"It's an old expression," says Orlando musician Ben Champion, "you know, come on down, sleep on the beach or whatever, you'll get sand in your shoes. Well, we've got grit, too, in our music. 'Sand 'n Your Blues!'" The leader of the Jazzberry Patch trio, with a good-natured chuckle, reveals the source of one of his songs' titles. "It's a Fort Lauderdale thing."
The group was active for years in what Champion calls the "prime era" for playing jazz in 1970s Florida, but managed to stay off major labels and stay in the poorly lit jazz clubs that dotted the coast of Florida. One of the only artifacts of that time is their eponymous album, a bright-orange LP with a hand-painted picture of the group on the cover. The album almost sunk into the swamp, with only memories of smoky bars, were it not for the Seattle-based label Light in the Attic's plans to rerelease the three-decades-old artifact and market its off-kilter mix to a new generation of fans. It's taken a chance encounter by a hip-hop group, the enthusiasm of record collectors and sudden global interest to get this obscurity back on record shelves.
The Jazzberry Patch album is a highlight of home-brewed jazz in the 1970s. Like many Florida creations, Jazzberry is deeply personal with an offbeat sense of humor, the musical equivalent of Champion's wry chuckle coming through in a quirky mix of frolicsome vamps and eccentric solos. The album's mix of jazz, rock and Latin styles came out of a touring trio that led Champion, Ken Burkhart and Danny Burger up and down the coast. The record retains this same jam-friendly, improvisatory nature born of live performance that requires more energy and natural skill than formal schooling.
Champion's playful flute bobs and weaves with Ken Burkhart's clavinet and Moog synthesizer throughout the title track, blazing for an energetic 20 minutes. Burkhart, who Champion describes then as a young whip only at home behind "a pile of electronics," shouldn't list singing as his forte, but the vocals on the album aren't without their charm. It's psychedelic jazz on steroids, like organist Charles Earland with a touch of the overdriven San Francisco fuzz of Sly Stone. In a snobbish music world where even 25 years later "fusion" is a condescending term, this is an example of "electric" jazz done right.
The decade of the '70s "was a great era for listening and forming," says Champion. "We had a lot to draw on back then ... be-bop [and] R&B merged with jazz things, which become better with rock rhythms ... it's a mixture of jazz with pop music.
"[Florida] was a blender of cultures," says Champion.
And even if books such as Jazz: The Essential Companion insist that there were "no cliques of local young jazz musicians" in Florida, the trio would be inclined to disagree. When Champion states, "It's like a family out here," he means figuratively, but as often as not he means it literally too, even if the players aren't renowned. Champion's cousins, Kenton and Gary, played on the album, and his parents were active players in their church, which was the first musical environment he was exposed to before making his way into more secular areas. In fact, Champion can give a synopsis of everybody on the album and how their grandfather or cousin down the road is doing.
Mike Longo is one of those acquaintances. A childhood friend of Champion's, his ornately detailed keyboard work is a palpable influence on the playfulness of the Trio's sound. In the '70s he was going through his own midlife crisis of sorts, leaving piano for synthesizer and penning albums like the pulsating The Awakening for Mainstream Records. In the liner notes to the Jazzberry Patch LP he cites the trio's "swinging lyricism" and "pulsating polyrhythms," painting an album "of sheer joy and excitement."
What exactly was the "Florida jazz" sound then? Champion cites a protégé and a peer as influences.
"Starting with Jaco [Pastorius] and Cannonball [Adderley]. They have a distinctive Latin-funk sound that's easily identifiable," he says.
Pastorius is, of course, the fretless bassist who made playing the instrument as glamorous as lead guitar with his dexterous slap-bass technique. With a thumb in every pie, the Champion took him under his wing in the '60s and sold him an old Fender bass, which Pastorius reconditioned. It became a favorite he would wield through his career with the wildly popular jazz-fusion group Weather Report.
Saxophonist Cannonball Adderley hailed from Florida originally, as did the popular bop trumpeter Blue Mitchell. Even the late Ray Charles moved early on from his native Georgia to Greenville, Fla. All these artists had raw, unadorned styles that were upbeat and unapologetic. They wielded their instruments whether saxophone, trumpet or piano boldly, with an honesty that befitted the Southern temperament. The swampland of Florida seemed more inclined to birth artists that freely took from soul and funk playbooks, as well as traditional jazz.
Dizzy Gillespie was a mainstay of the touring jazz scene, and it's hard to deny his role as ambassador of the Latin influence. During the '40s and '50s he introduced driving Cuban rhythms to swing, and toured extensively for decades after, often landing in Florida. When Gillespie was in town he would stay with Champion or Mike Longo.
The Jazzberry Patch drew on his trademark congas, and though they did play together, Champion has even fonder memories of Gillespie outside the studio. "We'd have softball games, he'd play every game. We once played a double-header at a state park, had all the musicians over. Everybody's arguing about balls and strikes and we had a blind piano player there ... Dizzy made him the umpire," he chuckles. "They don't call him Dizzy for nothing."
This rich history means little to the music collectors who stumble upon the group's lone album in the recesses of a thrift or backwater record store. Ironically, the people who precipitated its rerelease were the ones least connected to Florida culture. In an Internet-linked world where MP3s are traded at high speeds, truly obscure music is few and far between. This makes discovering an unknown album both more rewarding and a harder secret to keep.
In 2002, the hip-hop magazine Elemental featured Jazzberry Patch in their "Gettin' Dusty" section, which focuses on unearthing music for reappreciation. The only thing better than finding a tasty bit of funk is bragging about it.
Even before the magazine exposé, a drum solo by Danny Burger was sampled by one of hip-hop's most prolific production teams, the Beatnuts. In the early '90s, the appropriately titled group served up a sound between the playful, jazzy Pharcyde and the abruptly violent N.W.A. As the decade went on, the 'Nuts produced dozens of tracks for the likes of Ghostface Killah and Dilated Peoples, scoring several hits. The Beatnuts were also ravenous jazz fans, even going so far as to mimic classic Blue Note cover art on their albums. It was this love of the music that led them to the Patch.
Ben Champion couldn't be more different from the Hispanic hip-hop duo who call themselves "Psycho Les" and "JuJu," and is surprised that his album found its way to South Carolina, never mind New York. Copies have even trickled down to Japan and Europe, turning up in radio station playlists and DJ sets. The rekindled interest in the album by the international record-collector community means that the price has skyrocketed. A copy of the album on eBay, if you can find one, will currently run you over $200. Champion relies on his daughter to keep up with that trend (she's still hanging on to her copy).
Champion says he "couldn't have pictured our music that we were making in the '70s being identified with Ã? hip-hop as it is now," but harbors no grudges, taking a lighthearted approach to being sampled. Like James Brown, he prefers to retain his integrity and prospective fan base at the possible expense of his wallet. If he wanted to, he could certainly sue the hip-hop duo. With hindsight he confides, "I'm sure there's some good in everything. It was quite humorous and we were flattered by it. Our rhythms had lasted 30 years!"
Though past retirement age, Champion is only semiretired. Although he does spend a good deal of time fishing, he still commutes from Live Oak, north of Orlando, to Miami several times a month to play in club situations that closely resemble the "chitlin' circuit" clubs of the Jazzberry Patch days. Though the cultish reputation enjoyed by his lone, private-press album is unlikely to yield anything resembling a "comeback," Champion chooses not to ruminate about his old albums, a task he leaves to those young enough with time to burn. He's more interested in performing. To Champion, touring and playing out is an integral part of his life. "Musicians long to be heard," is his philosophy. They especially like to be heard in a live club setting where they are "inspired by the listeners," feeding off their energy.
Similarly, Danny Burger continues his musical adventures in Miami with some new kit additions, like his expressive "tompani" (a cross between a tom-tom and a timpani), and recording in sessions with old-guard leaders like Lou Donaldson. Keyboardist Ken Burkhart continues in a more mellow fashion, playing more traditional piano on a weekly basis at a jazz brunch. They're doing what they've always done, individually or collectively, regardless of all the attention.
Perhaps this is why Champion can take such a relaxed attitude towards his old music being obsessed over: "It's all pleasant memories for us ... anything we do from now on is a plus."