Saturday, January 17, 2009


That was Ishmael Reed kicking off a Duke Ellington tune at Anna's Jazz Island in Berkeley last month, with Carla Blank taking the lead on violin.

Who knew that in addition to being a novelist, essayist and poet, Reed could take a turn at the keyboard?

The occasion was the 2008 American Book Awards of the Before Columbus Foundation.  Reed was instrumental in the creation of the foundation back in 1976, and they've been giving these awards since 1978.  This year's honorees included Douglas Blackmon, C. S. Giscombe, Nikki Giovanni, Moustafa Bayoumi, Angela Jackson, Fae Ng, Maria Mazziotti Gillian and J.J. Phillips.  Also honored was the posthumous volume by Lorenzo Thomas, Don't Deny My Name, that I edited and introduced, published earlier in the year by the University of Michigan Press.  I was out in Pennsylvania when word of the award reached me, but it transpired that the ceremony in Berkeley was to be held during the time the Modern Language Association was meeting in San Francisco.  So I took some time out from the MLA Poetry Division and other sessions, and jumped on the BART to get across the Bay in time for the festivities.  Seeing Reed at the piano was surprise enough; finding Taj Mahal there in the audience, a musician I have been listening to since I was fifteen, was all the award I needed.

Afterwards, Cecil and his family along with colleague Paul Youngquist joined us on the BART trip back to San Francisco and the Yerba Buena Center where we joined the MLA Off-Site reading, already in progress.  Cecil ran into one of his students on the BART train.

This year's Book Awards were hosted by poet Al Young.

[principal photography by Anna Everett]

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