Sunday, October 7, 2007

BE LIKE MILES-BLOW!


In 1991, I met poet Kofi Natambu at the Detroit Public Library. I set at a table in the Language and Literature department reading “Think Black” by poet Don L. Lee. Kofi kept walking by peeping over my shoulder. At another table near the librarian’s desk, two of Kofi’s students Tamara and Terrance were thumbing through a literary periodical.

Kofi struck up a conversation. We talked about Don Lee’s poetry. Back then, Lee was my favorite writer. Kofi liked “Think Black” and Lee’s second book “Black Pride,” but he felt the poet’s other books were filled with propaganda.

Kofi encouraged me to read other writers. Then he gave me a copy of a periodical he published “Solid Ground: A new World Journal,” which had poetry, fiction, and essays by nationally respected writers. Our conversation drifted from books to music.

Kofi asked if I listened to jazz. Back then, I thought Kenny G and Najee, smooth jazz instrumentalists, were the real deal. Kofi looked as if he wanted to lecture me. In stead, he introduced to Tamara and Terrence. Kofi told me they were aspiring writers.

They were more jazz savvy than me. Kofi had taught them about jazz innovators such as Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Cecil Taylor, Ornette Coleman, and John Coltrane.

I bonded immediately with Tamara. She was witty, had curly black hair, and was outspoken. Numerology and astrology fascinated her.

The three of us, hung out at Kofi’s place in the Cass Corridor. Books and jazz albums lined the walls. The furniture was second hand a loveseat, a bed, a card table, and four fold-up chairs.


Kofi played us albums by free-jazz musicians Cecil Taylor, and Ornette Coleman, which I had difficulty understanding. When he wasn’t teaching us about jazz, he talked passionately about writers such as CLR James, Nathanial West, Bob Kaufman, Ishmael Reed and Amiri Baraka.

Oddly, Kofi never talked much about his two exceptional books of poetry “The Melody Never Stops” and “Intervals,” He was always boasting about how great some other writer was.

Kofi gave me a paperback copy of “Miles” the autobiography of trumpeter Miles Davis. This is what he wrote on a blank page: To a bright young writer with a big future be like Miles, blow! He was poetic when encourage me Tamara and Terrance.

Of our trio, Terrence had the most potential, but he was insecure. He wanted to be a literary scholar. I don’t know if he achieved that goal. Suddenly, he stopped coming around. He never explained to me or Tamara why. Years later someone told me Terrence was involved in gay rights activism.

Tamara left next. She enrolled in the New School for Social Research in New York. We corresponded off and on for a year. She loved New York. She attended a lot of literary events, and had landed a job at a publishing company. I forget the name of it. She stopped writing me.

I stuck with Kofi. For awhile, our friendship was solid. I helped him move hundreds of books and jazz albums. We traveled to New York on a train, and drove his belongs back to Detroit in a U-haul truck.

On the way home, we visited the famous Apollo Theater, and dined at Sylvia’s Soul Food restaurant. Not much sightseeing but it was good to be away from home. Months, after the trip, Kofi started to change.

He became distance, moody and temperamental. I think often about the incident that broke our friendship. Writer Ishmael Reed came to Detroit.

He was the feature poet at the Detroit Festival of the Arts. He and Kofi were friends. Before the poetry reading, I had lunch with them at Bush’s Garden of Eating, a mom and pop soul food restaurant on Woodward Avenue.

After lunch, we went to Kofi’s place where he interviewed Reed. Kofi was writing a book titled “Words & Music in America: Talks with 25 African-American Writers and Musicians, 1980-1990.

Reed and Kofi set at a card table. I set on the arm of Kofi’s loveseat snapping photo with a disposable camera.

Weeks later, Kofi asked for copies of the photos, which I promised to provide. For whatever reason, I forgot the promise.

One evening, Kofi yelled at me for not giving him the photo. We argued back and forth. I slammed the telephone down. Weeks later, I saw him at the public library. He walked by me, and didn’t say a word.

We never apologized. Often I ask a mutual friend about him. Kofi is still writing and teaching. His biography of Malcolm X is one of the most thoroughly researched books I’ve read about the civil rights leader.

The mutual friend gave me Kofi’s email address. I wanted to send him copies of some of the jazz articles I’ve written. Mostly, I just wanted to thank him for introducing me to jazz music, and encouraging me to write.
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