Olu Dara: Mr. Dara’s Neighborhood
Ridin’ the N train, Brooklyn to 42nd Street: Over and over again phrases like “Never open a wine before its time” and the Chambers Brothers’ chant “TIME!…TIME!…TIME!” bobbed and weaved inside my dome with Olu Dara’s Neighborhoods swerving in my ’phones. Just tuning up for Olu’s gig at B.B. King’s Manhattan juke joint.
Surfacing in the neon-mad Disney/ Warner theme park that is now Times Square, I turned left and cracked up ’cause, in spite of the billion-dollar makeover, 42nd between 7th and 8th Avenue still feels, smells, breathes like the funky, funky Square of back-in-the-days. Fittingly, B.B. King’s is smack dab in the middle of this pimp ghost town. Downstairs, the spot is laid: wood-walled restaurant to the left, main room (room-width back bar, plush booths, banquettes, couches, tables down front) to the right. Can’t be more than 75 folks here and most of ’em don’t exactly reflect Olu’s multiculti audience demographic.
Five minutes after the shrimp Po’Boy sammich comes, Olu’s muted cornet ffrip-frraps the band (percussionist Massamba, guitarist Kwatei-Jones Quartey and bassist Alonzo Gardner) into a big foot-shuffling slice of “Okra.” Midway, Olu starts jew’s-harp twanging some harmonica then takes it all home with a playful chant (“I got po-tay-toes, snap pe-ees, corn...”).
One song told the crowd all they needed to know: Olu Dara—Afrobeats and jazz licks aside—is a straight-up down-home bluesman. The next tune’s (“Natchez Shopping Blues”) black-cat-moan-spooked Delta crawl closes the deelio. The house is rocking now; sounds like a full house. Now the fun begins. Forty-five solid minutes of repaving In the World: From Natchez to New York (his ’98 Atlantic solo debut). “Your Lips” jumps like soca, “Harlem Country Girl”’s jazzy waltz skizzs into Miles-spaced, freestyle-talking blues (“Partying to Wilson Pickett and James Brown in Brooklyn/Going to the Bronx Zoo/All the animals in cages/I don’t like it”). This shit cooks! Less cornet or guitar, more into fiercely rocking the mic, Olu gives the band plenty of room to work things out. Like the way they do the funky-Meters-Afro-boogie-breakdown all over “Movie Show” (Neighborhoods) till it births a whole ’nother song. “When I say ‘Break it down,’ I’m going on an adventure ’cause I don’t know what they’re gonna do and they don’t know what I’m gonna do,” chuckles Mr. D. “Usually when we do that, something happens, something drops out in space and you hear something you didn’t hear in the song before in the way we were playing.”
As he took in the well-deserved standing “o” after a funkadocious set-closing whiff of the new song “Herbman,” the full measure of Olu’s sartorial dapperness—chocolate-brown porkpie hat, honey-brown metallic-rust shirt/pants, bone-neutral socks, amber Italian loafers—elicited an involuntary “Lookin’ sharp!” During check-settling time, Olu shmoozed his way ’round the room: meeting and greeting, signing ’grafs, laughing, answering questions. “We just having fun up here,” he says on the way to the dressing room. “We just trying to give everybody a good time, a party y’know?”
Olu Dara was born knee deep in the Delta—Natchez, Mississippi—in 1941. Blessed with an arts-nurturing extended family circle (lifelong music influence: his blues-crooning grandmother), raised up in a supportive, self-sufficient black community, suckled mind-body-soul 24/7 by the blues-enriched Delta-folk culture, young blood played his first gig at a women’s auxiliary club: nothing but solos; only been playing trumpet a few months. Olu was seven years old. Was it a single-bullet theory of musical destiny in full-effect, a promise of a dream, a rite of passage? Nope. The real truth is quintessential Olu. “I don’t like the horn; I never practice it. I just played it ’cause I was good at it,” muses O.D. “I started playing horn early ’cause the guy said, ‘Look here. Take this, blow it up like you do a balloon and here is the bridge to Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Lady.”’ I didn’t know who Duke Ellington was till I was grown ’cause we never listened to it.”
By high-school graduation, Olu was a working multi-instrumentalist, theater actor, painter, dancer, wood-art carver. He gave college a shot, then dropped out and joined the Navy. He figured his skills would get him a seat in the Navy band, four years of government-subsidized wood-shedding and a chance to jam with cats from Morocco to Trinidad—correct on all three counts. What he didn’t factor in was the nature of the beast: conformity. “I went to one class when I got in the Navy and the guy had an attitude with me ’cause he said I sound like Miles Davis,” laughs Olu. “I don’t think I hardly knew who Miles Davis was [in 1959], yaknowhutahmean? So, he was trying to teach me how to play the horn and I said ‘I don’t want to be in this little room with you.’ He tried to tell me I couldn’t play. And I said, ‘Who, who are you? I’ve been playin’ this way since I was seven years old. You ask what books did I study on? None.’”
Discharged in 1963, O.D. relocated to New York City. He wouldn’t play for eight years. “Guys like me don’t wind up in New York; we’re not even raised not to be around trees and flowers,” chuckles homeboy. “I got stranded in Brooklyn, hustlin’, doin’ this, doin’ that. I was like a foreigner. I’d just go out and listen to music. I’m glad that I didn’t come into New York saying I want to be a musician; I’m glad I didn’t do that. That really saved me because I would have had a certain tunnel vision into one thing. New York is a horn town. Down South, they’re not horn lovers; Midwest, they’re not horn lovers; Minneapolis ain’t horn lovers. Horn lovers are in New York City, period !”
One day in ’70, on a whim, Olu “bought a horn and started messing around, ’cause that was a sign of the times. You didn’t even have to work at that time ’cause there was so much money around during the Lindsay administration.” A year later—boom!—he’s touring the world with Art Blakey. It was a mismatch made in 15-minute heaven. “I didn’t grow up listening to jazz or playing it; when I got with Art Blakey I hadn’t played no bebop before—they thought I had,” says Olu. “To me it was very simple: we got 32 bars here, 16 bars here, and you’re going back and forth, back and forth. So it wasn’t like a thing that was very difficult, it was easy. It was too easy, though; it was too boring for me.” He resigned in early ’72.
From then till now Olu Dara has evolved into the ultimate inside-outside iconoclast in a town full of ’em. Roll call: ubiquitous catalyst in the ’70s jazz-loft underground; mentor to M-Base collective; composer/musical director of several August Wilson plays (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, The Piano Lesson); critically acclaimed collaborations with choreographer Dianne McIntyre; founder/leader of the legendary Okra Orchestra and still-thriving Natchezsippi Band (20 years); father/mentor of hip-hop star Nas (that’s Olu lacing some raspy-edged cornet all up in Nas’ Illmatic track “Life’s a Bitch”); bum-rusher of most of ’98’s best-of polls for In the World.
Olu Dara’s got a new album to flog. Neighborhoods is just like that B.B. King’s gig (less horn, tasty guitar, more sangin’) only far more satisfying. Whereas In the World summed up 30 years worth of musical experimentation (“Bubber (If Only)” = Cotton Club Ellington + spoken word), exploration (“Zora” = theater; “Your Lips” = Ghanaian highlife), extrapolation (“Jungle Jay” = blues bumps/hip-hop baps), excoriation (“Young Mama,” “Father Blues” = Harlem-jizzed country-blues), Neighborhoods ain’t nothin’ but a house party. You got your N’awlins second-line, R&B-bubbling, groove thangs (“Herbman,” “I See the Light” and “Red Ant (Nature)” with swivey-swerve courtesy of Dr. John on pie-ana, organ); James Brownian slow drag (“Bluebird”); and Memphis to Brazzaville funky-chicken breakdown (“Massamba,” with the party chant: “M-a-ss amba...M-ass...M-ass-amba”). Throw in a bit of sweet-rolling soul music (“Used to Be,” featuring Cassandra Wilson), an Afro-beat-subliminal cover of Bahamian guitar legend Joseph Spence’s lilting “Out on the Rolling Sea” and a cool-boppy tribute to Saturday at the movies and it’s same thing but different.
Whether written decades before (“Movie Show”: “Butterfly McQueen/ She’s gone with the wind /Liz Taylor you know, she won the Anatomy Award/Yes she did.”), a week ago (“Neighborhoods”) or right in the studio (“Strange Things Happen Everyday”), these songs flow as one. “It’s like going into your scrapbook and finding old pictures” says Olu. “These old concepts of whatever, old letters. That’s all it is really, some old stuff that I had in my scrapbook that I just wanted to get out and frame ’em. The next record will be something completely different because I have so many pictures lying around. I’m just getting up the old snapshots and people are not going to like all of them.”
Playa haters, purists, critics—ya hear what brotha man’s sayin’? He knows y’all itchin’ to chump Neighborhoods but he ain’t mad atcha. “I really don’t want to be liked too much because if you liked too much, you gonna disappoint somebody sooner or later,” deadpans Olu. “It’s simple as this: I try to give people my experience. In other words, all the music I’ve been around, involved in and seen during my travels, I know it’s unique—as far as the masters are concerned, it’s unique. My thing is to bring them all the stuff that they may have missed in their lifetime so they can see it up close. If they can’t see it up close they can listen to the record. But basically so they can see how all the music is one thing, where it’s about the song and what the music really means.” Translation: Live or on CD, Neighborhoods will most definitely get/keep you open.
“I know what my job is ’cause I started out playing this way when I was a child. My job was to make people happy. My job as a musician, songwriter, entertainer, artist—whatever you want to call it—is to do exactly what I want to be done for me when I get around music. I want to enjoy myself along with the musicians. My job is not to intimidate them and their job is not to intimidate me. It’s a simple thing; it’s a duty.”
“I always use the same horns I grew up with. I use used horns, never buy new horns because I like the way those horns sound; I like how they were made back in the day. I have two or three; they’re all Olds Ambassador cornets. Mutes—that Tupperware bowl right there [laughs]. I do use the Harmon mute but I always use it with the stem in it. I never take the stem out and get that Miles Davis sound hardly ever. I use it as a plunger, too. And, of course, the Gibson ES-125 guitar, the harmonica, wooden African drum. I don’t bother with amplifiers, I just use a [direct input] when I go out.”
“I don’t listen to anything. Don’t have time for that. My job is to listen to myself so I can learn about who I am and make my band better. I go outside and listen to live music all the time. Not a week in my life has ever gone by that I wasn’t even playing it or being around it. Sometimes I don’t come in till the next afternoon.”
Originally published in March 2001