A Jazz & Cultural Beachhead in Brooklyn

In first of a two-part series, Willard Jenkins interviews people behind the scenes at the cooperative music and cultural center in Brooklyn

Some weeks back an invigorating, spirited Saturday evening was spent at Sista’s Place, a cooperative black enterprise at 456 Nostrand Avenue (corner of Jefferson Avenue; by subway take A or C train to Nostrand Ave. stop) in Brooklyn. The occasion was an all-star band including trumpeter Ahmed Abdullah, baritone saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, violinist Billy Bang, pianist D.D. Jackson, tubist Bob Stewart, and drummer Andrew Cyrille. Needless to say, with such fire breathers onstage the action was ferocious. And this was an audience that fed the fire in equal turns. Though comfortably mixed, the audience was decidedly African American, and a constant amen corner further stoked the musicians; their delight at playing for such an encouraging audience was palpable on the artists’ faces and in their playing. There’s nothing quite like a thoroughly engaged audience to coax high caliber performances.

Then on a recent Sunday afternoon we had a return visit to Sista’s Place for a book signing with Randy Weston for our book African Rhythms, the autobiography of Randy Weston (Composed by Randy Weston, Arranged by Willard Jenkins; Duke University Press). Once again the Sista’s Place audience was thoroughly engaged, delighting in Weston’s vivid recounting of his life in Brooklyn and in his quest of the spirits of our ancestors.

Located in a very pleasant and spotless corner storefront, with adjacent food cooperative, Sista’s Place can comfortably accommodate about 75 patrons at small tables; that close proximity lending further credence to the amen corner. The walls are adorned with many of the jazz masters who’ve performed at Sista’s, and looming over all is the patron saint, John Coltrane. At Sista’s Place the philosophy of “Jazz, a music of the spirit” is blessedly alive and well. Jazz has a true home at Sista’s Place, a vibrant community center, cultural gathering place, and political pow-wow of sorts where the jazz series runs on Saturday nights. Sista’s Place officially opened for jazz, in its nearby former incarnation, on September 23, 1995 — John Coltrane’s birthday, another reason for Trane’s honored position in the Sista’s pantheon.

As part of our ongoing Brooklyn jazz archives project for the Weeksville Heritage Center (www.weeksvillesociety.org), we had the enlightening pleasure of conducting separate interviews with three Sista’s Place principles — founders community activist Viola Plummer and attorney Roger Wareham, and Sista’s artistic director of jazz programming, trumpeter-bandleader and Sun Ra alum Ahmed Abdullah. This is part one of their commentary on the development of this increasingly rare venue — a black-operated and oriented community house for jazz music. I had previously interviewed Wareham for the former IAJE Journal back in the 90s, at the behest of the former BET Jazz major domo and current BET executive Paxton Baker who had funded Sista’s, so I was familiar with their first locale. Bringing Viola Plummer and Ahmed Abdullah’s voices into the commentary along with Wareham shed much further light.

The whole feel and philosophy behind Sista’s Place recalls the former Brooklyn cultural edifice known as the East, the life of which was detailed in a previous Independent Ear interview with Jitu Weusi, also part of our Weeksville project (check the IE archives). As was the case with the East, Sista’s Place was developed on a political foundation, in this case known as the December 12th movement. We begin with the mother of Sista’s Place, Viola Plummer.