The McBride Diaries (Vol.20)
Posted on 1/8/2007at 9:23 AM
While our families slept, my mother in-law and I were in the kitchen cleaning up after our big Christmas party. I was looking forward to wrapping a few gifts before turning in. Just after 3am, my office phone rang. Surely, I thought, this had to be a wrong number. Who would have the audacity to call me at 3am? I let the call go to voicemail. About two minutes later, the phone rang again. Now, I started to wonder if this was a call I really wanted to answer. We all fear those middle-of-the-night calls, because unless there’s a baby being born, the news is almost never good. I all of a sudden didn’t have the guts to look at the caller ID. I let it go to voicemail again. I then looked at the caller ID, and both calls were from numbers I didn’t recognize. One from Philly, one from Georgia. Georgia?? Since my family was staying with us, it couldn’t have been anyone from my family calling from Philly, and the only person I know in Georgia who would dare call me that time of morning is Terreon. Sensing something not so good, I decided to check my e-mail instead of the voicemail. There was an e-mail from Terreon saying, “I just heard the news. Call me if you need to talk. I’m here.” There was another e-mail from a buddy of mine from Californina that said, “My God, your heart must be broken. I’m sorry.”
Ok, apparently, someone has died. But who? Who’s someone I love who’s death would make national news at 3am? I just KNEW it wasn’t James Brown. He’s too strong and cocky for something as inconvenient as death. James Brown will go a full twelve rounds with the ol’ Grim Reaper. He may even win a split decision! Could it be Muhammad Ali? No. He would KO the Grim Reaper in 8. That’s why he’s great. (sorry…)
My heart started to beat really fast, because I was afraid that it just might be one of those two titans. But the more I thought about it, and the more the e-mails came through at rapid fire pace, I started to sense that it wasn’t Ali. I went to CNN.com and saw the headline….
“JAMES BROWN DEAD AT 73. 1933-2006”
What do you say when someone you love dies suddenly? Especially when that someone is someone you got to know very well? For starters, you sit there in shock hoping after your next blink, that news will disappear. I didn’t know what to do or say. After sitting in silence for about 5 minutes, I woke up Melissa and told her the news. I then got my wits about me and called my dear friend from James Brown’s band, Robert “Mousey” Thompson. Mousey was wrecked. He was so hurt, he could hardly speak. I didn’t know what to say to him. I then called Mr. Brown’s manager, Charles Bobbit. Needless to say, everytime I called, it went right to voicemail. I so wanted to speak with someone from the James Brown camp, but everyone’s phone was busy, or went to voicemail. Melissa sat with me as I just sat in sad silence. We then poured Scotch on our floor as we saluted Mr. Brown and the ancestors with a libation. As I somehow managed to sleep for about three hours, I woke up hoping that something would have changed, although I knew it wouldn’t.
Instead of opening gifts and having a happy, hunky-dory day, our day was mixed with up and down emotions. I spent a lot of time in and out of my office on the phone finally catching up with members of Mr. Brown’s band and entourage just wanting to talk, offering Christmas wishes and condolences. How about that for contrast?
For the next week, my e-mail and phone were racked with messages from reporters wanting to talk to me about Mr. Brown. “What did James Brown mean to you?” “How glad were you to finally work with him?” “What advice did he leave you before he passed?” “To what extent did you know about his illness?” In a way, I was surprised that so many people thought to call me. But, it started to make sense – for I have never worn my emotions on my sleeve any stronger for a longer period of time for any artist more than James Brown. When I was a kid, I made it clear that James Brown was my favorite. As a jazz musician, in either the most conservative OR progressive settings, I always made it clear that although I’m a jazz musician, James Brown was still my man. I suppose after all these years, everyone who even remotely knew me, knew that I loved the Godfather. Which brings me to YouTube.
Yeah, well, it seems as if someone thought it would be funny if they recorded what I thought was a rather sacred moment of me impersonating James Brown in Aspen, Colorado for my students at Jazz Aspen Snowmass. When I first saw it, I was really, really mad. Initially, I thought, “This was supposed to be for my students, and my students only. Why is it now out there for the whole world to see?” I thought I looked terribly silly impersonating him as I’m about twice James Brown’s size, and I also thought that some may view my impersonation as some type of disrepect. But one day, I realized that I didn’t mean to mock him as some joke. I did it in fun, but not as a joke, you dig? I really loved this man and his music. Anytime I impersonate him, it’s because I want the students and people who never saw him to have some sort of inkling of what the energy was like. Not to make them think that James Brown ever looked as foolish as I did! ☺ But I loved him, and everyone KNEW I loved him. I’m proud of that.
The day after Christmas, I flew to Oakland to start a six night, new years engagement with McCoy Tyner. I did my best to stay on top of the funeral arrangements. I knew that I was probably going to have to miss at least one night at Yoshi’s to attend Mr. Brown’s memorial service. I wound up taking a flight back to New York on Thursday morning to attend the service at the Apollo Theater. I finally was able to get in touch with Mr. Bobbit, and he gave me instructions on what to do when I got to the Apollo.
James Brown’s service at the Apollo was exactly how it should have been. Unfortunately, I missed seeing his gold coffin being brought up 125th street by horse and carriage, but ah, just the idea of doing that was so great. He got a King’s farewell in Harlem – as he should have. From 1pm to 9:30pm, tens of thousands of people lined all the way up to 140th street – on 7th AND 8th avenue - to get one last look at the Godfather. Did you know that James Brown still holds all of the attendance records in the history of the Apollo? No artist in the rich, storied, mystic history of that theater sold more tickets. The fact that James Brown was so loved by everyone from the most cynical, know-it-all jazz musicians to the most “elite”, high-brow older generation classical artists says how powerful his music was. When I landed in New York, I called Mr. Bobbit and told him that I was in NYC. He told me to meet him or Mousey at the stage door and to tell the police that I was with “Mr. Bobbit and the family.” I figured that was what I would say to get in, but when I got in, I really was “with the family.” Melissa and I were invited to sit with Mr. Brown’s children, wife, band members, and friends of the family. That had to have been the highest honor I could have received. At 6pm, the doors of the Apollo were shut to the public temporarily as Rev. Al Sharpton conducted a marvelous service for the family and friends of the King of Soul. As I looked at James Brown lying in his casket, I couldn’t help but notice how alive he looked. He looked like he always looked – ready for a show. I kept staring at him thinking, “Are you sure you’re not alive in there?” I thought maybe I should back up in case he popped up out of there. But it was not to be. Yes, he was gone. The Godfather has left a half a century of funk for us to figure out.
How would I like James Brown to be remembered? I’ll tell you how I would NOT like him to be remembered. When Eddie Murphy did his now-legendary string of James Brown impersonations in the early 1980’s in “Eddie Murphy: Delirious”, and the “James Brown Celebrity Hot Tub” skit on Saturday Night Live, to a generation of people, THAT became James Brown. To an entire legion of people, when you mentioned James Brown, their thoughts took them to Eddie Murphy, not “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” In this current generation where absolutely everything is considered joke-worthy, no matter how serious – disease, natural disaster, murder, mental illness – I’m worried that James Brown’s legacy will be relagted to some skit from a sitcom. Everything’s funny these days, you know? Now, I totally understand that Eddie Murphy meant to do no harm to James Brown’s legacy, because I know he loves James Brown more than most people, but it’s the people who listen to him (and other comedians like him) who do not have the depth to be able to go behind that and realize how important his music was. I also fear that the hip-hoppers and pop producers and beat makers who sample James Brown’s music get the idea that they’re somehow more than hip because they sample his beats. Really appreciating James Brown’s music is more than just appreciating some funky drum patterns, it’s about knowing the profound impact on a generation of African-Americans in this country in the 1960’s – politically, socially, AND musically, which turned into a contagious influence beyond the African-American community and into the entire world.
I really hope you as the reader will understand me if I say that I hope James Brown’s legacy doesn’t become like that of Elvis Presley. At this point, Elvis has become such a caricatured figure, I can almost guarantee that no one even realizes who the real Elvis is anymore. To those sick fans who say that Elvis never died and he’s living in the desert somewhere, to the MILLIONS of comedy routines that use his likeness, to the movies like “3000 Miles to Graceland” with a bunch of robbers dressed like Elvis, I rarely see people ever addressing Elvis’s memory with any dignity. It’s all wide-open for interpretation. Can anyone tell you exactly WHY Elvis is considered “The King”? I’ll tell you what, you ask most people, they can’t give you a good answer. You know why? They either don’t know why he’s considered the king, or they forgot why he’s considered the king. Frankly, I never thought of Elvis as anywhere NEAR any high-ranking title as such, but James Brown? Now HE’S the damn King!!! And I will always remind people of that.
With James Brown passing on Christmas Day, Rev. Jesse Jackson put it best,
“Only James Brown could upstage even Jesus on His day!!!”
THERE IT IS!!
RIP Mr. Brown.