An Everlasting Influence – Jimi Hendrix

An Everlasting Influence
Jimi Hendrix
by Mark Ruffin

More than three decades after his death, Jimi Hendrix is still shaking up the paradoxical dilemma that is race in America. The racial dichotomies in his life and music are the central themes of a bold new book and an exciting new album.

Both Midnight Lightning; Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience (Chicago Review Press) by Greg Tate and Purple; Celebrating Jimi Hendrix (Act Records) by Nguyen Le, featuring Teri Lynn Carrington and Me’ Shell N’degeocello, are testaments to how much the enigmatic guitarist still effects American culture and stirs the boiling cauldron of racial hypocrisy and irony in this country.

One of the many almost comical examples of disparity in Hendrix’ life that Tate points out, in a book filled with them, is the notion that Hendrix is the only black cultural icon ever to have been introduced to African-Americans by whites. The divide on Le’s effort is also wide as he is a Paris born Vietnamese featuring a gay black woman on a ten-track tribute to a black rock god that is quite simply the best jazz-fusion record to come out in ten years.

Taking a sometimes incendiary, often humorous, stance, Tate makes no bones about the fact that he has a “racial agenda” with the message of Midnight Lightning. The book can be viewed as what the author calls a “Jimi Hendrix primer for black folk.” But it is also a serious study on why Hendrix wasn’t accepted by blacks when he was alive and the white backlash the guitarist suffered as he tried to reach the African-American audience shortly before his death in September of 1970,

Like the huge majority of black baby boomers who are Hendrix fans, Tate discovered the guitarist after he formed his only black group, Band of Gypsies. The fact that the author admits his worshipping of Hendrix began after that band’s classic eponymous 1970 release is something most of his targeted readers will relate to. Along with most of us, he slept on Hendrix and had to backtrack to discover his essence.

Tate, a musician and a highly respected journalist, is one of those brothers who never let go of the Hendrix mystique and adopted elements of the guitarist’s free spirited lifestyle into his own. That there are hundreds of thousands of black men, in all types of professions who did the same, particularly many musicians from Bootsy Collins to Lenny Kravitz, is another area explored in the book.

In a recording career that only spanned a little over three years, Hendrix made an amazingly indelible imprint on American fashion and music, black coiffure and speech patterns and he generally taught British rock stars how to act like the royalty many literally eventually became.

Midnight Lightning states that it was because the Seattle, Washington born musician became an international guitar sensation in England first, when he arrived back in America already a star, he was given an exemption as a black man. During one of the most racially tense periods in this country’s history, Hendrix was able to openly cross racial barriers musically, socially and sexually that no other black man could in the late 60’s.

While Sammy Davis Jr. and Sidney Potier received constant death threats for daring to date white women in public during that time, Hendrix got a blank check to go out with two or three at a time. There’s little evidence to suggest he ever had a problem and Tate book tries to answer why this was true.

One of the most telling passages in the book is the tale of the southern promoter who was so comfortable with Hendrix, he let his guard down and started throwing out racial epithets. Another is the documenting of the many times the Black Panthers tried to shake the musician down using black guilt as their prime weapon.

At only 157 pages, this is no exhaustive biography of the late guitarist, but there are dozens of little tidbits about his life that are included, if not necessary. However, Midnight Lightning is not exactly an easy read. The author’s flowery use of the English language often comes off sounding like some neo-hip-hop/new age spaced-out guru who searched the dictionary and his own imagination to come up with unnecessary high-tech words and phrases that sometimes detracts, rather than aide the thesis of the book.

Quite correctly, Midnight Lightning makes it known that black blues musicians were the first to pick up on that fact that Hendrix was playing black music all along. It was widely known that at the time of his death, the guitarist was planning a recording with jazzers Miles Davis and Gil Evans, but Tate reveals that Hendrix was also playing with the late jazz sax star Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

Up until this new recording by Le, Gil Evans Plays The Music of Jimi Hendrix, from the early 70’s was the best jazz tribute to the musician. In one fell swoop, Le and Carrington highlight all of the sophisticated black rock, funk, blues, jazz and r&b that Tate says is embedded in Hendrix’ music.

While N’degeocello only plays her bass on two tracks, the three vocalists featured are all obviously influenced by her singing style. Carrington, whose drumming is spectacular throughout the proceedings, is a revelation as a vocalist on Purple Haze, Up From The Skies, and South Saturn Delta. And the decision to have vocalist Aida Khann sing in Vietnamese is not only inspiring, but reflects the exoticism that is the aura of the man being paid tribute to.

What may be the most impressive thing about Le’s guitar playing, and maybe Tate’s writing, is that despite the heavy influence Hendrix has had on these two gentlemen, it is their own voice and style that come through all the messages contained within these two worthy artistic projects.