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Experiencing Jimi Hendrix : For today's budding crop of black rock musicians, he's more than a guitar hero--he's a role model

November 26, 1989|CHUCK PHILIPS

Some sounds speak directly to the subconscious--the blast of a cherry bomb, the howl of a siren . . . the scream of Jimi Hendrix's feedback at the start of "Foxy Lady."

If Jimi Hendrix were alive, he would be 47 on Monday. To mark the occasion, the Black Rock Coalition--a nonprofit organization formed to fight racism and combat negative stereotypes in the music industry--will present the first "Jimi Hendrix Birthday Celebration" at the Music Machine in West Los Angeles at 8 p.m. on Monday.

In a field almost exclusively populated by white musicians, Hendrix has served as a role model for a cadre of young black rockers. His achievement was to reclaim title to a musical form pioneered by black innovators like Little Richard and Chuck Berry in the 1950s.

For years, critics and musicians in pop circles have hailed Hendrix--who died on Sept. 18, 1970, as a result of inhalation of vomit due to barbiturate intoxication--as one of the most creative and influential rock guitarists ever. But his impact on today's budding crop of black rock musicians runs even deeper.

"I think of Hendrix in the same context as Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X," said Vernon Reid, guitarist for Living Colour and a founder of the Black Rock Coalition.

"To me, he was one of the seminal black figures. Unfortunately, people get so wrapped up in his guitar playing that they tend to overlook what he did with sound and composition. Like Coltrane, Miles (Davis) and Ornette (Coleman), Jimi's presence fundamentally changed the equation."

Lenny Kravitz, whose '60s-influenced solo debut album, "Let Love Rule," has received kudos from critics and in college and alternative radio circles, cites Hendrix as a crucial link in the development of black music.

"For Jimi radio airplay wasn't the premise," Kravitz said. "He didn't just write hit songs or hooks. Back then rock music was about free expression and Jimi was an innovative artist at the top of his form. People tend to forget that rock 'n' roll is black music--not just white people either. Black people forget too. Hendrix opened the doors for guys like me. He is the perfect example of a black artist doing what he wanted to do."

Billy Nelson, who plays bass for the BRC (Black Rock Coalition) All Stars, the band that will open the Music Machine bill (local rockers Total Eclipse and East Coast rappers Culture Shock are also scheduled), says it would be impossible to overestimate Hendrix's importance in the local black rock community.

"Hendrix did for rock what Charlie Parker did for jazz," Nelson said. "He was like a modern-day Bach or Beethoven, a musical mastermind who came in and completely changed the entire scene."

Proceeds from the Hendrix tribute will be used by the BRC to underwrite the coalition's ongoing campaign to secure a star for Hendrix on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame. Local BRC co-director Ray Jarvis says the coalition chose to single out Hendrix's contribution because his music represents the "essence of what the BRC is all about."

The BRC was established in 1985 by Vernon Reid, writer Gregg Tate and film producer Konda Mason. Local directors MaryAlice Bailey, Norwood Fisher, Mason and Jarvis opened the Los Angeles chapter in May.

"It's funny, this idea of treating black rock like it's a separate sub-genre of rock," Reid said. "When a white band like AC/DC plays rock, they're actually playing black music. Rock 'n' roll was created by black musicians."

Reid believes that Hendrix's race is central to his relevance.

"Who could listen to 'Machine Gun' without thinking about black soldiers in Vietnam?" Reid asked. "It's because he was black that his version of 'The Star Spangled Banner' is so powerful. It's too bad that Jimi was taken from us before he could really explore the jazz direction."

BRC member Dr. Frank Gilliam, a professor in UCLA's political science department, says one reason Hendrix is so revered is because his music helped many middle-class black rock fans overcome a social identity crisis they experienced during the late 1960s.

"Some of us in the BRC were raised in the suburbs, the first wave of black working-class children," Gilliam said. "When we were growing up, rock was not cool music for black kids to enjoy. Either you listened to 'soul' music or else you were considered 'whitewashed.' "

According to Gilliam, Hendrix's music and his anti-war, pro-civil rights political stance offered black teen-agers who loved rock 'n' roll a new ethnic role model--a black man internationally respected for modernizing black roots music who was unafraid to experiment with Anglo-cultural influences.

"Jimi personified the 'transculturation' of America for middle-class blacks," Gilliam said. "He validated our position in society, the fact that we were proud to be black, but also not enslaved by the black experience."

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