GARY BARTZ NTU TROOP / “People Dance”
The Harlem Bush Music LPs take me back. I grew up on this stuff, even if back then I had no idea what I was hearing. I probably didn’t understand a word of it. I’d even bet that I wasn’t consciously “listening.” But now, more than thirty-five years later, when I hear Gary Bartz and Andy Bey doing their thing on “Rise” or “Celestial Blues,” I feel it in a way that I doubt I could or would if I really was hearing it for the first time.
The history of this music is a little confusing, so check it, here goes. Gary Bartz is a jazz saxophonist (soprano and alto) who came out of one of the many Art Blakey bands. A few years after releasing his first recording as a headliner, Bartz put together a jazz collective named Ntu Troop, the leaders of which were vocalist Andy Bey as well as Bartz himself. Today, Bartz is best known for the gorgeous title track of his 1977 Music Is My Sanctuary LP, but those truly in the know know that Bartz’ greatest moment came years earlier.
Released months apart in 1971, Harlem Bush Music - Taifa and Harlem Bush Music - Uhuru are two of the best jazz/funk/soul/fusion albums you’ll ever hear. According to the liner notes of the reissue (which compiles both LPs on one CD, albeit minus one track), the two albums were originally conceived as a single double LP. That’s easy to believe considering that, these days, it’s difficult to tell which song belongs to which album. This music is all part of the same impulse — heavy on percussion and chanting, with Bartz and Bey frequently echoing each other’s “voice.”
Almost all of the songs are worth hearing, but I narrowed it down to five. “Celestial Blues” is the best known song of the Harlem Bush Music LPs. From time to time, it surfaces on the playlist of adventurous soul DJs. “Rise” is probably my favorite. Bartz’ playing is at its most soulful here. I love the way Bartz and Bey shadow each other note-for-note while Harold White knocks out those funky polyrhythms. “Taifa” is gentle yet powerful, managing to simultaneously sound like a war chant and a lullaby. The aptly-titled “Warriors’ Song” is the heaviest tune of the collection. It begins with a ferocious assault on alto and drums (along with overdubbed percussion) only to be abruptly interrupted for a few pointed words from Bartz:
I say bluntly that you have had a generation of Africans who believe that you can negotiate, negotiate, negotiate. … [But] you can’t negotiate upon freedom nowadays. If something is yours by right, then fight for it or shut up. If you can’t fight for it, then forget it.Whew. 1971. What else can you say?
The feature track is “People Dance,” not necessarily because it’s better than all the others, but because it’s the track that I remember the most. And also because it serves as a reminder that the Black Arts and Black Power movements weren’t always all about fighting and battling and warring. Sometimes, oftentimes even, it was just about encouraging each other to keep on keeping on. Sometimes it was even about having fun. As Mr. Bey sings:
Brothers and sisters, I want you to knowAlright, people. You heard the man. Let’s do it. Dance! ☺
When you’re feeling you’re in a tight one
You just hang in there and go right on
People come on, I want to see you dance!
—Mtume ya Salaam
Essence of Life
The hook on “Celestial Blues” gave us the name for Ahidiana’s short lived musical group, “The Essence of Life.” Ahidiana was our New Orleans-based, pan-African political organization (1971 - 1986). The years 1965 to 1975 were the high point of our struggle. Man, was we in motion! On the move, zooming blackly thru the universe like a comet, red hot, on fire seeking blue (sky and water) and green (earth and nature) tomorrows.
All across the nation Harlem Bush Music was booming. Coast to coast, Canada to Mexico, this was one of our main musical statements. It had everything: anti-Vietnam war statements, metaphysics, straight up revolutionary fervor, dance&romance, blues, you name it, all three-sixty was up in there and we dug it, embraced it, loved it, learned it, sang it, worked and rested to it.
Harlem Bush Music was music for the militants. And the children of militants. Hence, Mtume, you hear this and something inside (inside me and inside you) smiles.
A couple of quick notes: 1. Andy Bey was more than simply the vocalist. He was also the very capable pianist and a significant composer. 2. There is actually one other album that was significant in this phase of Gary Bartz’s career: I've Known Rivers And Other Bodies, which was recorded at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 1974. The title cut, based on the Langston Hughes poem was extremely popular with movement activists.
It’s beautiful to hear this music still sounding as fresh and as strong as back in the day.
—Kalamu ya Salaam
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