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The Maestro and the Godfather

April 17, 2007

Long before he became a world-class conductor, San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas was a devotee of the music of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul. Hearing him changed Thomas' views on modern classicism. "The level of energy, the precision, the sense of time, the angularity — all gave the young conductor insight into the music he was performing," according to notes for The MTT Files, a joint production of the San Francisco Symphony and American Public Media. "We were playing Boulez and Stravinsky, but we were listening to James Brown," MTT says. The radio program airs in the Bay Area Sundays at 7 p.m. on KQED-88.5 FM and Mondays at 8 p.m. on KALW-91.7 FM. You can listen to earlier episodes online at American Public Media's Web site.

On Program 7, airing in a few weeks, MTT interviews Brown at his Georgia home just months before his death. SFCV was given an advance peek at this remarkable conversation, an abbreviated and transcribed form of which we were given permission to publish. MTT's comments on the interview are in italic. To fully appreciate the interview or the program, pick up some James Brown music. Play it with your Boulez and Stravinsky. You'll be glad you did.

Michael Tilson Thomas: When I was in music school , I was part of a crowd of adventurous young musicians. ... One day, I heard this song, James Brown's Cold Sweat.

This music completely knocked me out. I wanted to share it with all my classical music colleagues. And it turned out all the hipper ones already knew the music. We were all amazed by the level of energy, the attacks, the precision, the syncopation, the wonderful empty spaces. The amazing singing. And the way you could use your ears to go down inside the music and explore all the amazing levels it had. In those years, we were playing Boulez and Stravinsky, but we were listening to James Brown. From the first day I heard James Brown's music, I waited anxiously for each new song he would release. He became a hero of mine.

When I was recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, I discovered we had the same record label, and through the label I got to meet him for the very first time. He invited me to come backstage and visit him on his next tour. A couple of days later I was in Washington, D.C., at the Howard Theater, watching him do three incredible shows a day. I've never forgotten that experience.

April 25, 2006, exactly eight months before he died, we sat in his atrium, right next to his Hammond B-3 organ, and I started out by telling him about my first encounter with his music.

The First Time

MTT: I had my first car and I was listening to XERB. Do you remember that station?

James Brown: I remember the station, because I helped to get it functioning — with Wolfman Jack.

MTT: The Mighty 1090!

JB: That's right!

MTT: So I was driving along and on came, I don't know whether it was I Got You, or Papa's Got a Brand New Bag. I was so struck by it that I actually had to pull to the side of the road, because I thought, I can't concentrate on my driving and listen to this. It was such a definition of things I was trying to work on as a musician, especially when I heard Cold Sweat for the very first time. It was so together; it was so exact.

JB: That's what I like. [Laughs.] Everything has to be right on the money with me.

MTT: Well, I say this to my young conductors I work with: I say being a conductor means you're trying to get a lot of people to agree on where now is.

JB: Now is right!

MTT: And boy, do you do that!

JB: I'm glad you use the word now, cause now is, you can't put your hand down and catch now. And if you say that, you're the man for me!

MTT: And I still say that. If you're working with trumpets, trombones, and a big orchestra, I'll say, "Have you ever listened to Cold Sweat? You have to go out and listen to that, because when that b-bup-om! comes in, that is my definition of "together." So you'd better go listen to that.

JB: Uh-huh!
A Search for Self

MTT: James Brown grew up in Barnwell, South Carolina, only about 30 miles from the house that I visited. He was very proud of his multiethnic heritage and felt that influence powerfully. I asked him about his use of space in his music, and about his iconic, very first record, Please, Please, Please. He made it in 1956.

MTT: We were all kind of living our lives, and then Please, Please, Please came into our lives from kind of, we didn't know where, but suddenly you were there. One of the things I love about the song is, you leave great spaces in your music. A lot of people try to fill in all the spaces. ... I can't [sound like] you, but the "I-I-I" — the tension you make us feel between those words — how did it happen? How did you get to that?

JB: The only thing I can say is, it was spiritual. ... I went to Africa, trying to find myself there, and I didn't see me there, but I saw a lot of great things I came from there. I went to India, where my mother's from. ... [Also] Geronimo is one of my ancestors. ... My dad was named Coochi. That's Cochise. That's the bloodline. But the space, the Indian dances, the pain, the struggle, the emptiness. The same thing with Africa. I represent the spirit in a cage that's a hostage by man. That's what I represent.

MTT: So when you were feeling that space, when you were singing it to an audience, did it gradually dawn on you, that power you were developing to hold people in suspense?

JB: Well, I think more like Moses. Moses didn't have power, he had influence. Only God's got power. What I tried to do was make them listen to me. That's a hard thing, to get people's attention: [Sings as if shouting] Please, please, please, please ... I'm trying to get them excited, watching their faces, to show the unknown.

MTT: After a lifetime of playing Stravinsky's music, it still astonishes me how much of that same groove, that same abstraction, James Brown's music gets to. During the decade between the two versions of Please, Please, Please, James Brown really came into his own. The credits for many of the songs in those years list "no producer" or "producer unknown." To me, that suggests James Brown himself was taking over more and more as producer. He was hearing and inventing and telling each musician exactly what they should do. The situations of his music began to come into focus. The independent lines, the role of multiple drummers and of incredibly abstract rhythm guitar parts. And what about the saxes and those really out-there parallel harmonies? I asked him about those sax parts.

MTT: Where did you come up with those harmonies ... your saxophones play really unusual chords.

JB: 'Cause I'm a gospel singer and you don't use your voice the same way.

MTT: Your chords are more dissonant than other people's chords.

JB: That's right!

MTT: Does that represent excitement to you?

JB: It represents knowledge, and that I know something you don't know.
Where the Songs Begin

MTT: In 1964, the big hits began to happen, one after another. Here were three incredible songs: Out of Sight; I've Got You, which many people know as I Feel Good; and Papa's Got a Brand-New Bag. The musical world's never gotten over these songs and it never will. And the reason they grab you so much is they've got space ... lots of room to get your ears and your mind around all the wonderfully intricate things that are going on.

MTT: I'm always curious about where music comes from, where the ideas begin.

JB: There was this new song, A Time to Love. It's half-gospel, I’m taking my time ... dum dumda dum, a little gospel on the end.

MTT: But if I'm a bass player ... are you gonna suggest to me something I can do?

JB: If I'm arranging songs, I'm not gonna suggest, I’m gonna tell you.

MTT: [Laughs.] That's what I wanted to hear.

JB: I don't let nobody suggest nothing on my stage. It's like an assembly line. Any man, he don't have to know anything about that car. Put this bolt right here. All they gotta do is do what I tell them. I'm structuring it. Exactly. And over my head is God, he's structuring it.

MTT: In some of these songs you really became the producer. Was that part of the deal?

JB: That's right, they have to do everything I have to say. Or they don't have a James Brown arrangement. Moses always prayed to find out what was going on, and that's why God gave him his instructions. That's why I’m talking about Moses. What is your bloodline?

MTT: I'm Jewish. Jewish-Russian.

JB: Well, you have to be. You understand everything I'm saying. ... These things that make us tick and what we're looking for, and why we had to fight so hard — remember, we can't get angry.

MTT: There's all this danger and energy in your music.

JB: There's all this knowledge. The danger is not knowing.

MTT: Your concept of where now is is so inspiring ...

JB: But when I said now, it was now. You just missed it!

Michael Tilson Thomas is music director of the San Francisco Symphony.