The legend of Yahya Abdul-Majid

Yahya Abdul-Majid was a musician with an intense air of mystery about him. I had often heard stories of his influence around the scene in D.C., especially from those interested in more adventurous approaches to jazz. From what I could gather, Yahya was a saxophonist who represented a meeting between the mysticisms of Trane and Sun Ra. Later I would learn just how close that association could be. 

In so many ways, as a Philadelphia native, Yahya is part of that city’s powerful tenor sax legacy, which includes John Coltrane and many others. His later associations with Rashied Ali, the drummer on Trane’s final recordings, seemed to present an omen of the continuation of Coltrane’s spirit through Yahya. His orbit would eventually connect with Sun Ra’s while the bandleader was alive, as Yahya officially joined the Arkestra for the final years of Ra’s life. That connection would continue after Ra’s death.

Although he was never known prominently as a bandleader, and he was unjustly under-recorded, Yahya — who died in August — deserves a unique place in the history of the tenor saxophone by virtue of his musical associations and his own powerful experiences.

“He should be known right alongside all the great tenor players — Frank Lowe, Frank Wright. Yahya was right there with all of them,” said bassist William Parker, a seminal musician and organizer during this period himself. In the 1970s and ’80s, Yahya lived off and on in D.C. and came to be associated with the powerful artistic developments taking place here. “When Yahya came on the scene, there was already a Yahya in New York — he was a tall alto player,” Parker said. “So we had to differentiate between the Yahyas. We called him D.C. Yahya.”

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YahYa Abdul-Majid became a kind of mythical figure among certain jazz musicians, especially in D.C. Courtesy Vince Brown

Saxophonist Aaron Martin first met Yahya in D.C. in the ’70s, when they were performing at the famous Kilimanjaro club in Adams Morgan with Rashid King and the Sounds of Africa.

“Nobody else played like him,” Martin remembered. “Everybody tried to play like him.” Playing alongside him in King’s horn section, it became clear to Aaron that Yahya had a special approach and a special sound. “You know who came to one of our rehearsals?” Aaron said. “[Babtunde] Olatunji,” the Nigerian percussionist, who had played with Trane on the saxophonist’s last recording.

“We had rehearsal one night,” Aaron recalled. “And we were getting ready to leave, right? Yahya was the last cat there and he was on the stage by himself; he didn’t even know we were in the building. Yahya got on the stage and started playing, with one light on. We were standing way in the back listening to him. He sounded just like Trane, by himself. It was incredible.”

Before meeting Yahya, I would often hear stories about those times in D.C. and how he was a mystic representation of other approaches to the music. Mostly I would hear about the ways in which he would seem to just appear. As musician Charles Woods recalled, “Yahya would come and sit in. He was sort of a mystic traveler. He was playing with Sun Ra at the time and he would come and interact with the community for a little while and then he would be off.”

The thing that I heard most often referenced was the respect that Yahya would command as a musician. Though his approach was what some may have considered at the time to be “out,” he was devoted to the jazz tradition and to the saxophone as an instrument. He would interact with the fertile D.C. Jazz community throughout his travels, frequenting jam sessions and making immediate impressions with his singular tenor sound. 

“We all wanted to sound like him, a lot of us horn players [in D.C.],” Aaron said. “He really didn’t get the respect he deserved. A lot of cats around here used to say that he wasn’t a straight-ahead player. And he wasn’t. He would get run out of the One Step Down.” They also said that he sounded like Trane; through his experience in the Music, Yahya is indeed one of the inheritors of the Trane sound.

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I discovered Yahya Abdul-Majid through research on Sun Ra, as well as being a musical mentee of Mr. Martin. I came to hear Yahya’s name mentioned in passing often amongst some in the D.C. Jazz community, always with deep reverence and respect. His reach was also felt in the music communities of Philadelphia and New York City, where he spent formative years participating in the fabled “Loft Scene” of the 1970s.

Yahya cut his teeth alongside musicians like Rashied Ali, who would host concerts with the other progenitors of the hard Avant Garde sound that was being created in the city at that time. It is here where Yahya found the beginnings of his musical family, performing often with figures such as Ali, James “Blood” Ulmer and Denis Charles. 

William Parker recalled, “We had the Shuttle Theater, between 1981 and 1984, and we did the Sound Unity Festival. Yahya was around, because Denis Charles was around, and they would hang together. I think he was coming up from D.C., and he was playing a lot of gigs. He played with Jackson Krall’s Secret Music Society.”

Parker continued, “What you could immediately notice about him was that he could really play the saxophone. He had very little bite on the mouthpiece, but he had a lot of airflow. He played with a very easy motion, never really jumping up and down. You could see visually that he had very good technique on the saxophone.

“We did a gig once with Rashied Ali and Donald Ayler. That was a distinctive gig because he just blew rings around Sonny Simmons and Frank Lowe. Easily! He had this thing where he was very relaxed on the horn. He didn’t have a huge sound, but it was big enough. It seemed like playing the saxophone was something that he could just do with little effort, almost like a gift thing handed down to him.”

As was common among so many in Yahya’s generation, he suffered from struggles with addiction. Like for some, it was partly the result of social ritual among certain musicians. However, he was also connected with the movement surrounding natural health. Throughout his ups and downs, he was always seemingly functional, rarely allowing his music or his spirit to be affected.

“He was also going over to Denis’s house, and we knew that if you were going over there, it’s quite possible to get caught up if you don’t have your head on straight,” Parker said. “At the same time, [however] he was checking out health food and herbs and natural medicine.”

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Somewhere along the way, in the late 1970s or early ’80s, Yahya came to D.C., where he quickly became one of the fixtures of a scene that was actually a hotbed for the Avant Garde. “I read an article somewhere in the late 1970s that D.C. was listed as the next scene for the Avant Garde/New Music,” musician Charles Woods said. It was during the peak of D.C.’s identification as “Chocolate City,” where burgeoning underground Black culture was vibrant, attracting generations of young Black musicians such as Woods.

The legendary DC Space had opened up around the same time that Yahya came to D.C., and he soon became acquainted with the venue’s co-founder and programmer, Bill Warrell. Yahya was part of the band Tiny Desk Unit, known for featuring the NPR personality Bob Boilen, a band that was fully steeped in the No Wave movement of the day, “a freewheeling outfit adept at the Avant Garde and the Talking Heads,” recalled Warrell.

“I remember his sound, and being deeply drawn to it,” Warrell said. “It was very reminiscent of a young Pharoah [Sanders]. An amazing tone. It was distinctive, and distinctively him.”

DC Space was a venue that was the itinerant home for underground music in the District, where early punk bands would be mashed up against free improvised music, burlesque shows and virtually anything that was interesting and outside of the mainstream. Warrell would often bring in the Avant Garde heroes of the day, and Yahya was often in the mix. His collaborations ranged from saxophonist Byard Lancaster, to the iconic trumpeter Don Cherry; Yahya’s presence was always felt as his infectious sound made deep impressions on the music.

***

It is unclear exactly when or where Yahya first met Sun Ra — whether in Philadelphia or in D.C., possibly at DC Space. However, Ra would come to have a huge impact on the trajectory of his music and focus. He went through the famous boot camp at the Sun Ra house in Philly, where he was given rigorous training as a horn player with eight-hour-long sessions alongside Marshall Allen.

“The first time he came around, Sun Ra was living,” Allen said. Then he came back around ‘93 and joined the band. When we did the live concert on top of the International House, he was in that [the film Joyful Noise]. When he came back after Sun Ra died, I was happy because I was the only one left. He was living here [in the Philly Ra house] with me all that time. He played mainly tenor. I needed a tenor player after John Gilmore had died, so [Yahya] took his place. Then he was with me then from ‘97 on up to this, 2019.” 

Throughout this later period of the Sun Ra Arkestra, under the direction of Marshall Allen, Yahya was a central member. He appeared on some live recordings and traveled the world with the band on its extensive tour schedule. I can recall the love and reverence Yahya always exuded for Marshall, as his elder in music and on the saxophone. Yahya, Marshall and Sun Ra were not unlike any other musicians with love for one another. They were cosmically focused, yet very much submissive to the earthly emotions that come with close musical brotherhood. 

“Yahya was my friend. He was here for years, and he’s part of our family. Everybody knows him around here. We really miss him,” recalls Allen.

As much as he was deeply musical, Yahya was a devout Muslim. His faith added to his mystique, manifested in his many “appearances” dressed in the full Islamic garb he often wore. He was always at the ready for a Spiritual recitation, ready to sermonize to anyone who would listen. Though actively religious, his was a deeply personal approach to spirituality, which inextricably linked him with the music. 

“I met Yahya in the early 80s,” said Woods, who proudly identifies himself by his Muslim name, Rahmat Shabazz. “We met on the level of the Music and the spirit. He was a faithful believer. Over the years, we would run into each other, both being Muslim. I would see him at the mosque. He was always a devoted Muslim and held many conversation about Islam. He was involved in many prayer circles in the area. Yahya embraced the gift that he was given, and felt justified in presenting that gift to anyone that would hear. 

One of my own fondest memories with Yahya comes from a performance at the American Islamic Heritage Museum, located on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE, in Anacostia. He had put together a band consisting of myself on bass and Allen Jones on drums. Yahya delivered a beautiful speech about Islam and the music, his spirituality and the journey of a musician. The music was a series of his melodies, with a lot of freedom for the rhythm section. This was a proud moment, a time in which he was able to fully meld his lifelong passions for music and spirituality. He was leading a band of his own musical concepts, while completely free and comfortable to display his spiritual devotion. 

Among musicians in the history of Washington, D.C., Yahya Abdul-Majid holds a special place. He represents a generation of Black musicians deeply engaged in culture, seeking to glorify and connect with their roots as African people — a shining example of the spiritual-music aspect of D.C.’s Chocolate City era. Beyond that, he was part of a community that stretched across the globe, or more appropriately across the cosmos. At his most accessible, his sound was able to transcend any confines created by genre or race. Rather, he was accepted as a powerful spirit with something special to contribute wherever he went. The devotion to spirituality fueled his passion for music, and vice versa. He was a beautiful example of a complete musician who expressed his humanity through his horn. Ultimately, Yahya’s sound and spirit will be what lingers, inspiring others to seek a similar connection within themselves. 

“When they talk about the great tenor players, he shouldn’t be left out,” William Parker reiterated. “He should be mentioned, because he was something else!”

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Luke Stewart

About Luke Stewart

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Luke Stewart is a DC/NYC-based musician and organizer of important musical presentations. He also has a presence in the national and international professional music community. He was profiled in the Washington Post in early 2017 as “holding down the jazz scene,” selected as “Best Musical Omnivore” in the Washington City Paper’s 2017 “Best of DC,” chosen as “Jazz Artist of the Year” for 2017 in the District Now, and in the 2014 People Issue of the Washington City Paper as a “Jazz Revolutionary,” citing his multi-faceted cultural activities throughout DC. In DC his regular ensembles include experimental jazz trio Heart of the Ghost, Low Ways Quartet featuring guitarist Anthony Pirog, and experimental rock duo Blacks’ Myths.  As a solo artist, he has been compiling a series of improvisational sound structures for Upright Bass and Amplifier. As a scholar/performer, he has performed and lectured at Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Medgar Evers College, George Mason University, Wayne State University, University of Montana, New Mexico State University, and the University of South Carolina. He holds a BA in International Studies and a BA in Audio Production from American University, and an MA in Arts Management and Entrepreneurship from the New School. Reach Luke at luke@capitalbop.com.

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