African American Studies
Interviewers: Mark Naison, Maxine Gordon
Interviewee: Elombe Brath
Date of interview: 21 June, 2005
Summarized by: Craig Teal, 26 March 2007
Elombe Brath is a longtime political activist in New York City who is one of the founders of the Jazz Arts Society and was active in organizing some of the first cultural pageants in New York City in the 1960s. Born on September 30, 1936 in Brooklyn, Elombe grew up in Harlem and in Hunt’s Point on 751 Kelly Street between Longwood Avenue and 156th Street. His family moved into a crossroads area of the Bronx that was predominately Irish, Jewish or Chinese. Families of the Caribbean ancestry were moving into the Bronx at this time to the 700 blocks. Gradually his neighborhood became populated with more black, Spanish-American or Puerto Rican tenants as white families moved father north.
Elombe developed an artistic talent because his father worked with his hands and was a gifted painter. Within Elombe’s household there was significant amount of political discussion from his mother and her first cousin Clendell Wickham. Clendell lived in Barbados was a journalist and a politically active socialist. He was the editor of the Herald and an advocate of the poor being exiled to Grenada for his beliefs. Newsreels at the Translux Theater introduced Elombe to the world and such conditions such as imperialism and colonialism.
Another childhood influence includes the music coming out of people’s apartments and houses, like Dr. Jive and Tommy Smalls music show. Elombe also mentions St. Margaret’s Church as a social circle of people of Caribbean ancestry that his family interacted with. Through teachers and classmates he became interested in other peoples and cultures. Steering clear of gang recruiting by the Seven Crowns, at an after school center he was introduced to jazz. Early favorites were Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Star Eyes.
Elombe felt that the negative social conditions of the neighborhood, violence and battles over music royalties began to dissolve the art form that Africans had created. As a result, he formed the Jazz Arts Society. He stated that he wished the people to understand that this was the music of Black America, of people dying and of racism. All of these musicians, Arsenio Rodriguez, Chano Pozo and Ray Baretto were constantly in the neighborhood and Elombe felt there needed to be a connection between musicians and their neighborhood.
Parallel to Elombe’s life figures like Carlos Cooks from the Dominican Republic established their own beliefs on how to transform this deteriorating community. Carlos Cooks spoke of Black Nationalism and reenergized the establishment of Marcus Garvey’s teachings. As Elombe built his jazz society his home club was the 845 on Prospect Avenue and Westchester. Other frequent places that Elombe frequented were Hunts Point Palace where he would listen to Gigi Glice and Art Max in the Alto Madness Show. Elombe reminisces over musicians and places like when Donald Byrd lived in the Bronx, when Nancy Wilson was at the Blue Morocco and when Irene Reed was at Freddie’s. He also remembered the Ghanaian custom Kumasi on Boston Road and the Ghanaian festival Durbar at local clubs.
With these influences and a need to establish an African identity within the jazz community he renamed his organization the African Jazz Arts Society and Studio. The offices were on 125th Street in Harlem and the studio was a place to hang out and record shows for radio. Certain white musicians began to steal and capitalize off of this art form that was African and Elombe felt there needed to be a controlling of the art form because it was inherently African. Looking for the newest and youngest artists Elombe would travel to the Salt and Pepper Lounge on Jerome Avenue and 167th Street. Elombe described the club owners as particularly generous to him for what he was doing. They would allow him to rent out their hall for little or no money in return when he was planning a show. Elombe also planned a large festival at the International Inn called Jazz and Barbecue with the tagline, ‘Pick a rib and dig a riff.’
Elombe constantly made positive remarks reminiscing about the great jazz musicians of his time. He talked of Dexter Gordon’s tagging, of Coltrane’s ability to switch to different styles, and the honking and squeaking of Sal Mystical. But he also had a certain negative bitterness towards those black musicians that played for segregated white audiences and for musicians that would steal music or ‘licks,’ as he called it, without giving the history of jazz music its credit. He tirelessly worked to keep the art form as an outlet for the community and consistently protected the artists and the industry when drugs money and corruption attempted to dissipate it.
Brath, Elombe. June 21, 2005. Interview with the Bronx African American History Project. BAAHP Digital Archive at Fordham University.
Click below to download supplemental content.Brath, Elombe and Sam Wansley Pt 1.mp3 (39580 kB)
Brath, Elombe and Sam Wansley Pt 2.mp3 (136648 kB)
Brath, Elombe and Sam Wansley Pt 3.mp3 (71129 kB)