Fred Wesley is best known as the former trombonist, composer, and musical director for James Brown during one of Brown’s most fertile periods, 1968 – 1975. He then arranged and played for Parliament – Funkadelic and Bootsy’s Rubber Band before joining the Count Basie Orchestra for a time. Now he leads his own band, the New JBs, and is a key player in Abraham, Inc., a klezmer-funk band. He also guests on numerous recordings, teaches, and has written a biography entitled “Hit Me, Fred: Recollections of a Sideman.” We had a short phone conversation on September 24, 2011, a couple of days before his appearance in the Twin Cities with a band celebrating the music of Lionel Hampton.
LE: How did you get into music? What did you do before you got into the James Brown band?
FW: Oh, well, I was just a road musician. I played with Ike & Tina Turner, Hank Ballard & the Midnighters (see also the R&G interview). I was in the Army, and had my own band for a while, and then I joined James Brown.
LE: That was obviously a career-turning moment for you. Had you decided to be a full-time professional musician before then?
FW: I always intended to be a musician. I led my own band, and it broke up. The army broke up my band. They kept drafting my musicians and sending them to Viet Nam. So I had to find a job. The James Brown gig came along and I took it. It was supposed to be temporary, but it turned out to be a long time.
LE: What impact did that have on you as a musician?
FW: Well, as a musician I played some new music. James Brown was an innovative musician and he got us to play some things I hadn’t played before. With Ike & Tina Turner and Hank Ballard & the Midnigters it was a different kind of R&B. I found it interesting. We disagreed on certain points and I left him. I left him in 1970. I came back in ’71 with my mind made up that I would do whatever he said and try to figure out what he was doing.
LE: Once you finally left James Brown, you played with the Parliament-Funkadelic group and then joined the Count Basie Orchestra. Had jazz been something that interested you all along?
FW: Oh yeah, yeah, I was planning to be a jazz musician. The band I had before I joined James, we played a lot of jazz. It was supposed to be a jazz band, with a little funk thrown in, you know, but James Brown changed all of that. When I joined Count Basie’s band, it was an opportunity for me to play with a great musician, so I played with Count Basie as long as I could.
LE: That was an entirely different kind of approach to music. Did you have to adjust, or was it an easy change for you?
FW: It was hard for me to go back to playing jazz. I had played some jazz in a big band in the army, but it had been some time, and was quite a challenge for me. For a long time I had the longest hair in the band, I wore boots and stuff, because I was coming straight out of Bootsy’s band.
LE: How did the opportunity for this current show come about, the show celebrating Lionel Hampton?
FW: Jason Franklin is a friend of mine and he offered me an opportunity to play with some great musicians, Diane Schuur, Jason Marsalis, and Red Holloway. I really jumped at the opportunity to play with these musicians.
LE: What is it you’re discovering about the music of Lionel Hampton and your own playing in this context?
FW: Lionel Hampton was a great vibes player, which I’ve known for a while, but Jason Marsalis is mimicking him very well. He can play very well too. Red Holloway is a great musician, it’s just a pleasure to be able to play with these musicians.
LE: We look forward to seeing you Monday and Tuesday night at the Dakota.
FW: All right. Thank you. Bye bye.