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Remembering Maya Angelou's jazz collaboration

Herbie Mann
Herbie Mann

Word has come this morning of the death of Maya Angelou. The memoirist and poet, whose “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” described her girlhood in the Jim Crow South, died on Wednesday in her home. She was 86.
Angelou’s interests extended to music and she performed with Herbie Mann on the jazzman's album, "The Common Ground."

Flautist Herbie Mann is well-known for his forays into Cuban jazz. However, on 1960’s “The Common Ground,” he journeys east to create a unique blend of jazz and African music. Much of this album still falls back on salsa sounds, since Mann employs a four-man Latin-inspired trumpet section and two Puerto Rican percussionists.
However, the strength of this record lies in Mann's collaborations with the West African hand-drummer Michael Olatunji. For "Sawa Sawa De'," Mann plays an African flute, and vibraphonist John Rae switches to an African marimba, while the vocals of Olatunji, Maya Angelou and Dolores Parker invoke the spirit of Nigeria.
Mann's composition "Uhuru" also interweaves jazz with African sounds, though the boundaries here are not as clear. This tune is a simple waltz centered on a 12-bar blues form; however, Olatunji's griot-style vocal performance, heard towards the end of this piece, takes the listener back to West Africa. As the closing title track implies, Mann's record is about finding common ground in a number of styles, blending American jazz and Latin rhythms with the strong influence of African music.

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