Sunday, June 23, 2019


Gil Scott-Heron enjoyed an enthusiastic reception in France throughout his career. Even remarked upon it in song:

Me and the bothers no parlez-vous.
French was way down on my list.
(But) the Africans said "Merci beaucoup!"
'cause the rhythm's what they missed.
The people got the message
from the music that we play.
It really shouldn't a been no surprise
that we all got down that day.

and so it seemed more than fitting that we would gather in Montpellier in the summer of 2019 to explore and honor the life and work of this artist. Kudos and thanks to Claudine Raynaud and Vincent Dussol for convening the group, and for their own powerful scholarship.  I had first met Claudine, a major figure in European scholarship of African American letters, at one of our conferences at Penn State.

I was scheduled to deliver the opening keynote, but my usual travel bad luck intervened. The driver I'd hired to deliver me dropped me off at the wrong campus. But in the spirit of jazz improvisation, they rearranged the schedule, Claudine oversaw a first session, and Vincent headed off in his car to my rescue. My stroke of bad luck turned out to be a fortune, as it gave me time to get to know Vincent, who is a fine translator and critic.  We found we had mutual friends in the world of poetry. For example, he knows Manuel Brito and has a copy of my book Mixage, which Manuel published, on his shelves. Vincent has also translated work by Ray Di Palma, among many others. Vincent's own presentation at the symposium was a tour de force passage through "the alphabet of Gil Scott-Heron."

My own offering was more of my "Choruses for Gil Scott-Heron." I liken the project to the marathon of choruses Paul Gonsalves spun out during the Duke Ellington band's 1956 Newport performance. This thing could go on building forever.

It turned out that there were several old friends from the States on hand adding their measures to the songs, and it emerged that there was a somewhat accidental D.C. sub-theme.   One highlight for me was reading my poems alongside Melba Joyce Boyd, whose work I seem to have known forever and whose diligent care for the legacy of Dudley Randall is something we all have to be thankful for,



Anna Everett said...

These inviting photos make me even more sad that I was unable to attend this wonderful celebration of Gil Scott-Heron's work and socially conscious and always relevant creativity. Thanks Aldon Nielsen for sharing.

Unknown said...

Aldon: What a nice documentation of participants. Thanks for doing this.


Unknown said...

Thank you for documenting the conference. Good work, Aldon.