By L. Kasimu Harris
I was devoid of all my Southern manners at lunch that day; in a lazy move, I turned to my right and attempted to ask the ladies at the table across from me for ketchup. I was about 18 and eating in New Orleans with Delfeayo Marsalis and Mark Gross. They were both about 13 years my senior and we were all musicians — albeit, they were far more successful. Fortunately, any further incivility was averted. My elders redirected me to get up, ask for the glass bottle of stubborn pouring goodness, and invite these grown women to see me play at Snug Harbor that night. Their faces, names, or even if they accepted my offer have escaped me. Eating with Marsalis was packed full with invaluable lessons, as a crab boil has spice, and those I won't forget.
When I met Marsalis 23 years ago, I was 16 and wanted to be next badass trumpet player from New Orleans. He’s been a mentor since I popped into his brother Wynton’s recording session for “Joe Cool’s Blues,” music from Charlie Brown, at Allen Toussaint's Sea Saint Studios.
We’d go to Willie Mae’s Scotch house for fried chicken, Two Sister’s for something smothered, Poppy’s in the French Quarter for their hamburgers cooked under old hubcaps, Camilla’s Grill for orange freezes with omelets and fries. While feasting on fried seafood, I saw Cosimo Matassa, a Rock and Roll Hall of fame inductee, cry at a dinner in his honor, as he reflected on how racism got in the way of him making even more music in the 1950s and 1960s.
“You get to know someone, and you don’t want to just eat with anybody,” Marsalis says about our frequent meals, adding that, at the time, it wasn’t being formulated in his mind as mentorship. “Everybody got to eat. I didn’t want you just hanging around my house — so I figured I’d kill two birds with one stone.” Marsalis, a trombonist and record producer, has an extensive music collection and a library that held my attention for hours at a time from my teens into my 20s.
My formal education continued at Middle Tennessee State University, where I was exposed to hot water cornbread, chess pie, rotel, and gobbled up deer barbecue on Thanksgiving. But there, my jazz was malnourished, and I had long ago changed my career pursuits.
I was pursuing a master’s in journalism from the University of Mississippi in 2008 when I got a call to fly to New York that January for some photography gigs at the Blue Note Jazz Club. Marsalis was doing a tribute to Elvin Jones, the powerful and polyrhythmic drummer of John Coltrane’s classic quartet, and recording sessions for an album, “Sweet Thunder.” I thought I’d arrived. The iconic drummer also had the Elvin Jones Jazz Machine, of which Marsalis was a member from 1994 to 1997 and 2000 until 2003.
But this was 2008, four years after Jones passed. His widow, Keiko Jones, had invited Marsalis to dinner after the recording session. She did not often extend invitations for people to visit her, and even then, she had to know them very well. So, Marsalis had to do some convincing to get a plus-one added to his dinner invitation. Marsalis said she had a penchant for preparing enough food for about five or six people, anyway.
“So, we were supposed to meet at 8 p.m.,” Marsalis remembers. “I called her at about 6:30 or 7, and I told her, I’m not going to make that. And then I called her again at about 10, 10:30 — at a certain point, she said you’re not coming out, and I said I’m going to be there. I just have to finish in the studio.”
Marsalis says that because she had been married to a musician for so many years, she understood that they had to finish the work. The studio session didn’t end until midnight.
“And we rolled up to her place about 1, in the morning and I brought about six, seven, or eight negroes,” Marsalis says.
Keiko, a native of Japan, had cooked plenty of food. She had prepared a feast for a large family — on a holiday. I recall tender beef ribs with a sauce, rice for days and drinks.
From the silver, multi-disk CD changer mounted to the wall next to the front door of the New York apartment, Sam Cooke and Louis Armstrong played. They were two of Elvin Jones’s favorite artist, Keiko said. The CDs had been in the changer since Elvin transitioned. We were there for hours. I roamed around the living room and the hallway filled with books. I looked at photos and thought: This is the closest I would ever get to Coltrane.
Marsalis reflects on the night and says he believes it was Jones’ best night since her husband passed. He explains that she liked being around musicians, and liked being around black men because of the camaraderie and the vibe.
He says that while working with Elvin Jones, more so than any other band, bonding was important. He says that when he played with Art Blakey, Ray Charles, or Abdullah Ibrahim, after the gig, everyone would do their own thing.
“It was not the same with Elvin,” Marsalis says. “We would travel like family, we would eat together, spend time together and that has an impact on the music for sure.” He says the more you know about a person, the better you can respond to them musically on the bandstand, and you can’t practice your way into that.
“It is a good mechanism for camaraderie,” Marsalis says about eating together. “The eating, nourishing of both the body and the mind simultaneously, is a great thing.”
For all the things my culinary explorations with Delfeayo Marsalis have been for me, Howard Conyers has similar experiences with one of the great historians of our time.
We were both shaped by that seasoning.
Howard Conyers, a barbecue pitmaster and an authority on cooking whole hogs, is also a rocket scientist who works for NASA. He is a man of many accomplishments, skills, and talents, but he remains humble. Some of that he attributes that to his mentor, John Hope Franklin, a scholar, historian, author, and professor who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1995. From 2007 to 2009, Conyers, while earning a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Duke University, lived with Franklin.
Sometimes, they dined together three times a week and other times, not at all, if Franklin was touring with his latest book.
“I was a good roommate,” Conyers says and laughed. They were both members of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., but their conversations were wide-ranging. Conyers recalls the challenge of the rigorous academics of his doctoral program and then coming home and have a conversation with a world-renowned historian, who expected Conyers to be up on current events.
“I used to cheat and before I came home look at the newspaper to make sure I was abreast of what’s going on around the world,” Conyers says, “so I could make sure that I had a good conversation at dinner.”
One of his most memorable meals with Franklin was Senegalese Fish and Rice (Thiéboudienne) The national dish of Senegal. Conyers describes the dish — with its tomato sauce, onions, and peppers — as very pleasing to the palate. Conyers recalls Franklin, then in his 90s, driving himself to Winn-Dixie to shop for the meal. And Conyers believes Franklin served it with Basmati rice, because his family always ate long grain rice, and it was then he learned about other varieties. Conyers watched Franklin prepare the meal in a quart-sized, yellow Club pot with black handles, the same brand his grandmother and mother had. Conyers surmises that cooking was therapeutic for Franklin.
“Overall, you’d almost think he was a chef,” he says and attributed that to his breadth of experiences.
The dish Franklin made reminded Conyers of catfish stew, from his native South Carolina. But when he had it back home, he didn’t really enjoy it. At that time, Conyers says, he knew about dish’s ties to West Africa, but a disconnect remained. “But just to understand how the food is a part of that story, while living with an historian made that meal very special,” Conyers says.
A decade later, Conyers loves Senegalese cuisine and continues his work as a rocket scientist, while also preserving his family’s generations-old, whole-hog barbecue tradition. Recently, he cooked a hog in the ground on the Cooking Channel’s “Man Fire Food.”
I still call Marsalis for advice and to exchange stories. Now it’s time I start paying it forward and begin taking those coming after me out to eat. But first, I have to take Delfeayo out to dinner. I can afford it now. My perspective on eating with mentors and good people is epitomized by these words from Howard Conyers: “I believe the experiences you share with people over food make the food so much better and richer.”