Weldon Irvine by Collis H. Davis, Jr.
Weldon J. Irvine, Jr. and I have been lifelong friends since our earliest recollection of life in Hampton, Virginia. Being the children of Hampton Institute faculty and administration members, we lived in a somewhat insular middle-class world whose setting was the beautiful waterfront campus of the 1940s and ‘50s. Weldon likened growing up in this environment to being a hot-house plant that was protected from the rigors of hostile conditions outside of it.€¯ But for Weldon, the cocoon-like security that epitomized our campus life offered him no personal comfort. His parents divorced when he was only two years old, and this meant he would no longer see either his mother, Virginia Brown Irvine, except during summer visits to Detroit; or his father, Weldon Irvine, Sr., who was a practicing musician and school teacher in Baltimore. But I didn’t hear much from Weldon about his visits to his father at the time; it was only much later did Weldon get to know his father who was now quite advanced in his years. After his parents divorce, Weldon lived with his grandparents, Major and Mrs. Walter R. Brown and was raised by them. Major Brown (inset below) was the first Cadet Commandant and Dean of the then Hampton Institute.
In the early 1950s, Weldon’s grandparents decided to move off-campus to the neighboring village of Phoebus where they built a new home in what Weldon called a slum.¯ No longer protected by the cloistered atmosphere of the campus, Weldon saw that he was going to have to learn to defend himself from menacing neighborhood bullies. Even before Weldon moved to Phoebus, he had already developed a keen interest in weapons of all kinds. Collecting weapons,€¯ as Weldon explained it in my documentary film during the mid-1970s, was to continue well into his adult life as he endeavored to hide his vulnerabilities behind a facade of outward calm and street toughness.
Around 1953 or ‘54, I would frequently invite Weldon over to my new campus home called The Lodge, the very same house Weldon’s grandparents had just vacated, to hear the latest jazz records brought home by my late sister, Louise Davis Stone, who was living in New York. Horace Silver’s Blue Note 33-rpm LPs like Horace Silver and the Jazz Messengers became the sensation of our small-town musical sensibilities and we grooved endlessly on “The Preacher”€¯ and many other Silver compositions that came to define the burgeoning era of hard-bop of the 1960s.
Weldon attended Hampton Institute, majoring in English but with three minors in speech, drama and music theory. He graduated in 1965, and by then had already gained some notoriety as pianist with the college-based Bill Barnwell Quintet that took top honors at the 1964 4th Annual Intercollegiate Jazz Festival at Villanova University. Photo (left) courtesy of Ryo Nakata of Japan.
Our worlds met only intermittently after we both left Hampton for greener pastures, with Weldon heading to New York City after graduation in 1965. I had already departed earlier in 1957 for a New England college preparatory school. By 1972, when I entered the MFA program at New York University’s graduate school of Motion Picture and Television Production, Weldon was already quite well established, having formed a 17-piece band after Kenny Dorham’s big band, in which he was the pianist, broke up in 1966-67. At the time, Irvine gigged with no less than the likes of percussionists Billy Cobham or Ron Jackson and, later, Lenny White; trumpeters Randy Brecker and Tom Browne; saxophonists Bennie Maupin and Steve Grossman; and keyboardist George Cables for Weldon’s big band, all of whom were unknowns in the jazz world at the time.
Perhaps Weldon’s most notable professional association was with Nina Simone as her organist and shortly thereafter became her musical director as well. He collaborated with Nina on “Revolution”€¯ and “(To be) Young, Gifted and Black”€¯ in 1968 when the Lorraine Hansberry autobiographical Broadway stage production of the same title was playing to SRO crowds. When Simone experienced writer’s block in writing the lyrics of her melodic composition inspired by the play’s title, she threw the challenge to Weldon, and after several weeks of mulling it over, he said all the words you hear in that song came to me in a torrent.¯ Weldon added, I think they came from The Creator, through me. “To be Young, Gifted and Black”¯ came to be recognized as a black national anthem and many artists such as Aretha Franklin, Dionne Warwick and Donny Hathaway subsequently recorded it.
During a documentary interview in 1975 for The Edification of Weldon Irvine Weldon recalled,
I was deeply honored when I first came to work with Nina. I had
respected her work for years prior to having met her face-to-face.
It was much more than just a casual case of my being a sideman in
the band; it was a complete and total learning experience for me,
not only musically but in so many other areas. And I just absorbed so
much from the woman primarily because she is a staunch perfectionist.
The total aspect of her art is perfection, and I learned that I am not far
from being a perfectionist myself, because the whole time I was with
her it was my sole interest and intention to please in a musical capacity.€¯
Little did Nina Simone know that Weldon, whom she had not yet hired until later in 1968, was a Hamptonian when she brought her trio to the first Hampton Institute Jazz Festival during the week of June 23,1968. The inception of the Festival occurred in 1967 when the then Hampton Institute was planning ways to celebrate the centennial of its founding in 1868. Jazz promoter George Wein was assisting a jazz workshop on campus that summer and inquired about having a jazz festival at the college. Wein had originated the jazz festival concept with the famed Newport Jazz Festivals in the 1950s. President Jerome Holland and business manager Lucius Wyatt liked the idea of bringing the best of jazz to more people, recalled Wyatt in a 1982 interview.
This auspicious event began with a jazz seminar for students with jazz composer and violinist Joseph Kennedy Jr., music historian Bernice Reagon, and jazz musician Lou Donaldson. The Roots of Jazz€¯ program opened the concert series Thursday night with such greats as Earl Fatha€¯ Hines, Willie “The Lion”€¯ Smith, Muddy Waters and his Blues Band and the Staples Singers performing in Ogden Hall.
On Friday night in the Armstrong Field sports stadium, a crowd of about 9,500 heard headliners Dionne Warwick (the festival had a pop element from the beginning), Julian “Cannonball”€¯ Adderly, Archie Shepp, Herbie Mann and Mongo Santamaria. On Saturday night, Nina Simone and her trio received a standing ovation from the crowd of about 14,000. Also on the bill were Count Basie and his Orchestra, Ramsey Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie and his Quintet, the Jimmy Smith trio and Gary Burton.
By the time Nina returned again to the HJF in 1972, Weldon unfortunately was no longer associated with her band. In the meantime, I had recently returned home from a three-year stint in the U.S. Army, and attended the ‘72 event and was able to photograph Ms. Simone. Of the many performance shots I have ever made during 1970s and early 80s, while covering the jazz scene in New York for Downbeat magazine and other jazz periodicals, this single image is my, hands-down, favorite of them all. It captures the excitement, intensity and Blackness that Nina Simone symbolized during a time when the Civil Rights Movement was at its height. Also on the bill in 1972 was a stellar group of artists such as Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck Trio, Kenny Burrell, Ray Charles, Paul Desmond, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Haynes, Illinois Jacquet, B. B. King, Herbie Mann, Al McKibbon, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Joe Newman, Zoot Sims, Jimmy Smith, Sonny Stitt, Clark Terry, The Giants of Jazz, Kai Winding, Cannonball Adderley. That such a gathering of jazz talent could be assembled to perform in Hampton was nothing short of miraculous when one looks back to that time.
Impresario George Wein continued to produce the festival into the early 1990s; and during some years of this period, the festival was part of the KOOL Jazz Festivals nationwide franchise. But the cigarette maker and Hampton University, with a smoke-free campus policy, eventually parted ways. At the time, I ran a monthly series of art€¯ films called the Film Classics under the auspices of the City of Hampton Library and The Hampton Association for the Arts and Humanities founded by Rufus B. Easter, Jr. In my capacity as the film series curator, I developed a proposal to stage a jazz film series in conjunction with the 1972 Hampton Jazz Festival in which a movie theater in the shopping mall opposite the Hampton Coliseum would be rented by the Festival to showcase important jazz films. Sadly, Mr. Wein turned a blind eye to the idea.
In 1972, Weldon released the first of many record albums under his own label, Liberated Brother, Time Capsule and In Harmony in subsequent years. Weldon’s producing skills, honed during his producing his first three albums, sufficiently impressed RCA Records’ Tom Draper, that they entered into a three-year deal in 1974 that led to the production of Cosmic Vortex, Spirit Man, and Sinbad. After Sinbad was released around 1976, RCA did not make the expected commitment to promote his latest album, according to Weldon, so its sales suffered as a result; but more disappointing was RCA’s decision “not to pick up my option”¯ (to renew his contract), according to Weldon. The problem came down to a difference between Weldon’s independent style of producing and the corporate culture of RCA. Weldon’s apparent refusal to surrender more of the producing control to RCA (including how his budget line items were to be spent) caused Weldon to be blacklisted, such that he could no longer land a recording contract with any of the major record labels in the US from this time forward.
Around the time of Weldon’s signing the RCA contract, his close friend from college days at Hampton, Majorie Moon, joined the Billie Holiday Theatre of The Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, Brooklyn, NY, and soon became its executive director. In the wake of Weldon’s troubles with RCA, Weldon developed an idea for a musical, Young, Gifted and Broke, in which he would write the book, music and lyrics for the production. The Off-Off Broadway production, which was about a young, idealistic entrepreneur trying to make it in the music business, opened May 17, 1977 and ran for eight months and won four Audelco awards. Marjorie Moon produced and directed the musical. This led to a decade-long relationship with the Theatre in which Weldon produced more than 20 musical dramas.
Coupled with having been dropped by RCA and the advent of disco music, Weldon fell on hard times as an ensemble player, including many of his protégés as well. But having been a longtime lover of poetry, it was natural that Weldon would become an avid supporter of ethical rap or hip-hop that was now invigorating the music scene in the 1980s.
In the late ‘90s, I was in contact with Weldon again, this time to share with me photos of his new son, Weldon Marcus Devon (born February 23, 1995), the joy of his life. Weldon told me of his estrangement from the son’s mother, Pauline Cole.
Late in his career, Weldon produced and financed The Amadou Project, a CD commemorating Amadou Diallo who was shot by four New York City policemen in 1999. The CD features a host of spoken-word artists, rappers and MCs, as well as voice-overs by Diallo’s parents. In addition to the Diallo CD, Weldon had launched three hip-hop CDs but they went nowhere financially, thus leaving him deeper in debt.
Late in the year 2000, Weldon founded The Faith Science Gospel Home out of his own continuing quest for spiritual truth. “I’€m here to present a teaching, not a preaching, ministry”,¯ he told Newsday. Using the Afrikan Poetry Theatre in Jamaica, Queens, NY as its meeting place, church services were held there occasionally until Weldon’s suicide on April 9, 2002 by gun shot to the head. Irvine left no suicide note, so we can only speculate as to what pressures could have led to this tragic end. Friends close to Weldon at the time of his death spoke of his contemplating selling the rights to his music to settle the $200,000 debt owed to the Internal Revenue Service. Weldon never owned anything in his life that could be liquidated except for his music rights, and this is the one thing he fought hardest to retain, above all. What he had, he gave to Art, to the development of young musical talents and to worthy causes for which little return would be forthcoming. His was the gift of giving. What he lost were financial gambles at the race track from which he could never recover, thus depriving himself of attaining the peace of mind he so desperately sought throughout most of his life.
Collis Davis now resides in the Philippines. Although he is officially retired, he continues to produce historical documentaries, industrial videos and books.
The Edification of Weldon Irvine DVD (60-min) is available at: