August 01, 2006

Ruth Brown and all that jazz

Last night, I met the one and only Ruth Brown.

A little on Ruth: The woman is a legend in jazz, and is credited for pioneering R&B. You know the New York label "Atlantic"? It used to be nicknamed "The House That Ruth Built". And you probably remember her as "Motormouth" in Hairspray. She's wickedly funny, and just a few months shy of 80 years old. Oh, by the way, she's got a Tony, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1993 and inspired Bonnie Raitt's career. And her nephew is legendary rapper Rakim.

Though a few years ago she had a stroke and was told she'd never sing again, there she was, like new, voice as big as life itself, sitting in her chair, cracking dirty jokes and crackling with vibrancy.

"You know, they said this old lady would never sing again," she said. "Someone lied. Dirty, rotten puppies. Here I am! Noisy as ever!"

After the show, I went with my friend backstage. I hugged and thanked Ruth, and clumsily expressed that she had moved me somehow, inspired me. Talking to her, touching her -- it was like holding history for a minute in my arms and my ears. A really incredible experience.

And she was so tickled by the fact that we were so young. She reassured me that us being there meant more to her than vice versa, though of course that was a lie. Then, she signed the back of our tickets. Mine is now hanging on the wall above my piano, between The Beatle's "Sgt. Pepper" record and Jimmy Hendrix's "Greatest Hits, Vol. I" record.

"To small Liz with big soul: Love and Peace, Ruth Brown"

It's pretty cool when you get to meet people you've been listening to for, like, ever -- particularly when they're considered musical pioneers and aren't likely to be around much longer. I was fortunate enough to meet Lionel Hampton, the famous jazz musician, and heard him sing "What a Wonderful World" the year before he died, which was another incredible encounter with history; And I've met Edmonia Jarrett, and Wally "Gator" Watson, and Lou Rawls.

There's something about old jazz musicians for me -- their music just seems to me the foundation and embodiment of all joyful, mournful, soulful noise - the first real emotive American expression. It's so rooted in the very essence of the American experience: the blues, ragtime, church music, African drum music, interactive slave chants. And its birthplace is New Orleans -- a hotbed of social, cultural and racial clashing, melding and change during the turn of the century (and thereafter, and on and on...).

These old musicians are the last of their kind -- the last of the founding generation of American music: pop, r&b, soul, rap, even rock. So, in a way, touching them, speaking to them and listening to them play is like interacting with history. How fortunate are we to still have a few of them left?

The opportunity to meet these incredible people and hear what they do, live, right in front of you, is dwindling. If you haven't already (even if you don't think you like jazz), I strongly recommend giving it a try. If a trip to N.O. is in your future, go to Restoration Hall. If not, just look for live jazz that you have to pay for in the center of your nearest city. (No, free restaraunt "jazz" on Thursday nights doesn't count. See the real deal, if only so you can say you have. If you don't get an electric sort of feeling from that experience -- no tingling, goosebumps, inadvertant "Whoooo!"ing, email me. I'll send you twenty bucks.

That's a lie. I won't.

But I wouldn't have to, anyway. You'd dig it, even against your will. Because I'm pretty sure if we cut you open right now and took a careful listen to your insides, they would scat over a 4/4 beat, with accents on the 2 and 4...


ShadowAngel said...

That is *really* cool! *sigh* If I had the chance I would love to meet with Lena Horne - she blew me away way back when in "Stormy Weather", and when I saw her on tv back a few years ago (in her early 80's), she blew me away _again_, with the same song, although it was totally different!

Chuckles said...

You owe me $20.

My heat does not beat.

Trebuchet said...

Chuckles, I said I would pay if the music didn't turn you on, not if you're a freak of nature.

Your cold, black heart is not my problem, tricky man.

Trebuchet said...

Lena Horne -- I actually have a Lena Horne CASSETTE TAPE somewhere! Not that I can listen to it anymore, as the last tape player I owned was circa 1994, but still I think I have it somewhere at my parents' house. Because how can you throw that stuff away?

ShadowAngel said...

I still have my cassette collection too, except mine looks like a sampler of hits from 1983. You got your Michael Jackson, Madonna, Cyndi Lauper (whose most recent album, _At Last_, was really quite enjoyable), and don't forget the soundtracks from the movies Beat Street and Breakin'! LOL