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Creative Urban Momentum: Witnessing the Black Unity Trio

Saxophonist and visual artist Hasan Abdur-Razzaq recalls the beginnings of his journey toward free jazz in late 1960s Cleveland, in contact with the legendary Black Unity Trio. Painting by Hasan Abdur-Razzaq

In 1967, I was in high school and worked part-time in the food service department at Huron Road Hospital in East Cleveland. I worked weekends as well. Oftentimes during breaks, employees from other areas of the hospital would interact and converse about various topics. During these occasions I met an orderly named Al Sphere Jennings. He was a jazz drummer working there to make ends meet. He told me that if I really was interested in jazz, I should obtain recordings by Yusef Lateef, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, John Coltrane, and Horace Silver. I took his advice and never regretted it.

After graduation in 1968, being a young man now, I was eager to travel and experience other concepts. I was encouraged by a cousin of mine from Buffalo, NY, who told me “man, the music you are listening to, I ‘know’ you play an instrument.” This set me into possibilities of exploring this as a reality. Then came my first extended stay in New York. I was able to experience more free and straight-ahead sounds on record as well as in person. I heard Harold Mabern at a spot called Pee Wee’s in East Manhattan. I heard Herbie Hancock, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Joe Chambers and Ron Carter at Club Barron in Harlem.

I had traveled to New York with a good friend of mine, Amin Abdul Khafiz. We were there to totally immerse ourselves in the climate of the “new music” and the atmosphere of creative urban momentum. A former next-door neighbor had moved to New York and had a good handle on the city. A cousin of his had a nice flat up in the Bronx, and he turned us on to Sam Rivers, Art Blakey, Wayne Shorter, and the Blue Note entourage. Upon returning from New York, I was geared into a new sense of excitement and a different mindset from the sounds and experiences we had encountered.

In Cleveland, I met aspiring musicians whom I became close friends with, Umar Sami Allah, saxophone and flute, and Haroon Abdul Rahman, flute and hand percussions. Umar’s father was a jazz drummer who had played in and out of town. My next most rewarding and most encouraging experience was when Haroon told me about the Cosmic Music record store on Superior Avenue near E. 125th. Ironically, the location was just two blocks away from my family home. That was when I met the Black Unity Trio.

Cosmic Music had the structure of most community businesses: a storefront with a large display window allowing the public to view merchandise as they walked by, in that case record albums. Black Unity Trio saxophonist Yusuf Mumin was the owner. Albums were arranged on the wall with a pegboard and mounting hook display so as to catch the attention of customers as they entered or attract them to come in and look around. Most of the music was avant-garde, some was progressive jazz. Also featured in a showcase counter were selections of poetry and literature dealing with current events and world news, particularly information pertaining to the Black community.

I was impressed by the black and white covers of ESP-Disk’ albums. There seemed to be a certain power in their simplicity, and so much depth and content in the music. Another cover that impressed me, seeing it there for the first time, was Cecil Taylor’s monumental Unit Structures. The layout of the store captured the “music of the future” in an instant and left a permanent impression on the visitor or purchaser of the vinyl treasures at hand.

Yusuf Mumin’s partners in the Black Unity Trio were cellist Abdul Wadud and drummer Hasan Shahid. The musicians introduced me to Sun Ra, Albert Ayler, to the later works of John Coltrane, to Sonny Simmons, Henry Grimes, Milford Graves, and Sunny Murray. The Trio was moving toward the recording of their Al-Fatihah album, which took place in December 1968. They rehearsed in the basement of Cosmic Music. After witnessing the rehearsals on a regular basis, I decided I would make the effort to learn how to play. I acquired a used saxophone from a pawnshop and got as much as I could from their technique and style of playing.

Especially important was the cosmic forcefulness of Yusuf Mumin’s horn, either alto or soprano. It could blend seamlessly with the lyrical beauty and harmony of Abdul Wadud’s cello while the thundering drums of Hasan Shahid rumbled the concrete and brick walls of that basement space. Those sessions were almost telepathic. It was like the musicians already knew the direction and mood of the work at hand. Generally after Yusuf and Abdul had left, my friend Amin and I gained a lot of inspiration from playing with Hasan Shahid. Amin played tenor and I played alto. We were able to experience collaborative sound making that was now of our own, not just from a point of observation. I also remember a gig the Trio played at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. They had an outstanding bass clarinet player with them named Mustafa Abdul Rahim.

I don’t think Albert Ayler was around in Cleveland in the last part of his life, I think he was in New York. Mutawaf A. Shaheed, who played bass with Albert, was another great influence, as a mentor and as a musician. He encouraged me to pursue perfecting a voice on my instrument that represents the emotions of the heart and the spiritual being within. Mutawaf and Abdul Lateef, a fine flute and sax player, played with the Black Unity Trio on an album that is now lost. I did a couple of engagements with Mutawaf, Abdul Lateef, and Hasan Shahid. One was at the Friendly Inn, an inner city recreation center, and another a prom at Shaw High School, in East Cleveland.

In 1969-1970, I made a return trip to New York for religious studies. While there I saw Sun Ra and the Arkestra perform at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The performance was opened by famous poet and activist Amiri Baraka. I also saw Pharoah Sanders perform at Slugs’ in the Far East in the Lower East Side.

It was indeed my calling to seriously begin playing. I must say, though, that there was a gap that transposed my continuing with that endeavor. That was a return to my first love, visual art, which I pursued until moving to Columbus, Ohio in 1973. There, I later found new hope for reinventing my enthusiasm with the help of local musicians who welcomed me into the free jazz family. This has been a part of my life going forward.

In the 1990s, I got a chance to partake in sessions in Cleveland back and forth when my friend Umar opened a space above his boutique. Amin had also progressed very favorably with his playing and we would get together at Umar’s whenever I came back to Cleveland. The Cosmic Music store had long closed and the Trio had gone their separate ways, but I will always remember those basement sessions. They are imprinted on my spirit like a tattoo.

Hasan Abdur-Razzaq’s music can be heard on Edgetone Records, Bandcamp, and Soundcloud. A reissue of the Black Unity Trio’s Al-Fatihah album will be available from Gotta Groove Records on November 27, 2020. This article was edited by Pierre Crépon, whose interviews with Hasan Shahid and Mutawaf A. Shaheed can be read at The Wire.

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