On the Record on the road in the U S of A: New York City
Some things sadly remain the same in the Big Apple. A few years ago, I went to see the great Little Jimmy Scott play a show in New York. The singer with the voice of a fallen angel was performing …
Some things sadly remain the same in the Big Apple. A few years ago, I went to see the great Little Jimmy Scott play a show in New York. The singer with the voice of a fallen angel was performing with his band in a small room and it should have been quite a night. If you’ve heard the man who Billie Holiday regarded as her favourite singer embroider songs with that hurt, heartbreaking, emotional voice of his, you’ll know what I mean. When Jimmy sings, you hear violins.
But Scott was playing in a New York jazz club and in a New York jazz club, the musicians are performing in front of an audience who are eating their dinner. For this audience, it’s what on their plates rather than who’s onstage which is the most pressing concern of the evening.
Shows in clubs like these are sad, sorry affairs, but the musicians seem to accept their lot. While they might get to play a different class of show when they appear in other cities or countries, they’re singing at someone else’s supper in New York. It’s a paying gig, so they get on with it. After all, even musicians have to pay their household charges.
On paper, the Godfathers Of Groove are a heavyweight bunch. You’ve Reuben Wilson on organ; the former pro boxer who turned his hands to music and made his mark with a slew of timeless soul jazz grooves for Blue Note. You’ve Bernard “Pretty” Purdie on drums; a man who kept it funky and downlow with James Brown, Miles Davis and Aretha Franklin, as well as putting his own groove onto higher ground with “Soul Drums”. You’ve Grant Green Jr on guitar; a player with a fine family pedigree and a laidback style of his own.
But put them in a soul-less joint on Broadway, playing the first of the night’s two sets in front of an audience chewing steaks and shrimp, and the show just never lifts off. The musicians try their damndest not to look disheartened, but the grooves just aren’t there. Green Jr sings and it’s nothing to write home about. Purdie does a salesman shtick a few times and it’s tiresome. Wilson looks like he’d prefer to be anywhere else but here. He’s not the only one.
Different strokes for different folks perhaps, but that damp squib of a show kept coming back to my mind at Questlove’s Bowl Train night a few nights later. You’ll know !uestlove as the leader of the Roots, hip-hop’s most righteous veterans straight out of Philly and the house-band on the Late Night With Jimmy Fallon show.
Most weeks, you’ll find the man with the biggest Afro around at a bowling alley in Brooklyn where he spins hip-hop, house, disco, rare groove, reggae and much more tunes with soul. People dance, hit the bowling alleys and watch some amazing videos from the back-pages of the Soul Train TV show.
Soul Train was the TV show which the late Don Cornelius founded in Chicago in 1970 and which was subsequently broadcast all over the United States until 2006.
Aside from introducing American TV audiences to a host of r’n’b, soul and hip-hop acts via some memorable performances (many now re-upped for your watching pleasure via the wonders of YouTube), Soul Train was about a celebration of life.
Joyous, gleeful and colourful, it was a TV show with positivity, enthusiasm, exuberance, verve, ambition and audacity. It made you forget about the daily grind and reminded you of the amazing power of music to lift the soul and do wonderful things to your well-being. To paraphrase Bob Marley, it was a case of when the music hits, you feel no pain.
It’s that kind of experience which keeps music fans coming back for more. Sure, the supper crowd applauded the solos from the Godfathers of Groove and laughed at the jokes, but that certain something was missing. You wonder if the players themselves noticed or cared. I really hope they did.