Rhythm Regatta

Isaac Hayes performs in the hallowed halls of Powell as part of the Blues, Roots, Honks and Moans Festival

Feb 17, 1999 at 4:00 am
Isaac Hayes, the music legend who has performed gospel, blues, jazz and R&B -- sometimes all in the course of a single lengthy song -- is an ideal choice to headline this week's Blues, Roots, Honks and Moans festival at Powell Hall. His career has taken him from a rural church in Tennessee through an apprenticeship in Memphis blues and jazz clubs to worldwide fame as an R&B singer and a composer -- even as a cartoon character on the popular TV series South Park. He joins jazz musicians Cyrus Chestnut, Christian McBride and Dianne Reeves; gospel singer Twinkie Clark; and such local performers as the Young Jazz Messengers and the Symphony's In Unison Chorus in celebrating both the foundations of jazz and the current state of the music this Thursday-Saturday, Feb. 18-20.

"All the performers we're bringing in are able to reach beyond the traditional boundaries of specific styles," says Gene Bradford, director of operations for the St. Louis Symphony, which is hosting the festival. "It's going to be exciting mixing gospel, jazz and R&B together and showing people how natural and easy it is to move between these genres because of their common roots. And we especially want young people to hear and understand the ways that jazz, gospel and rhythm and blues connect. For example, we're going to reach over 4,000 students alone in our three jazz and big-band programs on Friday.

"I was born in Covington, Tenn., 38 miles north of Memphis, and raised by my grandparents, who were sharecroppers," says Isaac Hayes, speaking from his home in New York City, where he hosts a 6-10 a.m. daily radio show, treating listeners to his distinctively deep, soulful voice in between classic soul and R&B tunes. "And my first public performance was at the age of 3 in our local church. My sister and I sang in an Easter program while my grandmother accompanied us on piano. So I definitely had my roots in gospel."

Hayes heard -- and played -- lots of blues as well, especially after his family moved to Memphis when he was 7. "I sang in plenty of blues bands growing up," he recalls. "Harmonicas and guitars -- I found out that I really dug that sound. And Memphis was a real destination for blues musicians from Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee. Some would pass through and keep going. Others would stay, like B.B. King. I remember listening to his radio show every day on WDIA. He called himself the 'Beale Street Blues Boy.'"

There were other musical influences in Memphis as well, and in his teenage years, Hayes found himself most attracted to jazz -- and the honk of saxophones pouring out of local clubs. "Memphis has a strong jazz tradition," states Hayes. "Phineas Newborn Jr., Booker Little, Charles Lloyd, Hank Crawford -- there were plenty of great jazz musicians. When I was a kid, I used to stand on trash cans outside clubs on Beale Street so I could peer into the windows and see the musicians. And when I was in high school, I used to borrow a sax from a friend of mine named Lucius Jackson. That's how I learned to play. And I made my real professional debut in a jazz club called the Tropicana.

"I remember one Sunday evening, James Moody was going to play there. His band members came in early, and that afternoon they did a jam session and workshop at the club. I tried to sneak in past B.B. King's bass player, who was taking tickets at the door. He wasn't going to let me in because I was too young. Well, Fred Ford, a local sax player who used to play with the greats when they came to town, saw me and said, 'Come on in, Bub.' I was about 15 or 16, and they called me up onstage. I knew I was supposed to be the brunt of a joke, and they didn't think I could hold my own with Moody's musicians. I told them I wanted to sing 'The Very Thought of You,' so they asked me what key, and I told 'em G. They said, 'Oh, really?' -- kind of impressed I even knew a key to call. And after I started singing the place went silent, and when I finished, I got a thunderous ovation and Ms. Curry, one of the proprietors, came up and said, 'Young man, you sing so well. Do you want a job?' I told her, 'Yes, Ma'am,' and that's how I got started."

From those beginnings, Hayes broke into the inner circle at Stax Records, playing on sessions with Otis Redding and subbing on keyboards with Booker T. and the MGs at concert appearances when Booker Jones was away at college. He then teamed up with David Porter -- who had competed against Hayes in high-school battle-of-the-bands contests -- to form one of the most successful songwriting teams of the Stax era. He and Porter wrote hit after hit for Sam and Dave, from "Hold On, I'm Coming" and "You Don't Know Like I Know" to "When Something Is Wrong with My Baby."

After years of composing and producing, Hayes finally got his chance to record as a leader, and albums like Hot Buttered Soul, The Isaac Hayes Movement and the soundtrack to the film Shaft featured Hayes' deep, distinctive vocal raps over long, loose arrangements that often extended to 15 minutes or more.

"In a way, my approach on those records combined influences of jazz in the arrangements and gospel influences in the vocals," says Hayes. "Speaking of the word 'moans,' there was one song I did where literally all I did was moan. I remember a lot of elderly people in church, when they were singing, and they didn't know the words, they would sort of moan. And they'd say, 'If you moan, the devil won't know what you're talking about.'

So how did Hayes, with his busy schedule as a morning drive-time DJ and his work as the voice of Chef on South Park, end up on a roster with jazz pianist Cyrus Chestnut at Powell Hall?

"I was at the Blue Note in New York for a celebration of Dizzy Gillespie's birthday," he recalls, "and I really fell in love with Cyrus' piano playing. I ended up coming up onstage and singing "My Funny Valentine" with his group, and we both agreed we should do something together. This opportunity in St. Louis came up sooner than we thought, and I'm really excited about it. It's great to get a chance to get back to my first love -- singing jazz. It's a long time since I've had the opportunity to do that."

Hayes will only appear at Saturday's finale of Blues, Roots, Honks and Moans at Powell Hall. But the event kicks off Thursday with a free 7 p.m. gospel-choir workshop at Powell Hall featuring Twinkie Clark and the In Unison Chorus. Later, at 9 p.m., the Young Jazz Messengers -- a group of talented St. Louis high-school and college musicians -- will serve as the house band for a jam session at the Backstage Bistro. For a $10 cover, you can hear members of the Christian McBride Quartet, including exceptional sax player Tim Warfield, sitting in with the Young Jazz Messengers.

Friday, the educational component of the event continues with three presentations for high-school students. The 9:30 and 11 a.m. events are billed as "What Is Jazz?" and feature Robert Sadin -- the New York director of Blues, Roots, Honks and Moans, talking about the basics of jazz while McBride and his group demonstrate instrumental sounds and techniques. A 12:30 p.m. "Big Band Bash" will highlight Sadin, McBride and Chestnut working with eight local high- school bands from Missouri and Illinois. That evening, the Sheldon Concert Hall will feature a double bill of Cyrus Chestnut on solo piano and the Diane Reeves Trio in a benefit concert for the Symphony's Summer Jazz Institute and the Jazz at the Bistro series.

And on Saturday, a grand-finale concert at Powell Hall will feature an opening set by McBride and his group, followed by Chestnut and his band. Isaac Hayes will then perform with Chestnut. After a set by Twinkie Clark, the In Unison Chorus will appear, accompanied by McBride, Chestnut, Clark -- and perhaps Hayes as well.

"Cyrus Chestnut is a key, because his jazz playing has very strong gospel roots," the symphony's Gene Bradford explains. "He's even released a recording of spirituals. I think every generation of jazz musicians has its bass player, and Christian McBride is this generation's answer to Paul Chambers or Ron Carter. And he has a wide musical spectrum, playing both double bass and electric, and including R&B influences as well. Twinkie Clark is a contemporary gospel artist who still has a grasp of traditional gospel. And I see Isaac Hayes as a musical legend who's a great headliner for the event -- and who has all those influences in his music as well."

Whatever Hayes adds to the festival's finale at Powell Hall, you can be sure it will be spontaneous -- and will transcend the usual musical boundaries.

"Spontaneity has always been part of my creative psyche," says Hayes. "And that's the great thing about music like jazz -- or any music that comes from the heart. So when I'm onstage with Cyrus, we're going to keep it fresh, keep it spontaneous -- just like David Porter and I did when we'd go into a room right before a Sam and Dave recording session and write the songs.