by Bill Batson
What do Muhammad Ali, Helen Hayes and James Baldwin have in common? They were all guests when Sam Waymon and his creative partner, Bill Gunn lived in this house in Nyack in the 1970s. On Saturday, February 16, Rivertown Film presents a tribute to Waymon. The evening will include clips from Gunn’s celebrated film Ganja and Hess, a movie shot in Nyack in which Waymon both appearand scored. The program explores the life of the musician and activist, who like his sister, the late Nina Simone, uses music to harness and articulate outrage against injustice and embrace freedom.
Daniel Perry built the home in the 1830s that would eventually shelter Waymon and Gunn. Perry operated a boat building business from the property. A wooden model that Perry used to construct his steam launches, an important industry in 19th century Nyack, is currently on exhibit in “From Shore to Shore: Boat Builders and Boat Yards of Westchester and Long Island” at Arts Westchester.
Perry’s descendant’s sold the property to screen writing legend, Ben Hecht in 1929. Hecht came to Nyack to be close to his writing partner Charles MacArthur. In a confluence that foreshadowed the activities of Waymon and Gunn, Hecht divided his time between cultural and political activities. Hecht was a major supporter of the Zionist cause and used the home for fundraising events and strategy meetings.
When Waymon and Gunn arrived in 1969, one of their first visitors was Charles MacArthur’s wife, Helen Hayes, who regaled the newcomers with stories of pool parties held by the former occupants. Hayes’ welcoming gesture is remembered fondly by Waymon as one of the most meaningful days at the residence, on par with an audience with the President of Nigeria and literary gatherings that included Toni Morrison, Amiri Baraka, and Gunn’s closest friend James Baldwin.
But the most memorable and certainly most choreographed visit was from the heavy weight champion of the world. In 1975, Minister Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, learned that Gunn was being considered to write the script for an autobiographical film of the life of his disciple, Muhammad Ali. Before a deal could be struck, Gunn and Waymon were flown out to Chicago to meet with Minister Muhammad. Upon their return, they got a call from the boxer. Even though the spiritual leader had given his blessing, Ali would not agree until he met Gunn at his home. The visit was a success and work on the project proceeded.
During this period, Gunn wrote and directed Ganja and Hess, a film that was honored at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973 as one of the best American films of the decade. Waymon’s multidisciplinary talents are on display in the film in which he performs and composes the score. As a low budget effort, many of the props and furnishings, including the Rolls Royce and the Jaguar, belonged to Waymon. Gunn’s prolific career as a playwright, novelist, actor and film director ended in 1989 when he passed away at Nyack Hospital.
Waymon developed as an artist along side his sister, celebrated songstress Nina Simone. Sam and Nina (Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon) were raised in Tyron, North Carolina with six other brothers and sisters. Their parents, Mary Kate and John Divine were both ministers of the gospel. Both Sam and Nina started piano lessons at the age of three.
The Klu Klux Klan was active in Tyron. As a young man, Waymon remembers witnessing cross burnings and savage beatings.
Simone recorded 40 albums and has influenced artists as diverse as Cat Stevens and Alicia Keys. During their partnership, Waymon was her manager and organist. They traveled the world performing, but they also found time to lend their talents and efforts to the civil rights movement. Waymon still has scars from a march where non violent demonstrators were set upon by mobs with bricks and batons. Sam and Nina performed at King’s funeral in 1968.
Nina Simone died in 2003 in France. As a surviving sibling, Sam has been an outspoken critic of a recent Hollywood production based on his sister’s life. He has been particularly critical of the casting of Zoe Saldana as Simone. Over 10,000 people signed an on-line the petition to echo his objections. For Waymon and others, Simone’s dark skin and African features, defined and circumscribed her life. They are incredulous that actors of Simone’s racial identity were passed over for a performer who is reportedly using facial prosthetics and skin paint to portray the singer.
This Saturday, the auditorium of the Nyack Center will be the site for a tribute to Waymon. There is serendipity in the setting. The opening and closing scenes of Ganja and Hess, were shot there when the space was a sanctuary for a church. Waymon will perform with his band on the evening of the 16th on the same stage where he stomped and sang in his role as a Pentecostal preacher in the film.
The following week, Freedom Summer, a play set to music that Waymon contributes and performs two pieces for will be staged at the Nyack Center. The collaboration with former New York Times reporter Bill Tucker is intended to make the substance and sacrifice of the southern civil rights movement relevant to a new generation. For these two weeks in February, Waymon’s filmography, the public’s recognition of his contributions and his continued passion for combining art and activism converge at the Nyack Center.
Through his music, the enduring legacy of his collaboration with Gunn and his defense of his sister’s name and memory, Waymon is living up to the example of some of the civil rights activists that he celebrates in his work on Freedom Summer. Waymon has expressed a concern that history has a way of remembering the battle but forgetting blood. Through his composing and performance, Sam Waymon won’t let us forget either.
If you would like to take piano or voice lessons from Sam Waymon, he is accepting students at Dylan’s School of Music.
Tickets are still available for the Sam Waymon tribute at the Nyack Center on Sat. Feb. 16 at 7:30p from the Rivertown Film Society.
Freedom Summer will be performed at Nyack Center at Depew Avenue and South Broadway on Sat. Feb. 23 at 8p.
Special Thanks to Win Perry, Alma Richmond and Matthew Seig for their assistance.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: ” Sam Waymon Lived Here” © 2013 Bill Batson.