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It would be easy to pigeonhole bassist Hakim Jami as just an avant-garde musician. For starters, the man played tuba and the bass with Sun Ra's arkestra. He's on a number of classic jazz albums, such as trumpeter Don Cherry's Brown Rice and saxophonist Archie Shepp's Attica Blues. He wrote the anti-war anthem "Vietcong," which saxophonist Gary Bartz and vocalist Andy Bey immortalized. And he's cut some great things as a leader as well.
But when you talk to the 66-year-old former Detroiter, he wants you to know that he's well-rounded and well-traveled.
"I played with Sugar Chile Robinson. I grew up with Smokey and Aretha, and all of them. I play the blues. I played with Big Mama Thornton, Pigmeat Markham, Barry Harris and Duke Jordan. I don't characterize myself as anything other than a musician. I'm on reggae albums. I'm on gospel albums. If you want me to play Jewish music I will play that as long as you can pay me what I want to be paid," says Jami.
In the '70s, Jami was a part of the New York loft jazz movement. "The loft era was when avant-garde musicians said fuck you, we will do it ourselves," Jami recalls.
At 66, Jami is very outspoken, and he has the disposition of a man who isn't afraid to rock the boat. He gives the impression that he has been as tough as nails his entire life.
He grew up on the west side of Detroit. He started on drums but quit them after a confrontation with the music department of Cass Technical High School in the early '50s, where he was a music student.
"I knew all the basic rudiments, and I could read music. When I got to Cass, they put me in the junior band, and the white boys ... they put them in the concert band. I did a little questioning and researching and found out that there had never been a black drummer in Cass Tech's concert band, or in the orchestra. So I refused to play drums at Cass."
Jami dropped out in 1958, enlisted in Navy, and got stationed in Boston. He started playing the bass in the Navy band. Discharged in '61, he stayed in Boston and joined the Brothers, a local jazz band. Jami planned to move to New York, but he got busted for drug possession, and he couldn't obtain a cabaret card then essential for playing NYC clubs.
Jami made the best of his time in Boston. In '67 he opened an after-hours club called the Common Ground "because they told me I couldn't do it. They said that blacks couldn't have an after-hours club in Boston. I had my club two blocks from police headquarters, and I didn't open until midnight. And I played jazz, and it was all kind of people in there: rich people from Beacon Hill to the whores off the street. And I ran the club until I got ready to leave for New York."
Two years later, Jami moved to New York. Work was scarce. To make ends meet, Jami built a portable wooden stage to perform on in Central Park.
Jami opened a club in the East Village called the Ladies Fort near jazz lofts operated by other avant-garde musicians, such as drummer Rashied Ali and saxophonist Sam Rivers. Jami ran the loft for three years before he and the others were forced out. Then Jami opened a short-lived club in Manhattan.
He went on the road, touring Europe and South America with Sun Ra and saxophonist Archie Shepp. In the '80s, he returned to Detroit, and he was taken aback by the lack of respect given to local jazz musicians.
"When I came back to Detroit I was shocked at what the musicians were being paid. A cat got mad at me because he asked me to work in a club with him for the same pay that I was making in 1964. He got mad at me because I wouldn't work at that price. Cats wanted a gig so bad that they accepted anything that anybody offered them," Jami recalls.
A club owner once turned on the jukebox in the middle of Jami's set because the owner disliked the music that the bass man was playing.
Jami did secure a handful of choice gigs, playing regularly with alto saxophonist Phil Lasley, and performing at tenor saxophonist Donald Walden's jazz spot the World Stage. Jami started the Street Band, which became a popular attraction on weekends in Detroit's Eastern Market district. To earn a living, however, he had to work outside Detroit.
"In Detroit they seem to think that musicians are not supposed to make money. I was always at odds with the way things were going. If the musicians and club owners have a personality problem with you here they turn on you, whereas in New York the people aren't concerned with all that. They just want to know if you can play the music. But here they would rather have somebody that doesn't rock the boat."
He's released three high-octane CDs in recent years on his own (aptly named) Reparations label, two volumes with the Street Band and a incendiary set with the Revelation Ensemble, featuring James "Blood" Ulmer. The Ulmer date, Revealing, in particular, stands out for screamin', shoutin' and testifyin' that holds nothing back. But never connecting with the gigs or the audience he needed, he left Detroit for good last year, following the death of his wife, Yasmin.
Jami lives now in New York where the opportunities to play are plentiful. He works a few nights a week in the all-tuba horn section of Howard Johnson's band Gravity. Jami is also writing music for separate studio dates with Rashied Ali and Ulmer, guys with whom he shares avant roots going back to the '60s. And he's coming back to Detroit to play Friday with saxophonist Noah Howard and drummer Bobby Kapp, who likewise go back to those days.
In New York he's also reunited with his longtime running buddy and fellow Detroiter saxophonist Salim Washington. Jami is a member of Washington's orchestra, the Harlem Ensemble, and will play Saturday with Washington, pianist Pam Wise and drummer Sean Dobbins.
In other words, Hakim Jami is still rockin' the boat.
Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.