Alfie Pollitt: A Musical Journey Through the Byways of Life

Part 2: Spiritual Pilgrimage to Philadelphia (1960s)

When did you move from Bryn Mawr to Philadelphia?

Well, officially moved. As you know, I stayed in town, I came into Philly, first I started coming in junior high. So like, my cousins on my father’s side of the family lived right near 60th and Thompson, and from since I was a little boy, we would come visit them, and then where they lived — I met, you know, folk, my contemporaries and older folk who lived right near them. And like, for example, there was a guy named Sam Brown Sr. Sam Brown Sr. was an artist, a fine artist, and he studied, he was under the WPA Franklin Roosevelt arts program during the Great Depression era, you know, and his son Sam Brown Jr. played the piano. 

He was like a classical pianist and he’d do recitals and stuff. He was like older than me, he was like one of my mentors and through attending — going to my cousins house, I met people from the Moon Gang, I met people who were so called siddity: people of color who thought they were, you know, because it meant they have a lighter complexion hue, that they were better the darker complexion folk. We called them siddity, or we called them toasties. 

Then I met the Yocks, and Spitty Yocks, and folks who were really good dressers and stuff, and so all of this influenced me in being around these people and then going to parties and dances and, you know, all that kind of stuff. 

And then eventually I got introduced to the beatnik movement and coffeehouses in downtown Philadelphia and parties in Powelton Village. So I was, I was hanging down there, sometimes I crashed in people’s lofts downtown and then eventually in the ‘60s I started staying at a place we called The Loft which was located 1430 South Penn Square. Well, there were two lofts: first there was one on 18th, between Chestnut and Market, and that was the early on one, but I stayed at the one on South Penn Square right across from City Hall, right near where — it’s a hotel right there now — Carlton or something, Ritz Carlton I believe it is, right near there, just across from where Octavius Catto statue is now.

And, so while I was there, I was also hanging in Rittenhouse Square and I met people like Norman Connors, a musician who became a producer later on, Billy Paul, the singer. A lot of folks who were — Richard Watson, who was the artist who was one of Cecil Moore’s freedom fighters — Freedom Smitty, Freedom George — part of Cecil Moore’s freedom fighters as well. So they were painters, they were sculptors, they were musicians, they were poets, they were quite an array of people who hung in the square and hung at a studio. So I would stay there. We called it a “crash” and I would crash because I wasn’t paying rent but some friends of mine would let me sleep there on the floor, what have you. 

So I got acclimated to living in Philadelphia. It felt good to be living downtown, you know, ‘cause somebody could say “I live downtown” or whatever. So eventually, through the Rittenhouse Square experience, I got introduced to the Nation of Islam. And so everything was taking place at the temples in Philadelphia. So I would commute into Philadelphia until eventually I moved into Philadelphia.

So Alfie, before you joined the Nation of Islam, you were living more of a beatnik lifestyle maybe characterized by — what, what was that time characterized by?

Well, it was some, I had been through some of that beatnik stuff, when I was living uh, I guess so ’cause I would crash at people’s abodes and stuff like that, you know? You know, we would panhandle money, you know, live off the fat of the land by our wits, you know, however we could survive, you know, and hopefully not get arrested, locked up. Sometimes we got, you know, you know, there were raids that came through in Rittenhouse Square and stuff and we got taken in, but usually just, just disorderly conduct or vagrancy. 

And then also I was, you know, a musician. I was in the music field so we, we played as much as we could play, and we followed our idols or our mentors like Coltrane, Eric Dolphy and all these people. We, as much we could go see them, Mingus, all those people, you know, that was what we lived for, you know. And the freedom we felt, like being in Rittenhouse Square ‘cause it was like a, I guess like an annex to us of Washington Square Park in the Village in Manhattan, you know, so we, a lot of the people we ran with was like just real free people, people, non-conformists, you know. A lot of them — what do you call them — anti-establishment and what have you. And we feel like, I guess we, some of us felt, like myself, like we prefered like a utopian lifestyle as opposed to, you know — so no really need for like, money and stuff. Everything should be free. You know, that kind of thinking.

So after you moved to Philadelphia —  do you remember what year it was that you officially moved there?

Oh, I was, well, let me see. During the Black Power Conference time, which was ‘68-‘69, I was staying with a famous musician. His name was Lynn Hope, and he was Muslim, and he was known as the first African American, North American to make the Hajj to Mecca back in the ‘40s. He was a musician — he played the saxophone, he wore a turban and he would play places like the Showboat Lounge at Broad and Lombard in Philly and he would play, he would walk on top of the bar playing a saxophone. And he would have crowds, people would be lined up around the corner to come in to see him. And he was a big hit, you know? And so eventually I met him, and I was trying to come up off of the experience I had on the streets and go ahead and come stay with him, and him and his sister, they would tell me about a lot of different things they’d do. He was friends with, like matter of fact, his sister, you know, lived with him as well. And Muhammad Ali — his first daughter, was named after his sister, Maryum, you know, and he used to talk a lot and you know about the old days and so I stayed with them and then eventually moved in on my own in Philadelphia.

What led you to making your first composition, “15 Street.”

Umm, well, 15th Street, downtown Philadelphia, between Market and I’d say Walnut back in the, maybe the mid 60s, was like a real hip street, so to speak. It had really like the New York, hip-type clothing places like Morville, Slacks and Jacks, well Boyds was near there too, and then like the so called hip people would, they would promenade up and down there, you know, it was the place to be, to go. It’s like in New York, but in Philly. So, you know, so 15th Street was inspired by like the hipness stuff. And you know, like Miles Davis’ “Milestones,” it had a feel similar to that. Sure you know. And it’s influenced by the modal, so called modal jazz of the “Kind of Blue” Miles Davis album as well. And it depicts you know, like a fast-paced people walking down the street what have you, you know, kinda thing. 

And how old were you during this time? 

Oh, this was some time during the — I think it was about ‘58, maybe. 

And is this the time that you started using drugs? 

Hmm?

Is this the time you started using drugs?

I started using drugs, what? When did you start using drugs? (Laughs) Oh, you still on drugs? Is he asking me something like this?

Wow, Brandon, you just really threw that in there, okay.

No, ‘cause you were describing, you know —

Michelle, I’m glad you came back! (Inaudible) was everything. (Laughs) So what are we going to do? Are we going to apprehend him, what are we going to do with this guy?

Well I got introduced to drugs through originally the Rittenhouse Square stuff you know, like these Benzedrine pills. A guy would take these and it’d keep you awake and stuff. Tried some of that, tried a little reefer. And then there was a guy I know, a black guy that went to Haverford college and he was staying in Ardmore, he had an apartment in Ardmore. And he was a great musician. He played the piano, he was mostly a saxophone player. And he knew a lot of famous musicians from Harlem and Brooklyn, you know. And he played with him like kind of Ray Draper, a tuba player. You know, he knew all these people.

And a lot of these people were allegedly heroin addicts as well. He was playing with these musicians, you know, who were also heroin addicts. And I found out that he and this guy, he would go, and constantly, you know, go to the drugstore a lot. And I would accompany him and he would have to sign his name to get this cough syrup, you know, codeine-based cough syrup. So um, sometimes he would like, you know, you’re only allowed to get so much and you have to, so he would run out of places that he could get it. So he would have me go sign for him, you know, to get it and then eventually I started thinking about it, and I tried it, and I became — I started liking it, became addicted to it. And then, um, he, you know, he realized that and then he introduced me to like, heroin, you know. So he, you know, hit me up with some heroin and, and, you know, I was definitely afraid of needles anyway but I let him do that and I then I liked the feeling of that. Then eventually I could see myself, it was so overpowering, the feeling you got from it, that it was an even greater feeling than cough syrup high. And I could just see myself, you know, I didn’t wanna get addicted to something I gotta give myself needles — I didn’t like needles. So eventually I went to New York with a couple friends to move to New York. And I went up there and I didn’t have any connection to get cough syrup. And I could see myself getting on heroin and OD’ing up there so I came back to Philly and continued my sojourn with the cough syrup.

What part of New York?

Um, we were in the East Village, Norman Connors and myself. Back when we went up there, Sun Ra was living up there then. And so we were trying to find Sun Ra’s house, but we asked this musician, this guy, found out he was a famous musician later on, but he looked like, maybe a musician. So we asked him, he said, “Yeah, down third street.” So he told us where his house was. Later on, I saw a picture of the guy on a record album and it was Albert Ayler who had directed us, you know. 

So we went down Sun Ra’s house and hung out there and it was a friend of mine named Joe Logan. Giuseppe just passed a few weeks ago. He was part of the so called avant garde as well. And in fact, Giuseppi and I, I met Giuseppi in the late ‘50s. He lived in Norfolk, Virginia, and he and his family came to Philly and he played alto sax. So there was this guy who was a, like a hero saxophone player who played at that this club called the Hacienda on Lancaster Avenue, like around 42nd and Lancaster, and he was like, it was like a gladiator-type situation like, you know, he would out-play other musicians. He would challenge them, alto players. 

So he would like blow everybody away. And then so this guy Giuseppi came in town, he sat in and blew him away! And Giuseppi liked the way I played the piano and he was saying that he was in town for a while and he wanted to practice. So I asked my godmother, Theresa Tucker, if we can come over here to practice. I’d figured she’d say no, but we came — she let us come over there — you know, but he was an avant garde player. And he said, he liked Eric Dolphy’s work, you know? He liked Eric because he said Eric played worse than Coltrane. So she would let us come and practice, you know, several days a week. During the day we’d be practicing and playing and playing outward bound type music and she never said “Get out!” — nothing like that, you know, I guess she had a greater understanding — she knew stuff I didn’t know. You know? 

Who is “she”? 

My god mother. Mhm. Yeah. So she either tolerated or she, she didn’t chase us out of there for what we was playing, the way we was playing. So years later, Giuseppi moved to New York, and he became — he was on the ESP label, he had an album on that label. So when I went to New York one other time. Well Giuseppi, was living up there during the time when I went up there with Norman. Then years later I did a jam session with Giuseppi and Rashied Ali, Coltrane’s last drummer at Rashied’s place in Brooklyn, like an all-day thing, you know, I think Rashied might have had recorded it, you know. With Giuseppi, you know, we were, we were really cool, you know. 

In fact, the last time Giuseppi had disappeared from the music scene in New York for a long time. And so he was rediscovered and in fact, I saw it on YouTube. And then some people were like, helping him out and giving him a place to live and a horn and everything. So last, they brought him to Philly, to the Art Alliance, 18th and Locust. So I went, my brother and I — that’s one of the last few hours he and I had before he passed. We saw Giuseppi, in fact, I took pictures with Giuseppi and myself, you know, just to have. But he was one of the avant garde, so-called avant garde people.

Alfie, I wanted to ask you about John Coltrane, because I realized that we hadn’t talked about him very much in the previous interviews, but I know that you’ve mentioned before that he has been a really influential musician for your life and your art, and I just wanted to hear you speak more about that because my understanding is also that, you know, he’s he’s had a great influence on a generation of musicians and —

Many generations of musicians. 

Right. 

Young and old. 

Right. 

You know, ‘cause you name him, you know? 

Yeah. Well, the thing is, I also don’t think that we have many exemplars of someone like a Coltrane these days, who was so committed to, you know, musicianship and art in connection to his love for the people and his commitment to the people’s struggle. So yeah, I’d just like to hear what you’ve been thinking or, you know, what his influence on you has been.

Well, you know, his study habits and practice habits and all that stuff influenced me to want to be a better musician, you know, to be able to respect the craft in that kind of regard and try to be the best I can in whatever I do, in music and just in life in general, you know. Him and Malcolm X who was having gone through the recovery from substances and what have you was definitely an influence on me, you know, directly, you know, and a model for me, and I followed, you know, the best I could those models. Also I was blessed to, you know, be close to the Coltrane family, or the Coltrane and Grubbs family via a guy name Nate Murray, who was a leader of a band that I was blessed to be in along with Earl and Carl Grubbs, Coltrane’s first wife, Naima’s brother’s sons, you know. 

Naima’s maiden name was Naima Grubbs, and Earl Sr. and his wife, Lucy, were the parents of Earl Jr. Grubbs and Carl Grubbs and they were the horn players in the band, and Nate Murray’s cousin, Jimmy Turner or Kaseem Turner was his drummer and Nate was a bass player, and sometime, Ron Everett would play with us, trumpet player, and different other folk. And through being over, spending a lot of time at Earl and Carl Grubbs’ crib — their family home, practicing, we practiced like, all day, you know, like, whenever we’d go over there, and you know, it might be real hot outside but we’d be in there, no air conditioning, practicing and practicing hours and hours and hours. You know, we’d go take a break, go out, maybe get some ice cream, you know, just go out, get some air, you know. And their “Uncle Johnny” as they called Coltrane was you know, a main influence on them. And, he would show them some of his compositions. You know, he showed them Giant Steps and I believe that he showed them not only on the saxophone but possibly on the piano too. Because through Earl and Carl, they showed me some of Coltrane’s Giant Steps, the chords on piano, their interpretation of what their uncle Johnny played. So we learned some of his pieces: Cousin Mary, Mr. P.C., so and so forth. 

And one day, they were telling me, Earl and Carl, told me that they were — their uncle Johnny was in town, over on 33rd Street at the place that we know as the John Coltrane house, 1533 North uhhh — No, what was it — 1511, North 33rd street. I believe that’s right. 

And so Coltrane was over there visiting his mother. Her name was Alice, I believe. And so we went over there. And we met him and saw Uncle Johnny, he was in his bathrobe walking around the house, he’d been practicing and we seen him maybe just a fleeting moment, but he had his, you know, horn with him and his saxophone strap around his neck in the bathrobe. So, and so, Earl and Carl, they would periodically, I believe, be able to sit in with their Uncle Johnny on some of his gigs, you know. And this is something we all wanted to do, so we became disciples of Coltrane by contemporaries. And Norman Connors, you know, um, the drummer and producer. And you know, Billy Paul, the singer, was, you know, he has worked with John Coltrane and so a bunch of us guys in my age bracket we all, musicians, you know, Coltrane was our hero. 

So we used to go into the clubs, Pep’s and the Showboat downtown Philly and go hear him play even though we were underage, and we were able to come in through people like Freddie Freeloader. Freddie Freeloader is the guy that Miles Davis named  the song “Freddie Freeloader” after on the Kind of Blue album. Freddy was like a bartender and he was a valet, he did different things, him and Miles, you know, he was Miles’ like, a go-to man, a runner for Miles. And so he would let us come in to Pep’s, to the Showboat, and him and a guy named Bob Slaughter — Bob Slaughter was a former boxer, and also was a poet and he was a bouncer for the Showboat. 

And they would let us come in because they knew these were our heroes and of course we couldn’t order anything to drink ‘cause they wouldn’t serve us anything like alcohol, so we’d get fruit punch and, you know, milk and stuff like that, you know, soft drinks, what have you. And so we were able to experience our heroes, you know. So like the, the management ownership of these places, they knew, you know, of us and they’d let us come in. So we didn’t have any problems, you know, and we didn’t try to order anything, you know, alcohol or nothing like that. 

So many times, those of us, Calvin Benson, who’s, he’s passed on, he was a bass player, and a contemporary of mine. Warren McLendon, a drummer who’s also a keyboard player now. Warren, he’s worked with Jimmy Merritt for years, Jimmy Merritt’s Forerunners Band, and Warren and a guy named Richard Ferguson — during the time when Coltrane was experimenting with more than one drummer, he had hired Richard and Warren and during this one stint he had like for a week I believe at the Showboat — no, at Pep’s, Pep’s Musical Bar, Broad and South. So they both played with Coltrane: Warren McLendon and Richard Ferguson. Richard has passed on. Warren is still, you know, with us. And so, during that time, Pharaoh was in the band, Pharaoh Sanders, um, Alice Coltrane, um, some of the time when, when, Warren got hired first, I believe, when he got hired by Trane, Elvin was in the band too, so it was two drummers, Elvin and Warren, you know. And so uh, also many times, well, Alan Nelson was one of the disciples of John Coltrane, Elvin Jones, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison experience, you know. 

And we all would just go there and sit at the feet of our heroes. You know, um, I remember one time being at Pep’s one evening and Trane and the Quartet, Classic Quartet, was performing and sometime during the set Eric Dolphy came in, had, you know, a young lady with him, he had his horns and he wound up and Trane invited him to the bandstand which was an open invitation anyway for him, of course, and they played “My Favorite Things” and it was really great, you know. 

Other times, one time when Elvin Jones, because of his substance background, he was incarcerated and he was in, I think was Lexington Reformatory, which was like a National Drug Rehab penitentiary-type place, you know. And while he was, you know, out of the band — not out of the band, but he was incarcerated, Trane had different drummers play to fill in for Elvin at the time.

So one time I went to, I went to the Birdland to see Coltrane during that time, and Philly Joe Jones played drums with a set with him for that engagement. I had heard that Clifford Jarvis, the drummer, had worked with Coltrane some as well. And when, a few weeks after I saw the band at Birdland, Trane, you know, had an engagement to come into Philly for a week. So when he came in, we knew like he would be coming in on Monday because they had a Monday matinee, and, you know, and Monday evening set. So some of us, we got down there early down to the Showboat which was in the basement of the Douglas Hotel which is located in the 1400 block of Lombard Street, right off Broad. 

And so we were amazed because we saw Coltrane drive up, he had this blue, he had a blue Chrysler station wagon. And in the station wagon I think he had Jimmy Garrison, Jimmy’s drums, Jimmy’s bass, and he had Roy Haynes and Roy’s drums. Roy Haynes was you know, there for that engagement, so we, it was amazing, ‘cause we looked at Trane like he was like God in human form, you know what I mean. And then we saw him like, take the drums and help carry the drums into the Showboat, it was unbelievable — “Wow!” you know? 

So um, and we caught that set just about every day they were there, you know, a bunch of us were right there catching and checking it out, you know, that whole history unfolding before us and being a part of that. So that was really great. 

So also a friend of mine named James Phillips, he’s an artist, he’s a visual artist, and he teaches at Howard University, the Art Department, and he’s one of my closest friends. And he spent junior high and high school at the same high school I did, Harriton High School of Lower Merion and he lived across the street from me. And I was blessed to introduce him to so-called jazz, to Rittenhouse Square, to the beatnik lifestyle, jazz, so on and so forth, and so he to this day keeps in touch and he tips me off about different releases of music. So there has been bootleg stuff.

So he turned me on to this bootleg two CD set of John Coltrane Live at the Showboat in Philadelphia. And listening to it, I think the CD one, the third tune, we could hear — it sounds like Norman Connor’s voice in the background talking and my voice and maybe Gerald Roberts, who’s — Norman and Gerlad, Gerald used to be Norman’s road manager. So might be us on there but definitely to us it sounds like our voices to each other, you know, that we had made that set. 

And I remember during the time when Trane was working with uh, Roy Haynes with him. I remember this guy named Allan, I forget his last name, a Jewish guy, but he had a real, real portable tape recorder. And he went and he attempted to record the set and he was getting ready to set up to start recording and Roy Haynes saw him. He said, “You know, you ain’t gonna record. I mean, you gotta pay me to record me!” you know. So I think he did record some because I believe I did hear some of the recordings played back of that band, you know, the same band that was on the album called “Selflessness,” John Coltrane’s album, “Selflessness”: Roy Haynes, McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and John Coltrane, you know. So I guess maybe during this same time frame they recorded, went in the studio and recorded that album. 

I was also blessed to sit in with John Coltrane’s band one time at Showboat during the same time when, well, this was the time when Rashied Ali was on the drums and Alice Coltrane, piano, Pharoah Sanders on soprano and tenor saxophones, John Coltrane, and Little Willie John, the singer who was an R&B singer who was a contemporary of James Brown, a good friend of James Brown. He had a record out called “Talk to Me,” which was a big hit on R&B charts back in the 50s and he was invited to sit in, and the song he did was “Talk to Me.” And I recall, it’s kind of fuzzy now, but I, I know I sat in with them, and while he was singing, and I played on the piano, because I heard that Alice was not familiar with that piece, you know, so, I volunteered, my, my few moments in, in the sun or whatever, you know, on the bandstand with Trane. 

But many times we saw Coltrane play. It was like going to church, you know? It was like a spiritual, you know, pilgrimage, you know.


Interview conducted and compiled by Michelle Yuan Lyu and Brandon Hai Do.