Clarinet, harmonica and saxophonist, composer and bandleader and musical globetrotter Dexter Payne
is the type of musician who is most often categorized as "difficult to categorize." Profoundly influenced by physical and spiritual journeys through the cultures of America, the Middle East, Africa and Brazil, Payne's recorded output checks off every box from Mississippi delta blues to Brazilian choro to Hindu chant. "From a young age, I have been drawn to music that speaks real culture, beginning with the rich musical heritage of African slaves in North America and their descendants," he writes in his website biography.
At first spinning his wheels in formal education, Payne jumped in as a founding member of the Big Sky Mudflaps, one of Montana's foremost American and roots dance bands, and remained for their first two recordings. Both Armchair Cabaret
(1979, Helios) and Sensible Shoes
(1983, Flying Fish) demonstrate Payne's emotional and technical dexter-ity (no pun intended) with jump blues, swing music, and other roots Americana. He accompanied blues singer-songwriter Judy Roderick both professionally and personally for many years, until she succumbed to diabetes in 1992. Payne documented their relationship with the 2008 release of When I'm Gone
by Judy Roderick
& The Forbears (plus Dr. John on piano and Hammond B-3 for several tracks) on his own label (Dexofon Records).
After visiting Charlie Parker
's grave during a sabbatical to Kansas City, Missouri, Payne was gifted a fortune-telling session with an astrologer who suggested he would benefit from traveling alone in a foreign country. "That journey was a thoroughly life-changing experience. There I met Thiago de Mello
," says Payne. "1995 through 1998 were very rich years, in life and in music, for me."
Payne's quietly brilliant collaborations with Brazilian composer and percussionist Thiago de Mello, reflected through numerous titles released from 2004 through 2012, are one of the cornerstones, and some of the most beautiful music, of Payne's career to date. In his notes to Inspiration
(2004, Dexofon), Brazilian jazz entrepreneur Arnaldo DeSouteiro
called Payne ..."a clarinetist with beautiful sonority, fascinating fluency andfor the general astonishment of those who still think that 'Americans cannot swing playing Brazilian rhythms' he proves otherwise with his own mischievous phrasing. To define him as a mixture of Artie Shaw
and Severino Araújo would be no exaggeration whatsoever."
In his notes to their 2007 duet release Disk Tum Derrei (Chorando e Sambando)
, de Mello wrote: "Chorando e Sambando
is the subtitle of this album. It represents two of the most common rhythms in Brazilian popular music. I dedicated it to Dexter. He plays as if he were a native from Brazil. Heart and soul!"
But Payne's wandering continued beyond lush and luxurious Brazil. He toured with Senegal's Boubacar Díebáte in various configurations (including one with Bela Fleck
) and contributes dancing flute to "Saya" on Kambeng
(2002, (Bantuba World Dance & Music) by Boubacar Díebáte & Dialy Kounda. His saxophone tears through folkloric melodies collected from Bulgaria, Macedonia, Turkey, Greece, and India by Meg York and Veelah for Village Squared
(2006, Self-Produced) like it's careening from bar station to bar station at the world's wildest multiethnic wedding reception.
In 2008, Payne was appointed Director of the Afropop Ensemble at Naropa University in Boulder (Colorado), where he served for four years. The end of his Naropa tenure overlapped with him reconnecting with longtime friend The Lionel Young
, who invited Payne to join his band as they prepared for an international blues competition. "We decided that the best way to prepare for the competition was to make an album. So we recorded a CD as we were preparing and we...we just knocked everybody out of the water here locally, then regionally, and then we went to Memphis and won the national competition," Payne recalls. On Our Way to Memphis
[2011, Dexofon] rips and roars through solid gold soul, from the raw blues guitar urgency of "Drivin' Wheel" (Roosevelt "Honeydripper" Sykes), and extended blues and R&B jams through Jimmy Forrest's "Night Train" and Muddy Waters' famous "Got My Mojo Workin.'"
"Difficult to categorize" Dexter Payne, through all these regional/musical adventures, has generally remained untracked by and under the music business' radar. "I'm not a superstar, in talent or personality, and don't want to be," he suggested while agreeing to this interview. "But I do have something worth sharing and it's increasingly apparent that there is only so much time..."
In 2014, Payne released Pra Vocé
, his homage to Thiago de Mello (who passed in 2013), by the Dexter Payne Quartet +1: himself on clarinet with percussionist Raoul Rossiter
, accordion player Dave Willey
, pianist Victor Mestas Perez
, and guitarist Bill Kopper
. Its uniquely beautiful blend of Brazilian, jazz (especially New Orleans), African and other instrumental musical styles features a live update of "No Wolf at the Door" from Payne's 2007 duet album with de Mello (Another Feeling
[Dexofon]). Jazz For All (Jazz Forró)
(Dexofon) by the Dexter Payne Quintet followed in 2018. This set revisits "Coração Latino," an Arabic-sounding serpentine thrillride that Payne first recoded in 1997 (and released on 2004's Inspiration
). "Most of these great Brazilian compositions came to my attention in 2014, a seminal year for me in music and much more, fomenting changes that are still unfolding," Payne wrote in his liner notes.
Payne is also contemplating releasing a solo album culled from years of practice and recording in "The Tank," an abandoned empty steel cylinder that sits on a hill in an oil town hours from his home. "You play a note in there (or even scuff your foot) and the sound lasts for nearly sixty seconds," he explains. "A day in there changes the way you hear and play music forever, and I've gone there on and off for years. It's like Paul Horn
in the Taj Mahal on acid!"
"I just want to play a songfor the hungry, the homeless, the imprisoned and oppressed, the sick and the dying, the war torn and displaced, for the natural world, for the dead," Payne's website bio concludes. "A song for life, all things and all beings, living in these most interesting times." All About Jazz:
What are the earliest memories of music you can recall? Dexter Payne:
I remember a harmonica around the age of five, but I have seen a photo of me toting one around at about three. My mother's mother singing "Red River Valley," probably before I was three. Our landlord and upstairs neighbors' daughter would babysit us and play her 45s. I was always drawn to older people, and she had the Flying Saucer DJ 45 with five second clips of all the hits from 1955 and '56 like Little Richard, Elvis, The Platters.
We moved to Colorado before my fifth birthday, and when we all got carsick riding in the mountains, Dad made us sing in the car, every song we knew. I got bored with singing and discovered I could play most of the melodies on my treasured harmonica, which was a gift from my grandmother.
Then he got a plastic ukulele with a cheater-box, like an autoharp strapped on the neck and it had a few push-buttons for chords. I looked underneath and figured out how to make the chords with my fingersprobably after watching his brother play and sing, because Uncle Gene always made music fun!
I knew I wanted to play clarinet from about five, maybe because Dad had played as a kid. And I knew there was one waiting in a closet. When I started in third grade band, I discovered it was not a very good clarinet! As a pre-teen, I discovered that staying home from school had benefitslistening to KDKO and a jazz station. I remember Miles and Basie. But I also got swept up by The Beatles. AAJ:
Was your Beatles thing more about their music or about them "happening"? DP:
I would listen to bad white rock 'n' roll for hours just to hear one Beatles song. Because I had heard that it was cool, you know? I didn't see them on Ed Sullivan
or anything like that. I wanted to check it out and it was certainly a breath of fresh air when it came on. Yeah, I was a fan as a kid and I remained a fan. The Beatles were amazing. But as that unfolded, it was at the same time that I was listening to jazz on the radio, although I didn't know what it was.
My dad had a really small number of sort of warhorse classical records, and to his credit he would make us listen to a piece before dinner and guess what it was. So I knew my 1812
and I knew my Rachmaninov piano concerto, a few of those things. But I discovered with my first radio that there was a good jazz station in Denver, or at least I thought so, and I would listen to Miles and Basie. It made staying home from school a real joy. AAJ:
Do you recall a strong musical community in and around Denver as you were growing up? DP:
There WAS a rich jazz scene in Denverthe Voters Club and other venues in Five Points, the center of black culture there for many years. Denver was sort of a crossroads, a stopping off place for black musicians trekking from New York to LA. Growing up, I knew nothing about it. In fact, just last week was the 50-year anniversary celebration of a famous concert in Denver, Duke Ellington
performing his Second Sacred Concert at Montview Presbyterian. But the heritage lives on, and I keep learning!
Underground radio was beginning in Denver later in the 60s. DJs could play anything: Soul, Hendrix, psychedelic, to Todd Dockstater and Morton Subotnik, John Cage
, and Dr. Theremin! It started on a couple of FM stations with late-night shows or weird afternoon slots, when people would just get in there and do their thing, and very quickly there were full-blown stations that were completely off the hook. They would play classical music, they would play jazz, they would play blues, they would play rock 'n' rollthey really played everything, and they had a good dose of electronic stuff. This is the kind of thing, you would listen to a guy do the news late at night, he would get stoned and start reading quirky things from the newspaper. Then one night he was reading the news in sort of a halting fashion, and then you heard this crunch
and he had passed out and fallen face first into his newspaper. The radio went silent for an hour, until the next guy came in for the next show.
There was a local rock 'n' roll band in Denver called Lothar and the Hand People and they used a theremin. So this guy would tell this story, and I heard it more than once, about Dr. Theremin (made up, I always assumed) going back home to Russia, and creating a theremin built into the walls of a room so that he could dance around, recreating the Chopin waltzes. This is the kind of radio I was listening to...
What I heard there on those radio stations was a real education. Early on, I heard Jimi Hendrix
, who stopped me in my tracks, and a lot of other stuff. My best friend's brother turned us on to the first Cream album. I heard a lot of that stuff but they also played jazz, Satie, the Flock, Zappa (of course) and other kinds of obscure stuff. Just music. AAJ:
Morton Sobotnik? Todd Dockstater? DP:
Todd Dockstater was a concrete music composer on local Owl Records. When I came back to Colorado, I was in engineering school at Colorado University (barely) but then I discovered that they had a Moog synthesizer at the school, and it was under the watchful eye of Phil Batstone, a guy who wrote computer music on punch cards. So I went to him and talked my way into the Moog synthesizer lab for one hour each week. Through a mutual friend, Tommy Bolin
heard I was in there and he used to come hang out and we dreamed of running his guitar through all those crazy flanges and filters. Never happened, but we had fun.
Morton Sobotnik was best known for an electronic piece called "Sidewinder." He came to town to put on a show in Mackey Auditorium, a huge theater on campus, and I got to help him set it up. He had twelve speakers around this huge auditorium. He had laser beams jumping around the room and he had dancers behind a curtain shadow dancing, and his tape machine had these two joysticks (it was a stereo tape). He wanted to hear what it sounded like so he said, "Go up there and play it." You could just turn these two joysticks around and the whole room would just go "wooosh" and turn completely around. Great big fun.
But the best thing in the Moog lab was that I met Eloise Ristad, an unassuming piano teacher who was teaching young students to play modes and freely improvise. At the same time that I was rapidly flunking out of college, I helped her engineer a Master's thesis on the Moog, and she recruited me for her free, improv pit band in a local theater production, another early glimpse into artistic life out in the world. AAJ:
You've recorded a lot of traditional, jump blues and R&B. Why are you attracted to this style? DP:
I grew up in a lily-white housing tract on South Hudson Street in 1950s and 1960s Denver. It was in the city but barelybasically suburban, or so I thought. I knew from an early age that life was much different in the black neighborhood on North Hudson Street and felt that anything must be more "real" than what I was trapped in. We watched the news. I knew there was something else besides the pretense and smugness. I didn't know much about the privilege of whiteness, but I knew something wasn't right. I think a lot of young people experiment with self-hate, and some get stuck there. I attacked myself for having essentially fifty percent German heritage. As I emerged from the conservative Christian white political bubble of my family home and discovered a whole new world, black music was where my ears took me. The songs of a people who have survived, even thrived, in spite of tremendous adversity.
So while I was still in high school, I went downtown to hear Miles touring with Bitches Brew
, and saw Ravi Shankar
on another show. At that point, both were too complex, just out of reach. I also saw The Staples Singers warm up for Bill Cosby, omigosh!
I found my way slowly, as I grewthe Lomax recordings, Sonny Terry
and Brownie McGhee
, discovering the right way to play a harmonica, not just for cowboy songs. Stanley Smith from Imboden, Arkansas, taught me the rich connections between black blues, hillbilly blues, and country music. Hank Williams, and recordings of Louis Armstrong
with Jimmie Rodgers, taught me, too. I was fascinated by Mussel Shoals and early Memphis R&B, where mixed bands made new sounds, and I spent a year in the Midwest with Stanley, listening to Randy's Record Shop and learning about guys like Ray Charles
and Yank Rachell
It took me years to even begin to understand there is a big job still ahead for us white folks; just leaving the old conversation behind is not enough. Emulating music from across town is not enough. It's taken me until now to see that we need to find words to talk among ourselves about the legacy of "white body supremacy" baked into the very fiber of our country and exported throughout the world. I used to think it was enough to just play black music, that I was doing my part; I used to think that I was "not really" being white, I was more like neutral. But now I realize: I am in a white body. It doesn't matter what I think: I've got privilege. The next step, which we have put off for many years, is for us white people to talk about white privilegeto each other. The world is waiting. AAJ:
Have you ever experienced this again with music and if so what was it? DP:
What I've discovered is how music reaches out its fingers. Not in a commercial way, but the way that the smell of a fresh-baked pie finds its way to the nose of a cartoon character, music reaches out to the dominating (or oppressing) culture. And often through the kids, like Elvis did through white kids.
As "forces conspire" to make some part of the world "a problem," we start to discover their music. I wasn't really aware of it at the time but Brazilian music started to show up here about the time that Brazilians were being controlled by a military government and people were starting to exile. That's what happened in the 1960s in Brazil. We don't think about that much, but that was the golden age of bossa nova, and that's when we discovered "The Girl from Ipanema" and bossa nova, and the most beautiful sambas created by some of the poorest people on the planet.
The same thing happened with the poetry of Rumi and awareness of music from the Middle East. My friends in Sherefe
reached their first full formation not long after the time of Operation Desert Storm. And the same thing with apartheid and music from South Africa. I think it's really true. I think it's a phenomenon. It's not an intentional thing but it IS something that happens. It's kind of like music's revenge: We attack some part of the world, and the music attacks back. I've been accused of cultural appropriation, but I see myself more as a musical petri dishI'm a place where a culture can land. AAJ:
Did you study music in school? DP:
School band from third grade on, plus orchestra and jazz band and shows for six years. A summer school band teacher taught us "blues" in a very dry, marching band way. Then I heard country blues and, being a harmonica player ("harmonica owner" was more like it), I was very intrigued. By that time, I had also expanded from clarinet to saxophone and I played a guitar along to the radio in my room. Kids were forming rock 'n' roll bands, which I wanted to do in the worst way. I played with some guys at church, rehearsed a few times with a bunch of stoners and another group of hoodlums who had other priorities, but nothing came of either.
My first day of college in California, we started a "blues" band, which spent the summer in Reno. Dave Horgan, a great jazz guitarist and still a good friend and occasional co-conspirator, came from that band. And I took a class from John Handy Junior, which was huge for me, very influential and not just as a saxophonist. His very being embodied creative jazz. He also gave me an F, which we'll save for another story.
My second year of college, back in Colorado, I was failing in engineering, using the Moog lab, and finally thinking of music school. But then a professor asked me, "Do you know the only school in this University with more requirements than Engineering is the School of Music? Why do you want to go to music school?" I told him, "Because I want to play music." "Then why don't you just go play music?" he asked me. That was enough for me. I was so grateful!
As time went on, weeding my way through white country rock scenes and studying older jazz, I got to play with some really inspiring people of very different backgrounds. There were seminal encounters: Singer Paula Santoro
; clarinetist, composer and singer Stanley Smith; guitarist Don DeBacker; and a very brief but important stint with 60 Million Buffalo. These many years I always seem to circle back to the blues. There was a stretch in Montana with a swing band that I helped to start, the Big Sky Mudflaps, which traveled a bit throughout the 1970s and '80s from the Great American Music Hall to the KOOL Jazz Festival to the NBC Today Show
. And I partnered for sixteen years with Judy Roderick
, a remarkable white blues singer from the East Coast folk scene. Playing with Judy, I got to meet Odetta
and play with Dave Van Ronk, Dr. John
, Artie Traum and others. AAJ:
Do you ever think about why you "always seem to circle back to the blues?" DP:
We talk about "formative years": The people that we meet when we're in our late teens or early twenties are, at least for me, people who I will know all my life. We're sort of raring to go right out of the chute, we're looking for things, and stuff happens then. I know plenty of people my age (and other ages) whose mental, social or whatever else development stops when they get out of high school. We've all met people like that. I just think that is the time when people are in some ways most alive. So there's that.
There's also the sort of more philosophical thing, and maybe it's that in all this I'm not really political but I'm not apolitical. It's more about, I guess, justice. I've become aware of all these things that are all over the world but the biggest problem that we have is right here at home and we still haven't solved it.
There are two big problems here at home. One is the environment and the other is social justice. I was a big Spirit
fan when I was a kid. For a funny bunch of reasons, I ended up going back and listening through a bunch of their music not too long ago. Fifty years ago, it was a huge underground hit, "Nature's Way." It was a popular song and it was a beautiful melody, kind of sappy but well done and I listened to that just a few years ago and I just sat and cried. Wow. Fifty years ago, this song was right there: "It's nature's way of telling you something's wrong..." And here we are.
I think that circling back to the blues is the same kind of thing. It's not that I don't love the music, I do. And maybe my love for it comes just from that moment in time when I was breaking out of the mold that I was raised in. But it's really real and I'm sort of always pushing on new things, trying to learn new instruments, always kind of a newbie at whatever I do. But I come back to that, and I'm pretty comfortable there. And it feels good. AAJ:
How have you played so many different types of music yet stayed connected to the blues? DP:
My informal jazz education was very simple: It all comes from blues. And I always want to know what makes things go. Blues is the most vibrant human expression to come out of our American culture. Period. It's blues that brings Tin Pan Alley and Broadway songs to life. And it gives life to jazz. That's why I love playing with people like Rene Marie
, people who bring life into the music. And that's why I found my way to African highlife and township, the blues of Brazil, the blues of Turkish Rom music, the blues of Greek Epirotica, or Arabic taksim.
One huge mainstay was guitarist Don DeBacker, who is also known as Bar BQ Bob. We first met at Denver's American Judo Club, which I briefly attended with my brother when I was thirteen. About six years later, I thought I was into the country blues by copping a modicum of Sonny Terry
, but was then re-introduced to Don who was playing Son House
, Charlie Patton and much more. I would go to Don's house and get completely slayed, creep away with my tail between my legs, then call back a week later and ask for more, and Don always said yes. Don's a formidable guitar talent. He taught guitar at Harry Tuft's Denver Folklore Center at a young age and hosted Reverend Gary Davis
one summer, a life-changing experiencegood AND bad!
He was already playing a lot with Judy Roderick in a very unique, original rock band. One night at a place called Tulagi's when I had no money to get in, I stood outside the door. Each time the door opened, I would hear this searing, soulful voice, a crazy, funky band with a drop-beat junkie drummer and a GREAT guitarist. Only a few months later, I was invited to audition for that band. I was twenty, and fell head over heels for this amazing twenty-eight-year-old singer-songwriter sitting in front of me during my audition. Who was married.
What followed was kind of a mess. About four years later, Judy came to join me where I was already living in Montana. We moved back to Colorado for one year and then went running back to Montana. Don had made friends with the Blackfeet, so he would come up for "songwriter camp" which was just us in our living room. We played some gigs with Montana friends, and eventually he came up with Eugene Smith, a drummer who had a cocktail drum and we went up on the Blackfeet Reservation as a trio. After Judy died as a result of her thirty-year struggle against diabetes, I moved back to Colorado and toured with Don in a trio until Don (and the drummer) drank it into the ground. The same day I decided to quit, he called to say he was going in for treatment. It was that or die. Don lives on that Blackfeet Reservation in Montana now.
Trying to figure out how to survive playing on the local scene after that, I took a trip to Kansas City, Missouri, parked a sleeping bag on my cousin's floor and played with fourteen bands in four days; I jammed until sunrise all through the wee hours at the Foundation, and visited Charlie Parker
's grave. Soon, I ended up gigging in Denver with Sammy Mayfield
, Solomon Burke
's guitarist. (I played the solo on Sammy's blues chart rendition of Solomon's "Happy Birthday Song" but he left my name off the record by mistake.)
I was told by an astrologer: "You would benefit from traveling alone in a foreign country." Say no more! I discovered it was a journey I had been preparing for all my life. I put everything in a friend's attic and promised my family I'd stay in touch and return "in a year or so." I flew home almost three years later, due to my mother's health. Those years were life-changing. I played in eleven different countries with amazing local musicians everywhere. I played with Ruben Gonzales, with Cachaito, I recorded with Beth Carvalho, just played with great unknown people everywhere. 1995 through 1998 were very rich years, in life and in music, for me. That's when I met Thiago de Mello
You've made so much beautiful music together: Please share the story of where and how you met Thiago de Mello. DP:
Playing for a completely corrupt Governor of Amazonas state in Brazil. I was being shuttled to Parintins, an island town in the Amazon where the annual Boi-Bom-Ba festival happens. The Governor had to make appearances there, but mostly he hung out on his private boat, playing poker with his body guards. I was in a trio hired to play for them while they drank and gambled. The other musicians were really just waiting for the jug to drop on the deck so they could grab it and start chugging.
Two days to get there on a ritzy mini cruise ship complete with air-conditioned buffet and tiny swimming pool, and I was killing it with the leader and guitarist, playing to an empty lounge. A man walked in and listened. When we stopped, he suggested an alternate chord in the bridge of the song. My compatriot took offense, but it was actually a good suggestion.
I found him later that night. He was escorting his niece, the daughter of a Senator, to the festival, on the VIP boat. He handed me earbuds and shared the rough mix of Journey to the Amazon
(1997, Telarc) with Paul Winter
and Sharon Isbin
playing several of his compositionsa really gorgeous record, even in the rough. The next day, we watched as the boat passed the famous "Encontra das Aguas" where the dark and light waters of Rio Negro and the Rio Solimoas swirl and take many miles to mingle. We became great friends in Parintins, where we watched incredible pageantry accompanied by some really poor music.
We stayed in touch while I was living in Manaus, where he was visiting his mother. As my time there was ending, I convinced the wonderful composer Antonio Mello (who is no relation) to record his original music which he had been writing and we had been shedding for months. So, I called Thiago in a bit of a panic, and asked him to play percussion on that recording. He graciously obliged and when we arrived at the studio, the power went out. While we waited a couple hours for electricity, he grabbed a clay pot, a match box, and a pan of water to rehearse with. We recorded the whole album later, after the power came back on.
When we parted after the recording, he said, "Give me a call when you're back in the US." I knew he lived in Queens. I thought, "Sure, we are friends here, where I'm the only gringo in a city of one million people, but in New York City, it will be different. You'll take me to lunch, that's all." But I did call when I got home, to tell him I was coming to New York that July. He replied that he'd be around some in July, but he had a concert with his band at Symphony Space that April. "Why don't I fly you out to come play with us?" he asked me. And so I did. He introduced me to Sharon, eventually Paul, and a whole bunch of amazing musicians. (Thiago, Sharon and I later played as a trio three times, including once in Brazil.) Thiago brought me out to New York City for concerts over fifteen years, and we co-produced recordings of his compositions with some great musicians. AAJ:
Why did the music sound so beautiful when you two played together? DP:
You are kind! Well, it's beautiful music! The musicians were superb. And we had a very special relationship. I was the oldest of three, and had to grow up fast. Thiago was always overshadowed by his older brother (Amadeu), the famous poet laureate of the Amazon. He became the older brother I never had, and I was the younger brother he never had. Only just now I can plainly see that the little boy in me could come out and play when I was with him. We were kind of birds of a feather as relatively unschooled music makers. He is still quite an inspiration for my music and my spirithe was really gracious and encouraging to me. AAJ:
Where did your journey continue after Brazil? DP:
A year or so after I returned, I got a call from Boubacar Diebate, the Senegalese singer, sabar drummer and kora player who lived here in the US. We toured in various configurations for several years, usually under the name Boubacar Díebáte and Dialy Kounda, recorded a CD, and played some killer music, sometimes with great players, African and not (and one night with an old acquaintance, Bela Fleck
). After a few years with Bouba, and after playing with a number of (mostly West) African singer-songwriters for a few years more, Janet Feder, acting Music Chair at Naropa University, asked me to direct the Afropop Ensemble there, which I did for four years. That wound down just as I was getting up steam with my old friend Lionel Young.
I was in stride with my Brazilian group, a quartet at that time. We would play small audiences but it didn't matter. We had beautiful music and such great musicians, not just your generic bossa but guys who can play choro and baiao and more, guys who know the rhythms and the literature. The Lionel Young
asked me to do this blues competition, and he had a great lineup: A drummer I had known for thirty years, bassist Kim Stone
from Spyro Gyra
and The Rippingtons, who I had known but had never really gigged with, and a really amazing trumpet player, Andre Mali. I had played on and off with Lionel; I was a frequent sub for his sax player.
Lionel suggested we prepare for the competition making an album. We recorded a CD (On Our Way to Memphis
[2011, Dexofon]) as we rehearsed and it worked...we just knocked everybody out of the water in the local, then the regional. We went to Memphis and in four rounds we won first place in the International Blues Challenge. It was a real high moment with a really great band, so much more than a blues bandwe were a mini-history of American music from Robert Johnson
and W.C. Handy
to Miles Davis
. The only problem was a close call with the Memphis Police: About thirty minutes before we played in the first round, Lionel was a hair from being locked up for basically "running while Black."
I remember a day when I had booked my own group to play in this little place, but I also had an afternoon gig with Lionel. We were playing this afternoon gig in a gazebo out by the train tracks with hundreds of people there dancing. When I got to my DPQ gig, I thought, "Wow, you know, you don't have to explain the blues to anybody in America. You just have to play." It was a real revelation.
The two years that I spent on the road with Lionel, we played the blues festival circuit in the United States and Canada, and we went all over the place. We put over fifty thousand miles a year on that van, just in the festival season. We drove through Kansas City so many times that I wrote a song, "Have You Been to Kansas City Lately?" One high moment was in Paris: four nights in the same venue, standing room only every night. AAJ:
How did you know Bela Fleck? DP:
I was playing in Montana with the Big Sky Mudflaps, and we had a gig in Las Vegas. We were flown to the Sands for a TV awards show for small stations, it was not a big network thing. They flew us down there a few days in advance; they gave us rooms and meal tickets so we could rehearse our ten-minute shots on this awards show. I guess they wanted it real tight? The other bands there were The Sons of the Pioneers and New Grass Revival. (The Sons of the Pioneers were amazing. The sound guy asked, "Are you guys ready to check the mics?" and they looked at each other and broke into "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" just like the record. It was just mind blowing.)
I don't think I really knew about Bela Fleck. But I heard him there and said to myself, "What are you doing with these guys?" I wasn't a fan of the band, but I sure heard Bela Fleck, and he flipped me out! We chatted, and the rehearsals were short, so we ended up making friends with Bela and sitting around all night playing jazz standards from a fake book in this empty ballroom, while bats flew around the chandeliers. He was just getting ready to break out of the bluegrass thing. He was like Django Reinhardt
on a banjo. He was amazing.
That was in the '70s, and we had a great time that night but it wasn't like we were close or stayed in touch. Later, when he was getting ready to go to Africa to do that movie (Throw Down Your Heart
, 2008), he was feeling around, trying to talk to African people, trying to get contacts. Somehow, he got ahold of Boubacar. We were doing this concert and I was informed that Bela Fleck was going to be on our gig. We had a nice time and over breakfast the next day we laughed and reminisced about the tunes and the bats. That was the last I saw him.