Fred Woodard: Interview
A Supreme Love for Jazz
Two decades ago Fred Woodard got his start in music, backing up R&B and Soul musicians. Mostly he played in one Boston neighborhood, the one he credits with giving him his start: Dorchester.
The venues he used to help fill up are gone, but Woodard recalls a time when live music was not unheard of in Dorchester. There was Ben's Lounge on Bowdoin Street and Cortee's nearby on Washington Street.
Soft spoken and humble about his career and his knowledge of neighborhood history, Woodard says he's not sure how much of a live music scene Dorchester had. But he said "I know that when I played there people seemed to enjoy themselves, and I would always see familiar faces that would come back."
Live R&B may have come and gone, but Woodard is still in the neighborhood. He has bought a house off of Dudley Street, married, and had three kids.
He is no longer content to take whatever musical gigs come his way. Woodard teaches at the Roland Hayes Division of Music in Roxbury, and the stable job has allowed him to concentrate on playing the jazz music he has loved since childhood.
Since 1997, Woodard has headed a trio playing in Boston and around New England. He has developed his own style by grounding his music in classic jazz from the '40s, '50s and '60s, and juicing it up with exotic or modern beats from styles including hip-hop, Latin music, and reggae.
Besides playing at clubs in town such as Les Zygomates, Woodard enjoys playing locally in community events.
"These are the events that I like to play because they give me a chance to be a part of the community. I take pride in saying that I live in this community and that I'm taking part in community events," Woodard said.
Woodard will next play in Dorchester on June 1st at the Winthrop School on Brookford Street. His 1:15 PM show will help a neighborhood fair organized by the local community group Nuestra Comunidad.
Woodard has also started his own record label: Ujam records. Though Ujam currently only records his own trio, Woodard hopes that he will soon have the financial resources to expand his operation and provide an opportunity for local artists to put out their music.
Though Woodard has adopted Dorchester as his neighborhood, he is not native to the area. The musician was born in Iowa City, Iowa and raised in Kansas City, Missouri. His first instrument was the Cello, but before a couple of years passed he started guitar lessons.
In the '70s the young guitarist listened to a steady dose of pop music, which (as far as he is concerned) was in its golden era.
"I liked a lot of the popular rhythm and blues and Motown. James Brown, Earth Wind and Fire, George Clinton. And I also liked George Benson, who led to, of course, Wes Montgomery, which lead me deeper into jazz&emdash;people like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis," he said.
Thanks to his father, jazz entered Woodard's life even before he started playing an instrument.
"It was part of the musical landscape of the house because my dad had records on all of the time," the guitarist said.
Woodard credits a couple of teachers from his high school days, Bryan Harmon and Bob Slechter, with helping him to start what he calls a life long process of musicianship.
To Woodard, the difference between a musician and a music fan is that the musician not only enjoys what he hears, but analyzes why he likes it. He studies what is good about somebody?s music and incorporates into his own playing.
While still in high school, the young musician attended a summer session at Berklee College of Music and decided that he wanted to dedicate his life to jazz. He would return there for four years of college, finishing in 1983.
He then remained in the area, at first living in Allston, then eventually in Dorchester. He said that New York is the jazz capital of the world, but that Boston was a far more livable city and had a strong scene of its own.
Jazz gigs were hard to come by, so Woodard took on the jobs playing '60s and '70s pop music. It wasn't jazz, but it was the music he loved growing up and it gave him some money.
Usually he backed up acts like Sam and Dave (best known for their hit "Soul Man"), Weeping Willy, Lotsa Poppa, or Bobby Bland.
The jazz gigs came little by little. He often went to Wally's in the South End and joined in on jam sessions. Eventually he had a few jazz gigs of his own.
In 1988 Woodard formed his own band and worked with a number of musicians over the next decade, in 1997 adopting the trio format he has stuck with.
He has put out two CDs (Arrival!! and 1715, which is named after the address of his childhood house in Kansas City) on his own label. 1715 showcases the style that Woodard's eclectic style.
Several of the tracks are upbeat, "straight-up" jazz.
On one track the band covers the bolero "Besame Mucho." On another, the trio plays its own version of James William's "Stretching," borrowing the groove and arrangement of the hip-hop group Diggable Planets? reworking of the tune. Woodard called his mix of Diggable Planets' "Rebirth of Slick (Cool Like Dat)" and "Stretching" a "kind of gumbo." The title track, 1715, features a reggae groove.
Woodard said the he does not play fusion jazz. He said he is merely continuing the tradition of jazz of the '40s, '50s, and '60s. This era, starting with the arrival of Charlie Parker in about 1942 and ending with John Coltrane's death in 1967 produced all of his favorite musicians, the ones he listens to the most and considers his greatest influences.
At the time, he said, jazz music primarily used a swing rhythm, but began to absorb beats from Latin music and black church music.
"My stuff is an extension of that era brought up to modern times. And the concept is not new. All that is new are the rhythms that are being used at this time.
"What I try to do is take another style and adapt itto jazz. If a song has a familiar beat or familiar sound then [listeners will] be drawn into it and if they listen further they'll find stuff that they haven't heard. I don't consider myself to be a purist, but I still remain true to the jazz tradition," Woodard said.
While the guitarist likes to mix hip-hop beats and all the music he hears into his own, he said that today's pop music cannot compare to the music of the '70s.
With a few exceptions (he names and Lauren Hill and Tony, Toni, Tone) he said that today's artist, though talented, just don't have the same level of training and mastership of the older pop artists or a jazz artist.
"I don't see a lot of innovation happening. I don't want to come off sounding like a moldy fig, but I think this generation has become too dependent on technology," he said. "Music has become a backdrop for the visual" music videos, he added.
These days the guitarist's fulltime gig is his teaching job at the Roland Hayes Division of Music. The school, on Dudley Street in Roxbury takes students from the John D. O?Bryant School and Madison High.
"Teaching is not always a picnic," he said. "However I do find that I get a lot of pleasure out of showing a young person how to play an instrument, and I look at it as a way to give back to the community.
"The high point is that I'm teaching this current generation how to play an instrument and I'm teaching them musical scholarship, and paying dues. It's a process, and you have to enjoy that process."
Woodard runs a website to promote his record label and performances: www.ujamrecords.com
-David Colbert (Dorchester Reporter, May 23, 2002)
Ujam Records P.O. Box 190586, Roxbury, MA 02119
Phone: (857) 492-6779