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Toni Morrison 

August 6, 2019

Today I mourn the loss of Toni Morrison. It's a deep grieving for her as mother, aunt, elder sister, friend and inspiration. As we do after a death, I think of the times I spent with her: seeing her brilliance in The Pieces I Am film; at Rockefeller Chapel, when she chuckled as she read from her work; at a literary banquet, where she conversed onstage with Oprah; and with each one of her novels, joyously anticipated, read and often reread.

Toni Morrison fed us, guided us, challenged us. She created pathways for our minds and hearts. I'll be forever grateful that she lived among us and that she has left us with the fruits of her genius, strength and imagination.

On Black History Month 

February 23, 2019

This has been a good Black History Month for me, with storytelling performances in several area schools and libraries. Still nothing like the 80s and 90s, when I'd be fully booked by October, reserving two calendar days for rest and passing along gigs I couldn't do to other performers.  But I'm grateful for the work and am still recognizing ways to improve as an artist and entrepreneur.

My strangest experience was at the small private school where I've been teaching music for three years. During that time there have only been a few African-American students enrolled; this year only one. In mid-February I was approached by the director and head teacher. The conversation went something like this:

Them (awkward and stammering): Hi, Miss Shanta. You know February is Black History Month.  We're not black but you are.

Me: That's obvious

Them: Well we were wondering, for the rest of the month, if you could teach the children all about black music. You know, blues, gospel, jazz.

Me: I've been doing that all along. 

They continued naively to ask how they could learn and teach their students about black history. I suggested books. They asked what books and where to find them. I naively suggested that they start with the books in their school library. But when I looked through said library I found only TWO, neither of them age/grade appropriate.

The whole encounter left me sizzling, spitting mad. This is 2019!! They pretend to be educators, yet so isolated in their own community that it had only just dawned on them that it might be good to gaze outward. I am certain that they are not alone.

I sent the director some links for recommended book lists. The head teacher sat in on my next class, taking copious notes.  I reviewed the African and African-American songs and dances in our class repertoire and utilized the books Freedom in Congo Square and This Jazz Man in a lesson of history and music, for the students and their teachers.

God help us all.

2018 Favorites II 

I Loved Presenting These Shows: 

Storytelling at Woodridge Library. Occasionally I feel like I've done my very best; that I'm in the flow and the audience is totally with me. This was one of those magical evenings. 

Storytelling Residency for Dubuque (IA) Arts Council. 24 shows in 9 days in mostly rural Iowa schools. A unique cultural experience. 

Freedom Song Leaders at Square Roots Festival After a few years of school shows, it was refreshing to be at home (the workplace) with avid adult singers and friends. 

Maud Martha Out Loud. Joining the literary community in a marathon reading of Gwendolyn Brooks' only novel. Then reading "my" chapter again at the Blacks in Green Festival, sharing reminisces with Nora Brooks Blakeley, the icon's daughter. Then attending the dedication of the Gwendolyn Brooks Library at Chicago State University. The joys of living in Chicago!! 

Sitarsys at the Chicago Jazz String Summit. Tomeka Reid responded to my suggestion about including non-Western strings in her programming. Our brand of jazz was enthusiastically received and I made some new friends. 

Sitar with Chicago Guantanamo Blues Exchange. What a blast playing with Chicago and Cuban musicians! Glimpses of what could have happened if I'd been able to take a sitar to Cuba in 2017. 

Sitarsys at the Evanston World Arts & Music Festival. The thrill of seeing people flock to the stage when we started playing. Thanks Dayna Calderon! 

Black Earth Ensemble's 20th Anniversary at Constellation Chicago. Being one of the many who've played with BEE and adding sitar to a couple of tunes. Then being invited back on stage because Z and I were singing so loudly in the audience. Also receiving my first ever compliment from one of the city's jazz critics. 

Sitar with Lindblom's Boys Chorus. Playing an Indian melody and seeing the immense number of engaged and talented young people in Chicago's most maligned neighborhood. 

Classic Black at Chase Park. Presenting Contimuum:The Black Arts Movement at our neighborhood park with one of the movement's writers and a London music critic in the audience. Love performing with all our Classic Black alums - Mwata, David, Fred, Isaiah, Edward, Emily, Zahra, Atiba, Justin, Angel, Avreeayl, Jendayi, Nkosi!!

Subbing for Cheryl Corley at Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre. Presenting the NPR corresondent's beautifully written narration while she covered Aretha Franklin's funeral. Co-writer Lucy Smith's voice and mastery of myriad blues forms is amazing!!

2018 Favorites I 

I Loved These Shows:

Sona Jobarteh at Chicago's World Music Festival. The only Gambian woman touring professionally on kora, Sona's instrumental virtuosity, vocal and physical beauty, and band leading fire wowed me from first note to last. Tried my best to get an interview. Alas...

Dayme Arocena at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Cuba is African as exemplied by Dayme and her conservatory bandmates. Their interpretations of traditional folksongs through a jazz lens was breathtaking.

Sisterfire at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, especially Toshi Reagon's Big Lovely, Holly Near and Ysaye Barnwell. Curated by Toshi, the workshops and concerts brought together several generations of performers and attendees. She brought her mother out of retirement for the Bernice Johnson Reagon Songbook set and communal singing was the order of the weekend. But, for an event that focused on women of color, where were the black people of Chocolate City? Why doesn't Women's Music reach more people, especially the jazz women in town?

Nicole Mitchell, Gregory Porter and Cory Henry at the Newport Jazz Festival. An abundance of musical riches and extreme weather in an idyllic setting. Christian McBride produced an amazing variety of events, with lots of women featured throughout the festival. And though I was seeking out the women, I had a great time with the brothers too.

Holly Near at the Old Town School. After seeing Holly in DC, I couldn't pass up a chance to see her at home. She and her accompanists were fabulous.

Shana Tucker at the Chicago Jazz String Summit. Shana's Chamber Soul, with her cello and vocal jams, was a delightful surprise. Pianist Amy Bormet and bassist Emma Dayhuff provided a solid foundation for the cellist's creativity.

Sweet Honey in the Rock's Art Talk at the U of Chicago's Logan Center. Moderated by activist scholar Barbara Ransby, current members reflected on the group's work over more than forty years. When audience members began to speak, there was an outpouring of love, gratitude, and respect for the significance of the group and its music in so many women's lives. It was wonderfully apparent that Sweet Honey is a Being far greater than the twenty-eight individuals that have contributed to it. 



Holly Near at the Old Town School 

September 28, 2018

Now in her fiftieth year of performing, singer-songwriter Holly Near presented an evening of healing music for a full house at Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. After weeks of accusations, denials, emotional testimony and political posturing around Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation, both Near and her fans were in need of bonding, soothing and community fortification. Her musical offerings and storytelling were the perfect medicine. An astute observer and chronicler of current and historical events, Holly Near encouraged swift and strategic action in the remaining weeks before the midterm elections. She offered hope to cancer survivors and fatigued activists; welcomed and applauded recent movements led by young visionaries; and envisioned a time when all the movements, old and new, would come together to affect massive change.

Accompanied by master musicians Tammy Hall on piano and Jan Martinelli on bass, Holly's voice was strong, clear and beautiful throughout the night. Hall had two opportunities to show her talents, as composer on "Blue Soul" and as improviser on a journey through jazz, blues and gospel toward imaginative explorations of "We Shall Overcome." Martinelli presented a bass solo that showcased her amazing technique and melodicism.

In support of her thirty-first album, Holly Near's tour is a testament to her importance to the Women's Music movement, to aging lesbians and other women. About men she mused, "if only good white men would stand up to those congressmen!"

Ending with her anthem "Singing For Our Lives," Holly sent us home renewed and inspired.

Newport - Day 3 

August 6, 2018 


Today there are so many women at this festival that it's impossible to catch them all. As much as we'd love to see Jazzmeia Horn, our loyalty is to our friend Nicole Mitchell. We are excited to witness her debut at Newport and arrive early enough to catch her soundcheck. We spot her husband, Calvin Gantt, on his way in and he joins us in the third row. This is the closest we've been to a Newport stage so far. 

Once the previous group clears the stage and the crew starts the setup for Dusty Wings, the band comes in. We shout greetings to Nicole and Fay, who acknowledge us, then engage in the final steps of show prep – mic placements, monitor adjustments and the prayer circle. Once the group is introduced, the music takes flight – lush harmonies, head bopping rhythms, wordless vocal explorations – and entrances us. Taylor Ho Bynum’s cornet and fluegelhorn playing combines beautifully with Nicole’s flutes and Fay Victor’s voice. Rashaan Carter? And Shirazette Tinnin provide the rhythmic foundation for Nicole’s original compositions, including “Intuition,” “He Shimmered,” a tribute to AACM co-founder Muhal Richard Abrams, “Dusty Wings Tinged With Gold,”and a parting number reminding us that our lives are “ours to design.” 

We join in the well deserved standing ovation. Then I follow Calvin backstage to congratulate the musicians and take a few pics. Nicole expressed her delight and gratitude that Zahra and I were in the audience for what she would later call a “milestone.” 

We then scurried off to catch more performances – a hard choice.  Finding room again in front of the Fort Adams big screen, we lowered ourselves into our rental chairs, awkward and painful for me. A neighbor offered her higher chair, but I declined. “I’m down now” was my embarrassed response. And down I stayed through sets by Artemis, a women’s super group, and Charles Lloyd. I was pleased that I’d already featured most of the women in my social media posts and now actually had a chance to experience them in performance.  This powerhouse band included vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant, pianist Renee Rosnes, clarinetist Anat Cohen, saxophonist Melissa Aldana, Ingrid Jensen on trumpet, Noriko Ueda on bass, and Allison Miller on drums. 

I reflected on the phenomena of musical taste. Nicole’s music touched my soul, whereas the couple next to us obviously couldn’t relate to her, leaving her set early. The music that I love most makes me move and literally fills me up, a physical sensation that starts in my chest and moves to the top of my head. Once I feel that, I’m pretty much good to go. 

The beauty of Newport, and of Christian Mc Bride’s selection of musicians, was that there was literally something for everyone. You could plant yourself at one of the four stages and spend the entire day there. Or you could move around, sampling and searching for your groove. 

We stayed at the Fort Adams stage to hear saxophonist Charles Lloyd, a longtime favorite of mine. The festival was celebrating his 80th birthday and featured him in performances all three days. George Wein, the festival’s creator, even came on stage to introduce this honored guest. After a few beautiful numbers, Lloyd was joined by Lucinda Williams, with whom he’d done a recent recording. The audience gave these veterans lots of love and, after their set, waited in a long line for their autographs. 

After being helped to my feet from that awful rental chair, I walked with Zahra in search of food and more music. We ran into Dusty Wings folk, networking and reflecting on Nicole’s Newport debut. We delighted in witnessing the interaction between Nicole and George Wein, who warmly affirmed her presence at his big party. We also caught a bit of Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, an all women’s group from Cuba. 

Then we went back to “the Fort” to see Gregory Porter, who we listen to a lot at home and saw once at Chicago’s Millennium Park. His beautiful voice and loving energy are worth experiencing time and again. We enjoyed singing along to our favorites, including his finale “There will be no love dying here.” It was another emotionally full moment and a fitting end to my Newport adventure.

Newport - Day 2 


August 4, 2018 


At every turning point we questioned going forward and chose to go just a little further.  We reached the parking lot and couldn’t see the point of going out in rain like this and flash flood warnings dinging our phones. 

Why weren’t they shutting down the festival for the day?!! 

We napped briefly, then decided to brave the elements, since the rainfall seemed lighter. We agreed that Misery would signal an end to our day. Inundation at the shuttle line and a “Why are you here?!” from security personnel deterred us not. 

We waded through the umbrellaed throngs, finding a spot to listen to one Pat Metheny song. Soaked  to the skin, water pooling in our shoes, we gave each other the sign and headed for the gate with its NO REENTRY sign. 

Back in the car our Newport app declared the weather event OVER and the fest ON for the rest of the day. We focused not on who we were missing, rather on our need for relief from our everywhere wetness. 

Each day we make peace with our choices.

Newport Jazz Festival - Day 1 

 Friday, August 3 

Storyteller friend Valerie Tutson met us for breakfast in our hotel. We did some delightful catching up, reflecting on our artistic practice, and brainstorming an exciting retreat idea. Then we embarked on our Newport Jazz Festival adventure. 

Surprised by a brief rain shower, Zahra and I made the drive from Warwick, RI to Newport anyway, a gorgeous one hour trip. The GPS confused me at the fork for Newport, necessitating some rerouting and backtracking. But we arrived at Fort Adams State Park, parked the car, and took the school bus shuttle to the festival entrance, where our backpacks were searched and we were wanded by security. 

We made it to the Fort Adams stage in time to see the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, a multi-generational all women’s big band based in New York. It’s DIVA’s 25th year, but first appearance at Newport. Bandleader/drummer Sherrie Maricle graciously acknowledged Christian McBride’s invitation. This reassured me that my continued musical efforts can still bear more fruit. I loved that each composition the band performed had been composed by a band member and usually featured a solo by the composer and one or two other instrumentalists. 

At the conclusion of DIVA’s performance we had planned to move to another stage, but saw that an organ (Zahra’s favorite) was being set up for the next act, Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles. This group performed a mix of covers and original tunes. Every band member was masterful and the funk was in full effect. 

Although organist/lead singer Cory Henry’s messages were about love and hope, there was also an urgency that spoke to these troubled times. Reworked lyrics like “we all got to be staying alive” and “life goin’ nowhere, somebody help me please” nearly brought me to tears. By the end of the Funk Apostles set, I was so full that I didn’t even want to hear any more music for a while. 

Nonetheless, we rolled up our blanket and walked to the Harbor Stage, where Alicia Olatuja’s performance had already begun. There were no seats available, no shade, and no place to spread a blanket, so we stood in the sun and listened to this gifted vocalist. After hearing a couple of songs, I left to seek relief on several levels. 

Zahra joined me later and we shopped a bit and pondered our next move, finally opting to leave the festival for the day. The sun had taken its toll. More endurance needed for the rest of the weekend. 

When parking earlier, we hadn’t noticed our parking lot number. So we got off the shuttle bus at the wrong lot. After much searching we were aided by a young man in a golf cart who reunited us with our rental car. 

Our car antics resumed after we purchased groceries and sandwiches at a strip mall on the way to our hotel. I punched the wrong option on my phone and then couldn’t access the GPS for directions to the hotel. So Zahra activated hers which said “turn right, turn left.” Then “get in the left lane, turn right, make a U-turn.” WTF!! Then both our phones started talking at the same time – one was pointing us to the highway; the other gave directions back to the grocery store. We had some good laughs and eventually reached our destination.

Heading to Newport 

August 1, 2018 

Today I took my electric guitar and electric bass to the Montessori school. The four and five year olds had some prior experience (“Daddy has one of those”) and made thoughtful observations about electricity and about the instruments. The two and three year olds enjoyed dancing to my rocked out versions of some of our favorite songs, especially “La Bamba.” 

My afternoon private lessons were interesting. It was only my second lesson with my new adult student. He brought in one of his church songs and we decoded it.   His challenges were in feeling the one and fulfilling his job as timekeeper.  Bringing in a written bass part for “Oye Como Va” helped him understand the tune a bit better. 

My revelation for the day was the teen who’s been with me for several months. Just when I thought I’d given him all I could for the sitar, I discovered that he can’t read music. “Don’t make any assumptions” continues to be my life lesson. This teen is so sharp, talented, intuitive and musically experienced that I never assessed his skill set. Duh. 

The work day done, we turned to tying up loose ends and packing for the trip. We slept for a maximum of three hours, then left for the airport at 4 a.m. 

August 2 

My wheelchair attendant was very chatty and revealed a lot about herself in this statement: “Today’s a good day to get out of Chicago. There’s gonna be trouble – protesters and Lollapalooza.” 

What made her think that two black women wouldn’t be in favor of a march to remind our white neighbors and visitors that gun violence in our neighborhoods should be their problem too. And what’s wrong with young people gathering to experience music? 

Both flights (O’Hare to Washington, then a smaller jet to Providence) were uncomfortable – cramped seating. On the second plane I was assigned the very last seat, next to the bathroom. It was an hourlong sensory nightmare. As I stood up to exit, my left kneecap popped out of socket and I was momentarily stuck in a very painful position. 

While waiting for me to emerge, Zahra was met with rudeness as she inquired about my wheelchair. This woman was so brash that she didn’t even linger for a tip.  Guess she doesn’t get many.

A Full July 

July 26, 2018 

July has been a perfect month. Within it, I have been able to express and experience every aspect of my current self: 

Mother/Grandmother – conversations with Keewa and time with her children. A moment that has sustained me: Faraz hears my voice at the bottom of the stairs and yells “Mommy! Mommy! Grandma’s here!! Grandma’s here!!” Then he waits for me at the door. Warm fuzzies. 

Wife/Collaborator – every moment with Z is a gift. Traveling to DC together was joyful, even when it was hard. We care and take care of each other. We performed this summer in every grouping we’ve created: ShaZah doing Wiggleworms at Navy Pier; Classic Black at Night Out in the Parks; Freedom Song Leaders at Square Roots; Sitarsys at Evanston World Arts & Music Festival. Additionally, we’ve experienced music together at Sisterfire and The Color Purple. 

Storyteller/Musician – shows in Genoa, Western Springs, Millennium Park, and Willye White Park. 

Teaching Artist – Wiggleworms at Old Town School and Montessori Gifted Prep; private lessons with K (sitar) and W (bass). 

Writer/Researcher – Continuing daily Instagram and facebook posts on musical women; documenting Sisterfire experiences; conducting interviews in DC. 

Daughter – taking Mother shopping and to renew her driver’s license (at 92!!); including her in gigs and outings (Chase Park, Evanston, Color Purple). 

I love my life!!