Category Archives: Autobiographical Musings

Stories about myself, and my family that illustrate the mindset that chooses the things I see that go into this blog

Dad, and two Jazz visions of Liberia

My father, Herman Hopkins, serving as an M.C at a club in Monrovia, Liberia. Early 1960s.

My father, Herman Hopkins, serving as an M.C at a club in Monrovia, Liberia. Early 1960s.

March 3rd, 2016 marks the seventh anniversary of my father, Herman L Hopkins Sr.’s passing. As I think about him on this day, among all of the experiences and memories I have of him, I’m drawn the most to talk about two jazz compositions by two Tenor men. Dad was a contemporary and a fan of both of these musicians, and I grew up hearing them. Coltrane of course is one of the most celebrated musicians in music history, and one who represented the zeitgeist of his times, with his deep, soulful probings, consummate technical mastery, and his Eastern spiritualism. Curtis Amy was more of a blue collar, hard working musician, but his move from Texas to Los Angeles reminds me of the migration many Black people made from the South to West Coast cities, my father being one of them. I tend to think there is something in particular in the sound of people like Curtis Amy, Wilton Felder, and others who made that South to West move that calls my Dad back to mind for me more than any other music I hear and enjoy.

One thing I can say about Dad’s life, is that music was a constant in it, growing up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. When Dad was young he played around with several instruments. My Grandmother Leona bought him a Piano, on which he learned to pound out some Boogie Woogie, and then a Trumpet, for him to better play the innovations of Dizzy Gillespie. Dad played at them, but never got seriously disciplined enough to become a musician. No matter, music was still a huge part of his life anyway, on 78, 45 and 33 rpm records.

Dad joined the military in the late ’40s. He wanted to go into the Air Force to become a Pilot, and passed the Air Force test, but ended up going into the Army with one of his buddies who didn’t pass. His friends Parents vetoed his military aspirations, leaving Pops a 17 year old in the Army by himself. After he made it out of the Korean War, he joined Grandma Leona, His Aunt Mattie B, and several other relatives on the West Coast, first in Seattle, Washington, then in San Francisco.

The Bay Area in the ’50s was a vibrant West Coast extension of the “Chitlin circuit.” The West Coast of course does not have the cluster of big cities found on the Eastern seaboard, but The Black communities of Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco and their surrounding cities, as well as Seattle, were always tour stops for the national Black touring acts, due to their growing Black populations. In addition to that the Bay Area had a thriving Blues based music scene, centered in places like 7th Street in Oakland, and the Fillmore District in San Francisco.

At that particular time Dad was married to a special lady I call “Miss” Juanita. At first he lived with his mother Leona and her husband, Mr. Cliff, himself a musician, in San Francisco, but eventually he and Miss Juanita purchased a home in Menlo Park. Dad was attending school at San Jose State while working as a MUNI Bus Driver in the City, and then a Mailman.

Music was a huge part or his social life and leisure time. This was during the era of Hard Bop, and he built up a big collection of jazz, blues, classical, show tunes, R&B, and pop balladeer music. He also studied the Tenor Saxophone with a musician who sometimes subbed for the Duke Ellington orchestra. Sometimes he also M.C’d for nightclub acts, played percussion instruments, and did music reviews for the Sun-Reporter, a local Black newspaper. His career aspirations had shifted to Journalism and the Law by that time, but Music was still a constant thread through all he did.

I’m still not 100% sure of everything that led Dad to Liberia in 1959. I do know that he was very active in Civil Rights actions here in the Bay Area. This lead to him being a person watched by the Police. He told me of one final climatic fight with the cops, where an officer handcuffed him and tried to push him to the ground. Dad swung his handcuffed hands and cut the officer behind the ear. The Cop bled so much Dad was afraid he’d cut a major artery. After that he’d have trouble with the Police every time he went to the 49ers games at the old Kezar stadium.

I think the race based troubles of the times, Dad’s activism, and a sense of adventure all conspired to bring him to Africa. Some Bay Area natives who can still remember the ’50s sometimes get caught up in it’s relative integration. But there were still subtle forms of Jim Crow in existence at the time, which would come to full light a few years later when Huey Newton and Bobby Seale formed The Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

Liberia was suggested by a West African transfer student. Africa as a whole was a great topic of interest among Black people in the ’50’s, an interest that would explode during the Black Consciousness era of the ’60s. More and more African nations had gained their independence throughout the decade and the old African American dreams of a dignified life in Africa were rekindled. Liberia was one of the original targets of those dreams, during the 19th Century. The African business student thought that Liberia would be a better country for my Father and Juanita to settle in. The basis of it was Liberia’s history as a country founded by American Blacks. The official language was English. The Constitution and flag were modeled on that of The United States. It even deeper than that, unlike the stories people generally hear about Africans, Liberians generally had a positive attitude about American Blacks. This was due to their history, but also to the steady stream of American Blacks going to Liberia over the years as soldiers, missionaries, Teachers and technical workers.

Liberia had several periods where it seemed a truly massive influx of Blacks would flow in from the Diaspora. Liberian officials were expecting this before the Civil War held up the prospects of freedom. Then during Marcus Garvey’s UNIA movement, Liberia was the target of his repatriation schemes, until the Liberian government realized Garvey’s resettlement might mean a take over and loss of power for them. Liberia saw a great influx of American investment during and after World War II. It’s status as a Black Country in Africa with ties to America made it a common landing spot for American Black Teachers, trainers, missionaries and others. At one time during the ’70s, even The Black Hebrew Israelites were given refuge in Liberia before eventually settling in Israel.

The Hopkins family made a six month stop in Harlem with my great uncle Edward from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Dad told me his favorite album during that time was Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” featuring John Coltrane and another favorite, Julian “Cannonball” Adderly on saxophone. I forget exactly why they were delayed so long in New York City, it might have been Visa problems, but by the time they got ready to board the boat to Liberia, all their funds had been depleted.

When Dad and Miss Jaunita got to Monrovia, they circulated well enough to get invited to President Tubmans inauguration. Another jazz favorite of Dad’s played there, the flautist Herbie Mann, who would make an album, “The Common Ground”, off his Liberian Hi-Life influences.

Although Dad went to Liberia to study the Law and be involved in various business activities, music was still a foundation. He was the M.C at an establishment called “The Playboy Lounge” (picking up the nickname “Playboy Hopkins), and ran another one called “The Tropical Hut.” He was also Music Appreciation lecturer at various High Schools in Monrovia. One of his biggest musical activities was serving as a DJ for the Voice of America’s “Sound of Jazz” program. One of the biggest perks of that gig was getting reels of the latest and clasic jazz releases and live performances. Eventually Dad and Miss Juanita got divorced, which is when he met my mom and they got married. But his love and appreciation for music continued on to the time I came around. He even promoted a disco-funk concert in Monrovia in 1979, bringing Brooklyn group, Crown Heights Affair to the E.J Roye building for a series of concerts coinciding with the OAU festival.

John Coltrane and Curtis Amy were two saxophonists he taught me about in the 1990s, both roughly around the same age as Dad and with very similar sensibilities. I know it really would have blew his mind to hear music that they recorded inspired by Liberia. Somehow, as much music of theirs as he had, their Liberia themed records escaped him. The fact that two musicians he admired were in some way inspired by the same country he was drawn to, shows that in some way, Liberia was meant for him, and other minds he admired were thinking along those lines as well. So I share these two songs in this blog , in memory of Dad, and as a tribute to Liberia.

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Filed under All That Jazz, Autobiographical Musings, Liberia/Africa

Oakland A’s

AC Transit Bus @ Coliseum BART with pro-A’s header

This post is coming a little bit late, delayed by my Paris trip, and in the wake of a World Series victory by our cross bridge rivals, the San Francisco Giants, but it’s still very important to me that I get this out. The Oakland Atheletics baseball team was the first proffesional sports franchise I fell in love with. The conversation in the Bay Area during this surprise season by the A’s was that we were possibly looking at a replay of the 1989 season, at another “Bay Bridge” World Series. To which some replied, “Lord, no”, with memories of the great Loma Prieta earthquake of ’89 fresh in their mind. What was signifigant about this past baseball season for me was that it was my first as a season ticket holder and I must say, it made me feel like a King Midas fan, regardless of the fact I haven’t been able to work the same magic on the Oakland Raiders.

My love affair with the A’s began around 1987. That particular year was the year my father took me to my first baseball game, which was a spring training, “Bay Bridge series” game against the Giants. This was several years before interleague play and the only chance to see the two teams meet was before the season. I was so young at the time I was not aware it was Mark McGwire’s rookie year, or that Jose Canseco was playing, or Stew, or Kevin Mitchell and Will “The Thrill” Clark on the Giants side. All I knew was we had backpacks full of cupcakes, the old long lifesavers (remember them?), peppermint sticks and other goodies, pops may have even had beer in his bag, I think the stadium carry in rules were much more lax at that time, maybe we consumed them in the parking lot, but I do remember our pre game shopping spree at Cilie’s Liqour Store on 90th and East 14th was one of my favorite parts of the whole thing.

Dad was pretty much a Giants fan, but my dad was a unique peice. I think on the overall, I saw him as an intellectual type too detached for true sports fandom. He watched the A’s, Giants, 49ers and Raiders and discussed them more in terms of their qualities as teams than being a “die hard.” He’d come to the Bay Area in the 1950s after he was discharged from the Army, and the Giants and the 49ers were the only games in town at the time. The Giants were loved for Willie Mays and the great team of African American and Afro Latin players they developed. Pops was also a true Niner man, Kezar stadium season ticket holder, and a personal friend of Niners players like the great “Alley Oop” wide reciever, R.C Owens. He was thrilled by the Niners ’80s and ’90s success, and I always thought of Bill Walsh as the white version of my dad, they were the same age and both went to San Jose State, sharing a similar intellectual type of temperament.

We didn’t stay for the whole game that day. I’m not sure but I think the Giants were winning when we left. It seems I looked up one day and that same A’s team was in the World Series, in 1988. I was still a little too young to really know what was going on, but I remember a great excitement in Oakland at that time, and I remember watching the first game of the A’s/L.A Dodgers World Series with my dad. Of course, that was one of the most infamous games in A’s history, a game which saw Kirk Gibson running around the bases pumping his fists after a game winning home run against one of the great relief pitchers of all, “Eck” (Dennis Eckersley). The A’s lost that series 4 games to 1, but my love for the team was growing.

I remember anticipating the 1989 season, watching the first rainy preseason game in Arizona and following that team all year, a talented team beset by injuries all year. I remember when they traded for the man who would become my favorite baseball player of all time, Rickey Henderson, bringing him back home to Oakland. I also remember calling my great aunt, who lived a stones throw from the coliseum, and her, being an old Giants fan, not sharing our enthusiasm over the A’s impending victory in the Bay Bridge World Series….

The Oakland A’s of my childhood were a different animal than the A’s of “Moneyball” fame. The A’s team I grew up with was owned by Walter A. Haas Jr, the great grandnephew of Levi Strauss himself. The A’s were flush with cash and had one of the highest payrolls in baseball, I remember when the signed Rickey Henderson to the highest contract in baseball one week, and signed Canseco to a bigger one the next. There was big media talk about the A’s manager, Tony Larussa, and their general manager Sandy Alderson, being as influenced by their legal training as their time in baseball. One could say that A’s team was a sports representation of the Silicon Valley, computer business bay area, similar to Walsh’s 49ers in that perception, whereas the Raiders and the A’s of the ’70s (The ‘Swinging’ A’s) represented the counter culture, Hells Angel, Black Panther, hippie bay area image of the ’60s and ’70s. Interestingly enough, in that time period, the Yankees were not a playoff team, our hometown hero, Rickey Henderson, never went to the playoffs in his late ’80s Yankees sojurn, but was a deciding factor in our victory in ’89.

The A’s were a great source of civic pride, in a time when the Raiders had left “the Town” for the fools gold of the L.A market. That A’s team of the late ’80s had several locally born and bred players, from Rickey Henderson, to Dave Stewart, to Dennis Eckersley, to my man Steve Howard. They were a first class, prosperous, computer precise organization.

In time, the team got older, Mr. Haas died and the Haas family sold the team. The A’s sold off veteran star after veteran star, continuing a trend in which no great player ever seems to play the whole, or even majority of their career in Oakland. The closest we ever come to a great player spending their career in Oakland is for them to have several stints, like Rickey Hendersons career, or Reggie Jacksons last season in Oakland in ’87 (which means I MIGHT have seen Reggie play…).

In time, the A’s became known for having very stingy ownership and making do with less. This is the era of Billy Beane and “Moneyball”, which we saw a resurgance of in this past season. ¬†Although this era has been an era of frustration as well as triumphs, the scrappiness of it impresses me as a prototypical feat of bay area ingenuity. Billy Beane’s winning with less reminds me of the Black Panthers rise to national attention out of the ghettos of West Oakland, M.C Hammer and Too Shorts rise to rap greatness selling tapes out of the trunk of their cars, and on the 57 bus, Freddie Washington’s “Forget Me Nots” bassline for Patrice Rushen, Larry Grahams invention of the slap bass style, Bruce Lee’s teaching martial arts to “outsiders” in his Oakland studios, or Al Davis winning Super Bowl titles with players the league thought washed up, a la Jim Plunkett. In short, an Oakland thing, making somethin’ out of nothin’.

At the same time I watched the San Francisco Giants sign the greatest argurably the greatest player of our era, Barry Bonds, in 1993. Seems like they trended upward ever since. Barry of course, is a Bay Area native son himself, the son of the great Bobby Bonds, and he propelled the Giants all the way to a shiny new ballpark. The Giants had the perfect storm going for them in the mid to late ’90s and the early ’00s: a great star (Bonds), a mayor who was a big gun in the state and knew how to work the machinery of power (Willie Brown), an influx of yuppies due to the success of the areas tech firms, and a big shiny new ballpark. I saw the A’s, who joined with the Niners to keep the Bay Area relevant in sports in the days of Raiders desertion, get relegated to redhead stepchild status.

Still, through all this, the A’s rise like Maya Angelou. I stopped going to A’s games myself sometime in the early ’00s, caught up in the thrill of being an adult. I started back in ’09 after my dad died and I had a rough breakup. My mother really enjoyed this as well, being the huge A’s fan that she is, I remember when she’d go out into the yard to do yard work with a radio to listen to the game.

Billy Beane and co did a great job ¬†in putting a team on the field that could win this past season for a small amount of money. There are threats of the A’s moving to San Jose, but due to the Giants ownership of the rights to the San Jose market, it seems less and less likely. With the current rennassaince going on in Oakland, it would be good for the team and the city to find a nice, central location for the A’s to play ball in. It’s been noticed that downtown locations work excellently for baseball and basketball, while football can thrive on the outskirts where there is more space. I have to give credit at this point to Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, who was very visible throughout the A’s entire playoff run and made it a centerpiece of her crusade to “Save Oakland Sports.”

What I know for sure, is the A’s have brought me lots of joy and pride in my life, and I hope future generations of Oakland youths can don the green and gold cap, be it snapback or fitted, and feel the same sense of pride for an Oakland institution.

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Filed under Appreciation, Autobiographical Musings, Oakland-Bay Area