Roxbury native Rollins Ross recently returned from Puerto Rico where he was on tour at the San Juan Hotel and celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Martha’s Vineyard Cottagers.
Despite the whirlwind travel, Ross was upbeat and relaxed when I entered his Mattapan home for our interview. His living room was filled with CDs, DVDs, a piano and music memorabilia.
Although a jazz musician at heart, he loves his R&B and his long-standing band, Soul Source, will be laying rhythm and blues licks on the crowd tonight at Slade’s Bar and Grille on 958 Tremont St. in the South End of Boston, Massachusetts. Slade’s is one of the few remaining black-owned nightspots in Boston that features live music.
Soul Source is usually comprised of eight members: J.O. Whorter on saxophone, Vincent Bailey on drums, Danny Underwood on bass, David Ely on percussion and Ross on keys. Missing in tonight’s lineup are vocalists Athene Wilson, an accomplished gospel singer and recent Urban Music Award winner and the dulcet tones of Ashanti Munir.
Ross spoke about the difference between the music scene, then and now.
"Modern music environments, lacking live performance venues, require a flexibility that makes everyone a ‘pick-up musician,’" Ross explained. "There are no longer set bands that perform together on the regular and that’s that."
He began playing piano and bass at the age of 12, and by the age of 14, he studied under Dean Earl, Berklee ‘56, who was Charlie Parker’s piano player and a professor at Berklee for more than 30 years. There is a scholarship now named after him.
Introduced to arranging, composition and jazz at Berklee, Ross learned that making music is borrowing from the old and mixing it with the new.
"George Clinton and James Brown are one of the few original old school artists with a working band after 4 or 5 generations of making music," Ross said. "James Brown is a frustrated jazz musician. How great it is that he still has a working band. Groups can’t do that today. And on top of that, James Brown is a rapper."
That talent and adaptability stands head and shoulders above the rest. While talking about the modern music scene, Rollins mused about John Legend.
"Surely he is gifted," Ross said, "but how many musicians do you know work 10 months in a year, versus those that are working 10 times a year? How many artists in the last 10 years are working with their band? They can’t, the costs are just prohibitive. The best thing a musician can do today, especially a jazz musician, is to be affiliated with a college or university, any way they can."
Ross and I compared notes regarding a mutual acquaintance, a veteran musician, recently returning from a national tour with headliners, only to be back at square one again, working the phone and picking up gigs. Music is a tough business and musicians have to be entrepreneurs.
Some of Ross’ classmates at the Berklee School of Music were Bill Pierce, ’73, current chair of the woodwind department and Abraham "Abe" Laboriel, ’72, who just may be "the most recorded electric bassist ever," performing on more than 3,000 sessions and according to Berkelee’s website, appears on more than 600 albums, not including reissues and compilations.
"There were great teachers," Ross said.
He couldn’t recall any female teachers back in the day.
"There were only a handful of female students and now there is wonderful chorale work that is being done, a gospel choir and more," said Rollins, noting some of the changes.
Five years ago, Berklee started a gender and diversity equity campaign to make the school a better place. Berklee is striving to "create an environment in which women and minorities know that they are full and valued members of the community," according to the school's website. "But there is no comparison between the Berklee of the 60’s and now. Berklee has excellent continuing education for professionals - students’ art can develop quickly, they can keep their hands on new technology," Ross said.
Rollins went on. "The opportunity is there at Berklee to study with a wide variety of guest artists and take master classes," he said. " The music industry constantly changes; electronic music has taken a big hold. Not having professional development is about as useful as having an outdated computer."
When I asked Ross about the projects he is working on he said he has always had a recording studio, but he is mostly a sideman. Rollins depends on word of mouth to get gigs and he feels that he has "missed the CD market." He now encourages young musicians to instead "go directly to the Internet." For a variety of reasons, he did not want a record deal.
He pointed out that many of the 1950’s do-woppers are in a revival mode and should do CDs. In the past, they didn’t own their material.
"They have to recapture their publishing and promote themselves currently as ‘oldies but goodies,’ like a revival," explained Rollins.
This versatile veteran has played with blockbuster jazz vocalists "Queen" Esther Phillips and the debonair and long-lived Joe Williams. Rollins has scored music for the "Today Show Kids" programming, "Ready To Go," as well as scored a four-hour special for PBS on Nelson Mandela.
He is now working on a project that involves accomplished Boston songwriter and musician, Cyril Chapman, who is writing lyrics for instrumental jazz tunes. Ross has been working for the past five years on a CD for fellow Soul Source band member David Ely, a.k.a. "Mr. Hollywood."
Though music is an integral part of his life, Ross also has had a day job as a consultant, advising and training small companies and young entrepreneurs on obtaining government contracts.
I asked Ross to reflect on a saying a bass playing friend has, "If you want to have a livelihood instead of lovely-hood or you want to become a professional instead of a weekend warrior, what should you do? Rollins offered, "You can’t get better if you don’t play even if it’s for short money."
"You have to have the opportunity to interact with musicians, study many styles of playing and you have to have experience playing a lot of different tunes, many different genres," he said.
Rollins pointed out, "If you left out the blues, you’d be in big trouble."
And once again, something old becomes something new as the African art form of syncretizing takes place in the musical expression of culture. Webster’s calls syncretizing an "attempt to unite and harmonize, especially without critical examination or logical unity."
We talked a little about the Urban Music Awards and the upcoming Beantown Jazz Festival now owned and operated by Berklee College.
The diminishing numbers of local venues for R&B, jazz or blues is evident in the South End. Connolly’s, Basin Street and Louis Showcase Lounge are sadly among the missing. But regardless of the lack of venues, Ross explained, "Music is one of the few things in the world that gets better."