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Goodbye to a griot

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He was a father and a family man. He gave so much. A teacher and a philosopher. He was my teacher. He was the time master. He was the man who taught me about music. He taught me about life. He was like a father to me. My partner in crime. He was irreplaceable. He lives on with us in the music.

Those were the kinds of things we heard after Harold Walton McKinney died June 20 at age 72. Family, friends and fans sorted through the loss that seemed personal to all. By the hundreds they filed into the halls and pews of Hartford Memorial Baptist Church on Saturday, hugging and talking from the heart about how Harold had touched them. The printed obituary cataloged the things he’d done, the legends he’d played with, the bands, the performances, the teaching and workshops that passed on the music to younger generations. The talk measured the impact of a productive life.

An African drum choir echoed against the church’s high ceiling; mourning dancers swept along the aisles in advance of his immediate family; later, jazz, gospel and spirituals filled the air. The names of the greats — Charlie Parker, Dinah Washington, Betty (Bebop) Carter, on and on — who had gone before were invoked.

U.S. Rep. John Conyers talked of Harold as a cultural and political visionary. The Rev. Charles Adams talked of the cleansing that comes through tears. But in a eulogy that built slowly to a pitch as celebratory as the earlier drumming, he reminded all that we are “not here to be sad — we are here to be thankful.”

From Hartford, mourners moved over to the SereNgeti Ballroom where the music lasted until 12:45 the next morning. “There were musicians still waiting to play, but I said no more tonight,” says owner Bill Foster.

He knows that we will be playing music and sharing memories of Harold McKinney for a long, long time.

W. Kim Heron contributed to Hot & Bothered, which is edited by George Tysh

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