"Named in honor of a revolutionary Black woman from St. Croix, Charles along with his brother Huss Charles on conga, a sturdy and outstanding Wilber Morris on hass, and a stalwartly strong hut woefully under-recorded Booker T. on tenor sax offer up a program which manages to emphasize solos without at the same time de-emphasizing the compositions. The balance is extraordinary and the music invigorating, especially because its rhythmic appeal is so strong that one quickly drops any prejudices that one has about the lack of swing in avant-garde jazz."
Kalamu ya Salaam, Wavelength, October 1991
Caught up in the mob was Dennis Charles' grandfather. "Are you on our side of Ironside?" went the battlecry - 'Iron-side' was Denmark – and the wrong response spelt death. It was an uncertain situation for a 12 year-old, and when the rum-drinking rebels sent him for limes, he took the opportunity to disappear.
Dennis Charles had this story from his father on a recent trip to St Croix, his first visit to his birthplace in 28 years. But the music, the song that grew up around the Queen Mary story was something he had carried with him since childhood. Like the other pieces here, he first heard it over fifty years ago. "In all the years that went by, I would rearrange these tunes in my head. I started hearing them as jazz."
Dennis Charles, disciple of Buhaina (Art Blakey) and Cecil (Taylor), percussionist veteran of the New Music's earliest wave, has never turned his back on his Caribbean childhood. Even working with pianist Taylor in the 1950s, he was doubling up in calypso bands and playing West Indian cocktail ships. For years he has talked of the music he heard while living in St Croix: the Christmas and New Year Masquerade (Carnival), the bamboula drum dances, the Wild Indians with painted faces, ("incredible dancers"), the story of David and Goliath played out in the streets. There were the Mother Hubbards, too, a hundred-strong contingent of women dressed entirely in white, who would take over the streets of Frederiksted, the capital, with their unique style of singing and dancing.
Charles had carried the idea of recording some of the music for a long time as well. A New Yorker since the age of 11, he first returned to St Croix in 1960 with his younger brother Frank, ('Huss'), also a percussionist. They caught the end of an era when the quadrille was still danced, accompanying their father to a ballroom called Come-along Castle where an elderly audience danced to the sounds of earlier times. With a metal flute to carry the melody and a squash scraped rhythmically in time, Charles père laid down the chords on his banjo. Another man maintained a cymbal-like beat on a triangle or 'steel', (so-called because generally made by a blacksmith), the bass being provided by an instrument unique to the region. Its exponent, a man Charles describes as a 'genius', was Joseph 'Paddy' Moore who blew, juglike, on an exhaust-pipe.
When a group of elderly women were persuaded on to the dance floor, Charles witnessed the life-renewing power of the music. "Really, it brought back their childhood. They would pull their dresses up when they'd play these quadrilles, and they were screaming and having a hall. Their age went out the window!"
He remembers turning to his brother. "I said: now wouldn't this be a bitch if you had a rhythm like this – no jazz drumming – and a saxophone like Sonny Rollins soloing?" It was the first time he had considered the possibility of translating the music into a modern setting.
Back in New York, he sought out Rollins, enthused. The latter's pianoless Freedom Suite had not long been released, and the rhythmic possibilities of a similar group suggested themselves. He knocked on Rollins' door and introduced himself, and before long, the Charles brothers were coaching Rollins in the rhythms of their childhood. But the record-date that ensued was fraught with A&R interference and the specificity of the rhythms disappeared.
Over the years, Charles taught other musicians his tunes, Don Cherry, Dewey Redman and tenorist Jim Pepper among them. David Murray recorded his Maypole Dance, a hangover from the period when the islands were under British rule. (This song was called West Indian Folk Song on the recording in question in point of fact, DIW-809, a compact disc featuring Murray in 1983 as a member of Wilber Morris' Wilber Force.) However, it was not until the present date that an opportunity arose to fully explore Charles' material.
Growing up 'like nature boy' in St Croix, swimming and fishing to catch his own breakfast each day, Charles heard his first music from his father who also told stories by candlelight. Bass Space, done here as a light, airy dance with Wilber Morris playing a prominent role, is typical of one of these tales.
The original, which has Danish lyrics, (both his parents spoke the language), tells of the Devil appearing in human form with a flute. "In the meadow in the afternoon, the young kids would be watching the goats and sheep, the Devil sitting under a tree with a big burlap bag behind him. He'd play this tune for the young shepherds and call the kids closer. They'd come closer and closer. And he'd snatch 'em, put them in his burlap bag."
In addition to banjo and conga drum, the elder Charles played ukelele, tuning the string to four sung notes; 'I-Don't-Drink-Rum'. When Dennis acquired his first drumset, he remembered this method. Noted for his impeccably tuned instruments, he explained how he tuned his tom-toms in order to play 'Bom-bombom-bash!' in imitation of his father's procedure. Hearing these four notes as a major chord, he is able to play 'here comes the bride' on tom-toms and snare, (squeezing the floor tom with his left hand for the flattened third note). As a 'frustrated trombone player', (he studied the instrument for seven years), the drums must be in tune. "I hear the drums as notes, so I have all these notes to play with. I take time to tune them because if they're not right I can't play what I want to play."
Raised in a Catholic convent run by Belgian nuns where the Mother Superior played piano, Charles was exposed to European music at an early age. He was something of a child-star, too, enlisted into St Croix' foremost band, the Rhythmakers, as a 7 year-old bongo player when caught sitting-in at rehearsal. In no time at all he had his own band uniform and was playing with them throughout the island until a fatal road accident altered his father's laissez faire attitude. "No more bongo, wongo fo yuh ass!" he told him, a saying which was to follow him all his life. To his amazement, he was greeted with those words on visiting the island almost 50 years on.
In 1945 he went to New York to join his mother who had left St Croix when he was three. The rough urban environment came as a shock. Harlemites were hostile to youths they perceived as 'countryfied' and Dennis and Huss were forced to take desperate measures for self-protection. But the city had its compensations: Charlie Parker at the Apollo and an older brother who took Dennis dancing at afternoon sessions featuring Fats Navarro, Stan Getz and J.J. Johnson. School was a block from Minton's Playhouse, and it was there, on the marquee, that he first saw the names of Thelonious Monk and Art Blakey.
But it was Roy Haynes who awakened the dormant drummer. "I was a drum freak, listening to everyone, but Roy, on Bud Powell's Wail! was playing something different. He had the slickest shit I ever heard. He gave me an inkling of playing double-time licks with the left hand. Horn players do it, but most drummers play on the beat. Roy Haynes, though, he doubled up. He gave me the germ of that idea."
When he heard Blakey in 1954 he was captured for ever. He started to play 'Art,' he says simply, 'took my spirit.'
The divergent trajectories of the Charles brothers' careers that intersect in this music, reflect the diversity and similarities of the Diasporean experience. While Dennis pursued bebop and 'hipness', Huss, two years his junior, stayed with the homeboys. From the late 1940s he played with calypso bands; one was led by Claude Brewster, an alto saxophonist from St Croix, another by a famous calypsonian, Macbeth the Great, father of percussionist Ralph McDonald.
A cousin, Raymond Charles, also played congas with Brewster, and it was from them that Dennis began relearning the music he'd forgotten to play. "Huss taught me how to play calypso, and I taught him how to play swing." Not to be overlooked, a frequent guest at these woodshedding sessions in a 'raggedy basement' on 118th Street was Cecil Taylor, with whom Dennis had just started to play. For a while, Taylor, Blakey and Charles roomed together downtown on Second Avenue.
Today, there is a highway in St Croix named after Queen Mary. The drummer's tribute to the legendary insurrectionist (who, incidentally, despite having killed several whites was pardoned by Denmark after a short exile and allowed to return), is in the tradition of acknowledging revolutionary leaders. As a question-and-answer piece, it is the one where he regrets having no additional horns. 'They ask her:
Queen Mary, girl, where you gonna burn?
Queen Mary; girl, where you gonna burn?
and she answers:
Don't you ask me nothing at all,
I want the match and oil.
'Tis Basin jailhouse, a-dey the money dere.'
Accompanied by two guitarists and another man blowing on an exhaust-pipe, he would crack jokes and tell stories before beginning to play. One of his characters was Johnny Cake-Boat who made a giant boat from pancake flour. Out on the ocean, the fish started eating the boat. Stand Back, sung slowly to guitar accompaniment, is more ribald:
Stand back, girl, stand back, girl,
Give me the thing from behind.
Some pay a dollar, some pay a dime,
Some don't pay a single cent
But they want the thing from behind.
Charles was involved in an argument when Sweet Melanie jumped into his head. Originally a much faster number with elements of English folksong in the melody, he began to wonder how it would sound slowed-down.
Initially he had thought the calypso-style Rise Up, which exists elsewhere in the Caribbean as Mattie Grew, was concerned with rebellion. Researching further, however, he uncovered the words of an unfaithful husband, trying to persuade a lover to leave before his wife returns.
To create these inspired versions of the St Croix material, Charles recruited familiar New York figures. On bass is longtime associate Wilber Morris who has worked with him alongside Frank Lowe and Billy Bang and leads his own group, Wilber Force. Taking over the flute's traditional role is the Seattle saxophonist Booker T. Williams whose sonorities and passion call to mind the sanctified sound of Albert Ayler or Vernard Johnson. Huss Charles contributes to all but one track, but as Dennis, who has enough matenal for another album, puts it, "He didn't show all the rhythms he knows." The same could be said of the leader, still doing it after all these years.
1. Triangle 00:27
2. Sweet Melanie 15:55
3. Stand Back 05:39
4. Queen Mary 09:49
5. Bass Space 04:25
6. Rise Up 09:50
7. Afro-Amer.Ind 28:40
Booker T. tenor saxophone
Wilber Morris bass
Dennis Charles drums
Huss Charles congas