Samarai Celestial was a jazz visionary: flamboyant, inspired, and amazingly gifted. But it was a dedication to his muse that perhaps ended his life too soon.
By Mike Gibson
JANUARY 20, 1998: It's mid-winter 1989 at the drab, aging University of Tennessee Music Hall when the man once known as Eric Walker completes his boisterous initiation into Knoxville's small but distinguished fraternity of jazz musicians.
The occasion is the black-tie faculty recital of pianist and new UT assistant professor Donald Brown, who has hand-picked a quartet of supporting musicians that includes department head Jerry Coker on tenor saxophone, bass instructor Rusty Holloway on stand-up, and acclaimed New York trumpeter Bill Mobley. But the starched ambiance notwithstanding, the restless drummer with the luminous dark eyes and toothy megawatt smile refuses to go unnoticed.
When Brown signals the onset of the drummer's solo spot, he assails the kit with a lunatic intensity that elicits visible astonishment from the other four musicians. There is no sense of cool jazzbo reserve in the onslaught; after one particularly ferocious roll, he stands and lets out a resounding whoop, then lashes at the cymbals with unhinged glee. Like bewildered weathermen staring at murky radar screens, the other players can only vainly search the charts on their music stands, as if the tiny black dots and gridlines on the stenciled pages will yield some clue as to the length and severity of this sudden percussive hailstorm.
At long last, the drummer stands again and cries out with hoarse ebullience: "I need help now!" Then, as a mischievous grin seeps across his facea grin that outshines even the drum kit's burnished bronze halo of cymbalshe pauses, looks around knowingly as if to measure the impact of his own spectacle, and settles back into his chair with a playful, rump-wagging shimmy that leaves Holloway nuzzling the thick neck of his stand-up bass in an effort to suppress a giggle.
As Brown leads the ensemble back into the heart of the song, the crowd erupts with unruly cheers, shattering any remaining sense of uncomfortable dignity. It's the kind of effect that Samarai Celestialcult-jazz luminary, empyrean savant, and celestial skinsman par excellencewill have on many more Knoxville audiences to come.
"I knew at the time that he was capable of some wild showmanship, but that one even caught me off guard," Brown chuckles. "Basically, he was a fool, and I mean that in the best sense. Samarai was just different, like [jazz drummer] Art Blakely, one of the top four or five most amazing people in my life. He was the kind of person where you had to have him in your life some way. You couldn't do without him."
Those recital histrionics, preserved on video in Brown's personal archives, are now freighted with poignancy as well as mirth; on November 28, at age 43, Samarai died in his native Savannah, Ga., having battled painful, crippling heart disease the last four years of his life.
A musician of singular gifts and a human being of enormous warmth and charisma, Samarai came to Knoxville in 1987 after gaining cult renown as the drummer for avant-jazz bandleader Sun Ra. In his nine years here, he continued to tour and record with Ra's amorphous, eclectic Arkestra; gigged, recorded, and traveled with a host of local talents; and recorded a pair of startlingly unconventional solo releases. He returned to Savannah in 1996, his own health declining, to shepherd his father through the last stages of a terminal illness.
Local production guru Seva, a close friend and musical collaborator, calls his story a "classic jazz tragedy," another instance of gentle genius savaged by life's harsh actualities. "His commitment to music was so deep that he accepted financial difficulty and instability throughout his life."
Samarai Celestial was born Eric Walker on Nov. 28, 1954, in Savannah. His parents, Ezekiel and Thelma Walker, both played piano, while his brother, who would later rename himself Sharif Rashied, played trumpet and flute. Although Eric showed considerable rhythmic inclination as a child, his first instrument was Rashied's trumpet, a grade school hand-me-down. He would take up drums in earnest at age 13, however, and within a couple of years he was accomplished enough to play jazz and R&B at Savannah clubs.
At the onset of Eric's senior year, his brother returned from a stint in Vietnam, where a fellow soldier had introduced him to the Nation of Islam. Eric converted as well, changing his name to Sami.
While passing out Islamic newspapers on a street corner one day, the youths were accosted first by a single police officer, then by a full riot squad of cops with guns and batons. A struggle ensued, and though the brothers were unarmed, they would spend eight months in jail without bond in connection with the incident, then serve an additional three months on an aggravated assault conviction.
Embittered, Sami took to the life of a wandering musician upon his release, migrating first to Atlanta, then to South Carolina. By his early 20s, the young nomad had found a temporary home in New Orleans, where he gigged with a blind pianist named Henry Butler as well as Ellis Marsalis, the venerable pianist now better known as the father of horn virtuosos Wynton and Branford.
He was also befriended by prominent New Orleans jazz educator Ed "Kid" Jordan, who had played with the freakishly-garbed space-jazz iconoclast Sun Ra. Born Herman Blount, Ra was a gifted subversive, a keyboardist, composer, arranger, producer, and avant-philosopher of no small talents who in the 1950s assumed the mantle of a Saturn-born soothsayer empowered by omnipotent cosmic forces, a role and an attendant philosophy cobbled together from ancient Egyptian mythology and '50s flying saucer futurism.
Sun Ra was founder and leader of the Arkestra, a Philadelphia-based coalition of musicians who played corrupted big band jazz heavily inflected with its maestro's chimerical notions. Over the course of a 40-some-odd-year career, the Arkestra would eventually circle the globe dozens of times on tour and author more than 400 separate releases, most of them on Ra's own Saturn record label.
On a trip through New Orleans in 1979, Ra told Jordan he was looking for a new drummer. Jordan recommended that he audition a versatile and adept skinsman named Sami, then 25. According to Rashied, Sami met Sun Ra at a club full of talented percussionists eager to make the master's acquaintance. "They met, and then another musician came up and wanted to give him his number," he recalls. "For some strange reason, Sun Ra said, 'No, this is my drummer,' before he had even heard him play."
That day, Sami accepted an invitation to join the Sun Ra Intergalactic Cosmo Love Adventure Arkestra. Within the week, he obtained a passport and left with the Arkestra for a three-month tour of Europe.
It was under Sun Ra's tutelage that Sami brought to fruition the musical and spiritual outlooks he would harbor for the rest of his life. Tyrone Hill, a trombonist who joined the Arkestra only a couple of years prior, remembers that master and pupil bonded quickly, as Sami readily readily took to Ra's more abstract, inclusive musical/spiritual approach.
"Most of the musicians that have come through the Arkestra didn't fully understand the concept of what [Sun Ra] was doing," says Hill. "It was like, 'This guy is talking about outer space. What does this have to do with music?' But it was very special and magical for [Sami]. He and Sun Ra had the same ideas and musical concepts, the idea of music as a healing force in the universe, as a way to change the condition of the world."
Sami began reading books on Egyptology at Sun Ra's behest and adopted the kind of elaborate, spacey trappingssequined jackets, colorful capes, garishly ornate hatsthat characterized Ra's daily attire. He also adapted Ra's fanciful, cosmic-hippie mode of speechusing "greetings" as a salutation instead of "hello" (because it contains the word "hell"), "space" instead of "goodbye," and contriving his own vocabulary of otherworldly utterances when standard English seemed somehow less than adequate, words like "cosmotery" and "omniversal" and "everlutionary."
As a sign his of fondness for Sami, the bandleader gave him the name 'Ra'an Egyptian word for godas well as the surname Celestial. The first two parts of his moniker were soon fused, yielding 'Samarai.'
It was at the end of a Sun Ra tour in 1985, with the Arkestra on hiatus, that Samarai met Lisa Harvey, a pretty, delicate-featured 21-year-old cosmetology student at Philadelphia's Wilford Academy. Their paths crossed on the 13th day of June on the city's number 13 trolley, a numerical concurrence Harvey, now known simply as Saphorai, attributes to fate rather than happenstance.
The two spoke briefly when she asked him the time. By another stroke of fate, she says, they disembarked at the same stop, as her apartment was directly across the street from his rehearsal space. "Then he looked at me and said, 'The creator sent you here to be my soulmate.'" she relates. "I thought to myself, 'What a line!' All I could do was look at him and say, 'Oh, really?'"
They exchanged phone numbers, and Samarai called her the next morning. Harvey was captivated, and the two talked for more than an hour, discussing outre jazz, alternative spiritualism, and fate.
They made a dinner date, and from that first evening together, Saphorai says the two became an "inseparable unit."
Just as Sun Ra had done for him, he bequeathed her the surname 'Ra,' which he would combine with "Sapphire," a stage name she had used since 1980 when she began singing at local nightclubs. The resulting amalgamation, Saphorai, means "gem of god."
Though he remained a member of the Arkestra, the ever-wandering Samarai's side projects would take the two first back to Atlanta, then to Chattanooga, where they married. Samarai was an adoring partner, she says, and also an incurable flirt. Occasionally strapped for cash, the couple worked briefly at an Atlanta hotel banquet room. During breaks, she remembers that Samarai would steal mints from a dish at the front counter and head to the lobby or elevator, where he would give every woman he saw an ingratiating smile and a candy.
"He always wanted to reach out to people," says Saphorai. "And he was a deeper lover for it. He treated me like a queen."
Saphorai entered the relationship with a child from a failed early marriage. A slender, hard-muscled wide receiver on the Karns High football team, 15-year-old Donald Jaye Jarmon now refers to his late stepfather as simply "my dad," a role Saphorai says Samarai happily assumed within the first year of their courtship, and continued to play even after their divorce in 1993.
In Chattanooga, however, Samarai told her he wanted more children. Saphorai conceived and bore their son, Nija, in 1987, and their daughter, Osha, two years later. Today, 10-year-old Nija is a sensitive slip of a lad, Osha a knowing cherub. Both are quiet, precocious, less aggressively social than their gregarious sire, but unmistakably possessed of his huge, saucer-like eyes.
As a father, Samarai was doting and endlessly playful. Saphorai recounts that he would often frolic with the kids for hours at a time, Osha wrapped around his neck and Nija curled up in an arm, with Samarai on all fours in classic "horsey" fashion.
Nija, who already shows flashes of his father's talent, remembers learning drumming rudiments from his dad, who labeled the inner portion of the drum head "momma," the outer portion "daddy." The correlations allowed Nija to play rolls that worked across the entire drum, following the cadence of Samarai's voice at ever-increasing tempos.
It was in part Samarai's concern for where the couple would raise their kids that led them to Knoxville. His Chattanooga projects had grown fewer and farther between, and a friend with Knoxville connections suggested he contact Al George, a local saxophone player who needed a drummer for his dinner gigs on the old River Queen riverboat.
For two months, Samarai commuted between cities every week, at last deciding that Knoxville would be a good place for the boys to grow up. The couple moved in October of '87, and Samarai was soon playing and fraternizing with most of the city's prominent jazz artists; saxophonists Coker, Wynder, and Bill Scarlett, singers Yvonne Milton (George's niece) and Nancy Brennan Strange, pianists Brown and Shirley, percussionist James Pippen.
This free-wheeling, cosmic hepcat would make a lasting impression on his new Knoxville friends; most have vivid memories of their earliest encounters with him. At one of Brown's first shows with Samarai, the drummer developed an abiding fondness for the buffalo wings on the buffet table and, with Brown watching, began shoveling chicken into the pockets of his suit.
"It was like, 'These are good. I gotta take some home,'" Brown says with a husky laugh. "He may have wrapped them in a napkin or something, but I know he was getting grease all in the pockets. I thought, 'Man, this cat is different.'"
Strange met Samarai on Earth Day, seven years ago, at Club LeConte, and was instantly struck by every facet of his beinghis colorful, occasionally spicy language, his outlandish (yet somehow impeccable) thrift-store wardrobe, his incessant good humor and spill-over smile. "I knew right away I'd met a real character," Strange says with a giggle. "We ended up playing together that night, some jazz standards, and he made the drums sing. We did 'Ain't Misbehavin',' and it was as if the drums were reciting the syllables."
"His laughter was the thing that hit me first," remembers Milton. "He was very passionate, a master of the conversational art, and he had the most distinct laugh. It always broke out into this incredible energy. It was a knowing laugh, like he had the inside track, a rooster-in-the-henhouse kind of thing. It made you think he had it going on."
Samarai's playing was every bit as memorable as his persona. Under Sun Ra's guidance, he had developed an unusual and complex polyrhythmic approach, a precision whirlwind of a style that enabled him to provide broad rhythmic support for the Arkestra's chaotic ensemble forays; he would at times mark three separate beats between two hands and a set of foot pedals. And though he was capable of tasteful, restrained playing, brazen virtuosity and bust-out showmanship were always his forte.
"You know how if you're sitting outside at Lucille's and hear the train coming through on the Old City tracks?" one local jazz fan posits. "Samarai was like that train coming through. There was so much exuberance in his playing. He was like a demon."
Samarai's prowess ensured that he had regular gigs throughout most of his stay in Knoxville; he played every week at Lucille's in the Old City for more than five years and, at different times, claimed a regular spot at a handful of now-defunct clubs, including Planet Earth, Bullfrog's, and Ella Guru's downtown and D.J. Sharp's in West Knoxville.
He also traveled and recorded intermittently with several local and regional collaborators, including Brown, who used Samarai as his drummer on the Grammy-nominated album Send One Your Love (the second Grammy nominee Samarai would play on) as well as his 1990 release People Music.
Brown admits playing with Samarai could be problematic. He was chronically late, even to his own gigs. He was often out-of-pocket, in need of a ride or a small loan. And he enjoyed the occasional marijuana cigarette, a vice that Brown remembers wrought havoc with his playing on the second night of a 1990 European stand. "I told him, 'Man, don't you ever do that shit to me again,'" Brown says.
"I was pissed," he laughs. "But that's Samarai. And no matter what he did, there was always this love there. It was like a marriage, except he had the upper hand because he knew what he could get away with because he knew how much I dug him."
But Samarai would ultimately become dissatisfied with his lot in Knoxville; the city only had so many nightspots conversant in jazz, many of them failing and few of them willing to grant him free reign with the keening cosmic-tribal improvisations that characterized his solo material. Saphorai says his artistic frustrations began exacting a toll on the marriage; he was drinking more often and more abundantly, spending less time at home, and the couple began to argue with increasing frequency.
"He wasn't getting enough rest or eating like he normally had done," she recalls. "He was trying to work double-time, wherever he could find gigs, and before you knew it he was out of town again. I pled with him to slow down and let up a little, but that was only like an insult to him."
The couple separated in 1992, although the holding pattern of break-up-and-reconciliation lasted for more than a year before their divorce in 1993. "We never stopped loving each other," she says. "He was always my soulmate. But we realized that it would be best we not live together at that point. We had different ideas of what life should be like at that stage."
A few months after the couple's final split. Saphorai was working for a local insurance agent, sitting at her desk during a break, when she felt a strange compunction to give her former spouse a call. She remembers that his resonant voice was unusually low, unnervingly subdued as it came through the phone receiver. He was feeling sick and short of breath, he told her, but felt he would improve given a few hours rest and a pot of herbal tea.
When she called later that day, he sounded worse than before, weaker, his voice quavering. His left shoulder was throbbing with pain. A former pre-med student, Saphorai recognized the ugly harbingers of cardiac arrest. When she arrived at his apartment minutes later, his complexion was the color of ash.
"I rushed him to UT hospital," she says. "The whole time he was holding my hand and saying, 'Why is this happening to me?' When we got to the emergency room, he barely even went through triage. They immediately took him back into the treatment room and started shocking his heart back into a normal rhythm."
Samarai spent the evening in the hospital's critical care unit with most of the staff worried he wouldn't see the light of the following day. When his condition finally showed signs of improvement, one of the doctors pulled Saphorai aside and showed her something that redoubled her horror.
"I go into a room and look at this x-ray of his heart, and it extends two-thirds of the way across his chest," she says. "Basically, they told me there were two ways he could have developed thatthrough heredity or through drinking and abusing his body."
One of the physicians advised Samarai not to play drums for at least two years, but the counsel fell on deaf ears. Samarai was a drummer, after all; music was all he really knew. And he felt he had a message to impart, a message which Saphorai says he now sought to bring forth with a near-obsessive fervor. "He rarely did straight-up gigs anymore," Saphorai says. "He went full speed ahead with his music, working with Seva and other people who are into alternative musical realms."
With Seva's technical and production assistance, Samarai recorded two CDs for the Carrot Top independent label. Isis Sun, from 1995, is a dense, sometimes mystifying piece of electro-tribal art percussionintricate, interlocking synthesized rhythms laced on some tracks with Samarai's shamanistic whoops and incantations.
Cosmic Gold Millennium, a two-disc set released just before his death, is more accessible, with its first side capturing some stellar bop-on-Benzedrine acoustic jazz workouts featuring Samarai and a handful of like-minded players, including the Arkestra's Hill. The second disc showcases more electronic shenanigans, with its atavistic beat collages providing a bed for spacey synthesizer noodling. According to Seva, at least two more Samarai solo records will be released posthumously, in addition to any number of projects with other musicians, including Hill and bandleader Herman Green.
Although Samarai worked and collaborated tirelesslyperhaps driven by a sense that his days on earth were numberedthe cracks in his declining health were beginning to show. Friends say he would often stop in the middle of a session or a set, visibly drained, and leave the room to catch his breath and cool down. Seva would at one point discover that he had been sleeping in a chair since early '97; when he lay prone, his swollen heart exerted suffocating pressure on his lungs and ribcage.
"I think the first incident with his heart really changed him," Brown suggests. "That's when I noticed a real change in his spirit, his demeanor. I felt he was never quite the same person; he was more tentative and cautious about how he carried himself."
In 1996, Samarai moved back to Savannah to be with his father, who was battling prostate cancer. Already ravaged physically by his own illness and emotionally by artistic frustrations and the break-up of his family, Saphorai says he was deeply affected by Ezekiel Walker's condition. "His father was the sweetest man, and Samarai always called him 'my guardian angel,'" says Saphorai. "He was the one person in his immediate family that had accepted his art when he first chose the society of musicians."
Ezekiel died in spring of '97. Samarai continued to live with his mother, playing sporadically in town. For a brief time that summer, he seemed to nurture new hope that his condition would improve; he was planning fall dates with Brown, some solo gigs, and a tour with the Arkestra, which survived as a unit despite Sun Ra's death in 1993.
Then, in September, at the Savannah Jazz Festival in the city civic center's Johnny Mercer Theater, Samarai began acting strangely during a set with a small sax and organ combo. Standing in the wings of the stage, Rashied remembers that his brother rose suddenly, as he would often do during his more unfettered performances. But this time, the gesture was not one of extemporaneous musical celebration.
"He reached back to loosen his clothes while doing a one-handed roll, and I knew something was wrong," says Rashied. "Then he threw down the drumsticks and ran off the stage toward me, his face pale, and I knew something was very, very wrong."
Samarai was rushed to the hospital where he would stay for two weeks. Upon his release, he canceled his solo dates, the tours with Brown and the Arkestra, and Rashied says his condition degenerated into a miserable constancy of sleeplessness, nausea, and wheezing.
On Sunday, November 14, Saphorai had an experience that defies rational explanation. She hadn't seen Samarai since summer, and she says she hadn't dreamt of him in years. But as she slept this night, she saw herself in the alleyway behind the Tennessee Theater, moving speakers and music equipment when Samarai, dressed in a black turtleneck and red jacket, walked through the alley and stumbled...
"I call to him and run over to help him sit down," she says. "His hands are so small, like he's lost so much weight, like he's beginning to wither. He looks up at me and says, 'Saphorai it's my time.' I said 'I'm speechless,' and I embrace him, and he embraces me, and I'm just pouring out tears. I told him I never stopped loving him, and he told me he never stopped loving me."
Disturbed, she awoke the next morning and called her ex-husband in Savannah. In his cheerul greeting, he sounded much like his old, high-spirited self, and responded whimsically when she described her dream. But Samarai, who had often spoken of astral travel, was evasive when she asked him to speculate on the nature of her vision.
"At last, he says, 'I was there with you last night.' I'm thinking, 'Oh yeah, right! This is bullshit!'" Saphorai says, blushing at her own unintended candor. "But the one thing I had left out in my description was what he had on. I asked him and he said, 'I had on a black turtleneck and a red jacket.' My mind was blown. I knew at that moment that had come to my dream to hug me goodbye."
Exactly two weeks from the evening of Saphorai's dream, Samarai Celestial left the planet.
Today, when friends speak of Samarai's passing, it's with a sense of profound organic loss, as if some immutable, elemental force had suddenly and inexplicably disappeared. Brown still searches, without thinking, for traces of his departed friend in the shadowy interior recesses of Old City nightspots, in dank downtown alleys where weary musicians load drum cases and worn speakers into dilapidated vans. "I'll see a car and think it looks like his last car, or I think about a gig coming up and say, 'I should use Samarai.'"
In some sense, he's still here, in the more than 100 Sun Ra releases he graced in his tenure with the Arkestra, in dozens of corollary releases authored with other kindred artists, and in the countless hours of personal archival tape, much of it unlabeled, Seva and Rashied hope to one day chart and preserve for posterity.
But some believe it was never Samarai's intention to remain bound for too long by the inflexible caveats of the material realm. "I know he didn't want to stay on this earth," says son Nija. "I think he's happy his body is gone. He knew there were higher places and he wanted to get those higher places."
Hill remembers that in the waning months of his life, Samarai made one last sojourn to visit Sun Ra's grave in Philadelphia, maybe a final act of preparation for the passage to come. Today, Hill believes maestro and pupil have reunited, in a place where celestial prophets and space jazz pioneers never struggle or grieve. "And I am sure," he adds knowingly, "that they are rehearsing."
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