The weekend of October 27 and 28 was powerfully magical through the vocalists and musicians on stage at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham, North Carolina in “Moonchild: Celebrating the Life & Music of Yusuf Salim.” That a natural mystic was in the air those evenings is without a doubt. It was a jazz smorgasbord double concert tribute to Brother Yusuf Salim as called by many, a man who through his sheer humanity and mastery of music, impacted and empowered communities and individuals. So impressive is his collection of musical compositions and engagements with singers that a big band and vocal visitation of his legacy was most appropriate over two days. Aren’t we lucky?! That “we” includes jazz lovers, presenters, musicians, composers, scholars, collectors, radio hosts, and teachers that make Durham the center of the jazz universe in North Carolina.

Nnenna Freelon with Chip Crawford, Rachiim Ausar-Sahu and Jeremy Bean Clemons

A tremendous wealth of stories was told through the memories of the stellar performers on both nights. Friday, October 27 was an evening of big band all-stars playing arrangements of Salim’s compositions. They backed elegant Grammy-nominated Nnenna Freelon who brought the audience close to the spirit of Brother Yusuf with a composition of her own. It lovingly honored him through the many standards he performed and taught her. This amazing lyrical invention listed titles such as “Polka Dots and Moonbeams,” “Wild is the Wind,” and “Softly as a Morning’s Sunrise” among so many others in what Freelon called “A Brother (Just Like You).”

The all-star big band consisted of North Carolina Central University jazz program stalwarts reflecting the dynamic sustainability of this musical tradition, especially in Durham through Brother Yusuf’s free-spirited engagement of the students regularly over three decades. It included former director of the program Dr. Ira Wiggins on saxophone, present director Robert Trowers on trombone, and Jeremy “Bean” Clemons on drums who at one time played with Salim for a while. Other graduates of the Masters program Shaena Ryan-Martin, Dexter Moses, and Colin Williams on saxophone added their expertise to the evening. A signature team of trumpeters – Al Strong, Jonovan Cooper, and Lynn Grisset – held it down, right brightly.

Gary Bartz with Dr. Ira Wiggins and Collin Williams

The band was joined in a homecoming presence by piano player Chip Crawford who added so many exquisite touches to the evening. Those touches exemplified the relationship and influence Brother Yusuf had on him. But also, many were excited to see and hear another special guest for the evening, NEA Jazz Master Gary Bartz on alto saxophone. He opened with the first piece he ever played and learned from Brother Yusuf, “I’ll Remember April.” This jazz standard has been recorded by many including Dexter Gordon, Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Clifford Brown, Sonny Stitt, Shirley Bassey, and Billy Taylor. Bartz has given us so many jewels, like the especially important and praised 1973 “I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies” with lyrics by African America’s poet laureate Langston Hughes. Bartz and Brother Yusuf are both out of Baltimore, Maryland, and he evoked his mentor and friend in a seeming remembrance of their times together through his solo on this tune.

The musicians were inspired and played at top shelf exquisiteness. Saxophonist and composer Moses, a recent star graduate of the jazz studies program, arranged the hell out of Salim’s “Low Brown” which featured a deep swirling solo on sax by Ryan-Martin. Crawford kept things sweet and pretty in the Rachiim Ausar-Sahu arranged and dramatically directed “Gift of Allah.” Strangely absent was an arrangement and performance by the big band of “Moonchild” which the concert evenings were named after; it was a dropped ball, but that did not stop the show.

Eve Cornelious with Dr. Ira Wiggins, Collin Williams and Dexter Moses

Eve Cornelious brought her internationally renowned, always exciting style and tales to stir up the evening in a dazzling red and black gown. She spoke of how it was Yusuf Salim who brought her into Durham’s Black society. She gave shoutouts to many including Jim Lee who was instrumental in starting the jazz station WVSP 90.9FM up in Warrenton in 1976. Salim’s “My In-Laws are Outlaws” has that title that raises all kinds of questions, and once Cornelious got into it she delivered all the answers. She practically lived in this song that was part of a staged musical playlist of his compositions, “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” that Salim wrote and she performed with him on several occasions.

Many of the arrangements were done by students of Dr. Brian Horton, who was an undergraduate in the program in the 90s, played with Yusuf then, and was tapped by Wiggins to follow him as director. Dr. Horton’s passage in 2022, after five months serving as the jazz program director, forestalled this concert extravaganza for a year as he was to do many of the arrangements. Many of these graduates who studied under his tutelage stepped up to the plate to knock home run after home run.

A prime example of that excellence and prowess was heard in sax player/composer Shaquim Muldrow‘s arrangement of “Al Humdulillah,” an Arabic phrase that means “praise be to God.” Blessings of lessons in blues, soul, and community togetherness spilled forth from the bandstand as it was played. It was the theme song of “Yusuf and Friends,” a WUNC-TV (PBS) broadcasted series on jazz music he hosted. Everyone in the house joined in keeping time with hand claps led by the band.

The second night exemplified that we are in the age of the jazz vocalist – Samara Joy (Samara Joy, Linger Awhile, and Linger Awhile Longer), Jazzmeia Horn (Dear Love and Love and Liberation), and locally, of course, the director of the music department at NCCU Lenora Zenzalai Helm (For the Love of Big Band and Journeywoman). Brother Yusuf had impacted many a musician, but he especially embraced the developing songstress. Five of these phenomenal jazz divas of Durham graced the stage to extoll Yusuf and his major impact.

The musicians got the evening warmed up with one of North Carolina’s own, Thelonious Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning” with solos taken first by present director of the NCCU jazz studies program trombonist Trowers. He was followed in super-charged solos by Ryan-Martin on alto sax, Strong on trumpet, and Clemons on drums. Then it got hotter quicker than roasted eggplant.

Cornelious put a bling dazzle on Salim’s “Big City” with her vampin’ on Curtis Mayfield’s “Pusher Man” with her “I’m Your Pusher Girl” pushing nothin’ but love, shifting mid-song to a scatted Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and back to “Big City” to mark the travails of the Great Migration of Black folks to the North. She then blues walked and talked into “My In-Laws are Outlaws” with that mean rhythm section of Crawford on piano, Rachiim Ausar-Sahu on bass, and “Bean” on drums to her heart-fetching starts and stops.

Chip Crawford with Rachiim Ausar-Sahu

Adia Ledbetter, another product of the Master of Jazz Studies Program at NCCU and daughter of bassist Freeman Ledbetter who played with Salim, turns “These Foolish Things (Reminds Me of You)” into a personal tribute to him. He became a family fixture that she got to know so very well. Thus, she added insight and adjustment to the lyric, “The master you were destined to be/You knew about everything/These foolish things remind me of you.”

Frankie Alexander told the story of meeting Salim at the Salaam Cultural Center that he ran with special workshop sessions for vocalists and musicians. Hers was an outpouring of beautiful remembrances with “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” a playful “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” and the Bus Brown-written “Your Life Seems.” She revealed that Brother Yusef’s gift to her was to bring Brown, a legendary Baltimore vocalist who he recorded with, to Durham.

5 Jazz Divas of Durham – Nnenna Freelon, Lois DeLoatch, Frankie Alexander, Eve Cornelious and Adia Ledbetter with Chip Crawford, Rachiim Ausar-Sahu and Jeremy Bean Clemons

Lois Deloatch, who just recently presented her Love Always CD at Missy Lane’s Assembly Room in Durham, has that distinctive contralto voice that delivered so much passion on the jazz standards “Teardrops on My Letter” and “Good Morning Heartache.” Pianist Crawford dropped those teardrops in his solo on the first song. She had Strong and Crawford telling stories of deep hurt on their solos in the later song as she sang like she really meant it, bringing it way up and out of a distant experience.

Freelon pointed out that “there would be no Nnenna Freelon without Brother Yusuf” after boppin’ to Crawford’s accompaniment on Yusuf’s “My Man.” She closed with the recently scripted tremendous tribute she sang on Friday night, “A Brother (Just Like You).”

All five vocalists sang on a rousing close with “Route 66” and the Oscar Brown Jr. lyrics to “All Blues.” What a night! What a double dose of grand celebration and visitation of the embracive and creative spirit of Brother Yusuf Salim!

This would not have happened if not for the project of filmmaker Kenny Dalsheimer, Moonchild: The Life and Music of Yusuf Salim, an untold story of jazz, Black history, and the power of music. There is a whole lot of story to tell. The film is scheduled to be released this year.

The program was presented by Duke Arts, but more importantly as part of the Building Bridges Initiative at Duke University. It was funded, in part, by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art and the National Endowment for the Arts. It was co-sponsored by the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Duke Middle East Studies Center.

Duke Arts has several jazz shows forthcoming. Crawford can be caught again performing as accompanist in “An Evening with Gregory Porter” at DPAC Thursday, February 22. Freelon can be experienced again with the John Brown Big Band Friday, April 19.

You can catch everyone else locally, except Cornelious. You can catch her globally! Cheers for Brother Yusuf Salim making his presence here in North Carolina. There’s much more music of his to be explored in the archive. Why not do it again. We could use an additional jazz festival.

See our calendar for upcoming details of the Duke Arts Series.

Photo credits: Darrell Stover