OLU DARA / “Harlem Country Girl”

In a 2001 interview with playwright, actor, trumpeter, cornetist, guitarist, singer and songwriter Olu Dara, Fred Jung of Jazz Weekly mentioned that Dara had been a renowned trumpet player during the free jazz movement of the Seventies. Dara’s answer was both surprising and revealing. He said:
Well, to be honest, Fred, I had no interest in it at all. Musicians liked me and they hired me and it was nothing else at that period musically to do around this area. There was no jobs, no money. … I was coaxed into playing with these musicians that migrated to New York from various areas of the country like Chicago, St. Louis, and L.A. and trumpeters wouldn't play with the so called avant-garde and so that was an opportunity for me to play, although I had never really listened to it or I had never experienced playing it. But once I was in it, it was just something to do and I could do it well and I did it until I got an opportunity to form my own band.

FJ: So you played not for your own fulfillment, but out of circumstance?

OLU DARA: I never really enjoyed it because it wasn't anything I grew up listening to. I mean, it was never really in my immediate environment. I just never did it. I never thought about the music. I didn't know it existed until I started meeting these musicians. You have to understand, Fred. I'm from a small town and these people are from large cities, urban areas, New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles or whatever, so their music was really not in my life at all.

FJ: But you worked with free jazz heavies like David Murray and Henry Threadgill. Did they impart anything to you?

OLU DARA: I was a more experienced musician, I think, than they were. So I think I was the one giving (laughing).


olu dara 02.jpg
Olu Dara is from Natchez, Mississippi. That’s the first thing you have to know. In the community Dara is from, music was neither ‘serious’ nor was it self-consciously an art. Dara says he was introduced to music when he learned to play clarinet at the age of seven. From there, he joined a band and began to see music as a business, as a way to support himself. In his early twenties Dara migrated to New York and after several years of odd jobs to make ends meet, he became a reluctant member of the free jazz community.
olu dara 06.jpg  
Decades later, and in no small part because of the support of his superstar son Nas, Dara accepted an offer to record the kind of music he’d been singing and playing whenever he’d been fortunate enough over the years to lead his own band. Thank God for whatever combination of coincidence and encouragement it took to get Olu Dara into the studio to record his own music. In The World: From Natchez To New York, which was Olu Dara’s first album as a leader after nearly 50 years in the music business, is one of my all-time favorite albums.
olu dara 09.jpeg  
The thing I most love about Dara’s music is how relaxed and free of pretense it is. Dara says he came up with many of these songs while sitting on his sofa, strumming a guitar. Others he made up on the spot, in the studio. Throughout, Dara’s years of experience shows. His timing is impeccable. His tone—whether on vocals, cornet or guitar—is always understated, but impeccable. Dara plays with the ease and deceptive simplicity of a musician who’s been doing the same thing for so long that everything has become second nature. In The World is a record I come back to over and over not because it’s brilliant or flashy or complicated but because it just feels good. Like an old t-shirt or a faded pair of jeans, Olu Dara’s long-overdue debut album may not be the ‘best’ item in my collection, but it’s definitely one of the most comfortable. Dara’s CD is available brand new for under ten bucks. If you’re a fan of jazz, blues, soul or R&B, it’s a can’t-miss purchase.

Selected tunes: “Okra,” “Rain Shower,” “Your Lips,” “Jungle Jay” (featuring Dara’s son Nasir ‘Nas’ Jones) and “Harlem Country Girl” are all from In The World: From Natchez To New York (Atlantic, 1998).

The entire Jazz Weekly interview is available here.

—Mtume ya Salaam


olu dara 03.jpg

Fred Jung: Did you ever consider yourself as being a jazz musician?

OLU DARA: No, I never called myself that. I never considered myself that. I found out, just from observation that although I was known to play jazz, I played in the rhythm and blues group, Caribbean blues groups, African groups and all others, but they never gave me a name when I was playing with those groups. They never called me an African trumpeter or a rhythm and blues trumpeter. But when I played with, I think, the first jazz musician that I played with, all of the sudden, it was important to be called a jazz musician and develop a popularity. I never could figure that out or why they pick one music to be more important than another. That name was put on me. I used to laugh when they called me that. I said, "My God, I'm not a jazz musician at all." It never entered my mind. When I observed that situation, I saw the dichotomy. I saw the attitudes about music and what's important, what's not important, although, I felt that the other stuff I was playing was much more important than the jazz I was playing.

FJ: So who is Olu Dara?

OLU DARA: A musician/songwriter.

Olu is also a premier bullshitter. He can tell when people want to hear something, or more precisely, he has a sixth sense for sussing out what people want to hear. And he delivers that. He’s a professional.

But make no mistake, just because he can do it on demand or to make a buck or just to pass the time, sort of like spinning a coin and trying to guess whether it will fall down on heads or tails, just because it’s not always a serious endeavor that he’s giving his all to, that doesn’t mean there is no value in what he’s doing. Or no art in his craft.

His personal disinterest has nothing to do with the quality of what he produces. So in that sense, it’s not so much that he’s bullshitting as much as it is that his ego is detached from his playing. He is not playing for someone to hear “him,” he is playing to add what he can to the proceedings to make it all better.

Mtume, I did a public interview with brother Dara at the 2004 New Orleans Jazzfest. We sat next to each other on a little stage in the Fair Grounds Grandstands, mikes in front of us, and we talked. Could have been sitting on a back porch. Could have been in Natchez—by the way, I don’t like Natchez, Mississippi, feels like death to me, like something gripped in the hand of a cold cadaver desperately trying to hold onto the past even if that means squeezing all the life out of the present.

We talked about music and pimping. Literally. That was a profession he owned up to when he was in New York and when the music gigs weren’t so happening. I suspected then and am pretty sure now that he was kind of embellishing the melody, sort of feeding the audience what he thought they wanted to hear, you know, smooth-talking Negro trumpet player. A pimp.

He was a most engaging raconteur and as he regaled the audience he sported a charming smile.

There was an almost naïve, aww-shucks air of innocence about him. But he was hardly an innocent. He may have been born in the country but he was city through and through. City in the sense of urbane, experienced in the ways of the world (he, after all, has traveled quite a bit), philosophical and aware of learned matters.

Just check his name. Olu Dara was born Charles Jones III in Louisville, Mississippi on January 12, 1941. A number of musicians who took African names in the sixties and seventies have long since dropped those names, not Olu Dara. Better believe keeping an African name was a decision.

Dara is especially aware of the importance of folk culture, regional culture, African-American blues culture. His awareness is not an ego awareness; it’s not about what he knows but rather about the culture he knows that his people have produced. Dara traces the music back to Africa. Dara has Africans born on the continent in his band because he wants a specific kind of music-making to happen.

"Growing up in Mississippi colored the way I look at music. I wanted that kind of feel to the album, warm and acoustic, and it's hard to find players up here in New York who can do that. The Africans really give it that."

Beyond the occasional jazz artist, beyond the folk/blues artist, beyond whatever one style he may be playing at any given moment there is also a serious mixed-genre artist lurking up inside him. A serpent. I’ve seen him doing his hip, artistic shit.
olu dara 01.jpg 
He did a show with dancer Diane McIntyre, sister lady is no poseur, she is widely known and respected as an ultra-serious artist. Olu played guitar, sang, dropped a little cornet. Just the two of them as featured artists with a small backup band adding touches. Minimal props. It was edgy, artistic, far, far from comfortable or commercial.

Dara folded his lankiness into a chair and casually accompanied Diane’s dancing. He can do that kind of thing in his sleep.

And believe it or don’t, what Olu does is not easy to do. We can concentrate on his attitude if we choose to but please don’t miss the most important thing: he does well what many people can not do at all.

Nas is his son. Or, to put it another (and probably more accurate) way: when Nas does Nas, he’s simply doing what his father did except Nas is a rapper, his father is a bullshitter and an artist!
olu dara 04.jpg 
Mix them two things together and you have a perfection definition of Nas, of Olu. Go here to see a short video of Olu Dara and Nas teaching a music class at Morehouse College.

I’ve added two tracks from Dara's second album, Neighborhoods. “Used To Be” features Cassandra Wilson. “Out On the Rolling Sea” is a traditional song arranged by Dara. Also I’ve included a long, live version of “Juicy Lips.”

Sit back and enjoy the music. You know you want to hear it.

—Kalamu ya Salaam

          Maybe too easy         

I guess you can't mistake the music for the man, can you? Although the contradictions are there in the music and in the presentation of the music as well. There's a photo in the inside CD jacket of Olu's CD that shows him surrounded by a buffet of food and a few very pretty women. Are they family members or something else? Who knows. Likewise, Olu's son Nas has a couple of unreleased songs where he talks about his Dad's parenting choices in mostly unflattering terms. I won't post the songs in part because they're bootlegs but also because these days Nas may have a different opinion, or at least a more nuanced opinion. There's nothing like getting older and going through your own personal drama to make your Mom and Dad suddenly seem like smarter, better parents.

Some of Olu's hustler side is there in the music too. In many of his songs, he has a sly and easy charm with women - maybe too easy. As Kalamu says, no matter what his records sound like, dude obviously isn't a down-home folkie just sitting on his porch playing some tunes. But you know what? He's a good enough musician and performer to convince the listener to suspend disbelief, relax and just dig the tunes. And I appreciate that. A lot.

—Mtume ya Salaam

This entry was posted on Saturday, October 13th, 2007 at 11:46 pm and is filed under Contemporary. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply

| top |