Blue Note Backstreets, Pt. 2: Bobbi Humphrey
Celebrating the women of Blue Note Records, past and present
It seems like a number of careers were launched because Dizzy Gillespie was in the audience. That was the case for trumpet player Clora Bryant, and it was the case some years later for flutist Bobbi Humphrey. Humphrey was playing the flute—something she began doing in high school—in a talent show at Southern Methodist University. It so happened that one of the judges that night was Gillespie, who was so impressed by the young woman’s skill that he approached her after the show and urged her to move to New York and pursue music professionally. What are you going to do? Not take musical career advice from Dizzy Gillespie? Humphrey wrote to the Apollo Theater in Harlem to inquire about a spot in one of their famed amateur nights. Shortly thereafter, she was on stage at the Apollo. Three days after arriving in New York she was also onstage with Duke Ellington. That, my friends, is one hell of a way to start a career.
And somehow, bringing down the house at the Apollo and playing with one of the greatest American composers who ever lived was Bobbi’s version of “just getting started.” With no agent and no contacts, she delivered her demo to every jazz label in the city. Blue Note called her back the same day she’d dropped off the demo, and in 1971 she became the label’s first Black female instrumentalist.
She released several albums for Blue Note, beginning with 1971’s Flute In. She played with a number of other great musicians, including Blue Note label mate Lee Morgan and Stevie Wonder, one nothing less than his iconic album, Songs in the Key of Life. She was a progressive musician who kept one foot in jazz and another in jazz fusion and funk, and maybe a third (anatomy is not my strong point, apparently) in the world of 1970s soul and R&B. There’s a reason you can find photos of her hanging with Bootsy Collins. Oh, and from time to time, she would also sing.
That swirl of styles is where you can find my favorite of her albums, 1973’s Blacks and Blue. The album opens with the trippy space-groove “Chicago, Damn,” a play on Nina Simone’s “Mississippi, Goddam” and possessed of the same commentary on social injustice. Working in collaboration with Blue Note studio session wizards Larry and Alphonso Mizell, who were responsible for really pushing Blue Note into some funky territory. And when I call them wizards, I mean some of their stuff sounds like “space wizards and dragons” music. With its deep groove bass, synths, and Bobbi’s improvised flute flights, you could put “Chicago, Damn” on a compilation of prog rock and no one would think twice about it.
The second track, “Harlem River Drive” is a little breezier, a little less cosmic, and, more indicative of the album’s overall apolitical mood. As the title suggests, it’s the perfect song for cruising along (or, just as likely, sitting in traffic on) New York’s Harlem River Drive, but the Mizell brothers were California boys, and while Blacks and Blues works great in New York (I tested it out myself), it’s also infused with a laid-back California sunshine pop vibe. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better soundtrack for driving along the Pacific Coast Highway in a convertible with the top down. It also works well on the Amalfi Coast. Bobbi Humphrey was versatile.
“Harlem River Drive” in particular took on a life of its own, getting sampled by a number of hip-hop artists, including Eric B., Ice-T, and Common (Humphrey performed on Common’s Electric Circus album as well). In fact, Bobbi maintained a level of relevance enjoyed by only a few of her contemporaries. She pops up not just as a sample or a track on a breakbeat compilation, but has continued to work, appearing alongside the likes of Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. And why hasn’t someone already paired Bobbi Humphrey and Lizzo? That just seems like destiny.
Bobbi does double duty on “Just a Love Child,” playing flute and singing. It’s an exquisite song, possibly my favorite on the album. Bobbi doesn’t have the range of Minnie Riperton (who does?), but “Just a Love child” reminds me very much of her, and especially of Riperton’s woork with the Rotary Connection (Bobbi would have killed it on “I Am the Black Gold of the Sun”). It also sounds like it could easily have been an influence on King Britt Presents Sylk 130 – When The Funk Hits The Fan, a concept album that features, among other things, a visit to a club featuring feminist poetry reading. The final song, “Baby’s Gone,” on which Humphrey also sings, is the perfect closer, a smooth late-night chillout session with almost noirish undertones scattered throughout. Like so much of Bobbi Homphrey’s work, it exists in two worlds: the funk groove of the 1970s and the breezy sunshine of the Summer of Love and early disco and, with those choral harmonies, groups like the Moody Blues and The 5th Dimension.
Released during a transitional time for Blue Note—one found having passed away, the other having retired, and ownership of th elabel having passed on to United Artists. UA had big plans for the label, none of which looked like the Blue Note jazz fans had come to adore. From cover design to the type of music, UA wanted to push Blue Note in a more contemporary direction, less jazz greats and more toward the soul and funk sounds of the 1970s. Fans of the traditional Blue Note look and sound were aghast, and not without reason. At the same time, however, the shrinking cadre of classic Blue Note fans wasn’t a large enough population on which to build the success of a label, and times had changed. Even Miles Davis had changed. The scathing reaction of trad jazz fans, however, didn’t hurt Blacks and Blues in the long run. It was a wildly popular release, becoming one of Blue Note’s biggest sellers and turning Bobbi Humphreys into one of their most successful artists. Mellow doesn’t have to mean boring, and Blacks and Blues is a good example of that. It’s light and airy, a warm summer breeze, and the perfect album for a chill evening or sultry late night.