Once, We Had a King
I didn’t want to sound like a name dropper. So there was a period when I stopped talking about my teen years. Brooklyn in the 1970s was home to a unique and culturally fertile Black community, and many people I know from the neighborhood have gone on to have successful or influential careers in the arts. But back then, among ourselves, we were just teens doing our thing.
Some of those most consequential things were illegal. Tagging, writing the name of your alternative identity in a unique script in a public location for as many as possible to see, was one. As taggers gained recognition from curators for the uniqueness of their tags, their skills and their work moved from being seen as a form of vandalism to being seen as a form of art. That was one focal point of expression for us. Music was another.
The Black neighborhoods of Brooklyn were home to many bands now considered legendary: B.T. Express, Brass Construction, Mandrill, Crown Heights Affair, and others. They inspired us to form our own bands. In addition, Brooklyn was the home of many great jazz musicians. A group of them led by John Coltrane/Art Blakey bassist Reggie Workman decided to put a program together to teach the Black youth of Brooklyn to play creative music. That jazz program at the New Muse Community Museum, aka The Muse, became the foundation of Black Brooklyn’s musical skills. While a musical community grounded in prowess on musical instruments was flowering, another one made of technology manipulators and low-end theorists was emerging. This community, grounded in the sound system culture of New York City’s Jamaican immigrants, was the incubator for a new form of music that would, in a few years’ time, explode out of New York’s Black neighborhoods into worldwide consciousness.
In my neighborhood the teens cooked up creations that shifted Earth’s culture. The Ex-Vandals, a crew of graffiti artists led by WG, birth name Gary Fritz, were represented strongly in the first-ever showing of New York street art in a major gallery. Musicians like keyboardist Kashif and bassist Wayne Braithwaite went on to produce Whitney Houston and Kenny G respectively. But there are two from my neighborhood (the areas of Flatbush, Ditmas Park, and Crown Heights that are walking distance from my parents’ apartment in the area realtors now call Prospect Park South) that particularly exemplify the spirit of that time. Both of them died way too soon. One, a visual artist, became world-renowned. The other, a musician who in the eyes of us in the neighborhood was just as important and creative as the visual artist, remains known only to a small but reverent community.
The visual artist is Jean-Michel Basquiat. The musician is Arthur Rhames.
Before his untimely death, Basquiat was able to codify his creativity and capture it in a format that will be viable for hundreds of years. Arthur Rhames, on the other hand, was not. The documents we have of Rhames’s work are tantalizing but insufficient glimpses of his abilities. His undeniable virtuosity on three instruments—guitar, saxophone, and piano—shines through. But his full depth and power remains uncaptured. His musicality was too much, too big for the technology made available to him.
Saxophonist Eric Wyatt shares this about his first time hearing Arthur Rhames: “I grew up in a house where my father’s best friend was Sonny Rollins. I knew what high-level playing was. When I heard him … I’m telling you [I thought] ‘this [sound I am hearing] is not real.’”
Trying to explain what Arthur Rhames had to those who didn’t witness it raises questions.
What is artistic greatness? Is it something that can be captured in a document and commodified? Or is it something that exists inside the person who experiences what great art and great artists do? Sonny Rollins is an American cultural icon. His good friend, Eric’s father, lived in the projects in Brownsville. This raises more questions: how does an art form maneuver when the connoisseurs of that art form aren’t born into the ruling caste? How do you maintain that art form while dealing with cultural mediators and their demands?
“Great Black Music: Ancient to the Future” (the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s motto) isn’t focused on delivering a commodifiable document. It’s about producing sonic artifacts that emerge in communal space in a shared moment. The fact that Arthur Rhames’s music resisted encapsulation is not a bug—it’s a feature.
But Mahalia Jackson figured out how to bottle her lightning. Given the time and resources, Rhames would’ve too. Brian Bacchus, who ran Antilles Records and later Blue Note Records, confirms that in a meeting with Charles Telerant, the drummer who played with Arthur on the streets of Manhattan, he said: “I’ve been trying to find where Arthur is. If you hear where Arthur is, I’d sign him in a minute.” Unfortunately, at that point, all of us in the neighborhood knew where Arthur was. Bacchus continues, “that’s when I heard that he died.”
Arthur’s greatness was never intimidating or jealousy-inducing to us. His playing was a call to action, an example. Seeing a kid from the neighborhood reach that level made us all feel that if he could do it, we could do it too. Rhames’s greatness made us all in the neighborhood feel that we could be great. That “we” includes Grammy-winning guitarist Vernon Reid, leader of the multi-platinum selling rock band Living Colour, as well as Eric Wyatt—who is Robert Glasper’s mentor—the person who the new generation of jazzers call “The Mayor of Brooklyn.”
Wyatt spent significant time with Arthur. They first met at The Muse, where Rhames, Wyatt, Reid, Cleve Alleyne—the bassist in Arthur’s jazz-fusion trio Eternity—and I all studied. Describing their practice regime, he said: “He would come by my house. He knew he could play all day [there]. First, we would lift weights. Then we might play for like an hour, trading [musical phrases], recording it on a cassette. Then we would make falafels. He liked healthy stuff. And then we would sit there and listen. And then, we would play again.”
Rhames’s musical goal was transcendence. The artists he modeled himself after, saxophonist John Coltrane and pianist McCoy Tyner, who released albums titled Ascension and Enlightenment, and guitarist John McLaughlin, who called his group the Mahavishnu Orchestra, were artists who explicitly embraced that idea. But Arthur's playing wasn’t mere homage. What separated him from all the other players who adopted those musical languages was his embodiment of the spirit those languages were designed to invoke. When Rhames was playing you felt him using and extending his musical language as much as you heard it.
In 1980 I was playing with John Coltrane’s last drummer, Rashied Ali, in a band he called the Funky Freeboppers. When Rashied heard Arthur Rhames, he disbanded the group I was in and began playing with Arthur as a duo. Rashied himself told me that Rhames was the only musician he had heard that he felt invoked the same energy and spirit Coltrane did.
That energy could be a challenge. As Brian Bacchus said: “Just watching somebody transcending, in whatever way, whether it’s speaking in tongues or whatever, is gonna make you uncomfortable. It may not make you run away. It may make you come closer. But it’s still gonna be like, “Oh shit, how do I get to that? And why can’t I get that now? Why am I being left out?’”
The discomfort of transcendence became personified in Arthur Rhames in another fashion for many of us in the neighborhood, when he came out of the closet and was hospitalized due to AIDS. The depth of his influence forced all of us to make a choice. Could we transcend the Abrahamic mores instilled in us, or nah? I had already progressed a long way in that direction through years of interaction with my cousin Ben, who died of pneumonia a few months before they figured out what the disease that was killing gay men was. Also, going clubbing, especially the first time I went to The Garage, was a turning point. I’d bet that straight night at The Garage did more to alleviate homophobia in the late ’70s/early ’80s NYC than any other single thing. But neutrality wasn’t quite acceptance. Arthur’s coming out meant I had to take a side. It forced me to grapple with my homophobia and overcome it.
In the words of Vernon Reid: “He completely transformed my thinking about LGBTQ people. Those of us in the neighborhood, when it came out, we had a fundamental decision to make. That decision was whether we were going to continue to embrace Arthur as mentor, brother, teacher, artist, or whether we were going to use the excuse of homophobia to kind of deal with the fact that he’s the greatest cat. I felt like the neighborhood was divided and I felt myself, yourself [speaking to the author] and others made the right decision. It was to the point of, he’s gay, I still love him, he’s gay and I don’t care.” Reid continues, “that revelation started me on the path of really checking out Baldwin, really checking out what Bayard Rustin did in the movement. Aside from his influence and his mindblowing-ness, that may be the most important thing.”
Arthur Rhames was our musical role model. He went all in, so we do too. He strived for transcendence, so we do too. His work is an inspiration and his memory is a blessing.