Arts For Art Honors a Literary Figure, Marks Silver Anniversary


Knoel Scott—who played baritone and alto saxophone, and percussion—performs with the Sun Ra Arkestra during a Sept. 6 tribute to late writer Steve Cannon at the Flamboyán Theater. The celebration was a part of Arts For Art’s 25th anniversary programing.

(Photo: Courtesy Patricia Nicholson Parker)

When poet, playwright and novelist Steve Cannon died July 20 at the age of 84, New York’s Lower East Side lost one of its most formidable advocates. One testament to Cannon’s legacy was his arts magazine and gallery, A Gathering of the Tribes, which both were metaphors and assemblages of artists who embodied the writer’s sense of self-determination.

Several of those creatives were among attendees at a Sept. 6 tribute to Cannon at the Flamboyán Theater, an event sponsored by Arts for Art in partnership with A Gathering of the Tribes. The attendant amalgam of poets and musicians has been a vital combination at AFA, said Patricia Nicholson Parker, the organization’s founder who also performed at the recent event.

“We have been at this for 25 years with only a small staff,” she said while discussing the nonprofit, an organization that also programs the annual Vision Festival. “At AFA, we have championed art, which holds an intensity of purpose that was written into its DNA. Steve Cannon and his Gathering of the Tribes represented a similar purpose. Now, more than ever, its language of freedom is important and being embraced by a new generation of musicians, poets, artists and dancers.”

Marking its silver anniversary, AFA has a spate of free shows planned, including its In Gardens series with performances set for Saturday and Sunday when multi-instrumentalist Daniel Carter, drummer Whit Dickey and trumpeter Jaimie Branch, among others, are on the bill. Additional performances are planned for Oct. 5. AFA also has a celebratory series planned at El Taller Latino Americano in East Harlem, as well as at the Weeksville Heritage Center in Brooklyn during October.

Matching the Flamboyán’s name in intensity at the recent event were Marshall Allen and the Sun Ra Arkestra, attired in their typically colorful robes and dashikis, and presenting a music that began with heavenly overtures, slowly morphing into the sound of 1930s big bands. But the Arkestra was summoned from its intergalactic flight by Tara Middleton’s vocals that glided along and coaxed the band into moderate-swing mode.

For a moment it could have been an ensemble led by Jimmie Lunceford or Don Redman.

The Arkestra’s big-band sound and its Afro-futuristic moments stood in stark contrast to the preceding performance by What It Is, an ensemble led by bassist William Parker. Interwoven through several of his quintet’s tunes were poetry and solo dance segments by Nicholson Parker, the choreography and improvisational riffs flowing seamlessly on “The Struggle,” a composition by the bassist that offered echoes of Ornette Coleman.

Had he been alive, Cannon likely would have been involved in orchestrating the evening’s lineup of poets, which included Julie Ezelle Patton, Anne Waldman and Tracie Morris, who was accompanied by trumpeter Graham Haynes and guitarist Elliott Sharp. The evening also was one of Steve Dalachinsky’s final performances; the poet died Sept. 16 at the age of 72.

“I think the evening went well,” Nicholson Parker said. But that was, in part due to her tireless work as performer, emcee and stage hand. When asked why the organization spearheaded a tribute to Cannon, the nonprofit’s founder was effusive, noting that he was a literary giant and cultural icon: “He was an important magnet for innovative artists in the ’60s and [he worked] alongside Amiri Baraka.”

Tying the avant-garde’s legacy to AFA’s long-term strategy, Nicholson Parker explained its goal of strengthening the artistic community and its artists “with a particular emphasis on shining a light on younger players, especially African Americans.”

“We are looking for ways to empower a diverse community of artists to be their most creative selves and to develop their unique improvisational, as well as compositional voice, and, at the same time, give them space to express their insistence on freedom,” she said. “Arts for Art and Vision began in 1996 to address the diminished presence of this highly improvised music and art—most particularly when expressed by African Americans ... within a multidiscipline aesthetic.”

Nicholson Parker and AFA easily summoned the spirit of A Gathering of the Tribes at the event earlier this month. And the work of each poet and musician evoked Cannon’s spirit, the blind griot smiling down on the occasion, honored by words of praise, as well as the transcendent musical exhortations of the Arkestra and Parker’s group. Cannon dedicated his life to making his community a vibrant place of cultural fulfillment—and in many ways, AFA is set to carry that mantle into the future. DB

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