Meet the Music Makers - Brian Blade

In conversation with drummer and composer Brian Blade, leader of the Fellowship Band:

UChicago Presents: How did you get started on the drums?

Brian Blade: My brother, Brady Jr., who’s five years older than I am, is also a drummer. My mom was a kindergarten teacher who now works at the daycare at our church, and my father [has been] a pastor for 56 years at Zion Baptist Church. They both encouraged us in whichever direction we were headed to get some education—some teaching. For me, tennis was a big interest before the drums. But definitely music [was] a big component of our lives. My father is a terrific singer as well, so we started playing drums in church, both my brother and myself. After Brady left for college, when I was 13, I moved into the chair there at Zion. It really was a bedrock for everything that would come in the future.

UCP: Wow! Did that feel like you were kind of being thrown into the deep end, being asked to play drums all the sudden?

BB: In a way, yeah! It had a little bit of that expectation—well, not in a frightening way or anything—but like a duty and purpose that was now mine to step into. At that age, I could acknowledge that and kind of be thankful for it at the same time. It took away any pressure and really prepared me for playing music in really any other situation. Dive bars, concert halls, festivals… It didn’t really matter because it was all church.

UCP: You grew up in Louisiana, right near the Texas and Arkansas borders, and you’ve talked about how rich and diverse the musical life was there—but of course quite far removed from New Orleans, down south. Could you talk about some early musical influences?

BB: Like you say, northwestern Louisiana is a different world, culturally, from New Orleans, which feels like its own country, anyway! It has less of that Spanish and French infusion of cultures, and more of a middle-of-the-country, gospel [feel].

Aside from church, my influences really came through this annual festival called The Red River Revel. When I was a preteen, [it] would bring groups like the Neville Brothers or Asleep at the Wheel; Chuck Rainey would come from East Texas and play solo bass concerts and tell stories! It had such an impact on our lives, and we took it for granted. Most of my life, I didn’t know the depth and power of Chuck Rainey—who that man was and the countless albums he played on.  And all these local bands, like A-Train, which featured this man named Buddy Flett, who my brother played a lot with… It was just a rich local scene of people making music and turning you on to things—like, “Okay, man, go get this John Coltrane record, Art Taylor’s playing on it; get this Wayne Shorter record, Elvin Jones is on it; go get this Miles Davis record, Tony Williams is on it…” All that mixing with “Amazing Grace”! [Laughs]

And not too many generations before, [through] Louisiana Hayride, great country music was being broadcast out of the Municipal Auditorium. Hank Williams walked on and off that stage for years, as did Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. So, it’s a real rich crossroads that I was born into.

UCP: You just mentioned Wayne Shorter and listening to his albums growing up. Now you tour as part of his quartet. I mean, you have such an enviable list of collaborators overall: Chick Corea, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Emmylou Harris… It’s a musician’s dream.

BB: Wow. Yeah, all those experiences in my life… I couldn’t have dreamt that it was coming. I feel now, with that 20/20 hindsight, that I was being prepared. All the sudden, I’m in the room with Wayne Shorter and we’re playing his music. The quartet formed in 2000, roughly, with John Patitucci and Danilo Perez. But, you know, in 1986, or ’85, even, having bought those records and been listening, there was already this familiarity, almost—a knowing—even if it was in my own imagination. So, when I was given two Joni Mitchell cassettes at age 16—Mingus and Hajira—and suddenly, I’m playing with her… You just don’t see it coming! [Laughs] At least I didn’t.

It was just an enormous blessing. I try to just make every moment count and value each situation with the same urgency and attention. That’s all you can do, ultimately, I feel like. Because you don’t know if another moment is coming. That’s what’s real to me. I just try to be there now—not to be cliché.

UCP: Through Shorter, you worked with Imani Winds, our ensemble in residence here at U. of C. [The piece Shorter composed for them, “Terra Incognita,” was on one of our programs last year.] You just alluded to this, I guess, but what’s it like playing Shorter’s original compositions with Shorter himself? How has he influenced you as a musician?

BB: It’s so deep. He’s so hilarious and deep at the time, and so giving in his heart. His imagination speaks through his music, and the obvious genius of it… Playing with him all these years and also just as a man, I’ve learned he didn’t have too tight a grasp on any of it, because it’s deep. There’s countless hours and real thought and craft that goes into the writing of all of these dreamy, enduring songs that he composes. But at the same time, we get together, and he’s already moved on! He wants us to create something together, in the moment. It’s almost a challenge for us to keep him on the ground, so to speak; he’s always ready to fly! [Laughs] It’s a testament, really, to who he is. He’s not resting on yesterday; he really wants to go through another doorway and shine a light onto darkness. That’s what I’ve really learned from Wayne: to really put your whole self into it, and then let it go.

UCP: And of course I want to ask about your Fellowship Band. You guys are going on your 20th year together.

BB: Yes, that is correct! Yeah, I guess the first recording came out in 1998 and I guess we recorded in 1997, so I guess this is the 20th year. But, really, the genesis of the band as I see it dates back to 1988 when I met Jon Cowherd [pianist]. I moved to New Orleans to study at Loyola University, and Jon and I became friends and started playing mostly duos together in our spare moments. A year later, Chris Thomas [bassist] moved to New Orleans. It was yet another thing I couldn’t see coming, but we were really growing together. When the time came, after a few years passed and we met Melvin Butler and Myron Walden [saxophonists]… You know, it’s just that recognition, I think, when you meet certain folks. Sometimes it’s not immediate; sometimes it takes a while. But sometimes there is that moment when you know: we’re supposed to create something together or be a part of each other’s life in some way. So, here we are, still doing it.

UCP: Why the name “Fellowship Band”?

BB: I guess it comes from my upbringing. Not only the gospel of fellowship—this relationship you would have with God but also with your brothers—but also how the music is born from a gift and the coming-together. That’s really the embodiment of what the band speaks to, and what the music is about for me. And hopefully that transmits to the listener.

In instrumental music, sometimes, there’s that sentiment that cannot be othered; it can be just a screen of sound. But in that sound, there’s so much to tell. It’s such a great joy to share that with John and Chris and Melvin and Myron. And I’m so glad we get to come to Chicago because it’s one of my favorite cities.

UCP: What directions do you see The Fellowship Band going in in the future?

BB: You know, I don’t know. We’re releasing another recording in November called Body and Shadow. John and I keep writing for the band, and it changes and grows as we change and grow. I don’t really have any real grand designs for the future and what it’s going to be. I feel like it’s unfolding and I’m just walking it out, towards that unseen vision. But I know it’s out there, beyond the fog.

Thankfully, the band, we make time for one another when opportunities come up, like invitations such as this. I wouldn’t say they’re far in between, but hopefully more opportunities could come our way. That’s one thing I see for the future.