DC Jazz Giant Howard “Kingfish” Franklin Passes Away
Several years ago I was listening to a classical jazz album when I became concerned about a drum figure. The album cover notes described the figure with great complexity, but what I heard was rudimentary – in fact, it was a literal rudiment. In search of clarity, I dropped a text to one of my essential experts in the DC jazz scene, Howard “Kingfish” Franklin.
“Yes!” he has answered. “It’s a simple tap. But there is more complex stuff going on there. Come to Dukem tonight before you start, I’ll give you a free lesson brother.
Just like you aren’t asking a professional musician to play for free, you aren’t asking them to teach for free. You also don’t expect them to give freebies. But it was the kind of generous spirit that Fish (as he was universally known), died of complications from COVID-19 on August 18 at the age of 51.
Fish was a man defined by his passions. He loved photography. He liked DC sports teams, all of them. Anyone who has ever spent an hour with the man knew he loved his brotherhood, Alpha Phi Alpha. (mention names like Martin Luther King, Duke Ellington, or even an obscure black actor or athlete, and a frequent response was, “My brother in brotherhood! “)
And he loved people. Fish leaves behind his partner, Lisa Pointer, four children, his parents, four sisters and a brother. Him and the alto saxophonist Bruce williams, her best friend since childhood, also recognized themselves as family. “His family and friends meant everything to him,” says Williams, now based in Montclair, New Jersey. (Fish had recently moved near Williams; he died in New Jersey.) “He loved people. He loved hard. ”
The music, however, animated her in a unique way. Engage him musically and you can unlock all the best parts of him at once: generosity, kindness, fierce intelligence, humor and joy.
That doesn’t mean he wasn’t serious about it; he was often deadly serious. Yet jazz – a term he hated, preferring to call it “direct music” – put a special light in his eyes. Let him listen to some of it, or talk about it, and that light would jump and dance.
Straight was the flavor of the music he loved the most. He also enjoyed the edge-skirting tastes of Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy; Yet when it came time to play, he opted for the traditional, “indoors” and swing. He kept the pace at a standstill and he gave it a hell of a blow.
“He understood the dance element of music,” says Williams. “Make him swing. Make it pop. Make them feel good. This is where integrity resided with him. I would put Fish at medium tempo, swinging hard, against anybody. “
Maybe that explains the dance of that light in his eyes. It is the light that I will miss the most.
Howard L. Franklin, Jr., was born December 20, 1969 in Takoma Park and raised in southeastern DC and Maryland. Like so many African American DC children of his generation, his first entry into music was go-go; in another quintessentially Washingtonian way, he started playing bucket drums, learning to play the rhythms and textures he loved. (He finally bought a real Veneman’s Music drum kit in Rockville when he was 16, calling it “the happiest day of my life.”)
He met Williams when they were about 12 years old. They clicked instantly. It was Williams who introduced him to jazz, putting a Branford Marsalis save. “He was like, ‘Wow!’” Williams said. “And he’s had that spark ever since.” Regardless, Fish continued to perform in funk, R&B and pop groups as well as jazz.
It wasn’t until he enrolled at the University of the District of Columbia in 1988 that he officially began training. Calvin jones, who founded the jazz program at UDC, has become his most important mentor. “He taught me to love music on another level,” Fish said. (It was Jones who gave him the nickname “Kingfish”.) In addition to teaching him to swing hard and keep the dance groove up front, Jones taught Fish to anchor music in culture. and African-American tradition.
After graduating and earning a master’s degree in music from Concordia University of Oregon in Portland, Fish set to work making himself an ambassador for what he had learned under Jones’ tutelage. It is in this capacity that Fish’s musical generosity shines through. He gave DC players like Ameen Saleem, Kris funn, and Eliot Seppa some of their first gigs, and also worked with young players from Baltimore Ebban and Ephraim Dorsey. Fish felt a tremendous responsibility towards young people, especially black youth: to provide them with positive role models and to encourage them to keep their musical heritage alive.
He put this knowledge and generosity beyond jazz. Fish maintained several ensembles, all under the corporate banner of Howard Franklin Music Inc. The funk and R&B group Wildflower was one of his most popular projects and also employed at one time or another. another a large amount of musical talent from DC. By all reports, he could be a difficult builder at times, with a penchant for honest and direct criticism. At the same time, however, the targets of this review later acknowledged that they had become better players because of what Fish told them.
Pointer, Fish’s companion and mother of three of his children (the eldest, Brandon, was his son from a previous marriage), points out that he enjoyed playing music for and with his children. She cherishes a video of him playing the drums while his twin babies, Kiros and Amalia (now almost three), play notes on an electronic keyboard.
It’s not defaming Fish to say he might be picky. “People who know me know I have two sides,” he told the saxophonist Antonio parker in a YouTube interview this summer. “I’ll smile, then smack your head five minutes later.” He was also stubborn. He insisted on calling the Washington football team “the Redskins” even after the official name change. Specifically, he refused to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
“He got some misinformation,” Pointer says. “Everyone tried to talk him out of it. I tried, his daughter tried, Bruce tried harder than anyone. But he really believed in this misinformation and he wasn’t going to let it go. My last interaction with Fish was a confrontation with him about the vaccine untruths he was helping to spread. By the time he started to think he could get the hang of it, it was too late. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 on August 4; less than two weeks later he was dead. A GoFundMe campaign to benefit his family is underway.
According to Williams, Fish left behind two recently completed but unreleased albums, one jazz and the other funk. Hoping that the recordings find their way to the public. Both his love and generosity with music demand it.