What made jazz mainstay Hannibal Lokumbe leave New York to return to his native Smithville? The lure of wide-open spaces.
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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 left for New York. A few months later, he went to a Gil Evans recording session and was invited to sit in. A few weeks after that, he was in Europe as a member of Evans’ band. Known then primarily for his late-fifties collaborations with Miles Davis, Evans was one of jazz’s great writers and bandleaders, creating arrangements that, even at their most complex, were so organic they seemed improvised. He and Lokumbe became fast friends, talking for hours at a time as they walked around Manhattan. Lokumbe stayed with him for most of the rest of the decade, moving away from his gospel—blues—hard-bop origins and into the avant garde. His sound in the higher registers took on a crying urgency, while his work on ballads skimmed gracefully across the rhythm section.
Early on, Lokumbe says, he decided that contracts offered by American promoters and labels were “still in the slave age,” so he did much of his performing in Europe, Africa, and Asia. “As is the case with most black musicians,” he maintains, “you unfortunately come to expect that kind of racism. That’s the way it is here. If it hadn’t been for Europe, I don’t know what I’d have done.” Pointed politics also informed his recording experiences. His first album as a leader was 1974’s Children of the Fire, which dealt with the Vietnam War. He says fifteen labels told him they would release it if he would change the title and eliminate the Vietnam references; instead, he pressed it himself and sold all 10,000 copies in three months.
Lokumbe’s subsequent works ranged from straight-ahead quartet and quintet sessions to ambitious conceptual pieces like 1981’s Angels of Atlanta (about the 28 children who had been murdered in that city) and 1979’s Flames of South Africa, which he wrote after living briefly among the Masai in Kenya; he’d gone there after a Manhattan doctor had told him his double pneumonia was too far along to be reversed, but a tribal medicine man’s herbal mixture healed him. Sometime during his New York stay he became Hannibal (“A fierce warrior who hated fighting,” he says). When he returned to Smithville, he underwent a four-day ceremony in which he took clay from his great-grandfather’s land and ashes from a fire he built and put them on his body. During the ceremony, he says, he was able to communicate with the spirit of his great-grandmother, who gave him permission to use the name Lokumbe (“the Spirit That Lives in the Wind”).
Around the time he arrived in Smithville, Lokumbe released African Portraits, which he’d written back in 1989 and first played in public in 1990 at Carnegie Hall. He has since performed it—using local chorales and symphonies plus members of the original cast—in some fifty venues around the country; he usually goes to each city a couple weeks in advance to lead music workshops in the schools. In Texas he has mounted shows only in San Antonio, though he’s had a couple near-misses in Austin (he continues to seek outlets there and in Houston). The performance I saw was at Christ Universal Temple on the South Side of Chicago. Covering four hundred years of black experience in little more than an hour, the music moved swiftly but seamlessly, with the orchestra used sparingly, and Delta bluesman David “Honeyboy” Edwards and Lokumbe’s jazz quartet providing the two most illuminating moments. A stirring piece of art and entertainment, it brushed aside the usual questions—Is it jazz? Is it classical?—by presenting a united front of aesthetic, soul, and razzle-dazzle.
Backstage afterward, Lokumbe was leaning against a wall talking to fans when Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, surrounded by half a dozen young men, moved down the hallway shaking hands. “As with Mozart, when it’s all said and done, it will be clear that God lives in your music too,” he declared, kissing Lokumbe’s forehead. “You really told the story.”
Lokumbe told me later he didn’t know Farrakhan well enough to form an opinion about him or what he preaches, but this wasn’t politics. This was just what he wanted to hear.