The National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) kicked off Black History Month by hosting an event highlighting the works of Jimi Hendrix, rock music guitarist, with students at the Nashville School of the Arts (NSA) on February 6. “Music Legends and Heroes: Reflections of Jimi Hendrix,” the first high school assembly presented by NMAAM, consisted of performances by NSA’s pop ensemble, NSA guitar students, and GTar Phil & the Chank (featuring Phil Hughley), followed by a panel discussion of local experts.
“Nashville is where Hendrix ‘learned his chops,’ met friends and performed in the nightclubs along Jefferson Street,” said Kim Johnson, director of programs at the NMAAM. “He was even a band member of the TV show “Night Train,” which broadcasted from WLAC, so this is a great opportunity for us to educate students about Hendrix’s musical roots here in the Music City.”
The panel, moderated by NSA student Kendale Lurch-Bark, included Jesse Boyce, long-time session bass player, songwriter and producer; Mark Crawford, professor of commercial music at Tennessee State University; and Phil Hughley, guitarist and songwriter. Panelists shared personal stories of Hendrix’s time spent in Nashville, how Hendrix changed the music industry, and Hendrix’s influence on present-day musicians.
Boyce, who was performing in nightclubs along Jefferson Street at the same time as Hendrix, talked about Hendrix’s career starting in Nashville.
“We played in the clubs on Jefferson Street, the original Music Row, as kids just trying to learn from those before us,” said Boyce. “I remember being backstage at a concert with Little Richard when he heard Hendrix perform for the first time. He yelled, ‘Wait a minute, baby!”, because he was in awe of Jimi’s performance. Then, Hendrix eventually went on to tour with Little Richard as a background musician in 1965.”
When asked about Hendrix’s influence on his music, guitarist Phil Hughley admitted he did not like Hendrix’s music at first. “I don’t get this guy,” he said. It was not until he began researching recordings of Hendrix rather than covers of his music that Hughley became a fan of Hendrix’s ability to play uninhibitedly.
“Once I gained a real appreciation for Jimi Hendrix, I realized how amazing he was” said Hughley. [Listening to him] pushed me to embrace my originality.”
Crawford spoke about the cultural significance of the music of the ‘60s. He talked about the time Hendrix spent in London on Denmark Street, “Britain’s Tin Pan Alley”—or Music Row.
“London is where Hendrix developed his style before coming back to America and blowing everyone away,” Crawford said, explaining that in London, “Hendrix was able to freely express himself. His rebellious music, wild and provocative stage presence, and style of dressing were accepted in London more so than they were in the United States.”
Hope Hall, librarian at NSA, learned about the Hendrix panel, featured in one of NMAAM’s monthly “Sips & Stanzas” after-work events hosted at various locations around Nashville. “When I heard about NMAAM hosting a panel focused solely on the rock icon and his music, I immediately thought of my NSA students,” said Hall.
“This opportunity gave them a real-life connection to an artist they had only seen in their text books or online.”
Immediately following the discussion, guitarist Phil Hughley and students from guitar teacher Dr. James Satterwhite’s class performed a tribute to Hendrix and his music, including hits like “Hey Joe,” “Red House,” and “Purple Haze.”
Will Alley, a junior at NSA, said, “As a guitarist, I’d say Jimi Hendrix was definitely one of my biggest inspirations. I like to play a lot of blues/rock and blues/rocked-inspired music, so I always studied his playing and tried to learn his songs. The event at NSA helped me appreciate Hendrix’s music a lot more because I learned that he was one of the first players to use sound effects on his guitar. I also never thought about how big it was at that time that he was African American.”
Hendrix considered the American experience of the 1960s in what he wrote and chose to perform. In Cherokee Mist: The Lost Writings, a collection of handwritten notes, Hendrix penned, “We are different states of America. We are not united. Some of us wish to be, but only in times of war and love.” In a companion piece, he writes,
“I see arms and hands and tear-stained faces reaching up but not quite touching the promised land. … I see black and white and red and yellow—even green—getting together. And their weapons are shining clean, but I’m not talking about swords, knives and guns. I’m talking about . . . the power of the rising sun.”
“African American music has long been a reflection of American culture. Additionally, African American musicians often used their art as a ‘safe’ way to express the way they felt about the turbulent times our country faced,” said Johnson. “One clear example of music that covers both of these is Jimi Hendrix’s iconic performance of “The Star Spangled Banner” [at Woodstock, especially] which clearly came out of a period when our country was torn by racism and the Vietnam War. This performance made history around the world and changed the way that people experienced American culture.”
The National Museum of African American Music is hosting other events in celebration of Black History Month, for more information on NMAAM programs, you can visit their website.