Big Sam’s Funky Nation bringing the party to Aspen
September 23, 2010
ASPEN – Several months ago Troy Andrews, who performs under the name Trombone Shorty, described an upbringing that confirmed common notions about New Orleans. “It was like a musical heaven,” the 23-year-old Andrews said of his childhood in the city’s Treme neighborhood. “I could walk around the corner and see Rebirth [Brass Band] jamming. I could see Kermit Ruffins” – a Louis Armstrong-style singer and trumpeter – “barbecuing, a second-line parade at 4 in the morning. I remember walking to school in the morning and seeing a jazz funeral.” Andrews’ experience reflects the reputation of New Orleans as a place where music is as thick in the air as the air itself, an inescapable fact of everyday life.
Yet somehow, Sam Williams managed to escape it. Raised in the Uptown neighborhood, Williams had no particular interest in or knowledge of music – even in spite of the fact that he lived two blocks from Tipitina’s, the epicenter of New Orleans’ live music nightlife since the 1970s. His passion was for basketball. But at the age of 12, Williams – who now goes by the name Big Sam – was informed he was too big to play hoops with his age group.
“I was 5-11, had a beard and mustache. I needed something else to do,” he said from the Uptown District, which the 28-year-old still calls home.
That something was music, but it didn’t have much to do, at least not on an apparent level, with the traditions of his hometown. As an alternative for basketball, the marching band was enticing, because it looked like fun. He didn’t care what instrument he was assigned to, and a member of the band, perhaps mindful of Williams’ size, handed him a large brass contraption. “I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘Trombone,'” Williams recalled.
Williams found he had a natural gift for the instrument. He enjoyed the marching band enough that he expanded his range, and began playing trombone in church. But the big awakening came a few years later, when he heard “Ears to the Wall,” the 1996 album by New Orleans icons, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
“I knew what second line was,” Williams said, referring to the style of brass music associated with New Orleans street parades. “That’s part of our culture. It was around.”
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“Ears to the Wall,” though, “was different,” Williams said. “It wasn’t typical New Orleans brass band. They had keyboards, a bass player, guitars. It was a funk-oriented album. (In fact, for that one album, the group had changed its name to simply the Dirty Dozen, possibly to signal a break from brass band traditions.) It just spoke to me. It was funky and soulful. I wanted to do that. I learned everybody’s part.”
The next part of the story couldn’t have happened anywhere other than New Orleans. At a birthday party for a friend from church, Williams thumbed through the birthday girl’s CD collection, and came across names like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins. The young lady pointed out that those were her father’s albums. Probing further, Williams learned that the father was Efrem Towns, also known as E.T. – and, more significantly, also known as the trumpeter of the Dirty Dozen.
“I said, ‘Where is he?'” Williams recounted. “Now, the Dirty Dozen was touring like 300 days a year. But he happened to be home for the party. I told him, If you ever need a trombone player, let me know.”
It was a wild stab: Here was a teenage trombonist who, though he had co-founded the Little Stooges Brass Band, and played a while in the Soul Rebels, had a reputation that didn’t stretch much beyond the next neighborhood. And he was offering his services to the best-known New Orleans brass band going. But Towns’ daughter told her daddy that whenever Williams played in church, the congregation went wild, a view seconded by Mrs. Towns. Not long after, Williams, who was studying music education at the time at the University of New Orleans, got a call at his place of work – the Jazzland amusement park, where he played in the band. It was E.T., with an offer to come on tour with the Dirty Dozen. The fact that the tour started the next day, and would continue for three months didn’t faze Williams, who left his education – and his 4.0 average – behind, over his mother’s protests.
“By this time, this was my love. This is what I was born to do,” Williams said.
But playing Dirty Dozen-style music – a traditional brass band, updated with some funk ideas – isn’t the “this” that Williams was referring to when he speaks of his destiny. Among the first gigs he played with Dirty Dozen, in August 2000, was in Keystone, opening for Widespread Panic. At the day’s beginning, Williams climbed onstage and wondered why an enormous field was required for the gig. By day’s end, some 20,000 Widespread Panic fans had filled in the space, and Williams began to think of music in bigger terms.
“That opened my eyes to see how big music could be,” he said. “I had only played clubs. It changed my vision of what music could be.”
Williams spent four years in the Dirty Dozen, where he was generally billed as Sammie Williams. But two years into his Dirty Dozen days, Williams took on another title: Big Sam, leader of Big Sam’s Funky Nation. The group got its start when Williams approached the owners of the Funky Butt, a club across the street from Louis Armstrong Park, in a section of New Orleans known as Congo Square, where jazz was first played. He was looking for one date; instead, he got an entire month of Sundays to test out his new band and a new approach that he described as “funky and hard-hitting.”
The band, which makes its Aspen debut with a free show on Sunday, Sept. 26, at Belly Up, features trumpeter Andrew Baham, but also bassist Eric Vogel, guitarist Takeshi Shimmura and a drummer named Chocolate Milk – a line-up that marks a turn away from the brass band style.
“Everything has evolved,” Williams, who appeared in Aspen in 2008 as part of the New Orleans Traveling Roadshow benefit, said. “It used to be all instrumental – funky and uptempo, but more on the jazzy side. Now it’s louder. More like a rock-funk powerhouse feel, not a laidback feel.”
Williams pinpoints the “big three” influences on his current style as P-Funk, Prince and James Brown, and he is proud to say that he has jammed with two of them. (“Jamming with Prince – that’s not going to happen,” Williams said.) He also credits Wycliff Gordon, known for his membership in the Wynton Marsalis Septet, as a key inspiration on the trombone, and his affection for jazz.
“I always played hard,” Williams said. “First time I heard Wycliff I thought, ‘Is that all he’s got?’ But I was just a kid. After a while, I said, ‘Man, he’s just a beast. He speaks through his horn. He sings. He’s got so much character. He’s just the man.'”
In terms of having a direct influence on what Williams does in Big Sam’s Funky Nation, the main man has been Karl Denson, the saxophonist-singer who leads the groove bands the Greyboy Allstars and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Big Sam’s Funky Nation, in fact, is a take-off on Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe.
The latest album by Big Sam’s Funky Nation is “King of the Party,” which was released in March.
“Because everywhere we go, that’s where the party is,” Williams said. “And I’m the king of the party.”