Seeing (the) Taj Mahal Again
I expect to be jellin’ and pickin’ between his sets with old friend and fellow Ash Grove music teacher, Taj Mahal, when he comes to the Rochester Jazz Festival this June.
Taj and I go back almost 45 years. We both taught guitar, and in Taj’s case, mouth harp, at LA’s premier roots-music club, the Ash Grove, while trying to start our careers. For Taj this meant developing his one man blues/songster act and then co-founding and leading, with Ry Cooder, the Rising Sons. This was a band that had every right to expect success, but came a cropper nonetheless. Never knew why for sure, but had suspicions it might have had something to do with…well, see my post of Nov. 15, 2008.
Taj was the first performing African-American I met who recognized blues, jazz, calypso, R&B and African music as expressions of Black culture worth nurturing by the musical establishment (e.g., academia), as well as being able to play convincingly in several of those genres himself. He is as much responsible for bringing the artists in the Blues 67 poster (pictured here) to popular attention as anyone, except for Ed Pearl, the owner of the Ash Grove. He’s also the first Black person among my contemporaries, that I knew of, to play the banjo.
That said, let me try to reconstruct a couple moments I had with Taj, one-on-one and/or shared with others. Remember, these aren’t earth-shaking, watershed events, just little personal snapshots showing up in my memory like old photos you accidentally find when you’re looking for something else.
I remember one time when he was having a problem with a small growth on his cheek that was threatening to become The Monster That Ate Taj’s Face. This was during the time he seemed to be living at the Ash Grove while he found a place of his own. That would make it ca. 1964 or ’65.
Anyway, he kept worrying this sore bump like many of us did/do with stubborn zits. Finally, as I watched it get worse day after day ‘til it started to infect, I offered to take him to a dermatologist I knew to check it out. We went to a guy that had once helped me with a stubborn rectal itch that had been driving me crazy for years. (No, smartasses, it wasn’t psychological; it was a fungus).
The doc diagnosed Taj’s angry eruption as an ingrown hair, not uncommon, he told us, in certain African-American complexion-types. He gave Taj some lotion for it and in a day or two Taj was his old, handsome self.
SOME INFLUENCES ON TAJ MAHAL AND NAMES HE HELPED POPULARIZE
That recommendation gave me some hefty credibility with him a few years later when he was having voice problems. By no coincidence (remember, I am a Jew; doctors R us) my godfather, Henry Rubin, was a renowned ENT specialist, with many singers and actors as patients. I got on the horn to “Uncle Henry,” as my family called him, told him about Taj and started what I think was an important relationship between the two men. Like many pros, Taj has had to be very careful with his voice.
This would have been long after the morning I was rehearsing some songs with Dave Cohen in the Ash Grove’s darkened main gallery. Dave had left to go to the bathroom or something, and suddenly a pile of something on the stage stirred and shifted, then humped up and rose several feet in the air, right next to my head. I jumped a mile.
And it lasted more than a second, too. The pile (costumes? a fallen stage curtain? I frantically prayed) didn’t i.d. itself for a long, long minute. How long? None of your fuckin’ business. Let’s just say I felt like a real wuss when it turned out to be just Taj waking up. He’d been sleeping on the Ash Grove’s stage for a few nites while he got his act together, and I’d forgotten about it.
There’s another memory I have, a weird and strangely telling one, of a heckling campaign a local folkie, mandolin player Herb Steiner, leveled at Taj for a while. It was ostensibly about Herbie’s feelings that Affirmative Action was a joke, but really it was about him trying to convince himself and others that he was an authentic Bluegrass musician by mock-insulting Blacks and trying to get a reaction from Taj.
For sure, it was pretend-vicious game, and was sometimes pretty entertaining; Taj could be a good foil for Cowboy Herb. But I was always suspicious of Herb. He was pretty fat, had a Groucho Marx nose and wore Groucho glasses. He was very funny, in a George Costanza-with-ukulele way, but often viciously so. He once turned my amplifier off on stage during a set with cowboy singer Doye O’Dell, because he, Herb, didn’t like what I was playing.
Anyway, one time—and there’s nothing momentous about this, I promise; no zinger or anything, just something that I remember for no good reason—during a bull session with several of us in the dressing room at the Ash Grove, Herb unleashed this little gem: “T-T-Taj,” he said (Herb was a stammerer), “have you ev-ev-ever smelled a Negroe’s a-a-armpit?”
The room was filled with stagey “Ooohs” and “Uh-ohs,” probably to mask the general feeling in the room that this time Herb had gone a little too far. I watched Taj begin physically to draw back into what looked like a defensive, even angry, posture, then start chuckling in spite of himself. I guess, in the moment, Taj was willing to give the court jester his due, because the jester was funny, and there was no denying it.
And, as I said, I can’t tell you why I remember the incident, but I know I decided something about Taj at that moment: he had his eyes on the prize, and deep down the mock insult wasn’t worth a gnat’s ass compared to that
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This new site, www.ashgrovemusic.com, is where you can finally get recorded concerts from LA’s famous Ash Grove during its heyday in the 1960’s and ’70’s. The Ash Grove is the club I’ve talked about so much, where legendary folk and roots music performers influenced the “kids” who heard and learned from them. Listen to Lightnin’ Hopkins, Doc Watson, Bill Monroe and Odetta, the same legends that Ry Cooder, Bonny Raitt, Taj Mahal, and Clarence White listened to. Then go out and kick some ass with your new chops.
See my next post for a FIRST HAND (I was there for many of these concerts) appraisal of the ashgrovemusic.com releases, which I thought would never see the light of day.