James Brown-The 'Illogic' of Innovation

By Scannell, John | New Formations, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

James Brown-The 'Illogic' of Innovation


Scannell, John, New Formations


While James Brown's pioneering music continues to attract great critical acclaim, it is not widely acknowledged that his own musicians were less than effusive about his famed compositions. Brown's musically 'educated' band members have often expressed the view that his prototype funk compositions were simplistic and unsophisticated and therefore not to be taken very seriously. This view is strikingly borne out in Fred Wesley's recent book, Hit Me Fred: Confessions of a Sideman (2003), in which Brown's former bandleader provides the most comprehensive insight to date into the trials and tribulations of working with the 'Godfather of Soul'. Wesley was among the core of abundantly talented former jazz players - Alfred 'Pee Wee' Ellis, Maceo Parker, Waymond Reed were others - of Brown's premiere late 1960s -early 1970s troupes. Prior to their recruitment into Brown's band, these musicians were aspirant be-boppers. As ex-James Brown bandleader, 'Pee Wee' Ellis would later say, 'he was some other stuff for me; I'd been studying Sonny Rollins'. (1)

This 'other stuff ' to which Ellis refers was 'funk', but it might also be a euphemism for Brown's notoriously 'idiosyncratic' approach to composition in general - one that Wesley would subsequently lament:

   Mr Brown would sometimes come to the gig early and have what we call
   a 'jam', where we would have to join in with his fooling around on
   the organ. This was painful for anyone who had ever thought of
   playing jazz. James Brown's organ playing was just good enough to
   fool the untrained ear, and so bad that it made real musicians sick
   on the stomach. (2)

This sentiment is echoed by long-time Brown stalwart and drumming legend, John 'Jabo' Starks, who recalls

   James would come in and get the sticks and sit down behind the drums
   and say, 'well, this is the way I want you to play it. 'And you
   still haven't figured out which way he wanted it to go. Your best
   answer was,' 'OK, gotcha Mr. Brown'. So you'd sit right back down
   and play what you were playing anyway. Because he never really
   played! Hey, man, I'm being honest, James did not play anything!
   He even wanted to fool around with the guitar! And he couldn't! (3)

Brown's musical shortcomings, coupled with his notoriously autocratic style of leadership, made for a difficult gig. By all reports, his despotism often made for a demeaning and debilitating experience and, from time to time, his musicians would avenge such maltreatment by belittling their employer's musical ability. An example of note from Wesley's book involves the antics of former trumpeter Waymond Reed, whom Wesley cites as one of the most consistently confrontational members of the group:

In the dressing room, he [Reed] took out his horn and for hours and more hours played parts of Count Basie's Shiny Stockings, pausing between licks to laugh real loud and say stuff like, 'That's real music, not the honky-tonk stuff we have to play on this gig'. (4)

The musicians' collective frustration was compounded by the fact that playing popular music was a far more lucrative proposition than was generally offered in the jazz world. Indeed, the more prominent members of the James Brown bands looked upon their tenure with Brown as a stepping-stone to a higher calling. The cantankerous Waymond Reed, for example, went on to play with Max Roach and the Count Basie Orchestra, and was later joined by Fred Wesley, while 'Pee Wee' Ellis would go on to assume the directorship of Van Morrison's band. (5) Harbouring such musical ambition, the musicians' animosity toward Brown's restrictive musical vision is less than surprising. To add further insult to injury, Brown would subsequently bask in the acclaim afforded his revolutionary funk style, despite the fact that he did not even understand basic music theory. As Wesley explains:

   Simple things like knowing the key would be a big problem for
   James. … 

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