Ray Charles is a study in motion. Seated on a piano bench in the keyboard-filled studio of his L.A.-area production facility, he is almost continually mobile. Arms and hands move to make a point, his feet sometimes dance, and he rocks back and forth with the flow of his conversation.
Occasionally, as if to underscore the connection, he responds to a conversational comment by tossing his head back and shouting, “Yes! That’s it!” or “All right, brother!” His sudden, explosive reactions have the same quality of punctuation that is generated when his band’s trumpet section punches out riffs behind his vocals. It is almost as though the jazz rhythms at the center of his music continually flow through his body with the electric spontaneity of improvisation.
Because, for everything else that is present in Ray Charles--the blues, gospel music, spirituals, soul and country--it is jazz that is at the heart of what he does and who he is as an artist.
“Seriously, man,” says veteran producer, composer and entertainment business mogul Quincy Jones, a close friend since he and Charles were teenagers in Seattle, “jazz was his foundation. He loved Nat Cole, and Nat was a jazz piano player first.”
Charles and his orchestra appear Wednesday night at the Hollywood Bowl with singer Nnenna Freelon, as part of the Lexus Jazz at the Bowl series. He will undoubtedly survey the enormous range of songs that have made him one of the most versatile artists in 20th century American popular music. But it won’t require a particularly discerning ear to hear what Jones describes as Charles’ “jazz sensibility” in virtually every number.
How good could he have been, had he chosen a pure jazz career? Very good, indeed. And he had a number of options. His recordings from the ‘50s reveal Charles’ first-rate improvisational skills as a pianist and as an alto saxophonist--the latter not one of his more widely known talents. In addition, his singing in settings resembling the early jazz outings of Cole and his trio had the potential to evolve into a highly individual jazz singing style.
Ahmet Ertegun--founder, co-chairman and co-CEO of Atlantic Records, who first signed Charles to a major label contract in the ‘50s--agrees.
“Ray Charles was a bebopper when I first heard him,” says Ertegun. “And when we signed him, I encouraged him to make some jazz sides, and I produced his first jazz session with bassist Oscar Pettiford. I remember playing some of the tunes for Dave Brubeck at the time. Dave had never heard of Ray, but when he heard him he said, ‘My God, he’s fabulous. He plays even better than Nat Cole.’ ”
Doubters who are only familiar with Charles’ pop and country songs are directed to that early work on Atlantic. “The Great Ray Charles,” for example, with Jones’ arrangements and a band that included saxophonists David “Fathead” Newman and Hank Crawford, is a marvelous instrumental album, a breakthrough in the interfacing between bop and soul. And, on “Soul Brothers,” with vibist Milt Jackson, Charles is featured on both piano and alto saxophone, with his work on the latter descending in a direct line from Charlie Parker.
Charles can recall almost the precise moment that jazz in general, and bebop in particular, hit him.
“I was just a kid,” he says, “and I was totally overwhelmed when a friend of mine started me listening to the Jazz at the Philharmonic albums.”
The albums, particularly popular with jazz fans in the ‘40s and ‘50s, chronicled live jam sessions by extraordinary lineups of performers that included artists such as Parker, Lester Young, Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge and dozens of others.
“It was like nothing I ever heard before,” Charles continues. “It was so new, so good, so innovative, that I just had to be a part of it. If you cared about music, you just couldn’t let it go by and not get involved in it. At least I couldn’t.”
When he met Quincy Jones, they were teenagers, two years apart in age. It was the start of a friendship that has remained constant to this day.
“If I’ve got a dime,” says Charles, “Q’s got a nickel of it.”
“Ray’s the one who got me turned on to writing,” says Jones. “He’d sit there and tell me, ‘See, this is a dotted quarter note, and the trumpets play this, and the trombones do that.’ I was 14 and he was 16. That was a long time ago. Before electricity.”
Not exactly before electricity, but a while back, in the mid-'40s, a time filled with musical energy and creativity. Seattle, like virtually every other major city in the country, was bursting with jazz energies, many of them triggered by the arrival of bebop, at that time a revolutionary new approach to jazz that gripped every young musician.
“We first met,” Jones recalls, “at the bebop sessions in Seattle’s red light district. The pattern was that we all played from 7 to 10 in supper clubs--you know, tunes like ‘Room Full of Roses’ with discreet cup mutes on the trumpets. Then at 10 o’clock we’d go to the black clubs--the Rocking Chair and the Black and Tan. And the Washington Educational & Social Club. That one always cracked me up. Proprietor, Rev. Silas Grove. He didn’t have a liquor license. Everybody brought their own whiskey, and we’d go there for the strip dances and the comedians.
“Then, at 2 a.m., we’d all go to the Elks Club and play bebop for nothing. That’s where everybody met, no matter what other gigs they had. That’s where we really lived--in the music. What was the latest Bird tune, or Miles record? Or Dizzy’s band would come through and we’d be out there to hear him. It was another world, and all we cared about was playing bebop.”
Charles recalls the emphasis upon the music, but insists that Jones was “much more social” than he was.
“Quincy used to wake me up every morning at 9 o’clock,” he says. “ ‘You gotta show me how to do those chords.’ That was when we were listening to the Dizzy Gillespie big-band things.”
But he also remembers that, despite his greater experience with composing and arranging, even at a very early age, he found the new rhythms and harmonies of bebop to be extremely challenging.
“I had to grow into that music,” he says. “I’d be a liar if I said I was suddenly enriched, because I wasn’t at that stage yet where that could happen. What it did was make me want to go to the woodshed to practice and try to improve.”
It also drove Charles to listen to everything he could manage to hear.
“Yeah, we used to go to the clubs and listen to guys who really could play,” he recalls. “And there were a lot of guys who didn’t have names but still had the music down. What was really exciting, though, was when you’d hear an album by somebody like Hank Jones or Thelonious Monk, and you couldn’t help but say, ‘Damn! What was that?!’
“Not to mention Art Tatum. Now to me, that was God, bar none. He did more with his left hand than most people did with both hands. People used to talk about how he would just reach down and pick up a little beer and never stop playing. And you didn’t even know that one hand stopped. Guys like that don’t come along very often. You’re not going to have any more Charlie Parkers or Art Tatums in this century. You’re never going to get an abundance of Chopins or Beethovens.”
Or, for that matter, of Ray Charleses. And his ascendancy to legendary status as a popular artist is a rare example of a true rags-to-riches, triumph-over-adversity saga.
Born Sept. 23, 1930, in Albany, Ga., he and his parents moved shortly thereafter over the border to Greenville, Fla.
“Talk about poor,” says Charles. “We were on the bottom of the ladder.”
He lost his sight, apparently to glaucoma (although he has no medical reports to confirm the cause), at age 7. But he was drawn to music virtually from the beginning. In his autobiography, Charles recalls his fascination with the piano at the early age of 3. A few years later, when he had the opportunity to take music at school, he studied the clarinet, because the piano classes were full. “But that was OK,” he says. “Because I loved Artie Shaw’s clarinet playing. Everybody else was into Benny Goodman, but I was into Artie Shaw. He could play everything Benny Goodman could play, but play it with more feeling.”
Accepted as a charity student at the St. Augustine School for the Blind, he learned to play piano, type, read Braille and the fundamentals of music. By the time he was 12, he was writing music for the institution’s orchestra.
“It had 15 or 16 pieces,” he says. “But it wasn’t hard for me to do. I could write a whole arrangement without ever touching the paper. If you’re a piano player, you know the chords, you know where the saxophones and the trumpets are supposed to be. If you know what it’s going to sound like in your brain, and you’ve studied harmony and orchestration, you can do it. It’s like Beethoven. He went deaf, but he still composed, didn’t he?”
Charles spent his early teens working around Florida with a variety of small ensembles. Fervently admiring the early, jazz-based trios of Nat Cole, he constantly tried to imitate his idol, often with considerable success--until he realized that a perfect imitation of another artist was not the same thing as exploring his own creativity.
“It wasn’t really any different from the way it is now,” he says. “There ain’t but one Aretha Franklin. Yet they got these girls out there trying to do her, hollering and screaming, half out of tune. It’s all about being yourself. It just goes back to creativity. There it is, brother.”
Burned out with Florida at 16, he decided to find a place that was as far away as he could get and still be in a city. The answer was Seattle, and Charles took his $500 in savings, bought a bus ticket from Tampa and took off for a new life, new music and new friendships.
He lasted four years in Seattle, then moved down to Los Angeles to make his first recordings for the Swingtime label, and toured on a bill with blues singer-guitarist Lowell Fulson. Two hits emerged from the Swingtime connection--"Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand” and the smash “I Got a Woman"--before Charles’ contract was bought out by Atlantic and his career as a national artist kicked into high gear.
Charles is currently finishing up an album with Jones that includes a series of duets with Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Brandy and others. But his focus is on a project he’s wanted to do for years--a jazz album that he would like to title, with a bit of whimsy, “There’s Only a Few of Us Left.”
“If everything goes right,” he says, “we’re going to start recording it--this is with musicians ‘live,’ real people, no synthesizers or samples or tracking--around January. It’s going to be good, man. I know that because I know what the people I want to use, people like Milt Jackson, can do.”
Jackson, drummer Louis Bellson, tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and arranger Bob Florence are already on board.
“You know, I started talking about this a long time ago with Dizzy Gillespie when he was still around,” Charles says. “He did a big-band thing called ‘Things to Come'--a helluva arrangement--and we were going to do that. But unfortunately he went away on me. [Gillespie died in 1993.] But I’ll tell you, man, I think I’d still like to do it.”
And he probably will. Because jazz has always been present with him, and, at 67, almost 68, he is eager to stay in touch with the roots that are the foundation of his art.
“I was just a kid that came up in the country,” he says, “in a little small southern town. We had a jukebox that played mostly blues--like Muddy Waters, Big Boy Crudup, Tampa Red, people like that. And the radio carried all the country music. I went to Baptist young people’s meetings and Sunday school and services, so that was the church thing. The rest of it, the final piece, came when musicians introduced me to the Charlie Parker recordings, things like that.”
As the conversation comes to a close, Charles’ movements slow down and his voice lowers thoughtfully.
“I guess it’s up to people like me and the Milt Jacksons and the Louis Bellsons,” he says, “to leave something behind that’s a kind of small guide for kids to point to and say, ‘Hey, I just heard Milt Jackson and that inspired me to . . . ,’ or ‘I just heard Ray Charles and that made me want to . . . ,’ ‘I just heard Louis Bellson and I think I can. . . .’
“I just really wish that there was some way that the kids who are coming up today had as much leeway and as much freedom to experiment as we did--the chance to express what they think they hear inside, as opposed to trying to just play what’s already out there.”
Charles leans back thoughtfully for a long moment before leaning forward, a slight smile lighting his face. “Because good music doesn’t have to be loud. Good music doesn’t have to be filthy. Music’s supposed to be beautiful. You’re supposed to hear it, and appreciate it and enjoy it. And want to move the body when it touches you. That’s what you want to do.”
Then, as a brief punctuation, he adds, with a laugh, “But then that’s old-school thinking, right?”
Ray Charles and his Orchestra with Nnenna Freelon, Hollywood Bowl, 2301 N. Highland Ave., Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. $7.50-$75. (323) 850-2000, (213) 480-3232.