While I’d heard his brassy work on plenty of occasions before, the first time I took notice of trombonist Fred Wesley wasn’t until later in his career. It wasn’t in a concert hall, on headphones, or through the radio speakers. It was in a movie theater in Atlanta in 1996 during a screening of the brilliant documentary When We Were Kings.
The film covered the so-called “Rumble in the Jungle” boxing match in 1974 between an aging Muhammad Ali and a formidable George Foreman. The match was held in the capital city of Kinshasa in the African country of Zaire. It was Don King’s first big fight as a promoter. A massive music festival and concert preceded the fight, with sets from Bill Withers, B.B. King, the Pointer Sisters, the Jazz Crusaders, Sister Sledge, and James Brown and his band (including Wesley, sax player Maceo Parker, and others). It was a who’s who of hot soul and R&B at the time.
The American musical acts joined various African musicians and dance troupes on stage. One of the film’s best montage segments used a live version of the almost hypnotic James Brown jam “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time” (a.k.a. “Doing It to Death”) as the soundtrack. After a lengthy lead-in, including about eight call-and-response shouts of “Fred!” between Brown and his backup singers, Wesley’s fiery, highly syncopated trombone solo blurted in and blew me away (see video clip below).
Hearing that live version of “Gonna Have a Funky Good Time” fired a James Brown and the JBs buying spree. I searched for old records from that early ’70s era and found all sorts of deeply funky, soulful stuff with smart arrangements and hot brass solos. As the group’s musical director, Wesley was more than the skillful sideman in the group; he was the heart and brains behind it all. From “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine” and “Say it Loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud” to “Mother Popcorn,” he oversaw the rhythmic patterns, song structures, accents, dynamics, and solos.
Wesley’s career touches all sorts of R&B, jazz, soul, funk, and rock styles. Born in Mobile, Ala., and raised in Columbus, Ga., he first started playing music as a teen with Ike and Tina Turner. He worked with James Brown from 1968-1975 before gigging with Parliament-Funkadelic and Bootsy’s Rubber Band. As a player and arranger, he collaborated with a variety of other great acts, including Ray Charles, Pancho Sanchez, New York Voices, Slide Hampton, Van Morrison, the SOS Band, and Cameo.
Wesley currently lives near the Lowcountry in the town of Manning. He stays quite busy, serving as an adjunct professor in the jazz studies department at the school of music at the University of North Carolina, working with students as a visiting artist at numerous schools, and fronting several of his own jazz and funk ensembles, including the New JBs. He most recently collaborated with the modern klezmer group Abraham Inc.
Wesley last preformed in Charleston during Piccolo Spoleto with the Mark Sterbank Jazz Group as part of the Jazz Artists of Charleston’s Holy City Homecoming event. This Saturday, the JAC welcomes Wesley back as one of the guests of honor at its Pops! concert, which offers an eclectic mix of numbers from the 1960, ’70s, and ’80s with the Charleston Jazz Orchestra and conductor Charlton Singleton at the helm. I hope they let him blow like he did in Zaire. A funky good time is inevitable.