Nile Rodgers: From Jazz Roots

More than four hitmaking decades into his career, the leader of Chic still regards jazz as an inherent part of who he is

Nile Rodgers at the Power Station, New York, April 6, 1983
Nile Rodgers at the Power Station, New York, April 6, 1983 (photo: Ebet Roberts)

How were those first gigs Ted got for you? Were you ready?

[Laughs] The first time they pulled the oldest trick in the book on me. Ted had me sub for him in Joe Newman’s big band at this place that was around the corner from where I grew up called Boomers. They welcomed me, and first song, they call “Cherokee” at an easy pace—“One … and two … and … how’s this feel, brother?” Like they were making sure I could keep up. I said, “Okay,” and then they went—“One-two-three … [sings fast] Baah-buh-buh-buh, baaah-buh-buh-buh …” [Laughs] I was flying. That was the test. I didn’t know about that trick. I was like, Whoa, come on, Ted, what did you get me into? But I was hanging. I was totally hanging. I only played with Joe Newman a couple of times but I have a million funny stories about that.

I’ve heard Boomers was a special place.

My girlfriend worked at Boomers. Back then the vibe was so great in the Village in general, and it was so great at Boomers. I related to those people on a very spiritual level. I came to realize that Boomers was the music that I really loved and had this passion for since I was a child, growing up with modern jazz. I grew up with that sense of community.

Boomers booked everything from piano trios to big bands. You’d see everything from guys like Joe Newman to some of the cooler, hipper, more avant-garde quartets and trios. It was very competitive because it was all happening in a very small area—Boomers, the [Village] Vanguard, the [Village] Gate, Sweet Basil, tons of hip little jazz clubs, so they had to be competitive—but it was hard to be successful because you’re copying most of the musicians who were hanging out there.

I’ll tell you one story about somebody I knew from seeing him at the jazz clubs. This was after Chic got big and “I Want Your Love” was a hit. I was walking on the street and somebody walked up behind me and tapped me on my shoulder and says, “I hear what you’re doing, youngblood.” I turn around and it’s Harold Mabern, and he’s making like he’s playing the chords to “I Want Your Love.” [Sings melody] He was making it clear he heard McCoy Tyner in it. He was right! In fact, I use lots of fourths to play melody while keeping a funky chordal structure.I got that from McCoy, and I got outed by Harold Mabern, and I was so proud that he was cracking on me.

See, these were the guys that I sat around worshipping. I would go to their gigs and sit in the audience and go, “Damn, one day I want to be one of those guys.” And through my teacher Ted Dunbar, I slowly was becoming one of those guys. So I could never make a complete about-face and leave that behind.

So you’d hang and play at jazz clubs and you were taking on R&B gigs too.

You can sort of tell when I started to switch from one style to the other by my guitars. At one point I’m playing in an R&B band and I got a big hollowbody jazz guitar and we’re playing funk, we’re playing popular music, we’re playing rock & roll, whatever was happening on the charts. There’s this BBC documentary [on Rodgers] called The Hitmaker, and you hear Rob Sabino telling the story about one day we’re playing “The Boys Are Back in Town” and I have to take solos that are feedback-y and shreddy and dive-bomb, and then shift to a funk tune like “Skin Tight.” You sound silly doing that with a Barney Kessel [guitar]—you got tape over your F-holes so it doesn’t feed back, but it still feeds back. After I bought my Stratocaster I still wanted to have a big Gibson, so now I had enough money to buy a secondary guitar.

That was when we were gigging and gigging on the chitlin’ circuit and traveling all over the world. Bernard had gotten the gig as musical director for the backup band to a group called New York City that was from Philly and had a connection to the O’Jays. They had a big hit called “I’m Doin’ Fine Now,” so we were touring with them, and because they’re New York City, we started calling ourselves the Big Apple Band, and we were all opening for the Jackson 5.

This was 1973—it was their first world tour and this was the American leg. Michael Jackson liked me because I dressed weird and didn’t quite fit in, but his father hated it and said to me, “Nile, if you come dressed like that tomorrow I’m going to fire you.” I said, “Sure, Joe, you’re going to fire me from a band you don’t even manage.”

That’s a kind of a feather in the cap, I guess—getting fired by Joe Jackson.

That was my jazz snobbery coming out. I was thinking, “I don’t want to be doing this gig anyway—I’m just doing it for the money. If you fire me, cool. Then I get to go home to the Village and jam with my boys and make $10 a night.”

When we weren’t playing for other people, Bernard and I still played as the Big Apple Band and I’m not bragging, we were a spectacular band. You can go online and look at the two clips of us from ’76—we’re playing “Getaway” by Earth, Wind & Fire and “You Should Be Dancing” by the Bee Gees. We’re just a guitar band, no horns or keys, but it sounds good

Playing in those old clubs and the local bars in the ’hood on the weekend—it was great. It was our version of being the cats.

Around ’75 you got involved with disco. I’m guessing it had something to do with all the discos starting to open up around the city.

It was just amazing—that time and the spirit. I never was in a room full of strangers that were so friendly in my entire life. I was like, “Wow.” All of these people dancing together were friendly and loving and having a great time. My girlfriend and I would try to imitate the dances that they were doing, like the Hustle. There was this one club we’d go to, I can’t remember the name but I can tell you the exact location, it was in the Village in my ’hood: 8th Street and Broadway, right on the corner where there’s a BMT subway station. It used to be a Steak & Brew, which went defunct and it turned into a disco, and it was at that disco that I had a complete metamorphosis and went from being this person who was trying so hard to compete and belong and be one of the cats, to someone who could just walk into a club and already was one of the cats—we were all on the same level just by walking in there, and that’s what this music made me feel like.

How do I explain that to people? I can’t write that kind of lyric. Paul Simon, he’s a genius and can ask, “Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?” I don’t know how to do that. So instead I say, “Yowsah! Yowsah! Yowsah! I want to boogie with you.”

Even though people talk about Chic in a romantic way, some Chic songs are ambiguous, like “Good Times.” We wrote the song in the midst of a very bad financial and political period in America. It was our kind of ironic lyric—we were trying to point out that things weren’t so good, but that music, film, dance, or any kind of performing art gives you the space to escape and get lost for a moment and get yourself together. And that was okay.

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.