Horn Free

What made jazz mainstay Hannibal Lokumbe leave New York to return to his native Smithville? The lure of wide-open spaces.

JAZZ TRUMPETER HANNIBAL LOKUMBE doesn’t perform in his hometown of Smithville, a small farming community 45 minutes east of Austin, but he cuts a wide swath there anyway. As he bounds along a downtown street in black jeans, an African vest, and a T-shirt that reads “African Chorus, St. Louis,” his dreadlocks flying this way and that, he has a word for nearly everyone he sees. He tells the mayor and the postmaster an amusing story about being pulled over a few days earlier for rolling through a stop sign. Somebody asks what he knows about the movie Forest Whitaker is directing. He knocks on the back door of a bank building to say hi to a man whose mother remembers Lokumbe’s grandfather running a racist cop out of town.

The rest of the day is a flurry of activity. Lokumbe tends to some business in his office on East First Street, which is upstairs from the bakery—ice cream parlor—pool room run by his wife, Latisha. He swings by the house where he and Latisha live with their three-year-old daughter, Eternal Faith, to pick up some papers and show off his 1932 Buick, which he’s got running at 95 miles per hour (when he was a child, his mother, Lillian, who is now 81, cleaned this very house). He drops by a sawmill he bought so he’d save on lumber when he begins building twelve townhouses for the elderly in the lot next to the bakery. He visits a front-porch domino game between a pair of old men on the west side of town and points out the tiny Live Oak Grove Church, which he attended as a child. He drives out into the pine forests to bring a chain saw to the men cutting lumber for him there. And, finally, he drives deeper into the woods, to the forty-acre spread between Smithville and Rosanky where he and Latisha will build a house. There, as summer breezes sashay across the meadow, Lokumbe sits on a picnic table and, for the first time in several hours, is very, very quiet.

It’s an unlikely life for a man who has spent nearly all his years as an adult in that most urban of worlds, New York, playing and recording with jazz giants like Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Roy Haynes, Pharoah Sanders, Don Pullen, Elvin Jones, and especially, Gil Evans. Over nearly a quarter century, Lokumbe—who turns 49 this month—became one of the scene’s most respected sidemen, appearing on more than forty albums. At the same time, he worked overseas with his own group, cutting at least fifteen albums under his name; it’s hard to get an accurate count, because all but three came out on his own label or foreign labels, and most didn’t survive the transition from vinyl to CD. His specialty is composing extended Afrocentric and topical works, usually combining jazz groups and symphonies. African Portraits (Teldec), his most recent, uses African drummers and griots, or oral historians, plus American blues and gospel singers, his longtime jazz quartet, and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to tell the story of how black people got from Africa to America. It’s his most successful record ever, with sales of around 85,000 units—yet just as he began to be known outside jazz circles, he decided to return to Smithville, where he was born Marvin Peterson in 1948 and where all his memories were of the pre—civil rights era. “Man,” he says with a laugh, “I never thought I’d be living again in Smithville!”

The lure was not the town, but those piney woods. The impetus for returning began with one of his extended works. Commissioned by the Kronos Quartet in 1992, he went to Pine Ridge, South Dakota, to seek permission from Lakota elders to write about Chief Crazy Horse. Lokumbe witnessed purification ceremonies that reminded him of his childhood church services, and when he was ready to leave, the medicine man asked him whether he could build a purification lodge where he lived. Since his apartment was on Convent Avenue in Harlem, he said no. The medicine man told him to relocate immediately. “Three weeks later,” Lokumbe says, “I was on my way to Texas.”

After a three-year transition period in Austin as a nod to Latisha, a lifelong Detroiter, the Lokumbes settled in Smithville two years ago. When the house in the woods is ready, the Lakota medicine man will come down to build their purification lodge. “The woods,” Lokumbe says, “is where my final work will be done.” Until then, he hangs around town, coming up with new projects as fast as he can finish the old ones and holding court at Latisha’s bakery, where he talks to local teens about giving up snuff, staying in school, and learning racial respect. “That’s how I fight,” he declares. “The great lesson is to destroy evil with what you know is right.”

The first time around, Lokumbe lived in Smithville until he was five, when his mom moved him and his brother to Texas City (he never knew his father). He picked up the trumpet at age thirteen and cut his teeth on saxophonist John Coltrane’s Blue Trane and, later, Kulu Se Mama, Om, Ascension, and A Love Supreme;  the influence shows to this day in Lokumbe’s delicate phrasing and fiery solo runs. Before he was out of high school, his band, the Soul Masters, was backing Lightnin’ Hopkins, T-Bone Walker, Jackie Wilson, and Etta James whenever they played in the area—so when he went to Denton in 1967 to attend the jazz school at North Texas State, he felt an immediate letdown. His instructors urged him to learn Al Hirt and Doc Severinson; he had photos of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie on his wall. They wrote out blues progressions on the blackboard; he’d already blown in the juke joints with T-Bone. “Blues and jazz are musics you have to experience,” he recalls thinking. “This music didn’t originate in a classroom.”

In 1970 he

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