Getting to play a cascade of arpeggios on a gorgeous Steinway piano while reciting my original poetry was only a part of the magic that occurred on November 18, 2023, at The Painted Bride Art Center in West Philadelphia. I had the honor and privilege of being the opening act for the phenomenal musical poet Lisa Marie Simmons and NoteSpeak, her tight, cohesive, improvisational band.
The group traveled all the way from Lake Garda, Italy to make their Philadelphia debut, and put on an exceptional performance. The audience really showed their appreciation. The ensemble featured Lisa Marie on poetry and vocals, composer/arranger, Marco Cremaschini on piano, Manuel Callumi on saxophone, Marco Cocconi on bass, and Federico Negri on drums. I am thrilled to say I got to sit in with NoteSpeak. It was like a life-long dream come true, only I never dreamed the dream in the first place, which made the experience even that much more magical.
Many thanks to Laurel Raczka, the executive director, and her entire team at The Painted Bride. Also a huge thank you to J. Michael Harrison for interviewing me on “The Bridge,” which airs Friday nights on WRTI-FM. And thank you so much to all of my family, friends, and culture lovers who came out to support. My involvement in this project came about thanks to Rahima Tacuma and Jamaaladeen Tacuma, who introduced me to Lisa Marie via email. Her vision was to include a local poet during her Philadelphia debut, and I was more than grateful to fill that slot. Lisa Marie is an African American artist who has been based in Italy for the past 20 years. She and I bonded over Zoom calls. We shared ideas, planned out logistics. I was inspired not only by Lisa Marie’s artistry and formidable work ethic, I was also inspired by her extraordinary personal story of resilience, how she overcame a childhood marred by very troubled and complicated foster care and adoption placements. Yet despite all of this, Lisa Marie’s aura is bright, joyful.
Collaborating With NoteSpeak
When I suggested Maya Angelou’s landmark poem, “And Still I Rise,” Lisa Marie agreed, and suggested the musicians play Marco Cremaschini’s arrangement of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” (the Joe Zawinul composition that was immortalized by Cannonball Adderley.) Lisa Marie suggested we do her “revised” version of Gil Scott-Heron’s classic 1970s anthem, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” After our performance, all I could say to myself was wow! What a blessing. Everything turned out just how we imagined!
A Whirlwind Tour
It’s hard to believe Lisa Marie Simmons and NoteSpeak were only in Philly for a mere 24 hours. They were in the United States on a whirlwind six-week tour and residency. Their Philadelphia performance was sandwiched in-between two engagements in New York City. Countdown began when we met in person for the first time at the soundcheck on the day of the concert.
Thanks to Lisa Marie’s invitation, the extraordinary poet Ursula Rucker came to the sound check and graced us with her magnificent presence. What a lovely impromptu kiki! I felt highly favored – keeping company with these two amazing artists – listening to them trade stories about performing on stages all over Europe.
And now for the moment everyone’s been waiting for. NoteSpeak graces the stage. Throughout their set, the group featured music from “NoteSpeak 12,” their latest recording on Ropeadope Records, which garnered a prestigious 5 star review in Downbeat Magazine. Throughout the evening, I was particularly drawn to the interplay between Lisa Marie and the musicians. I would describe their sound as an exquisitely woven tapestry, rich with vibrant jewel tones of ruby, emerald, sapphire. Marco Cremaschini’s shimmering compositions, and the band’s execution of them, are beautifully adorned with Lisa Marie’s thoughtful, resonant, lyrics.
On “Blaze,” she explains,
“A common blaze inside each of us…
We are effervescent luminescence”
Lisa Marie asserts with power on “Can We Agree?”
“Is there one thing on which we all agree?”
What an honor to warm up the stage for NoteSpeak. Although I usually work with musicians, this time I decided to open solo. And, even though I am only playing the piano on the beginner’s level, I felt like why not go ahead and accompany myself on one poem? I listened to the angels whispering in my ear and made up my mind to go for it.
I had enjoyed taking piano lessons as a child, however aside from a few recital pieces, I never practiced enough to become fluid on the instrument. I quit taking lessons during my teens, yet in my heart, I still always wanted to learn how to play. My love for the instrument never waned. So last year, I resumed taking lessons after a 49-year hiatus. Yes. 49 years. I was motivated to do this after reading Quincy Jones’ spellbinding book, “12 Notes On Life and Creativity.”
I virtually had to start all over again, but this fact did not deter me one bit. It has been a joyous (albeit arduous) process. Just being on this quest is an awesome, humbling experience. I’ve shared my mantra before, and will repeat it again: “I live my life in a state of perpetual gratitude.”
I opened my set with “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes, followed by “Misplaced Griots,” my ode to the so-called perpetual corner boy in African American society.
Who are these descendants of Ancient African Ancestors who tell tales of things past?
Misplaced Male Messengers
In Africa, these wise men were revered and respected
In America, the descendants of these prophets, the sons of these original griots,
cant find jobs or dignity, or respect
So they gather
Around the corners and the stoops and the barstools where they uphold natures’ calling to share their stories,
And Oh what stories Mother Africa’s children have to tell…..
Sad part is…..Who’s listening?
I recited “My Hero,” a tribute to my father, who lived to be 99 years old, and “Go On and Cry,” a tribute to Brionna Taylor. I went on to perform my signature poem “No Time for Tears.” After accompanying myself on “Words Can Heal,” making my debut on the piano, I closed out with “Reminiscing” a storypoem about coming of age during the 1970s.
Back in the Day, Years Pass, Memories Stay
Back when bold Dashikis and plaid bell bottoms collided with red platform shoes…
When you wore a pair of jeans until they stood up on their own
Back when Afros were still a wonder,
and Angela Davis became famous while sporting hers
Back when Assata Shakur was Joanne Chesimard
When Haki Madhubuti was Don L. Lee
When Amiri Baraka was Leroi Jones
When the artists painted powerful poignant murals on the walls of the Sanctuary
When Father Paul Washington hosted the now historic Black Panther conference at
The Church of the Advocate…”. And on and on. Almost as if I were in a blur, the performance comes to an end. I feel so grateful for how well it was received. I take my bows and make my exit.
Although I knew their schedule was tight, I invited NoteSpeak for brunch the day after our performance. I’m so honored they agreed to come and bless my home with their beautiful energy. And then before anyone knew anything, NoteSpeak was loading up their van and driving back to New York for the final gig of their American tour.
A Few Thoughts on Manifestation, Gratitude, & Grace
I bonded with Lisa Marie and the cats in NoteSpeak over our shared love of art and culture, our shared love of music and poetry. I especially found a sisterhood and kinship with Lisa Marie. We are both musical poets, and both of our backgrounds include journalism and grantwriting. Who knew two women based on different continents could meet across an ocean and find so much in common? Amazing. Absolutely amazing.
Welcoming NoteSpeak and Lisa Marie to Philadelphia was such a beautiful experience. Our creative collaboration was a respite from being constantly bombarded with a deluge of awful news, even as our poetry denounced society’s ills. The sobering realities of life can be so disheartening, you may feel like life is not beautiful. But despite all that’s going on in the world, life can be beautiful. You can choose to create a beautiful life for yourself. Don’t ever think that you are too old or that it’s too late. Take it from me. Incorporating piano with my poetry for the first time at the age of 68 is a beautiful thing.
I feel so blessed, so grateful.
Just a few short years ago my daily life looked quite different. My four siblings and I were working day jobs while juggling eldercare with our parents. It was so sad to say goodbye to our Dad in 2019 and our Mom in 2020, but we were so grateful to see them both live past the age of 90. Thinking back on when we were in the throes of caring for our parents, there definitely was no time for me to take piano lessons, let alone practice everyday. A few years ago, I would have had to cobble together a combination of vacation days and personal leave in order to carve out the time to participate in The Painted Bride project. I would have had to slice myself into a million pieces to get everything done. Indeed – just a few short years ago, I was finishing up my tenure after 18 years of service as a grant writer for the School District of Philadelphia.
And now look at me. Completely transformed. Working on any number of creative projects as a way of life. Traveling and performing on stage as a way of life. Being in the flow as a way of life. I must say grantwriting will always be a part of my repertoire of tools I employ as an artist, activist, and advocate, and I am grateful to have acquired this skill set. But I must also say it is very satisfying to know I am unfolding as the full time artist I have always wanted to be. After all these years of yearning, it feels so incredibly beautiful to have the freedom to spend my days creating in what I call my “magic room,” living the life of my dreams.
“All praises,” I say to the Creator. “Thank you for choosing me as the vessel.”