Jam Tales: Haji Ahkba
Updated: Apr 3
Haji Ahkba is a trumpet/flugelhorn player who has done extensive work as a sideman with James Brown (where he's credited as George Dickerson) as well as Van Morrison. Along with Van Morrison he was on the cover of Morrison's 1997 Album, "The Healing Game."
He's gigged with Little Milton, Bobby Blue Bland, BB King, Eddie Harris, Pony Poindexter, Stanley Turrentine, Barry Harris, Sun-Ra, Lou Donaldson, Archie Shepp and many more.
Sometime in the spring of 2004 Haji showed up at the Saturday Afternoon Jam at Harlings. At the time, I didn't know who he was. I found out soon enough!
He was in town, I know not why, and was making the rounds of the various jam sessions.
He showed up regularly at Harlings on Saturday afternoons for several months. I found him to be a gentle soul. Of course, he was a very good player. How could he not be with a resumé like his?
He didn't own a car and either took the bus or bummed rides. In fact, it appeared he didn't own hardly anything.
He inserted himself into the local scene here over the course of a few months and began to play paying gigs. I worked with him a time or two in the subsequent year outside of the Jam at Harlings.
In December of 2004 I got a call to play with Haji and saxophonist Phil Brenner as an acoustic trio to accompany artist John Bukaty. John does a performance art kind of thing where he paints, accompanied by live music, in front of an audience. More info about John is here.
The gig was to start at 7:00. I was teaching at my studio and at about 5:00 I get a call from Haji asking if I can come by his place and pick him up. I told him I was teaching and hadn't allowed any extra time to get from my studio to the gig and asked him his address. It was pretty much on my way so I told him to be ready for me at 6:30 and I would swing by to get him.
His apartment was in a ghetto tenement building. It was a pretty depressing environment.
He was waiting for me and offered me a joint as payment for giving him a ride. I told him I hadn't smoked any doobie since 1973 but thanks anyway; I was glad it worked out that I could get him to the gig.
We played the gig; it was very enjoyable and Bukaty painted the 3 of us as well as one of Haji, among others.
I don’t remember if I took him home or if someone else did. He reminded me of someone who’d spent their life in the military or had just been released from a long stint in prison.
Being on tour with James Brown, Van Morrison or whoever is a very regimented lifestyle, in spite of the way it might look from the outside.
Somebody else takes care of you. Your eating, sleeping and traveling schedule is laid out for you. Wakeup call, onto the bus, sound check, show, dinner, hotel, back to the bus and so on for months at a time. When you live like that for years and then all of a sudden you have to take care of yourself, you don't know what to do. It’s the touring musicians’ version of being institutionalized.
I wondered what kind of money he had made working with all those big names and what had happened to it.
On the other hand, Haji had very little in the way of "stuff." Just his instruments and clothes from what I could tell. He could live on very little because he had no overhead. That has its advantages.
Maybe he knew exactly what to do. After all, he could afford his weed.
Shortly after that, Haji moved to New Orleans.
A few months later I got a call. It was Haji.
"Hey man!" he said. "You gotta move down here! There's a very cool scene going on; tons of work. You would dig it! We should do some stuff together, man!"
I patiently explained to him that I couldn't just uproot my wife and 5 kids, throw 25 years of building my teaching business away, walk out on all the gigs I had booked, sell my house and just move to New Orleans to start over.
I was flattered that he thought enough of me to give me that call and express interest in working with me. It's a gratifying thing to be affirmed by someone of his musical stature.
Maybe if I wasn't happily married, had no kids and didn't own a home I would consider it but I am way past that point. Besides, even if all that were true, I don't think I'm an itinerant kind of guy, no matter how attractive it may appear when you are sometimes overwhelmed by responsibilities, commitments and the cares of life - because I've done my fair share of touring and it's not all it's cranked up to be as far as I'm concerned.
That was the last conversation I had with Haji.
Shortly after that, I mean like just 2 or 3 weeks later, Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans.
I watched the news footage; for several weeks New Orleans looked like some kind of post-apocalyptic movie.
Whew! Dodged a bullet there!
I have no idea what happened to Haji or where he is. He is all over social media but nothing that I can find later than 2016, when he was apparently in Los Angeles.
Whatever happened, Katrina was probably just a little hiccup to him. After all, he's got no "stuff" to lose.
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