The Gow Dow Experience
73-74-75 (The Gow Dow Experience Productions) (Private Press)
Released February 11, 1973
Diving into the history and context behind the incredibly rare private press recording 73-74-75, the only recording from The Gow Dow Experience, it’s difficult to judge the music as purely entertainment. That’s because this album was merely one component of the greater “Gow Dow” philosophy of Black unity and empowerment established by Dr. James Benson, the music’s composer and a former professor of Black Studies at Cal Poly Pomona.
An archived story by Barbara Smith via Precinct Reporter helps set the context around Cal Poly Pomona at the time: “The year 1969 saw a revolution rocking our country: a war being fought on foreign soil and there was civil unrest at home. The shifting landscape in the country was reflected on university campuses where the need for diversity cried out. Cal Poly Pomona was one such campus with an active recruitment campaign, and in 1969 the first African-American students, many from the inner cities of southern and northern California, arrived at the school to begin their educational adventure.” The Gow Dow Experience rose directly out of those transformative, tumultuous years.
As Benson writes in the album’s liner notes, the group from sense of “Black Functionalism,” which he elaborates as “doing some consistent kind of activity in the community to show our concern and responsibility as black students, brothers and sisters… within a few ‘weeks’ we went into action – free public concerts, prisons, festivals, churches, schools, educational TV, radio, weddings, etc.” This album stems from those community efforts, taking place from 1969 through 1973.
While the music isn’t the most studied – Benson states on the back cover “these students had very little (if any) formal training” – what makes it special is the tremendous sense of empathy and collective listening on display. The compositions are also incredibly lush and layered.
With the group’s sense of purpose in mind, “Nigeria West Africa,” and its heavy percussion and scattered chants, feels like a historical invocation, a way for the ensemble to connect present day with past heritage. “Song For My Black Mother,” is the first glimpse of Benson’s thoughtful ear, which finds space for all pieces of his ensemble to shine. While this song largely sits in a pocket, there’s lots of movement to the short but memorable “Barry Rae.”
B side opener “Malcolm IX” is the freest musical passage on the album. It’s notable that the song holds a pervasive sense of compassion and unity even within the throes of the saxophone’s overblown low bleats and high cries. Guitar and piano seem to call back in an active dialogue. Closer “Brother Don” contains some great contrasting dynamics from the onset, with brass stabs sitting brilliantly in opposition to the drum rolls that immediately precede them.
On the record’s back cover, Benson distances the collective from a strict jazz designation. “The philosophy and concepts coming from the Gow Dow Experience are those of spontaneous, unstructured, free flowing experience, yet having its own spiritual values. It has nothing to do with the word ‘jazz’… The Gow Dow Experience is a way of listening to creation. It is an ongoing experience. It defies categorization and means to demystify and illuminate black experience.”
If a copy of this private press proves too elusive (or cost prohibitive), you can get a taste on the compilation Super Cool: California Soul II, released on CD and double LP in 2007 on Luv ‘N Haight and re-released digitally via Ubiquity in 2015. That collection features the group’s cover of the Gene McDaniels tune “Compared to What,” best known for its classic performance by Les McCann and Eddie Harris at the 1969 Montreaux Jazz Festival. The Gow Dow take is a cool, laid back counterpoint to the urgent passion of the McCann / Harris version, a slow burner of gradual intensity with a funky bassline as its stylistic centerpiece.
73-74-75 is a fascinating artifact of Black empowerment and unity, a creative, community-minded response to troubled times that points to music’s ability not only to entertain but to heal.
Words by: Brandon Roos