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  • Writer's pictureSimone Williams

Darryl Tookes: A Legacy of Love

An intimate look at FAMU’s new Director of Music Industry

(Edited version published in A&M Magazine)

Darryl Tookes is the most unassuming of legends. His office is at the end of a dimly lit hall. He’s still figuring out what pictures and posters to hang on his currently bare, cream-colored walls. But there is one piece of decor which he says is a must-have: a grand piano.

For now he makes due with a portable keyboard hooked up to his Mac. Nevertheless, when he plays a sample of a project he’s working on, the barren room instantly feels warm and full of life.

If you are blessed to be present in moments like these, you will suddenly remember that this is a man whose divine musical talent has allowed him to work with the likes of Aretha Franklin, Quincy Jones, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, Luther Vandross, George Benson, Jennifer Holiday and Billy Porter. 

In his 40 year career, Tookes has served on the Board of Directors for the Recording Academy, taught voice at New York University and performed for sitting presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Then, in August of 2018, Tookes turned down an offer to teach voice at Berklee College of Music in order to become the Director of Music Industry here at Florida A&M University.

Of all the places his talent and connections could have taken him, Tookes says he is “deeply enamored” with this opportunity to be back here at his alma mater. Likewise, his university is overjoyed to have him. 

“He was the number one choice,” said Lindsey Sarjeant, FAMU Department of Music Chairman. “The music industry has changed tremendously within the last few years. I wanted somebody who transcended all those changes. His influence and his experience working with all these different artists in all those different genres: he brings that to the table for our students.”

Ironically, this is not the first time Sarjeant has tried to recruit Tookes to the music program. When Sarjeant was a young professor, he tried to recruit Tookes to the music program as a student. However, Tookes declined on account of his scholarship to study physics.

Then 1996, Sarjeant founded the Jazz Studies and Commercial Music Program, the latter part of which would later become known as the Music Industry program. Unbeknownst to him at the time, this program would give him the opportunity to recruit Tookes to the music program once again. He made the right choice; Sarjeant said he knew after two days that he was going to enjoy Tookes being here.

As Tookes matriculated through FAMU, he never lost touch with music. He gleefully recalled making big money performing with his band at the Savoy, a club that was located on the road now called FAMU Way. However, many FAMU students were making money playing gigs with their bands in those days, including Robert Griffin, current FAMU Director of Jazz, and professor Longineu Parsons. 

Between the oversaturation of talented young bands and growing up around the musical talent of his mother and grandmother, Tookes thought music was a talent possessed by everyone. It wasn’t until a few years later that he’d realize he had something truly special and, more importantly, had something to say which could only be expressed through music.

Still, Tookes completed his degree program and graduated FAMU magna cum laude with a bachelor’s in Physics. Almost immediately after graduation, he moved to New York and began his career as a commercial jingle singer.

This part of his story comes as a surprise to many. Too regularly the artist is regarded as the antithesis of the intellectual. Tookes says this couldn’t be farther from the truth, citing prolific jazz musician Charlie Parker as a reference.

According to the accounts of those that knew him, Parker had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and could talk to anybody about history, current events, classical music or egyptian art. Similarly, in our time together, Tookes’s conversation danced gracefully from jazz music to marketing to spirituality and the Law of Vibration.

However, there was one topic that was ever-present: Family.

For Tookes, family is everything. Anyone looking for proof of this could look no farther than his discography. He wrote “Journey of an Ordinary Man,” about his daughter Tessa and how all his hard work is worth it just to hear the joy and laughter of his children. Songs like “One Summer Day” and “Mama” are filled with musings on the lessons his father and mother bestowed upon him.

His father, Hansel E. Tookes, was the legendary FAMU football coach who created the Florida Classic and for whom the Hansel E. Tookes Student Recreation Center is named. (In remembrance of his father, Darryl parks at this recreational center every day and walks to his office in the Foster-Tanner Music Building).

His mother, Leona Washington Tookes, was a professional singer who filled their home with music. Her work as FAMU’s PBX switchboard operator made her the unofficial voice of FAMU for quite some time.

Although both parents left their own distinct legacies, Tookes says there was never any pressure to follow in the footsteps of either. Instead, he follows in their legacies of strength and love.

He recalled his father’s motto, “Education is the surest stock on the market,” and marveled at his father’s journey from being the first in his family to graduate from 8th grade, to being a legend of our prestigious HBCU. He thought about how much strength and love it must have taken for his African-American mother to give up living freely the liberal north to raise her family in the deep south.

In this context of strength and love, they raised Tookes to strive for excellence in his own way. But, most importantly, they taught him to share love with others and always give back.

Now that he’s back in his hometown, Tookes sees this placement a full-circle opportunity to give back to the hometown community that raised him. He wants to be “a galvanizer, a unifier, a catalyst for synergistic advancement that is right here for us.”

He is already being just that for junior vocal performance major Kimani Jackson. Earlier this summer, Tookes notified Jackson of an open choir opportunity at the Apollo. Jackson was able to turn this into an internship with Broadway actor Lelund Durond Thompson and Tony award-winning musical director Jason Michael Webb.

In addition to raving about how thankful he is that Tookes made this connection possible, Jackson was completely enamored with the level of love and mentorship Tookes shows to each and every student he meets.

“Above all, I think people should know that (Tookes) is truly about ministry,” said Jackson, “because ministry really means speaking into others’ lives, and that’s exactly what he does on a  daily basis. We are so gifted to have a teacher like him.”

Sentiments like this come as no surprise to Tessa Tookes, Darryl’s daughter and a musical virtuoso in her own right. “My dad is a mentor to all the people he meets,” she said, “And I think that pure, genuine connection that he makes with everyone is what really puts him in a class of his own… He’s just a real connector and really believes in humanity.”

His daughter’s appreciation for his music came secondary to her appreciation of him as a great man and a great father. She said that in her mind he was “a normal dad moonlighting as this glamorous music man,” therefore, her appreciation of his music developed organically. Growing up hearing her father’s music played casually around the house, Tookes says she first fell in love with the musicality of the songs. However, as she got older, new experiences gave her a new appreciation for the music.

“I think his music touches on a few topics that I didn’t understand in my adolescence,” Tookes said. “But now that I’ve fallen in love, I’ve moved out of the house, I’ve experienced tragedy, it’s really easy to listen to his music and understand a deeper meaning that wasn’t available to me at the time.”

Indeed, jazz as a genre has its own unique way of speaking to the heart of our universally human experiences. Unfortunately, these deeper meanings might be missed by younger generations. According to Neilson, jazz had become America’s least popular music genre by 2015, and things haven’t improved much since then.

In his jazz history classes, Tookes is able to make the genre come alive. Yet, while he does have a strong love for the genre, he is far from critical of the generations that have failed to appreciate it. Instead, Tookes encourages his students to remain open to all genres of music, which affords a wider range of shared experiences. 

“I tend to think it’s more important to embrace many voices,” said Tookes. “I think what made music so exciting for me and my generation was being able to hear so many different types (of music)... “When you say ‘I don’t like jazz,’ you miss that opportunity for community, for dialogue, for expression, for individuality, for love. Because that’s all we (musicians ) are trying to do. We’re trying to love and be loved.”

Tookes is speaking from his own background of diverse artistic role models and a broad musical palette. As he grew, his musical influences ranged from jazz legends Errol Garner and Art Tatum to Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind and Fire. And when it comes to truly masterful storytelling, Tookes says that the late, great Nancy Wilson reigns supreme.

As a result, many music critics have acknowledged that Tookes’s music exists in the grey areas between genres. However, what remains constant is his ability to tell a story that gets straight to the heart. A quality that is likely to be in full bloom on his upcoming project, “Symphony of Love.”

The project began as a request to publish a memoir about his life. After writing down the bulk of his life story, his manager asked if he could put this story to music. These songs of his life come together to tell the story of the people, places and experiences that come together to illuminate a life filled with great love. 

Tookes believes that this project is his greatest legacy, both as a musician and as a man. More than any other project, Tookes said that the words of this project are his “enduring truth… a way to say thank you to the community that raised him so unselfishly.”

Tookes approaches his students with the same level of unselfishness. In the midst of this full circle moment, Tookes says he is looking forward to seeing how his story will play a role in the future generations he is able to reach.

“Now, thanks to this college of love and charity, I am home, with a chance to be a part of this journey with our students as they invent the future. It’s a good time to be here. A great time to be alive.”

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