When Jamaaladeen Tacuma first learned about Paul Robeson’s life, he got angry.
“I was absolutely furious,” says the Philadelphia free jazz and funk bass player, who will play tribute to the singer, actor, athlete, and activist with a performance that will be livestreamed from the Paul Robeson House & Museum in West Philadelphia on Wednesday.
What fueled Tacuma’s rage back in 1982 was a public television program about Robeson, a Black man born in Princeton in 1898 who died in Philadelphia in 1976. The then-25-year-old Tacuma had grown up without having ever learned anything about the towering figure in 20th-century American history.
“I was mad because I didn’t know anything about him, because his story had been erased and I hadn’t been taught about him in school,” says Tacuma, who at the time was the bassist in Ornette Coleman’s band Prime Time, one of the greatest and most adventurous jazz groups of all time.
“I went to my record label at the time, Gramavision Records, and I said: ‘Look at this cat. I never knew about this guy before,’ ” recalls Tacuma, 65. ”I mean, goodness gracious, everything he put his hands on, he was unbelievable at. I said, look, I got to do something about this.”
Back then, Tacuma — who grew up in North Philadelphia in housing projects east of Broad Street close by the Uptown Theater and got his start when still known by his birth name Rudy McDaniel — was near the beginning of a prolific career.
He now has as international reputation as one of world’s most able and versatile bassists. “Jamaaladeen Tacuma is the hardest-grooving bass player I’ve ever worked with or heard,” guitarist Marc Ribot said in 2019.
Tacuma used Robeson’s life as the inspiration for Renaissance Man, the second album he released under his own name, which came out in 1984.
That album’s title hints at the wide range of Tacuma’s own musical interests, from his beginnings as a teenage doo-wop singer and throughout a creatively restless, decades-long career during which he’s been a major figure in Philadelphia music.
Back in 1992, as Questlove wrote in his 2013 memoir Mo’ Meta Blues, Tacuma extended an invitation to a young Philly hip-hop band called the Square Roots to accompany him to a music festival in Germany. It would provide the first international exposure for the group, who would soon drop the “Square” from its name.
Tacuma has regularly collaborated with fellow avant-jazz, funk, and rock experimenters like Vernon Reid, Calvin Weston, and Ribot. And last year, he was one of the winners of the inaugural Black Music City grants. He used the funds to produce a documentary called Philly Rhythm Kingz that celebrates unheralded Sound of Philadelphia musicians such as Ronnie Baker, Norman Harris, and Earl Young. (Tacuma was also one of 52 jazz artists to win a South Arts Residency Grant in 2020.)
Besides his music, Tacuma is known for his sartorial splendor. Now living in Southwest Philly, he has a business as a stylist called The Redd Carpet Room, where he fits fellow musicians with fashionable and flamboyant threads that he acquires at flea markets and other sources.
“That goes back to growing up in North Philly, where all the guys used to get sharp,” he says.
“That was just part of the tradition. They saw their fathers, they saw their uncles, who would come home from their jobs and put on some stuff that they had bought at Boyds, or some high-end men’s store. Fashion has always been part of the music world, and music brought it to the neighborhood.”
Tacuma’s 2022 tribute to Robeson, dubbed “Renaissance Man Reloaded,” will play out in two parts. The first performance is called “There He Stood,” a play on Here I Stand, the title of both Robeson’s 1958 biography and a 1999 documentary.
It will feature Tacuma, accompanied by singer and actor Osayunde Baruti, singing songs from the repertoire of the bass-baritone vocalist who recorded spirituals like “Go Down Moses” and show tunes such as “The House I Live in” from the musical Let Freedom Sing.
Instead of piano, Tacuma will provide musical backing of electric bass and keyboard, as the duo perform in the parlor of the house where Robeson moved in with his sister Marian R. Forsythe in 1966 after the death of his wife Eslanda.
It’s a room where Robeson often sang in himself, said Janice Sykes-Ross, director of the Robeson House & Museum.
“It’s a great way to kick off Black History Month,” said Sykes-Ross. The Robeson House was closed for much of the pandemic and is now open by appointment only for tours from Thursday to Sunday.
The Tacuma-Osayunde performance “will raise money for the house, which we’ll always so desperately need,” she said, “but it will also bring awareness to Robeson and his legacy.”
That legacy is rich, with a life full of accomplishments. Robeson, who was raised by his father after his mother died when he was 6, excelled academically at Rutgers University and Columbia Law School.
He played professional football in the NFL decades before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball, starred in productions of The Emperor Jones in New York and Othello in London, and was vocal throughout his life of civil rights and anti-imperialist issues.
“He spoke 21 languages and sang in 27,” Sykes-Ross says. In 1946, after four Black men were lynched, Robeson met with President Harry S. Truman and warned him that if the government did not take action to end lynching, “the Negroes will defend themselves.”
In the 1950s, during McCarthyism, the Council of African Affairs, which Robeson chaired with W.E.B. Du Bois serving as vice chair, was added to the U.S. Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organizations. Robeson was blacklisted, and his passport was taken away until it was reinstated in a Supreme Court decision in 1958.
The Robeson mural on Chestnut Street identifies the 6-foot-3 giant of a man as “Citizen of the world.” But at the end of his life, Philadelphia was home, says Sykes-Ross. “Because his mother had died, his older sister who was the only female, probably took on the role of the mother. So he would come to Philly even before he retired and lived here permanently. Because Philly felt like home.”
On April 9, Tacuma will stage the second part of “Renaissance Man Reloaded” tribute to Robeson called “The Battle of Images.” It will be filmed at the studios of WRTI-FM (90.1), streamed on NPR Music’s Live Sessions, and will feature Philadelphia-based ensemble Eboni Strings, Sun Ra Arkestra bandleader Marshall Allen, and drummer Nazir Ebo.
Robeson’s story, Tacuma says, should be known, “not just in Black History Month, but every month. His importance, and everything he stood for, is absolutely as relevant today if not more relevant today than it ever has been. What he stood for was equality and justice for all. And not only for Blacks. For everybody.”