Poetry and jazz: Surging together in Berkeley

Raymond Nat Turner
Raymond Nat Turner: playing Friday at the Berkeley Art Festival performance space on University Avenue. Photo: courtesy Raymond Nat Turner

The unassuming apartment complex at Seventh and Allston doesn’t look much like the cradle of a creative movement, but for spoken-word artist Raymond Nat Turner the West Berkeley locale provided everything he needed to launch UpSurge!

Working as roadie, manager and all-round assistant for Donald “Duck” Bailey in the 1980s, Turner started frequenting a weekly jam session hosted by the jazz drum legend at the Wellington Hotel at Seventh and University (where La Quinta stands today). With a steady flow of young musical talent from Berkeley High attending the sessions, Turner found the personnel he needed to launch the politically charged jazz/poetry ensemble that celebrates its 25th anniversary 8 p.m. Friday at the Berkeley Art Festival performance space on University Avenue, just a mile east of where the project first came together in the fall of 1990.

“For the first five years we drew heavily on Berkeley High, or what I liked to call the jazz factory,” Turner says. “I’d get some input from Charles Hamilton, who was directing the jazz band then. The jam session was a proving ground, and that’s where I saw some of the younger players, like David Ewell, Geechi Taylor, Howard Wiley and Erik Jekabson, kids who are now full-grown adults. I remember their parents dropping them off for rehearsal at that apartment on 7th Street and checking it out see what was going on.”

By the mid-1990s, UpSurge! had joined forces with drummer Babatunde Lea’s band with bassist Ron Belcher, and powerhouse saxophonist Richard Howell, who went on to produce the ensemble’s critically-acclaimed CDs, 1999’s All Hands on Deck , and 2003’s Chromatology. For Friday’s show,


Turner and his longtime partner in verse and life, Zigi Lowenberg, perform with saxophonist-flutist Barbara Hunter, pianist Tammy Hall, bassist Heshima Mark Williams, trumpeter Mark Wright, and drummer Leon Joyce Jr., a well traveled veteran who spent years on the road with Ramsey Lewis and Nancy Wilson.

They’ll be performing some of their signature pieces but “we always have a lot of new material,” says Lowenberg. “One thing about our audience is that they’ve been very loyal. I’d like to toast our audience for hanging in with us, watching us grow and our different iterations.”

The latest iteration of UpSurge! has taken shape far from the Bay Area. About three years ago Turner and Lowenberg relocated to Harlem, where they’ve gradually found creative allies and friendly venues. They’ve performed annually at the increasingly visible Dissident Arts Festival, while performing at the Whynot Jazz Room, a West Village venue.

Raised in Los Angeles, Turner started reciting his poetry around the Southland with jazz musicians, but it was at a Howard University gig when he shared a stage with poet Larry Neal that he realized spoken word performance was his calling. Not long after moving to Berkeley, he started working with “Duck” Bailey, which gave him a front row view of jazz masters like Harold Land, Teddy Edwards and Charles McPherson. “I was able to meet a lot of instrumentalists and learn some things about running a band,” he says.

Lowenberg first connected with UpSurge! as an artist, doing posters for gigs and shooting photos, but before long she became the vital ying to Turner’s yang as they alternated jazzpoetry pieces celebrating jazz heroes and decrying social injustice. Championed by cultural activists like KPFA DJ Doug Edwards, librarian and trombonist Pat Mullen, and Bonnie Hughes, who has overseen a series of Berkeley performance spaces (most recently the Berkeley Arts Festival), UpSurge! became a vital part of the East Bay arts scene. As Turner sees it, they’re putting their own spin on a tradition with deep roots.


“There’s a rich history of poetry and jazz going back to Charles Mingus and Langston Hughes,” Turner says. “We’re adding our voices to the mix.”

Recommended Gigs: Kelley Gray at the California Jazz Conservancy

Screen shot 2015-04-22 at 8.00.22 PMVocalist Kelley Gray released one of the best jazz vocal albums of the 2014 with And, They Call Us Cowboys (Grr8 Records), a project celebrating her Texan roots with incisive interpretations of songs by iconic Texas tunesmiths like Roger Miller (“Dang Me”), Kris Kristofferson (“Help Me Make It Through the Night”), and Roy Orbison (“Only the Lonely”). She performs Saturday April 25 at the California Jazz Conservatory at 8 p.m. with a top-shelf band featuring pianist Adam Shulman, bassist Marcus Shelby, and drummer Greg Wyser-Pratt.

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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