Steppin' Into The Screen | Digging for Weldon Irvine
When he speaks over the childhood photos there is no unnecessary word spoken. In everything he says there is no waste, only meaning.
The preview of Digging for Weldon Irvine will be showing Thursday June 16th at Melkweg, Amsterdam. Tickets available here.
At Steppin’ we find ourselves digging, normally for unearthed gems or ancient limited releases but now we are all about Digging for Weldon Irvine. A brilliant mind hidden in plain sight, composer for the icons of jazz, pianist for legends and debatably one of the original rappers. Digging for Weldon Irvine starts with a pile of scattered tapes, we hear Weldon's soothing yet commanding voicing discussing the idea of an honest man, like jazz, we toss and turn with this imagery. It sets us up for the entire documentary and works as a stirring motif throughout.
Born in Hampton and residing on the university campus, Weldon was set up for brilliance with “the most viable education” majoring in English Literature. His minors were Speech, Drama and Music Theory. When he speaks over the childhood photos there is no unnecessary word spoken. In everything he says there is no waste, only meaning. A composed character who sought out the piano to vent any form of aggression rather than deplete his energy.
You would expect a genius of this manner to have been musically trained from a young age but it was merely pure gumption that fuelled Weldon. Learning music by studying the encyclopedia, he hoarded a wealth of knowledge that pushed him past being a musician. Jazz drummer, Billy Cobham, expresses “He wasn’t just a musician, that was something he did secondary. It was the organisation part, the management part, the creativity part”.
Jazz royalty bebops it’s way throughout the documentary, Thelonious Sphere Monk talks about how Weldon was a “young lion”, leading the pack before he was fully grown “they were the guys I’d heard about that were the generation ahead of me…not necessarily chronologically but intellectually”. Although so often behind the scenes as a composer & arranger, very rarely centre stage, his talent did the talking as he touched so many seminal jazz artists along the way.
The dusty spinning tape of Weldon retelling his first audition with Nina Simone emulsifies you as if you’re around that very table with him:
‘I’m sorry Miss Simone, I’m late’
‘I don’t want to hear that, sit down and just turn that thing up and let me hear you!’”
Kyra Brown (childhood friend of Weldon) reveals “...as soon as he hit the organ with one chord she said ‘damn you’ve got perfect pitch’”. Once Nina had found out Weldon’s overflowing knowledge of literature and speech, she began discussing lyrics with him which led to the anthem ‘Young, Gifted and Black’ that stirred the whole nation in 1970.
I don’t want to spoil this film so I’ll skip a couple of beats to the early 90’s where Weldon noticed the rap world sniffing out his majestic jazz riffs. He was shocked and fearful at first, he saw how many artists sampled and yet didn’t credit the masters telling TS Monk “They’re gonna do it to us”. Like the musical chameleon he was, if he couldn’t beat them, he joined them. Weldon, often working with spoken word poetry throughout the 70s, believing himself to be one of the original rappers before the term was even coined, so he rebranded and named himself Master Wel. Rich Medina describes rap as “speaking in a percussive or syncopated manner with rhyming couplets either falling within whatever bar structure you’re writing structure falls on” so perhaps Master Wel was one of the first rappers of all time, but that is certainly up for debate.
When entering the club to rap, most people viewed Master Wel as this "cute old man" trying his luck at the rap game, but little did they know how much of a genius and icon he truly was. His determination would always lead him to mastery no matter what.
“He didn’t look at it as cute, he looked at it like this is going to become my craft and so as time passed and as one would expect from a mind as brilliant as his, he started to get better”
Bobbito Garcia (DJ/club promoter at the time)
Weldon considered himself to be a poet, an arranger/composer, a pianist and a rapper but the people whom he touched declared this man a true genius. A person, who, when facing adversity, would push himself with the movements of time and sound no matter his age or circumstance. Dusty footage of Weldon Irvine playing the piano is purely magnetising at the end of the film, his scattered movements, just like the scattered piles of tapes, match the haphazard strength of his career. I give this documentary a Very Good + rating (check the condition board) as although the cinematography isn’t wild, Weldon’s story is.