Former Black Panther Elbert 'Big Man' Howard hosts 'Jazz Connections' on KRCB-FM in Rohnert Park. (Gabe Meline)

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Picture the Black Panthers’ relationship to music, and it’s tempting to imagine politicized songs of the revolution — “Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” by James Brown, “When the Revolution Comes” by the Last Poets — played at full volume while party members prepare supplies and plan for the day’s protests.

But ask Elbert “Big Man” Howard, and the founding member of the original Black Panther Party remembers it a different way.

“In our offices we always had a few records that we played all the time, and wore out some of them,” the former Black Panther says. “I guess you might say it was kind of a therapy for us when we weren’t under pressure implementing some program or dealing with the police and the courts and all that stuff, and we had a chance to relax in our houses.”

The Black Panthers, with Elbert 'Big Man' Howard at right, engaged in a practice drill.
The Black Panthers, with Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard at right, engaged in a practice drill. (Pirkle Jones)

This year, while numerous 50th anniversary remembrances are underway for the Black Panther party (including the documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution premiering Feb. 16 on PBS at 9pm), “relaxation” isn’t a word often mentioned in the party’s activities. But according to Howard, chilling out was just as important as getting fired up, and music played a large role. “We’d just enjoy ourselves with the old scratchy records we had,” Howard says, “and it sustained us when we weren’t out there dodging arrests from the cops. We used the music as a refuge.”

And so the Panthers, in communal houses, unwound to the sounds of Donny Hathaway and Al Green. Founding members Huey Newton and Bobby Seale often played Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. While someone cooked in the kitchen and drinks were refilled, Marvin Gaye or Nina Simone serenaded members from the turntable.

Howard had his favorites, too: Tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, who titled a 1970 album Power to the People; Les McCann & Eddie Harris’ Swiss Movement, with the hit “Compared to What.” And of course, there were the bands he’d seen growing up as a boy in Chattanooga, Tennessee: Count Basie, Billy Eckstine, Duke Ellington.

Now, at age 78, Howard hosts “Jazz Connections,” a biweekly jazz show on KRCB-FM in Rohnert Park, and “Jazz Styles,” a monthly show on KOWS-FM in Sebastopol — playing the same music that he and his comrades relaxed and shared ideas to 50 years ago.

‘All that stuff just stayed with me’

Growing up in Chattanooga, Howard always heard music around the house. “Gospel, the blues, the country blues, it was always part of life,” he says. “Even had the preachers that preached sermons on the street, and they were great musicians, playing guitar and singing. All of that stuff just stayed with me.”

Howard’s musical obsession deepened as a teenager, when he discovered a radio station from Nashville that played new music like Fats Domino and Chuck Berry. “It would come on late at night when I should be sleeping,” Howard says. “I’d have a radio on with a blanket over my head and stuff so nobody could hear it but me. Somewhere in the back of my head I would say to myself, ‘If I ever get to be able to, I would like to be on radio. I’d like to DJ. I’d like to play the records.'”

Later, while stationed in France serving in the Air Force, Howard witnessed performances by expatriate American musicians like Lester Young and Don Byas, who fled America for more receptive European lands. These experiences deepened his perspective of jazz as a uniquely American art form. Honorably discharged near Oakland in 1966, Howard still had music on his mind when he met two guys at Merritt College interested in forming an organization to defend black residents against the police. Their names were Bobby Seale and Huey Newton.

Elbert 'Big Man' Howard in his home in Santa Rosa; framed photos of jazz musicians line the walls.
Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard in his home in Santa Rosa; framed photos of jazz musicians line the walls. (Gabe Meline)

As a founding member of the Black Panther Party at the age of 28, Howard swiftly became the party’s minister of information, editing the group’s official newspaper and eventually traveling overseas to Japan as a spokesman. Because he was ex-military, Howard was crucial to the party’s safety patrol program, and was responsible for teaching the Panthers how to responsibly use their weapons for defense. Howard also initiated a free medical clinic for sickle-cell anemia and a work-study program for parolees at the college.

Howard also knew who to ask for support when it came to benefit performances. “Me and a couple of party members, we would always go and attend concerts and do our best to get to see the artist backstage and talk with them, tell them who we were and what we were doing,” Howard says. “Freddie Hubbard — I asked him to come to a rally that we were having come Sunday. He told me, ‘I’ve got to go to L.A., but I’ll be back in this area, and I think I can make that.’ Sure enough, he showed up. George Benson is another one that came through at the height of his popularity. We had a thing down in DeFremery Park, and he came out and borrowed a guitar from one of the bands and played.”

It wasn’t just jazz musicians that were interested in the ideals for the party. Chaka Khan was an early party member in the Chicago chapter, as was Nile Rogers, who would later found Chic. Whenever John Lee Hooker was asked to play a benefit, “he’d never refuse,” says Howard. Even John Lennon once sat down with Bobby Seale on television to express his appreciation for the Panthers’ free breakfast program and school initiatives.

“A lot of these artists, they helped us,” Howard says. “They knew what our struggle was about, and they agreed to help us in terms of raising funds to get people out of jail and things like that.” John Lennon, for example, donated money for the party’s programs, and “a lot of people don’t know that about him.”

‘I don’t want to see it disappear’

Howard left California in 1974, going back to live under the radar in Tennessee and, wanting a quieter life, rarely talking about his time with the Panthers. Howard’s own daughter, even, was unaware of his involvement in the party until 2001, when he published his autobiography, Panther on the Prowl.

Former Black Panther Elbert 'Big Man' Howard hosts 'Jazz Connections' on KRCB-FM in Rohnert Park.
Former Black Panther Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard hosts ‘Jazz Connections’ on KRCB-FM in Rohnert Park. (Gabe Meline)

A bout with prostate cancer in the early 2000s brought Howard back to California, where he finally realized his childhood dream of having a radio show. While living in the small town of Forestville with his wife Carole, Howard began DJing on a bilingual Spanish-English station, KBBF, before moving to KGGV in Guerneville. Howard now broadcasts once a month on KOWS, out of Occidental, and twice a month on KRCB.

Howard is also in the process of compiling a double-CD set of artists he often plays on his show, and who were affiliated in one way or another with the party. The roster includes rock and pop stars like Carlos Santana, Sister Sledge and Curtis Mayfield. But jazz artists comprise much of the compilation — Dexter Gordon, who released an album titled The Panther and donated funds to the party, Cal Massey, influential composer of The Black Liberation Movement Suite, Archie Shepp, who raised money to get Bobby Seale out of jail, and Oscar Brown, Jr., who was involved with Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite. And no Black Panther Party compilation would be complete without a track from the Lumpen, the party’s searing funk group chronicled in Rickey Vincent’s excellent book Party Music.

Not everything on Howard’s radio show is linked to the party, or even politics. On a recent Saturday night, he played Ellis Marsalis, Thelonious Monk, Red Garland and Bill Withers back-to-back as part of a four-hour stretch. He even finished his show with a block of songs from a compilation he recently acquired. Harking back to those early days at party headquarters in Oakland, sipping drinks and unwinding, it’s titled The Most Relaxing Jazz in the Universe.

And though his suburban audience doesn’t always know about the DJ’s background, Howard is less concerned about broadcasting his personal history than he is about turning people on to jazz.

“I know that there’s a generation that haven’t heard it. That’s why I love playing it,” Howard says. “I love hearing it myself again, of course, but I like to somehow keep it from being lost. I don’t really want to adhere to the popular attitude about ‘that’s old’ and ‘that needs to be dispensed with.’ It’s a part of American life, and I don’t want to see it just disappear.”

 

Elbert ‘Big Man’ Howard hosts ‘Jazz Connections’ on the second and fourth Saturdays of each month, 7pm-11pm, on KRCB-FM in Rohnert Park. He also hosts ‘Jazz Styles’ on the third Saturday of each month, 2pm-4pm, on KOWS-FM in Sebastopol.

Author

Gabe Meline

Gabe Meline is KQED Arts' Music Editor & Curator. He lives with his wife, his daughter, a 1964 Volvo and too many records in his hometown of Santa Rosa, CA. Find him on Twitter at @gmeline.