The march of the jazz guerillas

An army of notables highlights the Atlanta Jazz Festival's free weekend concerts in Piedmont Park

"The Creator Has a Master Plan" is the title of a track — and a recurrent chant — on drummer Babatunde Lea's recent CD, The March of the Jazz Guerillas. The song was penned by saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, who has been an employer, at separate times, of both Lea and singer Dee Dee Bridgewater. Bridgewater also has sung with saxophone legend Sonny Rollins. And she, Rollins and Lea — three artists very different in instrumentation, repertoire, appearance and character (as apparent in interview) — all appear at this year's Atlanta Jazz Festival. That's the kind of diversity and confluence that flows like beauteous DNA strands through both the music of jazz and the lives of the people who make it. It must be part of that Master Plan.

Listeners lucky enough to have found Babatunde Lea's 2000 release, March of the Jazz Guerillas, are happy now to be in step with the drummer/percussionist based (like the album's label Ubiquity) in the San Francisco Bay area. Two of his fellow Guerillas, sinuous bassist Alex Blake and ecstatic saxist/vocalist Richard Howell, join Lea here in Atlanta, alongside veteran fusion pianist Onaje Allan Gumbs.

Lea's adopted name and rhythmic inspiration came from preteen attendance at a concert by Nigerian drummer Babatunde Olatunji. Lea's career began a decade later, with professional gigs in junior high and a recording at age 16.

As jazz reached out to embrace both black activism and rock and blues elements in the 1970s, Lea settled in New York City and worked alongside Leon Thomas, Oscar Brown Jr., Kenny Kirkland and others. Going west in '77, Lea became a vital and protean member of the San Francisco jazz scene. Locally based world-class players including Joe Henderson, John Handy and Richie Cole recruited Lea, but he was also audible and visible working up a sweat behind a wide variety of percussion in Brazilian and other world-music bands.

March, his recording debut as a bandleader, reunited Lea with Bill Summers. The album takes a post-bop cruise through Afro-Cuban descarga, in the process paying tribute to saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, another of Lea's former employers, and to Sanders' soulful vocalist Leon Thomas. Lea's mature talent as composer is also showcased, as is his imagination in reworking a standard ("Nature Boy"). The leader's thorough respect for the spiritual roots of Afro-Cuba music is ably shared by his Guerillas, with well-placed bata intros, rocking rumbas, and custom-made clave beats. Critics and fans will continue to discover Lea through his just-released addition to Ubiquity's Master Drummers series (Vol. 4).

Babatunde Lea performs Sun., May 27, at 4:30 p.m. on the Emerging Artist Stage.

"At age seven," Dee Dee Bridgewater says, "I told my mom I was going to grow up and be an international singing star." About to celebrate her 51st birthday (the day before her Atlanta gig), she has indeed ascended to the status of a jazz goddess in her adopted country of France. But vocalist Bridgewater's Live at Yoshi's (Verve, 2000) reaffirmed her skill, both earthy and dramatic, at captivating crowds in her native United States. It was nominated this year for a Jazz Vocal Grammy, an award she won in 1997 for Dear Ella.

"My voice is a trumpet," she says, and there's a palpable influence from her father, Matthew Garrett, and her ex-husband, Cecil Bridgewater, both of whom played that horn. "What I heard," she points out, "was how they could change the color of their instrument when they were playing a certain [kind of] tune ... so I really tried to do that. You can sing a note really smoothly and kind of caress it by holding it lonnnnnng, with a warm, open sound. Or you can attack and have a more aggressive voice by cutting notes and clipping your words."

The singer's first big chance to articulate her art came with the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis big band in New York in 1971, and her subsequent collaborations included Pharoah Sanders, Stanley Clarke, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and Dizzy Gillespie. More recently, she drew pianist and songwriter Horace Silver in for a recorded tribute to his music, Love and Peace.

But Bridgewater has also worked her magic on the theatrical stage and won a Tony Award in 1974 as Glinda in The Wiz and an Olivier Award in London for the title role in Lady Day.

As an eminently happy and successful performer, the ex-pat vocalist likes to celebrate her art form through every number in her eclectic songbook. "I like to wrap the audience in the story I'm telling," she says, "then explode it with scat, and then come back to it."

Dee Dee Bridgewater performs Mon., May 28, at 7:30 p.m. on the Main Stage.

"During my career, people have come up to me and said, 'I don't like jazz, but I like you'," Sonny Rollins says. "What they mean is that jazz can be a very in music — and that can tend to turn off a casual listener."

The joy and sheer showmanship the 70-year-old Rollins brings to his saxophone and songwriting are powerful enough to engage both casual and critical audiences. He found himself crawling over boundaries early in life, growing up in Harlem with Caribbean parents devoted to gospel music, an uncle who shared his blues 78s and buddies such as jazz frontiersmen Coleman Hawkins and Jackie McLean.

While still in his teens, Rollins began gigging and recording alongside Art Blakey, Miles Davis and Charlie "Bird" Parker. The burden of his unasked-for reputation as "the successor to Charlie Parker" survived, despite Rollins' recording a series of unique, brilliant albums in the latter '50s. The saxophonist began to smoke, drink and suffer from the anxiety of feeling he couldn't live up to his own image. In 1959 he took an unexpected break from the jazz business, practicing privately on the Williamsburg Bridge and later taking up yoga and Zen Buddhism, towards which he'd been directed by fellow seeker and jazz legend John Coltrane.

Rollins returned to the jazz business with a lucrative contract and a crossover hit in his score for the 1966 film Alfie. But he felt disillusioned by unscrupulous management and the decline of jazz under the advance of progressive rock, and he took another hiatus in the late '60s to further his spiritual quest.

Advised by holy men in India that his music was, "what I must do, regardless of the people around me or how difficult it must be," Rollins went on to examine his creativity in a variety of contexts, including electronic and pop, over the next three decades. "I have a very eclectic view of music," he says, maintaining he's still a "work in progress."

His latest side, the appropriately titled This is What I Do (Milestone, 2000), is yet another passionate, multi-faceted piece of Rollins, awash in molten bliss.

Sonny Rollins performs Sun., May 27, at 8:30 p.m. on the Main Stage.

The Atlanta Jazz Festival's free weekend concert series runs May 26-28 in Piedmont Park. For more information, call 404-817-6851.??