Samarai Celestial was a jazz visionary:
flamboyant, inspired, and amazingly gifted. But it was a dedication to his
muse that perhaps ended his life too soon.
by Mike Gibson
It's mid-winter 1989 at the drab, aging University of Tennessee Music Hall
when the man once known as Eric Walker completes his boisterous initiation
into Knoxville's small but distinguished fraternity of jazz musicians.
The occasion is the black-tie faculty recital of pianist and new UT assistant
professor Donald Brown, who has hand-picked a quartet of supporting musicians
that includes department head Jerry Coker on tenor saxophone, bass instructor
Rusty Holloway on stand-up, and acclaimed New York trumpeter Bill Mobley.
But the starched ambiance notwithstanding, the restless drummer with the
luminous dark eyes and toothy megawatt smile refuses to go unnoticed.
When Brown signals the onset of the drummer's solo spot, he assails the kit
with a lunatic intensity that elicits visible astonishment from the other
four musicians. There is no sense of cool jazzbo reserve in the onslaught;
after one particularly ferocious roll, he stands and lets out a resounding
whoop, then lashes at the cymbals with unhinged glee. Like bewildered weathermen
staring at murky radar screens, the other players can only vainly search
the charts on their music stands, as if the tiny black dots and gridlines
on the stenciled pages will yield some clue as to the length and severity
of this sudden percussive hailstorm.
At long last, the drummer stands again and cries out with hoarse ebullience:
"I need help now!" Then, as a mischievous grin seeps across his facea
grin that outshines even the drum kit's burnished bronze halo of cymbalshe
pauses, looks around knowingly as if to measure the impact of his own spectacle,
and settles back into his chair with a playful, rump-wagging shimmy that
leaves Holloway nuzzling the thick neck of his stand-up bass in an effort
to suppress a giggle.
As Brown leads the ensemble back into the heart of the song, the crowd erupts
with unruly cheers, shattering any remaining sense of uncomfortable dignity.
It's the kind of effect that Samarai Celestialcult-jazz luminary, empyrean
savant, and celestial skinsman par excellencewill have on many more
Knoxville audiences to come.
"I knew at the time that he was capable of some wild showmanship, but that
one even caught me off guard," Brown chuckles. "Basically, he was a fool,
and I mean that in the best sense. Samarai was just different, like [jazz
drummer] Art Blakely, one of the top four or five most amazing people in
my life. He was the kind of person where you had to have him in your life
some way. You couldn't do without him."
Those recital histrionics, preserved on video in Brown's personal archives,
are now freighted with poignancy as well as mirth; on November 28, at age
43, Samarai died in his native Savannah, Ga., having battled painful, crippling
heart disease the last four years of his life.
A musician of singular gifts and a human being of enormous warmth and charisma,
Samarai came to Knoxville in 1987 after gaining cult renown as the drummer
for avant-jazz bandleader Sun Ra. In his nine years here, he continued to
tour and record with Ra's amorphous, eclectic Arkestra; gigged, recorded,
and traveled with a host of local talents; and recorded a pair of startlingly
unconventional solo releases. He returned to Savannah in 1996, his own health
declining, to shepherd his father through the last stages of a terminal illness.
Local production guru Seva, a close friend and musical collaborator, calls
his story a "classic jazz tragedy," another instance of gentle genius savaged
by life's harsh actualities. "His commitment to music was so deep that he
accepted financial difficulty and instability throughout his life."
Samarai Celestial was born Eric Walker on Nov. 28, 1954, in Savannah. His
parents, Ezekiel and Thelma Walker, both played piano, while his brother,
who would later rename himself Sharif Rashied, played trumpet and flute.
Although Eric showed considerable rhythmic inclination as a child, his first
instrument was Rashied's trumpet, a grade school hand-me-down. He would take
up drums in earnest at age 13, however, and within a couple of years he was
accomplished enough to play jazz and R&B at Savannah clubs.
At the onset of Eric's senior year, his brother returned from a stint in
Vietnam, where a fellow soldier had introduced him to the Nation of Islam.
Eric converted as well, changing his name to Sami.
While passing out Islamic newspapers on a street corner one day, the youths
were accosted first by a single police officer, then by a full riot squad
of cops with guns and batons. A struggle ensued, and though the brothers
were unarmed, they would spend eight months in jail without bond in connection
with the incident, then serve an additional three months on an aggravated
Embittered, Sami took to the life of a wandering musician upon his release,
migrating first to Atlanta, then to South Carolina. By his early 20s, the
young nomad had found a temporary home in New Orleans, where he gigged with
a blind pianist named Henry Butler as well as Ellis Marsalis, the venerable
pianist now better known as the father of horn virtuosos Wynton and Branford.
He was also befriended by prominent New Orleans jazz educator Ed "Kid" Jordan,
who had played with the freakishly-garbed space-jazz iconoclast Sun Ra. Born
Herman Blount, Ra was a gifted subversive, a keyboardist, composer, arranger,
producer, and avant-philosopher of no small talents who in the 1950s assumed
the mantle of a Saturn-born soothsayer empowered by omnipotent cosmic forces,
a role and an attendant philosophy cobbled together from ancient Egyptian
mythology and '50s flying saucer futurism.
Sun Ra was founder and leader of the Arkestra, a Philadelphia-based coalition
of musicians who played corrupted big band jazz heavily inflected with its
maestro's chimerical notions. Over the course of a 40-some-odd-year career,
the Arkestra would eventually circle the globe dozens of times on tour and
author more than 400 separate releases, most of them on Ra's own Saturn record
On a trip through New Orleans in 1979, Ra told Jordan he was looking for
a new drummer. Jordan recommended that he audition a versatile and adept
skinsman named Sami, then 25. According to Rashied, Sami met Sun Ra at a
club full of talented percussionists eager to make the master's acquaintance.
"They met, and then another musician came up and wanted to give him his number,"
he recalls. "For some strange reason, Sun Ra said, 'No, this is my drummer,'
before he had even heard him play."
That day, Sami accepted an invitation to join the Sun Ra Intergalactic Cosmo
Love Adventure Arkestra. Within the week, he obtained a passport and left
with the Arkestra for a three-month tour of Europe.
It was under Sun Ra's tutelage that Sami brought to fruition the musical
and spiritual outlooks he would harbor for the rest of his life. Tyrone Hill,
a trombonist who joined the Arkestra only a couple of years prior, remembers
that master and pupil bonded quickly, as Sami readily readily took to Ra's
more abstract, inclusive musical/spiritual approach.
"Most of the musicians that have come through the Arkestra didn't fully
understand the concept of what [Sun Ra] was doing," says Hill. "It was like,
'This guy is talking about outer space. What does this have to do with music?'
But it was very special and magical for [Sami]. He and Sun Ra had the same
ideas and musical concepts, the idea of music as a healing force in the universe,
as a way to change the condition of the world."
Sami began reading books on Egyptology at Sun Ra's behest and adopted the
kind of elaborate, spacey trappingssequined jackets, colorful capes,
garishly ornate hatsthat characterized Ra's daily attire. He also adapted
Ra's fanciful, cosmic-hippie mode of speechusing "greetings" as a
salutation instead of "hello" (because it contains the word "hell"), "space"
instead of "goodbye," and contriving his own vocabulary of otherworldly
utterances when standard English seemed somehow less than adequate, words
like "cosmotery" and "omniversal" and "everlutionary."
As a sign his of fondness for Sami, the bandleader gave him the name
'Ra'an Egyptian word for godas well as the surname Celestial.
The first two parts of his moniker were soon fused, yielding 'Samarai.'
It was at the end of a Sun Ra tour in 1985, with the Arkestra on hiatus,
that Samarai met Lisa Harvey, a pretty, delicate-featured 21-year-old cosmetology
student at Philadelphia's Wilford Academy. Their paths crossed on the 13th
day of June on the city's number 13 trolley, a numerical concurrence Harvey,
now known simply as Saphorai, attributes to fate rather than happenstance.
The two spoke briefly when she asked him the time. By another stroke of fate,
she says, they disembarked at the same stop, as her apartment was directly
across the street from his rehearsal space. "Then he looked at me and said,
'The creator sent you here to be my soulmate.'" she relates. "I thought to
myself, 'What a line!' All I could do was look at him and say, 'Oh, really?'"
They exchanged phone numbers, and Samarai called her the next morning. Harvey
was captivated, and the two talked for more than an hour, discussing
outre jazz, alternative spiritualism, and fate.
They made a dinner date, and from that first evening together, Saphorai says
the two became an "inseparable unit."
Just as Sun Ra had done for him, he bequeathed her the surname 'Ra,' which
he would combine with "Sapphire," a stage name she had used since 1980 when
she began singing at local nightclubs. The resulting amalgamation, Saphorai,
means "gem of god."
Though he remained a member of the Arkestra, the ever-wandering Samarai's
side projects would take the two first back to Atlanta, then to Chattanooga,
where they married. Samarai was an adoring partner, she says, and also an
incurable flirt. Occasionally strapped for cash, the couple worked briefly
at an Atlanta hotel banquet room. During breaks, she remembers that Samarai
would steal mints from a dish at the front counter and head to the lobby
or elevator, where he would give every woman he saw an ingratiating smile
and a candy.
"He always wanted to reach out to people," says Saphorai. "And he was a deeper
lover for it. He treated me like a queen."
Saphorai entered the relationship with a child from a failed early marriage.
A slender, hard-muscled wide receiver on the Karns High football team,
15-year-old Donald Jaye Jarmon now refers to his late stepfather as simply
"my dad," a role Saphorai says Samarai happily assumed within the first year
of their courtship, and continued to play even after their divorce in 1993.
In Chattanooga, however, Samarai told her he wanted more children. Saphorai
conceived and bore their son, Nija, in 1987, and their daughter, Osha, two
years later. Today, 10-year-old Nija is a sensitive slip of a lad, Osha a
knowing cherub. Both are quiet, precocious, less aggressively social than
their gregarious sire, but unmistakably possessed of his huge, saucer-like
As a father, Samarai was doting and endlessly playful. Saphorai recounts
that he would often frolic with the kids for hours at a time, Osha wrapped
around his neck and Nija curled up in an arm, with Samarai on all fours in
classic "horsey" fashion.
Nija, who already shows flashes of his father's talent, remembers learning
drumming rudiments from his dad, who labeled the inner portion of the drum
head "momma," the outer portion "daddy." The correlations allowed Nija to
play rolls that worked across the entire drum, following the cadence of Samarai's
voice at ever-increasing tempos.
It was in part Samarai's concern for where the couple would raise their kids
that led them to Knoxville. His Chattanooga projects had grown fewer and
farther between, and a friend with Knoxville connections suggested he contact
Al George, a local saxophone player who needed a drummer for his dinner gigs
on the old River Queen riverboat.
For two months, Samarai commuted between cities every week, at last deciding
that Knoxville would be a good place for the boys to grow up. The couple
moved in October of '87, and Samarai was soon playing and fraternizing with
most of the city's prominent jazz artists; saxophonists Coker, Wynder, and
Bill Scarlett, singers Yvonne Milton (George's niece) and Nancy Brennan Strange,
pianists Brown and Shirley, percussionist James Pippen.
This free-wheeling, cosmic hepcat would make a lasting impression on his
new Knoxville friends; most have vivid memories of their earliest encounters
with him. At one of Brown's first shows with Samarai, the drummer developed
an abiding fondness for the buffalo wings on the buffet table and, with Brown
watching, began shoveling chicken into the pockets of his suit.
"It was like, 'These are good. I gotta take some home,'" Brown says with
a husky laugh. "He may have wrapped them in a napkin or something, but I
know he was getting grease all in the pockets. I thought, 'Man, this cat
Strange met Samarai on Earth Day, seven years ago, at Club LeConte, and was
instantly struck by every facet of his beinghis colorful, occasionally
spicy language, his outlandish (yet somehow impeccable) thrift-store wardrobe,
his incessant good humor and spill-over smile. "I knew right away I'd met
a real character," Strange says with a giggle. "We ended up playing together
that night, some jazz standards, and he made the drums sing. We did 'Ain't
Misbehavin',' and it was as if the drums were reciting the syllables."
"His laughter was the thing that hit me first," remembers Milton. "He was
very passionate, a master of the conversational art, and he had the most
distinct laugh. It always broke out into this incredible energy. It was a
knowing laugh, like he had the inside track, a rooster-in-the-henhouse kind
of thing. It made you think he had it going on."
Samarai's playing was every bit as memorable as his persona. Under Sun Ra's
guidance, he had developed an unusual and complex polyrhythmic approach,
a precision whirlwind of a style that enabled him to provide broad rhythmic
support for the Arkestra's chaotic ensemble forays; he would at times mark
three separate beats between two hands and a set of foot pedals. And though
he was capable of tasteful, restrained playing, brazen virtuosity and bust-out
showmanship were always his forte.
"You know how if you're sitting outside at Lucille's and hear the train coming
through on the Old City tracks?" one local jazz fan posits. "Samarai was
like that train coming through. There was so much exuberance in his playing.
He was like a demon."
Samarai's prowess ensured that he had regular gigs throughout most of his
stay in Knoxville; he played every week at Lucille's in the Old City for
more than five years and, at different times, claimed a regular spot at a
handful of now-defunct clubs, including Planet Earth, Bullfrog's, and Ella
Guru's downtown and D.J. Sharp's in West Knoxville.
He also traveled and recorded intermittently with several local and regional
collaborators, including Brown, who used Samarai as his drummer on the
Grammy-nominated album Send One Your Love (the second Grammy nominee
Samarai would play on) as well as his 1990 release People Music.
Brown admits playing with Samarai could be problematic. He was chronically
late, even to his own gigs. He was often out-of-pocket, in need of a ride
or a small loan. And he enjoyed the occasional marijuana cigarette, a vice
that Brown remembers wrought havoc with his playing on the second night of
a 1990 European stand. "I told him, 'Man, don't you ever do that shit to
me again,'" Brown says.
"I was pissed," he laughs. "But that's Samarai. And no matter what he did,
there was always this love there. It was like a marriage, except he had the
upper hand because he knew what he could get away with because he knew how
much I dug him."
But Samarai would ultimately become dissatisfied with his lot in Knoxville;
the city only had so many nightspots conversant in jazz, many of them failing
and few of them willing to grant him free reign with the keening cosmic-tribal
improvisations that characterized his solo material. Saphorai says his artistic
frustrations began exacting a toll on the marriage; he was drinking more
often and more abundantly, spending less time at home, and the couple began
to argue with increasing frequency.
"He wasn't getting enough rest or eating like he normally had done," she
recalls. "He was trying to work double-time, wherever he could find gigs,
and before you knew it he was out of town again. I pled with him to slow
down and let up a little, but that was only like an insult to him."
The couple separated in 1992, although the holding pattern of
break-up-and-reconciliation lasted for more than a year before their divorce
in 1993. "We never stopped loving each other," she says. "He was always my
soulmate. But we realized that it would be best we not live together at that
point. We had different ideas of what life should be like at that stage."
A few months after the couple's final split. Saphorai was working for a local
insurance agent, sitting at her desk during a break, when she felt a strange
compunction to give her former spouse a call. She remembers that his resonant
voice was unusually low, unnervingly subdued as it came through the phone
receiver. He was feeling sick and short of breath, he told her, but felt
he would improve given a few hours rest and a pot of herbal tea.
When she called later that day, he sounded worse than before, weaker, his
voice quavering. His left shoulder was throbbing with pain. A former pre-med
student, Saphorai recognized the ugly harbingers of cardiac arrest. When
she arrived at his apartment minutes later, his complexion was the color
"I rushed him to UT hospital," she says. "The whole time he was holding my
hand and saying, 'Why is this happening to me?' When we got to the emergency
room, he barely even went through triage. They immediately took him back
into the treatment room and started shocking his heart back into a normal
Samarai spent the evening in the hospital's critical care unit with most
of the staff worried he wouldn't see the light of the following day. When
his condition finally showed signs of improvement, one of the doctors pulled
Saphorai aside and showed her something that redoubled her horror.
"I go into a room and look at this x-ray of his heart, and it extends two-thirds
of the way across his chest," she says. "Basically, they told me there were
two ways he could have developed thatthrough heredity or through drinking
and abusing his body."
One of the physicians advised Samarai not to play drums for at least two
years, but the counsel fell on deaf ears. Samarai was a drummer, after all;
music was all he really knew. And he felt he had a message to impart, a message
which Saphorai says he now sought to bring forth with a near-obsessive fervor.
"He rarely did straight-up gigs anymore," Saphorai says. "He went full speed
ahead with his music, working with Seva and other people who are into alternative
With Seva's technical and production assistance, Samarai recorded two CDs
for the Carrot Top independent label. Isis Sun, from 1995, is a dense,
sometimes mystifying piece of electro-tribal art percussionintricate,
interlocking synthesized rhythms laced on some tracks with Samarai's shamanistic
whoops and incantations.
Cosmic Gold Millennium, a two-disc set released just before his death,
is more accessible, with its first side capturing some stellar bop-on-Benzedrine
acoustic jazz workouts featuring Samarai and a handful of like-minded players,
including the Arkestra's Hill. The second disc showcases more electronic
shenanigans, with its atavistic beat collages providing a bed for spacey
synthesizer noodling. According to Seva, at least two more Samarai solo records
will be released posthumously, in addition to any number of projects with
other musicians, including Hill and bandleader Herman Green.
Although Samarai worked and collaborated tirelesslyperhaps driven by
a sense that his days on earth were numberedthe cracks in his declining
health were beginning to show. Friends say he would often stop in the middle
of a session or a set, visibly drained, and leave the room to catch his breath
and cool down. Seva would at one point discover that he had been sleeping
in a chair since early '97; when he lay prone, his swollen heart exerted
suffocating pressure on his lungs and ribcage.
"I think the first incident with his heart really changed him," Brown suggests.
"That's when I noticed a real change in his spirit, his demeanor. I felt
he was never quite the same person; he was more tentative and cautious about
how he carried himself."
In 1996, Samarai moved back to Savannah to be with his father, who was battling
prostate cancer. Already ravaged physically by his own illness and emotionally
by artistic frustrations and the break-up of his family, Saphorai says he
was deeply affected by Ezekiel Walker's condition. "His father was the sweetest
man, and Samarai always called him 'my guardian angel,'" says Saphorai. "He
was the one person in his immediate family that had accepted his art when
he first chose the society of musicians."
Ezekiel died in spring of '97. Samarai continued to live with his mother,
playing sporadically in town. For a brief time that summer, he seemed to
nurture new hope that his condition would improve; he was planning fall dates
with Brown, some solo gigs, and a tour with the Arkestra, which survived
as a unit despite Sun Ra's death in 1993.
Then, in September, at the Savannah Jazz Festival in the city civic center's
Johnny Mercer Theater, Samarai began acting strangely during a set with a
small sax and organ combo. Standing in the wings of the stage, Rashied remembers
that his brother rose suddenly, as he would often do during his more unfettered
performances. But this time, the gesture was not one of extemporaneous musical
"He reached back to loosen his clothes while doing a one-handed roll, and
I knew something was wrong," says Rashied. "Then he threw down the drumsticks
and ran off the stage toward me, his face pale, and I knew something was
very, very wrong."
Samarai was rushed to the hospital where he would stay for two weeks. Upon
his release, he canceled his solo dates, the tours with Brown and the Arkestra,
and Rashied says his condition degenerated into a miserable constancy of
sleeplessness, nausea, and wheezing.
On Sunday, November 14, Saphorai had an experience that defies rational
explanation. She hadn't seen Samarai since summer, and she says she hadn't
dreamt of him in years. But as she slept this night, she saw herself in the
alleyway behind the Tennessee Theater, moving speakers and music equipment
when Samarai, dressed in a black turtleneck and red jacket, walked through
the alley and stumbled...
"I call to him and run over to help him sit down," she says. "His hands are
so small, like he's lost so much weight, like he's beginning to wither. He
looks up at me and says, 'Saphorai it's my time.' I said 'I'm speechless,'
and I embrace him, and he embraces me, and I'm just pouring out tears. I
told him I never stopped loving him, and he told me he never stopped loving
Disturbed, she awoke the next morning and called her ex-husband in Savannah.
In his cheerul greeting, he sounded much like his old, high-spirited self,
and responded whimsically when she described her dream. But Samarai, who
had often spoken of astral travel, was evasive when she asked him to speculate
on the nature of her vision.
"At last, he says, 'I was there with you last night.' I'm thinking, 'Oh yeah,
right! This is bullshit!'" Saphorai says, blushing at her own unintended
candor. "But the one thing I had left out in my description was what he had
on. I asked him and he said, 'I had on a black turtleneck and a red jacket.'
My mind was blown. I knew at that moment that had come to my dream to hug
Exactly two weeks from the evening of Saphorai's dream, Samarai Celestial
left the planet.
Today, when friends speak of Samarai's passing, it's with a sense of profound
organic loss, as if some immutable, elemental force had suddenly and inexplicably
disappeared. Brown still searches, without thinking, for traces of his departed
friend in the shadowy interior recesses of Old City nightspots, in dank downtown
alleys where weary musicians load drum cases and worn speakers into dilapidated
vans. "I'll see a car and think it looks like his last car, or I think about
a gig coming up and say, 'I should use Samarai.'"
In some sense, he's still here, in the more than 100 Sun Ra releases he graced
in his tenure with the Arkestra, in dozens of corollary releases authored
with other kindred artists, and in the countless hours of personal archival
tape, much of it unlabeled, Seva and Rashied hope to one day chart and preserve
But some believe it was never Samarai's intention to remain bound for too
long by the inflexible caveats of the material realm. "I know he didn't want
to stay on this earth," says son Nija. "I think he's happy his body is gone.
He knew there were higher places and he wanted to get those higher places."
Hill remembers that in the waning months of his life, Samarai made one last
sojourn to visit Sun Ra's grave in Philadelphia, maybe a final act of preparation
for the passage to come. Today, Hill believes maestro and pupil have reunited,
in a place where celestial prophets and space jazz pioneers never struggle
or grieve. "And I am sure," he adds knowingly, "that they are rehearsing."