For my first assignment for JBO, I found it fitting that I’d be covering the New York Blues Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, at the historic Kenny’s Castaways on Bleeker Street, for without the Blues, American music, as we know it, would not exist.
Throughout the ceremony, I got the opportunity to meet and talk to many legends of the blues world, including John Hammond, “Blue” Lou Marini and Tom “Bones” Malone of the Blues Brothers, Bernard Purdie, and Will Lee, all of which were inducted that day. It truly was a great day for The Blues, as well as Greenwich Village this past May 20th.
The Blues is the foundation of almost all of American music. Without it, there would be no Rock and Roll, no Dixieland Jazz, no R&B (The list can go on). The birth of the blues comes from a place of pure humanity.
When our African-American brothers and sisters were enslaved, they created work songs, not just as a way to get through the day, but as a form of communication, since hand drumming was made illegal in many parts. The amazing aspect of the Blues is that it took the negativity and hardship of slave life, and transformed it into the rich and beautiful art form that we have today.
From the minute I first walked through the door, I could immediately feel the positive atmosphere. My own band (Grant’s Tomb) plays at Kenny’s every Wednesday, and we have gotten to know the staff of the club well. It is truly unlike most of the clubs in New York. At Kenny’s (a Blues Hall of Fame inducted club itself) it’s all about the musicians and the audience. Kenny’s has always been a family owned business, and with their history of bands playing there from Phish and the Allman Bothers to Lynyrd Skynrd and Bruce Springsteen, Aerosmith to Kiss and the Ramones, I knew that this was the perfect location for the event.
The first band to go on was The Michael Packard Blues Band, who played some smoking versions of some old blues tunes, as well as some funky originals. To close off their set, Tom “Bones” Malone joined them for a couple of songs, one being “BigBossMan.” Malone’s fat sound and tricky double-tonguing made his solos exciting and ballsy, with great harmonic knowledge. Afterwards, I got a chance to talk with him, and asked about his thoughts on a few topics.
I recently graduated Manhattan School of Music, a conservatory on the upper-west side of Manhattan, where I studied Jazz Trumpet. While getting a very good education on harmony, and given the opportunity to study with some truly amazing musicians, there were always elements of a negative or un-informed outlook on music that wasn’t Jazz from some people at the school. I remember teachers asking me questions like, “When Phish plays, do they have songs, or do they just jam for three hours?” But the classic line that always half pissed me off was when we would be playing a session, and someone would say, “Let’s just play a blues.” That to me was such an insulting phrase to say on an entire genre of music. Knowing Malone’s diverse musical background, I asked him his thoughts on the closed mindedness of many musicians.
His thoughts were very short and on point, “If that’s how people feel, then they’re not gonna work.” We then got to talking about his background. Tom Malone grew up on a farm in Sumrall, Miss, in a town with a population of 819. He grew up listening to trombone players like JJ. Johnson, Jack Teagarden, and Urbie Green, as well as the music of Jimi Hendrix, King Curtis, and Junior Walker. Malone then went to the University of North Texas where he played trombone for the 1 O’clock Big Band, as well as lead trumpet for the 2 O’clock Big Band. When moving to New York, he branched out playing with Gil Evans, the Fania Afro-Cuban Records, and of course, the Saturday Night Live/Blues Brothers Band Malone also has a serious arranging resume, including SNL, The Last Waltz, Frank Zappa, and The Late Show Band, where he currently still works. In all, he has done over 3,900 arrangements for T.V and Film.
Going back inside to the music, a band was starting to tune, made up of Will Lee (bassist for the Late Show with David Letterman Band and Fab Faux), blues guitarist Dave Fields and Bernard Purdie sitting in on drums. Purdie and Lee were locked in, creating a rock solid pocket, and gave Fields the freedom to express himself in his gritty, raw guitar playing. One of their set’s highlights was a soulful rendition of “It Hurts Me Too” that would have made even Pigpen smile.
After the set, I got a chance to talk to Will Lee shortly about his work with The Fab Faux (A Beatles cover band made up of some of the best studio musicians in the city). A few years ago at the Jammy’s, they were honoring Phish, and Trey came out and played with The Fab Faux on “While my Guitar Gently Weeps.” Lee made a point of saying, “When playing that music (Beatles), we can call anyone, just like the Blues… Any kind of musicians can sit down and play something together”
New York Blues legend, John Hammond then played a few songs solo with an acoustic guitar and harmonica on a neck rack. Hammond’s soulful voice, perfect combing, and “Dylanesque” harp playing created a very intimate environment in the already intimate club. Richie Havens, who unfortunately was under the weather, and could not make it, was inducted while Hammond was still on stage, and many wished Havens a speedy recovery.
Soon after, a band took the stage that included Gary “U.S. Bonds” and “Blue” Lou Marini. After doing a heart-felt Otis Redding’s “These Arms of mine” and a roaring version of Bond’s “New Orleans,” which had everyone up and dancing, the band paid tribute to Levon Helm with “Ophelia” and “The Weight” with Blue Lou’s signature tenor sax sound filling in the spaces, and blowing some mean solos.
Getting to talk with Blue Lou and Malone about their work with the Blues Brothers was an amazing experience. As much as people remember the Blues Brothers as being a classic movie with Belushi and Akyroyd at their best, the movie put Blues back on the charts, and got people to listen to this neglected art form. The band truly was one of the tightest, kick-ass bands to ever play together.
The band wouldn’t rehearse new songs, someone would come in with a new chart, and maybe they would run it over at sound check, but usually they would just play it through on the gig, and it was always on point. This reminds me of the way Count Basie would run his band, with the “Learn on the Stand” technique. It didn’t matter what audience they played for (as we see in the Bob’s Country Bunker scene in the film), the crowd always loved it. Blue Lou told me the story of how Nirvana was supposed to play a show, but canceled. The Blues Brothers were in town, so the venue called them. He said, “We hit the first beat and the crowd went crazy!” I talked to Lou about playing the closing of Winterland with NRPS and the Dead, and what it was like playing for a dead crowd, and he said, “We nailed it! And the crowd was absolutely lovin it.”
Malone also had this to say about his recently deceased band mate, bassist Donald “Duck” Dunn. “He was one of a kind, and developed the (bass) sound of Memphis R&B, which everyone tried to copy.” Dunn passed away on May 13th at the age of 70.
All in all it was a great day for the Blues. The truly awesome part was that most of the bands playing were pickup bands that hadn’t rehearsed, but could listen to and play off each other in a way that is purely organic. Everyone I met was willing to stop and take the time to talk to people in the audience and pose for a picture. New York gets a bad rap for the Blues, but Dave Fields had this to say; “Blues in NYC is vibrant and spread out, but it has infiltrated every type of live music.”
New York, much like Jam music, is a melting pot, and without the Blues, both would be missing a vital element.