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Why a Philly jazz great was crying in the Mayor's Reception Room

There were tears and a jam session at City Hall last week.

Bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma wipes away tears after he was presented with the 2018 Benny Golson Award by the mayor at City Hall March 29, 2018. The city kicks off Philly Celebrates Jazz, a celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month in April.
Bassist Jamaaladeen Tacuma wipes away tears after he was presented with the 2018 Benny Golson Award by the mayor at City Hall March 29, 2018. The city kicks off Philly Celebrates Jazz, a celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month in April.Read moreTOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer

The low bass rumble you may have heard emanating from City Hall on Thursday was the unmistakable Jamaaladeen Tacuma, who opted to accept this year's Benny Golson Award by treating the attendees in the Mayor's Reception Room to an impromptu solo performance. Wielding a white electric bass that matched his typically attention-grabbing ensemble, Tacuma laid down a free-ranging funk groove that had even Mayor Kenney clapping along.

Despite preceding his performance with a moving, eloquent speech, Tacuma has long spoken most vibrantly through his bass. The North Philly native honed his experimental funk approach under the guidance of pioneering saxophonist Ornette Coleman, who enlisted a 19-year old Tacuma (along with lifelong collaborator G. Calvin Weston) from the local R&B scene directly into Coleman's groundbreaking electric Prime Time band in 1975.

He's since blurred the lines between the avant-garde and the soulful in a staggering variety of settings, from his own bands to collaborations with a wide spectrum of voices, from iconoclastic guitarists James "Blood" Ulmer and Derek Bailey to goth singer Peter Murphy and Downtown bassist/producer Bill Laswell.

The main reason Tacuma let his fingers do the talking last week, though, may have had to do with his prediction that he wouldn't be able to hold back the tears. "I just know I'll be crying," he laughed a day earlier (correctly, as it turned out) at the Redd Carpet Room, his combination man-cave and high-fashion mens' consignment room in Kingsessing.

"You don't think about accolades or anything like that," he said. "You just consistently do your thing the best that you can do it, with whatever that you have to do it with. That's always been my concept, and I knew in the back of my mind that if you're consistent and you do your thing long enough, these things will come. But it's nothing that I was looking for."

Tacuma's "thing" will be on full display throughout April, as he presents his fourth annual Outsiders Improvised and Creative Music Festival. Previous installments have been single-day marathons offering short sets by an array of artists and combinations, but this year's festival focuses on three of Tacuma's diverse projects throughout the month. It culminates on April 29 at International House's Ibrahim Theater (3701 Chestnut St.) with a rare reunion of Prime Time led by the late bandleader's son, drummer Denardo Coleman, with Philly sax great Odean Pope taking the Ornette role.

The festival kicks off Friday at Center City's MilkBoy (1100 Chestnut St.) with the Free Form Funky Freqs, the blistering free-funk trio teaming Tacuma and Weston with Living Colour guitarist Vernon Reid. It continues April 15 at South Jazz Kitchen (600 S. Broad St.) with the premiere of Jupiter 4, a new quartet with Tacuma, up-and-coming saxophonist and electronic musician Alfredo Colón, versatile drummer (and recent Philly transplant) Chad Taylor, and Wilco guitar wizard Nels Cline. The show will be, quite literally, the first time the four have played together.

"Nels wanted to rehearse, but I didn't want to," Tacuma said, giddy with anticipation. "I want it to be a situation where we're not really thinking. I know how Nels and Chad and Alfredo do what they do, and I know the way that I play, so I know that chemistry has got to be completely bananas. I have a vision."

In these spontaneous encounters, which have provided once-in-a-lifetime highlights at previous festivals, Tacuma puts together combinations of musicians like he does his eclectic and colorful outfits. That's the drive behind the Redd Carpet Room, where he styles looks for friends, neighbors, and visiting musicians from hand-picked pieces he collects at flea markets and estate sales during his world travels.

"When you listen to a song," he says, "sometimes you can hear different textures that become visual. You can hear things that are shiny, some things that are tingly, some things that are very bass-heavy, and all of those make up a whole picture. It's the same thing with clothing: it's fun to wear some silk shoes, which is pretty extreme, with some wool pants, maybe a leather jacket, a cotton hat, some glasses made from bone – something like that."

Tacuma discovered his passion for music and fashion at the same place — the historic Uptown Theater, which he frequented in his formative years. "Seeing everybody come through there — the Temptations and James Brown, the Delfonics, the Stylistics — it was one thing to hear that great music, but it was another thing to see those red curtains open with the band on stage playing and everybody's looking sharp. That left an impression on me."

At City Hall, Kenney presented Tacuma with the Benny Golson Award, named for the legendary Philly-born saxophonist/composer, noting that "he is viewed one of the most distinctive bassists of his generation and respected for redefining the potential of the instrument." That was particularly meaningful to Tacuma, coming from the city that he's proudly called home his entire life.

"I could have gone anywhere," he says. "I could have moved to some villa in Italy, or places where the industry was very strong, like California or Europe or New York or Nashville. I chose to stay right here in the 'hood."