Trombonist Fred Wesley played with James Brown in the '60s and '70s, becoming musical director of the J.B.'s in 1970. He joined the Count Basie Orchestra in 1978. He plays with the Greyboy Allstars on Dec. 30 at the Belly Up Tavern. Photo courtesy of Alex Hincliffe
Fred Wesley is one of the original founders of funk music. Serving as James Brown's bandleader for the majority of the soul icon's most creative years, Wesley's unmistakable trombone playing and funked-up arrangements continue to shape music today.
Wesley's gig with Brown was sandwiched between stretches with both Count Basie and Parliament-Funkadelic, and the one-time adjunct college professor in jazz studies has arranged for everyone from Ray Charles to Van Morrison.
In 1995, Wesley played on the debut album for then-relatively unknown San Diego jazz/funk collaborative, The Greyboy Allstars.
"West Coast Boogaloo" is now considered a classic, and the Greyboy Allstars have both lived up to their name and helped get San Diego into the jazz conversation.
On Friday night, Wesley will rejoin the much-heralded locals at the Belly Up for the first of only two shows (the other is Saturday in San Francisco), where they'll play the 16-year-old album together in its entirety.
And it all started when the legendary trombonist met Greyboy Allstars front man Karl Denson over a beer neither man was drinking.
"It's a funny story," Wesley said recently from his South Carolina home. "I first met Karl at an audition. It was a call for some kind of light beer. There were a bunch of horn players that showed up. They wanted to see groups of twos and threes and ended up putting me and Karl together. Before that, I didn't know Karl from Adam. We did our little thing together and hit it off real good. We didn't get the gig, but that was the hookup."
Although the pair got along famously, they didn't reconnect until years later when Stephan Meyner's jazz label, Minor Music, was releasing an album by Wesley.
"I didn't see him for a while," he said. "But then Karl was at a session for one of my albums. I saw him and said 'Hey, I remember you!' and we talked about the audition and everything was all right. But I realized what a fine tenor player he really was when he played on that album. And Karl was in it when I put my band together. We've been friends for a long time ---- longer than we can remember. But when we did 'West Coast Boogaloo,' he had left my band and started the Allstars. He just called me up to do it and I did it."
Wesley's unassuming, matter-of-fact demeanor permeates everything he does, from his 2002 biography, "Hit Me Fred: Recollections of a Sideman," to casually talking about his time in some of music's greatest bands.
"It's all an accident," said Wesley. "I was playing trumpet and my father needed a trombone in his band. But the trombone has stuck with me, and I've stuck with the trombone. I knew people like James Brown and George Clinton had an innovative style. I just had no idea it would last this long. Looking back now, I know it was radical and I do think it will last forever. But more than anything, I'm just really happy to be among the people who were with them."
Wesley has been forced to take time off recently, as he has been recovering from carpal tunnel surgery on his right hand. The two end-of-year dates with Greyboy mark a return to form, as the bandleader has performances with his own band booked well into the spring.
"I want to do as much music as possible," he said. "I'm 68 years old. I realize it's coming to the end at some point. But I'm going to try to get as much in as I can."
While Wesley will go down in the history books as part of some of the most influential acts of his (or any) generation, all he cares about is playing that trombone.
"Some horn players are never really famous or big stars," he said. "I just want to leave a body of work that is undeniable. I've played with everybody you could ever think of. I want to leave a big footprint when I'm done. From the beginning, that's something that I've always intended to do, and it's exactly what I'm going to continue to do."