James Blood Ulmer: Bad Blood in the City of New Orleans
Two years is a long time but it doesn’t negate a tragic series of events so pivotal as Hurricane Katrina and the devastation on New Orleans. Veteran guitarist and songwriter, James Blood Ulmer has crafted an eleven song concept album about the hurricane’s aftermath titled Bad Blood in the CityThe Piety Street Sessions, released on May 8 on Hyena Records. Ulmer also carefully selected cover material from artists including John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon, Bessie Smith and Junior Kimbrough to help flesh out the details of an event that he will not let recede into the historical distance. To Ulmer, the story wasn’t so much about the storm, which lacerated the Big Easy; the spotlight should have been on the survivors of the hurricane and why they were either misrepresented in the media or forgotten once America had turned the channel from CNN to ESPN.
And Ulmer is no stranger to the difficult attempt to define America as a musician and artistto find spiritual meaning in the sprawling land of the free. His career extends from Baptist roots in gospel music in South Carolina to the R&B chitlin’ circuit before a stint on the free jazz scene with Ornette Coleman. He would also share the stage in bands with Art Blakey, Larry Young and David Murray while releasing strong albums including the groundbreaking Tales of Captain Black. Recently, Living Colour guitarist, Vernon Reid has helped reinvigorate Ulmer’s vision as a great bluesman by producing the albums Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions, No Escape from the Blues, Birthright and his latest opus, Bad Blood in the City. Ulmer has also shared the stage with Susan Tedeschi and Gov’t Mule and appeared in Antoine Fuqua’s documentary, Lightning in a Bottle, which was filmed at Radio City Music Hall.
Jambands.com sat down with Ulmer as he prepared for a series of summer dates including a spot on the Bonnaroo Festival bill. This is an honor he shares with his jazz mentor, the great alto saxophonist Ornette Colemana man whose harmolodic theory of musical and improvisational composition is still present in his guitar work. James Blood Ulmer is a man of many convictions. He does not offer his point of view with the weariness of a jaded wandering pilgrim. Instead, he communicates as a sound sage man who has learned his lessons in life the hard way and isn’t apt to stay silent about them.
RR: Bad Blood in the City: The Piety Street Sessions is about the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. How did you come up with the material for the album?
JBU: When I wrote the songs, I didn’t really know that it was going to be a record of these songs. I watched the whole thing on T.V. and I was writing these songs about New Orleans. That’s what happened. I wasn’t planning on anything when I was doing itwriting ten, eleven or twelve different songs. But it was a different condition that was going on and it seemed like it needed some attentionwrite something to bring attention to what was really going on, not that I did but what they said at that time, themselves.
CNN was saying how terrible, how bad it was and how it affected people. They talked very positively while it was happening. When they were walking through the waters, that black water, they were telling the truth about what was really going on. That’s when I thought it needed to be captured. I knew as soon as the water goes away and everybody gets out of the rain and the storm, the story’s going to get changedlighter and lighter. I wanted to write a song about that moment while everything was existinghow were people reacting? How were people existing? “Bad Blood in the City”they said the brothers were looting and shooting and stuff but the only reason they exist is that they were survivors of the hurricane. There was nothing else to do. (laughs) They’ve got a big T.V. but they can’t plug it in. That was another kind of situation. HeyI was trying to write about the actual cause, the real deal. We picked up all of these other songs, too.
RR: You cover “Backwater Blues” by Bessie Smith and the track sounds like it comes from some really distant place. It has a certain feel and if you’ve been to New Orleans, you know it has that vibea strong spirituality with a faraway presence. “Sad Days, Lonely Nights” by Junior Kimbrough is also filled with that mysterious atmosphereit may or may not be related to Katrina but it has the same resonance.
JBU: Yeah. Yeah. That’s what I was talking about. The songs you mentionI thought that was something that happened in a similar circumstance. I didn’t even know about it. It was just a song that I was singing but they all feel the same kind of way and it has to do with something that should be remembered.
RR: The groove is so strong on “Sad Days, Lonely Nights.” You could rest a house on that groove. That style seems quite distant yet consistent with your work with Ornette Coleman in the 1970s and the harmolodic theory of music. [Author’s Note: harmolodic theory is a musical relationship system devised by Coleman as a way to listen and improvise with other musicians albeit in a very complicated manner.]
JBU: To me, harmolodic was a music system that Coleman came up with as a different way to approach music, a concept of music that was different than the rest of the concepts. That’s how I took it. He told me I was a natural player and I happened to take that seriously because I thought everything I played was naturally harmolodic. I analyzed everything that I was doing and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since I met Colemananalyzing everything about how to do things naturally. Harmolodic is a different concept to what you’re playing. It is a definite music system. Ornette Coleman is a living example of it; he’s playing it; he’s doing it; there are properties to it. I don’t really try to explain Ornette Coleman’s theory. I could but I’m lucky enough to get a concept from it for myself to play the guitar. Everything I do is on the guitar so I explain it though that.
RR: I was impressed by the minimalist straight-talking blues of “This Land Is Nobody’s Land” by John Lee Hooker, which also appears on Bad Blood in the City.
JBU: I felt good doing that song. That song was necessary. It seemed like the song was just now; seemed like a song that was in with the times“This Land is Nobody’s Land.” WOW. (laughs) This was our burial ground. I never thought about that side of the song. It was true. Damn. I felt that real good.
RR: Another song you nailed in its relevance to Katrina is “Old Slave Master,” which is one of your originals and closes the album.
JBU: “Old Slave Master.” (laughs) Oh, yeah. It was a story of my own. People are waiting so long and the thing about it is that with Katrina there was stuff that happened besides Katrina. I realized that when they were advertising the storm in the French Quarter, it was all about the storm. When they went to the 9th wards, it was all about the flood. They got caught in the flood after they got to the 9th ward of Katrina. The flood was mostly there and that included the survivors of the hurricane. Katrina made me think of being a slave or a captive of someonea hostage. If someone is down in a hole with a chain on them and a rope around their neck with a guy standing over them with a gun, it’s hard to think of that in 2007 as being slavery. That is not slaveryto have somebody have you chained down, locked down, whippin’ your ass and beating you up. That’s not slavery. We’re seeing this new age world with people without any special country. It becomes a very hostile type of action for someone to lock somebody down and chain them up. It was like a hostage situation.
Now, we are just reaching a level of slavery that a slave is a person that you have in your house that you treat the same way that you treat yourself. They’ve got the same things that you’ve got; they’re just working for you; you treat them as an equal. The black man in America has a lot of money, now. He’s got all the things that make him an equal but we’re just reaching a level of slavery, now. You’ve got a house, money, a car and now, slavery seems like fun. That’s what “Old Slave Master” is trying to explain. We’re just now reaching a level of slavery in America. Slavery as a hostage situationwhatever you chain up and lock down and force to do what you’ve got to do but the original meaning of a slave is not by force. You can’t force somebody to do something and call them a slave. Katrina brought all of this stuff into view, again. It’s happening. It’s happening. For example, when I was a kid they allowed religion in the schools and that’s why there’s a verse in the song about the schools.
RR: What was it like to grow up in South Carolina?
JBU: Growing up in South Carolina? I didn’t grow up in South Carolina. I graduated from high school in South Carolina. I did everything my father wanted me to do for 18 years. The very first time I left home I was able to not do what he said and do whatever I wanted to do and that’s when I started to grow up.
RR: I can relate to that.
JBU: (laughs) I was raised in South Carolina by Christians. We went to church; we went to schoolwhich was good because all I had to do was go to church and go to school. I didn’t have to do nothing else.
RR: You moved onto Pittsburgh as a young man?
JBU: Yep. I moved to Pittsburgh and that’s when I started music.
RR: Were you the first guitarist to record and tour with Ornette Coleman?
JBU: Yep. I used to have a studio in Brooklyn with a drum kit. I was in the studio one night and Billy Higgins [Coleman’s drummer] came in and started in on drums and we started playing together and everything sounded good. He told me, “Man, I want you to meet Ornette Coleman.” I said, “Damn meet Ornette Coleman? Who’s Ornette?” He said, “He’s an alto player.” I said, “Man, I want to see Ornette.” He took me to Ornette and we played and he had me over again and that’s how I met Ornette Coleman.
He was trying to come down from that band he had with Charlie [Haden, bass] and Billy and Don [Cherry, trumpet and Don Payne, second bass] and Blackwell [Ed, second drummer] and I started playing the guitar with them. When he added me on guitar, [Coleman] broke it down into a quartetguitar, bass, drums and alto saxophone. We played in Carnegie Hall, did two or three tours, toured Europe and played in all kinds of places including festivals. That’s when I studied with Coleman and his harmolodic theorywriting notes down, writing orchestrated music. It was great. It allowed me to play like I played. He made me feel like what I was doing was valuable. There it was; it was a good experience on guitar. I’m still working on the harmolodic theory on guitar.
RR: What about playing with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers?
JBU: Oh, yeah. (laughs) That was a funny gig. After Miles Davis, everybody was trying to get a guitar into the band. Miles has guitar players so everyone else is going to have a guitar player. (laughter) Art wanted to try a guitar in his band. It lasted around six months and we did some gigs but Woody Shaw did not like the guitar. He couldn’t stand that guitar playing behind his horn. Art Blakey liked it. It was good. We had a good bass player, tooa guy by the name of John Dana from Detroit.
RR: How was your experience playing with Larry Young?
JBU: That was cool. Larry was trying to take it to another level. Definitely. He was a very established organ player with Joe Henderson but when he got that groove, he was really going into new areas; he was gone; he took it all the way there. He lived his music.
RR: Didn’t you also play with P-Funk?
JBU: No, what it was was that when I was in Detroit, there was a place called 20 Grand. They had jazz down in the basement and then the show upstairs. Funkadelics was the house band upstairs. I played in the band downstairs. That’s what it was; that’s how I met the Parliament FunkadelicsBootsy [Collins] and all of those brothers in that band. (laughs) They were the house band at that time. They hadn’t left Detroit, yet. They were working on it. They were really working on it.
RR: What has it been like to work with guitarist/producer Vernon Reid on your recent solo projects? [Author’s Note: the Living Colour guitarist has produced the last three James Blood Ulmer albums including Bad Blood in the City.]
JBU: He produced the music and he’s very serious about producing. He actually has ideas. (laughter) Some people have ideas but it don’t do no good. With Vernon, he has ideas and he has things that he really wants to put together and try. He thinks about it. When I found that out about him, I could imagine him producing music to bring out my character. (laughs) It wasn’t just about my character. I was always hiding behind my guitar, always behind the guitar playing something, which no one knew about, but me. I was good at that. He brings out the character and he sees something in me, which was never really shown up frontmaybe, a little bit. He wanted to bring it all the way out. He said, “O.K. I’m going to produce and make you a blues record.” [2003’s No Escape from the Bluesthe Electric Lady Sessions.] It was like a challenge. I said, “Damn, man. What I’m doin’ ain’t good enough?” (laughter) I’ve got to do blues?” That’s what it was; that was his tactic. I said, “If it’s going to be the blues, you’re going to play on it, then.” That made it right. I didn’t do anything; he produced it and it was like how I did Tales of Captain Black with Ornette Colemanhe did everything; all I did was give him the song and play on the track until he stopped the song. He really produced that. I was able to almost almost get a just feeling about it. I didn’t want to sing no song that had anything unholy in it where all of the holiness has left it.
RR: What do you think Reid brought out of you that he felt could be amplified?
JBU: He wanted to see me as a bluesmanthe same spirit, the same stories that Muddy Waters and all of the brothers from the old blues people had experienced.
RR: Did he succeed?
JBU: I think he did as good a job as anybody could do.
RR: You changed direction a little bit after your first project with Reid, No Escape from the Blues, when you recorded a pure solo album on 2005’s Birthright.
JBU: Those were my songs. I was trying to do my music and not do any more covers. I have nothing against cover songs but I wasn’t used to it. In all of my music, I never played anyone’s songs and I missed the publishing. (laughter) When I’m doing covers, I’m not getting any money for it. It’s good, though but I think I’ve done thirty records, now and I want to work on my own stuff so I can enjoy the publishing. I’m getting a little older now so I need to think more about other things. Experimenting was something good but I’ve experimented with a lot of things so I want to try to nail it down a little bit, try to go back to my music. I’ve written music that I thought were blues songs. In all of the blues songs that I covered, I had to sing them the way that I would have sung in my own songs, anyway so it really doesn’t make any difference. It’s the same song; you can sing another song in the same way. The only thing about it is being able to change concepts. Blues is a concept; it’s definitely a concept; it’s something that cannot ever die; a lot of history would be lost if we lost the concept of the blues. It’s good to keep that. I’m a representative of a musical concept.
RR: What are your thoughts about being on the Bonnaroo bill this year?
JBU: I’m going to play the festival with a trio. Having the Police headline the festival made me think about something about that time [in the early 1980s before the Police stopped working together]. I remember during that time, my band opened up for Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols when he had his band Public Image, Ltd. The Police were hot with that trio sound. And now with Bonnaroo, I said, “WOW, man. I’m going to take that trio sound and see if it has caught up with the time.” I thought the Police were ahead of their time and I thought that the band, that trio, I had then was ahead of their time. We had Shannon Jackson on drums and Ali on the bass and he was playing that funk that was so far ahead of its time. I think there’s some people that really want to hear that sound. I don’t know. That’s just another concept.
RR: Speaking of the 1980s, you also played with David Murray during that time.
JBU: I played with David Murray when I got that first band together that recorded Tales of Captain Black. I couldn’t get Coleman to play the gig with me so I got David Murray, Shannon Jackson and Amin Ali. I went out with my first band in New York and we also played in Europe. David made some more records with me in a project I had called the American Revelation Ensemble. I played a lot with David Murray. I remember I asked him to make another record and he said, “Blood, I make more money, now.” I said, “O.K.” He was leaving me, then. But back when we were starting the band in ’79 and ’80, it was awful rough, man, like $50-$60 a gig. It was deep shit. “Blood, I make more money, now.” (laughter)
RR: I’d like to finish by congratulating you on winning France’s 2006 Jazzman of the Year award. I suppose all of that European touring paid off. How did that feel?
JBU: Thank you, man. I don’t know how to feel about those types of things because they’re not really physical. I heard about it after people told me and they finally sent me the award. I’ve got it on top of the T.V. I’m looking at it, right now so I must feel good about it. Yeah, I feel good about it. The only thing is I don’t know nothing about the people who are doing it. I don’t know nothing. You get the award and you don’t have any information about what’s going onwhere it comes from, the address, nobody’s name who is involved; it’s hard to be involved.
_Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com