Celestial Phenomenon

Local jazz artists unite to pay tribute to the late cosmic drummer Samarai Celestial, and to kick off the Knoxville Jazz Festival

At times, he garbed himself in the same outlandish threads and spoke in the same cosmically attuned patois of his mentor, Sun Ra, the great Philadelphia freak-jazz bandleader; at others, he drove patchwork cars and scrimped to pay bills, as humble and down-to-earth as anyone else who played music for a living in relatively conservative Knoxville, Tenn., which he called home for nine of his 43 years on earth.

And he had a temper, too, though it showed infrequently. But when it was aroused, usually by an act of bigotry or racial insensitivity, it could be as ferocious in its intensity as one of his frenetic drum solos.

But most people who knew him hereabouts remember Samarai Celestial, nee Eric Walker, for his great personal warmth and generosity of spirit, as well as for the formidable natural talents that led many to declare the Savannah, Ga.-born drummer as powerful and creative a musician as any they'd encountered. The latter opinion takes on heightened meaning when you consider it has been voiced by several members of Knoxville's distinguished jazz fraternity, a group that includes the estimable pianist/composer Donald Brown.

Brown has been instrumental in organizing a tribute to Samarai Celestial, to be held Sunday, April 13, as a sort of kickoff to this year's Knoxville Jazz Festival, which gets into full swing later that week. The tribute show will feature performances by the Bill Scarlett Group, featuring Tom Johnson, Taylor Coker and Darryl Johnson, as well as the Rocky Wynder Group, with Chico Crawford, Keith Brown, and Harold Nagee. Other special guests will include master percussionist James Pippin, and perhaps a guest drum solo by Samarai Celestial's son, Nija.

"It had been in the back of my mind for a year or so, that we needed to do some kind of tribute to Samarai," says Brown of his friend and musical collaborator, who died from what was apparently a congenital heart problem in November of 1997. "Rocky and I had talked for a long time about how much we missed him. We thought this might be a good time to have some kind of tribute, remind everyone what a great musician he was, and of the contributions he made to the Knoxville music scene."

Born in Savannah and self-taught on drums, the young Eric Walker was playing clubs by age 13. Throughout his late teens and early twenties, his was the life of an itinerant musician as he traveled and played in cities throughout the southeast.

He met Sun Ra through a friend during a stint in New Orleans in 1979. Legend has it that the mystically inclined bandleader, shortly after meeting 25-year-old Walker—by then a member of the Nation of Islam, having taken the name Sami—stopped in mid-conversation and declared, "This is my new drummer," despite never having heard him play.

Su Ra's influence on the young musician was considerable; he gave him a new name, a new fashion sense, and tamed some of Sami's youthful rage and anomie with his own philosophy of universal love and spiritual harmony.

"He was like a father to Samarai," says Pippin, who would later grow close to Samarai during his time in Knoxville, when the two played regular shows with local keyboard whiz Marcus Shirley. "He was a bandleader, a father, and a teacher. You have to remember, too, that it says a great deal that he chose Samarai. He wouldn't get just anyone to play for him; it takes a unique person to play for Sun Ra."

As a member of the Sun Ra Intergalactic Cosmo Love Adventure Arkestra, Samarai spent a good deal of his time in Philadelphia, the Arkestra's home base. There he met pretty Lisa Harvey, a cosmetology student, who would later become his wife, re-christened by her new fiance with the name Saphorai.

Saphorai would later recount that Samarai's opening line, ventured while the two were standing side by side on the city's number 13 trolley, was: "The creator sent you here to be my soul mate."

But between touring and recording with the Arkestra, Samarai continued to wander. He was living in Chattanooga in 1987, playing regularly at a Holiday Inn when Knoxville jazz luminaries like saxophonist Rocky Wynder caught wind of the phenomenally talented drummer living off lounge gigs in the smaller city to the south.

Wynder was playing and booking shows at Annie's in the Old City, the little jazz club later known as Lucille's; he arranged for Samarai to sit in with his own combo one evening at Annie's, and instantly fell in love with the younger man's playing.

"We'd call different types of rhythms, and he was right there," says Wynder, now a spry octogenarian. "Fiery! That was it. He was an all-around drummer. He could play any type of rhythm—jazz, meringue, Dixieland. Funk? Rock 'n' roll? Waltzes? ‘Here I am!' He was a Drummer."

Says saxophonist and former University of Tennessee jazz instructor Bill Scarlett, who also played extensively with Samarai during his time in Knoxville: "He was sharp at adapting things he heard, without being taught, probably because he was self-taught as a drummer. He was very creative, excellent at getting into the musical meaning of the piece, playing things that were relevant other than just holding a steady beat. He was not mechanical in that sense, although he certainly had a whole lot of mechanical technique."

Brown, who came to Knoxville to join the UT jazz faculty in 1989, met Samarai later than most of his colleagues, but would eventually form perhaps the closest bond with the drummer. In addition to playing regular Lucille's gigs with Brown, Samarai would go on to tour Europe with him, play high-profile shows in New York, and hold down the rhythm on two of Brown's CDs, including the Grammy-nominated Send One Your Love.

"One thing I loved was that you could hear the history of so many traditions in his playing, the history of R&B, the history of jazz, the history of blues," Brown says. "But you could also hear the future. And he had this great quality where he wasn't afraid to try anything, and he would usually make it work. He was one of the most creative musicians I've ever had a chance to work with. He was a constant reminder of what life is all about, what music is all about, about being in the moment and not playing it safe."

But even more than his wondrous playing, his new Knoxville friends loved Samarai for his warm heart and his infectious personality. "Everybody liked Samarai; he was just a happy dude," says Wynder. "He'd see you around, and it wasn't none of this little voice, ‘Uh, well, uh, how you doing?' It was like, ‘Heeeeyyyy, maaaan!' He always had his arms open for you."

Many of the obvious trappings of Sun Ra's influence—the futuristic garments and cosmic hepcat speech—apparently fell by the wayside when Samarai came to Knoxville. Says Pippin, "I imagine that he changed some of that when he came to a place like East Tennessee; he seemed more subtle when I first met him. But Sun Ra was still there. He taught Samarai to be an entertainer, not just a percussionist."

Even in "subdued" mode, Samarai trafficked freely and gleefully with the city's jazz musicians, playing regular shows at Lucille's and the now-defunct Planet Earth, picking up additional party gigs or sideman stints when and wherever he could. By the time he left Knoxville for Savannah in the waning months of his life, Samarai had made countless club appearances in town, recorded and toured with Brown, and put out a couple of his own idiosyncratic local CD releases—Cosmic Gold Millennium and Isis Sun—in between tours with the Arkestra.

Although he played as often as he could find the work, Samarai's existence in Knoxville was often hand to mouth. "He was one of those people who was so wrapped up in his art that he rarely thought of the details of living, maintaining a car, paying the rent," Scarlett remembers. "He overlooked that stuff sometimes. He quite often didn't have a car, so people were always giving him rides to gigs."

Wynder remembers Samarai having "two or three cars, at different times. But they were all what we used to call struggy buggies, or roustabouts. They'd get you to point B, and then maybe you'd get back to point A. Maybe.

"He had one, it was an Oldsmobile that a fellow was supposed to have put a new engine in. He was riding around one day, and he called me. Said, ‘Hey, I'm stranded out here on Asheville Highway. And it ain't gas.' I said, ‘Okay, I'll come and get you.' Between all of us, we wouldn't ever leave him hanging. And his spirit wasn't ever down."

But some say Samarai's last years in Knoxville were troubled. Perhaps it was the dearth of opportunities for a working musician—for though Knoxville had many experienced jazz players, many of them taught or worked other trades to earn the bulk of their living. Or perhaps it was the lack of acceptance for some of his more otherworldly musical ideas; his local CDs, for instance, showcased electronic percussion experiments and bizarro improvisations that he could find few venues for here in town.

Or perhaps it was the small-mindedness he occasionally ran across, bigotries that are unfortunately still a part of life in Knoxville, even in the 21st century. Scarlett remembers a rare incident when Samarai flashed his infamous temper at a local auto shop well-known for high-balling its minority customers.

"He got a bill that was three or four times the estimate," Scarlett remembers. "So he went back into the showroom and started screaming, ‘Is this how you treat a n-----? Well, I'm a n-----, and I'll show you how a n----- acts!' By the time it was over, they took him in the back and cut more than half his bill. It was a sad incident, but it was comical too, the way he went off. The kind of thing where you have to laugh to keep from crying."

Whatever pressures beset him also led to his divorce from Saphorai—mother of his children Nija and Osha, as well as his stepson, Donald Jaye—though the two remained close until the end of Samarai's life.

The first sign of Samarai's failing health came in 1994, a few months after his final split with Saphorai. His former spouse spoke to him on the phone twice that day; she would later recall that he said he felt sick, and a little short of breath when she called that morning. Upon speaking to him later that afternoon, it was evident that he had gone into cardiac arrest, his left shoulder throbbing with pain.

An X-ray taken later at University of Tennessee Hospital revealed the problem; Samarai's heart was terribly enlarged, swollen such that it extended nearly two-thirds of the way across his chest.

Scarlett remembers that Samarai was supposed to receive federal disability compensation shortly thereafter; but there was a catch. "Like everything with our government bureaucracy, it was taking a while to go through," Scarlett says. "And in the meantime, he had to eat, and he started playing again, which was against the stipulations of the disability. They caught him, and that prevented him from ever receiving disability.

"It was such a sad thing, terrible. And it was ridiculous. He was a young man, so he could have even received a heart transplant. Except that would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars he didn't have. "

What's more, playing in his trademark physically frenetic style was strictly against doctor's orders. As Samarai continued to gig to earn a living, his condition only worsened. "I remember talking to him at the end, and he sounded just awful, like he was struggling just to talk," Scarlett remembers. "It was heartbreaking for me just to speak to him.

In 1996, he moved back to Savannah, to see his beloved father through the final stages of prostate cancer. Even after his father's death, there was a brief time when Samarai reportedly harbored new hope; he was planning a tour with Donald Brown, some solo dates, and also another jaunt with the Arkestra.

Then he collapsed during a performance at the Savannah Jazz Festival in September of 1997 and spent the next two weeks in the hospital. Upon his release, he cancelled his upcoming appearances, as his physical condition, already poor, had deteriorated into a miserable constancy of nausea and wheezing.

On Sunday, Nov. 28, 1997, Samarai Celestial left this earth.

Donald Brown believes the upcoming tribute is important, in that it will expose younger jazz aficionados in town to one of the most gifted musicians ever to live in this jazz-rich city. "For some of the newer generations that pass through the university, this was a truly creative, outstanding individual that they may never have been aware of."

More than that, however, he wants to honor the memory of an especially dear companion, a friend, father, and fellow musician the likes of whom most of see perhaps once in our lifetime. "He was at the core such a kind, warm person," Brown remembers. "He was the kind of person who would give you anything; the kind of person with the qualities I cherish in a fellow human being."

"At the end of his life, he shouldn't have been playing, otherwise maybe he'd still be here," muses Rocky Wynder philosophically. "But what you gonna do? He didn't let no grass grow on his feet, man. And he was a person who took the bitters with the sweets.

"But out of all his downfalls, he always had that special something. He might not have had a pot to piss in, or a window to throw it out, but he was always jolly. He was still Samarai." m