I am into the music of many people who have shuffled off this mortal coil. But there are lots of folks that I love who are still with us. I admire dozens of musicians - maybe hundreds. Here are five, not listed in order of preference (because I love them all):
Bonnie Raitt: I am Bonnie's loyal dog. Her voice is an unique, exquisite instrument, capable of expressing love, lust, anger, longing, joy, sorrow - and every other emotion that a human being can experience. I was a fan boy long before she broke through with the "Nick of Time" album in 1990 - I bought her first album in 1971 when I was a junior in high school. She was and is a frequent visitor to Chicago, and supported the blues people from whom she drew her inspiration - Robert Johnson, Son House, Sippie Wallace, Muddy Waters, A.C. Reed, John Lee Hooker, Junior Wells and all the rest. While her voice is what captures me and reduces me to a puddle of emotions, her slide guitar work is also outstanding - unhurried, tasty and instantly recognizable. Stevie Wonder is among the fans of her slide guitar prowess, adding her as a guest musician on his most recent album. She is also an individual with strongly-held convictions, and she devotes considerable time and energy to pursuing those convictions. Hard to come up with a more admirable person among the upper echelons of popular music....
Sonny Rollins: Miles, Dizzy, Bird, 'Trane, Monk, Duke, Dexter.....and Sonny. Sonny is surviving member of this exclusive club of jazz heroes. He is the Saxophone Colossus. Here is a link to an interview of Sonny, conducted by Clint Eastwood on the eve of the 2007 Monterey Jazz Festival (it is well-known that Clint is a dewey-eyed jazz fan, bless his heart). At the age of 77, Sonny is still blowing up a storm - in his sixth decade as a jazz giant. His exuberent and joyful music is a blessing for all humans. It was my great honor to play trombone in the UC Berkeley Jazz Ensemble that supported Mr. Rollins back in 1975 when he was the featured artist at the Pacific Coast Collegiate Jazz Festival in Berkeley. Listening to him play, working through the arrangements that he wrote, being in his presence...it was one of the peak experiences of my musical life. Sonny is a constantly striving musician - his practicing regimen is legendary. He is famous for dropping out at the peak of his bebop fame in 1959 to play alone for two years under the Williamsburg Bridge in Lower Manahattan. There are many things I love about this musician, but one of my favorite things about him is his affinity for unusual material - "I'm an Old Cow Hand, "Tennessee Waltz," "Someday I'll Find You" (which is the theme song from an old radio show called "Mr Keene - Tracer of Lost Persons"). Sonny gets my vote as the coolest man alive. His look, his way of speaking, his devotion to his craft, his focus and refusal to wallow in the fruits of his success are all very cool. The intensity, humanity, humor, and tenderness of his playing are absolutely unmatched by any other musician, living or dead.
Tom Waits: I discovered Tom Waits in 1974 when I bought his "Closing Time" CD at a used record store on Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley CA. I spent $1.50 for the record, and I got $150 worth of juice out of one cut - " Ol' '55" - a great song. And that is one aspect of Tom Waits - he writes great songs. Sentimental, heart-breaking, weird emotional songs. Bruce Springsteen covers Tom - "Jersey Girl" is the tune, if I remember right. This is my favorite "nice" Tom Waits song. And then he does some stuff that is WAY....OUT...THERE. Man - he can squeeze so much emotion and intensity out of a limited vocal range - but it isn't his range that is important. He can evoke a wide spectrum of tonal colors and craziness with his voice and his shenanigans.
Tom is also a terrific actor - his current movie role is in "Wristcutters - A Love Story" Can't wait to see that flick - it hasn't been released in Chicago yet.
Curtis Fuller: Back when I was a mediocre high school trombonist, I discovered Curtis Fuller. He is now 73 years old and still making the trombone do things that are hard to believe. He played 'bone with John Coltrane on the "Blue Trane" LP; he played with Art Blakey. Mr. Fuller was one of those cats that had talent that refused to be denied - his Jamaican parents died when he was a child, so he was raised in an orphange in Detroit during the WWII years. He joined the U.S, Army in 1953 - one of the few places where black men were treated like human beings. He was a J.J. Johnson protege, but he developed his own style - edgier, faster, crazier. When I used to play trombone, I would listen to his records and weep. He is the reason that I changed my major from music to economics at Cal Berkeley.
Kim Wilson: Kim is my blues harmonica idol. He is devoted to the post-war Chicago blues tradition. He is also an official rock star; has written major hits and fronted the Fabulous Thunderbirds for almost three decades. The royalties from "Tuff Enuff" and all of the T-Birds hits allow Kim the freedom to play straight-up blues with true believers like Rusty Zinn, Billy Flynn, and a long list of other blues fanatics. I feel deeply connected to this man due our similar histories - Kim is three years older than I am, he played trombone as a kid, he found the harmonica and the blues when he was a senior in high school (I bought my first harmonica when I was a junior in high school). I have had the honor to meet him a couple years ago at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. He is the best Chicago blues harp player alive today, in my opinion. He also is a very solid, skilled vocalist with a very flexible and powerful baritone voice.
So that is five that I love...the list of living musicians that slay me is much longer than this. Watch for more profiles in future posts....