“These ideas that you see now everywhere — inclusion, diversity, empathy — these were the starting words seven years ago with the Little Village Foundation.”
So says Jim Pugh, the veteran keyboardist who started the Foundation, whose mission, stated on its website, is “to shine the light of awareness on musicians who might not otherwise be heard.” The light takes the form of CDs produced, recorded, and manufactured by the Foundation, as well online videos and showcase performances at such events as the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco and Portland, Oregon’s Waterfront Blues Festival.
And the inclusivity transcends lines of race, ethnicity, age, and genre. The Foundation’s catalogue includes Los Tres Amigos-Snuviko, a group of indigenous Mixtec Mexicans living in Santa Maria, California, Delano-based cowboy Dave Ellis, and Betty Reid Soskin, a 99-year-old park ranger at the Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond. Among the more recent albums are blues singer Tia Carroll and soul singer Sonny Green, who’ll perform next month at the Portland festival, and San Jose State University faculty member Aaron Lington, whose performance of 21 Bach chorales on baritone saxophone was released last week, Little Village’s first foray into the classical genre.
The Foundation “is trying to celebrate good music in all its forms,” says Lington, who has himself pursued and practiced diversity. He completed a master’s degree in jazz studies at the University of North Texas, where he went on to a classical-oriented doctorate in musical arts, with a focus on saxophone performance. Before his 4 Bari x Bach for Little Village, he played on recording sessions for Carroll, Green, and blues and soul singer Marina Crouse.
Pugh says he fosters that sort of mutual support, “with the intention that people who like one style of music will get exposed to something else. Our teenage mariachi band from Bakersfield [Mariachi-Mestizo] have all become fans of gospel quartets, as well as of Aki Kumar and his ‘Hindi blues.’ There are a lot of things I hear that all belong together and that includes the Bach chorales. You’ll notice that I had Livingston Taylor write Aaron’s liner notes, and that’s because whenever I listen to Livingston or his [older] brother, James, play guitar, it sounds very much to me like an Anglican hymnal. I could listen to the Islamic call to prayer and feel like it’s Johnnie Taylor [the R&B singer best known for “Who’s Making Love”].”
Pugh credits his Chicago childhood with beginning him in the blues and his Bay Area youth with expanding his musical horizons. “I kind of went to the University of Fillmore Street when I was a teenager. With a pack of dimes and some jukeboxes, that’s how I learned how to play” piano and organ. “In a few years, I was in a band with a record deal. It was Rubicon, an amalgamation of two or three [rock] bands: Cold Blood, Electric Flag, and Sly & the Family Stone. But I also played a fair amount of Mexican music and Gospel music.” With blues icon Robert Cray, Pugh was an essential contributor to global tours and Grammy wins, and is credited by the All Music Guide with a combined 274 recordings with a variety of artists.
“A lot of times, the musical situations that I really enjoyed — where something happened and it was moving — were not the circumstances you’d expect,” Pugh reflects. “You might go and play the White House, and it’s not going to be the same as playing at a storefront church in East Oakland or playing in the backyard [for] someone’s quinceañera in Alameda.” His road life also taught him that, “Just because you’re not well-deserved doesn’t mean you’re not deserving. I for years have gone around to churches and played in Gospel quartets, and you hear people all the time who are just fabulously talented. And their inability to make it a career isn’t based on their [musical] ability, it’s based on their circumstances.”
These realizations, and “probably some sort of middle-aged crisis,” prompted Pugh’s visualization of Little Village. “I said to myself, ‘nobody wants a 60-year-old piano player,’ plus, I don’t want to have to get on the back of a bus and ride to New York. So I got a job shoveling mulch in a botanical garden and I thought about what I wanted to do next. But I didn’t know anything about nonprofits and boards of directors. So — and I know this is not Miles Davis-cool — I joined the Rotary Club,” in his current hometown of Santa Ynez. “And they said, ‘We could be your fiscal sponsor. Why don’t you go talk to this person?’ They showed me what to do.”
His friends Rick Estrin and Kid Andersen introduced Pugh to septuagenarian soul singer Wee Willie Walker, “and we talked about getting him a record deal, so I said, well, I’ll start a record company.” The Mixtec album was the new label’s fourth release, and Pugh points to the diverse impacts his recordings have had on the artists, who retain all rights to their music. “The Mixtec tribe never played a gig anywhere. But they took their CD and gave it to their kids to play at the elementary school in their culture, where they live. Then there’s Wee Willie, who got to play at all the major jazz festivals in Europe, though he had never sung anywhere before that, except for maybe nightclubs in St. Paul. So which one has more value? I guess that’s a trick question.”
“Jim [Pugh] comes off as incredibly sincere, incredibly interested in and involved with each of his projects, and it just makes you want to bend over backwards for the guy,” says Aaron Lington. “He called me and initiated the idea of assembling the Bach chorales. We’re Facebook friends, and he had seen some of my videos,” on which Lington had combined his performances of each of the four parts of the several chorales, which had served as warmup exercises when he was part of the doctoral saxophone quartet at North Texas.
Preparing for the Facebook videos and the Little Village recording, Lington made use of the bach-chorales.com website. His performances elicited complimentary surprise from many colleagues. “They said that a) they never thought they’d hear those chorales on baritone saxophone and, b) they were impressed with my altissimo, which is in the register above the instrument’s normal range, which is from the C two octaves below middle C to the A major sixth above middle C. But in the chorales, the soprano part typically goes from maybe the F a fourth above middle C all the way up to a tenth above that.”
How, then, does Lington extend his range? “It’s more of a modern or advanced technique, through a manipulation of oral cavity and throat and tongue position. You basically are fingering a lower note than what you’re hearing, forcing the instrument to ignore the lower pitch so that one of the harmonics comes out.”
Advance word about Lington’s 4 Bari x Bach has been “shockingly well-received among people who are fans of Little Village,” testifies Pugh. “They see it as a continuation, and I think it’s expanding, on some level, our audience. And it’s kind of a two-way street: Aaron is bringing his people along to appreciate our other acts, and the other acts are appreciating him. But of course, Aaron is from Houston, and he knows the Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland songbook just as much as the next fella. How many people are there like that?”
Aside from the social and personal good it does, Little Village is “doing better and better every year, by the amount of money we’re raising,” notes Pugh. “I hardly pay myself a living wage, but at the end of the day, I’m able to make the whole thing go.” He’s attracted funding from the Hellman, Wattis, Logan, and other foundations, and praise from music icons such as Bob Brown, Bonnie Simmons, Danny Shere, and Bill Graham Productions. “I know a lot of crotchety old men in the music business who’ve all been very kind,” adds Pugh. “I’m amazed, because if I was just a piano player or an organ player, they’d be, ‘get the fuck outta here.’”
Pugh looks to extending Little Village to jazz and to digital platforms, though he still favors CDs as musical keepsakes and calling cards. “We didn’t really have to pivot for the pandemic, because the feeling of community was sort of on the rise,” he says. “Right now is a great time to have an idea and to look at Little Village, because people just don’t know what’s going to work.”