This music is meant to possess a universal appeal, as distinguished from a mass appeal. It is meant to be enjoyed in solitude or when socializing with a group. Maybe some songs are best enjoyed alone in a room at 2 AM with headphones on, perhaps asking yourself questions you haven’t asked in a long time as an ever-changing world shifts yet again. Perhaps some songs suggest socializing, eating good food, and enjoying the company of friends. And some songs present questions. As one song title says, Sometimes I Just Want To… something; dance, tap your feet, shake your head, rock your hips, just be happy for no particular reason. That’s what music can do for you. That is how I felt as I was educated and grew up, partially in all-black North Philadelphia and partially in the city's slowly integrating middle-class suburbs.
My grandmother lived in a very important area of North Philadelphia, 1 block from The Uptown Theater, known simply as "The Uptown.” I am grateful that I understood the significance of that building and that time, the early 1960’s, 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 is gone. Regret often follows. My Great Regret from that time is the early death of my Grandmother, my only source of love in a family full of intelligent, physically attractive narcissists, eagerly chasing lives which they did not understand only to be found, bitter and full of dread and self-pity, years later.
It was 1961 and I was 10 years old. I visited my Grandmother as often as I could, making the long trek, alone by bus and, later with a pesky younger brother in tow, by bus and subway, from just beyond the farthest reaches of Northeast Philadelphia--Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where I lived with my brother and parents--to the grit, excitement, and danger of North Philadelphia. The importance of these trips was in the fact that my Grandmother always gave me a few dollars to attend stage shows by many of the most popular, and some who also turned out to be among the best, performers of their day, at an important time in the history of R&B, and which coincided with the Golden Era of Motown: James Brown and the Famous Flames, 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 Tennessee Mad Lads, The Artistics, The Moments, and Chuck Jackson. They were introduced by Giants of the Philly Scene, the deejays Georgie Woods and Jimmy Bishop. They came and made music with a band that I still remember, Sam Reid and His Band of Reknown, I think they called themselves. I had the distinct pleasure of working with Sam Reid only several years ago as he provided charts and played on my composition titled “Um-Di-La."
The memories of these artists performing came from just a quick jog, closing my eyes and visualizing the stage again; girls screaming as James Brown threw off his cape, big man Billy Stewart’s stutter/scatter, beautiful Barbara Lynne’s sweet, jazzy melodies, The Miracles swaying and singing background to Smokey Robinson, and the sophisticated choreography and harmonies of The Four Tops and The Temptations, sometimes battling for the loudest cheers from the crowd as they put all of their talent into winning "The Battles of the Bands,” similar to the contests at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, but on an enhanced level, the professional version. This is my truth and it will always be. 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 middle-class 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 most sophisticated and 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, 1961 and 1964. Who didn’t I see? Otis Redding, for some reason, though he performed at The Uptown for a week 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, shows, but in the jazz world, a different scene altogether: I hosted, assisted, and chaperoned 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. Some years after that, I assisted the Coltrane-inspired tenor saxophonist Odean Pope. And earlier, at another place and in another time, I walked next to Muhammad Ali, for 5 minutes.
Magic moments in the education of the young. Their meaning never diminishes. 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 and 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, yet accessible. It is music of consciousness and innocence and adult recognition. 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 many of those who struggled for respectability have earned iconic status, yet I long for the days before institutions and intellectualism, commercialism, and “projects” exerted such a force on the music. The music of John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Art Blakey and other "less important" artists affected us--that is, all of us who cared--deeply, viscerally. Most of us felt no need for intellectual analysis, yet knew the music was important, that it contained within it all of our history and all of our hearts. And today?
"Different times, different times," some say, as if that is an excuse for the garbage that is forced on us as we go about our days, longing for, searching for, something better.
This isn’t to say that many artists are not trying to create lasting, important music. On the contrary, some are trying too hard. The musicians of that period created music that coincided with other unique world events in a world that will never be the same again. There are many theories floating about as to why new music of that emotional caliber is perhaps wishful thinking--though the technical abilities of some of the "old guys” have been exceeded by more recent musicians--even as others cite an emotional relationship to music that to others is the equivalent of boots scraping on stony ground: one-time geniuses, shrinking music departments, too many distractions, lack of concentration, over-commercialization, ineffective business models, poor theorizing, no discipline, family structure, and others. I can think of several musicians who are hailed in the music press as important: mere technical wizards, emotionally unavailable and publicly irrelevant.
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. This is not to say that there is no exciting music being made. Quite the contrary. You can't have it both ways, I suppose. Or can you? Theater of Soul attempts to be a cog in the wheel of progress, to return to days of technical facility and emotive expression in newer forms that use electronics in innovative ways.
On the other hand, for jazz in a purer form that glistens with emotion, 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 I had to leave it alone. The marketplace decided. I had to eat. Bills had to be paid.
This music is, intentionally, all over the place. As a retired technical writer in Information Technology, 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 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. However, on recent trips to Berlin, American funk guitarist Mike Russell and blues singer Eb Davis showed us much of that kind of pure, old school entertainment. And all-around singer and musician Kenny Wesley enthralled us in positive talent, spirit, and light. Sheer delight. We didn't stop there, though. In Paris we saw Mauritian jazz pianist Jerry Leonide, a rising star and beautiful soul. Yes, things are looking up.
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. As anyone from New Orleans will tell you, though, 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.” This is music borne from 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 "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 the release "Who Are You?” They represent a slight change, a desire to appeal to an audience that will at least meet me halfway, to listen a little harder, to allow a ride on an existential plane. Maybe some of you will hear that "Memories of Another Time" was inspired by Horace Silver's "Song for My Father." It is my personal favorite.
The next collection will feature vocals that will enable a different type of exploration. 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.