Musician interrupted

He’d gone to see saxophonists John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders the year before at a place on Dexter called the Drome Lounge, and their wail was like nothing he’d ever experienced before: magnificent, powerful, polyrhythmic, polytonal, polychromatic, emotional, form-shattering … the purest music he’d ever experienced before or since.

And when the word went out that Coltrane had died on a Monday in July — or gotten so heavy he’d fallen off the planet, as some wags would have it — it was only fitting to call for a memorial party. A dozen or so fans worshipfully played records and made music through Saturday night at the cramped apartment on Chicago Boulevard where he lived with his wife. Around daybreak came the sound of cars speeding away from Lord knew what, and being reckless guys, they went to check out the commotion and soon found themselves at the epicenter of the brewing Detroit rebellion of 1967. It was a revelation:

“The people who were rioting in the street, they moved like one mind. It was almost like a hive of insects moves. It was like a wave; it just moved, but that whole episode put me in a frame of mind of thinking about our position here as a — quote — subculture, and how to deal with that. And since music was always an interest of mine and seeing how our music defined itself and our relationship to the greater environment as well … ”

The issues all seemed intertwined.

A couple days later with the riot still raging he became the owner of his first saxophone, a Martin tenor, for the uncharacteristically low price of $80.

Asked whether, in the parlance of the time, the saxophone had been “liberated,” he laughs dryly. “I got it during the riot,” he repeats.

Asked whether this all seemed prophetic — Coltrane dying, the memorial, the riot, the saxophone — his eyes widen as if it’s obvious. He laughs again: “It was significant, I’ll put it that way.”

Life seemed to take on a new seriousness. “Before that I was just floating and having fun doing what was expected of me by the culture at large and the tradition and yadda yadda,” he says.

Within a few years, Jesse Davis would have new names. He would become Malik Z. Bey then Faruq Z. Bey. His marriage would dissolve, as would two more during the ’70s. He’d become part of an artistic, spiritualist, pan-African political milieu; he’d eventually become a sort of poster boy for that set. He’d read his poetry to rapt listeners, pontificate on the meaning of life and culture, play in more bands and jams than anyone can be expected to keep track of. He’d impress a lot of folks as brilliant and charismatic; he’d attract talent like a magnet. He’d garner a rep as a ladies’ man. He’d live wildly, nearly die, watch much of what he’d worked for unravel, and slowly recover.

And roughly two decades after its demise, one of his bands, arguably the best jazz band to never make it out of Detroit, just may be on the verge of getting its due.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- At 6-foot-4, lean with a slow gait and a slight stoop at 61, Faruq looks like a human question mark when he bends forward.

He can be alternately comically terse and loquacious. To talk to him is to realize how his own premeditated take on things is wrung from his own questioning. A word as simple as “hey” in a conversation can lead to a digression on its origins. Back in the ’80s his friend, the writer and magazine editor Kofi Natambu, interviewed him for hours and published pages of the transcript, which looped through Faruq’s thoughts on the origin of the word jazz (“It’s obviously an Arabic word”) to his hopes as an artist (“to communicate some positive forces in the environment”) to the quandaries of the musical life (“placed on some kind of pedestal … and on the other hand starve to death”).

Talking over coffee at a suburban Borders store, he takes a listener on a similarly wide-ranging conversational trip. He talks about his youth, growing up in Detroit’s Conant Gardens neighborhood, the eldest of five children of a city bus driver and his stay-at-home wife who would find their artistic and wayward son increasingly hard to comprehend. Neighborhood role models included Eddie Floyd, then of the doo-wop group the Falcons, later to have the hit “Knock on Wood.”

Faruq talks about being one of those insatiably curious kids who stayed up after bedtime, hid in the closet and read with a flashlight. He started writing poetry at 13. He fell under the influence of beboppers as a teen and studied string bass at school (jazz educator James Tatum was one of his teachers). At various times, he wanted to be an auto designer, a physicist or a scholar instead of a jazz bassist; it all depended on the position of the moon, he says. He had a relatively uneventful Air Force stint, had a daughter with one woman and married another, worked factory jobs, studied existentialism at community college — all in the time leading up to the riot, which ignited when he was 25.

And he talks and talks about music and language, and music as language, and how those relate to society. Here is some of what he has to say about jazz:

“In jazz — quote-unquote — the model is text (which is the melody or the construct, you dig, the tune, if you will) and commentary (which is the improvisatory thing). Now you’ve got people at different ends of spectrum. You’ve got people who are really concerned with text, so their improvisatory comment sounds more and more textual. They follow or allow rules that are more and more locked down and concrete, which is leading away from the intent of the whole thing. On the other hand, you’ve got people who do away with text entirely. How are you gonna talk about something when there’s nothing to talk about? You’re just out there babbling, in other words.”

He often talks about the meaning of intervals in language, both musical and verbal. Most African languages, for instance, use tone to convey meaning. Even in largely atonal English, the interval — or note-to-note leap — called a flatted fifth describes the rising tone of the typical question. The meanings of these intervals in language and music fascinate Faruq to no end. He’d like to develop a universal catalog of languages “to find which intervals persist in their meaning about the planet.”

And his music is informed by a long study of modes, which are ways of stacking intervals. “Doe, a deer, a female deer,” describes one mode. Any five consecutive black keys on the piano are another. And the variations are limitless.

Faruq recalls that the writer Amiri Baraka once said that, in essence, a language is a logic. “It is a logic you speak,” Faruq continues. “And when you get into what they call music, now you get into a different language. And with a different logic, you deal with different syllogistic principles and different conclusions.”

This language-equals-logic equation is long out of fashion among academic linguists, but not to Faruq. As on many subjects, he’s worked through his sources to his own conclusions with an evident rigor. That’s one reason why so many of his friends and acquaintances describe him in similar terms. “One of the most brilliant men I’ve ever met in my life,” says one. “Frankly, I thought he was a genius,” says another of their first encounter.

“A lot of people don’t know the depth of his intellect and his studies,” says the poet M.L. Liebler, a collaborator since the mid-’80s who has also published Faruq’s poetry and his music theory book.

“He has this really intense understanding of surrealism and history because he’s reading all the time,” adds Liebler. (Faruq names as his favorite poets T.S. Eliot and the Negritude writers Léopold Senghor and Aimé Césaire.)

“An incident comes to mind,” says Liebler . “Not too long ago, we were playing up North in Petoskey. We’re sitting in the van, and he’s sitting there with some sort of super-duper science calculator, like the ones the brainy kids use in calculus or something. He’s reading a book on Egyptian mathematics, and he’s doing all these math figures and writing musical notes down in another book.” Liebler pauses, hard-pressed to quite convey his awe at this scene.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- For all the destruction of the riots — 43 dead and $45 million in property damage — for all the dread that shook liberals and conservatives, there were plenty of blacks (often young, but not always) who felt the slogan “burn, baby, burn” to be a metaphoric match lighting their imaginations.

“It was post-riot Detroit. It was all wide open,” says Sadiq Bey — sometimes known instead as Sadiq Muhammad, sometimes as just Sadiq — now a performer and writer in New York City. “We were brand-new people. Whatever we wanted to be, we could be. We were making jewelry, making art, performing. It was a renaissance. Everybody was a renaissance man. It was incredible.”

In the scene from which Sadiq and Faruq emerged, you could shed your old lifestyles and even your old names; they worked together for more than a decade.

“There was an intense period of intellectual fervor, if you will,” says Faruq, who talks of studying religion with members of the Moorish Science Temple (a sort of forerunner to the Nation of Islam) who had adopted the name Bey; he later studied Islam. “Things just kind of grew from that. But then that’s the way I remember it. Other people might remember it totally differently.”

Sadiq recalls being with Faruq at a jam session of poetry and music at a private residence around ’68. In a sense, that jam went on for years.

“It was such an incredible connection that we just decided to live together as a commune sort of thing. It just grew from that. Guys brought their girlfriends in and people started having kids, and it was just this huge family, and we all decided to be Beys,” he says.

There were a half dozen or more Bey families in an informal cooperative, Faruq says.

Several self-appointed Beys — chiefly Faruq, Sadiq and Jalil — became known as the Bey Brothers as they performed poetry and music together at places like the old Concept East Theater, a hotbed for new, politicized voices in black theater.

“They’d be around black nationalist things and events and institutions,” recalls Geoffrey Jacques, a poet, former WDET-FM jazz host and now a New York-based writer and teacher. “And even then they were sort of the kings of the musicians — for relatively younger musicians in their 20s. They always had this aura of mystery about them.”

The Bey Brothers gave way to the First African Primal Rhythm Orchestra, playing what Sadiq described as “basically free improv.” But some members of that group moved on. “I sort of left and moved on and got married and had a family, and everybody sort of split up,” says Sadiq.

“Then it was Faruq’s idea to bring this group back together,” says Sadiq, “and he named it Griot Galaxy.” And rather than total improvisation, Faruq wanted to bring composition and structure to bear. Meanwhile, he had been working on his saxophone chops, primarily on his own, but he’d also sought out guidance from sympathetic older musicians like Leon Henderson (brother of the famous Joe Henderson).

If — big IF — Griot Galaxy had been part of Ken Burns’ 19-hour, 10-part documentary, “Jazz,” the group would have been jammed into the couple of dismissive minutes that covered the avant-garde that flourished between Coltrane’s death in 1967 and the back-to-tradition revival that Wynton Marsalis heralded 15 years later. Bands like the Art Ensemble of Chicago and Sun Ra challenged preconceptions about what jazz should be; in turn, they were accused of alienating the jazz audience — especially the African-American audience — and driving the music into obscurity. Or so goes one version of jazz history. Those were the bands that influenced Griot. And like so many bands in the avant-garde, the members of Griot wore their sense of history on their musical sleeves and later on their faces. (For the record, Faruq detests the term “avant-garde,” citing its military roots, a designation for advancing troops doomed to take the highest casualties.)

In traditional West African societies the griot — pronounced gree-oh — is a praise singer, historian, preserver of culture. In Alex Haley’s epic Roots, it’s a village griot who confirms the story of Haley’s ancestor’s capture generations earlier.

So much for the past. According to Faruq, the “galaxy” signified: “We were the griots of the galaxy period … our quadrant anyway.”

But one former member jokingly suggested that it might as well have referred to the dozens of musicians who fell in and out of the ranks over the 10 years or so that followed the group’s formation in 1972.

A key stretch in the group’s development came with a mid-’70s residency at Cobb’s Corner on Cass at Willis. In this Corridor pregentrification period, Griot helped make Cobb’s the epicenter of jazz in Detroit. It was about the third edition of Griot Galaxy by Faruq’s count, the first with the chance to grow week-to-week with a steady gig.

One member of the band remembers that when they started there, Cobb’s was rough; fistfights were common. But it became the focal point for bands led by funky organist Lyman Woodard and trumpeter Marcus Belgrave. Griot found its own crowd, practically a “cult” at the beginning, as Natambu recalls.

“They had a small, highly energetic and very supportive group of people who loved what they were doing … a lot of artists, painters, a lot of poets, a lot of writers were interested in the band,” says Natambu, now based in Oakland, Calif., and author of a recent Malcolm X biography. The followers were drawn to “the visionary aspect of what Griot Galaxy was doing,” not to mention their charisma and theatricality. And with eight or more musicians crowded on the stage, it was quite a sight and a glorious sound. (And when they’d leave the club for a concert gig, they’d add dancers and such to magnify the spectacle.)

Patrice Williams (then known as Kafi Patrice Nassoma), who played flute and harp with the band, recalls the company of such musicians as pianist Ken Thomas and clarinetist-saxophonist Elreta “Duchess” Dodds. Then there was drummer Tariq, who could play the exact accents to complement the actions around him. “He could finish all my thoughts,” Williams says.

Free jazz was an influence, Sadiq says, but the band worked from compositions, mostly Faruq’s, and used “all sorts of visual cues and musical cues” to move the music along. On the best nights the interactions seemed telepathic. Music like that, Sadiq explains, “is an act of worship.”

One night in Ann Arbor, the band played between sets by the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Some members say the band held its own in following the AEC — in itself a considerable achievement. Others, like Sadiq, say they kicked AEC’s ass for the first set with a “pinnacle performance” embracing poetry and drama along with the music. (On the other hand, all the band members interviewed for this piece agreed the AEC reclaimed top-dog billing. Their second set, says Faruq, had an undeniable message: “That was nice, kids; this is how it’s really done.”)

“It was just truly spontaneous, energetic expression,” says Williams of the group. Offstage it was a musical community, she adds, “willing and brave to try something new.” She and others recall “rehearsals” where not a note would be played — there’d be philosophical discussions instead. At listening sessions, members would play records of everything from Andean pan pipes to the sound of hundreds of men chanting like monkeys in a Balinese courtyard. “We were exposing ourselves to everything,” she says.

But there were, eventually, tensions within the group, musical and personal, conflicting pursuits. Sadiq left to lead an edgy reggae band, Aziz, which included Faruq. Guitarist Spencer Barefield left to concentrate on his Creative Arts Collective, which presented more than 100 concerts at the Detroit Institute of Arts and presented the Griot circle and fostered collaborations with out-of-towners such as Anthony Braxton and the Art Ensemble’s Roscoe Mitchell.

Williams says that when she and Dodds were eased out, she felt that maybe they had been exploited for the novelty of having women in a jazz band; yet she credits Faruq for at least having given her and Dodds that much exposure.

But the shifts also involved a vision that Faruq and the other remaining members had for the band. “There were too many variables when the group was big,” says Faruq. As a composer, the smaller group meant he could better “manipulate the forces.”

Drummer Tani Tabbal is blunt. He says the members were becoming impressed with their cultural stardom. Meanwhile, the fans didn’t know what they were missing: “The stuff was not turning out right, and Jaribu [bassist Jaribu Shahid] and I used to come home and listen to the stuff [on tape] and it used to just drive us crazy. We couldn’t stand it.”

And they didn’t. From Tabbal’s perspective, the contraction amounted to “a little power play.”

The downsizing ushered in the ultimate phase of Griot, featuring Faruq — now the sole Bey in the lineup and the eldest member by a decade — with four relatively late additions. There was Pontiac saxophonist Tony Holland. There was saxophonist David McMurray, the rare musician who can play for the avant-garde set and record with pop acts as big as the Rolling Stones. The backbone was the team of Tabbal and Shahid, who locked as tightly as any bassist and drummer in recent decades of jazz.

Both had played with that mystical showman of jazz, Sun Ra. A big band leader with an affection, at different stages in his career, for Egyptian-style regalia and silver lamé space suits, “Sunny” played music as intriguing as it was wide-ranging. Tabbal, originally from Chicago, had furthermore played extensively with a former Sun Ra sideman named Phil Cohran. Though barely a footnote in most jazz books — and virtually unrecorded outside of Ra’s band — the Chicago cornetist is a visionary giant to Tabbal.

Through the influences of Ra and Cohran, Jaribu and Tabbal augmented Faruq’s interest in modes and in the myriad ways of grouping musical beats into meters. Ideas that had long been part of Griot Galaxy were being refined and pushed toward their limits.

Through the ’60s, most jazz, like most pop even to this day, flows in a familiar four beats to a bar — pat your foot, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4. There had been jazz waltzes at three beats to the bar (1-2-3, 1-2-3), and Dave Brubeck made five-to-the-bar a ’50s hit with “Take Five.” But odd meters became pervasive in jazz starting in the ’60s. Griot made metric juggling acts — layering these different meters, shifting from meter to meter — as dizzily compelling as anyone before or since.

Faruq, says Tabbal, “would sit there and write continuously”; he remained the group’s chief composer, even though all of the members made contributions. But the execution was a group affair.

“Faruq would say, ‘I want the drums in seven and the bass in five,’ and we just said, ‘Cool,’ and we did it,” says Shahid. “Stuff would be like swirling, swirling, swirling,” says Holland, describing the effect and the challenges of Griot’s music.

They played long sections that explored spaces with no discernible beat at all, sometimes softly, sometimes with almost volcanic eruptions in what Jacques calls “ecstatic energy space.” But the prototypical Griot sound, more than anything else, was one of these odd-meter excursions that still rocked the house.

They augmented the more pointed music with a more defined stage presence. Faruq’s poetry stayed. But now they donned silver face paint and called themselves the science fiction band.

Members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago wore African-style face paints to evoke performances as rituals. It was the ultimate statement of their “Great Black Music,” linking the most “far out” extrapolations to bop, swing, blues, field hollers … all the way back to the music of the African motherland.

But in industrial Detroit, Griot’s face paint was metallic. This was ritual, yes, but as Faruq puts it, “a response to a more modern environment speaking about androids and robots and that sort of thing.”

Less frequently a bar band now, this edition of Griot Galaxy drove audiences wild at Hart Plaza during such events as the African World Festival and what in the early ’80s was the Montreux-Detroit International Jazz Festival.

Without an actual manager, the band’s business dealings were always ad hoc — creating a tension between Faruq’s laid-back approach and Tabbal and Shahid’s feeling that the band should be more aggressive about getting beyond Detroit. Yet, there was a feeling among the fans that the rest of the music world had to catch on to what Detroiters knew.

At one point, band fan and friend Ron DeCorte figured he’d be part of that process. He followed the band frequently, lugging a 65-pound, Crown SX 800 reel-to-reel tape recorder. Other times, he took them into the studio, including for the 1981 release, Kins, on his own Black and White label. He pressed 2,000 copies to little avail. Shortly after, he was laid up in a motorcycle accident; during his convalescence, 1,500 or so of those copies were hauled from storage at a relative’s house and set out with the trash.

With or without a release, Griot’s reputation continued to build. Tabbal and Shahid (plus Barefield) toured Europe as the rhythm section for the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s Roscoe Mitchell. That led in the spring of ’84 to an Austria-Germany tour and live recordings for both Griot (minus McMurray, who didn’t have a passport) and the trio of Holland, Tabbal and Barefield. Things were looking up that fall.

Then, as Tabbal puts it, “Faruq fell on his head.”

---------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- Faruq was a striking figure in the run-up to the crash, the African-style garb now replaced with biker’s leather, his dreadlocks having grown into a leonine mane cascading well past the shoulders of his tall frame. The sensitive, emotional guy that many attest to was at least superficially masked by the image of a mystery-man badass. He was a regular at the Cass Corridor watering hole Alvin’s, drinking, playing in reggae bands, talking it up, dancing. There are women from those days who talk about their long-lasting, soulful relations with Faruq; graffiti in Alvin’s upstairs women’s bathroom celebrated his quick magnetism and sexual prowess.

Natambu dedicated a poem to his “friend and brother” Faruq and titled it “We Think We Know You or The Roving Enigma Blues.” One section reads:


But what is it that we know? That the shining grey / mask you seem to wear is an affirmation of our fears? That the melodies you ponder and furtively reveal are cultural readymades for us to wear then / discard when the houselights come on? / Is this our history you sing as your grinning groupies / crawl in for the delicious kill? What about the painters / who buy you too much beer as we finger that aching saxophone / sweating between sets in the corner?


Faruq himself talks vaguely about that chapter — Griot on the verge of wider success — as “a rough period for me socially and artistically and every other way … there was just a lot of confusion.” He describes it as a time of “bad habits,” and asked if he means drugs, he answers, “All that stuff that didn’t have to do with the music itself.”

One friend suggests that deep down, Faruq was afraid of success, or of possible disappointment. Another friend suggests that something like the accident was inevitable and could have been worse.

Faruq doesn’t remember the accident itself. He’d left Alvin’s, with a young woman riding on the back of his souped-up Yamaha 750 Triple.

“Somebody told me it had something to do with some railroad tracks,” he says, “but the fact of the matter was a bad mix of alcohol and motorcycles.”

His rider was uninjured. Faruq was in a coma at Receiving Hospital for more than two weeks while a circus swirled around him.

A piece of thinly veiled fiction by Sadiq, “Excerpts from the Jesse Davis Medical Fund,” captures his version of events. (It was published in a long out-of-print anthology edited by Natambu and titled Nostalgia for the Present: An Anthology of Writings (From Detroit).)

In the story, the accident is reported in the “the dailies and the rags,” conferring star status on the musician. Friends, lovers and blood relatives crowd the waiting room and vie for access to the comatose patient; at times they nearly come to blows over “who was who” in his life.

Sadiq, the narrator — here called Coodeek — tells one friend that the accident is a sign: “I mean, we’re all abusing our bodies to the hilt.” The friend has to agree.

“I saw Jesse sprawled on the roller bed,” Sadiq/Coodeek observes at one point. “His dreadlocks scattered like black yarn over the pillow. There was a majestic, regal quality about him. He jerked and struggled a little, almost like he knew we were there. … He had every imaginable tube and needle in his body. A fucking Frankenstein Monster sniffing the flowers of death. A 6’ 4”, 185 lb. black grass eater reduced to a sleeping menace. A menace to our love for him.”

The story invokes the Egyptian myth of Osiris in which a god is betrayed and dismembered but ultimately regains his wholeness. And the story suggests Faruq eventually does too. But in life the reconstitution dragged on for years.

Even as Faruq worked through rehabilitation for a closed head injury and eventually returned to music, the band disintegrated. Among the personal conflicts and dramas was a clash over whether Faruq was up to the demands of the music — and whether there could be a Griot Galaxy without Faruq.

After some Faruq-less gigs, the band went on hiatus for a couple of years. When Faruq rejoined, there were problems.

“He wasn’t quite there yet,” says McMurray. Tabbal says Faruq’s drinking problems complicated his recovery and return to playing.

Adds McMurray: “It was just going into turmoil because this was basically Faruq’s group, but the keeper of the music was Jaribu — always. And he would keep everything going because he was organized; a lot of that music might have gotten destroyed, but he guarded it … and because of him the music still exists, the written music.”

Tabbal and Shahid also said they felt obligated to register the name Griot Galaxy — and themselves as owners — to safeguard it. Eventually the group resumed playing without Faruq — sometimes with the up-and-coming Detroit saxophonist James Carter in his stead.

For the group’s final Detroit gig, in March 1991 at the DIA, a couple of picketers protested that the group was being hijacked; the behind-the-scenes conflict was embarrassingly out in the open.

The band played as “Griot Galaxy” just once after that — at a festival in Holland with a lineup featuring Carter, according to Tabbal. When Carter’s career subsequently took off — he was lauded by some critics as the most important voice of his generation — Tabbal and Shahid worked with him for years. Detroit listeners couldn’t help but think of the Griot connection when the Carter band sizzled.

And what does Faruq say about the last days of Griot?

He pauses when asked if he felt betrayed, then turns philosophical: “I was very uncomfortable with it, but what it came down to was everybody has a different view of what the thing is, especially something as complex as that band at that time because that wasn’t a popular recording band … or even your traditional jazz band. That was a very different social and cultural experiment. Everybody has a different view. The reality of their different views manifested themselves. Yeah, I was disappointed, but that was because of the view of the band that I had that didn’t match with everybody else in the band.”

A little later, he consigns Griot Galaxy to the great flux — all “playing environments” are “just transitory states, part of the changing same.”

Faruq’s personal recovery was arduous. He left the hospital with his left side paralyzed, uncertain whether he’d ever play again. Asked how he made it, he laughs and says, “Poorly, not well at all, but I did what was necessary. I did jobs. I did day jobs. I availed myself of whatever benefits were, you know, and that kind of thing. …

“After that period of the accident and all that I went underground and woodshedded for a few years. I kept a low profile to try to regroup. … Then I started coming out here and there doing a few things.”

He sought help for his chemical dependencies: “The accident and events that happened after let me see I was actually operating in a mental fog and I had to come out of that and get to a clear mind again.”

But for Faruq, the lessons of the accident and its aftermath go beyond avoiding booze and bikes, or the volatile dynamics of great bands, or kicking bad habits. There was something he grasped in the coma that he’s still trying to come to grips with, let alone explain:

“I came away with another knowledge, another knowing about this condition we call life, so I can understand things now that I didn’t understand before about my personal reality and about my social reality, about my cultural and political reality, the reality of my collective past. All of that I see differently now.”

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- When the group disbanded, DeCorte lost track of Faruq and the other Griots.

At his home in Toledo, his 50 hours or so of old tapes “just sat for years and years and years. I listened to them from time to time, but that was it. They were for my own private use.”

About a year ago, on a whim, he searched the Internet to see whether any of those rare copies of the Kins disc were being sold as collectibles. It was still the only full-length Griot record aside from the ’84 tour record, Opus Krampus, which had been released to rave reviews on the Sound Aspects label. DeCorte found bootleg Kins tapes being sold in Europe, but none of the rare vinyl. And DeCorte stumbled onto something much more important, references to a new record, 19 Moons on the Entropy Stereo label, by Faruq Z. Bey in collaboration with a group called the Northwoods Improvisers.

Through e-mail, DeCorte got in touch with Entropy’s Mike Khoury, one of those label owners who has carved out a niche on the far margins of the industry, where the music is fascinating and the market is small. Khoury has released material from some of the leading lights in improvisational music — including England’s Derek Bailey and Australia’s Jon Rose — and boosted the visibility of the Northwoods group, whose members were musical mentors during Khoury’s youth in Mt. Pleasant.

Shortly after that e-mail, Khoury and Faruq trekked to Toledo to listen to DeCorte’s tape cache. They zeroed in on a performance that captured the group in peak form. Faruq’s poetry is missing, but the nearly 90 minutes of music, recently released as Live at the D.I.A. 1983, include everything else that made the group distinctive. The music draws on the roots of jazz, on the sounds of the New York and Chicago-St. Louis avant-gardes — and offers something specific to Detroit in the ’80s.

There are compositions from Bey, Tabbal and Shahid, two cover versions of Sun Ra pieces and an explosive interlude with guest drummers — Sadiq and Fahali Igbo — joining Tabbal. At times, collages of instrumental sounds float as if in search of a larger picture to attach themselves to — and finally coalesce in dramatic shapes and structures.

The key performance may be Faruq’s “Fosters,” a crowd-pleasing paean to a down-home Detroit eatery that sustained him when a marriage had gone kaput and his culinary skills were nil. It starts off with a braying horn line — a sort of allusion to blues so old they creak — works into hum-along mid-tempo stomp, then raises the tension and ante each time it circles back to the theme.

“I feel I missed a lot when I listen to this music,” says Khoury, who moved to the Detroit area after Griot Galaxy had passed from gigdom to local-legend status. “I can’t believe the levels they reached. You hear people just going crazy in the audience. It was a special time for some special music.”

You’ll get no dissent from the five Griot members on the disc. Some of them hadn’t spoken in years, but all readily signed on to the idea of putting this music out. In fact, they all say that they’d consider — if not welcome — performing together again.

The time may be oddly ripe for this record and any hoopla it generates. The jazz avant-garde never had a commercial heyday, yet the interest endures. Sun Ra, for instance, is by some measures more popular — consider the number of records commercially available, a biography, a book-length discography, an Internet listserv — than when he was alive a decade ago. Faruq and, even more so, Griot as a whole, certainly have a link to all of that.

Several weeks ago, Faruq joined the Northwoods Improvisers at Xhedos Café in Ferndale to celebrate the release of the live Griot disc and Ashirai Pattern, their follow-up to 19 Moons. Their two sets captivated a standing-room-only crowd.

“Sun Ra-tastic!” a 21-year-old hooted after one tune, a cover of Sun Ra’s “Shadow World.” He would have been all of a year old when Faruq and Griot Galaxy recorded that same piece at the DIA.

--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- “It ought to be a book, Natambu says, waxing about Griot Galaxy and “that particular cultural matrix.”

There are certainly enough personalities to chart. Natambu is now working on a book of essays to be titled A Brand New Bag to examine “the centrality of black artists in America as a cultural force from 1955 to 1975.”

The former Griot flutist and harpist Williams is a librarian for the Detroit Free Press.

Another band member from that period, reed player Dodds, writes Christian tracts, the most recent being Is God a Chauvinist?, which has a nice display at local Borders stores.

Any number of the ’70s members remain active musically. At least one seems to be MIA; one became a lawyer.

Of the Griot Galaxy quintet heard on the record, McMurray remains in demand for recording sessions and touring and puts out his own records in a commercial jazz vein. Holland works locally with jazz groups and with a steel drum band whose leader, Hugh Borde, was discovered years ago by Liberace.

Tabbal lives in Woodstock, N.Y., where he has rebounded after the removal of a benign brain tumor a year and a half ago. He plays in the dance department of Bard College and tours with David “Fathead” Newman, among others.

Shahid lives in Long Beach, N.J., and tours with saxophonist David Murray and other name musicians.

Of the original Bey Brothers, the poet Jalil moved to Florida where he battled hypertension and related ailments and passed away some years ago. Sadiq is busy in New York; among his recent projects is a libretto for a radically reconfigured “Othello” in which Shakespeare’s Moor becomes Sadiq’s “mean fuck” opium addict. He’s hoping it will be performed in the future at the Vienna Biennale, an ultra-prestigious international art gathering.

Over the phone Sadiq talks frankly about drug addiction, alcoholism, getting clean. He says his experiences in Detroit made him the person that he is: “If it wasn’t for my spiritual growth with those people, I would probably be sleeping in Central Park right now.”

And Faruq, during the long interview for this article, talks about his many projects, a sort of personal renaissance he’s entered during the last couple of years. He has a band, Speaking in Tongues, and an all-reeds ensemble, the Conspiracy Winds. Besides the Northwoods collaborations, other projects include working with Liebler’s Magic Poetry Band and in a trio with Liebler and the blues musician (and former WDET-FM host) Robert Jones. He’s working on a new book of poetry, revising a music theory book. The list goes on.

But after all that, Faruq also reminisces about his daughter — he concedes he’s never been as close to her as he would have liked — and her three children. One day Faruq had an epiphany seeing the eldest of that trio, a boy now 7 years old, move with the same body language as Faruq and Faruq’s now-deceased dad before him. “I guess that blew me away. I sat there just staring. I was just in awe, like wwwoowww,” he says.

The lesson being that “as much as I tried to forge an iconoclastic persona, I guess I’m a regular guy after all, I’m not superman of the mind and spirit. I’m just a regular guy.”

Later, being driven back to his home in a tattered stretch of Detroit’s east side, his interviewer puts on an advance copy of the DIA release. The three Griot horns shout a theme, and Faruq identifies it as “Shadow World.”

“One of Sunny’s tunes,” he adds, as in Sun Ra.

“Boo-wah-du-ooh,” he sings along with the cascading melody, the text, as he’d put it. Then he falls silent.

After the theme, a tenor saxophone solo begins torrentially.

Who is that? he is asked.

“Oh, that’s me,” he says and smiles his half smile.

“Commentary,” he explains, translating his fevered notes and overtones. “What is that? … What do you mean?”

Then he falls silent again as if nothing more can be conveyed in our workaday tongue.


The Northwoods Improvisers and Faruq Z. Bey perform Saturday, June 28, at Kerrytown Concerthouse, 415 North Fourth Avenue, Ann Arbor. Call 734-769-2999.

W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]