In the wake of Aretha Franklin’s death from pancreatic cancer at age 76 on Aug. 16, Wynton Marsalis, managing and artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, writes in an exclusive essay for Billboard about Franklin’s encyclopedic knowledge of jazz, her timeless music and the hilarious all-caps emails she’d send friends.
I first met Ms. Franklin in the late ‘80s and was so excited, I had to slap myself back to reality. Afterward, I called my momma and told her. She said, “Boy, I hope you remembered your manners and didn’t act like a fool in front of that lady.” I called Ms. Franklin ma’am so many times, she asked me if I was alright. I told her that I had listened to recordings of her father’s preaching. She was surprised, but she passed over that to talk about all of the jazz musicians she knew growing up. A roll call of greats came tumbling out with funny personal anecdotes for each name, from obscure figures like John Kirby to famous legends like Art Tatum, connecting everyone and everything.
For us, growing up on the black side of Kenner, Louisiana, in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, she was more than a music star. We perceived her to be a stalwart hero in the struggle for American civil rights alongside strong, no-nonsense people like Fannie Lou Hamer and Barbara Jordan. I can vividly recall my momma and her friends loving Ms. Franklin’s sound with an excruciating intensity. They could never decide whether to sing with her or co-sign her, as if in church. So they did both, interrupting the sing-along with “Sing, baby. Talk about it, girl! Tell it!” You could see and feel the healing as her sound got all up inside ‘em, inspiring a timeless moment of cathartic joy and starkly illuminating difficult lives that were troubled with so many sorrows.
As the ‘70s gave way to the ‘80s, different styles of music became more popular, and our country slowly eased away from the promises of the civil rights movement. Still, she was out here, hovering overhead like a Goddess in some Pantheon, able to trap us when we left the beaten path in an ambrosial web of soul. With the passage of time, you understood that Aretha Franklin represented a depth of human engagement not relegated to a given time and space. Her sound itself became unyielding triumph over the blues of life that scar and strengthen us all.
In 2012, we were scheduled to do a concert with her. She and I ended up talking about all kinds of musical things. She told stories the same way she sang, with a piercing knowingness. Ms. Franklin had a habit of emailing the continuation of phone conversations ALL IN CAPS. First, a warm salutation. Then, her personal and professional relationships intertwined as she delivered so much history in an original and conversational manner. On the phone, I once asked her about the great gospel singers Albertina Walker and Dorothy Love of the ‘50s. Later she emailed: DORTHY LOVE WAS CALLED DOT LOVE. SHE WAS COMPETITIVE WITH ALBERTINA WALKER FOR THE LEAD OF THE WORLD FAMOUS CARAVANS OUT OF CHICAGO. WHEN I WAS 13, ALBERTINA AND I TRAVELED WITH MY DAD TO SEE THE CARAVANS. DOT WAS OUT OF BIRMINGHAM, ALA. THEY WERE 2 PEOPLE IN GOSPEL WHO HAD LITTLE TO NO VOICE, BUT SO MUCH SPIRIT AND SAVOIR FAIRE, THEY COULD WRECK A HOUSE!!!
She would refer to jazz musicians of all eras, from Count Basie to Mulgrew Miller, and might touch on anything from a friend of hers dating John Coltrane to Miles Davis stealing her bass player: “LISTENING TO COLTRANE LAST EVE, DON’T YOU LOVE WHAT HE DID WITH MY FAV THINGS! I SPENT MONTHS AT A TIME WITH HIM AT THE VILLAGE GATE, AND ART BLAKEY, HORACE SILVER, FREDDIE HUBBARD, JUNIOR MANCE ETC!!!…..
And she loved the piano: HAVE YOU EVER HEARD DORTHY DONEGAN ? (PIANIST) AND GENIUS. MY FATHER WANTED TO SEE IF I COULD, AT 15, EMULATE HER ON PIANO!!!! SHE AND OSCAR PETERSON AND ART TATUM WERE GUEST IN OUR HOME. EVERY TIME ART CAME TO TOWN, HE WENT TO OUR CHURCH ON SUNDAYS AFTER HIS SAT PERFORMANCE!!!
She had an extra-human way of expressing things with strong punctuations, reminiscent of Louis Armstrong: COLTRANE AND THE FELLAS USED TO ALL BE IN THIS SMOKE FILLED ROOM AFTER THEIR SET AND THIS YOUNG GIRL (ME) WOULD HAVE TO COME THRU THEIR DRESSING ROOM TO GET TO MINE. THEY WOULD BE LOUD ……….UNTIL I CAME IN. THEN…EVERYBODY GOT QUIET, NEVER SAID ANYTHING. ALWAYS GENTLEMAN! RIGHT THRU THE MIDDLE OF THEIR DRESSING ROOM. HAHA HAHA !!!!!! OH BACK IN THE DAY!!!! THERE’S A MILLION STORIES WYNTON !
She was aspirational, once saying, “I don’t only sing what I know, I sing what I want to know. I don’t only sing what is true, I sing what I want to be true, and maybe me singing it will make it be true.“ And she was the definition of soul, always doing her best to make you feel better even when signing off: OK, WYNTON TAKE GOOD CARE!! LOVE YOU MUCH. I AM COOKING OX TAIL SOUP TODAY FOR THE CHURCH. I’M OFF. And she was, ‘til the next time.