Jelani Bandele is all about the happy. Her friend Dr. Samuel Aymer says that he has never known anyone “more heavily invested in happy” than is she. How could someone raised by a woman named Jolly not be? It’s in her bones, her blood. Her beloved grandparents so christened their daughter after observing the newborn’s innate joy. Jelani's father, Harry "was a hoot," she says. Her jovial parents were 19 and 21-years-old respectively when she was born. "I really grew up with them. I've lived a life of laughing and I ain't about to stop now.” This “Brooklyn girl, born and raised” speaks with both the dropped “r” of Brooklynese and the melodic cadence of her Southern roots in South Carolina and Georgia; a tough cookie dipped in sweet tea.
Though most of her childhood summers were spent in Cambridge, Massachusetts at her uncle’s home “between the Charles River and Harvard Square,” she has early, indelible memories of summer visits down South as a small child. “I remember pecan trees; being in the swing; my grandmother getting us dressed up to go to church, and I remember the wide expanse of land, which was so different for me than what was here.” Her kinfolk from both sides of the family influenced her “Southernness,” she says. “The South came up North with them, with their cooking. My maternal grandmother, ooh lord I lived to go to her house so she could make me cornbread in the cast iron skillet! My grandfather was a good cook too.” Her paternal grandmother was all Southern gentility, no pre-packaged slices of Neapolitan ice cream in her home. "She was very proper," Jelani smiles, "linen napkins, sliver flatware and sorbet."
“My grandparents wouldn’t allow my mother to spank me, though they learned very early on that maybe I needed it," she laughs. "They were gentle people, not a lot of hoopla, loved each other madly. My mother had eight siblings and if the kids did something wrong while he was gone, her father would say when he got home, I heard you did something to my wife. He was very clear, I might not get another her, I can get some more of y'all. He was not having it. I thought that was the sweetest thing."
“My mother and father decided when I was about three that they were going to let me do whatever I want because I was going to do it anyway. Ooh, I was headstrong! I did the same thing with my boys. You can't restrict people and expect them to grow, "she says. Her folks encouraged her inquiry into various disciplines beyond her preternatural gifts in math and science. Upon hearing pianist Ahmad Jamal's Poinciana, she decided she'd learn to play. “My parents bought me a piano, found me a music teacher when
The youngsters were so good, they were invited to perform for cosmetics maven Estée Lauder at her home on Long Island. “That was my first time, other than
Our plans to walk her art-filled stomping grounds
“As I say in Plenty, (her new millennium guide to life in Fort Greene and Clinton Hill) I knew Mike’s (a
“There’s great history in the area, the Paramount Theatre (America’s first theater built for sound) was here; The Fox Theatre (another grand 1920’s movie palace) used to be where the Con Edison building is on Flatbush Avenue." When she was about twelve-years-old, she went for the first time to one of popular DJ Murray the
Jelani's was a joyous upbringing. Even her parents' divorce would ultimately yield remarriage for Jolly and an adorable baby sister,
An honors student at Brooklyn’s Midwood High School, she was accepted into Cornell University, but decided she didn't want to go. Her parents were disappointed but stuck to their belief that they should let her make her own decisions. “I wanna get a job,” she said. “I'm tired of school.” Her boyfriend was in the armed forces, stationed in Vietnam. When he returned unharmed, they married. She was nineteen. And when their son arrived, they wanted him to have a strong name. Unaware of the Caribbean and Southern naming convention of empowering children with honorific titles as given names, she chose Sirron for her first-born, a palindrome of his surname Norris because she loved both the sound and the fact that “whenever someone addresses him they will be saying Sir.”
The wife and new mom then decided it was time for college--at the Fashion Institute of Technology-- where she studied Advertising and Communications. “Sirron even went to class with me. He had a little F.I.T. sweatshirt.”
Upon graduation, she embarked on a journalism career with a stint as the managing/entertainment editor for the Brooklyn newspaper, Big Red. Eventually, she’d work “at the two giants, the music giant and the fashion giant,” she says, referring to Billboard Publications (where she worked on several titles) and Fairchild Publications, defecting after her Billboard editors had made the move over.
It was during her time at Fairchild that her art director, Véronique Vienne returned from France saying she’d “just met the most wonderful young man ever, a fantastic art director” and had invited him to come to the US. “He spoke maybe three words of English,” Jelani says, “but we figured it out, we managed and became really good friends.” She fondly recalls an anecdote, one in which the graphic designer, temporarily working with her, requested a particular typeface for a layout. “When we didn’t have it, he said in his typical French manner, I’ll do it by hand. And he went, and sat and did it. I was amazed.” With Véronique moving, the young creative had no place to stay for his final two weeks in the US, so Jelani welcomed him into her Brooklyn home and showed him around Coney Island and Harlem, two places he longed to see. She helped him with his English; he helped with her French as she prepared to head to the City of Lights to visit her friend
Upon her return from Paris, another Fairchild associate, called with a job offer. Two French guys with parental subsidies were creating a start-up called The City. The digest-sized magazine, designed for portability featured local happenings. “I wrote a column called Escapades. We were in a beautiful loft in Hell’s Kitchen and I worked with great people, like Igor Stravinsky’s grandson before the magazine folded.” But the art editor of the magazine, Regina, was also an art consultant, buying for corporate and private collections. “Very rarely have I had to look for a job,” Jelani says. Regina offered her an entry into the art world, approaching her to handle public relations. "I learned so much from her.”
She would, in time feel a need for change. Despite all the "fabulousness" something was missing, service. “There was nothing socially redeeming,” she says, the work “wasn't helping anybody and I had always wanted to be a doctor.” So, she decided to go back to school. “Now everybody is looking at me like I'm crazy because I'm in my thirties." With her youthful looks she contended, "they aren’t going to even know that I'm not the same age as they are.” She researched what the math and science requirements were for med school at some of the Ivies, then looked for schools nearby to meet them. As providence would have it, Pratt, the art & design school steps from her home had “one of the most well-known, prestigious, nutrition programs in the country,” she says. “I looked at it and realized that to get a clinical nutrition degree, I’d take more math and science than I'd ever need to get into medical school. Sign me up!” She got a parental subsidy of her own; her father footing her apartment bill while she went to school full-time; did a fellowship at NYU’s Rusk Institute and worked in the Nephrology Department at St. Luke’s Hospital. “I graduated with honors in I'm happy to say.”
Knowing that the bossing around she’d have to endure as a medical resident just wasn’t in line with how she wanted to work in the world, she thought that being a Physician’s Assistant could be. A favored student of her heart specialist professor, she spoke with him about her next steps. Because she had also developed an interest in how the body works with exercise, Dr. Stricevic offered two options. If you want to be a PA, I can put you right in the program at Brooklyn Hospital (he headed it). Or if you want to get a master’s degree in exercise physiology, I can get you a full scholarship, your grades are excellent. "I said ‘I'll take the master’s degree.’ And I went to LIU, (Long Island University) where I completed my master's in three semesters." Along with her studies, she ”wanted to see bodies in action, so I worked in a gym as a physical trainer.” The entrepreneurial drive that surfaced in childhood when she ordered products from the backs of comic books for resale emerged. She reached out to a local clinic and convinced the director that not only did they need a nutritionist, they needed her specifically. “I was their consultant for about nine years,” she chuckles. Excepting a brief return to her practice from 1998-2001, she took down her nutritionist’s shingle. “I don’t practice nutrition anymore but I teach it.”
Feeling the intermittent restlessness that usually triggers a career shift, a newspaper article caught her eye. “It was about a new program at SUNY Downstate in Cardiovascular Perfusion, an interesting area of medicine that a lot of people don’t know about. It’s a specialty in open heart surgery. I’d been dealing with the heart with both exercise and nutrition, so I thought it sounded like a progression. I called the dean to learn more.” They took only six students, Jelani was one of them.
She explains that the perfusionist maintains patient heart and lung function through a machine, after reducing the patient's body temperature to an exacting degree while the surgeon operates on the heart. During the procedure, the perfusionist "constantly draws blood off the line, sends it to the lab, reads the lab results when they come back and watches the waves on the screen to be able to say to the surgeon ‘I see so and so happening.’ As you can imagine it's a little scary.” Performing a minimum of 50 cases is required to receive certification as a Certified Clinical Perfusionist. Jelani did more than the required fifty surgical procedures in hospital training at Winthrop University Hospital in Long Island, St. Joseph's Hospital in Paterson, New Jersey, and “because I had to learn how to do babies,” she says, Philadelphia's Children's Hospital. She notes that “a baby’s little heart looks like the pit of a peach. And sometimes you are operating on babies who are just days old.” Though offered a staff position in a new hospital opening in Puerto Rico, she says, “I was smart enough to turn that down. It was going to be straight out of school, just me, and this is serious business.”
She came to the realization that although she enjoyed the work itself, once again, it didn’t quite jibe with how she wanted to live her life. She doesn’t like getting up early in the morning and she doesn't like feeling cold. But as a member of a surgical team, she experienced both, with surgery days beginning before the sun “and the O.R.
She was able to switch to a different room in the same house, so to speak, when she was asked by the dean to take on some of her responsibilities. “I had the most administrative experience [of her peers] and had been teaching and designing curricula, so I directed the cardiovascular perfusion program at Downstate until 1992.
She’d made her contribution to the field and with a restless spirit and the gift of gab, she segued back into a PR consultancy, this time branching out into fashion, beauty, and entertainment as well as art. During this era came a blessing through tragedy. Jelani’s sister Pat passed away, survived by five-year-old Devin. “He pretty much became mine, a dream come true,” Jelani says. “I raised him with my parents.” She remembers Devin charming the crowd at the African Street Festival when he was about six-years-old. ”He went around and got subscriptions to my publication, Overground. Both of the boys are wonderful people, though very different.
She is also delighted
In her storied PR/Marketing career she's helmed her own Bandele Communications and has exhibited leadership and service as a member of several organizations: the African American Public Relations Collective (founded by publicist Gwendolyn Quinn), the Black Fashion Collective (founded by designer Shaka King), Sister Friends: African American Women in Entertainment, Fashion Outreach, Organic Soul Marketing, a niche marketing company (partnering with founder Jacqueline Rhinehart) and as Advisory Board Member of the Thelma Hill Performing Arts Center.
Since 2003, Jelani, through her Bandele Bespoke Strategies, has served as a business strategist to such clients as artist Glenn Tunstull, Anita Hill Moses of the Master Pioneer Awards, and designer Sheneen Zee of Prince Street. In 2006, she partnered with filmmakers Cielito Pascual and Jordan Anderson under the aegis of Elle Empire to produce a short documentary on belly dancing. Crazed: The Belly Dance, was not only voted for airing on Current TV, but selected as an editor’s pick.
She also serves on the advisory council of The Black Alumni of Pratt (BAP), an organization founded in 1990 whose endowment was bolstered by a donation from Brooke Astor and provides scholarships and stipends in support of students of African and Latino descent. Though she loves a fancy moment and a good
"We're only here a short time. We can't squander our time on earth," she says. "You gotta live wide, wide, wide!" And wide living for her includes her funeral before she dies. She recalls a documentary on fellow Pratt grad, Robert Mapplethorpe. "He was dying of AIDS and wanted to have a party. You can't be waiting around for all that stuff. If I know I'm getting a little sickly, then let's get this party started. Let’s get the flowers and get some food and blow up some pictures 'cause we 'bout to go in. Y'all need to tell me how much you love me, and hug me, and kiss me, and talk. I can tell you how much I love you, and hug you, and kiss you." For her to pass on without such a celebration? "I'm not down with that."
From the woman who espouses living wide; loving well and in due time, letting go, are a few things she is down with.
1) The Art of Dressing Curves. Creating phenomenal buzz since its April 2016 release is the comprehensive The Art of Dressing Curves. Celebrity stylist Susan Moses entrusted this story to only one writer, tapping Jelani to co-author her curvy girl’s fashion bible. Each brought their A game to the collaboration and they are proud of the results. “It was a year of really hard work, but we had a ball--we hooted and hollered and carried on; it was outrageous, but we got our work done." There were diva antics of the fabulously fun variety, but no clash of egos. “I know that Susan is the fashion stylist; she knows that I’m a writer.”
3) Plenty. “Clinton Hill/Fort Greene a beautiful place. I’m glad to still be here because I was smart enough to buy at a very young age. My children have done the same. They both live here in this building.” In 2003, she decided to self-publish an inclusive directory of the area in its entirety, not just the latest additions on the gentrification train. “I need the WHOLE truth be told. When the whole story doesn’t get told, I'm not in it,” she says, referencing the sometimes dismissive manner of new residents to the existing culture of the community. “Everything’s in there,” she says. From historical tidbits to finding a pay phone (this was 2003.) "It had to tell you where everything is, not just the latest little hot restaurant. Recording history is imperative; it’s upon all of us to be doing it and doing it all the time."
4) Nineties R&B and hip-hop. Though she loves James Taylor and Steely Dan her musical tastes span several genres. If forced to narrow it, she chooses 1990’s hip-hop and R&B, “especially neo-soul,” she says. “Ooh lawd, you hear it and you just go crazy!” Here's a YouTube playlist of some of her favorites.
5) Quotidian family treasures. She keeps close to her heart the personal effects of her beloved family members who have passed on. Things that retain utility: Grandma's hand mirror, scissors, even a thimble. She still wears her mother’s embroidered red bathrobe. “She wore it during her last days.” She proudly pulls out the shoe shine box made
6. Documentaries. She he loves them so much that she, as mentioned before, created one. She was intrigued by a recent weekend watch, Somm, a look at the intense quest for the rarefied Court of Master Sommeliers. She’s seen Bill Cunningham New York, on the beloved, octogenarian New York Times photojournalist three times. “It spoke to me,” she says. “It taught me about enough. Here was this man, world renowned and it was enough for him to have his blue jacket. It was enough for him to live in his small studio. It was enough for him to ride his bicycle. That really stuck with me; gave me another way of looking at life." She mentions a scene which touches on Bill leaving the New York Times every evening, going over to work at Details Magazine, and his subsequent refusal to cash the checks from Details. "If you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do. That's the key to the whole thing," he says in the film. "And it's true," Jelani says. "You have to get to a point where you recognize what it is you want in your life and for him it was freedom. I love it.”
7. Small bites. Call them what you will, hors d’oeuvres, tapas, antipasti, she loves an assortment of nibbles for the mix of flavors and textures. “When I go out, I often just order appetizers because I like different tastes. A little sweet, salty, bitter, sour all in one meal. Maybe a soufflé as the
8. Mid-century modern furniture. Her favorite designers of the era are the husband/wife team Charles and Ray Eames. Their upholstered, molded plastic and fiberglass shell chair sits in her living room alongside a mid-century bookshelf.
9. Dad's record collection. “I have a beautiful collection of my father's old albums,” the soundtrack of her childhood. “On Saturday mornings when we had to do our chores, that music was playing, so I could really identify singers and musicians very early on. When I was a student at Pratt purchasing some items in the bookstore, an older man at the cash register had music playing on a little radio. He said 'if you can tell me what this music is, you don't have to pay for any of your stuff. I said ‘Jimmy Smith and the album is Organ Grinder Swing.’ The man couldn't believe it! When you hear all that stuff, you grow an appreciation for it." Needless to say her transaction was gratis.
10. Teaching Death and Dying. A longtime lecturer at St. Joseph’s College, she teaches many courses, including human services, gerontology, the psychology of aging, but her “absolute favorite course” to teach is Death and Dying. “I watched both of my parents die. I have an intimate relationship with death--that's how I like to say it--that many people never have. I wasn't standing there the moment that my mother died, but I watched my mother go from an adult back to being like a baby; stopped seeing, stopped talking. And with my father, I was sitting there when he took his last breath. To me, there's nothing better than that. You really learn about life in those moments, you learn about letting something go. You'll still be sad. You'll cry a little bit, but there is something so pure and powerful in having the experience. To really see how things happen. I teach that death has meaning and that the meaning is created by both the environment and by the audience, it's very, very interesting.” She loves teaching a course with such a universal theme as everyone eventually faces their own mortality. “But what do you do if that time looks eminent? How do you settle in with that? What kind of adjustments do you make, to help yourself out with it? ” She eases the gravity of the discussion with humor; tells the students to fear neither death nor the dead. “You should be scared of the ones that are alive, those are the spooky ones. The dead people are fine,” she says. “Other professors will say 'you're teaching Death and Dying, how come everybody's laughing in there?' Because I make it fun.” She laughs, “I’m a professional death person, the funeral home wanted to hire me; they like the way I deal with death.” She told them they couldn’t afford her.