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

on stage.

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.