Jamal Muhammad: Farewell My Friend

With all the nasty, hateful things so many Americans have to say about Muslims, both here and abroad, it’s a wonder that there’s a Muslim anywhere in this “wilderness” who doesn’t go around with a snarl and a scowl on his or her face all the time.

But Jamal Muhammad was a cheerful Muslim whose mouth was always full of smiles. When he ran out of smiles, he always had a cheerful or an amusing story to tell.

My Buddy Jamal joined the ancestors Feb. 4.

For more than 25 years Brother Jamal was a Jazz music program host at WPFW-FM, the Pacifica Foundation’s community radio station in Washington, D.C. But that was only one of maybe four or five career paths in his fascinating life–a life well lived, by my account.

In addition to his on-air career at WPFW, Brother Jamal spent much of his later adulthood as a Jazz recordings sales manager at Tower Records, and Barnes & Noble, and other selective music stores. He was a permanent fixture at every live Jazz performance venue in town, sometimes even earning his backstage pass with a camera, taking photographs of the music celebrities he knew, and who all knew him.

Brother Jamal’s love for Jazz music led him to a life which proceeded up the rough side of the mountain. He was not ashamed of the fact that he resided–on multiple occasions–in D.C.’s Lorton Reformatory, or at St. Elizabeth’s, the mental hospital.

Somewhere during his sojourn he embraced the teaching of The Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and he became a member of the Nation of Islam here, this in the era before Brother Malcolm X became a household name. He often accompanied Minister Malcolm on security, at many of his Washington appearances. And he remained with the NOI after Brother Malcolm’s departure.

The NOI life helped him escape from the world of substance abuse into which he descended like so many, many others who delved in the American Jazz scene.

But in that Jazz world, Jamal was not just an idle bystander. No. He was a full-fledged participant, with all the rights and privileges of a “Made Man.” He ran the streets with the legendary Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. He told the story of when Bird once even assumed the role of a Rosa Parks, years before Mrs. Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Birmingham, Ala.

It seems Bird had a gig in a fancy D.C. hotel, but the establishment insisted that the star performer enter the ballroom through the kitchen, and not the door where White paying customers entered. Okay. But when the hotel told Bird that his entourage had to leave, Bird told the proprietors, if his friends could not stay, he would not play. The management of course relented, and Brother Jamal recalls that he watched Bird play one night from a hotel kitchen.

But my favorite story from Brother Jamal came out in 1987 when everyone in Washington, and the entire nation was riveted to the televised Iran-Contra hearings, featuring disgraced Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North. Brother Jamal was a member of a Wednesday morning radio crew on WPFW called “Turner’s Arena.” It was hosted by Nap “Don’t Forget The Blues” Turner, and it featured Brother Jamal, the vivacious Princess Bowman, and Big Al Swailes.

Since everyone in town was talking about the Ollie North hearings, Jamal recalled one morning, the first, infamous televised Congressional hearings in D.C. In 1950, the Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, chaired by Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn) held hearings. Tim’s Hot Dog Stand at 7th and T Streets–where incidentally, much of D.C.’s illicit mayhem could be traced–was packed with customers, and everyone was talking about the hearings that day. They were all there, their eyes riveted to the small black & white TV. Nap and Jamal were there too.

The star witness was a popular character who also patronized Tim’s, named “Buckle Jaws.”

“Tell me, Mr. Buckle Jaws,” the distinguished Senator intoned, “who is responsible for the illicit trafficking into and out of Washington, D.C.?”

“I’ll tell you who’s responsible for all the reefers,” Buckle Jaws replied. “I’ll tell you who’s responsible for all the prostitution. I’ll tell you who’s responsible for all the numbers.” Jamal’s and Nap’s eyes were glued to the tiny TV. But before the star witness could name one name, they looked around and Tim’s was an empty room…

Behind Jamal Muhammad’s warm and ever-present smile, there were 1,000 more stories, just as authentic as Buckle Jaws.

Rest in Peace, good buddy.

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