Music embodies a high purpose for Gary Bartz, a man totally dedicated to the furtherance of black Americans and their musical heritage.
Gary formed his Ntu Troop in 1969 (Ntu is a word from the Bantu language, where as a noun, suffix, and common denominator it unifies all things—time and space, living and dead, seen and unseen forces. The word is pronounced "into”). He has recorded five albums for the Milestone label; the first two, Harlem Bush Music (Taifa and Uhuru), were great commercial successes. After three more Milestone albums, Bartz switched over to the sister label, Prestige, where each album has met with an ever-increasing acceptance.
Bartz was among the jazz giants who appeared at the 7th International Montreux () Jazz Festival in July 1973. The music he created that night is available on a double LP, I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies. It has been his best-selling work to date, and received wide critical acclaim.
Singerella—A Ghetto Fairy Tale is Gary’s first total concept album. Gary lived for many years on St. Felix Street in Bedford-Stuyvesant, the scene of Singerella. "I don’t know where I got that name, Singerella. It must be Cinderella mixed up with Sin or Sing. It just sounded like that when I started singing it! And that song, ‘Dozens,’ really is an old African tradition. It’s amazing that the minorities in this country have picked up on that old tradition of ‘sounding’ on another’s family. African societies were matriarchal, and to insult someone’s mother is just like an immediate call to arms! It’s really digging deep.”
Gary continues: "I’ve wanted to do an album like this for a long time. I honestly don’t see why a musician has to stay the same stylistically. I think the most important thing is growth and exploration. It all boils down to the same thing anyway: communication. Just getting your ideas across.”
Bartz’s forte is communication. He uses the saxophone (alto and soprano) and his voice to express his deeply felt convictions about the role of the black American in today’s world. A careful listening to any of Bartz’s lyrics will attest to that. As one critic said of Gary’s work: "He has an energy and honesty missing in pop music; but at the same time, he can communicate easily with audiences that have never heard his style of music before.”
Gary Bartz was born in Baltimore in 1940 and at an early age began to face the reality of growing up black in a city with severely drawn racial lines. He was also exposed to music from early childhood. His uncle knew a number of musicians and people passing through Baltimore on the road, affording opportunities for Bartz to see and hear Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, and several other major creators. The one person Gary regrets not having seen is Billie Holiday, who also grew up in Baltimore.
To add to his musical fulfillment, his father operated a jazz club in Baltimore—the North End Lounge, where Gary played as a teenager. He was 11 when he received his first instrument, an alto saxophone.
Right after high school, at 17, Gary headed for New York and studied at the Juilliard School of Music for three semesters, supplementing that knowledge with further instruction in jam sessions with artists like Freddie Hubbard, Lee Morgan, and Pharaoh Sanders. Then he returned to Baltimore and resumed studies at the Peabody Conservatory.
His first professional gig was with the Max Roach–Abbey Lincoln group, followed by a stint with Art Blakey in 1965. He returned to the Roach band in ‘68-‘69, also working with McCoy Tyner’s group during the same period.
In August 1970, he was invited to join Miles Davis and one of his first gigs with the trumpet player was at the Isle of Wight Festival in that month. "Miles, that’s working with the master,” Gary declares. "He had effects on my playing long before I worked with him. But the main thing he taught me was the seriousness of it, because you tend sometimes not to take it as seriously as you should.”
The Ntu Troop consists of Gary on alto and soprano saxes, Hubert Eaves on piano, John Lee on bass, and Howard King on drums. King, at 18, is one of the tightest drummers to emerge in years and shows enormous potential. Guitarist Maynard Parker may join the group.
The Ntu Troop has a distinctive sound and their own way of doing things, a way which is quite refreshing and enjoyable. Gary’s personable, human warmth is very evident in his music, and the friendly camaraderie among members of the band.
Bartz has only recently escaped the Bedford-Stuyvesant ghetto, and has relocated in Los Angeles. "I love it! You can just get up and go to the beach if you feel like it. You can’t do that in New York!” Gary’s following on the East Coast is large and strong, and his move to L.A. will no doubt increase his exposure to the West Coast audience.