Destiny introduced herself to the audience as “your friendly harp player from the 'hood.” Word. This ain't your grandmama's tea parlor harp music. This is jazz harp – maybe the only jazz harp in the world – with all the syncopation and improvising you would expect to hear at any classic jazz joint.
Destiny and her trio worked together to create familiar rhythmic curiosities like “Bye Bye Blackbird,” but then also went above and beyond by taking a classic nineteenth-century Celtic jig and making it jazz-tastic. Super inventive. It's fun to see people do what they truly love, and as a musician, Destiny has definitely found her path in life.
When one contemplates the great musicians of Jazz a list of harpists do not immediately come to mind, but that is destined to change with Sound Sculptress, Destiny Muhammad. Her set was definitely a class act. She started out playing Miles Davis' “All Blues” and went from there, jazz never sounded so good!
A confident presence on stage her harp playing sparkled and on the vocal numbers her voice was smooth. Her bass player, the epitome of cool, wore a suave gentleman's hat and some dark shades that went well with his low “boom boom” on the bass.
Her drummer Larry Vann is a black man with a big gray bushy beard. A showman who really gets around on the drums, during a groovin' solo he even played the tom tom's with his feet to get some pitch variations he needed. The players were very sensitive to the timbre of the harp underscoring it nicely without overpowering. A superb ensemble and a great set from Destiny Muhammad.
otography by: Mitch Tobias
Lessons From the Harpist From the Hood
Not many people today make a living by plucking harp strings. Even more rare is to pick up the instrument in midlife, leave the projects of southern Los Angeles County and become one of the Bay Area’s most prolific harpists. In her 30s, after 14 years doing old-fashioned shaves in a Compton barbershop, Stephanie Louise Davis put down her straight razor, picked up a harp on a layaway plan and moved to Alameda to pursue her unlikely dream. She changed her name to Destiny, became an Oaklander, referred to herself as the Harpist From the Hood and soon found herself flourishing in the East Bay’s eclectic music scene.
Her three-piece band is called S.O.N.G./Strings of a Nubian Groove, described on its Web site as “classical/crossover eclectic jazz for vocals and harp.” From ephemeral solo performances at weddings to singing stories with a Celtic-jazz infusion to getting sweaty with S.O.N.G.’s funky rhythm, Destiny plays it all with sweet grace. She also plays with the jazz group Richard Howell Quintet in various roles at an impressive array of venues: from opening for the Oakland East Bay Symphony to “sound sculptures” at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral to ensemble jazz acts at Yoshi’s and the Monterey Jazz Festival. In addition, she has released seven CDs.
Her musical career did not follow a typical trajectory; no one can accuse Destiny of being average. She’s the sort of person who honors her instincts and feels at ease making life’s biggest decisions because of a sudden burst of inspiration.
Take her name, for example.
“I told my husband, I’ve got this name change, and I’ve got to move on it,” she remembers. “I said my name is now Destiny. And he has never called me anything else since.”
In fact, after filling out the official name change paperwork, neither has anyone else. With the support of her husband/manager, Cristwell Muhammad, Destiny soon lived up to her name’s promise, playing benefits and festivals around the Bay Area, affecting everyone she meets with the sunny charm of her courage.
“After 10 years, I still laugh when people say it,” says the artist. “People are usually looking for their destiny—and here I am.”
It’s astonishing how quickly and thoroughly the Harpist From the Hood mastered her new craft. Although she first fell in love with the instrument during a chance encounter as a child, Destiny had no opportunity to sit at the harp until she was in her 30s.
“The first time I ever saw a harp, I was 9 years old and heard Harpo Marx playing it on TV,” she said. “He played the most incredible rendition of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. I said that’s what I’m going to do.”
However, her nascent aspirations were put on hold as her mother dealt with the stress of being newly divorced and trying to put food on the table. “I never mentioned it again; it just sat in the back of my brain.”
To add to the peculiar trajectory of Destiny’s life, prior to moving to L.A. County, her family had been stationed at an army base in Japan. She went from a military base in an orderly setting to the projects in L.A. during the early ’70s—a time of great transition and upheaval. “Life in Compton was crazy,” says Destiny. “Martin Luther King had just been killed, race riots were taking place. You could still just about smell the smoke.”
Already a girl of vision and action, the soon-to-be Destiny rewrote her future. Borrowing a new in-law’s ZIP code, she finagled her way out of the tumult of the projects and into the high-achieving school district in Torrance.
“No disrespect to the school in San Pedro, but I was in a community of people who were just struggling to create their own identity, so someone who was clear about theirs almost became a challenge.”
After graduating high school with a focus on music, Destiny returned to her family, still struggling in the projects. She admits she wanted to study music, but was unwilling to leave her family behind. “I was looking at my family and wondering, if I leave, what will happen to them,” says Destiny. “So I went to barber school. And for 14 years of my life I was a barber.”
Life in the two-seat barbershop continued peacefully until the day she heard the harp a second time. In a flood of insight, she realized she had to trade her security for the risks of the unknown; she had to leave the confining walls of the projects and follow her passion for this complex instrument. “I put down my clippers and picked up a harp,” says Destiny. “People thought I was crazy. But this particular flash, it almost sucker-punched me, if you will.”
Taking private lessons from jazz harpist Stella Castellucci of Los Angeles, Destiny laid the groundwork for her future in music. Moving to the East Bay, she continued with private instruction, studying with Anne Adams, a well-known harpist, and other talented local teachers. She quickly branched out into performances.
Her courage paid off. In the last 15 years, Destiny, Harpist From the Hood, has become among the Bay Area’s premier harp players. She now plays full time, too busy with numerous gigs each week to even consider brushing off her clippers.
“I’m a sound sculptress,” says Destiny. “I use the medium of sound to sculpt an environment of peace and harmony.”
Destiny turned 46 last November, yet her years can only be detected in her eyes, where wisdom waltzes with mirth, each taking turns leading. Otherwise she looks as she feels—on a second spin through youth. When she’s not touring, Destiny is busy making up for lost time, taking formal lessons in jazz alongside kids and teenagers at Oakland’s Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts.
She doesn’t mind that she’s three times their age; in fact, according to her math, they’re identical. “I refer to myself as an adult prodigy,” says Destiny. With a contagious grin she adds: “Musically, I’m really only 16 years old.”.
November 14, 2012 MUSIC
Destiny Muhammad Masters the Harp and the Hustle
At fifty, the jazz harpist reflects on her twenty-year career.
By Whitney Phaneuf
Photo credit Joey Brite
Destiny Muhammad started playing harp at age thirty.
Destiny Muhammad's 50/20 happens at The Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts (1428 Alice St., Oakland) on Sunday, Nov. 18. 3 p.m., $25. MCCATheater.com
Destiny Muhammad and I are sitting side-by-side at downtown Oakland's Awaken Cafe. Muhammad has black dreads dotted by a few white hairs and wears a flowing silk blouse. My hair is dyed black, with thick bangs, and I'm wearing a T-shirt, jeans, and Converse. Demographically, we represent an Oakland in flux.
"What's that you called it?" Muhammad asked.
"Gentrification," I replied.
"Yeah, that. Well, I call it opportunity."
Muhammad attended high school a few miles from where I was born, around the same time, the late Seventies, in the South Bay of Southern California. She lived in housing projects and took public transit — three buses she said — to be one of four African-American students attending Torrance High School.
"You know I'm 'bout to work that system," Muhammad said.
It's the unofficial theme of Muhammad's life. A classical and jazz harpist who celebrates her fiftieth birthday and twenty years as a musician in a concert on Sunday, November 18 at The Malonga Casquelourd Center for the Arts, she began her career playing for tips at Bay Area farmers' markets with only four songs in her repertoire. "I pimped that idea," she said, proudly.
The oldest in her family, Muhammad went to cosmetology school after she graduated high school and opened a barbershop in her hometown of San Pedro. While she excelled in high school music classes, mostly as a singer, she dedicated herself to working, all the while knowing the instrument she wanted to play despite having never seen it in person. As a young girl, she watched Harpo Marx play a harp on television and it stuck with her — the graceful curves and delicate sound from the large string instrument. By the time the harp reappeared in her life, Muhammad was thirty, managing the barbershop with her mom. The best friend of her then-boyfriend built harps, and when she walked into his studio, the attraction was too strong to shake.
"It was the return of the harp dream," Muhammad recalled. "I kept thinking, 'Why do I feel this way?'" Eventually, she gave in and bought a harp with no idea how to play it. She took lessons from a woman who first denied her, saying she only taught children.
"There I was, thirty years old, learning 'Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,'" Muhammad said, adding that some of her most formative life experiences began with those harp lessons. "When I started playing harp, I had friends who said, 'You too old, you too black, and we don't do that.' I said, 'Click, don't call me no more.'"
When Muhammad moved to Alameda in 1994, a few years after she started playing harp, she worked odd jobs in between practicing Celtic folk and classical harp songs at farmers' markets. Playing for free led to a decade of paying gigs at coffeehouses, restaurants, and private parties. It also accidently led her to jazz, a style she had always wanted to play. Khalil Shaheed, the founder of Oakland's Oaktown Jazz Workshops, heard Muhammad at a market and invited her to a jam session.
"Those folks ran all over me," she said. "There was a lot of clapping and laughing, and I really didn't know what was happening. When I walked out, I said, 'One day, I will write you all a check for playing with me.'" Muhammad spent three years studying with Shaheed — "I became his oldest student," she said — and that's when she learned the roots of jazz.
Jazz harpists, the few that have existed, have historically struggled for acceptance. In the Sixties, Dorothy Ashby changed the image of the harp from a cute and sweet classical accent within jazz expression to an integral component of song structure. The harp can be played softly, replacing a piano's lush textures, or hard, adding percussion to uptempo bebop. Other jazz harpists included Adele Girard, who was married to clarinetist Joe Marsala, and Alice Coltrane, widow of saxophonist John Coltrane — both accepted in part because they were the wives of traditional jazz musicians.
Muhammad also struggled to evolve past her community-embraced "harpist from the hood" image to that of a serious jazz artist. She spent three years studying under Shaheed, and by 2008, local saxophonist Richard Howell changed his quartet to a quintet to accommodate her. Last year, she headlined The Jazz Heritage Center's "Women in Jazz" concert. Her birthday concert will feature the caliber of musicians Muhammad once vowed to write checks to, including Blue Note artist Eddie Gale and bassist Ken Okada. Muhammad is working on an album of original music and planning a Dorothy Ashby tribute album, in between teaching private harp lessons and being a lifelong student herself.
"I'll be learning till I jump off the planet," Muhammad said. "The opportunities are so vast. Once you see it, you got to get your hustle on."
The East Bay is overflowing with immense musical talent, and female musicians make up a large portion of that artistic wealth. With so much talent commanding a plethora of musical instruments, styles and arrangements, the short list of standout musicians and groups is merely a fine-tuned sampling of the female musical gifts the East Bay is fortunate to enjoy.
Destiny Muhammad is a jazz harpist, bandleader and a singer-songwriter. She is the principle harpist for the Eddie Gale Inner Peace Orchestra and the Oakland Public Conservatory Orchestra. In addition, she has opened for the Oakland East Bay Symphony, been a featured attraction at Yoshi’s Supper Club, Oakland and has shared the stage with jazz master Marcus Shelby, Calvin Keyes and many others. She has headlined the “Women in Jazz” concert series and the AfroSolo String Virtuoso concert series. Destiny is also a mentor at Musically Minded Academy, an educational facility where youth and adults receive training from instructors who are renowned musicians. Visit the Destiny Muhammad website for upcoming performance dates and venues.