Dara, Olu 1941–
Olu Dara 1941–
A highly regarded figure in the jazz scene since the 1960s, trumpeter and cornetist Olu Dara recorded his first solo record at the age of 57. Dara had always shied away from the spotlight, preferring to work with others like Art Blakey, saxophonist and composer Henry Threadgill, and the late pianist Don Pullen. Encouraged by his son, the rapper Nas, Dara finally agreed to record an album of his own songs in 1998. In the World: From Natchez to New York earned enthusiastic critical accolades for its fresh sound, which mixed Delta blues with African and Caribbean rhythms. That sound, Dara, asserts, comes from the fact that “I never practice the cornet,” he told Down Beat writer Alan Nahigian. “I never did. I was brought up that way. My teacher never said go home and practice. He said, how can you practice life? Music is life! Always go in fresh.”
As the title of his solo record hints, Dara hails from Natchez, Mississippi, where he was born Charles Jones in 1941. He was a performer from an early age, learning to tap dance and then picking up his first instrument. “This man gave me a horn, and told me to blow into it like I was blowing up a balloon,” he told Ed Bumgardner in the Winston-Salem Journal. “Next thing I know, I am playing the theme from ‘Woody Woodpecker’ and all these other cartoons I loved. If I could hear it, I could play it. Still can.” Dara left Mississippi to serve in the U.S. Navy, and played in a Navy band. He also visited parts of the Caribbean and Africa, whose musical traditions made a lasting impression on him.
Discharged, Dara was stranded in New York City in 1964 without funds to move on, and so he remained there. He claims not to have even owned an instrument for the next six years, but chance encounters with old friends from Mississippi and the Navy drew him back to music. As he recalled in the interview with Nahigian in Down Beat, his friends “were asking about playing music. I would just go and listen. When I finally started playing again, it was in the rhythm & blues bands, the natural place for me to be. We’d use two or three horns, and it was very creative.” But when this R&B style fell out of fashion, Dara moved on to jazz. Saxophonists Bill Barron and Sam Rivers helped him meet other musicians and find work in jazz ensembles, but it was still a difficult transition. “I was like a fish out of water,” Dara told Down Beat. “I loved to entertain, a song-and-dance man. I had to change my demeanor.”
Dara performed with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a famed bebop ensemble, for a few years, even though he had never before played bebop. Blakey, realizing that Dara’s heart wasn’t in the genre, encouraged him to try something new. And so, while he was on tour in Spain with Blakey, Dara began singing, making up the words as he went along. After leaving Blakey’s band in 1974, he fell into the loft scene among New York City’s jazz set. He played with Pullen, Threadgill, and the David Murray Octet in the early 1980s, and appeared in recordings. “While the music he played was often far out, Dara won praise for an emotionally direct style that recalled traditional jazz trumpet masters Louis Armstrong and Roy Eldridge,” remarked Boston Herald journalist Larry Katz about this phase of his career. Still, Dara claimed to have been continually mystified by the
Born Charles Jones on January 12, 1941, in Natchez, MS. Military Service: U.S. Navy, early 1960s.
Career: Has played with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Henry Threadgill, the David Murray Octet, and Don Pullen; led own bands, Okra Orchestra and Natchezsippi Dance Band; has also worked in theater as an actor and composer of music; signed to Atlantic Records; released first solo album, In the World: From Natchez to New York, 1998.
Addresses: Home —Harlem, NY. Office —c/o Atlantic Records, 1290 Avenue of the Americas, New York, NY 10104.
jazz scene, though he was sometimes compared to Louis Armstrong. “I learned jazz in a couple of days so I could work,” he confessed to Katz. “I’d make sounds in a trumpet and they considered that top level musicianship. It really confused me. I just smiled and didn’t say anything. Then I’d go do my best work with my own bands.”
Dara’s bands included the Okra Orchestra and the Natchezsippi Dance Band. He also enjoyed working in the theater in New York City, as an actor and composer of music. Playwright August Wilson became a fan of Dara’s compositions, which included music for Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama The Piano Lesson. Moving forward and constantly moving on seemed to keep Dara’s interest piqued and his sound fresh. For many years, Dara played the trumpet, but then returned to the cornet. “When I played the trumpet, I sounded like all the other trumpet players,” he explained to Down Beat. “When I picked up the cornet, I went right back to the way I used to play.” He was sometimes hailed as the heir of cornetist Don Cherry, but at other times his musicianship evoked comparisons to African performer Hugh Masekela.
Though he was offered the occasional chance to make a solo record, Dara spurned the offers, preferring instead to work with performers like Cassandra Wilson, in whose 1991 album Blue Light’Til Dawn he appeared. He also appeared in the soundtrack for the 1996 Robert Altman film Kansas City, which fictionalized that city’s flourishing jazz scene in the 1930s.
It was only the urging of his son, on whose 1994 LP Illmatic Dara appeared, that he began to think about making a record. “He kept telling me he wanted his peers to hear me,” Dara told Bergen County Record writer Ed Condran. “He wanted to show me off, but I declined. Five minutes later Atlantic Records called and asked me to put out an album. I thought it was an omen, and I decided to make a record.” The result was In the World: From Natchez to New York, released in 1998. Dara wrote all the songs himself, sang, and played trumpet, cornet, and guitar for it. The Winston-Salem Journal’s Bumgardner described it as “a potent dose of rural blues, decorated with the street-party twitch-and-twinge of hiphop.” Bumgardner noted further that the record “pays homage to past and present while keeping the listener spellbound and, most likely, a little off-balance.” International Herald Tribune writer Mike Zwerin commented on Dara’s vocal style, finding him a “a mature, acoustic, melodic and poetic rapper—a rare and delightful cadence. He ‘blows’ his lyrics like improvising on a horn.”
Some of the tracks on Dara’s next effort, Neighborhoods, were hailed by Rolling Stone journalist Robert Christgau as “history lessons” whose force would only be appreciated twenty years hence. Again, the record featured Dara on vocals, and playing the cornet, wooden horn, and guitar. Cassandra Wilson and Dr. John appeared on tracks, and Dara also wrote a tribute to his longtime conga player, Coster Massamba. Down Beat’s Glenn Astarita liked “Massamba” and the title track, as well as other songs in which “the artist shuffles through the Delta blues and New Orleans voodoo style r&b while also extolling the virtues of nature, love and life.” Another writer for the magazine, Michael Jackson found it a record that “seeps with Delta blues, inner-city soul, Bo Diddley-fied shuffle-funk and African rhythms, furthering Dara’s voyeuristic, nostalgic odyssey through life’s highways and byways.” The Bergen County Record’s Condran also commended it as an “intense, gritty, but atmospheric jazzy release, which sounds like a slice of New York.”
Dara also earned accolades for his live shows. “What he proffers has a timelessness with context,” declared Variety reviewer Phil Gallo, “everything he plays feels familiar, with roots linked to a distinct time and place, whether it be the Mississippi Delta in 1934 or Times Square circa 1971.” Dara’s two other sons are also involved in the arts. A resident of Harlem, he was bemused by the Rolling Stone review. “It’s not that I’m ungrateful that some magazine thinks I’m cool, but, see, none of that matters to me, even though I suppose it is supposed to,” he told Bumgardner in the Winston-Salem Journal. “But if it helps bring my music to more people, if it broadens minds and heals spirits, then that can only be a good thing.”
In the World: From Natchez to New York, Atlantic, 1998.
Neighborhoods, Atlantic, 2001.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 15, 1998, p. D2.
Boston Herald, March 8, 2001 p. 45.
Down Beat, May 1998, p. 36; June 2001, p. 16; July 2001, p. 66.
International Herald Tribune, June 13, 2001, p. 10.
Record (Bergen County, NJ), January 18, 2002, p. 15.
Rolling Stone, May 10, 2001.
Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), March 4, 2001, p. 6.
Time, June 24, 1996, p. 79; February 26, 2001, p. 72.
Variety, April 16, 2001, p. 36.
Winston-Salem Journal (Winston-Salem, NC), May 4, 2001, p. El.
"Dara, Olu 1941–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dara-olu-1941
"Dara, Olu 1941–." Contemporary Black Biography. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dara-olu-1941
Trumpeter, cornetist, singer, guitarist, bandleader
A performer from an early age, Olu Dara was a leading trumpet player in New York's burgeoning avant-garde loft-jazz scene in the 1960s. He has played with Art Blakey, David Murray, and Henry Threadgill, among others, and headed his own blues-oriented outfits, the Okra Orchestra and the Natchez-sippi Dance Band. Dara released his first solo album, In the World: From Natchez to New York, in 1998 at the age of 57. This album established him as a multi-faceted performer steeped in a wide variety of musical traditions.
Dara took the long, slow route to solo stardom. A mainstay on the avant-garde jazz circuit in the 1960s and 1970s, as well as the leader of his own blues-oriented orchestras, the multifaceted musician did not release his first solo album until 1998. At that time, he was 57 years old. Raised in Natchez, Mississippi, Dara told Jazziz, "I didn't come from a situation where you were record-oriented. I was just a guy who was song-and-dance man, a stage man. I didn't come to New York to record, to become a musician, so I wasn't in that mindset."
Born Charles Jones III on January 12, 1941, in Louisville, Mississippi, Dara displayed a talent for music and performance at an early age. His father was a popular singer, his uncles were traveling minstrels, and his great-uncles performed in the Rabbit's Foot and Silas Green touring carnivals. Dara first learned to play piano and clarinet, then took up the cornet. He was performing by age seven and touring by age ten. Dara continued to play trumpet and cornet throughout high school and at Tennessee State University, where he entered as a pre-med student but also joined the marching band. When he switched his major to music, he was too late to schedule any of the top-notch classes, so he dropped out of college and entered the United States Navy.
Traveling with the Navy, Dara not only played trumpet regularly but was exposed to a wide variety of rhythms and sounds from around the world. "I heard a whole lot of stuff in the navy," he told Down Beat in 1982. "I think it made me complete."
Dara was discharged in New York in 1964 and decided to stay in the city, although he did not play music for several years. Only after encountering several high school, college, and Navy friends, including drummer Freddie Waits, saxophonist Hamiet Bluiett, and vocalist Leon Thomas, did he again pick up the horn, focusing primarily on the cornet. Switching instruments allowed him to develop his singular style. "When I played the trumpet, I sounded like all the other trumpet players," Dara told Down Beat in 1998. "When I picked up the cornet, I went right back to the way I used to play. I don't think I play any different now than I did when I was 12 years old." His tone is often compared to Louis Armstrong or Roy Eldridge, and his organic channeling of the blues often reminds listeners of Taj Mahal. Dara is largely regarded as one of a kind. "Olu can play with one note what most people can only play in a whole solo," cornetist Butch Morris told Jazziz. "He also understood the mutes better than most, and how to deflect the sound."
Although his penchant was still for the blues-oriented music of his youth, as well as the multicultural sounds from his navy days, Dara became a fixture in the city's avant-garde loft jazz scene, where talented horn players were a hot commodity. It was during this time that he adopted his current name, given to him by a saxophonist who was also a Yoruba priest. One of his earliest steady gigs was with legendary jazz drummer Art Blakey, who was the first to encourage Dara to follow his own path. "'Look, this s**t is boring to you, ain't it?'" Dara recalled Blakey telling him, according to Down Beat. "'Look, go out and do what you want to.'" Given such license, Dara proceeded to sing the impromptu, storylike lyrics that are a staple of his solo releases and blow blues-inspired trumpet riffs.
This experience inspired Dara to set off on his own, forming first the Okra Orchestra, named after his favorite vegetable, and then the Natzchezsippi Dance Band. "The adventurous jazz I was playing wasn't my music. It's like having a job," Dara told the Boston Herald in 2001. "You may be working in an office and not want to be there, but you're there until you find something that you're comfortable with. That's why I formed my own band."
Dara continued to record and perform with a variety of other musicians, many of them at the forefront of the avant-garde, including Bluiett, Oliver Lake, David Murray, Henry Threadgill, Bill Laswell and James "Blood" Ulmer. He recorded two solo albums, neither of which was ever released. "I think I may have been a little too visionary," he told the New York Times. He also began to score and peform music for the theater. He has worked with playwright August Wilson, choreographer Diane McIntyre, and poet Rita Dove, among others, and he even performed in the musical Hair. In 1995 he acted in director Robert Altman's film Kansas City and contributed to the soundtrack. In the late 1980s Dara also began accompanying Cassandra Wilson, and is featured on three of the highly regarded vocalist's albums. In the 1990s, he also accompanied his son Nasir Jones, a hip-hop artist who records under the name Nas.
Honing his engaging, storytelling vocal style throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Dara finally released a solo album, In the World: From Natchez to New York, in 1998 to widespread critical acclaim. In the World was followed by Neighborhoods in 2001, and both albums made Dara's name not only as a multitalented musician, but as a captivating lyricist. "Not many artists release their debut as a leader several decades into their career, and fewer do with as stunning an artistic turn-about as Olu Dara, whose 'In the World from Natchez to New York' established the cornet player as a singer, guitarist, and top-notch storyteller," wrote Billboard 's Steve Graybow in 2001. "Dara's 'Neighborhoods' follows in the footsteps of that auspicious release, liberally mixing blues and jazz with humanistic storytelling in the African tradition." Music is, after all, a form of storytelling, Dara pointed out in a 1996 New York Times interview. "When we get together, there's no words thrown away, no idle talk," he recalled of his visits with Nas. "We'll sit down, play drums and conversate musically."
For the Record . . .
Born Charles Jones III on January 12, 1941, in Louisville, MS; married Fannie Ann Jones (divorced); married Celeste Bullock; children include: Nasir ("Nas," a rap musician), Kiani, Jabarai ("Jungle"). Education: Attended Tennessee State University.
Began playing music at age seven; joined U.S. Navy, 1960s; performed on avant-garde jazz circuit, 1960s-1970s; lead the Okra Orchestra and Natzchezsippi Dance Band, 1980s; performed and recorded with other artists including Hamiet Bluiett, Cassandra Wilson, and son Nas, 1980s-1990s; released first album, In the World: From Natchez to New York, 1998; released Neighborhoods, 2001.
Addresses: Record company— Atlantic Records, web-site: http://www.atlantic-records.com.
Whether playing with an avant-garde ensemble, heading his own orchestra, scoring for the theater, or playing solo, Dara's approach has always been spontaneous and improvisational, rooted in the the blues and gospel traditions of his youth. "The whole 15 years, I think we've spent maybe a total of eight hours [practicing] altogether," Dara told Down Beat of his long-time ensemble, which includes bassist Alonzo Gardner, guiarist Kwatei Jones Quartey, drummer Greg Bandy, and conga player Acosta Musamba. This approach is long-ingrained. Dara added, "If you go to a doctor's office, he doesn't say, 'Well, let me go home and practice how I'm going to put this bandage on you.' That's the way I look at music…. I never practice the cornet. I never did. I was brought up that way. My teacher never said go home and practice. He said, how can you practice life? Music is life! Always go in fresh."
In the World: From Natchez to New York, Atlantic, 1998. Neighborhoods, Atlantic, 2001.
Billboard, February 10, 2001.
Boston Herald, March 8, 2001.
Down Beat, August 1982; May 1998.
Jazziz, April 1998.
New York Times, October 6, 1996; April 20, 2001.
"Olu Dara," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 2, 2004).
"Olu Dara [Jones, Charles, III]," Grove Dictionary Online, http://www.grovemusic.com (January 2, 2004).
"Dara, Olu." Contemporary Musicians. . Encyclopedia.com. (August 20, 2017). http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dara-olu
"Dara, Olu." Contemporary Musicians. . Retrieved August 20, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/education/news-wires-white-papers-and-books/dara-olu