By Jim Gallert
Olujimi Tafataona is a large, buoyant man with a big smile, who loves brightly colored African attire. He laughs easily and speaks sincerely, and at length. He is an inveterate reader who reads every day. He has books on Africa, Jazz, music and American history. Tafataona has a day job, too. He’s a Truck Drivin’ Man, as the song goes. He’s had his CDL (Commercial Driving License) since 1989, but Tafataona has been driving big rigs since his days at UPS from 1976-78. Olujimi drove for S.M.A.R.T.4 for two years around Metro Detroit. Driving trucks finances his music activities. “I do like driving,” he freely admits. “I tired of factory work. I wanted a skill I could depend on.” Like other musicians with a day job, Olujimi makes time every day to practice and compose. He received his Associates Degree in Information Technology. He’s counting the days until he hits his full retirement age. Tafataona’s family came to Detroit in 1967. He’s led his band, In The Tradition, since 1996, the same year he changed his moniker from Christopher James to his African name.
Tafataona’s journey began in Stuttgart, Arkansas. He was born Christopher James, on September 26, 1958, the second of six children. His family moved to Phoenix, Arizona, when Chris was a toddler. All of the family played music, save for Chris’ father, Artis James Sr., but only Chris turned professional. Margarette, his mom, had been “a church-going gospel pianist in New Orleans,” stated Chris. “She had music by Chopin, Bach, Fats Waller, and Count Basie in her piano bench. She was a heck of a stride pianist.” “My dad,” he continues, “was a heavy Blues and Jazz guy. He didn’t play, but he encouraged us.” Although his family spent little time in Phoenix, Chris absorbed Latin flavored music; Arizona is a border state to Mexico.
Growing Up Chris James
1965 was a pivotal year for Chris James. He and his younger brother, Artus Jr., went back to Stuttgart to spend time with his mom’s side of the family, which included his great-grandmother Zula. “She was a tall black woman, coal black.” Chris remembered. “She had retained a lot of African tradition.” Zula’s parents had been slaves. They loved music. “Every Thursday night they would put me and my brother to bed,” Chris remembers, “now, these people are just the first generation past slavery. They couldn’t read. They’re listening to Eugene Ormandy with the Philadelphia Philharmonic.” Chris’ voice displayed mild surprise that illiterate people would enjoy music so far removed from their world. Their learning was small, but their souls were large. Music is a celebration of all the good in this world.
Arkansas has a bloody history of violence against African Americans. In 1919, it was the scene of the “the largest mass terror lynching in the nation.”1 There were no laws against lynching. Southern legislators blocked any Bills to outlaw it. “It was bloodfeasting entertainment for White folks,” Chris noted. Two relatives had been lynched, and that knowledge made his parents ensure Chris and his siblings were extra wary of White people, especially in Arkansas. When the James boys arrived in 1965, the “separate-but-equal” fantasy was still in force. Blacks were expected to defer to Whites. “When we got to the South,” Chris explained, “my mom, my grandparents, they were warning us not to go to certain areas, certain communities, and we were to speak to White people in a certain way.” The reality of Black Southern life soon appeared. “I thought I would go to the pretty new School, but my Grandmother told me that that school was for ‘them.’ White folks. ‘We go to the other school.’ And, wouldn’t you know it? It was across the Railroad tracks!” We couldn’t play with kids from the White school, only the Colored school..”
That’s when it dawned on Chris: He was different. He wasn’t wanted in the White schools. He wasn’t good enough to play with White children, or go to their school. He must be hated. It was a realization which would slowly change the arc of his life. When Chris returned to Arizona, he kept trying to understand, why was he different? Why was he hated? What had he done to be hated? He was overwhelmed by those thoughts, and the seed of discovery was planted. James would use his music to share the truth, the truth of being Black in the U.S.A. “As a Son of Africa who knows the truth, I’m called to reflect the history and pride of my people, and I pray I’m doing that in my music.”
Stuttgart is a humid, dusty Southern city of 9,000 souls, located 110 miles West and South of Memphis, in the Mississippi Delta. Two-thirds of the population is White, nearly all of the other one-third is Black. Stuttgart is known for producing Riceland Rice, and it has a really large Duck population. It’s Blues country, too. “We stayed about two blocks from a Juke Joint, big Pabst Blue Ribbon beer sign, was called The Blue Flame,” Chris remembered. “Every weekend and middle of the week they’d be playing the latest Blues classics, Little Milton, Percy Mayfield, Lowell Fulson. So I was exposed to all of that by the time I was seven, in 1965.”
In 1967, Chris’s parents, in search of work, decided to leave Arizona and move to the Midwest. They first considered the factory town of Gary, Indiana. But, Margarette had family in Detroit, and she arrangements to stay with them while they looked for lodging.
1967 was a pivotal year for Detroit. They arrived in Motown in June 1967, just before the Uprising.2 Chris wasn’t old enough to grasp its significance. Coming from a largely rural area to Detroit was quite a change. The James family ended up living on the city’s Southwest side. After a couple of turns as a Chef, Artis Sr. got into Chrysler, a decent job with good pay.
“It was culture shock to me coming to Detroit…where I lived, we raised chickens and ducks and it was segregated. We come to Detroit, there’s White people living in the neighborhood!” An even greater shock was Detroit’s population density – next door neighbors were separated by feet, not miles. “Everybody was living on top of each other and houses were, like, twenty feet apart. That was an adjustment for me.”
Chris started school in the fall of 1967 at a parochial school in Detroit. He stayed with Catholic schools for five years, and benefitted from the rigorous education methods, maybe not so much from the religious indoctrination. Both of his paternal grandparents (located nearby) were Sanctified Preachers. For a few years Chris was infused with the Holy Spirit every day of each week, with additional time on Sunday. He was glad to return to Secular schooling. While Parochial schooling aims to center the child’s moral compass, Chris’ moral standards came from his family. The James children were raised by hard working and caring parents and relations in a loving, supportive atmosphere. But, there was Corporal Punishment on offer if any of the children pushed the boundaries too far! Their parents had lived under the full weight of “separate but equal,” and they had zero trust in White people. African American families were often matriarchal, and Margarette was a strong woman. She was Chris’ anchor, his rock. “When no one else was encouraging me musically, she was my champion and championed me up until the very end. I miss her dearly.”3
When James was nine years old, he experienced the worst shock of his young life, overt racism. He was blindsided and shaken to his core. He had befriended a White classmate named Bobby, and they became best Friends. They studied together and played together. During a game of Soccer at school, Chris (who was big for his age), and Bobby both came at the ball from opposite directions, running fast, and kicked the ball at the same instant. Chris’ power knocked Bobby several feet, and he ended up on his backside. Their classmates threw laughter and smirks at Bobby, who turned Beet red. He struggled to his feet, confronted Chris, and called him a “black n*****”. “My face went blank and my mouth dropped open,” Chris recalled. “I was so stunned I never spoke to him again…I felt hurt and betrayed because this was my best friend.” It was all the more hurtful because Martin Luther King had been murdered the week before this incident, and racial tension was high. When Chris told his mom, she chastised him for trusting a White person. Chris was quick to put the incident in context. “Remember,” he explained, “killings (of African Americans) were still going on the year I was born.” Integration was a recent phenomena; before 1958, the boys couldn’t have been friends.
Despite his mother’s stern warning, and his knowledge of American history, Chris’ heart remains open. The human capacity for love is amazing, and wonderful. He treats people one by one, not generalizing, not hating. There was a positive side to the ugliness. It spurred Chris to learn more about his Blackness. “By the end of the year I had read my uncle’s copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and I had started reading his Black Panther books, with works by Eldridge Cleaver and H. Rap Brown. Slowly I began to put it all together. I did not know that our Origins were in Africa. I saw the Tarzan movies and I thought the Black people being depicted in those movies had no connection to us whatsoever, even though it made me feel uncomfortable to laugh at them.”
Detroit’s first African American Mayor, Coleman A. Young, started a summer jobs initiative for Detroit youths in 1974. Chris got a job at the Detroit Police Department, 6th Precinct, on the City’s West side. “We cleaned the Precinct and did yard work,” he recalled. “There was a basketball hoop mounted on the garage where prisoners were switched from the patrol car into the precinct.” It was while Chris and the gang were having their lunch, shooting some hoops, that James witnessed the DPD beat prisoners. “I saw that a couple of times,” he stated. That was another factor in Christopher James’ morphing into Olujimi Tafataona. “Detroit has a special place in African American hearts. Always been in the forefront of radical political thought,” he states. “I wanted to join the Black Panther Party, or the Nation Of Islam, but mom said NO,” he says with a chuckle. Both organizations had high visibility in Detroit’s Black community.
Becoming a Musician
James’ first instrument was a tenor saxophone bought by his dad from a local Pawn Shop on March 7, 1972, a date etched into Chris’ memory. Clearly, It was a most important date! He was fourteen years old, preparing for school in the fall. “I was a huge fan of Junior Walker (& The All Stars). When I got my horn, I would take his solos off the record with my ear and learn literally. Then, it was King Curtis.” He seriously bonded with his tenor saxophone. Artis Sr. was a Yusef Lateef fan, and Yusef inspired James, too. “I got heavy into Yusef. Real heavy. I liked the fact that he was a multi-instrumentalist. And the same thing with Eric Dolphy. I loved the fact that these guys could pick up different reed instruments and sing through them.” James has always been attracted to sounds and rhythms. Like all musicians, his ears are open 24/7.
When he started ninth grade at Condon Junior High School, James was permitted to check-out instruments for self study. “So I took out the trumpet, the flute and baritone horn. I went to Grinnell’s, got fingering charts, taught myself the fingering on all These instruments, and started playing. I did that doubling and tripling on all these instruments at home for about a year. When I came over to Northwestern, those musicians were impressive.” James was able to keep up because of his regimen of self-study, but his sight reading wasn’t too good. Olujimi went to the Woodshed, and enlisted the aid of a friend. “I became an excellent reader, and that came from studying Charlie Parker’s music and working with my friend Donald Baker. If you transcribe the music of Bird and Dizzy, you are going to come out of it one fantastic reader!”
After entering Northwestern, His dad got him an alto sax. His reason? Chris was very protective of his tenor. “I didn’t want to risk it getting stolen or lost. So he figured I wouldn’t care as much about an alto. He took me up to Grinnell’s, and I got an alto. I wound up loving that just as much! Three years later, I got a soprano!” Legendary baritone sax man Ernie Rogers was in charge of Jazz band at Northwestern, and James sucked up music knowledge like a sponge from Mr. Rogers, one of our great educators.
When James got the alto sax, he pulled some Johnny Hodges LP’s from his dad’s collection. Artus Sr. had a generous amount of Ellington, and Hodges, too. “My first serious influence on alto sax was Johnny Hodges, without a doubt. I used to mimic those RCA Victor albums that he did with (organist) Wild Bill Davis.”
After Graduating from Northwestern High School, James started at Henry Ford Community College. He was in luck, as George Benson and Ernie Rogers had formed The Nighttime Jazz Band. “In that band, I played alto clarinet, and I jammed on oboe and alto sax.” The next step was to find like-minded souls and put together a band. “This band was My Black Rage, because of the Black power movement that was going on,” he explains..2 “It was from 1972-1975. And we played Oakland University, we played house parties. One of the band members’ brother actually managed us for a while. Then my dad took over because he was getting concerned. I was getting older, and he wanted to make sure that I didn’t get caught up in drugs.” In the 1980s, Crack Cocaine would decimate many cities, including Detroit. Crack became the scourge of inner city communities, a modern version of Tuberculosis.
Chris studied Music Theory and Composition while he was a Senior at Northwestern. “I studied at Art Center Music School. I would wash dishes after school in the CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) program to pay for my classes.” “Also my friend Bob Schneider’s brother was a professional arranger and composer and he was giving me books to study as I was coming into my senior year of high school. By the time I got to Henry Ford Community College I already had quite a bit of music theory and composition. At Henry Ford I had two years of theory and composition as well as piano classes. I’ve found my voice on tenor, and alto. I didn’t want to sound like John Coltrane, which was who everybody wanted to sound like. On soprano sax, I love Zoot Sims. He played a straight soprano, but he sounded like a saxophone, not an oboe. ‘Trane sounded more like an oboe. I have both types – straight, and curved. I prefer the sound of the curved.”
Henry Ford Community College had two Jazz bands, and that’s where Chris met pianist Brad Shearer (Brad later Africanized his name to Foluke Shearer). Shearer is tall and lanky, with a large grin and long Dreds. He began lessons age eight, and was overcome with emotion when his parents took him to hear the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. “I thought I was in heaven,” he laughs. Brad has a soft spot for Fats Waller (a fav of his dad) but Monk, and McCoy Tyner claimed most of his ear space when he was a teen. He met a few Detroit pianists who affected his development, notably Kenn Cox and Earl Van Ryper. Van Ryper and Brad’s father were friendly, and Brad would visit Earl at his home. “I learned so much from him,” said Shearer. “Not only music stuff, but life lessons, too. He opened my eyes about music – not only notes, but what is music, things like that.” Foluke and Olujimi have been friends and musical brothers for over forty years. “I was amazed how good he was,” says Foluke Shearer. “He could play any woodwind, and I don’t mean just play a few scales. He actually amazed me.” Olujimi studied flute for a year in 2006 with renowned flautist Dr. Deborah Podolka. He continues to add Woodwinds to his ‘arsenal,’ as he calls it. Next up is a Sopranino.
In A Jam
Jam Sessions today are different to those in the Swing Era. “It’s a different environment,” Olujimi explained. “What they’re calling ‘jam sessions’ is just getting up there and doing something. A real jam session, you don’t come to that until you have practiced, woodshedded, and gotten your skills together.” Aside from his own demanding music, Teddy Harris also taught James Jam Session protocol. “He’d say, ‘if you don’t know the tune, don’t get on the stand,'” James recalls. “Then, you’re going to come out there and put your skills to the test. I was a practicer. I was practicing hours every day. I just believe in it.” Olujimi tries to absorb music from earlier Jazz Master, like Johnny Hodges, and Sidney Bechet, Hodges mentor.
“Plus,” James continued, raising another pet peeve, “there is no respect for the elder musicians from the younger. They (younger musicians) figure they can learn to play some modes in college. And then, ‘now I can play because I can play through some changes.'” The fact is, few younger musicians know much, if anything, about Jazz masters who pre-date John William Coltrane, mover of Heaven and Earth.
Olujimi has had many Guideposts along his life journey, like George Benson (1929-2019), long regarded as one of Detroit’s finest musicians and educators. “George Benson was my improv teacher at Henry Ford College, he stated. “He would scare the hell out of me,” he laughed. “He would say, ‘oh, you’re a saxophone player? I’m going to be really hard on you! You’re going to learn these modes and scales and then you’re going to learn these phrases.’ Thank God he was hard on me!”
Pianist Randy Weston, who passed in 2019, was The influence on Chris’ Afro-centric formulation and execution. Chris and Brad spent time with Weston while he was in town for the 2016 Detroit Jazz Festival. “After listening intently to the latest In The Tradition CD,” Chris stated, “I’ll never forget that he called me at 11:25 in the morning and told me how powerful he felt the message was, and I told him that I had gotten the concepts from him, and he told me ‘yes, but you’ve taken it somewhere else completely’. We are dedicating our next CD to him.”
Robert Allen is a fine bassist with many years as a Jazz practitioner. He played with Chris’ bands from 1993 until his passing, in September 2004. “Rob was a beautiful soul and in a sense, he was a wise old head who kept us all harmoniously together,” states James. “He always had stories of the great Detroit Jazz musicians, particularly the bassists. He taught us a lot of history” A small but significant Guidepost happened in 1987 at the International Association of Jazz Educators (I.A.J.E.) convention at Cobo Hall in downtown Detroit. “Charles (Chuck) Hopgood and I were both members of the Jimmy Coe All Star Big Band, which included Mel Lewis, Bill Barron, Larry Ridley, and Pianist Patti Bown. This was the first time I heard and met Chuck. He stood up and played an amazing swinging solo. Everybody took notice!”
Chris’ parents separated in 1978. Margarette returned to Stuttgart, while Artis remained in Detroit. When Margarette’s health began to fail, Chris returned and cared for her. She moved back to Detroit in 1986. She passed in 2000. He contributed to the local economy while he was in Stuttgart – he interviewed for, and got, a job at the Hartz Seed Co. It was an indoor job with a dress code. “During the interview, the nephew of the owner told me…’there are some good ol’ boys and they won’t like you wearing suits and working inside. ‘Can you take it?’ I told him, ‘no problem.’” Chris noted there were two Men’s bathrooms. “It was from segregation,” he recalled. “One for Whites, one for Blacks. It didn’t change until 1975.” From his self-directed study, he learned that the great wealth of the first crop of “Robber Barons” in the United States of America was created from Black labor – slavery, sharecropping, and Jim Crow laws forcing African Americans to earn far less than their White counterparts. James sees recent moves by Congress to dismantle the 1965 Civil Rights Act as a modern face of discrimination. It was only a few years past when the Police habit of killing young Black men was highlighted by print media. Prior to George Floyd and others, those deaths went unreported by the mainstream press.
When he wasn’t working at the Seed shop, James was practicing his Alto. “I was practicing 14 hours a day,” he remembers. “I was practicing fundamentals. I was practicing Charlie Parker solos, Eric Dolphy solos. When I left here, I was sounding like John Coltrane. When I came back, I was sounding like Charlie Parker. One of my buddies, he says, “How in hell did you do that? You left here and did a 180 degree turn in your playing. Nobody goes through styles like that!”
Chris returned to Detroit in 1980. He felt good about himself and his playing, and he wanted to sit in. He learned of two jam sessions. One hosted by Ernie Rogers at the R.A.P.A. (Rogers Academy of Performing Arts) House. A second session was out at the Music Station on Grand River Avenue. Harold McKinney, Roy Brooks, Teddy Harris, drummer Lawrence Williams, and Marcus, were all regulars. Brooks is always on the hunt for individuality and listens close to developing musicians. After one session, “Roy Brooks came out and hugged me and gave me this straight look. He says, ‘I can hear the Charlie Parker in you, but you know what? I hear Johnny Hodges, too. And I respect that'” Chris felt honored.
It was at a similar session where Chris Met premier Detroit bassist Ali Jackson. James and Jackson struck up a friendship, which garnered James a slot in Jackson’s various groups. He remained with Ali for seven years. After that, he was recruited for Teddy Harris’ New Breed BeBop Society Orchestra and was with them for four years. Chris switched to tenor when he joined Teddy Harris, and he wanted to get Ali’s opinion of his tenor playing. “I brought my tenor to Ali’s house. He looked at it and said, ‘why are you playing tenor? You ain’t play shit on alto yet!‘
Becoming Olujimi Andelwyse Tafataona
Chris’ first step to become Olujimi Tafataona, was taken twelve years prior to his name change in 1998. He was thirty-eight years of age and he’d immersed himself in music for twenty-four of those years. He intended to seclude himself and focus on composing and arranging. He soon found a way to compose, arrange, and continue playing.
One afternoon, he ran into bandleader Neal Henry at the Graystone Jazz Museum. Henry offered him a regular gig with his Septet. “I said ‘no’ initially, but then he told me I could compose and arrange for the Septet, and I said ‘Yes!'” At the first rehearsal, Charles Hopkins was there. Brad Shearer was subbing for the regular pianist. Things got off on the right foot, the guys liked playing Chris’ music, and playing together. “Neal had made it known that he would be moving to Memphis, which he did about a year later. Robert Allen and Brandon Parker (drums) told me and Chuck to form a group, and they would go with us.” “We had discussions, and it was decided that a book had to be put together and arrangements had to be done. The group also agreed that we had to do something that was different, that would set us apart from the rest of the Straight Ahead Jazz groups in Detroit. I became the music director and primary composer and arranger for the group, by default.”
“In 1996, we decided to change the name of the band from the Chris James-Charles Hopkins Quintet, to In The Tradition. I changed the whole format. We still played BeBop tunes and stuff, but I started introducing a lot more originals. We became African centered. I decided to change the focus of the group to the culture. We understood that there’s not much club work around here, so what we decided to do was pursue the theater, and the museums, and the cultural situations, because that better suited us.” Chris also joined the Shrine of the Black Madonna, an Afrocentric church. He felt at home in the church and shared the Shrine’s beliefs. Chris was encouraged to select an African name. He chose
Olujimi Andelwyse Tafataona.
Olujimi = God has given me this. [from Yoruba]
Andalwyse = God has shown me the way [from shona]
Tafataona = Before we die, we shall have seen the truth [from shona]
Olujimi continues to develop his art, his talent. It’s not about competition, it’s not about “being number one.” In the case of Christopher James/Olujimi Tafataona, it’s absorbing everything about mother Africa, especially Jazz. Jazz is fusion music, made from African elements and American elements, (which contain European elements and a critical African American element – the Blues). “The African element is rhythm,” said Olujimi.
I met Chris James in 1980. I worked at WDET-FM, producing “Jazz Yesterday” every week. I don’t recall where we met, but I asked Chris if he would play for our upcoming Fundraiser. He and Brad Shearer came down and it was a blast! I’ve seen ITT several times. They are really good, they get in a groove and keep it rolling. The music unfolds seamlessly, from African-themed pieces to Coltrane’s Cousin Mary. Tafataona’s arrangements leave plenty of room for solos, and they enhance the performance. Magic!
Ask Olujimi Tafataona why he makes music, he’ll tell you it’s “to express my innermost feelings, to raise up the profile of my people, African people, worldwide. To bring the spirit of humanity to the whole World.” His quest to populate the world with Humanity continues. It won’t ever end. It’s sustained him from his early days with his first instrument. He believes music has the ability to decompose racism, racism he’s felt all of his life. The question Olujimi posed fifty-five years ago – why are we so hated? Is the same question he asks in 2020. He is still searching for the answer.
All information and quotes from Olujimi Tafataona come from numerous conversations and emails between us, going back to 1980 when he and Foluke Shearer played on Jazz Yesterday during a WDET-FM fundraiser. Unless otherwise noted, all images courtesy Olujimi Tafataona. The band’s website is: http://www.inthetraditionjazz.net/. They have a facebook page, too: In The Tradition Jazz Ensemble.
Here’s a youtube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hZusghP0Ovk
- 1 according to Dr. Brian K Mitchell, Ph.D., a professor of history at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
- 2 It began Sunday, July 23, 1967. https://www.history.com/topics/1960s/1967-detroit-riots for more information.
- 3 SMART [Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation] has a fleet of 700+ buses around the Detroit area.
Olujimi Tafataona on Records
- Platinum Ryder ?
- In The Tradition AJF-1901
- Fikira AJF-1902
- In The Tradition: Live at P.J.’s AJF-1903 [unissued]
- In The Tradition AJF-1904 [unissued]
- Sirius! AFJ-1907/6
- Ancestral Alliances AFJ-1907/8
There are several tracks by ITT on YouTube. Search for the Olujimi Tafataona channel.