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Jamal Muhammad: WPFW DJ’s life was lived, and saved, through jazz

By Terence McArdle,

When you heard Jamal Muhammad spin jazz on WPFW, you didn’t simply hear music. You heard the enthusiasm and passion of a man who had lived the jazz life — and had the stories that went with it.

Muhammad, who died at 77 on Feb. 5 from hepatitis, had been a fixture at the leftist-leaning, listener-supported station (89.3 FM) for more than 25 years. He often talked over the records — anticipating a hot solo with a “Yeah, yeah, come in and blow” — and between songs recounted his memories of specific shows. Listeners almost felt as if they were in his living room, conversing with him as he shared his epic record collection.

During a 2006 show quoted on the Web site JazzAvenues.com, he said: “Clifford Brown, the last time that the band recorded — It was a week before Clifford and Richie Powell and [Powell’s] wife’s untimely deaths — in Norfolk, Virginia, and it was the first and only time Clifford played ‘Just One of Those Things.’ ”

Muhammad came by his encyclopedic knowledge of jazz the hard way. He was an aspiring saxophonist who gave it up, convinced he’d never be good enough. But the music wouldn’t let him go. Instead, he became an obsessive fan and follower of jazz, a habitué of its environs, a victim of its temptations and, then, by its grace, and with the passage of time, a collector and a teacher of its lore.

***

Born Phillip White on Aug. 5, 1934, in Washington, Muhammad was raised by his mother and maternal grandparents. He discovered jazz by age 13, when a neighbor’s older brother would bring the newest records home to find Muhammad waiting outside his door. Soon, Muhammad was hanging out at the Howard and Lincoln theaters, hoping to catch a glimpse of the musicians.

“U Street was where, when we were little, where you got dressed up on Sundays,” recalled Muhammad during a 2002 NPR interview. “... If you were really into something, you ate at Harrington’s, that was very bourgy, and then you’d catch the streetcar and you ride back up to ... the further part of U Street. And you might go to the Lincoln or the Republic ... or the Booker T, and you’d be all dressed up.”

“I didn’t know [D.C.] was segregated until I went in the Navy, because I didn’t give a d--- about downtown,” he said. “Everything I liked was ... right uptown.”

Muhammad enlisted in the Navy after high school. He spent his first furlough at Birdland, the club in Manhattan named for Charlie Parker. When Muhammad’s hitch in the Navy was up, he stayed in New York and saw performances by such legends as Art Blakey, Lester Young, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

“He fell in love with Birdland,” said his second wife and widow, Phyllis Freeman-Muhammad. “He walked away from everything in Washington.”

Muhammad never mastered the saxophone to his satisfaction. In one account, he quit after a frustrating jam session with Illinois Jacquet. In another, he gave away his sax after hearing a live performance by Parker.

Some details of his New York years have been obscured by the passage of time and, perhaps, by the reticence of friends. But even those friends acknowledge that he struggled with heroin addiction for years and spent time in jail for petty crimes, such as forgery, to support his habit. Along the way, Muhammad became involved with the Nation of Islam, which helped in his eventual recovery.

“Brother Jamal’s love for jazz music led him to a life which proceeded up the rough side of the mountain. He was not ashamed of the fact that he resided — on multiple occasions — in D.C.’s Lorton Reformatory, or at St. Elizabeth’s, the mental hospital,” wrote WPFW news director Askia Muhammad (no relation) on the Web site Black Journalism Review.

But that love of jazz music also would lead him to a rewarding career as its historian and chronicler.

***

By the 1960s, Muhammad had returned to Washington. He married, had two daughters and divorced. Over the years, he worked for a drug treatment program, the Veterans Administration and at least a couple of record stores.

He first appeared on WPFW in 1986 as a regular guest of longtime friend Nap Turner, a blues singer and beloved radio personality whose Saturday morning show, “Turner’s Arena,” a reference to the defunct stadium on14th Street, included colorful reminiscences from the DJ and his visitors who would reminisce with him about the old U Street days.

In 1988, Muhammad received the Tuesday drive-time slot. He specialized in bebop from the Charlie Parker era, though his broad tastes included Louis Armstrong, Davis and singer-songwriter Terry Callier. Muhammad’s wife said his record collection was so vast that he could go a year without listening to the same record.

His style was both authoritative and informal — and occasionally chaotic. “He broke every rule of radio,” said fellow DJ Keanna Faircloth, and didn’t concern himself with pronunciation, drops (those brief audio segments that identify a show or station) or acknowledging the top of the hour.

By the time he and Freeman-Muhammad married in 2003, WPFW and its DJs were reaching a much wider audience through the Internet.

“We went up to New York, Florida, we went to the islands, and people knew who he was,” Freeman-Muhammad said. “He would tear up, because he had no idea that people listened to him that far away.”

At pledge time, Muhammad’s folksy qualities helped raise money for the station — though he was willing to resort to guilt trips if he wasn’t making his goal.

“He’d say, ‘You call here every week and ask me what the track is that I’m playing. If you can’t help me pay the rent, don’t call me anymore,’ ” Faircloth recalled. Then, the phones would light up.

Muhammad always closed his show with organist Charles Earland’s pulsating rendition of the 1960s pop hit “More Today Than Yesterday.” Muhammad would tell his audience, “May all your tomorrows be brighter than your yesterdays.”

Terence McArdle, a Metro staffer who often contributes to the obituary section, also performs as a blues singer and guitarist.

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