Experiencing Jimi Hendrix : For today’s budding crop of black rock musicians, he’s more than a guitar hero--he’s a role model


Some sounds speak directly to the subconscious--the blast of a cherry bomb, the howl of a siren . . . the scream of Jimi Hendrix’s feedback at the start of “Foxy Lady.”

If Jimi Hendrix were alive, he would be 47 on Monday. To mark the occasion, the Black Rock Coalition--a nonprofit organization formed to fight racism and combat negative stereotypes in the music industry--will present the first “Jimi Hendrix Birthday Celebration” at the Music Machine in West Los Angeles at 8 p.m. on Monday.

In a field almost exclusively populated by white musicians, Hendrix has served as a role model for a cadre of young black rockers. His achievement was to reclaim title to a musical form pioneered by black innovators like Little Richard and Chuck Berry in the 1950s.


For years, critics and musicians in pop circles have hailed Hendrix--who died on Sept. 18, 1970, as a result of inhalation of vomit due to barbiturate intoxication--as one of the most creative and influential rock guitarists ever. But his impact on today’s budding crop of black rock musicians runs even deeper.

“I think of Hendrix in the same context as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X,” said Vernon Reid, guitarist for Living Colour and a founder of the Black Rock Coalition.

“To me, he was one of the seminal black figures. Unfortunately, people get so wrapped up in his guitar playing that they tend to overlook what he did with sound and composition. Like Coltrane, Miles (Davis) and Ornette (Coleman), Jimi’s presence fundamentally changed the equation.”

Lenny Kravitz, whose ‘60s-influenced solo debut album, “Let Love Rule,” has received kudos from critics and in college and alternative radio circles, cites Hendrix as a crucial link in the development of black music.

“For Jimi radio airplay wasn’t the premise,” Kravitz said. “He didn’t just write hit songs or hooks. Back then rock music was about free expression and Jimi was an innovative artist at the top of his form. People tend to forget that rock ‘n’ roll is black music--not just white people either. Black people forget too. Hendrix opened the doors for guys like me. He is the perfect example of a black artist doing what he wanted to do.”

Billy Nelson, who plays bass for the BRC (Black Rock Coalition) All Stars, the band that will open the Music Machine bill (local rockers Total Eclipse and East Coast rappers Culture Shock are also scheduled), says it would be impossible to overestimate Hendrix’s importance in the local black rock community.


“Hendrix did for rock what Charlie Parker did for jazz,” Nelson said. “He was like a modern-day Bach or Beethoven, a musical mastermind who came in and completely changed the entire scene.”

Proceeds from the Hendrix tribute will be used by the BRC to underwrite the coalition’s ongoing campaign to secure a star for Hendrix on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame. Local BRC co-director Ray Jarvis says the coalition chose to single out Hendrix’s contribution because his music represents the “essence of what the BRC is all about.”

The BRC was established in 1985 by Vernon Reid, writer Gregg Tate and film producer Konda Mason. Local directors MaryAlice Bailey, Norwood Fisher, Mason and Jarvis opened the Los Angeles chapter in May.

“It’s funny, this idea of treating black rock like it’s a separate sub-genre of rock,” Reid said. “When a white band like AC/DC plays rock, they’re actually playing black music. Rock ‘n’ roll was created by black musicians.”

Reid believes that Hendrix’s race is central to his relevance.

“Who could listen to ‘Machine Gun’ without thinking about black soldiers in Vietnam?” Reid asked. “It’s because he was black that his version of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ is so powerful. It’s too bad that Jimi was taken from us before he could really explore the jazz direction.”

BRC member Dr. Frank Gilliam, a professor in UCLA’s political science department, says one reason Hendrix is so revered is because his music helped many middle-class black rock fans overcome a social identity crisis they experienced during the late 1960s.

“Some of us in the BRC were raised in the suburbs, the first wave of black working-class children,” Gilliam said. “When we were growing up, rock was not cool music for black kids to enjoy. Either you listened to ‘soul’ music or else you were considered ‘whitewashed.’ ”

According to Gilliam, Hendrix’s music and his anti-war, pro-civil rights political stance offered black teen-agers who loved rock ‘n’ roll a new ethnic role model--a black man internationally respected for modernizing black roots music who was unafraid to experiment with Anglo-cultural influences.

“Jimi personified the ‘transculturation’ of America for middle-class blacks,” Gilliam said. “He validated our position in society, the fact that we were proud to be black, but also not enslaved by the black experience.”

Hendrix’s penchant for loud, dissonant feedback altered the course of funk music too. Many R&B; musicians who cut their teeth on James Brown and Sly & the Family Stone were stunned by the power of his eclecticism.

George Clinton, whose work has influenced black stars from Prince to De La Soul, says Hendrix’s psychedelic approach to the pentatonic scale not only taught him to respect blues music, but also encouraged him to experiment in new directions.

“Jimi was definitely the one we held up when we wanted to reach for something,” Clinton said. “The way he could control feedback and make it sound so symphonic truly transcended logic. There were no boundaries to his playing. One minute he would sound like Curtis Mayfield, next thing he’d be doing Ravi Shankar. His music gave me the freedom to go out and be anything I felt like being musically.”

Coalition members also consider Hendrix to be the first rock musician to seriously explore atonal improvisation with amplified feedback and electronic distortion. During the late 1960s, his efforts in this regard drew praise from respected figures in the jazz community like Miles Davis and Gil Evans. In Davis’ 1989 autobiography, the trumpeter credits Hendrix with influencing his shift toward a more rock-edged sound.

James Marshall Hendrix was born in Seattle on Nov. 27, 1942. Before bursting on the pop scene as a headliner in 1967, he worked the chitlin circuit as a sideman. Between 1963 and 1965, he toured with and/or performed session work for many R&B; stars, including King Curtis, Ike & Tina Turner, the Isley Brothers, Jackie Wilson, James Brown, Solomon Burke and Little Richard.

Little Richard remembers Hendrix as a consummate showman who strongly resented the racism he encountered in the music industry: “Jimi helped open up rock ‘n’ roll to black music. He broke down the doors and burned up all the wood. He was one big package.”

Hendrix moved to England when he was 23 and began pioneering new musical genres like metal and fusion before they even had names. Within a year of linking up with drummer Mitch Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding to form the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Hendrix was cutting gold albums and selling out international tours.

After that integrated power trio folded in 1969, Hendrix created the Band of Gypsies with black musicians Buddy Miles (drums) and Billy Cox (bass) and began to publicly support the political struggles of blacks, American Indians and Vietnam veterans.

During his life, Hendrix’s playing not only dazzled his fans and and peers, but it also impressed many of the artists whose styles he emulated. During the course of his career, he jammed with pioneers like Roland Kirk, B.B. King and Muddy Waters.

Curtis Mayfield, whose influence on Hendrix is evident in compositions like “Little Wing” and “Electric Ladyland,” says that even though he had the opportunity to play with Hendrix, he still stands in awe of the late guitarist’s abilities.

“Jimi’s approach to music transcends racial barriers. His imagination spoke to people on a deeper level than that,” Mayfield said. “With the psychedelics and what have you, he was almost like a scientist, studying the effects.”

Although Hendrix released only five albums during his brief career, his legacy lives on. In the 19 years since his death, six official compilations and more than 400 bootleg records have appeared on the market.

Bob Merlis, head of publicity at Warner Bros. Records, says Hendrix is still the label’s most consistent seller. His original five albums have all reached the 3 million sales mark. Nine albums have been digitally remastered and reissued as CDs on Warner Bros./Reprise. “Smash Hits,” a best-of collection first released in 1969 and containing such classic Hendrix numbers as “Foxy Lady” and “Purple Haze,” was re-released early this month in CD, and comes complete with a new high-tech graphics track that allows fans who own JVC’s new CD-plus-graphics unit to view synchronized psychedelic imagery while listening.

For serious fans, a musical transcription series called the Jimi Hendrix Reference Library is also available in album-and-book packages from Hal Leonard Publishing. The latest addition to the catalogue is called “Variations on a Theme: ‘Red House’--Evolution of the Blues,” featuring narration and singing by blues legend and Hendrix fanatic John Lee Hooker.

Unlike other prominent music figures of the 1960s’ anti-Establishment drug culture, Hendrix seems to have little difficulty competing in today’s techno-synth market. Producer Alan Douglas, who runs Are You Experienced, the Hollywood company that merchandises all official Hendrix estate music and memorabilia, estimates that 75% of Hendrix’s current audience is between 12 and 20 years of age.

“Jimi is no nostalgia figure,” Douglas said. “He is still a relevant force in rock. Kids today relate to his music as if he was still alive.”