Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” Deliberately Gives Flowers at the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival
Jimi Hendrix was the only artist to apply to be part of the Harlem Cultural Festival.
That’s right. A weekly series of six concerts held at Mt. Morris Park in Harlem (now Marcus Garvey Park) during the summer of 1969, featuring 25 artists who performed in front of more than 300,000 participants. It seemed like the right setting for a bit of Hendrix magic, the right time to make that undeniable connection with Harlem, USA.
But his request was rejected.
That’s right. The services of the world’s greatest instrumentalist, the shy guitarist who grew up with both the Isley Brothers and the band Little Richard, learned all the guitar tricks on the chitlin circuit, allowing him to outshine EVERYBODY trying to shred in his presence, didn’t mean Squadoosh to the high ranking officers of the event.
The golden opportunity for Jimi, who would die a year later, to witness the total embrace of the black community, to give everyone a moment to say “We got it, my brother”, n ‘ was not meant to be. He was not seen as a healer.
“Jimi had a strange relationship with the black community at that time,” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, who directed the new Harlem Cultural Festival documentary, said in a recent Fork maintenance. “Like, ‘He’s a little too wild for us so he’s on this side of the fence.'”
Questlove’s first film SUMMER OF THE SOUL (… OR, WHEN THE REVOLUTION COULD NOT BE TELEVATED), winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, is an in-depth study. It serves as mass collective healing, filled with mythical performance sequences, “can you believe that?” moments-with oh-so-shameless-black barbecue vibes. From the avant-garde to the amen corner, the festival represented the pinnacle of black culture as it had never been documented before.
Images from the concert are courtesy of Hal Tulchin, a television director who filmed all six concerts hoping the film could eventually be monetized or simply seen by audiences. Although the Harlem Culture Festival has a major backer in the Maxwell House coffee camp and a stellar roster of talent who could book many episodes of “Soul Train,” only two hours of footage has seen the light of day on the WNEW Channel. 5 in New York City.
In the shadow of Woodstock, taking place the same summer, the Harlem concert was perceived by the population as (say it with me now) “too dark”. Woodstock became a movie, then, a generational identifier, making crazy capital for THIS counter-culture. Meanwhile, those 40 hours shot by Tulchin of HCF have been forgotten and hidden in his dusty basement for decades. Fortunately, he kept the 47 reels.
Almost 50 years later, it was salvaged, cleaned and edited to serve as the backbone of Summer of the soul.
Questlove sequences the film like a ’70s Stevie Wonder textbook album, hidden deep in your parents’ record collection. Great energy at the start and end, emotional spirituality in the middle.
Segments throughout are affixed with distinct narration. As Musa Jackson, who attended the festival at the age of five, said, “It smelled like Afro Sheen and chicken.”
Hendrix would continue to cement his legacy that same summer in Woodstock, about 100 hundred miles away. But that bond between performer and spectators, which is probably what he was dangerously looking for later in his career, has been missed.
“He got to a point where he got tired of being the industry freakshow darling,” says Thompson. “So he disbanded his band, got an all-black band – the Band of Gypsys – and asked [the Harlem Culture Festival], ‘Can we play? We want to do a blues set. And they said no.
Difficult to apprehend the richness of the culture, that is to say of the music, over the course of these performances. Mahalia Jackson, The Staple Singers, The Fifth Dimension, Cuban percussionist Mongo Santamaría, Herbie Mann with Roy Ayers on vibes, Ray Barretto, Pharoah Sanders & Sonny Sharrack, Gladys Knight & The Pips. It almost breaks your brain to realize that all of these artists were at their peak performance in 1969. No one was setting up a Vegas cash grab here, not in front of a Harlem crowd. Racial oppression or not, they swept many fools out of the Apollo scene.
The more I watched, assimilated and deeply absorbed the enormity of this Mount Rushmore gathering of Herculean black musical talent, it became utterly glaring. Did anyone choose (sorry, Jimi) to perform at the Harlem Culture Festival, in this neighborhood park, near the famous Apollo Theater? They were adhering to a higher calling. The artists weren’t just performing, they were in the service of uplifting the black, brown and beige souls of America. It was the order of the day and the goal.
These sought-after performers of the time gave their all in sweat, tears, good word and unrestrained boogie as they performed for their people in the heart of Soulsville. Performers and spectators were witnesses in hopes of surviving the bombardment of civil unrest as the 1960s drew to a roaring and destructive end. All of them have come to Harlem these six Sundays with the desire to be healed on their own. Not by a white savior, but via this magnetic frequency: avant-garde jazz, pop, psychedelic R&B, Afro-Cuban sound, blues and gospel.
In Summer of the soul, Questlove removes the strained constraint through clean cuts between the assassination of JFK in 1963, that of Malcolm X in Harlem in 1965, that of Dr. Martin Luther King in April 1968, then that of RFK two months later. They serve as a sharp reminder of how marginalized communities were attacked at the time and defined the main purpose of the festival; to commemorate the anniversary of Dr. King’s death.
As mentioned by a participant in the film; “It was like the system let you down. Perhaps the aim of the festival was to prevent blacks from burning the city down in 69. “
From the opening performance, an extremely dynamic 19-year-old Stevie Wonder, smelling his Wheaties, hits the snot off a drums like Berry Gordy owed him royalties. Later, BB King performs a funky uptempo version of “Everyday I Have The Blues”, with a backbeat just begging to be chopped up to be sampled by The Bomb Squad of Public Enemy.
Everyone on Bill was double-handed, coming with it.
Clean and cunning David Ruffin strutted on stage knowing he was going to kill, putting alluring moves on 30,000 black women, singing “My Girl” in a wool suit, in the summer heat. Nina Simone’s performance closes the doc. She reads poetry to the crowd, urging them to ‘prepare’ for the revolution, while an overdub in her voice declares, ‘How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?
Ironically, this is the essence of Sly and The Family Stone, the focus of Questlove’s upcoming documentary, that provides a glimpse of the generational change captured here – the same that left Hendrix out of the 1969 lineup. The Music and the Musicians were outliers. Everyone at the Under-25 concert knew who the band was, leaving the elders alone to take a side look at this racially mixed, multi-gender group featuring a black woman on the trumpet and a white dude playing battery. No one booed, but they eyed. Everyone in the group wore street clothes, unmistakably San Francisco style, in stark contrast to the performance uniform that many black musicians and performers still adhered to.
The group earned their $ 2,500 performance fee, while also taking the opportunity as a rehearsal for their next performance in Woodstock two weeks later. The show would solidify Sly as a star and slowly begin his demise. But surprisingly, it took four songs for the band to really catch on to the Harlem crowd. Questlove uses different camera angles to show this gradual approval.
If only they’d given Jimi a chance.