The history of jazz has often depended upon the reports of witnesses regardless of how far removed. A supremely valid history of jazz is on the lips of those who were there. Meade’s retelling of first-hand accounts has influenced jazz education and generations of young people.
It is fitting that Donald Edward Meade be honored as the first recipient and namesake of the 1st Annual Donald Meade Legacy Jazz Griot Award. Recognized internationally by top jazz musicians, loved and respected by the jazz community, Donald Meade has been a faithful steward of the oral history of this music we all love.
There has been a number of jazz greats, educators, and musical legends that have transitioned from this earth in the past year. Clark Terry, Louis Jordan, B.B. King, Ben E. King, are just a few names of those musical giants that have permanently left their musical imprint in the lives of those who listened. However it is the passing of one educator that the African American Jazz Caucus, Inc, would be remise not to formally acknowledge, Jazz Griot Donald Meade.
From the beginning of time, cultural mores and traditions have been transmitted orally from one generation to another. In this way, it was possible for a society to transmit history, literature, law and other knowledge’s across generations without a writing system. In West Africa, the griot is a historian. The griot delivers history as a poet, praise singer, and wandering musician. “The griot is a repository of oral tradition.
Though the griot has to know many traditional songs without error, he must also have the ability to extemporize on current events, chance incidents and the passing scene. His wit can be devastating and his knowledge of local history formidable." Paul Oliver “Savannah Syncopators”
A good griot possesses a remarkable memory and remains ever ready to recite or sing long histories. Such are the endowments of Donald Edward Meade. A musically talented griot who has learned not just the words, but the music as well; for you cannot separate the musical art from the vocal art without losing the overall effect.
There are not many folks around who are able to provide the unique perspective Donald Meade brings to reflections on the origins, dynamics and byways of jazz music. It is a honed perspective that includes more than just an intimate familiarity with the people that inhabited the landscape, but includes a thorough knowledge of how these artists mirrored and informed the development of the American culture at the time.
There are many who believe Donald Meade to be a national treasure! His love for music combined with his knowledge of jazz and the people who created it has provided him a truly unique perspective of the big picture. A musician, writer, producer and historian, Mr. Meade has a seemingly ordained desire to “…stop the erosion of music in public schools specifically and the American public in general.” He says “this music is too important to take loosely.” At eighty plus years of age, his energy and enthusiasm are contagious and he enjoys nothing more than sharing his knowledge with others, especially young people.
The son of a revered labor leader, Alfred (Mule) Meade, Donald Meade remarks: “the history of some aspects of the culture in this country cannot be explained without first understanding the country’s labor history.” As a former laborer at John Deere Harvester Works and later a TWA baggage supervisor, Meade comments: “were the opportunity to work not here, all of those musical influences, from New Orleans to New York, would not have gravitated and uniquely jelled here.” We have all heard versions of the history of this music, but rarely in the context of the symbiotic relationship of arts and labor. It is an insightful view of life and music unique to Mr. Meade.
Meade, born December 8, 1928 in Joliet, Illinois, was raised in Joliet and later in the Watertown area of East Moline, Illinois, both of which were rich and coming of age during the time when jazz was in its formative years. Meade speaks fondly of growing up musically in the time of Duke Ellington, Nat Cole, Pat Patrick, Louis Armstrong, Clark Terry and many other pioneers and innovators of the day. He has been a lifelong friend and confidant to many of the jazz legends and innovators, and has traveled extensively with jazz giants such as Ed Thigpen, Ray Brown, Oscar Peterson, Milt Jackson, Cedar Walton, the Heath Brothers, Art Farmer, and Ella Fitzgerald to name a few. “At one time jazz was the popular music” he says.
There are many ways to reconstruct the course of the evolution of jazz music. Each of these evolution formulas brings its own limited version of validity. The history of jazz has often depended on the reports of witnesses regardless of how far removed. A supremely valid history of jazz is on the lips of those who were there. One cannot argue with the veracity of informed accounts by knowledgeable participants. One cannot argue with living history! Winston Churchill said “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you will see.” Most educational or historical renditions of jazz or American music would be greatly enhanced by the contextual perspective offered by a Donald Meade.
Recognized internationally by top jazz musicians, Donald is equally comfortable with music manufacturers, publishers, critics, and fans. Whatever the station in life, all agree the history of jazz is in capable hands with Donald Meade.
In listening to Donald Meade one cannot help but notice and be impressed with the detail in his stories and his universal view utilizing jazz as a point of reference. The breadth of his observations was easily seen in one of his late night stories eavesdropped in a hallway of a conference hotel:
“In 1973, on a Sunday afternoon, Louise and I were attending a reunion performance of the Horace Silver/Art Farmer Quartet at the Tanterrini Brother’s Half Note; and let me tell you, it was packed… wall to wall. There was a guy behind me that asked if I would be nice enough to squeeze over a little bit so he could see the band. When we made room for him, he said “Oh My God thank you! Jazz is the music and I have always been a big fan”. Later we were talking and he identified himself as John Lennon. I told him that I knew who he was. He was telling us he had seen Coleman Hawkins and many other jazz players in Europe. He went on to say that he was an astrology buff of sorts and asked me what was my birthday. I told him it was December 8, 1928 and he frowned and said “that was an infamous day in history” and gave several examples of calamitous events and peculiar people born on that day. “Strange things happened on December 8th”, he said. As it turns out, John Lennon was shot to death outside of his apartment building on the night of December 8, 1980.
Donald has an extraordinary way of making you feel special when you are around him; and those around him for more than 15 minutes will have heard him say: “We have to be careful and tell things exactly how it happened. We don’t need to dress it up. We have to provide constant involvement and trustworthy stewardship to protect the integrity of this music”.
Such is the charge of a Griot!
Action Reaction (Donald Meade & Ed Thigpen) was the first Black Publishing Company to exhibit at a music trade show began in 1980.
In 2011The Donald Meade Legacy Society, an organization founded upon the premise that the “story” is an essential part of Jazz education and that the storyteller or Griot creates a vital link between the music and life stories, created an annual award “The Meade Legacy Jazz Griot Award”, and presented at the JEN Conference.
The first award was conferred upon Donald Edward Meade, January 5, 2012.
Hearing your stories about many of my personal heroes is always exhilarating and reminds me how fortunate and blessed I am to be a Jazz musician. To know you as a personal friend is a HUGE plus in my life. I am more than pleased to witness you being publically acknowledged at the 2012 JEN Conference as one of our most treasured and deserving Jazz Griot Historians. Without you, who would know the "real deal?" Thank you being the magnificent human being that you are!...
Congratulations on your 83rd birthday. You are the man when it comes to jazz history. Your knowledge has inspired and informed all of us who love jazz. You not only know this history but have lived it…
Professor Emeritus of Percussion
Eastman School of Music
It is people like you who will help to keep Jazz alive for generations to come. Your incredible memory is second to none, so you are always able to share facts and details. But it’s your genuine and sincere love of mentoring young people that sets you apart, Donald…
Joe Calato & Family
I've never mentioned a name or subject that he hasn't had insight, personal experience or knowledge about. I have often told Donald that he should write a book chronicling his experiences and knowledge. Donald Meade is a true Griot. It is very fitting that he be honored and recognized world wide…
Willie & Irma Pickens
Because you have heard and experienced so much for so long, you stand as a beacon to so many fans, friends, and musicians, all of us sharing the joy of jazz and hoping to pass it along to others yet uninitiated. Your commitment is greatly appreciated…
You introduced me to and continue to guide me through the business aspect of music… And that brings to mind one of many of your sayings; "I will never tell you anything wrong" and that has never been a truer statement when it comes down to all that you have taught me…
Leon Joyce Jr
If there is anything we want to know about life or jazz history we only have to call DAD. DAD is a walking encyclopedia of Jazz History. I love you DAD.
Your loving son,
Chicago Jazz Orchestra
I would like to personally and on behalf of all my students of over 35 years applaud the mentorship and friendship of a jazz legend, Donald Meade. He has kept the true tradition of knowledge of the history and culture of jazz alive and relevant to many young and old…
Director NIU Jazz Studies/Director NIU Jazz Ensemble
Since meeting you, I have grown a deeper appreciation for the language of Jazz. I can now say, if you don’t have anything to say, then stay away from Jazz. Jazz is a language of music only for people who want to hold conversation…
It was so great to hear about all the wonderful musicians who went through the Dusable H S bands. Johnny Griffin was my favorite… I'm hoping you will write down all of that great history so we'll have it forever. Thanks again for all you do to preserve the history and educate the people about America's great music - JAZZ !!!
Your friend, Juli Wood
Nnenna Freelon serenades Donald Meade at the inaugural award ceremony.
Donald Meade Impromptu Jazz Stories