Tuesday, December 26, 2006

JB - Extended Play

After a day of reflection on the theatrically timed Christmas Day death of James Brown, I'm mulling over thoughts of personal and musical reflection.

I'm one of the legions of white boys who was blown away by the kinetic energy of James Brown. The common wisdom was that JB was the archetypal representation of the Afro-American Other - the flawlessly funky ideal that no Caucasian could hope to achieve or even understand. But the more I investigated JB - and this has been a 20 year plus affair - the more I appreciated his music and significance on many levels. Of course, he's still the Other - but he was the Other for everyone. No one, black, white, "red or yella" (as he would say), could get into the same league of pure energy as Mr. Brown - everyone could only observe. He was unique. A right bastard, to be sure, but simply possessed of unquenchable, singular drive which drove him to the highest heights in the first twenty years of his career and to paranoid and self-destructive patterns (though always making steady cash) in his later years.

Coming from a bizarre, crime riddled background (Richard Pryor's story is not dissimilar) JB's force of will led him to learn several instruments and communicate the musical ideas in his head and his hips. Especially the latter - anyone who's ever seen him live knows that the changes in the music come from dance moves and hand gestures - what might be a 32 bar solo for Maceo could end or extend at any time depending on the mood. Although there are plenty of fantastic retro funk bands today that have the JB sound down pat, the music and not the dancing comes first, giving the overall effect a different feel.

JB influenced me as a writer (of music), an arranger, and as a producer. The funk factor is obvious, but I always respected the flow of his live performances and tried to at least structure the sets of my gigs to have a deliberate flow of energy, from way up to down low and back again. And he was more than just funk; he always devoted considerable time to blues, gospel, jazz, and even country throughout his career. It was those "other" influences that made the main funky canon so rich. He was incorporating, never imitating, music. For me, this was a very important lesson: to get a better sense of the nuances of soul music I had to go beyond retrospective musical lessons and try to understand the comparative musical, social and economic conditions that gave rise to soul. These are questions I ask of all music I come across - and they're big questions when one writes about improvised music and music from around the world as frequently as I do.

As for JB's other legacies, here are a few points:

-Despite being renowned as Afro-American music's rhythmic vanguard, he was a fierce integrationist in his bands and in his outlook. His relationships with Ben Bart and Syd Nathan through King Records, were, as with all his business relationships, sensational, but he spoke of them with great admiration and as mentors to his business aspirations. He pointedly brought Tim Drummond to tour Vietnam with him in 1968, even at the height of "I'm Black And I'm Proud"'s influence, to demonstrate racial unity to the troops. (Incidentally, he believed "America Is My Home" to be of greater personal importance to him than "Black and Proud"). He also fiercely identified himself as a Southerner, and felt great kinship with fellow Southerners such as Elvis while trying to break down centuries of discrimination by integrating his shows. A former co-worker of mine recalls the first integreated show he witnessed was JB In Nashville in 1968.

-Nevertheless, he was an inspirational figure to Black Americans and Africans around the world. He put his picture on all his records. He didn't just drive a fancy car: he had a Lear jet as a symbol of his success. He prevented riots in Boston after the assasination of Martin Luther King. He knew he was ghetto, never hid it, but worked tirelessly from educational, anti-drug and social causes, and preached unity. Didn't always practice what he preached, but for his most influential decades, he celebrated himself as an icon of bootstrap success; an example of his belief in the power of Black American capitalism.

-His combination of non-stop touring, spontaneous recording sessions and ownership of radio stations was a brilliant promotional strategy which suited his energies. He could work out an idea on stage, record it in the empty hall after the show or in some local studio, then release a single every two months which his radio stations would air. If he hadn't owned the stations (indeed if he hadn't broken his record company's back twice, first over the recording and release of Live At The Apollo, then over greater creative control which allowed him to release music so quickly) he never would have been able to document himself in public in this fashion. It's a different media world now, but I often wonder whether it's possible or advisable for other contemporary entertainers to seek control over the distribution of their music. Most super-wealthy entertainers, black or white, seem to be content with merchandising themselves rather than controlling the means of distribution.

I could go on, and I may well at some point soon, but for all the drug-addled ranting, physical and psychological damage inflicted on those closest to him over the years, the ability of James Brown to sustain a creative peak for 15 years, and match it with business practices which suited his unrelenting energies, were a tremendous inspiration to all who paid attention. He legacy is far more than that of the funky Other. And with his death, maybe these aspects of his life will be re-examined.


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