Posted on 2/8/2007at 1:57 PM
Mortal –

1. (of a living human being, often in contrast to a divine being) subject to death : all men are mortal.

That’s what I used to think, until I felt the presence of certain people who seemed larger than life – Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Miles Davis, Ray Brown, and Betty Carter. These particular people, to me, actually challenged the notion that all of us are mere mortals. These people had the type of personalities that made death to them seem optional. They literally made you change what you were doing when they walked into the room. They commanded that type of notice. They never followed rules, they made rules. They didn’t listen to you, you listed to them – and you were GLAD to do so. Some people have great personalities and some are great stars, but they don’t have that impenetrable force around them. I love hearing stories about Frank Sinatra, because apparently, even if you didn’t like him as a person, you had to acknowledge that he had something special that most mere mortals didn’t have – the power to instantaneously change the energy force anytime he was around. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes not so good. But he had it. Muhammad Ali has it still. There’s a mystic, almost super-hero quality to these people, and for me, no artist represented that more than James Brown.

For close to half a century, James Brown represented that rare type of artist who’s music created that same impenetrable force around the listener. When you listened to James Brown, you felt strong, bold, almost immortal. So what does that say about the artist? Well, knowing Mr. Brown personally, I can tell you that being around James Brown was about the equivalent of tyring to walk on the sun. He was THAT powerful. He demanded to be called “Mr. Brown”. Why not? SHOULDN’T he have been called that? I’m amazed when people think his wanting to be called “mister” as newsworthy. Why shouldn’t you call an elder “mister”? ESPECIALLY James Brown! But he was also quick to call everyone else “mister”, as well. To him, it was about respect. Today, everyone so wants to be quickly accepted as a peer or on equal ground. With Mr. Brown – as well as all men and women from his generation – you had to EARN respect. You just didn’t wake up one day and decide you should be respected. He had to earn the respect that he got. Here’s a man who literally came from nothing. Orphaned at the age of 4 in the very deep rural south, he grew up in a brothel with his aunt, and went through a childhood of pain, severe poverty, little formal education with no formal music training, and in turn, juvenile delinquency. Against this backdrop, he became the Godfather of Soul. Soul Brother Number One. The Hardest Working Man in Show Business. Mr. Dynamite – Mister James Brown.

His music was music of deep, deep primal instinct. The fact that James Brown was able to tap into that deepest, drakest realm of the human spirit and turn THAT into such a strong, powerful, almost preposterous density of rhythm says a lot. He KNEW that the strength of his rhythm made some people uncomfortable. He KNEW that his screaming and his grunts made some people uncomfortable. But he knew WHY it made people uncomfortable. He knew that once you were able to allow his music to get into that deep, dark realm of your personality and soul, that uncomfort would turn into pure joy and passion. Then, when you saw him live, he was so ingenious in that he was able to “package” that beastly, savage rhythm into the greatest form of performing art more than any artist of his generation.

I was first awarded an opportunity to earn Mr. Brown’s respect (as opposed to saying “I first became friends with Mr. Brown…”) in 1995. Verve Records had just released my first CD, “Gettin’ To It”, who’s title track, of course, was inspired by James Brown’s hit, “Get It Together.” In fact, I was very scared that James Brown might actually try to sue me when he heard it, because it was awfully close to “Get It Together.” However, when he heard it, he was more appreciative than anything else. He was actually somewhat surprised that so many jazz musicians enjoyed his music. Guess what, Mr. Brown? ALL jazz musicians enjoy your music – at least the ones who like rhythm!

I was able to spend lots of personal time with Mr. Brown in New York, and in his hometown of Augusta throughout the ‘90’s. Much of this time with him was centered around his love and appreciation for jazz. He was partial to, as I suspected, “hard-hitting” jazz – Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers (specifically with Lee Morgan), John Coltrane’s classic quartet (‘as long as it didn’t get too out” as he would say), The Count Basie Orchestra, Jimmy Smith, Horace Silver, and in a little of an oddball twist, he loved Chick Corea! Before he ever heard me play a note, I remember him saying to me, “You must love Ray Brown, huh?” Yes, Mr. Brown knew his jazz.

For a moment there, Mr. Brown and I fell out of touch. It became increasingly harder for me to speak with him directly. I always had to leave messages with him through his manager at the time. But, hey, I didn’t mind. This was James Brown, after all. But, that all changed in 2005, when I was named The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association’s Creative Chair for Jazz. Instinctively, my first reaction was to use all of my newfound clout to work with James Brown. The person who got the ball rolling was my dear friend, and legendary trombonist, Fred Wesley. I told Mr. Wesley my idea, and he put me in touch with Mr. Brown’s longtime manager, whom he just rehired, Mr. Charles Bobbit.

I told Mr. Bobbit that I wanted to put Mr. Brown at the Hollywood Bowl singing the material from the “Soul on Top” album with a big band with me playing and conducting. Mr. Bobbit gave me a chillingly long pause, and said, “……Well, Mr. McBride, you know how Mr. Brown is. That’s going to be a hard one. I personally think it’s a great idea, but……I don’t know. You know he doesn’t work with anyone else’s band, and he CERTAINLY won’t let you be the musical director, but I’ll tell you what - let me work on him.” I hung up the phone happy that I at least knew that Mr. Bobbit thought it was a good idea. The following days waiting to hear back from Mr. Bobbit were long! Finally, about a week later, Mr. Bobbit called and said, “I’m still working on him. Just hang tight.” The suspense was absolutely killing me. This went on for about two months. But, that fateful day came – October 26, 2005. (I’m such a dweeb!) Mr. Bobbit called my cell phone and left a message which said, “Hello, Mr. McBride. Well, I think I talked him into it. He’s wants to do it. You and him doing “Soul on Top” at the Hollywood Bowl next summer. Call me later.”

Man, the world stopped for about 30 seconds as I stood there in shock!

Less than a year later, on Sept. 6, 2006 at the Hollywood Bowl, my biggest, most gargantuan dreams unfolded right before my very eyes. James Brown singing the music from “Soul on Top” with me playing and conducting. Doesn’t get any better than that. We had so much fun. Yeah, there were a few clunkers, but who cares? He had nothing but fun. Louie Bellson came out and played “For Once In My Life” with us, and did an awesome job. At 81, he’s still swinging hard. What a sweet, sweet man he is. Mr. Brown and the big band continued to perform all of the tunes we rehearsed except “If I Ruled The World,” which Mr. Brown decided he didn’t want to do. In between each song, Mr. Brown did a little rapping to the audience, and would end his rap by saying stuff like, “Mr. McBride, it’s time to go to work,” or “Let’s do it, gentlemen,” or my favorite one was when he said, “You got!” We ended the “Soul On Top” portion of the program with a funky and rousing “September Song.” During the vamp, James Brown sang, “Give the bass player some! Give the bass player some!” I wish I could have enjoyed that moment a little more, too, but I guess I had to take a solo, huh? Towards the end of my solo, JB and I got into some call and response like he used to do with Fred Wesley and Maceo. Sigh….


The show was over.

Just like that.

I’d spent 75 minutes onstage at the Hollywood Bowl with the most influential living musician on earth, James Brown. I did it. I lived my dream. I played for him. I conducted for him. For 45 minutes, I was his Musical Director onstage.

What do I do now? What could possibly top this?

Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

I called Mr. Bobbit the morning after the show, and he said, “Maaaaaan! You have NO idea how much fun Mr. Brown had last night. He’s been talking about it all morning!” That made me feel good. I said, “Well, you tell Mr. Brown that we’re going to do it again soon.” Mr. Bobbit said, “I know he’d like to hear THAT!”

Sadly, we’re not going to do it again, but I can say that on the night of September 6th, 2006, I lived my dream.

I shared the stage with the Godfather of Soul, Mr. James Brown.

Thank you, Mr. Brown. You were my Superman. You were my immortal hero.

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