Irridescent Trumpets and Gold Teeth

It's nine o'clock Wednesday night at Chuck and Billy's, an oldtime joint in the heart of the Northwest D.C. 'hood, right at the top of the hill on Georgia Avenue. The bar and tables are crowded with Wednesday night regulars–--a cross-section of inner city denizens on both sides of the law.

Somebody pulls the plug on the jukebox. Up front, a couple of stark spotlights click on; a quintet is setup, ready to hit. At the keyboards sits a tall, copper-skinned, high cheek-boned organ player, wearing a cowboy hat, well-worn leather vest and silver-beaded jewelry. He flashes a gold-toothed smile at the expectant crowd, then lays down a classic sixties R&B organ groove. The rhythmic drive of his feel-it-through-the-floor bass line has the front tables dancing in their seats within seconds. Back at the bar, a lady with an impossibly tight midi-skirt slips off her stool, waves a handkerchief over her head and screams, "Git it, Artie!"

Eight bars later, the loose-limbed, slouching drummer comes in with a dramatic drum roll, dead on the beat. Another eight bars and a big, big man in a wide lapel purple suit steps into the spotlight. It shines on his shaved head as he lifts an irridescent trumpet to the mike. With his big cheeks bulging and his staccato blasts accenting the already-crushing groove, Curtis' trumpet propels the first dancers out of their seats. More calls from the crowd. At the bar, people are putting down their drinks and dancing next to their stools. You can just can feel it's gonna be a real good night.

Talkin' Trash

Amidst enthusiastic shouts at the end of the trumpet solo, Artie brings back that crowd-pleasing opening groove, raises his hand and leads the band through one of those turn-on-a-dime James Brown endings. With applause still ringing, he brings up the vocal mike and whispers to the small, musclebound guitarist standing next to him. Immediately, they launch into the opening chords of a Smokey Robinson ballad. Artie's mellow baritone has just the right unfiltered-Camels hoarseness, just the right gospel falsetto. As his soulful falsetto soars, a couple near the bar starts slow dancing, bodies molded into a single shape.

Artie follows up with a Marvin Gaye crowd-pleaser pulled out of his bottomless song bag. As it ends, Curtis, the smooth-talking trumpeter, steps up to the mike to introduce Midnight Blues' singer. Selena–sequinned, dressed to kill and curvaceous–picks up her mike between two fingers with the easy confidence that comes from sweet-talkin' a thousand audiences in a thousand clubs.

She dedicates her first song to her Harlem-born, blues singer momma. Selena's opener is one of those tough, I need-me-a-man blues; she puts a righteous Big Mama Thorton edge on her lyrics. High-pitched screams of "Yeah girl!" and "I been there, honey!" ring out. Selena follows up with a slow Ray Charles number, slipping into her gorgeously low and sultry contralto voice. Halfway through, she invites Artie to join her on vocals. Their harmonies are so tight, their between-verse trash-talking so easy and natural, that the audience is up on their feet and clamoring for more, long before the end of the song.

It's the high point of the evening. It's the moment this album was born.

Sitting Down and Snobbery

Midnight Blue's music, the music they play so well, is an endangered, disappearing species–one of unappreciated importance in the history of black culture. That special blend of organ trio jazz, soul, classic R&B, and '60s and '70s soul jazz is frequently looked down on as the "pop" side of jazz–an embarrassment to most jazz critics and academics.

Up until bebop, jazz had always been music that people danced to. Small groups and big bands played in jazz clubs and halls where people came to dance. Bebop (combined with the New York cabaret tax's heavy surcharge on dancing) changed all that in the '50s. Jazz in the fancier upscale clubs and concert halls became sit-down music. But in the neighborhood bars, people still wanted to dance to live jazz. That was the birth of organ trio jazz: not too many joints in the 'hood had Steinways. Unbeholden to jazz critics or white middle class audiences, organ groups incorporated the popular music of the inner city: R&B, soul music, gospel.

Roof Leaks and Roots

In the early sixties, hanging out in the neighborhood joints of New York's Lower East Side ghetto, I came to love that music. Moving to D.C. later in the decade, I found an even richer and more hospitable network of the same clubs with the same music–a network that had been flourishing since the '50s. In the '80s, those inner city clubs were where I did my first amateur recordings.

Chuck and Billy's–then known as the Hilltop–had some of the best music of any of those D.C. clubs. I remember recording there 20 years ago on a rainy night when the roof was leaking into a bucket next to the piano player, a brilliant cat named Reuben Brown. The drip-drip-drip is still there on my tapes of Reuben. A few years later, Artie started playing off and on at Chuck and Billy's. Then, not quite a decade ago, Artie and Curtis and Selena started their on-going and now-classic Wednesday nights as Midnight Blue.

Back when they first started playing Chuck and Billy's, Curtis and Artie were Wilson Pickett's bandleader and his organist, respectively. After leaving the Wicked Pickett, Curtis–with Artie and Selena onboard–continued to lead the Midnight Movers. Today, the highly successful Movers tour larger and plusher venues up and down the East Coast.

Nourishing the Groove

With big audiences and top-dollar gigs every weekend, why does Midnight Blue keep coming back to Chuck and Billy's every Wednesday night? For Artie, Selena and Curtis, the reason's obvious. That funky little neighborhood spot is their creative well-spring. It's where they work out new tunes, hone new arrangements, polish up that appealing vocal give-and-take. And, perhaps even more important, it's where they connect with their roots audience, the people who grew up with and love this music, the people who'll tell you in a heartbeat whether your groove's got stink on it.

It's these inner city folk who keep this music alive, saving it from slow extinction by the snobbery of purist critics and scholars. This CD is for the Chuck and Billy regulars–and for their brothers-in-arms all over the country.

Pierre Sprey
Upper Marlboro, Maryland


Inner City Blues (#09352) 13 Shades Of Blue (#10032)


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