Monday, December 17, 2007

James Brown Symposium at Princeton University November 29-30: Part II

For Part I see here

Just when you thought there couldn't be any more, Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr. came out to introduce his mentor, Professor Cornel West. Glaude is accomplished in his own right, already a full professor and I don't think the brotherman is yet 40 years old (a Morehouse (BA), Temple (MA), Princeton (PhD) combo). More importantly than all the degrees, and where he got them, is his forward thinking ideas about the current state of African American leadership and religion in African American life, check out Endnote below). Glaude gave a rather energetic introduction, to West, e.g."He's an ardent fan, an incomparable channeler of James Brown!"; and "His lecture on black music classic moments includes a James Brown moment in which he recollects 'wanting to read and write the way James Brown and Aretha Franklin sang'"; and noted West's ability to combine "philosophy and the funk of life."

[This is also my way of saying I couldn't get an in focus photo of Glaude (pictured left) using an aperture that didn't require a flash (the Symposium location didn't allow flash photography). This was a problem during the whole symposium]

Then West came out and began by rendering his own autobiography in brief as a reflection of key revelatory moments courtesy of James Brown's creative and social consciousness. A key quote from this section inluded: "Never confuse a vision with a stare. The stare is the copy." I can't remember if this is West paraphrasing Brown, or channeling a particular philosophy he encountered through his experience of Brown, either way, the language is James Brownsian--concise and on point. (pictured right, Cornel West recreates a aural memory of James Brown)

West also spoke in a profoundly moving way about how Brown was stillborn and this beginning, that made him profoundly aware of death "at the physiological and biological level" before he even experienced the breath through which he could utter such a thing. West opined that Brown "was wrestling with death" as a constant throughout his life, and "often times those who are the most cheerful in their disposition are the most sorrowful in their soul." Brown was brought to life by a tenacious aunt who kept breathing into his lungs until the baby started breathing on his own. Hearing of his son's birth his father Joe walked some, hmm was it 30 miles (or am I remembering a Miles Davis, grandfather-son story*)? to get to his son and give him his name. A name which actually belonged to the woman who raised Brown's father, whose name was Gardner. But of his own volition the father took her name, Brown, and then passed it on to his son. Joe Brown worked 16 hour days for the first 6 years of James Brown's life, during which time Brown was not in school, so he spent those hours alone--what West called "the loneliest time."

As a result of the legacy of his mortality-infused birth, West suggested that Brown was "born in a minor key," and he was "almost a blues man before he was born." Considering how Brown felt about the Blues, I would imagine the emphasis in such a declaration would be on "almost," as Brown considered the rhythms he originated, which would become known alternately as r&b, soul, and funk, as the spiritual and sociological antithesis of the blues.

Brown was ultimately abandoned by both his parents. Apparently a sense of not having been meant to survive, not just as a black man in the United States, but as a human being on the earth stayed with him. West asserted that he lived as someone deeply aware of his own mortality and aloneness, and with as equally deep a sense of purpose and necessary accomplishment before he passed from this mortal coil. Perhaps feeling that his aunt had stolen/secured another chance at life for him he wasn't going to waste nary a minute of it. Brown had been arrested on a theft charge as an adolescent and was giving a sentence out of proportion with the crime, but the warden liked Brown. So it was by special arrangement that if a family was willing to take him in and he promised to"never return" to his adopted home town of Augusta, Georgia (he was actually born and spent his first 6 years in Barnwell, South Carolina) his sentence would be commuted. Hence the importance of Bobby Byrd's mother whom Byrd (pictured, right) convinced to sponsor Brown's parole, allowing for the emergence of the James Brown when Byrd mentoring Brown included him in his group The Flames, for which Brown eventually became lead-singer though Byrd arguably had the "better" lead voice, but Brown had the stage presence, and drive(the group eventually became James Brown and the Famous Flames). Byrd may have been his only real friend. Perhaps because of the isolation of those early years, and the subsequent ones spent living with an aunt who ran a brothel--during which he taught himself to be self-reliant in all things--James Brown was a profoundly lonely person who was always at work, never at rest. West's portrait of Brown didn't steer around the Godfather of Soul's inconsistencies. Speaking of Brown's concern with the U.S. Constitution West drew the link to Brown having lived under Southern Jim Crow laws which caused Brown to be disenfranchised until he was 31 years old, and further that today, without the pardon Brown received he might never have been able to vote. Clarifying an assertion implicitly figured in Robert Fink's presentation that radical African American social justice leaders were not conversant with the U.S. Constitution West pointed out the Black Panthers had also read the document and took seriously that the country was theirs to fight for. However, the Panthers focused on the aspect of the document that allowed for, even urged, the taking up of arms and overthrowing of the government if it was no longer truly representative of its people. Pay no attention to whatever dryness may be present in my attempt at a reporting poiesis: West's sermon, because that's what it was, was one of the most humane and poignant imaginings of the inner motivations and callings of this man we've long called Soul Brother Number 1 that I've ever heard. I was glad to be there.

Special Evening Q&A
A Conversation with legendary James Brown band members Pee Wee Ellis, Fred Wesley and “?uestlove” of the Roots. Moderated by Alan Leeds.

Yes, yes, this really did happen, and some young female student really did ask Fred Wesley if he could show us his dance moves, and Mr. Wesley really did oblige her. (pictured from l-r, Questlove, Alan Leeds, Fred Wesley, Jr., Pee Wee Ellis)

Enough of that though. The real great part of this was getting to hear Mr. Ellis (saxophonist) and Mr. Wesley (trombonist) talk about their own musical histories and their time working in the James Brown review, both came in as musicians and eventually became musical directors for Brown. At Alan Leeds' request they started with a bit of their own musical history apart from their respective JB Review tenures. Both were originally trained as jazz musicians, particularly Ellis. Wesley was involved with Funkadelic and Bootsy's Rubber Band following his time as James Brown's musical director. Ellis who had studied composition and arranging at Manhattan School of Music, had early on studied with Sonny Rollins, and did arrangements and was musical director for Van Morrison for about six years (contributing to some of my favorite Morrison albums). He had a choice of joining Blood, Sweat & Tears, Joe Tex or Esther Philips, he chose Philips because it gave him the opportunity to be the musical director. He also provided arrangements for numerous artists including, Freddie Hubbard, Grover Washington, Jr., George Benson, Hank Crawford, and for Ali Farka Toure's final album, and that's a brief list of his contributions. Ellis lives in the UK and continues to tour with his own group and other musicians. Mr. Wesley gave us a shorter biography, referring us instead to his book, Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of A Sideman. It's well-written, highly informative, and entertaining to boot, so the directive makes complete sense. (above l-r: Ellis, Maceo Parker, Wesley)

I should contextualize the initial dance request. Wesley was hired by Ellis when the latter was Brown's musical director, and Wesley's solid build led Brown to ask, "can he move?" Move meaning dance, as all the musicians save the drummers were expected to be able to dance and play behind Brown and to have the stamina and breath to do both at the same time. Mr. Wesley did not disappoint, then or now. (Oh, you wanted the image where you could make out Wesley's low down moves. Hmm, you can already see what they did to the physics of time and space--sorry, I don't want to be responsible for unleashing that knowledge on an unsuspecting public.)

Some revelations that emerge from the evening were that Brown had arrangements with studios across the country, which allowed him to make use of his workaholic tendency to regularly write and arrange on the tour bus and then literally pull over and record a track. The recording sessions were set up like they were on stage. The band "hit it and quit it" and jumped back on the bus. Each musician only had one performing outfit, but it had to be clean and pressed, and worn when anytime they emerged from the bus. Brown was incredibly saavy about the degree to which appearances mattered when they arrived at a hotel. Looking bedraggled and as if they'd been on the bus for three days was was not tolerated, even if they had indeed spent the last 72 hours on the tour bus. For the "Say It Loud" session Ellis had already written the horn part but wasn't entirely happy with it as he felt it was something they had done before, but then Brown did something different with the bass line. They recorded in Los Angeles and two weeks later it was a hit in Houston, Brown had gotten it out through Leeds and other members of his team. Ellis remembers there being more than just white and Asian American kids at the session, but a number of African American children as well. On the "Good Foot" recording this was was complicated because the bass doesn't start on the 1. In addition, Brown wrote the horn part, again this was a different approach for him because of the arpeggiation. Ellis also noted some of the ways they would create tension in a song, with Cold Sweat they would change the key. The song was in D and then they would have 8 bars of I-IV (D-G) progressions and then go down a whole step to C (conveniently the V of G) and then I-IV again (C-F) and then with an inverted chord progression go from F to D (iii-I), or in another way of looking at it repeat the I-IV progression with F as the tonic, and D as the IV of the scale.

Questlove talked about going to Japan, after he had started to make money and getting a ton of concert videos, including James Brown. The Roots and other line-ups would practice reproducing classic concerts. The 1968 concert the James Brown Revue played in Boston the night of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination where Brown kept people from rioting in the streets became the template for early D'Angelo concerts (well, before things went sadly wrong for D'Angelo).

One of Brown's ill-advised artistic choices was discussed. It has already been reported that Brown did sometimes copy other artists in an ironic attempt to stay relevant and on the cutting edge. Literally he would have someone chart out the changes in someone else's music, and then disguise them, and include it in the arrangements Brown. This didn't occur with any of the innovative work he's known for instead it happened when he was somewhat past his creative apex, but also upon his return from the African continent when he was copying some traditional music he had heard, but also ironically looking at copying music by artists who were marrying James Brown funk with traditional forms. This occurred during Wesley's tenure as musical director. Wesley fulfilled a few of these request from Brown, but then became disgusted and left his employ. There was no saying no to Mr. Brown, or as Ellis put it "He allowed musicians to say 'no' on the way out the door." For Wesley it ultimately went against his morals, and he found it insulting to the abilities and talents of both himself and Brown to copy the work of other artists.

Another revelation was concerned Brown having created something of a family with the structure of the James Brown Revue, with himself as patriarch, molding the band and keeping them in check and answerable to him, with the recording of the little discussed female singers as a means fulfilling his multi-record deal with Polydor. As Alan Leeds put it, Brown was a great producer--of James Brown. He was not a great producer of other artists, and as a result these albums by Marva Whitney (aka "Soul Sister No. 1"), Lyn Collins (aka "The Female Preacher"), and Vicki Anderson all sounded like James Brown which didn't always ideally suit them as solo recording artist. However, Brown didn't want any of them to get too successful, even Anderson whom he considered one of the greatest singers of all time and who was Bobby Byrd's wife (she's also the mother of vocalist Cauleen Anderson formerly of The Young Disciples; Byrd was Anderson's stepfather). The other two vocalists were in some way connected to the men in the band as paramours; as they languaged it on the panel: Wesley: "Marva Whitney was Pee Wee's 'discovery.'" - Ellis: "Lynn Collins was Fred's 'discovery.'" What was left out of the discussion was the import of their work to the James Brown Revue, which was structured as a multi-act show with solo segments from the female vocalists and Bobby Brown, and an instrumental set from the band. Nor was there any discussion of how often their vocal work has been sampled, and the resulting impact of their work on hip hop aesthetics; everyone knows Collins' ""it takes two to make a thing go right/ it takes to make it out of sight" vocal from her 1971 r&b single "Think(About It)." Collins passed away in 2005, she was 56 years old, and had been performing in Europe right before her death (see Endnote below).

Brown didn't want anyone leaving the family. But life in the Revue could be suffocating not just because of the sartorial regulations (eventually the band was allowed to adopt afros and daishikis, but they still had be clean shaven and have their shoes polished and shined), the fines for lateness, or missing a music cue. Brown, according to Leeds, had no life outside of his music/entertainment career. That early wrestling identified by West, was a part of the way he approached everything withing this sphere. The resulting self-involved restlessness unfortunately pushed the people arguably closest to him, his musicians and other employees, away. Brown was prone to unremittingly talking about himself and/or insisting on working on a new song or arrangement and engaging whomever was in close proximity in said activity as captive participant or audience. It got to the point where the musicians would rather spend extra days riding on the tour bus than travel with Brown in his private plane, or some, like Pee Wee Ellis, would catch an alternate flight. West asked the Ellis, Wesley, and Leeds if they thought this behavior was symptomatic of his great loneliness. They surmised it might, be, and then they tried in vain to think of who was actually close to Brown besides his wives, and perhaps Bobby Byrd. However, it didn't seem that anyone considered the possibility of Brown's loneliness at the time. This was before men, particularly black men, were making earnest reference to their feelings beyond Isaac Hayes' famous lyric, "He's a complicated man/ and no one understands him /but his woman (Shaft, John Shaft)."

It was indisputable that the working relationship that Leeds, Wesley, and Ellis respectively had with Brown was often stormy (Brown could notoriously wake up in a mood where he saw everything a particular employee did as wrong and fire him, but then hire him back--it became something of a rite of passage for new employees). Yet it was also clear that each of these men had deep respect and their own form of affection for the man, his talents, and accomplishments and the years they spent with him, for what they learned, the people they got to play with, the places they traveled, as well as the mobility and opportunities it afforded them subsequent to their time with Brown.

Endnote I:
*Miles Davis with Quincy Troupe, Miles: The Autobiography, (Simon & Schuster, 1990) p.13
• Eddie Glaude, Jr., In a Shade of Blue: Pragmatism and the Politics of Black America (University of Chicago Press, 2007)
John Ballon riffs on Bobby Byrd's undersung brilliance in his Must Hear review of Bobby Byrd Got Soul: The Best of Bobby Byrd (Polydor) which is unfortunately out of print.
Lynn Collins (aka "The Female Preacher") Tribute Broadcast on Soul Patrol
Wax Poetics Magazine features an interview with Marva Whitney (aka "Soul Sister No. 1") in their April/May 2007 issue, as wall as details on her second-full length release, 2007's I Am What I Am with "impressively tight Japanese funk band Osaka Monaurail."

Endnote II:
From the Bootsy Collins Website:
Bootzilla Productions Presents:
•Buckethead • Freekbass • Chuck D. of Public Enemy • Triage • I-Candi • DJ Izzle • and The James Brown Band, Soul Generals & Other Special Guests
• DATE: 12/22/07
730 Madison Ave.
Covington, KY.
General Admission Advance $10.00 STANDING TICKET
General Admission Day of Show: $15.00 STANDING TICKET

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