I just learned that one of my favorite musicians, Gil Scot Heron has died.
Gil. and his band performed on the 7th episode of Saturday Night Live ( the one with Richard Pryor), and their music so moved me that I ran out the next day and bought their album, "From South Africa to South Carolina" -- the first LP I ever owned. A student of African master drummer Babatunje Olatunde and a prodigy of the New Harlem Renaissance movement in music, Gil brought traditional African Rythms and instruments of a new contemporary style of soulful, folksy jazz, infused with both African and American history in a way that politically pulled no punches. Gil took a bold stand against Nuclear Power with his ("alternative") hit, "Shut 'em Down."

He performed at numerous political rallies and benefits and incorporated "spoken word" (political poetry) into his work, and he served as an inspiration to a generation of Afrocentric "guerilla poets." Gil contributed significantly to the Sun City project, a collaborative recording of American ad international musicians including Bruce Springstein, Miles Davis, Peter Gabriel. Bonnie Raitt, and Bono, whose goal was to raise awareness about Apartheid in South Africa. Reagan was president at the time and, along with Israel, the U.S. was the last influential country to maintain a policy of tacit support for the apartheid regime. Just this year, Gil cancelled a booking in Tel Aviv after Palestinian rights activists appealed to him and compared Israel's policies to those of South Africa.

At a time when the organic musical genre of "rap" was being heavily co-opted by commercial interests which emphasized violence and sexism, Gil, who was often called "the father of rap" responded musically with a piece called "message to the messengers" which offered brotherly, or perhaps fatherly, advice to contemporary rappers to focus on real issues relevant to the welfare of their communities and to treat women with respect, as equals. Tupac Shakur soon after had an epiphany and followed Gil's advice, releasing the single "I Ain't Mad At You." That was also the year that the Crips and the Bloods signed an historic truce in Los Angeles, and when I interviewed one of the Bloods leaders who signed that truce, he shared with me that Gil Scot Heron was, indeed, one of his influences. Gil also championed the cause of "undocumented" immigrants with his often excerpted ballad "Hold On To Your Dreams."

Gil may be best known for his poem "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a scathing indictment of capitalism, racial and economic inequality, and media cesorship. The title of the poem has been expropriated for any number of political and commercial applications, most of which bear little resemblance to the poem's original point, which was summed up by the line; "... and whether Dick finally got down with Jane in Hooterville Junction will no longer seem so damned relevant as Black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day."

So many artists have covered or quoted Gil Scot Heron's compositions over the years, but the raw, heartfelt energy of his original performances with long-time collaborator Brian Jackson and the rest of the Midnight Band set a standard in political jazz and bridged cultural and generational divides in a way that few American artists have accomplished.

I had been a fan of Gil's for more than two decades before I learned, from professor Cornel West, that Gil was also an author. His two novels, The Vulture and The Nigger Factory (released most recently as a single volume) described life in the ghetto with stark honesty, and yet showed a glimmer of genius that brought to mind the works of contemporaries Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. Gil's writing approached greatness - and that was from the earliest days of his artistic development.

Gil struggled with an assortment of vices in the 90's which inhibited his creativity and significantly narrowed his opportunities to perform or publish. He attempted a few comebacks in the first years of the new millenium, but reviewers described his speech and singing as muffled and incoherent. I interviewed the Midnight Band's former Saxaphonist Bilal Suni Ali, who had settled in Atlanta, Georgia and had a weekly jazz show on community radio station WFRG, and he explained that Gil had developed a neurological disorder which affected his speech. Nevertheless, he said, there were plans for some kind of possible reunion being discussed. Sadly, Bilal, himself suffered a medical challenge that halted his own musical career shortly thereafter. Gil wound up doing a bit of time in prison on a drug posession charge - reportedly after having failed to comply with the terms of a very lenient parole sentence handed down by a judge who was apparently a fan. Not long after his release, however Gil's efforts at self-resurrection finally began to pay off and late in 2010 he released his final album, "I'm New Here," a selection from which debuted on the airwaves in Columbus via my own weekly music program on WCRS communty radio. I had hoped that someday Gil would actually return to Columbus and visit the station in person. Some years before WCRS hit the airwaves, I convinced local jazz DJ Wayne Self at the NPR affiliate WCBE to do a Gil Scot Heron retrospective, for which I provided some of the material. I'm sure Wayne would agree that this monumental artist has yet to be adequately recognized on the local airwaves. There will be tributes, I'm sure, relegated primarily to community radio stations like WCRS, where Gil's music and the causes he was passionate about will always have a home.