by Luke Stewart
Early Saturday morning, the D.C. jazz community lost one of its finest and most well-respected members in Jamal Muhammad. A D.C. native and an elder statesman in the community, he was a powerful mentor to many and an inspirational presenter of jazz on WPFW, 89.3 FM (where I also work).
Jamal was commonly known as someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of jazz history. He came of age during the “golden era” of bebop in his hometown of Washington, D.C. As a young bebopper, he not only saw Charlie Parker up close in performance; he was a member of his entourage for a time during his stay in D.C. He moved to New York City in the late ’50s, following the music. He was present in the audience during some of the most fabled sessions in jazz: Thelonioius Monk with John Coltrane, the Miles Davis Sextet with Cannonball Adderley and Coltrane, even some of the loft performances that became popular in the late ’60s. He interacted with virtually every jazz great and became close to some, such as Illinois Jacquet and Barry Harris. Also while living in New York, he became involved with the Nation of Islam, while Malcolm X was still alive. He joined shortly after Malcolm’s assassination.
He went through hard times before coming back to D.C. He joined the WPFW community in the early ’80s along with some of the station’s most beloved personalities, such as Nap Turner and Rick Williams. Since then he forged a reputation as being one of the city’s top jazz historians and as a lovable jazz radio personality.
Jamal Muhammad was also an absolutely essential figure in my development in the Music. Upon our first meeting, he displayed a deep sort of wisdom reserved known only to elders who have experienced life to the fullest. By that point I was already a jazz lover and performer, having just recently begun study on jazz bass. I was aware of his reputation as a “purist,” so I ribbed him a bit with a question about Ornette Coleman. He immediately responded doubtfully, “What do you know about Ornette Coleman?” Being that Ornette was my favorite artist at the time, I knew a bit about him, at least superficially. I mentioned that he was from Fort Worth, Texas. Jamal then proceeded to school me about the five Texas Tenors, who were the forebears of the R&B tradition and indispensable elements of Ornette’s roots. Our first interaction was my first lesson.
Some months later I began volunteering at WPFW, where Jamal was the host of Evening Jazz on Tuesdays from 4 to 6 p.m. I was responsible for recording and posting his playlists. Every program was like going to the most important class of my life. He taught me the importance of having the correct perspective on the Music, and shared numerous factoids that only a person who was present with the jazz greats could know. Then he encouraged me to even come out of my comfort zone and speak on the air.
Jamal set me on the path I currently lead in life. People often toss around the term “griot” loosely, but among anyone I have ever met, no one fits that description better than Jamal. As someone who experienced life during a celebrated time in history, and who was respected in the community, he used his position to mentor countless people in the community. His tutelage continues to inspire and direct me in my life, and I will miss his knowledge and his spirit.
Below, some of his colleagues and students reflect on their time with Jamal Muhammad.
As sad as I am about the departure of my buddy Jamal, I have to say that whenever I think of him, I still smile. His mouth was full of smiles. Then after he got all the smiles out, he would have something clever and funny to say, in a street-wise brilliant way. That was really part of his affection. He was a very well educated man from the school of hard knocks. I would rank him in the pantheon of radio jazz personalities with Jerry “The Bama” Washington, Nap “Don’t Forget the Blues” Turner, of course, and Symphony Sid, guys like that. He was more than just a “radio personality,” he was a jazz personality. He didn’t play an instrument, but he was part of the firmament of the jazz community. He was part of the vibe. Whether he was running the streets with Bird, maybe he was copping goods, maybe he was just in the entourage. Whatever part of it he played, he was a part of the scene in Washington, D.C. Not Philly, not New York, but Washington, D.C. This is something you have to love — from Tim’s Hot Dog stand on 7th and T to Turner’s Arena, he was just a very beloved and lovable character. So that’s why when I think of Jamal, even though I’m sad that he’s gone, I still have a smile.
My friend, my mentor, the reason I’m at WPFW. My teacher, my counselor, he was so much to me. He was my mentor in the Music, which he affectionately called jazz. Which I already had a love for, but he really did just cultivate it and bring a whole lot of things out of me, and I have him to thank immensely for that. I’m eternally grateful for Jamal. For putting up with me. For saying, “You don’t know nothing about this music,” but then turning around and asking me to sit in for his show. After that he said, “That’s the last time I ask you to sit it on my show.” I just kind of smiled inside. That meant a whole lot to me. I really do appreciate all the time and the energy. All the times that we just sat around and talked about music and looked at his records and pictures, and he constantly told me stories about how he would run around D.C. and New York with the jazz greats. All I can do now is just say thank you. Thank you so much, and I’ll try my best to uphold your legacy.
This is something I put together upon hearing about one of my friends and mentors returning to ancestry.
Jamal Muhammad was a true testimony to passion and perseverance. He came up through struggles but he had guts and survival instincts that allowed him to rise above those obstacles. His love for the music showed him a way back to something good, worthwhile, and fulfilling. Jamal was a true story-teller. A jazz griot. Sometimes his stories were just as captivating as the music he so passionately presented on his radio show. Like many memorable figures, Jamal was controversial as well. He did not always agree with everyone and would be quick to speak his mind. But he was upbeat and always ready to tell a story. It’s those qualities that keep the music playing, and conversations going.
On a personal note, Jamal and I first met at the East Coast Jazz Festival just after a performance that I had. Sometime after our meeting for the first time, he pointed me in the right direction by introducing me to some people in the business who truly have been godsends and plain-old-good people. He was always honest with me about how he felt when my music was coming along. My first CD he was supportive of, but told me that I honestly needed work, and I did. The second one he said was more on par with what I needed, and that it was a marked improvement from my first recording. Finally, the latest recording I shared with him which has not yet been released, he said “You hit it on this one. I’ll tell you straight. I don’t know if you’ll ever out do this one. I’ve listened to every track and they sound great.” Coming from Jamal, that is no small accomplishment because believe me, he did not give out compliments easily.
I think for Jamal to really back me, he had to get a thumbs up from his lovely wife Phyllis, and then he had to put me through my paces to see the kind of cat I was.
I remember he invited me and my folks to his birthday party at an undisclosed location a few years back. We followed him out there one summer afternoon. It was his birthday, but it felt like an unofficial initiation, or pledge event, so to speak. Interestingly enough, he found out that there was more to us than what met the eye. We got to meet some of his family and his friends. We got talking about everything under the sun, and of course we talked about jazz. After that meeting, I knew Jamal and I were alright.
Jamal paid it forward, but he did it on his terms and in his time. That’s his legacy and I’m thankful that our paths crossed. I know he’s at the helm of the radio show in the sky, and that eternal jam session swinging in the audience with the band just “kicking the bobo” as he used to say. Jamal, you will be missed, but never forgotten my friend. My mother, my pops, and I, will always appreciate your friendship, and your work. Peace and blessing to you, rest well.
I first met Jamal Muhammad on a gig I was doing with another WPFW programmer, Nap Turner, many many years ago. It was the middle to late 80s. Jamal was there and he was taking pictures. I didn’t know of him before then. He came up as a very genuine friendly person that seemed to know a little bit more about what I was doing on the drums than the average listener. That day I remember that it was Nap Turner’s gig, and Marsha Frazier I believe who is from Houston, Tex. was playing piano, and Carter Jefferson, the great tenor saxophonist who played with Art Blakey and Elvin Jones and Woody Shaw and others was on the gig too. From that moment, Jamal and I sort of clicked, and we would talk on the phone about the Music. And his experiences versus my experiences because Jamal was no more than 15 years older than me I think. So he sort of would fill in the blanks for me, because I was born in the late 40s and came up in the 50s hearing the music. But in the 50s he was a teenager. So he was able to give me that perspective.
Over the years, I have watched him grow as a historian. And I’ve watched him help to develop young people’s attitude toward this great music of ours, through providing information to them and providing streams where they could access that information. Some of those young people were musicians as well. One of them was my son Kush. I remember when Kush was 13, and Jamal was heading up a series at the Lincoln Theater, I told him that my son Kush was playing drums and that he played very well. He said “well, I’ll take your word on that, because I want to put him on the program with the big band that I’m asking you to play with”. So he put him on the program with his own band at 13 years old, and at the sound check, he heard Kush play and said “I took your word for it, and you were certainly right.” And from that point on, in terms of Kush’s development as a player and a bandleader, Jamal gave him many opportunities from then on. And he gave me many opportunities as well.
I remember Jamal wasn’t always a fan of the music I chose to play because the music I like to play tends to be a little bit more edgy and a lot more modern than the bebop that he liked to play over the air. So he would come to my gigs, and I would always play something especially for him that I knew that he could relate to. There was one occasion that I did a concert at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in 2009, and I wanted to make sure he got to the theater because I was going to surprise him with an award commemorating his undying community service, provided through the airwaves of WPFW, and he was completely caught off guard. I always want to be about giving people their flowers while they are here. So that was a small thing that I could do that would give Jamal Muhammad the idea that I thought that big of him, even bigger. I’m going to miss Jamal, my friend.
Funeral services for Jamal Muhammad will take place at 9 am today at:
1519 4th Street NW
Washington, D.C. 20001