The Last Holiday: A Memoir by Gil Scott-Heron
The revolution will be memoir-ized - Far from Gil Scott-Heron's whole story, but amazing nonetheless
Published: May 30, 2012
I had an affinity for jazz and syncopation, and the poetry came from the music. We made the poems into songs, and we wanted the music to sound like the words, and Brian's arrangements very often shaped and molded them.
It was about this time that Scott-Heron befriended the percussion-and-poetry group the Last Poets, founded in 1968 in Harlem. (The original Last Poets were Detroiter David Nelson along with Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain.) Like Scott-Heron's work, theirs was politically charged. As Scott-Heron explains:
I thought they were bringing a new sound to poetry, and to the community, and I enjoyed it. I was a piano player and still played with different groups, and the songs and poems I had written had a musical tilt to them because they were compositions as opposed to poems over rhythms ... but we were going in the same direction.
In fact, the similarities were so strong between his poetry and the Last Poets' that many people continue to confuse them, especially when it comes to his poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." The success of Small Talk led to his first musical album, Pieces of a Man, which he recorded with major jazz artists Ron Carter, Hubert Laws and Bernard Purdie. Before long he was recording with his own bands, and for a time he was a certifiable star. Even as his career faltered in the '90s and on, he was hailed as a progenitor to the rappers. At the same time, he identified himself as a jazz musician, and criticized rappers' ignorance of history and tradition. "Make sure you know the real deal about past situations," he admonished.
The first half of the book, which focuses on his developmental years and the period when his career flourished, is the most cogent and engaging. Scott-Heron's recollections are clear, detailed, and presented with historical context and hindsight that is revealing and honest. Yet, he scantily discusses his romances or his children. He also omits the debilitating impact that drugs had on his life.
The Last Holiday illuminates the integrity and creativity of one of the most influential poet-musicians of a generation. By example, his work encouraged my collaboration with jazz in the creative process and with musical compositions for poetry performances.
Gil Scott-Heron died last year at age 62, leaving a legacy of 20 albums, two novels and two collections of poems — works that captured national and international audiences, that brought attention to the political struggles of African-Americans, and that helped to expand the popular perception and reception of what poetry could be.
Melba Joyce Boyd is distinguished professor and chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Wayne State University. Her most recent collection of poetry, Death Dance of a Butterfly, was just released by Past Tents Press (2012).
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