Philadelphia's Jamaaladeen Tacuma has been pushing the boundaries of the electric bass for over four decades, and always commands attention with his unique sound and style. His mastery of the instrument and commitment to the jazz community has inspired the City of Philadelphia to present him with this year’s Benny Golson Award, named for the great sax player.
It’s the highest honor bestowed to a jazz artist during Jazz Appreciation Month.
Tacuma spoke with WRTI’s Meridee Duddleston about his Philadelphia childhood, his influences, his approach to music and the seeds of his inimitable sense of style. You can’t miss Jamaaladeen Tacuma—the term “flashy dresser” doesn't do him justice.
Q: You grew up in Philadelphia and were a teenager in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Tell me about your childhood.
A: I grew up in North Philadelphia around 11th and Norris, you know, the project area. I went to John Wanamaker Junior High on Columbia Avenue. There was a wealth of talent in that area. It was right around the corner from the Uptown Theater on Broad Street.
We were allowed to see all the R&B groups that were touring during the late ‘60s and ‘70s: James Brown; the Philly groups, like the Stylistics; the Temptations; and all the groups that were popular during that time. That stuck with me to this day, in how I perceive music, and how I perceive fashion and style.
Q: Is that where you got your sense of style—at the old Uptown?
A: People still do have a sense of style, but at that time folks who didn’t have much money would have have a sense of pride and they would dress up to the nines. It was not a problem for us to work and save our money to buy a pair of Bally of Switzerland shoes, because we just knew that the quality was there. We didn’t know all the designers and all the names but we knew style and quality....We’d see all these groups at the Uptown and we’d naturally want to emulate that: from the stage to the street; from the street to the stage; back and forth.
Q: What made you pick up the electric bass instead of another instrument?
A: When I was first introduced to music in general, I thought wanted to be a singer. But then I was in the audience at the Uptown and I remember seeing a group called Willy and the Mighty Magnificents. They gave the bass player a solo. (His name is Val Burke; I’m still in contact with him.) All of a sudden in the middle of his solo he took his hands off the bass and started blowing his fingers like they were on fire, and I was done. I was mesmerized. From that moment on, I wanted to play the bass.
Q: How did you get one to play?
A: My mother used to send me to North Carolina to live with my aunt every summer, to escape the gang warfare that was happening in Philadelphia at that time…There was an old guitar in the corner of my aunt’s house. It only had four strings. I picked it up and learned how to play “Get Ready” on one.
When I got home, my mother and I were walking around Broad and Erie. There was a pawn shop there. I looked up and saw a bass guitar in the window and told my mother I’d love to have it. About two weeks later I came home from school and there was a box on top of the bed. I opened the box, and here was this bass guitar. My sister and my mother had bought it for me. For about one year I just stayed in my room and played.
Q: Were you in the high school band?
A: I went to Thomas Edison High School at 8th and Lehigh....In high school I dropped basketball, and concentrated on music. We had the only Latin high school band around and we used to kill it.
Q: After high school, you started playing with the Philadelphia organist Charles Earland. After about a year you moved on to Ornette Coleman’s band. You eventually dedicated a tribute album him. What did you learn from working with him?
A: We traveled all over the world. We went to Europe for two weeks and ended up staying in Paris for six months. We were doing a lot of recording. I started thinking about playing my own sound on the bass guitar because Ornette allowed the instrumentation to be equal. There wasn’t such a thing as the bass just being in the background.
Ornette thought of the music as being compositional improvising, with each instrument being equal in it’s own right, with everything stemming from the composition. The improvising you did was based on that. I starting making my own records and touring.
Q: You have an international reputation and have performed in Europe, Japan and elsewhere for years. During a tour of Germany, I heard there were life-sized posters of you on the streets of Düsseldorf. How would you compare American and European audiences?
A: When you go to those places and you see they appreciate the music and the art it inspires you. Every time I have the opportunity to take someone from Philadelphia with me, I do. I was kind of responsible for taking the band The Roots to Europe for the first time. The poet Ursula Rucker—I dragged her along to experience Europe for the first time. All of my friends who are Philadelphia musicians and artists—any chance I get I take them there to let them present their art to the world.
Q: Are you moving on to something else musically?
A: It’s funny. I’m 61 now and remember looking in the mirror when I was 18 and saying, ‘When I’m 60 I want to play the upright bass.’ When I was 59 I looked in the mirror and thought, ‘here I am.’ So I bought an acoustic bass and started playing that. I have an electric version of an upright bass and I’ve been playing that as well. It’s about searching and reaching for something.
Q: You live here and started the Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival, which takes place in Philadelphia during Jazz Appreciation Month. What was the impetus behind that?
A: I was going down the street in 2015 and saw a big poster of me, and I noticed it was for Jazz Appreciation Month. There were many things happening around the city, and I wasn’t on the musical roster. I decided I would do something on my own to enhance what was already going on and stretch the musical limits....The Outsiders concept is that I want to promote things that are not normally heard.
Q: How would you finish this sentence? Jazz is…
A: ...whatever you want it to be. (Laughs). “Jazz” is a very limited word for me. It’s a category that has been made up. My music has so many different elements. It was difficult for them to have a bin in the record store in which to place my albums….It’s just a title; it has nothing to do with the broader sense of music.