AUTHOR: Jennifer K. Bauer
Jazz legend Lionel Hampton had a special relationship with the Nez Perce people.
It started near the end of his life, in the 1990s when he was in his 80s and first visited the reservation to perform for school children during the University of Idaho jazz festival.
Five years after his death his touch continues to reverberate. One of the people Hampton’s music reached is Andre Picard, a Nez Perce musician whose family connected with Hampton.
He was there when Hampton was made an honorary member of the tribe. He was there during Hampton’s final shows on the reservation when the performer counted on band members to shout out the lyrics of “What a Wonderful World” because he could no longer remember.
“Kids called him grandpa Lionel” recalls Picard, sitting in his home recording studio at Spalding. “We all loved him a lot and when he passed on we were very sad.”
Picard and Lionel Hampton Big Band bass player Christian Fabian are creating a unique album that combines jazz and American Indian music.
Fabian, a New York-based musician, was visiting the area recently to record the work.
“Jazz is a universal language. It always brings together cultures,” says Fabian who was born in Sweden, raised in Germany and studied music in the U.S. Picard, a singer, drummer and flute player has recorded 16 CDs of pow wow, stick game, and other music.
His work was included on the “Smoke Signals” soundtrack and also on a compilation that won a Nammy, the Native American Music Awards version of the Grammy.
The two met years ago because of Fabian’s visits with Hampton’s band to Lapwai. They admit that combining the two musical genres is challenging, but there is something special about uniting two American art forms.
Each musician has a deep respect for the other’s music and they aim for an album that blends the two equally.
“It’s been called America’s original art form,” Fabian says of jazz. “When you think about it Native American music is even more original than jazz.”
The two kinds of music share some similarities. At the base of jazz is free form improvisation. American Indian music follows a similar vein. Traditionally it is not written down, Picard says, and the key, rhythm, and timing depend on the mood of the singer.
American Indian music also has its own version of jazz scat singing, where the performer sings nonsensical syllables that help provide the feel of the song. In American Indian music these are often long drawn out vowel sounds.
While they don’t make sense even to the singer, Picard says, “the creator understands us.”
One of the songs on the as yet untitled album is a rendition with drum of “What a Wonderful World” sung by Picard in English with the unique rhythm of Nez Perce phrasing. It’s dedicated to Hampton.
Another song “Hail to the Chief,” is dedicated to Chief Joseph. In the song, Fabian’s low bass played with a bow sounds like a chant.
“If you really sit down and listen to it, it takes you somewhere,” Fabian says. Other songs include “Funky Warrior” a faster song with Fabian’s acoustic bass and Picard’s stepped up vocalizations.
“I hope it gives the kids, the youth of our tribe, the idea that you can always have a song in your heart,” Picard says of the album, “that music will always be there for you.”
The album will contain about a dozen songs. The two are in the process of deciding how to distribute it to both Indian and jazz markets.
They hope to have it completed by the February 2008 University of Idaho Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival.
This article first appeared on IndianCountryNews.net