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Reflecting on the wisdom of our jazz elders

Pharoah Sanders, photographed working with Sam Shepherd on <em>Promises</em>.
Eric Welles-Nyström
Courtesy of the artist
Pharoah Sanders, photographed working with Sam Shepherd on Promises.

Jazz musicians have always been my biggest superheroes. Growing up in Bed-Stuy, these mythical gods and goddesses have often supplanted the absent familial figures in my own life and become the mothers and fathers I never had and always yearned for. Everyone from Betty Carter, who lived a half-mile away on St. Felix Street (directly across from BAM), to the great Randy Weston, whose house on Lafayette Avenue was right across the street from our local CTown Supermarket.

However, I wouldn't become aware of the latter until many years later, when I had the pleasure and honor to interview Mr. Weston at his Brooklyn home. I will never forget the visible joy and immense love he had for this music, as he recounted childhood memories like opening up all his windows to blast his newly purchased copy of Coleman Hawkins' "Body & Soul" on his Victrola. This compelled me to share with him my own memories as a teenager, blasting A Tribe Called Quest on my boombox out of my tiny bedroom window.

After years of always feeling too busy to reflect and take stock of my life, the pandemic provided ample time for both, and all of these memories resurfaced like a bunch of old snapshots, vivid and unsullied. My hero worship didn't just come from the idyllic images of these splendid Black figures, but from who they were in real life, unstoppable and impervious forces that thrived in a backdrop of blatant discrimination and a daily existence that taught us all that it was a crime to be born with Black skin.

This year in jazz highlights many examples of giants who are not only the embodiment of Black genius, but, equally paramount, allow nothing to hinder their artistic vision. We also witnessed more intergenerational collaborations take shape, a rich part of the jazz tradition brought back to the forefront.

First and foremost, Wayne Shorter. Despite facing several health scares in recent years, the 88-year-old saxophonist composed ...(Iphigenia), an adaptation of the Greek tragic opera with libretto from esperanza spalding, by hand. Pharoah Sanders, another octogenarian and one of the progenitors of free jazz, joined forces with Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra to render the chimeric collaborative effort Promises, marking Sanders' first studio release in over a decade. At 97 years old, multireedist Marshall Allen also shows no signs of age. As the fearless leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra, together, the boundary-pushing collective garnered its first Grammy nomination for the 2020 release Swirling.

If I have to choose one standout this year, my pick is The Cookers' sixth studio album, Look Out!. Reading the press announcements that called the veteran collective a "jazz supergroup," it was difficult not to imagine each member in superhero poses with their initials branded across their chests. But when I spoke to them this fall, they expressed nothing but admiration for one another, genuine excitement for performing live again, and even paid homage to all the musicians they've worked with — Miles Davis, Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Herbie Hancock and Freddie Hubbard. As invincible as they appear, it turns out, even your heroes and sheroes are human.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon J. Effinger has been a freelance arts journalist for more than a decade. Her writing on all things jazz and music regularly appears in Pitchfork, Bandcamp, Jazziz, Jazzwise, and Downbeat. As of the fall of 2020, her arts coverage can also be found in The New York Times and The Washington Post; the latter features her Sunday arts cover story on Marshall Allen, the longtime leader of the Sun Ra Arkestra.