LEON THOMAS / “Leon Thomas Mixtape”
There was a time, not very long ago. A time when women, men and, yes, even children challenged the state of oppression; both the formal Jim Crow status quo as well as the Ku Klux Klan and others of that ilk. We left our homes some days not knowing if we would ever return. I remember one particular Sunday, rising early to confront the Klan. This was no non-violent demonstration. The Klan had called for an international gathering of white supremacists and the night before at a cross burning across the river in the Algiers section of New Orleans someone had called the police and shots were exchanged however none of the Klan was arrested. We were under no illusions. The Klan said they would be at the “White Supremacy Statue” (a historic monument to a revolt by white militias against the Reconstruction Era government). They said they would circle up at 12 noon. We said we would be there at high noon too and vowed to uphold the basic law of physics: two bodies can not occupy the same space at the same time. We were under no illusions—so we were armed. We had put the word out throughout the community. Our slogan about the Klan was simple: we ain’t gonna be the only ones dying and they wasn’t gonna be the only ones shooting. We used to have a photo of my young son Tutashinda who participated in that demonstration, as did his three older and one younger sibling. Tuta must have been about seven or eight at the time. He was holding a protest sign that stretched from his nose to his toes. I know some of yall reading this are incredulously wondering, how could they bring their children to what might turn into a shoot-out? America didn’t change it’s segregation laws and tacit support for white on black terrorism because America wanted to; America changed because our people—women, men and children—gave America no option. We meant it: freedom or death. They blinked. The powers that be ordered the Klan to assemble early in the morning at eight a.m. and provided them police protection. At noon the good old boys were long gone and hundreds of happy negroes with bulges in their pockets and under their clothes stood around chanting and laughing. You won’t read about these sort of events in your history books and that’s ok for now. We’ll get around to the books in a moment. What does any of the above have to do with this week’s classic music by Leon Thomas? Well, it’s simple and straight forward although I’m sure most folk have never thought about the connection before. In the late sixties and throughout the seventies musicians were making music for people who were marching in the streets, confronting oppression straight up, sometimes even engaging in shoot outs with the authorities as well as battling with home grown “terrorists” (to use the current terminology favored by the establishment). Amos Leon Thomas Jr. was born in 1937 in East St. Louis, Illinois—we used to call the town “cut and shoot East St. Loo.” He studied music at Tennessee State University and moved to New York in the late fifties. There he made the jazz circuit and even did two short stints with Count Basie—as tracks like “Boom Boom Boom” make clear, Leon was comfortable in the Joe Williams blues tradition. Thomas made his major mark with “The Creator Has A Master Plan,” a composition he co-authored with Pharoah Sanders. He recorded the song a number of times but the classic is the half hour plus version on Sanders’ album Karma. In the early sixties Thomas had become interested in African vocal traditions and became a master yodeler. I don’t mean Country&Western type yodeling but rather the style pioneered by Africans in the Central African rain forests. When Leon mixed yodeling with scatting he took jazz vocals into a whole new realm that prefigured the work of Al Jarreau and Bobby McFerrin. In addition to the yodel, Thomas also made heavy use of percussion and poly-rhythms. Although he never achieved major cross-over popularity in the United States, he was extremely well received in Europe and cut a number of his albums overseas. In fact, his live recordings in Germany are his best recordings under his own leadership. Thomas was also interested in both spiritual and political movements. Indeed, he participated on a spoken word album featuring the “firebrand militant” H. Rap Brown. Thomas’ anti-war song, “Damn Nam” was hugely popular among activists in the Black community. Although he was a great blues singer and could even do standards, his real forte was movement music, whether the movement was spiritual or political was not the major factor because by the seventies spirit and politics were entwined. Thomas’ music has a strong trance quality, which is why much of the music is far longer than three or four minutes. This was music to fortify us, to prepare us to face the Klan and the U.S. government (between whom there was sometimes no difference). Remember (or perhaps it would be better for me to advise, “be aware,” “realize”) this was in a period when first, President Kennedy (1963), then Malcolm X (1965), and Martin Luther King (1968) were assassinated, and when you add in the civil rights workers killed in Mississippi, the four little girls in Birmingham, and the physical termination of Black Panther leaders, plus the proliferation of urban rebellions during proverbial long, hot summers—when you take into consideration the social reality of that era, well, then you can really appreciate how this music was a soundtrack for our days and nights during the 20th century's golden age of black self determination. You hear turmoil and you hear peace, you hear conflict and you hear beauty. You hear our lives. Leon Thomas died of a heart failure on May 8, 1999. His contributions should never be forgotten. Listen now and be fortified. This music will help you face whatever particular trials and tribulations you encounter. —Kalamu ya Salaam Leon Thomas Mixtape Playlist This is probably our longest Mixtape thus far. There are a couple of reasons for the length. I wanted to demonstrate the full range of brother Leon’s talents and I also wanted to share some of his major recordings that are not only hard to find but are also relatively obscure. Note that Oliver Nelson appears as both an instrumentalist and as an arranger (“Duke’s Place,” which features long-time Ellington saxophonist Johnny Hodges). I’ve also included a cut from Chicago-based vocalist Jeri Brown’s album Zaius that prominently features Leon Thomas. Finally, I’ve decided to include the whole of Karma, especially for those who have never heard the complete, long version of “The Creator Has A Master Plan.” And isn’t “Colors” a beautiful benediction? 01 “Oo-Whee!! Hindewe” - In Berlin 02 “Medley: Pharoah's Tune (The Journey)/Echoes” - In Berlin 03 “Precious Energy” - Precious Energy - Leon Thomas & Gary Bartz 04 “Moon Child” - Moon Child - Pharoah Sanders 05 “Blue Skies Medley: Blue Skies/ In Walked Bud” - Zaius - Jeri Brown with Leon Thomas 06 “Boom Boom Boom” – Facets/The Legend Of Leon Thomas 07 “China Doll” - Anthology 08 “Duke's Place” - 3 Shades Of Blue - Johnny Hodges 09 “Damn Nam (Ain't Goin' To Vietnam)” - Spirits Known And Unknown 10 “Malcom's Gone” - Spirits Known And Unknown 11 “Song For My Father” – Facets/The Legend Of Leon Thomas 12 “Let The Rain Fall On Me” – Facets/The Legend Of Leon Thomas 13 “Sun Song (feat. Leon Thomas)” - Shukuru - Pharoah Sanders 14 “Warm To The Touch” - Soundscapes - Cedar Walton 15 “Straight, No Chaser” - In Berlin 16 “A Night In Tunisia” - Spirits Known And Unknown 17 “Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum Allah” - Jewels Of Thought - Pharoah Sanders 18 “Echoes” - Spirits Known And Unknown 19 “Umbo Weti” - In Berlin 20 “The Creator Has A Master Plan” - Karma - Pharoah Sanders 21 “Colors” – Karma - Pharoah Sanders
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