When a copper deposit is discovered on the land of the Makenda tribe in eastern Kenya, a young king, Ule Samanga, is told to relocate his people to a refugee camp in Nairobi or risk imprisonment. When all appears lost, the young king discovers the existence of Curtis Jackson, a mysterious half-brother presently living in New York. Believing this unexpected news is an omen from the spirit of his ancestors, he eagerly seeks his help to save their sacred tribal homeland. A struggling mortgage broker and former jazz prodigy, Curtis initially has no interest in developing a relationship with his newly found African family. But when he’s presented with an intriguing business offer, he embarks on a journey to Africa that becomes a spiritual odyssey, changing him in ways he never imagined.
In this assured debut, Richard Crystal weaves a complex story of contemporary moral imperatives conceived during Obama’s victorious election as America’s first black President. Themes of corporate malfeasance and exploitation will resonate with readers of The Constant Gardener and Blood Diamond. But beyond the various political machinations, readers will find a heartwarming story infused with the strains of Coltrane, the history of jazz and the enduring power of family.
ExcerptThe haunting sound of the tenor saxophone permeated the audience, echoing through the auditorium with the emotional power of an inspirational sermon by a charismatic preacher.
Perhaps it was his choice of music. “Amazing Grace,” the traditional Christian hymn, possessed a magical serenity in its simplicity, a soaring soulful melody and a timeless story of redemption and gratitude.
Perhaps it was the fact that this young protégé, just sixteen years of age, bathed in the shimmering glow of a solitary spotlight, had the courage to stand alone on the expansive stage and perform without accompaniment - no solid bottom line generated by the pulsating strings of a stand up bass; no wire brushes lightly striking the snare drum and splashing the high hat cymbal for dramatic effect; no familiar warmth of a baby grand piano to provide the secure feeling that someone had your back if you fucked up.
It was just this wiry black teenager, cheeks puffed, eyes closed, working without a net, breathing life into this metal horn of plenty that hung from the leather strap around his neck.
As the sound of his final low note, filled with a rich vibrato, faded into an empty silence, the electrified audience spontaneously erupted into a rousing standing ovation.
Josephine Jackson, bursting with a mother’s pride, stood among them, wiping away the streams of tears that streaked her cheeks.
She turned to jazz producer, Bert Jones and eagerly asked, “So, how’d my boy do?”
“I expected him to be good,” Bert answered, “but not that good. He absolutely blew me away.”
Ule was well aware the only viable option for tribal people who had been driven off their land was to move to the cities. And that meant relocation in one of Nairobi's two super-slums - Kibera, the largest in Africa, and Mathare.
If that wasn’t awful enough, there was the Mungiki to deal with - a radical Kikuyu group that forced their culture on other tribes, including the circumcision of men and women which Ule’s father had courageously abandoned. If you were foolish enough to resist and refused to pay for protection, they didn’t think twice about taking your life.
What kind of life was that for a peaceful people that only knew how to live off the land? It was a fate worse than death.
All these thoughts sped through the young king’s troubled mind. He took a deep breath and tried to gather himself. He bowed his head in silence and closed his eyes. In the moment of this peaceful reflection, he sensed his father’s presence and heard the sound of his confident voice, imploring him to cherish the land that had sustained the Makenda for generations. The words repeated again and again, resonating in his being like a thunderous rallying cry that lifted him to his feet. He knew at that defining moment that he would summon his people to resist the government takeover and fight with every last breath in their bodies. It was his ancestral responsibility, his destiny, and he was certain he couldn’t live with himself if he did anything less. He accepted the painful truth that his decision would probably cost him his life, but he accepted it with a sense of calm and righteousness. At least he would die with dignity and uphold his father’s name.
The weekend barbeque came quickly and Nalana excitedly told Albert Maingi and his wife Leslie about her progress. She had obtained the number of a man she was confident would help them locate the object of their search and had already left word with his office in New York for him to contact her.
Albert was delighted and thanked her again for her help. He handed her the original letter and asked her to please read it. Nalana didn’t feel that was necessary and instinctively denied. After all, it was a private manner.
But Albert assured her it was the personal request of Ule Samanga, the King of the Makenda, because he felt she was his emissary and wanted her to understand the importance of her journey.
Nalana was most appreciative for this trustful gesture and removed the letter from the envelope. As she began to read, she quickly understood the enormous responsibility she agreed to assume.
She carefully folded the letter back in the envelope and asked the doctor to assure his dear friend that this priceless letter now entrusted to her safekeeping, would never leave her sight until she located Curtis Jackson and personally delivered it to him.
And so, on the following Wednesday morning of December 17th, Nalana Kamau arrived at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport in Nairobi and boarded a jumbo jet bound for the JFK International Airport in New York.
She strapped on her seat belt and in a few short minutes was flying west to spend her Christmas holiday in Manhattan with her friends from Columbia. She gazed out the window and smiled at the satisfying thought that her trip had become much, much more than a joyful reunion with dear classmates.
Nalana Kamau was now on a mission, enlisted as an African courier of a very special letter that had been rediscovered after secretly hibernating for over fifteen years. It was suddenly alive again, writing its own story, on a magical trip of destiny to the place where it all began.
It was one of those bone-chilling, December, do-or-die days in Bedstuy. The white snowflakes falling from the sky had officially confirmed the onset of winter. Chestnuts were roasting on street corners and signs of the holiday season were in every store window. There was always an irresistible joyous energy in this
Brooklyn neighborhood as Christmas and New Year’s approached but now a layer of fear had tarnished the sparkling lights and muted the holiday music. True, the thrilling historic election of Barack Hussein Obama, the first African-American to become the nation’s president, was cause for celebration and had filled the community with hope and infectious optimism. But that was little comfort to the millions of people who were losing their jobs, their homes and their pensions. Main Streets of the world were in the throes of financial panic, teetering on the edge of an economic abyss caused once again by the insatiable greed of Wall Street.
Nobody felt the impact of the crisis more than Curtis Jackson. For the past four years he had struggled to keep his small business as a mortgage broker afloat. Somehow he had managed to survive the first tsunami but he knew the storm and its succeeding aftershocks were far from over. He had just come from a meeting with the Union Capital Group on Fulton Street in the hope of securing lines of credit. He had a number of clients eager to buy but he couldn’t find the cash. Unfortunately, he came up empty once again.
With his carry-on slung over his shoulder, Curtis emerged from the cabin of the plane and descended the portable staircase by the exit door to the runway. The midday African sun was directly overhead and its shimmering heat soothed his aching body made stiff from the overnight flight. He was instantly reminded that although it was the middle of January, it was summer in Kenya and all his thoughts about snow in Manhattan melted away.
Somehow the air felt different. It had a crispness to it. The light was soft and bright - so unlike his inner city world of dark shadows cast by giant manmade forests of cold steel. In the depths of the concrete jungle, one had to prowl the streets, hunt the shafts of light and track them down. Nothing was easy there – not even for the sun.
There was a sense of relief that he had landed safely and his presence in this vast, uncluttered space was suprisingly liberating. It seemed to settle everything down and put it in perspective. His hunched shoulders, constantly raised in a taut contraction towards his neck, had grown accustomed to constantly fighting gravity as a way of life. Remarkably, they had naturally slipped back to their rightful place as he continued on his way.
He looked up at the large, bold block letters fastened on the terminal building that read: “Jomo Kenyatta International Airport” and suddenly heard this strange voice goin’ off in his head. “Yo, Jo, what do you know? Name’s Curtis Jackson, born and bred on the streets of New York and I’m here to tell you I plan to make some magic happen.”
Curtis immediately started laughing aloud. Damn, he hadn’t had a loose, free mind rant for months. “Well, shit, brother, where the hell have you been keepin’ yourself? Up a cow’s ass for a milkshake?”
* * * * *
A local guard waved hello as Nalana continued on a dirt road past a thick grove of trees. Curtis suddenly noticed a flash of light from the corner of his eye. He quickly looked up to see a regal white bird taking flight from the bush – it’s powerful wings lifting it gracefully into the sky.
“Man, would you look at that,” Curtis said in awe.
“That’s a giant heron. Wings like an angel.”
The bird rose gently to the top of a towering tree, raised it’s feathered wings high above it’s head, extended it’s narrow stilted legs then floated down to the safety of a long, willowy branch. The impact of the bird’s landing caused the branch to sway back and forth in wide sweeping motions until it slowly came to rest – as if the creature was a gifted aerialist performing a breathtaking balancing act on a high wire.
The Makenda believed there was a simple explanation. The spirits of their tribal ancestors were looking down from above and protecting them.
Curtis just wasn’t buyin’ into it. To him, it was primitive mumbo jumbo not to be taken too seriously.
But what if it wasn’t? What if the Makenda were right and the spirit of his mother was doing exactly that? You know, looking down from above and protecting her only son.
And, if indeed she was, how in the hell was she going to do it? What, in God’s name, was her freakin’ plan?
But mostly he recalled the countless, sleepless nights after his mother’s death when he journeyed to the urban oasis as a place of refuge to temporarily escape the guilt that consumed him after her shocking death.
For almost three years, he turned to drugs to numb his pain. It got so bad that one cold, winter night, he seriously considered taking that final leap of faith into the wet darkness to end his torment.
But then there was Linda. Lovely Linda Wilson.
Linda was a gifted pianist at the High School of Performing Arts who always had a thing for Curtis. In fact, she loved him. At least he thought that she did.
When he was at his most needing and vulnerable, she eagerly offered herself as an antidote to misery. Sometimes Curtis would call her unexpectedly in the middle of the night to come up to the apartment on Claremont Avenue for some souless sex. She never said no – hoping that the tortured love of her life would finally ask her to move in with him. But he never did.
Upon graduation, Linda got a full scholarship to the Berklee School of Music up in Boston. After a few lonely phone calls and a handful of unanswered letters, she faded away into the vague atmosphere of what had been.
The last he heard, she had moved out to L.A. to try her hand at writing music for movies and television shows. He hadn’t thought about her in years but she was still living in his memory and he was grateful for that.
Maybe their paths would cross again some day. Maybe he’d bump into her at a high school reunion or spot her on the stage of the Vanguard in the Village or the Iridium in Times Square. He could see her now, tickling the ivories, bouncing her pretty head to the laidback beat as she sat before the shining black finish of the grand piano. He promised himself that if that fateful moment actually arrived and he was lucky enough to see her again, he’d be sure to tell her “thanks” for being there in his hour of need. That was the least he could do.
Drops of water continued to trickle off the pointed tips of the layered palm fronds that covered the roofs of the thatched huts in the village. They fell to the earth like beads of perspiration, continuing to soak the saturated ground, turning the hardened dry earth into puddles of mud.
The unexpected storm was a blessing for the Makenda but the curse of death for an unsuspecting zebra. At least it ended quickly. He didn’t know what hit him.
The evening rainshower acted as a curtain of distraction and camouflaged the four-legged gang of feline assassins lurking in the thick underbush. After a roar of thunder that startled the frightened prey, a lethal lioness silently sprang out of the sudden downpour, seizing the striped stallion’s curved high flank with her razor-like talons and dragging him down with her powerful forelegs. The second female clamped its jaws on the victim’s throat, crushing its windpipe and tearing open the jugular. The deed was done in a matter of minutes. It was a good kill.
The pride was especially ravenous. They had been on the move for almost six days, searching desperately for their next meal, until they picked up the scent of the small herd of zebra grazing near the watering hole in the valley below the village.
At the edge of the forest, the mama cat and her three curious cubs were pleasantly at ease, their bellies full from the carnivorous feast. Not quite six months old, the cubs still drank the milk from their mother’s breast but were now supplementing their diet with red meat and couldn’t get enough of it.
The full-maned male lion, the leader of the pack, was the first in the pride to nourish himself and the first to close his eyes as the churning sounds of digestion in his stomach lulled him to sleep like a soothing lullaby. His harem of devoted females soon followed his lead, stretching their muscular bodies out on the wet underbrush and taking a well-deserved nap. They could rest peacefully now, the urgency of seeking out their next meal temporarily put on hold.
Curtis sat in his living room, the opened case at his feet, a Rico bamboo reed between his lips, soaking the thin wood with his saliva. He reached down and began his musical foreplay by gently removing the precious metal in his trembling hands. He studied the graceful presentation of the padded keys, pausing to admire their perfect symmetry. He held the familiar curved body upright in his lap and inserted the gooseneck into the open top. After a few back and forth motions, the connecting lever was in place and he tightened the metal screw to secure the two main pieces of the instrument together.
Leaning down from his sitting position, Curtis reached into the case once again for the ebony mouthpiece. He removed the moistened reed from his lips and gently placed it atop the narrow opening until it was perfectly aligned. He then fastened it with the ligature, a small metal band that would hold it firmly in place, tightening the two screws on the side.
Now fully dressed for the momentous occasion, the mouthpiece was carefully inserted over the greased cork fitting until it was about half way down. He studied his handiwork one last time with a patient eye then placed the leather strap over his head and attached it to the circular hook on the body of the horn.
Holding the assembled instrument in his hands, he adjusted the strap so the mouthpiece presented itself at the entrance to his lower jaw.
He tentatively placed his hands on the keys and inserted the mouthpiece between his lips. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath and exhaled the air from his lungs.
His lips trembled with the vibration of their first embrace.
Curtis shook his neck and shoulders briefly and shimmied his seat to get settled. He leaned towards the horn, closed his eyes, placed his lips around the mouthpiece and blew once again. The sound slowly resonated, unsure and shaky but it was his.
And that was more than enough for now.
The orange flames of the row of torches illuminated the courtyard and the family of thatched huts that surrounded it. A stray tan dog lying by the warmth of a glowing firepit, caught sight of a native tribesman emerging from the shadows. His suspicion piqued, the restless hound raised his snout to pick up the scent, rose on four legs to stretch its tapered body and followed closely behind.
Making his way to the edge of the valley, the curious canine discovered the lone villager standing silently in the surrounding darkness atop a rolling hill, the tenor saxophone suspended from the thick leather strap around his neck.
Momentarily, the birds in the sacred forest began their high-pitched cries to summon the sleeping sun to rise from the bed of night.
The solitary figure took his musical cue, tilted his head down and lifted the body of the golden horn firmly in his hands until the jet black mouthpiece kissed his lips. After a deep, grateful breath to fill his lungs, he released the essence of his life force into the curved metal vessel. His rich joyful sound, emanating from the depth of his soul, resonated through the morning mist to join the plethora of heavenly sounds of the blessed feathered chorus.
The cascading fronds of the distant palm trees appeared as a cluster of floral silhouettes as the first rays of light warmed the horizon.
A small herd of zebra tentatively approached the watering hole as a white heron sailed gracefully above them, its giant wings moving in perfect unison as it climbed ever higher in the African sky.
It was dawn.
Mr. Crystal has produced and written countless television shows and penned numerous screenplays for theatrical feature films in Hollywood. He has sung and produced four pop/jazz albums performing the classic standards he first heard as a young boy growing up in a house filled with music. A Reign Supreme is his first novel, inspired by a trip to South Africa and Botswana on his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary with his wife Fran.
Praise for A Reign Supreme:
- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, legendary basketball star, author and jazz aficionado
“From the streets of New York to a remote tribal village in Kenya, A Reign Supreme is a moody, intriguing and emotional story. Our hero’s journey from teenage jazz prodigy, to a man haunted by his past, to accepting his surprising fate of heritage, is a terrific read.
I’m not just Richard Crystal’s brother, I’m his fan.”
- Billy Crystal, actor, comedian and writer
“As you read ‘A Reign Supreme’ you will wonder if the author is a jazz musician from the streets of New York or was raised in a village in Kenya. The language of the characters is perfect and real. The descriptions of locations are both factual and extremely visual. Richard Crystal takes you on an adventure involving family loyalty, greed, life changing decisions and much, much more. Something for everyone.”
- Lou Adler, award winning music and film producer, recently inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame
“John Coltrane constructed his four-part magnum opus A Love Supreme as a harmonic journey meant to convey an ascendancy to spiritual enlightenment—the musical statement of one man meant to inspire and uplift all. With deep appreciation for that inspirational source, Richard Crystal has been inspired to create a story in four sections that follows that same path to a personal awakening, a return to one’s roots, and realization of one’s purpose. A Reign Supreme is a rare example of a powerful literary work drawing its spirit from a timeless musical classic, with a deft, reverential touch that avoids cliche or overstatement.”
- Ashley Kahn, jazz historian and author of A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane’s Signature Album and Kind of Blue – The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece.
“In “A Reign Supreme”, Richard Crystal creates a multi-dimensional experience for the reader such as I’ve rarely experienced. Besides creating a fascinating and suspenseful plot that keeps the reader turning pages and transports him or her to Kenya with details you can taste, hear and feel so well you would swear you were there, he has, through his own musical experience, created descriptions of jazz that enables the reader to actually hear the music. It’s extraordinary.”
- Andrew Neiderman, Author of The Devil’s Advocate and the worldwide V.C. Andrews literary franchise
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