Ask anyone from West Philly and they’ll tell you they readily know the fabulous Faulkners from 51st and Catherine Sts.
As far as musical excellence and adventure go, they are arguably West Philly’s first family. Mother Carol has forever been a classical concert pianist and manager. The youngest member of the family, Nazir Ebo, is a multi-instrumentalist most noted for his drum prowess. Justin Faulkner — he’s the drumming prodigy who turned his powerful rhythmic overdrive into a long-lasting gig with renowned saxophonist Branford Marsalis for a little over a decade.
“Put it this way, I was still in high school, like 17-going-on-18, when I joined him,” said Justin at his family home, earlier this week. “My mom had to sign all the permission papers to allow me to play with him.”
For those who lived close to the Faulkner’s home, listening to Justin and Nazir practicing and pummeling their drums — or bass or piano — inside the family’s living room was a daily occurrence. Those who know the Faulkners from the neighborhood also dig that, once a year, they take their Community Unity Music organization down the road to Clark Park for their self-titled festival that celebrates all kinds of music. Much of the soundscape present first emerged in the face of violence.
It was the senseless murders of Justin and Nazir’s cousins that motivated the festival in the first place. Two shootings within a year of the festival’s start in 2013 found two of Carol’s nephews shot and killed near West Philadelphia High School, each killed in a separate occasion. Referring to both only by their nicknames, “G” and “Little Man,” Carol noted that one of her nephews was shot and killed in a drive-by shooting, and it’s unknown whether he was the “intended focus of the murder or just at the wrong place at the wrong time.” Her other nephew was killed in an accidental shooting and was not the intended victim.
“Who knows… you never get the real story,” she said. “There’s never really a ‘why’ that is good enough. It is just like going to Vietnam. I’m here. You’re shooting at me. I’m just trying to stay out of the line of fire. We don’t have answers to what happened, and it hurts.”
Because it happened and it hurts, and because it happens to other families, the Faulkners are trying to uplift others who experience this level of grief through the power of music and community. “With us, they know they have a community around them for support, because you never do get over it,” Carol said. “Really, never. You’ll need help. And healing. My goal is to help someone else beyond our stages.”
The latest iteration of this part remembrance and part celebration will take place on Aug. 3, when the Community Unity Music Festival kicks off for its fifth year with guest musician Branford Marsalis. The Faulkners will also introduce their new friend Bootsy Collins — yes, Bootsy Collins of Parliament-Funkadelic and James Brown bass playing fame — as its emcee.
The day before the main event, Bootsy and Justin plan to hold a charity-focused conversation at the Community Education Center to raise money for Community Unity Music and its educational and instrument-gifting initiatives.
“From the start, our group and this festival had a saying I always hoped would live outside of us, outside of Clark Park’s stages,” Carol Faulkner said with calming authority. “Put down the gun. Pick up an instrument.”
Music. For life
Carol Faulkner and her family settled in West Philly when she was in third grade, coming-and-going, back-and-forth with her mom, dad, school and work as long as she can recall. “This is home for us,” she said.
Watching her own children go the route of playing music in a live setting was the greatest thing that could ever happen to her, and them, she said, as she was the product of great musical education the likes of which found her gigging in her day as a classical concert pianist. “I know all that life entails when [you’re] successful,” she affirmed.
Justin watched his mom and knew that emulating her was going to be his passion. He didn’t know it would also be his birthright.
“I was told that when I was really young, maybe 1 or 2 years old, there was a keyboard that my mom bought for me and my brother, and instead of actually playing the keys, I would bang on them… hard,” he said, holding back a laugh.
“It’s true,” Carol remembered.
Because she was a musician, Carol said she heard the rhythmic patterns in Justin starting at around 9 months old, and thought, from there, she would see what type of musical atmosphere for learning they could create.
“With that, I believe that my mother foreshadowed that I would be a drummer,” Justin said.
Mom bought Justin drums at age 3 — a small Fisher-Price set at first, and then a true starter kit, both of which he beat to death. “She bought me an adult drum set and I did the same thing to that one, too,” he said.
The drum sets continued to get upgraded — and beaten to death — until now, since Justin has his own custom kit created for him.
Before you ask, no, mother and son don’t often play together, as he’s rarely at home now. Instead, he tours the world as he has with Branford Marsalis’ outfit since 2009, before his freshman year at Berklee College of Music.
Mention intensity as part of the package that comes with playing alongside Marsalis and Justin will readily agree.
“That cat makes you a better musician, not for his glorification, but for the betterment of the music, outside and within his band,” Justin said. Learning on the job for Justin within “a very public setting” is not just a matter of intensity but also speaks to “a focused trajectory. A confrontation. A conversation. We challenge each other to listen, and retain as much as we could so we could continue to have more in-depth conversations.”
Even though Justin is rarely around to have a jam session with his mother, the two work in concert as the heads of a music consulting agency Carol started with Justin. As a woman who works with artists in whom she sees promise, the business is an all-access pass to affordable information and resources for the aspiring musician.
“We start you on your way,” said Carol of Community Unity Music. “It’s like the festival. It is more about access than anything else. We want young artists to have a high-quality understanding of what they want to do as musicians and what is available to them, that their wishes and dreams are an attainable goal.”
Through the raising of money via various fundraisers over the course of the year, in addition to generous donations of instruments and music lessons to assist in the cause, Carol Faulkner sees Community Unity Music as “a hub” that guides people to the institutions and goals where they need to be and to do their work.
“Our program and our festival allows us to get this message out to the public, as well as bringing the community together in a unique way,” she said. “Music. Neighbors who have lived across the street from each other, and maybe never met, can get together through music. People from neighborhoods outside of West Philadelphia, curious about all styles of music, can hear it here, and join together.”
Joining together is something the extended family of the Faulkners is used to doing, as all of Carol’s nephews, nieces and Justin and Nazir’s cousins are more like brothers and sisters than distant relations. “We’ve been together and around each other in close proximity since birth,” Justin said. “The Sunday dinners at Grandmom’s house were a huge factor in developing those relationships.”
Carol noted that she and her brothers and sisters raised each other’s children since birth. “I know things my brothers and sisters don’t, and they know things I don’t,” she said. “We grow as a family based on how my mother and father raised us.”
To that end, Justin and Carol have invited musicians of all stripes, sounds and genres to play at the Festival inside Clark Park each year for a total of five years strong. “Everybody thinks it’s just jazz players because my kids are famous for playing jazz,” Carol said. “But there’s everything and every sound in there.”
Singer-songwriter Kate Schutt, whom Justin played World Café Live brunches with, will be on hand along with local acts like the Arpeggio Jazz Ensemble. When Justin asked Branford Marsalis to come and play, the saxophonist never blinked.
“He’s my friend, first and foremost, not just my bandmate,” Marsalis said. “We’re always there for each other, as well as for a great cause.”
And then there is Bootsy Collins.
Both Marsalis and Justin Faulkner played with the bassist for an upcoming project of his set for release next year. As Justin and Bootsy befriended each other, Justin thought to ask if he had any interest and simply popped the question. “[I figured] these are just people, along with being world-class artists. Bootsy jumped at the opportunity, and he and his wife, Patti, told us that if there was anything else they could do to serve the cause, they would,” he said.
To that end, Bootsy and Justin will get on stage at Community Education Center (3500 Lancaster Ave.) the eve before Saturday’s festival for a fundraising conversation, photo opportunities and more.
Five years have passed since the inaugural Community Unity Music Festival, yet the city’s vicious vibe and murder rate have grown along with the festival’s heart.
Still, that’s no reason to give up hope.
“Humanity is still humanity,” Justin said. “One thing that our festival prides itself on being is home. A sense of home, and humanity. All of our musicians say that this feels like home...even Branford, who has played here before. Look, we’re hurting right now, [so a sense of] home is important, even if it is for one day to get rid of the bad feelings.”
He paused, then added, “[Our festival is] five hours of great food, great music and neighbors you have not had a chance to say hello to in a minute. Plus, I want to give people the opportunity to dance to ‘Ah, My Name is Bootsy, Baby.’ Obviously, we’re striving for joy.”
Carol Faulkner adds that she just wants people to be happier at her festival than they were before they got there. “I want people to respect the fact that there’s life to be lived once they put down the guns and pick up an instrument,” she said. “If we’re living a dream, others will see it. The Bible says that ‘those who work toward it should be the first partaker in the fruit.’ That’s what we’re trying to get all people to do, work and enjoy.”