Wind Beneath My Wings

On December 27, 2016, during one of my annual Christmas holiday visits back home in Detroit, I finally had a chance to celebrate my Uncle Alex’s 95th birthday by treating him and his granddaughter to a wonderful Jazz concert at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café: The Charles Boles Quartet. Charles Boles, a Detroit legend and fixture at the piano, was born in 1933, was mentored by Barry Harris, and cut his teeth at a very young age with the likes of Detroit exports Donald Byrd, Paul Chambers, and Tommy Flanagan. Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, USAF (Ret.), my late mother’s big brother, who is now 100 years old, is one of only seven (7) remaining Tuskegee Airmen combat pilots, the famous all-Black 332nd Fighter Group that heroically and distinguishably served in World War II escorting U.S. bomber planes. Uncle Alex successfully flew 18 and one-half missions, being shot down in August 1944 and held as a P.O.W. in Germany for nine (9) months before being liberated at war’s end. In 2005, he co-wrote a book, titled “Red Tail Captured, Red Tail Free: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman and POW”, and in 2016, was featured in a documentary film, titled “The Luft Gangster: Memoirs of a Second Class Hero”. As a civilian, Uncle Alex was a Detroit Public Schools elementary school teacher and assistant principal for 30 years. To this day, his “senior citizen” 3rd-4th grade science students incessantly laud and gush over their cherish “Mr. Jefferson!” As a young teen, during family visits to Uncle Alex & Aunt Della’s home, I was enamored with his stereo room (pre-“Man Cave”) off the kitchen where, on wall shelves, there appeared a stereo, turntable (NOT a record player), reel-to-reel tape deck, headphones, and shelf speakers. As I recall, he also had a set of large floor speakers in the living room. From early on, my goal in life was to one day have my own stereo room! As the years passed by, while exclusively staying with my parents during my Detroit visits, I always made a point of checking in on the old folks, with my parents in tow. That meant wonderful visits with Aunt Phyllis (dad’s sister), Uncle Alex, and Uncle Clarence (mom’s little brother, now 91!). Surely enough, Uncle Alex, also a big Jazz fan, always had nice Jazz playing in the background on cassette, reel-to-reel, or FM radio station WJZZ. While my parents and Uncle Alex talked, I usually snuck off to his stereo room to take equipment inventory or to see what was playing. Years later, after he relocated his stereo equipment to the living room’s TV entertainment center, I could just get up from the sofa, take a few steps, and begin my visual inventory of Uncle Alex’s equipment, cassette tapes, reel tapes, and albums. As time moved on, since he was also a learned, highly-educated, and well-read person, I’d sometimes visit Uncle Alex all by myself just to discuss current events, family ancestry, history, politics, books, and Jazz & Blues. He was also an avid photographer and illustrator, and maintained the family tree (mom’s side of the family). One of those such visits in the 1990s changed my Jazz perspective and broadened my horizons forever. While we were chatting, with Jazz playing in the background (a cassette tape), I suddenly inquired, “Who is that playing?” He responded, “Oh, that’s Coleman Hawkins”. I’m thinking, “Wow, that sounds great!” Then a few minutes later, I made another inquiry. He responded, “Uh, I think that’s Lester Young.” Eventually, I had to inquire once again and he responded, “Well, that Ben Webster!” These three tenor saxophonists, whom I call “The Big 3”, whose sound was not your typical 1940s/50s bebop, blew my mind at the time and were pre-Coltrane and Rollins. All three had rich tenor sounds that could both swing hard, then slow down for a beautiful ballad. Of course, Coleman Hawkins’ 1939 improvised solo on “Body and Soul” is legendary and historic. After that visit, when I got back to Baltimore, I went out and purchased every Emarcy/Verve/Mercury CD, new or used, that I could get my hands on. I was definitely on a(nother) mission to check out this newly-discovered and unfamiliar tenor sax sound outside of the 1950s/60s bebop period that I was pretty much up on by then. In that same vein, I also learned about and purchased CDs by Buddy Tate, Arnett Cobb, Gene Ammons, Jimmy Forrest, Illinois Jacquet, and Wardell Gray, just to name a few. Wow, what a revelation! All because of my Uncle Alex. :v) Other significant achievements of his over the years include: (1) 1995 induction into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame, (2) featured speaker at 2001 NASA Ames Research Center’s “Aero Expo” event that celebrated a century of flight, addressing 1,200 students, as well as Ames employees, (3) Congressional Gold Medal from President George W. Bush at a Tuskegee Airmen White House ceremony in 2007, (4) participation in 2016 television special from Kennedy Center celebrating the grand opening of Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and (5) featured on NBC Today Show’s Smuckers 100th Birthday celebrations last November. So, on that December night at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café, the Charles Boles Quartet, featuring guitarist Ron English, played a great set and swung hard. I was proud to treat my Uncle Alex to some outstanding foot-tapping, knee-slapping, and head-nodding Jazz piano music that he thoroughly enjoyed (as well as the great food!). Hopefully, his head flew high above the clouds once again for many days that followed… :v)

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