Remember Liner Notes?
This music is meant to possess a universal appeal, to be descriptive of particular yet individually customized life circumstances. In other words, it can be enjoyed in group or individual circumstances. Some of it is you alone in a room at 2 AM with headphones on, wondering who you are, where you've been, and where you're going. And some of it is socializing, eating good food and enjoying the company of friends. And some of it just is. As one song title says, Sometimes I Just Want To... something, but I just don't know what. Right? Dance, tap your feet, shake your head, move that thing, just be happy for no particular reason. That’s what music can do for you. That’s how I felt growing up in Philadelphia.
My grandmother lived down the street from The Uptown Theater, or just, The Uptown. I am grateful that I understood what that meant, even before I finished elementary school. The special times are usually here and gone in a puff of smoke. History is made, lives are changed. And then everything’s gone. What am I talking about? I’m saying that I was 10 years old. I visited my grandmother as often as I could, making the long trek, alone by bus, and later bus and subway, from beyond the farthest reaches of Northeast Philadelphia, from Bucks County, where I lived with my family, to North Philadelphia. The importance lay in the fact that I was given a few bucks to go and see James Brown, Little Stevie Wonder, The Temptations, The Miracles, The Four Tops, Billy Stewart, Barbara Lynne, Moms Mabley, Martha and The Vandellas, , Shorty Long, The Marvelettes, The Velvelettes, The Mad Lads, The Artistics, The Moments, and Chuck Jackson. They were introduced by Giants of the Philly Scene, deejays, Georgie Woods and Jimmy Bishop. They came and made music with a band that I still remember, led by Sam Reid, whom I had the pleasure of working with just several years ago. All of those names came from a quick jog of memory, putting my head down, closing my eyes and visualizing, no, seeing, the stage again, and hearing Billy Stewart’s stutter/scatter, Barbara Lynne’s sweet, high voice, The Miracles and The Four Tops, The Four Tops and The Temptations, battling for the loudest cheers from the crowd, like the Apollo, but, I don’t know. This is the truth and will always be the truth. As much as I hated my life sometimes (arguing, fighting, loneliness, worrying about getting beat up), I knew, even then, how lucky I was.
Of course, a kid thinks the good times will last forever. Why should they change? But that’s not how the world works. Things slowed down real fast: the lights, the 6-dollar tickets, 3 dollars for a matinee stay-all-day if you wanted to, and I always did; the fine clothes worn on fine women, the slickest men in the most beautiful suits, the best-dressed, most creatively-tailored audience you’d ever want to see. And I was there, between I think, 1962 and 1964. Who didn’t I see? Otis Redding, for some reason, though he performed there once and I was in town. I have always regretted missing that show. Always.
I took it all in. Later in my life, in my mid-20’s, as a student at the University of Minnesota, I took in other, less glamorous, but no less important sites: I hosted, assisted, chaperoned, gophered for Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton, Ron Carter, Kenny Barron, Buster Williams, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins, Rufus Reid, Randy Weston, Ben Riley, Eddie Gladdon, Hal Galper, Onaje Allan Gumbs, Amina Claudine Myers, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee, Koko Taylor, Faith Ringgold, Michele Wallace, and Angela Davis. And earlier, at another place, another time, I walked next to Muhammad Ali. For 5 minutes.
Magic moments. They mean something, they never diminish. They set a standard by which to live, a nearly impossible yardstick by which to measure oneself. All you can do is try, apologize when you slip, get up and remember where you’ve been and who you’ve been with, who encouraged you, who wanted you to fail.
When we say Theater of Soul makes music of universal appeal, we mean that it is not offensive to anyone, yet it is substantive. It is substantive, but accessible. I am aware of the appeal of the human voice and its effect on people's moods. This is a music of consciousness, as innocent-sounding as it is. I come from the jazz world. I am old enough to remember when jazz was eschewed by the general public, and pooh-poohed by the academics and their institutions. Today, jazz has earned respect, and those who struggled for respectability are iconic, yet I long for the days before institutions and intellectualism took over. We loved the music for its meanings, its codes, its love. I remember the effects that the music of Norman Connors, Pharaoh Sanders, and Lonnie Liston Smith had on us. Different times. Some say that as if it’s an excuse for so much of the garbage that is pushed on us today.
To a large extent, the public has abandoned the music, but to an equal extent many of the musicians of today have abandoned the public. On the other hand, there is some exciting music being made, as well. You can't have it both ways, I suppose. Or can you? Try listening to the music of Theater of Soul or, for jazz in a purer form, listen to the terribly under-rated alto saxophonist Sonny Fortune; technically superior, lyrically emotive, melodically sophisticated. Brilliance and clarity, emotion and maturity. Pure art.
Monk danced and Coleman Hawkins did what he did. Call it what you will, but they communicated. There is no doubt of that. At one time, I memorized and scatted, note for note, his most famous solo, that on Body and Soul from 1936. I used to know it. But we had to eat. Bills had to be paid.
This music is, intentionally, all over the place. I am a retired technical writer. I bring the discipline of my profession to my artistry, and attempt to channel the passion of those listed above to my performances, with an emphasis on the type of crowd-pleasing entertainment that was honed and refined by the masters of Vaudeville. Maybe one or two of you remember seeing Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Eubie Blake, Steve Allen, Sammy Davis, Jr., Cab Calloway, and maybe just a few others in concert. Have there ever been such complete entertainers? They were simply brilliant, but not sullen, not aloof, and always smiling when in the public eye.
It was these masters I thought of on a recent trip to Berlin when I saw Mike Russell and his Funk Band at the Quasimodo Club. I was bowled over, not having seen such serious but crowd-pleasing talent in at least twenty years. We, the audience, were putty in his hands. Ah, but Mike is no spring chicken, and after the show we talked about the “old guys” in jazz and R&B, funk and soul, who left everlasting impressions. I am privileged to be able to work with him now. The Berlin audience, the young and the old, only cared about the feeling that was coming from the stage, while some scratched their heads and tried to figure out its roots, even asking a stranger who tapped to every beat.
Theater of Soul is as much a labor of love as it is a commercial enterprise that requires promotion and marketing. But there is no artifice here, no fire-breathing, no narcissistic push and pull. There is rock, blues, gospel, jazz, and R&B, even a bit of Classical meandering, sometimes all thrown into a stew. Anyone from New Orleans will tell you, though, that it's the proportions of the ingredients in the jambalaya that make the crucial difference, that the whole is always more than the sum of its parts. Yes, tap your feet to "Dance Happy," but stop and listen, too, to "The Best of Times," and you may realize what is contained in this music. It is born of years of living and a love of life, And, yes, "Sometimes I Just Want to..." There is true joy, and there is mystical wandering. Yes, move, but stop. Turn it up. Leave your expectations behind and let the music float over you. Just listen. I like a "Funky Discussion." You may be surprised.
There is a different feel on some tracks. "JB Funk," "Rush Hour," "Blues for Timor," and "Memories of Another Time" were produced after the original songs on "Who Are You?" Yes, they are deeper. Maybe some of you will hear that "Memories of Another Time" was inspired by Horace Silver's "Song for My Father," but went to different places. It is my personal favorite.
The next collection will feature vocals that will enable a different type of exploration. Many people will not listen to music that does not contain vocals. Hmm. We will keep on trying, not to please everyone, but to find those of you who like us, who appreciate what we’re trying to do. I started late, but I’ve been here, in some ways, the whole time. Thank you.
Theater of Soul
Original photo by Dr. Jazz. Edited by B.N. Street. Used by permission. All other photos on this site are copyright 2015 by B.N. Street unless otherwise specified.