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The Jazz Sheikh

Luqman Hamza – A Kansas City Jazz Legend

Before names like Michael Jackson and Madonna or even John Lennon and Elvis Presley, there was Count Basie, Charlie Parker and Ella Fitgerald, the jazz legends of the 1930s and 40s.  Just a few generations past slavery and before black Americans gained equal rights, Luqman Hamza played and sang among these legendary musicians on jazz’s hallowed ground.

“Music was everywhere.  I heard Miles Davis the first time at the Boulevard Room, and Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan performing in the same group down on 12th and Vine.”

Born September 15, 1931 in St. Louis Missouri, Hamza’s mother was forced to leave her child with Isaiah and Elizabeth Cummings, a Christian minister and his wife in Kansas City, Missouri.  Hamza’s biological mother would die by the time he was 6 years old.  He would later remark of his foster father that he was, “fortunate to have spent the time I did with Isaiah (who would live to be a hundred years old).  His life read like chapters from an American history book; Isaiah’s father had been a slave, his mother a full-blooded Cherokee Indian.”

Hamza grew up in Kansas City’s fabled 18th and Vine district.  “Charlie Parker lived two blocks from our house” and there were at least 50 clubs within a six-block area.  “I was surrounded by music,” Hamza said, “it was part of my living room.”   As a child, Hamza was getting pennies and nickels for singing near his boyhood home.  From age eleven until he was seventeen, Luqman studied voice and piano under the tutelage of the Reverend John S. Williams, a native of Jamaica.  Williams, a renowned minister and choir director at the Bethel Church and a music teacher at the famed Lincoln High School, is credited with educating many of Kansas City’s finest musicians.  At the age of 12 Hamza, along with life-long friend Sonny Kenner, Lucky Wesley and various other artists, formed a group known as the Four Steps and later the Five Aces.  This group would play several clubs in the 18th and Vine district including Scott’s Theater and the Chez Paris.  In 1948 they won a statewide high school talent contest, which allowed them to play on the Bob Hope show at Municipal Auditorium Music Hall.  They would also land a live radio broadcast on KIMO every Sunday for several weeks.  He co-wrote When You Surrender with Ted Battagila when he was 19. This record was his first chart hitting release on Decca/Damon label. 

Hamza sat in for Bob Wilson, the piano player at Bill Vaughn’s Flamingo on 39th and Main, when Charlie Parker was in town. Charlie Parker sat in on the gig with him, and at the age of 21 was able to sit in at the Boulevard Room with Miles Davis.  “To me, Miles always sounded like he was singing through his horn.”

In 1954 Hamza would venture out of Kansas City to build his growing career.  He would play in St. Louis at the Glass Bar and The Toast of the Town. Shortly after, Luqman went to Chicago.  “I found the very essence of being in Chicago musical – everything from the melodic sound of the EL to the radio programs, clubs and musicians.”

In the late 1950s Hamza thrived while the jazz scene was at its peak.  His first performance in Chicago was at the Black Orchid in 1959.  He also performed at the Playboy and numerous clubs on Rush Street.  “For me, being able to sing and play and doing my own accompaniment, I was always able to find work.”  He lived and “gigged” in Chicago for over a decade.

“Music is very religious,” said Hamza, who became a Muslim in the mid 60’s.  “The Church was like the black person’s college.”  Having been raised in a Christian household, Luqman began to hear of Islam while in Chicago.  In those days the musicians were responsible for moving the religion around the country. Up until that point Luqman had performed under the name Larry Cummings; it was later that he adopted the name Luqman Hamza. A man named Luqman is mentioned in the Quran as the wise man, and Hamzah is the name of the Prophet Mohammad’s uncle. “God gave me Luqman Hamza”, Luqman would proclaim.  “I am responsible for that name.”  Hamza would continue to perform and honor his name and his way of life across the country.

1971 marked a return to his roots in Kansas City.  Hamza returned to raise his family in his own hometown.  His storied music career would continue to flourish as he was spotlighted as a featured performer at Kansas City’s Playboy Club until its closing. Luqman continued to play clubs in and around Kansas City until his move to his birthplace, St. Louis Missouri, in 1992.  He hung his hat in St. Louis for five years before returning to Kansas City in 1997.

In 2000, at the age of 69, Hamza would record 2 nationally distributed CD’s, With this Voice and When a Smile Overtakes a Frown.  Both received stellar reviews.  One key difference between the albums is that on With This Voice Hamza himself performed the vocals and the played the piano, whereas Simon Rowe provides the piano accompaniment on Smile.

On October 11th, 2008 Luqman Hamza was honored with the American Jazz Museum Lifetime Achievement Award.  Hamza’s work with the Inkspots and the Five Aces was highlighted.  The American Jazz Museum was established in 1997 and has honored many great jazz legends such as the late Ahmad Alaadeen (1934-2010) among others. Alaadeen,  who also received the Lifetime Achievement Award, was not only Hamza’s lifelong friend but also Luqman was Alaadeen’s introduction into the Jazz circle.

Hamza’s life came full circle when he found himself mentoring and tutoring students at his alma mater, Lincoln High School.  He still performs regularly, oftentimes accompanied by his wife Raynola. Luqman Hamza, like his foster father, is a walking, talking history lesson and enjoys sharing his memories with friends and family.

“I love music, and it doesn’t matter to me about being no star.” Hamza commented.  “I’m blessed to be at my age and be able to sing, play and make people enjoy, that makes you rich.”

The Interfaith Sheikh


Finding our common humanity: 9-14-10

Post from: Bill Tammeus writes about matters of religion and ethics.

Read more: http://billtammeus.typepad.com/my_weblog/2010/09/9-14-10.html#ixzz10ORKysj3

This past difficult and charged weekend, when the nation was commemorating the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and, beyond that, was all atwitter about threatened Qur’an burnings and such, my church, Second Presbyterian of Kansas City, did something sane.

We invited a Christian and some Muslims (who had just marked the end of Ramadan) to come to an adult education class and talk about their long friendship and why it matters.

Ed Chasteen (third from left in this photo), a wonderful soul who is founder of Hatebusters, brought with him (from left in this photo) Imam Yahya H. Furqan, a Muslim community prayer leader,Bassam Helwani, Syrian-born founder of Culturally Speaking, andImam Taalib-ud-Din al-Ansare, (known as Al) a clinical pastoral educator and chaplain supervisor at Research MedicalCenter.

The idea was not to solve all the problems in Christian-Muslim relations or to unpack the mysteries of the Qur’an or for Muslims or Christians to try to convert one another. Rather, the idea was simply to listen as these old friends talked about the common values that they draw from their religious traditions.

As our associate pastor, Don Fisher, said at the end of the hour, this is a conversation that has just begun and will need to continue at some length if we’re to build a friendship more fully.

But in the midst of lots of anti-Islamism rampant in the country, it was helpful for members of our congregation to spend some time with people with whom they share a common humanity, even if they pledge allegiance to a different religious tradition.

As Ed explained about his Muslim friends, “We go around and we hold conversations. We try not to make speeches. We talk among ourselves about our families, our friends, what we eat for lunch, where we go on vacation — just ordinary things to show that friends can be friends across racial and religious lines.”

Bassam added: “The accommodation and the welcoming that we immigrant Muslims feel from this society is overwhelming,” contrary to a common perception drawn from news accounts of interreligious struggles. “Everything is open for discussion because nobody is born educated. We learn from each other.”

“Our friendship is cherished,” Yahya said. “We’re all human beings. That’s the common denominattor. . .We are one family. We are one human family. . .When a baby cries, a baby doesn’t cry in English. A baby doesn’t cry in Chinese. A baby doesn’t cry in German. The baby’s cry is as a human being.”

“If we look around,” Al said, “we find a great variety of folks in every group. And America is the foremost place for the acceptance of this. . .And in the diversity is where our beauty is.”

It’s hard to hate people when you get to know them first as human beings who share common hopes and dreams. I wish the violent extremists who claim to be following Islam and radicals from Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and all other faiths could learn that lesson. A conversation on a Sunday morning at a church is a good place to start.

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Ahead of Pope Benedict XVI’s upcoming visit to the United Kingdom, a Catholic official there says the British people are essentially ignorant about religion. What? Just because lots of people think Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife?

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P.S.: Do you know about Care of Poor People? Headed by a formerly homeless man, Richard G. Tripp, it has collected and distributed clothes, food and other necessities each year to help poor people in the Kansas City area make it through the winters. A phone-in conference call to plan this year’s event is scheduled for this Sunday. Click here for a YouTube video in which Tripp explains it all and how you can participate. His special goal this year is to increase involvement of people of many faiths.