Booker T. looks back on legendary Stax Records days at Jazz Aspen Snowmass
If You Go …
Who: Booker T. Jones, presented by Jazz Aspen Snowmass
Where: Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience, Benedict Music Tent
When: Sunday, June 26, 9 p.m.
How much: $35-$75
More info: Booker T. is on a double bill with jazz bassist Marcus Miller, who performs at 7:30 p.m. with his band Afrodeezia. The free lawn party outside the tent begins at 6 p.m.
Booker T. Jones was still a teenager in Memphis, Tennessee, when Stax Records opened there in the early 1960s and shaped the sound of American music as we know it.
He got his foot in the door as a baritone sax player but was soon writing and recording timeless soul, blues and R&B songs on the Hammond B3 organ. Through the Stax years, with Booker T. & the MGs, the youngster recorded classics like “Green Onions” and “Time is Tight” while also playing in the Stax house band on recording sessions with game-changing legends like Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd, Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave, and on the original “Born Under a Bad Sign” with Albert King.
For his headlining performance today at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer is planning a “Stax Revue,” running through those iconic songs with a full band and backup singers behind him.
“What I was trying to do in 1961, 1962 was trying to learn music theory and to do something unique and something that I enjoy,” Jones said from his home in Incline Village, Nevada, before heading to Aspen. “That’s still what I want today. And that’s still the challenge: to create original and unique sounds.”
Jones was 17 when he recorded the instrumental “Green Onions” and 16 when he first played with Rufus Thomas. A precocious kid, he didn’t think much about the idea that what he was up to might last for generations to come.
“We were all pretty young and it was just exploration for a lot of us,” he said. “We were just having a good time.”
He’s now been playing songs like “Green Onions” on his organ for more than 50 years. He still calls it his favorite song and still finds a challenge in performing it.
“That one in particular, that was a very special 2 minutes and 30 seconds,” he said. “So what I try to do is try to recreate it the way it was originally. And it sounds pretty simple, but it’s not that easy. So that’s the challenge for me: I try to play it like I did the first time and it’s really hard to do.”
At 71, Jones also keeps things fresh by collaborating with a new generation of artists. In recent years he’s played with R&B young guns like Gary Clark, Jr. (who he met in Apple’s Cupertino, California, offices) and Mayer Hawthorne (who was sent his way by Daryl Hall), both of whom he included on his 2013 album “Sound the Alarm.”
“People tell me they were influenced by it — young artists and contemporary artists say the music influenced them,” he said. “I’m just gratified that the music is still alive and that we can still perform it.”
But his collaborations with the generations that followed him have spanned genres from punk (Rancid) to Southern rock (Drive-By Truckers) to hip-hop (The Roots).
“Sound the Alarm” marked Booker T.’s return to Stax after a four-decade absence (he left the label after recording 1971’s “Melting Pot”). The company had been through a lot of changes since those early years — moving from Memphis to Beverly Hills, California, and expanding widely from its humble roots — but, he said, it was good to be home.
“They were very warm and they stood up when I walked in,” he said. “It was a nice feeling.”
Landing Booker T. for Sunday’s double bill with jazz bassist Marcus Miller was something of a coup for Jazz Aspen founder Jim Horowitz, who calls it “the sleeper show of the year.”
“Booker T. & the MGs were a big band, but the average fan has no idea how many songs Booker T. had his hands in,” he said.
The long and influential career Booker T. has behind him is difficult to fathom — he’s seemingly played with every music great since the birth Memphis soul and done everything a musician would dream of doing. Asked what kind of advice he’d offer to young musicians, he noted how easily he could have missed the boat if he hadn’t been ready at 16 when opportunity knocked.
“The main thing is to be ready, because opportunity may come (or) it may not come, but the tragedy is if you’re not ready and opportunity does come,” he said. “When opportunity came I just walked right in, but I’d been practicing for years before that on saxophone and piano and organ.”
“Basically,” he added with a laugh: “Practice!”
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