Luqman Hamza – A Kansas City Jazz Legend
Before names like Michael Jackson and Madonna or even John Lennon and Elvis Presley, there was Count Basie, Charlie Parker and Ella Fitgerald, the jazz legends of the 1930s and 40s. Just a few generations past slavery and before black Americans gained equal rights, Luqman Hamza played and sang among these legendary musicians on jazz’s hallowed ground.
“Music was everywhere. I heard Miles Davis the first time at the Boulevard Room, and Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Sarah Vaughan performing in the same group down on 12th and Vine.”
Born September 15, 1931 in St. Louis Missouri, Hamza’s mother was forced to leave her child with Isaiah and Elizabeth Cummings, a Christian minister and his wife in Kansas City, Missouri. Hamza’s biological mother would die by the time he was 6 years old. He would later remark of his foster father that he was, “fortunate to have spent the time I did with Isaiah (who would live to be a hundred years old). His life read like chapters from an American history book; Isaiah’s father had been a slave, his mother a full-blooded Cherokee Indian.”
Hamza grew up in Kansas City’s fabled 18th and Vine district. “Charlie Parker lived two blocks from our house” and there were at least 50 clubs within a six-block area. “I was surrounded by music,” Hamza said, “it was part of my living room.” As a child, Hamza was getting pennies and nickels for singing near his boyhood home. From age eleven until he was seventeen, Luqman studied voice and piano under the tutelage of the Reverend John S. Williams, a native of Jamaica. Williams, a renowned minister and choir director at the Bethel Church and a music teacher at the famed Lincoln High School, is credited with educating many of Kansas City’s finest musicians. At the age of 12 Hamza, along with life-long friend Sonny Kenner, Lucky Wesley and various other artists, formed a group known as the Four Steps and later the Five Aces. This group would play several clubs in the 18th and Vine district including Scott’s Theater and the Chez Paris. In 1948 they won a statewide high school talent contest, which allowed them to play on the Bob Hope show at Municipal Auditorium Music Hall. They would also land a live radio broadcast on KIMO every Sunday for several weeks. He co-wrote When You Surrender with Ted Battagila when he was 19. This record was his first chart hitting release on Decca/Damon label.
Hamza sat in for Bob Wilson, the piano player at Bill Vaughn’s Flamingo on 39th and Main, when Charlie Parker was in town. Charlie Parker sat in on the gig with him, and at the age of 21 was able to sit in at the Boulevard Room with Miles Davis. “To me, Miles always sounded like he was singing through his horn.”
In 1954 Hamza would venture out of Kansas City to build his growing career. He would play in St. Louis at the Glass Bar and The Toast of the Town. Shortly after, Luqman went to Chicago. “I found the very essence of being in Chicago musical – everything from the melodic sound of the EL to the radio programs, clubs and musicians.”
In the late 1950s Hamza thrived while the jazz scene was at its peak. His first performance in Chicago was at the Black Orchid in 1959. He also performed at the Playboy and numerous clubs on Rush Street. “For me, being able to sing and play and doing my own accompaniment, I was always able to find work.” He lived and “gigged” in Chicago for over a decade.
“Music is very religious,” said Hamza, who became a Muslim in the mid 60’s. “The Church was like the black person’s college.” Having been raised in a Christian household, Luqman began to hear of Islam while in Chicago. In those days the musicians were responsible for moving the religion around the country. Up until that point Luqman had performed under the name Larry Cummings; it was later that he adopted the name Luqman Hamza. A man named Luqman is mentioned in the Quran as the wise man, and Hamzah is the name of the Prophet Mohammad’s uncle. “God gave me Luqman Hamza”, Luqman would proclaim. “I am responsible for that name.” Hamza would continue to perform and honor his name and his way of life across the country.
1971 marked a return to his roots in Kansas City. Hamza returned to raise his family in his own hometown. His storied music career would continue to flourish as he was spotlighted as a featured performer at Kansas City’s Playboy Club until its closing. Luqman continued to play clubs in and around Kansas City until his move to his birthplace, St. Louis Missouri, in 1992. He hung his hat in St. Louis for five years before returning to Kansas City in 1997.
In 2000, at the age of 69, Hamza would record 2 nationally distributed CD’s, With this Voice and When a Smile Overtakes a Frown. Both received stellar reviews. One key difference between the albums is that on With This Voice Hamza himself performed the vocals and the played the piano, whereas Simon Rowe provides the piano accompaniment on Smile.
On October 11th, 2008 Luqman Hamza was honored with the American Jazz Museum Lifetime Achievement Award. Hamza’s work with the Inkspots and the Five Aces was highlighted. The American Jazz Museum was established in 1997 and has honored many great jazz legends such as the late Ahmad Alaadeen (1934-2010) among others. Alaadeen, who also received the Lifetime Achievement Award, was not only Hamza’s lifelong friend but also Luqman was Alaadeen’s introduction into the Jazz circle.
Hamza’s life came full circle when he found himself mentoring and tutoring students at his alma mater, Lincoln High School. He still performs regularly, oftentimes accompanied by his wife Raynola. Luqman Hamza, like his foster father, is a walking, talking history lesson and enjoys sharing his memories with friends and family.
“I love music, and it doesn’t matter to me about being no star.” Hamza commented. “I’m blessed to be at my age and be able to sing, play and make people enjoy, that makes you rich.”Culturally Speaking is honored to be working with Al-Fitrah Human Development organization on documenting and celebrating the life and accomplishments of the legend and jazz elder statesman Luqman Hamza. Contributing Writers: Jane Fergus, Bassam Helwani Culturally Speaking