Thursday, October 29, 2009

Uncle Charlie's Jazz Cabin

Uncle Charlie's Jazz Cabin


Lofton A. Emenari, III




   "Yes Eliza, it's all misery, misery, misery! My life is bitter as wormwood; the very life is burning out of me. I'm a poor, miserable, forlorn drudge; I shall only drag you down with me, that's all. What's the use of our trying to do anything, trying to know anything, trying to be anything? What's the use of living? I wish I was dead!"
- Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin, Ch. 2



  Over the course of a 30 year plus career in the world of jazz - be it on the front lines in promotion, journalism, and media venues I have never, ever encountered the kind of disarming and curious behavior as witnessed on the Sunday night of October 25, 2009.

    The scene was the newly opened Club 43, the cite of the Hyde Park Jazz Society's on going series of jazz performance. And our perpetrator was none other than the HPJS's own erstwhile president himself, Charlie Thomas. "Uncle Charlie' hence forth for his disparaging, juvenile arrogance can only be described as an  unfortunate relic of our collective past - the time of the de-humanizing, belittling and guilt ridden 'overseer'.

    My role as Jazz Format Chief is one that I take very seriously, to quote the title of Val Wilmer's famous jazz tome, it's, "As Serious As Your Life". In my 8 years in that capacity I can proudly point to several accomplishments of which I take pride. And that is hiring more female on-air personalities for our jazz staff than perhaps any other genre of music on the air waves today anywhere. We've got great jazz personalities in Pheonix Lydia Brown, Yaounde Olu, Leslie Keros, Coco Elysses, Alice Brown, Michelle Drayton, Yamaide Ann Morrow, Sharon Masters and our two great Jazz Ambassadors Linda Hall and Brenda Phillips. That's 10 females out of the 24 on-staff members. Many of which have illustrious careers in jazz. I can call the names of writer/author John Litwieler and long time jazz promoter Al Carter Bey amongst them, just to name a few.

      And while this commentary isn't about my personal accomplishments it is about what happened to me in my role as jazzologist (a 'title' bestowed upon me by peers). In that faculty I have been on more than one occasion been called on to emcee any number of events around town. This year alone I've had the privilege of emceeing the Chicago Jazz Fest (hosted by the City of Chicago and the Jazz Institute of Chicago); at the Velvet Lounge (where I have a 'standing' invitation) and the Englewood Jazz Festival (in fact, I was to emcee at the annual Hyde Park Jazz fest year fest but regrettably some very real health issues prevented me from doing so. Ms. Yamiade Ann Morrow filled in my stead admirably).

    Flash back to May of this year. I learned of the upcoming performance of the Ken Cooper-Dwayne Armstrong Quintet (at the Checkerboard lounge), and was thrilled of their return to the jazz scene as co-leaders after some 20 years. I'd known them both intimately from the late 70s during the course of their development and ascendancy as two of the brightest young jazz talents the city could offer. To emcee for them was a dream come to fruition when after I contacted the HPJS they consented to allow me the on-stage duties. It was a historic and memorable night for me but more importantly for the musicians.

    Fast forward to the first week of October of this year. Once again the HPJS was to feature the Armstrong-Cooper group. This time at their new venue Club 43 (on East 43rd street). And while the thought had crossed my mind to emcee once again for the group I did have other obligations on that night of Sunday, October 25th. So it was to my surprise that Dwayne Armstrong contacted me a week and a half before their set to emcee for them again. Explaining that I had done such a masterful job of detailing their history they agreed to have me out front for them again. I was more than honored but thankful and truly beholden to them and their legacy in Chicago jazz. I set about contacting the HPJS's president 'Uncle' Charlie Thomas, but no soap. My text messages and emails went unanswered.

    Here is where the old axiom comes into play, "when you assume, you make an ass out of yourself". Only in this case I wasn't the one who was, 'the ass".   

    After being contacted by Armstrong I had assumed that 'Uncle' Charlie was notified and had authorized the agreement between Armstrong and myself. Imagine my chagrin, shock and dismay when upon arrival at Club 43 I was for surreptitiously childed by Uncle Charlie and denied the emcee duties of the night.

    Confused by this and 'Uncle' Charlie's odd, and adolescent condescension towards me, leader Armstrong went to explain to ole 'Uncle' Charlie that everyone in the band agreed and asked for my services based on the authenticity of what I bring to their performance. Indeed I was more than well prepared bringing down a handful CD's of which four of the band members were featured and had written a thorough history of their achievements to present to the Club 43 audience.

    As Armstrong went on to explain this to ole 'Uncle' Charlie he would'nt budge, saying that I couldn't emcee because I had not given the HPJS any publicity on my jazz show, which is absolutely untrue as I was floored by the accusation. 'Uncle' Charlie then turned to me and proceed to rant his frustration and belittle me. I was at a complete loss as to why would he do such a thing. He seemed to be stomping his dusty feet in a temper tantrum, yelling, "this is my house and you can't come in!"

    Needless to say Armstrong, Ken Cooper and pianist Vince Willis were dismayed and frustrated by this callow balk. Stung by 'Uncle' Charlie's egotistic admonishing I decided to exit stage left - leave the premises. It was after much frantic discussion with the band members I was asked to remain. They realized old 'Uncle' Charlie had summarily given them the middle finger - this was his stage and forum and nobody elses. 'Uncle' Charlie then proceeded to shuffle onto the stage and in a mealy mouthed so-called intro ask the band to play.

    As was intimated to me afterwards, he would have done wise to ask me to emcee as to further enlighten his awaiting audience. But then again too, it was'nt about me but about 'the music', and 'Uncle' Charlie couldn't seem to see the forest for the proverbial trees. But then again too the HPJS doesn't owe Lofton Emenari a thing. But it does owe its jazz hungry audience a much better presentation and don't take it for granted.

    In my capacity as Jazz Format Chief at WHPK-FM and in charge of the day-to-day workings of the staff it is my business to make sure we have the very best in jazz programming. Which also entails overseeing promotions, advertisement and listings of jazz activity for the greater Chicagoland area. Admittedly it is the sole decision of any said DJ to read listings, etc. on his or her show. The HPJS is one of our highest priorities. If any of their events is not advertised or mentioned on one show it will, make no doubt be mentioned on any of the other shows. This is a fact. WHPK-FM jazz and the HPJS have shared a mutual degree of respect and commeradery. And we are proud that we can fill a void in radio on-air time that is 'free of charge'. This is why I was flabbergasted at 'Uncle' Charlie's accusations and found them divisive and lacking foundation.    

    With that said it would be wise that the HPJS take a close look at its' public outreach and human/people relations. Is in their interest long term to alienate and distance themselves from the very sources of their audience? I dare ask. As said before we at WHPK-FM take quite seriously our role. And we relish in it. We don't take it for granted. For we know that jazz will be around long after the 'Uncle' Charlies are long gone. WHPK-FM's jazz programming was here long before the HPJS arrived. And the HPJS could take an even closer look at their leadership. With the 'Uncle' Charlie's of the world it is little wonder that anything can get done - especially in the jazz world. Right now his inability to communicate with people makes a mockery of the entire organization and its aims. And we at WHPK jazz will certainly take another look at our  relationship with the Hyde Park Jazz Society. It's high time somebody looked in the mirror.


Lofton A. Emenari, III is a journalist/broadcaster having written for various publications such as Downbeat, Candence, The Chiago Citizen and many more. He hosts a jazz program on WHPK-FM since 1976 and serves as the station's Jazz Format Chief. He can be reached at