point which prevents you from evolving spiritually and that your music will always inspire you to seek and realize the Supreme Lord.

                                                                                                                                 May peace be with you,



In March of 1978 Mansur and I visited her ashram, The Vedantic Center, in Woodland Hills, California. We attended a service during which the swami played organ, while she and the devotees sang and chanted. Then, while she and I spoke at length, her children took Mansur, then five years old, on a tour of the grounds.

Just reading through my notes and recalling that encounter has reassured me and put much in perspective. Desires for recognition and material success pale in comparison to knowledge and fulfillment of one's spiritual purpose.





Sweet Honey 

Writing this blog is reminding me of how important music has always been in my life.  It's also showing me what  strong and lasting impressions live music has made on me.

One group that I have seen more than any other is Sweet Honey in the Rock.  An acapella group, formed by civil rights era Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, this group captures the essences of African-American vocal traditions.  Spirituals, gospel, blues, rhythm and blues, protest songs, and children's music all figure in Sweet Honey's repertoire. Four or five colorfully adorned singers and a sign language interpreter, seated on a bare stage, invariably bring audiences to their feet, dancing and singing along. To be at a Sweet Honey concert is to be in church, at a party, and at a rally, all at the same time.

Existing now for over forty years, the makeup of the group shifts from time to time; but not so often that the women cease to be our sisters, neighbors, aunties, trusted friends.  Sweet Honey's music gives voice to our greatest joys and fears, our dreams and nightmares. She (the collective).challenges us to seek knowledge, to take action, to heal this world of ours. When you leave a Sweet Honey in the Rock performance, you know you've been changed.

Here are some of my Sweet Honey moments:

  • at Chicago's Medinah Temple, marveling at their singing and wonderful shekere playing
  • at Sweet Honey's 10th anniversary in Washington, DC, their home base, when all of the women who had ever been in the group (at least fifteen of them) spread across the stage and sang together
  • at the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival when our group, Sojourner, also performed and I got a chance to sit at breakfast with founder Bernice Reagon for a wonderful chat
  • at the Rockford (IL) Women's Music Festival, where I told stories and was elated that my name was on the back of the festival tee, along with Sweet Honey and the other performers
  • at Chicago's People's Church, where there were so many women there that, by consensus, the men's washrooms became unisex facilities
  • at Chicago's Orchestra Hall, where my mother heard the group for the first time, and we saw Ella Jenkins in the lobby
  • at my workplace, the Old Town School of Folk Music, where they shared tales from their herstory, and had a young man (what?!) playing bass
  • at a "meet and greet" at the University of Chicago with retired member Ysaye Barnwell, who had me and Zahra sing for her
  • at Chicago' Millennium Park, where Bernice's daughter, Toshi Reagon, carried on the family tradition of message music and communal singing

 To my favorite Honeys - Bernice, Evelyn, and Ysaye -  I LOVE YOU!!