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The Heart of Soul and Jazz from US Muslims over the past 100 Years

Many Muslim jazz musicians who developed bebop as a genre were converts to Islam, or were in bands heavily influenced by converts. Writer Denise Oliver Velez takes us on whirlwind tour across the decades.

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Many Muslim jazz musicians who developed bebop as a genre were converts to Islam or were in bands heavily influenced by converts. Writer Denise Oliver Velez takes us on whirlwind tour across the decades.

Byline Denise Oliver Velez

According to Academic Patrick Bowen’s dissertation “The African-American Islamic Renaissance and the Rise of the Nation of Islam,” The Ahmadi Islamic sect played a key role in outreach in the world of Black American jazz, whose key figures introduced Islam to other musicians.

“Music was one of the most distinct forms of expression for African-American Muslims. The MST under Drew Ali, for example, following the practice of the UNIA, chanted songs in their meetings and held musical concerts. In the 1940s, however, other African Americans started combining music and Islam, as several black jazz musicians converted to the religion. Islam brought them the inner peace and strength to resist the debasing temptations of the music industry and many discovered that when they wore their robes, fezzes, and turbans they were not treated as regular ‘negroes’ when traveling across the country, whites tended to show them some courtesy and respect,” says Bowen.

Bowen argues that the 125th Street in Harlem was “where bebop jazz musicians first encountered Islam.” At that address was both the Somali-led International Moslem Society, a Sunni group with African-American members and an Apollo Café, which was frequented by Duke Ellington which over the years included Muslim converts. Whatever the true beginnings were, by the late 1940s, an African-American Muslim jazz community had formed in New York City.

Bowen says that in the 1940s there were a few key figures who were responsible for the popularity that Islam would gain among jazz musicians. The first was Art Blakey, who after being introduced to Islam in Pittsburgh, traveled to Africa for a year to study the religion. Upon his return, he formed the Jazz Messengers in New York, a seventeen-piece band composed entirely of Qadiani converts.

“In 1947, he started a mission out of his apartment in Harlem and within five years the group grew to over 100 members (only twelve of which were musicians) and had moved to a different building on 30th Street. The other important person bringing black musicians to Islam at the time was the trumpeter Talib Dawud. Dawud was part of the earliest wave of jazz converts, having turned to Ahmadiyya Islam around 1940 under Sheik Nasir Ahmad in Philadelphia,” says Bowen.

However, Blakey who was also known as Abdullah Ibn Buhaina to fellow musicians says that it wasn’t musical knowledge he was seeking in his travels to Africa, but rather, religious knowledge:

“I didn’t go to Africa to study drums – somebody wrote that – I went to Africa because there wasn’t anything else for me to do. I couldn’t get any gigs, and I had to work my way over on a boat. I went over there to study religion and philosophy. I didn’t bother with the drums, I wasn’t after that. I went over there to see what I could do about religion. When I was growing up I had no choice, I was just thrown into a church and told this is what I was going to be. I didn’t want to be their Christian. I didn’t like it. You could study politics in this country, but I didn’t have access to the religions of the world. That’s why I went to Africa. When I got back, people got the idea I went there to learn about music,” says Blakey .

Bret Primack, known to YouTube as the “Jazz Video Guy,” produced this documentary on Blakey in 2020—it’s named from one of Blakey’s albums.

Then there was saxophonist Lynn Hope, whose Muslim name was Abdullah Rasheed Ahmad. 

Music historian, and radio host Burgin Mathews wrote about him in “Blow, Lynn, Blow! (The Lynn Hope Story).”

“Lynn Hope was one of the screamers, the wild R&B saxophone honkers whose horns helped beget rock and roll. He strode up and down bar tops blowing his horn, bent over backwards and wailed, jumped from the bandstand and paraded through his crowd, worked each room he played until it was ready to explode,” says Mathews.

“He was also, in the late 1940s into the ‘50s, one of black America’s most prominent Muslims. He twice pilgrimaged to Mecca and traveled all over the Middle East, led prayers at a Philadelphia mosque, taught classes on the Koran and the Arabic language, and he brought hundreds of new converts to the faith. Fans and the media loved his jeweled turbans and his long Egyptian robes, embracing the exotic novelty of his performance and persona,” says Mathews.

The name of trumpeter Talib Dawud—who Bowen covered in his dissertation—may not be a household name, but his wife, Aliyah Rabia, was known to the world as Dakota Staton.

Dakota Staton, born 1930, hailed from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She had had a multifaceted musical upbringing, which explains her dynamic sound. At times she could sound bluesy and soulful, and other times coquettish and cute.

Around age 23, while in New York, she caught the attention of musician and arranger Dave Cavanaugh, who at the time was working as an A&R man for Capitol Records. He signed her right away. She recorded a few singles, mostly forgettable, but jazz listeners took notice, naming her the one of the most promising young singers in a Down Beat readers poll.

She eventually recorded a full-length LP for Capitol. It was called The Late, Late Show, and it featured stripped down jazz arrangements by Van Alexander, known for his work with Ella Fitzgerald. The Late, Late Show became the biggest hit of her career, climbing to number 4 on the charts, and staying in print for over a decade.

The Dakota Staton biography by Jason Ankeny at AllMusic explores her conversion to Islam.

After marrying trumpeter Talib Ahmad Dawud in 1958, Staton converted to Islam and for a time performed under the name Aliyah Rabia. She was also an active member of Dawud‘s advocacy group the Muslim Brotherhood, which existed in large part to combat the radical politics of Black supremacist Elijah Muhammad.

The Muslim Brotherhood found itself the centre of controversy when Muhammad claimed, “they should be ashamed of trying to make fun of me and my followers while serving the devil in the theatrical world.” The resulting media attention undermined Staton’s commercial momentum, and while 1959’s Crazy He Calls Me still charted, she never again enjoyed the crossover success that greeted her previous records.            

AllMusic Chris Kelsey introduces us to another Muslim jazz musician, Ahmed Abdul-Malik.

Ahmed Abdul-Malik was one of the first musicians to integrate non-Western musical elements into jazz. In addition to being a hard bop bassist of some distinction, he also played the oud, a double-stringed, unfretted Middle Eastern lute, played with a plectrum. Abdul-Malik recorded on the instrument in the ’50s with Johnny Griffin and in 1961 with John Coltrane, contributing to one of the several albums that resulted from the latter’s Live at the Village Vanguard sessions.         

While many biographical blurbs, including one at All That Jazz, list Abdul-Malik as being born of Sudanese parents, this isn’t true.

His story is told by David Spicer in “The Strange World Of… Ahmed Abdul-Malik.”

Born in Brooklyn in 1927, Abdul-Malik launched his career as a professional bass player in 1944 while still in High School and, within a few years, found himself at the heart of New York’s be-bop scene. Yet, even at this early stage, he stood apart from his colleagues, speaking fluent Arabic and already experimenting with instruments such as the oud and the zither-like kanoon. To anyone who asked, he explained that his father had come to the U.S. from Sudan and that he’d grown up surrounded by the sounds of the Arab world.

But the truth was more complicated – and the result of a profound transformation in the great American tradition of personal reinvention. In reality, Abdul-Malik was born Jonathan Tim Jr. to parents who had emigrated from St. Vincent in the Caribbean. While studying at New York’s High School of Music and Art, he immersed himself in the vibrant cultural diversity of 1940s Brooklyn and took lessons from Syrian and Lebanese musicians, while connecting with musicians from West Africa. It was during this time that the young Jonathan Tim converted to Islam and took the name Ahmed Abdul-Malik.

Musicians can take a deeper dive into his work via music producer and scholar Pat Thomas, who wrote “Ahmed Abdul Malik and His Music Legacy” for Sound American.

Then there is the music of Doug Carn, and his then-wife, Jean. He was also known as Al Rahman.

Rahman was born in New York City and raised in St. Augustine, Florida, where his mother, Gwendolyn Seniors Carn, taught music in the St. Johns County Public School System. Her unique and special teaching abilities provided a fertile ground for his future development.

Doug started piano lessons at the age of five but switched to the alto sax at eight. His uncle, Bill Seniors, a jazz aficionado and DJ, turned Doug on to all of the jazz of the late forties and early fifties. He was also a key figure in Doug’s musical development.

In his early teens, Doug formed his first group, The NuTones. They played a variety of Jazz R&B and Rock ‘n Roll hits for dances, proms and club dates all over Florida and southeast Georgia. In addition, he held down a post as organist for the A.M.E. church in its 11th Episcopal District.

The Rush Hour music website provides some insights into Carn’s “Al Rahman” album.

Doug converted to Islam in 1970 in LA at the Islamic Center on St. Andrews Place before it moved to Vermont Avenue. Muhsin El Biali was the Imam that gave him Shahada. In 1974, Doug and Jean Carn separate. Jean Carn(e) pursues a successful soul and disco career (“Don’t Let It Go To Your Head”), while he continues his spiritual and musical quest, which results two years later in the release of this amazing, self-produced album, “Al Rahman, Cry of the Floridian Tropic Son”. Al Rahman “Cry of the Floridian Tropic Son” was a cultural experiment. It was designed to communicate certain ideas to a few people. It was never meant to be a commercial venture.

Far from the fundamentalist practices he criticizes in his sleeve notes, on this album he experiments with a fusion of his Afro-American musical roots of gospel, soul and jazz with Islamic culture. The result is surprising, blending the emotional depth of Coltranian jazz and the smoothness of Californian soul as in the magnificent, hypnotic vocal version of Al Rahman, Surah 55 of the Holy Quran.

Notes from the Editor: This article has been reformulated from its first publication in the DailyKos.

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