Jimmy James Talks About the Common Language of Music for Black History Month

Black History Month, Interviews
photo by Renata Steiner

In celebration of Black History Month, KEXP’s Alina Santillan interviewed numerous local and national African American artists about what Black History Month and Black Future mean to them. Guitarist Jimmy James of the True Loves and Delvon Lamarr Trio talks about one of his biggest musical influences.

KEXP: What do either Black History or Black Future mean to you?

Jimmy James: I look at it as the cultural contributions to American history, which could be lots of different things. You know, in science, the arts, music, you know. Just so many contributions that are recognized worldwide because a lot of it's been our... wow, I don't even know how to explain it. It's just a contribution that the world has seen and has been influenced by. It's a huge cultural influence. If you say "music" -- I mean, everything from blues to jazz to rock n roll to soul music to rhythm and blues to hip-hop, rap. It can be so many things. I don't really think of it as a month. It's 365 days a year. It's celebrated throughout. 

What artist has been really influential to you as an individual or as an artist? 

There's a lot. I can't even pinpoint just one. It's kind of like a Lay's potato chip (laughs), you can't just eat one. 

Ok, I'll give the first start. I have to give it up to Seattle's own guitar genius, the left-handed man known as James Marshall Hendrix or as we know him, Jimi Hendrix. I mean, that right there, just to know that he's from my hometown. If it wasn't for him, there would be a huge void, not just him as a guitarist but as a musician, period. He changed the scale of what guitar later would be, the future of it. There's so much debt owed to him like that. 

You know, same thing if you look at rock n roll, people like Sister Rosetta Tharpe. She was the mother of rock n' roll. And then Chuck Berry came along and many others. If I say other influences, I have to say most people wouldn't have noticed him. Musicians do. But everybody's heard him. If you listen to any Motown record, James Jamerson, the great bassist who played on everything from the intro to "My Girl" to the melodic intro hook on "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." Songs like "Uptight" by Stevie Wonder, "Nowhere to Run" by Martha & the Vandellas. I mean, the list goes on. But he was the man who was like the "Father of Modern Electric Bass."  I could go, James Brown. I could go, Aretha Franklin. I could list people like Bessie Smith, the "Empress of Blues," who was a huge influence. I could talk about Louis Armstrong. I could talk about B.B. King, Muddy Waters. I mean, all the blues players, just so many. It's just so many influences that I don't know if I can name them all. 

What about a current musician? One that's been present in your life as you've been playing music? That you've got to play with or have experiences with? 

I wish I could say current. But you know they passed in 2016. Miss Sharon Jones. She was one of those people... and the band. She made people like me feel comfortable to go out and play the music that I love to play. You know, when you're like 15-years-old, everybody's listening to, what is the popular thing of the week. And I was never that kid. I was never the person to just sit and say, "OK, well everybody else is doing it. It's the cool thing to do. I should be doing it." And nobody forced me into it, it's just this music spoke to me. Like when I hear songs like "Johnny B. Goode" or I would hear Wilson Pickett's "Mustang Sally" or Little Richard's "Lucille." I remember my peers used to look at me, like "you're crazy." It spoke to me because there was real lyricism. There was a story to be told. 

And from that point, that's what I was into. And then I heard Sharon Jones and her band play. I came across a CD. I was like, "Sharon Jones! Let's put it on, let me see what this is about." I was like, "Wow, this must be from 1965 or something like that." I told my sister, "I heard this album by Sharon Jones called Dap Dippin' with Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings," and she was like, "you know they're current, right?" I said, "There's no band like that nowadays. Who plays like that? Really?" and my friends were like, "They really exist." I said, "Prove it."  

My friend said, "Hey, I got a spare ticket at Chop Suey. They're coming to Chop Suey." So I saw them stroll in. It's a hot day. Everybody is just packed like sardines. So I said, "You know what, I'm gonna check this out." They started off before she even got on. And my jaw was just to the floor. I said, "This just can't be real." But it was. And so as I was waiting it, and then Sharon strolls out there. End of story. That was right there. I was a instant fan. You know, instant fan right then because I was like, "This is the way you do it." I didn't realize her age -- not that that really mattered, but I thought to myself... You know how they say, if you're over 40 and up, and it's like her and Charles Bradley proved that no matter what age you are. She was in her 40s. He didn't get signed 'til he was like in his 60s. Well, the age brackets thrown out the door. They proved to the world that, we can do it, you know. And there are people who are still out there doing it like Mavis Staples. That's another person I would love to meet. They still out there doing it, they're in their 70s. 

They're still out there doing it and they're giving it their all, because the way they do music, they do it for their life and they do it because they want to do it, they love it. And when going back in time, like when I would read stuff about B.B. King and Motown and what they had to deal with in the '60s, and you read about Billie Holiday, and what they all had to endure just to either feed their families to take care knowing that they could be lynched at any time. So when I see these people who have paved a path, I consider them giants. I'm just a student. And all I'm doing is standing on the shoulders of giants so I can look farther, just like somebody else, they stood on the Giants, they stood on the shoulders of someone else and someone else. And when they worked so hard, I can't get up here and say, "Oh, I can't do that. This ain't gonna happen." No, because I owe them a tremendous debt because they paved the trail for me to get where I need to go. 

I look at people like my grandmother, mother, and people like that. Who always had to pave a traill. I see people who say, it's hard. Think about those who came before you. They had it hard. So, if you think you got it bad, somebody else had it worse. You know, I always learn that. You read the stories of Solomon Burke. One time, it's said, he was on a tour and they were on a bus and they were trying to go get something to eat. And so the one member in the band who was not black went in there to go get the food. And as he was trying to get it out, stuff started to fall. And Jimi Hendrix was playing in that band at the time, before he became you know as he is known. He went out to try to help the guy. And then people saw that and saw who the food was going to, and so they got their guns and their axes. And they had to drop the food, get on the tour bus, and leave and start to the next city.

To be honest, I gave it up to those who, like I said maybe most of the world probably hasn't heard the name, but I tip my hat off to him every time I see him. I remember hearing from one of the members of the Funk Brothers who were in the session band for Motown who said, "thank you for keeping the legacy alive." To know that and knowing what they've endured just to get to the top. Man, some people don't even know how good they have it now. You know, I'm not saying that people don't have the struggles. But you can now drink at the fountains you want to drink. And you can play at the places where there's not a colored-section and a white-only section. You know, I mean now you people can be intertwined at a show. Music is supposed to braid everyone together. And that's supposed to be a great thing, and that's what they were trying to do. Ray Charles, all those people who were trying to break those racial lines and say, "Who cares about what the race is about? Everybody's has something in common. We're feeling it." And I think about that when they feel it and they're all there. It's like, who cares if this person's dancing with this person? Music is supposed to bring us closer together. That's what I believe.

That brings me to my next question which is, why does music matter? 

It's kind-of like... you know, some people may not be religious or what have you but, it's kind-of like if you ever been in a church. Musicians are kind-of like being the pastor or the preacher. Audiences would be the congregation. You know somebody will come in. Some people could be having a bad day, or there's a lot going on in this climate right now. And what it does is it makes people forget about their woes or the troubles, or they might be able to toss it out. So when they leave, they're not carrying that with them, and it feels good. Because music is like a prayer, of sorts. 

I've been at shows where you meet people, you know they're listening, they're engaged. It's priceless. It's priceless for people to come to a show and, like I said, they could be having a bad day, or they could happy as well. Maybe it makes their happiness even ten times or 10,000 times more than what it is. And I think it brings together people of different faiths, different races, genders, whatever. 

I also learned, there are people who have language barriers, who like... I remember one time playing in Germany and there was these people who were trying to say something to me and I couldn't understand them. And we couldn't understand each other, you know cause my German is very limited, and I'm sure their English was very limited. Even if we're on a stage and I can't say "hey, this", and they're like, "Huh?" But if we start playing, they pick up what I'm saying. There are people who may not even speak English at all, period. But at the end of the day, it's like there's a common goal because there's not a language barrier there.

It's the same thing with people who may have autism or certain people who have certain functions that's going on their brain that they can't speak, but you put them down in front of an instrument, they'll communicate with you. Take, for example, there was the singer Luther Vandross. He had a stroke. He couldn't remember people's names, but you put a song in front of him, he could remember the lyrics. There's a certain compartment in the brain that, I don't know how it works, but with music, again people who can never speak can get in front of the piano. And if you listen, it's not so much of singing. Close your eyes for a second and listen to it, then you're like "oh, I hear what you're saying." Because now it's not limited. Because our language barriers limit us. We're limited by words. A lot of times it's hard -- like I'm surprised that I'm even speaking right now because even sometimes I'm having hard times finding the words that I really want to say. But it's easier for me to do it behind the instrument versus like I said, stuttering right now. It's easier for me to do it because it flows much easier than me saying, "Oh, I gotta think of what words to say and get to that and get to that -- I don't know if they understand me, or are interpreting it wrong." But with music, nobody can misinterpret that. It's straightforward. It's like basically meat and potatoes, there's no extra stuff on it. It's just, here it is, you can have it, for lack of a better term.

That's why I think music is, it brings people together and there's no language barrier. There's not. It's just it's much easier for people to understand. And they can feel it. There's a great saying that I've always heard -- speaking of the bassist James Jamerson, he told his son, "if you don't feel it, don't play it" and that's what music should be. 

For more and a litany of amazing interviews featuring the incredible African-American musical artists that have shaped our lives, click here for all our Black History Month coverage.

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