Just seconds after I set my mug
on the table of a north side coffeehouse, Action Jaxson drummer Wil Brown began
what would amount to taking me to school on the fine points of all things
funky. He would enlighten me on the difference between what’s funk and what’s
just funky, and eventually explain how he hoped Action Jaxson fit into the line
of artists passing this genre down through a few generations. Before we got down to business,
I decided to check the credentials of my tutors. Suitably impressed, I decided
to stay in class and enjoy my schooling.
The funk brotherhood of
guitarist Mike Rodgers, drummer Brown, bass player Justin Hernandez and sax man
Quincy Sanders began to take shape when mutual friend Blakey P. made a call to
Brown, who was studying and drumming in California at the time, to inform Brown
that Rodgers was putting together a serious funk band. Having played briefly
with Rodgers before heading to the West Coast, Brown didn’t want to pass up the
opportunity to reteam with the guitarist.
So Brown headed back to Indiana
and schooling began.
To offer a brief history of
relevant influences, James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, is generally credited
with creating the funk genre in the early 60s. His blend of complex rhythms and
simple, groove-oriented song structures paved the way for others in the late
60s and 70s. Sly and the Family Stone, the Meters, George Clinton’s
Parliament/Funkadelic, Tower of Power and Earth, Wind, and Fire all enjoyed
considerable success during what may have been the golden era of this genre.
Brown had much to say about this unique era for music, “The funk was so nasty
from ’67 to ’77, you had to do this [pinches his nose].”
Rock bands began to add
elements of funk to their acts in the 90s. Bands like The Red Hot Chili
Peppers, Primus, Rage Against The Machine and Jamiroquai all incorporated funk
elements into their style of music. Brown points out that they may be funky,
but they ain’t funk.” Justin Hernandez was immediately attracted to the “sexual
energy” emitted by the Chili Peppers and others.
The wiry Rodgers, 24, got his
introduction to music by learning the piano at home and then moved on to wind
instruments. After a few years playing in the Homestead High School band he
discovered a classical guitar in his basement and decided to teach himself a
few chords. Rodgers eventually began playing open jams around Fort Wayne –
often was accompanied by his brother on drums in a duo they called The
Chameleons. His brother eventually lost interest, leading Rodgers to try to put
a all new band together.
Brown, 34, who has been dubbed
HDM (Human Drum Machine), was born in Memphis and, apparently, spent a great
deal of time in the famous Stax recording studio located there. His father,
William Brown, sang with the Stax vocal group the Mad Lads and was later an
engineer on the Stax staff. Brown had extraordinary access to the many famous
musicians who recorded at the studio. The Bar-Kays’ drummer was actually his
first instructor when Brown was four.
As Brown put it, “They taught
me the essentials of the language, but I had to develop my own voice.”
After moving to California, he
continued to improve his playing during his high school years and then enlisted
in the military for two years. While stationed in Japan he often played with
his Asian counterparts. While neither would overcome their language barrier,
they easily connected with the voice of their drums.
Sax player Sanders, 23, who has
been known to add his playing to several area bands, is now focused solely on
advancing the Action Jaxson funk mission. Like most of his bandmates, Sanders
got his introduction to music at school. Originally destined (or so he thought)
to become a singer, he abandoned that dream when his voice “changed got
messed up.” Encouraged by his mother, Sanders picked up the saxophone and was
soon soloing in the Snider High School jazz band. He continued playing while
attending both Ball State and Indiana University, where he recently received a
degree in special education.
The youngest Jaxson at 21,
Hernandez joined the others this summer after departing from Pleasing Melani.
Hernandez picked up the bass during high school after experimenting with
assorted wind instruments. Originally attracted to punk rock, he then veered to
the work of Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Flea, who was himself heavily influenced by
P-Funk bassist Bootsy Collins.
Casey Stansifer (Definitely
Gary), a friend from school, then gave Hernandez some CDs that displayed the
talents of some other giants in the bass guitar world, including Victor Wooten,
Jaco Pastorius and Les Claypool of Primus. Justin, at once impressed and
dejected, knew he had to take his playing to another level, and so began a
habit of practicing four hours per day.
Action Jaxson enjoy inviting
other musicians onstage to jam during their shows. Brown emphatically informed
me that combining players from different acts is the only true jam.
“If only your band is involved,
it’s merely a practice. We like to have a meeting without talking, a discussion
He recalled a recent Kaysan’s
gig that involved nine or ten players locked in a 20-minute-plus
“discussion.” Even before the band steps on stage, you immediately notice
the unusual orientation of Brown’s drum kit. The drums face left, with Brown
facing the same direction. Watching rhythm sections at Stax studios as a child,
Brown was captivated by the constant, intense eye contact between the drummer
and bass player. He decided he could best simulate this connection on stage by
actually facing his bass player. The setup also gives the audience a unique
look at the HDM at work.
Action Jaxson announced the
arrival of a new member, singer Derrick Jackson – formerly of the band
Elemental – only hours before presstime. If you speak their language, you might
want to join them and their new dynamic for a “conversation.”
I recently caught them on a
very damp evening at the Rusted Root campground, a remote outpost in the shadow
of Lake Wawasee. The band was pure funk, and the weather very funky. I think I
know the difference now. Maybe not.