Brother Yusuf Salim loved hugs. He especially loved to hug strangers. He would spread his arms wide and, with a smile, say, "Come on in here!" He told people to call him "Brother Yusuf." He would say "I'm just your humble brother," and he really meant it. He loved people, and they loved him back.
Salim, who died Thursday, July 31, in Durham after a long struggle with prostate cancer, never thought it was a big deal that he knew all the jazz tunes almost by heart, that he knew Billie Holiday when she was a young girl in Baltimore, that he played with and hung out with Charlie Parker. He just figured it was a part of his wonderful life as a full-time jazz musician. That was his occupation. He never did anything else. He was a piano player, a composer and an arranger.
Salim was an artist who inspired other artists to be their very best. He was an encourager who never said a discouraging word, one of the most positive artistic personalities to have graced the Triangle area. He would invite even the most amateur musicians to his bandstand. After they played a solo, he always told them, "I hear you. I hear you." He made everybody feel so special. Everyone knew he was extra special for doing that. Salim was a happy soul with a lot of humanity who inspired people to be human.
After he arrived in Durham in 1974 from his native Baltimore, Salim almost single-handedly transformed this area into a thriving, vibrant jazz community. We owe him dearly for giving the gentle push to persons who dared to pick up an instrument or lend their voices to the microphone. He always said it was his honor to share his knowledge and experience of jazz with people.
Around the time I first became a jazz radio announcer, when Salim wasn't working as much as I thought he should, he replied, "Hell, man, they just started letting us play this music in public. I'm thankful to be playing it at all." I never forgot that statement. I decided then and there that I would thoroughly study the history of jazz, analyzing and dissecting its good and bad sides, making sure that no one—especially a dear, genuinely warm-hearted, peaceful man like Brother Yusuf Salim—would ever have to make such a sad statement again. Jazz is liberating music. I wanted it to be heard and for its masters, like Salim, to be appreciated, no matter how "they" felt.
Salim's last few years were not as active as his earlier ones, when he had hosted WUNC-TV's "Yusuf and Friends" and operated The Salaam Cultural Center. His steady gig became a one-nighter at The Know Bookstore. He just didn't have the energy. Besides, he always said it was time for the younger generation to take over. He died knowing he had done his job well, that he had laid the proper foundation, that the music could now be played in public and that, as he always said, "The music is in good hands."
Larry Reni Thomas, dubbed "Doctor Jazz" by Salim, is a writer/ radio announcer based in Chapel Hill. He hosts Sunday Night Jazz on WCOM 103.5 FM at 9 p.m.