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Jazz Bids Farewell to Musical Legend in City

August 4, 2008

By Monica Chen, The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.

Aug. 4–DURHAM — With jazz standards, blaring trumpets and quick drums, about 20 musicians livened up the Hayti Heritage Center Saturday in a celebration of the life of Yusuf Salim, a humble, caring pianist who for 30 years was at the center of Durham’s jazz scene.

Salim’s sun set on Thursday after years of battle with prostate cancer. On Saturday, his body lay just a little ways from the stage in the cultural center as family and friends each stepped up to bid him adieu.

They clapped and moved their bodies to jazz pieces such as “All the Things You Are” and favorites like “Love Train.”

The event was open to the public, and throughout the day, more than 300 people showed up in a joyous celebration of his spirit, 78 years of age when he died but leaving a legacy of music in Durham.

“We love you! Brother Yusuf!” cried Larry Thomas, leading the crowd in a chant.

Ask anyone at the service about Salim, and they’d tell you about what an amazing musician he was, how he knew every jazz classic. And then, they’d add that he had incredible humility and never hesitated to help another musician.

“He was always very supportive of raw talent,” Thomas said. “He’d look at someone and he could just tell.”

“He was so encouraging. Even if someone was singing off-key, he’d say, ‘Oh, sing some more!’” said Candace, Thomas’ wife.

Salim, born on July 12, 1930, as Joseph Oliver Blair, had moved down to Durham in 1974 at the invitation of a longtime friend Kenneth Murray Muhammad. Before that, Salim had performed in Baltimore with Sammy Daivs Jr., Moms Mabley and Redd Foxx.

He had met Charlie Parker, Sonny Stitt, Lester Young and others who later became giants in jazz.

In Durham, he cultivated and supported the growth of jazz.

Salim hosted a WUNC-TV 13-part series called “Yusuf and Friends.” He also opened a club called The Salaam Cultural Center, offering workshops to train and further the careers of North Carolina musicians such as vocalist Eve Cornelious and Nnenna Freelon, now two internationally known jazz musicians.

Salim was an “icon,” an “institution,” a “musical legend,” according to the folks in attendance on Saturday.

He had a smile that could light up a whole room. His hugs, for friends and for complete strangers, will be missed.

Friend Janice Abdullah called his music “enchanting.”

“He lived musically. He walked musically. He talked musically,” he said. “He took you under his wing with his musical charm.”

Musicians such as Elmer Gibson on piano, Eric Mrozkowski on congas and Freeman Ledbetter on bass filled Hayti with music on Saturday.

“I look at him like a gardener. He planted so many seeds,” Candace Thomas said. “He’s gone now, but the garden will continue to bloom.”

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Herald-Sun, Durham, N.C.

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