Aural History

Hannibal Lokumbe

Hannibal Lokumbe
Hannibal Lokumbe (Photo by John Anderson)

Hannibal Lokumbe had always wanted to live in Harlem and did.

"Do they have a sweat lodge?" asked Grandfather White.

Lokumbe, born Marvin Peterson in Smithville, laughs at that question nearly 20 years later. In the Pine Ridge Mountains of South Dakota, working on a commission with the Kronos String Quartet for what became Dance Chief Crazy Horse Dance, the trumpet player told the spiritualist leading the sweat, a purification ceremony, that space was scarce in New York.

"Then leave immediately."

He did.

Lokumbe bought land in Rosanky ("where I'll live for the rest of my days") in 1995, which he estimates is 8½ miles from where his great-grandfather finally settled as an escaped slave.

"This was a person that ran for his life with a half brother created by the slave master who bought him and raped his mother," nods Lokumbe gravely. "He escaped a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, at 14 years of age, with his half brother and his aunt, and he ran and walked 'til he got to Highway 304, at Upton Road [in Smithville].

"There he worked two years clearing the railroad and bought 101 acres of land – paid for it cash. After that, he never worked for anyone else as long as he lived. And he raised 15 children. The church he founded is still there, Zion Hill [Baptist Church]. Past the church, if you cross the creek, that's where he baptized my mother. Anywhere in that area my history is 100 years old. That's why I came back."

His mother, now 95, never strayed far.

"Yesterday was exceptionally bright and full of life for her," beams her son and caretaker in an exceptionally sunlit corner of the Eastside Cafe. "She recounted stories about long-lost relationships and her days at Huston-Tillotson [University], sneaking off to go hear Louis Armstrong."

Like mother, like son.

'Pithecanthropus Erectus' or 'Eat That Chicken'

"James A. Wilson was the school band director," begins Lokumbe, 61, recounting stories about long-lost relationships and mother-sanctioned weekends touring Texas with Otis Redding and Etta James when he was 14. "He had these beautiful drums out so I started on drums. When I made my entrance into the inner courtyard of the projects, it was so loud that my mother, standing on the back porch, she pointed and I did this beautiful about-face, and took it on back.

Lokumbe laughs. Stories are this man's art.

"So then I saw the trumpet. I said, 'Ooo.' Something moved inside me. Mr. Wilson said, 'Before you play trumpet, you have to buzz this mouthpiece.' Man, I played all kinds of stuff on that mouthpiece, so he gave me the horn. He invested heavily in me. When he showed me the C scale, I came back the next day and knew the C minor and D major scale. If he gave me three scales, I learned six, because I realized he had a son my age and he was taking three hours of his time every day after school that he could be home with his son. So I made the most of it. He taught me theory, and more importantly, he taught me about the world."

According to The New York Times, John Coltrane himself schooled Lokumbe too.

"That's a misstatement," he says shaking his head. "John Coltrane is my musical hero, but I never got to meet him.

"I got to meet Elvin Jones – I got to play with Elvin Jones. I got to meet Jimmy Garrison. I got to play with Jimmy Garrison. I got to meet McCoy Tyner, and I got to play with McCoy Tyner. But 'Trane was gone when I got there. He was gone."

Jamming with three of Coltrane's volcanic quartet equals a tiny fraction of historical landmarks at Lokumbe's crossroads, which include Jackie Wilson, Lightning Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Wikipedia lists among Lokumbe's collaborators tenor sax individualist George Adams, one of Charles Mingus' cult. Moving to NYC in 1970 facilitated just such hookups for the Texan.

"Mingus saved my life in many ways," Lokumbe pronounces. "He always asked me to play with him, but at the time I was playing with Roy Haynes.

"I was on a three-month tour in Europe and I was exhausted. I came back to New York, and I felt I needed to make a change. My last gig in a club downtown was at Sweet Basil. I made something like $7,500, which is extraordinary for that time. I looked out in the audience one night; I'd dodged the dope man – I got tired of dodging the dope man. The whores. I thought, 'You know, I'm the grandson of a farmer.' He always taught me that when you plant seeds, you have to plant them at least six inches deep or the wind will blow them away, or the birds will eat them. I felt like I was planting on top of the ground.

"So Sunday is the last night you play at Sweet Basil. You start Tuesday and go to Sunday. That Saturday night, I looked out during the second set we played, and I took my mouthpiece out of my trumpet and I walked into [the] Village. I spent the whole night walking and crying and praying. I was still playing with Gil Evans, so this is around '85. Walking around, that's when I saw Mingus. He was eating. I forget the name of the place. Every time I've ever saw Mingus, if he wasn't playing, he was eating. This time he was eating a roast chicken, with half a gallon of orange juice. So I stopped in.

"He said to me [in a raspy voice], 'So you finally gonna play with me?' And George Adams was in the band then. 'So, now – you ready? You ready? You ready? You ready to play with me?'

"I said, 'I'm always ready, Mingus.'

"He said, 'Well, I don't see you onstage.'

"And he's eating, you know.

"I said, 'I'm still learning so much from Roy Haynes.'

"He says, 'I got a great drummer, too.'

"I said, 'You know, Mingus, I need to ask you something.'

"He says, 'As long as it ain't for no money.'

"I said: 'I've been on tour for three months. I'm all right in that category.' I said: 'But when I was in the New Morning club in Paris, I saw David 'Fathead' Newman, my dear friend. We were talking. And I was so hurt at how exhausted he looked.'

"I'll never forget that long as I live. See, he and Nina Simone and I were talking. We were talking about the music and what it takes to play the music – what's required of us, you know. She said, 'Hannibal, you have to stop playing like that.'

"I said, 'What do you mean, Nina?'

"She said, 'You've got to stop giving them everything.'

"I said, 'But I can't help it.' We were laughing.

"She said, 'You should never give them everything.'

"So I said to Mingus, 'I need you to tell me what I can do to not be on the road when I'm 70 years old, ripping and running up and down the road, playing all this divine music that's going in one door and out the other.'

"And in between a bite of chicken he said: 'You start writing more! Start writing more.'

"That's the same thing John Lennon told me. Our sons were about the same age, so usually we'd talk about diapers – what the best diapers were. Lennon, too: 'Composing, Hannibal. It's a beautiful thing. It also allows you to see your son grow up.'"

Little Wing

Browsing jewelry at the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar with the girlish half of a two-teen household certainly constitutes John Lennon's Mr. Mom ideal for his Greenwich Village diaper pundit. Lokumbe's grown son was collaborating with his father in New Orleans, where the brass handler had remained after a three-year residency at the Contemporary Arts Center beginning in 1999, when Hurricane Katrina hit. Settled now into Bastrop since 2005 (while still owning his other property in Rosanky), Lokumbe's post-traumatic empathy lies with Haiti today. He's already envisioning musical aid: "Can You Hear God Crying?"

Premiered at Carnegie Hall in 1990, African Portraits wasn't Lokumbe's first conceptual triumph. Children of the Fire, an acclaimed 1974 suite for full orchestra, led the Hamburg Symphony Orchestra to commission Flames of South Africa, released the same year Lokumbe had a Lakota Sioux-like experience in Kenya – 1979. Flames of South Africa, in turn, begat One Heart Beating for the Philadelphia Orchestra, which prompted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's hiring Lokumbe to write Dear Mrs. Parks, an oratorio for desegregation symbol Rosa Parks.

"She and I went over the score note for note," offers her collaborator simply.

Lokumbe's tenure in the band of jazz's Leonard Bernstein – composer/arranger Gil Evans – almost from the moment he arrived in NYC to the Miles Davis mentor's death in 1988, proved a master class in composition.

"Seldom did we talk about music," counters Lokumbe. "Mostly we spoke about how to roast a turkey. And Gil Evans made the best roast turkey I ever had in my life. We'd take long walks, down in Battery Park, all the way down to the Staten Island Ferry, just talking. Seldom would we talk about music. It'd always be a thing like, 'Hannibal, check this out.' He gave me a piece by Maurice Ravel, because I had let him hear Flames of South Africa. I'd never heard of Maurice Ravel, but the inflections and compositional sensibility were the same. It was amazing! That's how we were with music."

A 2009 United States Artists Fellow, one of 50 recipients (including Terry Allen) receiving $50,000 from the L.A. nonprofit, Lokumbe's played Austin exactly once, last June at the Long Center as the jazz core of Conspirare's Rock My Soul concert. The horn-blower's dreadlocks and drummer Brannen Temple's sunspot Afro constituted the sprawling choir's eye of the quiet storm. Lokumbe's performance of Dear Mrs. Parks on Saturday at the Bob Bullock Museum will feature a quintet led by Dr. James Polk, plus three narrators and a "large choir." That's "'Hannibal' Marvin Peterson" singing "Crosstown Traffic" on 1974's The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix.

"I never met Hendrix, but it was very important to hear his music, just like it was very important for me to hear Miles [Davis'] music, because after Louis Armstrong, there was no sound on the trumpet like Miles. That's why I fell in love with Hendrix, and ultimately why I decided to sing the pieces on Gil's record. After T-Bone [Walker], I hadn't heard anything on the guitar that made me jump up like that until Jimi.

"T-Bone told me something. He said, 'Baby brother' – that's what they always called me. He said, 'Baby brother, watch this.' We'd be playing in this old juke joint in Lane City, Texas, you know – sawdust on the floor, above the hog pen. You smell hog shit. And we're playing, you know, we're playing and he says, 'See the one in that red dress there, with the pearls around her neck?' He said: 'Watch this. I'm going to bring her right over here to me. I'm going to make her stand right there.'

"I'm 14 years old, man. I'm studying about the Magna Carta. That's what I'm seeing in school, right? Russian revolution, you know. And here's this man telling me that with an instrument he's going to make this woman come 10 feet and stand right in front of him.

"He said: 'Watch. Are you ready?'

"I said, 'Yeah.'

"She's with this big guy, man, big guy. They're dancing. So [T-Bone] goes ...."

Through pursed lips, Lokumbe emits a high whining note as if from a guitar and lets it reverberate. He starts tapping out a beat on the floor with his feet. He hits the note again, and again. He mmm-mmmms a bass line, lets it pulse, then the note. Again and again and again. Until that woman's standing right in front of the Lone Star State's electric guitar god – big guy right behind her and not happy about it. Lokumbe thought it was a ruse.

"Of course later I said, 'Yeah, it's true,' because in the cotton fields, when it got too hot to bear, my grandparents stopped talking about the business of the day and the business of the village – who got married, who was born, who died – and they started singing. And when I'd take them water in a bucket, they'd throw it up in the air.

"They wouldn't need it 'cause of the music.

"So I put all that stuff together."

Hannibal Lokumbe presents Dear Mrs. Parks at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum's Texas Spirit Theater on Saturday, Feb. 13, 8pm. Reservations required; call 936-4649.

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Hannibal Lokumbe, Gil Evans, Rosa Parks, Charles Mingus, T-Bone Walker, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Lofton

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