03 October 2008

Weldon Jonathan Irvine, Jr.

Weldon Jonathan Irvine, Jr. The name looms large in the pantheon of jazz-funk, profoundly influencing the subsequent generations of hip-hop artists for whom he served as collaborator and mentor. He even gave piano lessons to Q-Tip and Common. He was a composer, a playwright, a poet, a pianist and an organist.

He served as the bandleader for jazz singer Nina Simone (you know, Little Girl Blue, "My Baby Just Cares for Me", the old commercial for Chanel No. 5). Irvine himself wrote over 500 songs over the course of his storied career, including the lyrics for "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black". It became the official Civil Rights anthem. Not to mention covered by everyone from Aretha Franklin to Stevie Wonder.

His recording career fell by the wayside in the 80's and he did not headline a new LP for another 15 years. In that time his work was rediscovered and praised by a growing number of politically minded young rappers, namely - BDP, A Tribe Called Quest, and Leaders of the New School.

Unlike many artists of his generation, Irvine embraced these upstarts in turn, in 1994 recording the hip-hop-inspired "Music Is the Key" for the indie label Luv'N'Haight. Three years later he cut "Spoken Melodies", even rapping himself under the name Master Wel, and that same year lent keyboard and string arrangements to Mos Def's "Black on Both Sides" record.

Then, on the night of April 9, 2002, Irvine committed suicide. He shot himself with a rifle on the lawn outside the EAB Plaza and on Hempstead Turnpike, just west of the Meadowbrook Parkway and across from Nassau Coliseum.

Irvine's last major project was "The Price of Freedom" in 99 which was a compilation of new songs by black artists to respond to the shooting of Amadou Diallo. Mos Def, Talib Kweli, and Q-Tip all helped out.

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