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A little jazz, a little funk: At 79, trombonist Fred Wesley is ready to play forever

A middle aged man wearing glasses and a graphic t-shirt plays the trombone into a microphone.
Thesupermat, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Fred Wesley leads the New JBs at the Festival du Bout du Monde in 2016.

More than five decades ago at age 24, Wesley joined James Brown's famous funk and R&B band in 1968. It would define, but not limit, the rest of his career.

From there, he followed saxophonist Maceo Parker though George Clinton's various congregations of Parliment Funkadelic, and was in Parker's bands as featured trombonist through the mid 1990s.

Wesley formed his own group, "The New JBs," in 1996 and continues to perform with them to this day.

"My father was a high school teacher and led a big band in Mobile, Alabama," said Wesley in an interview with KNKX. "My grandmother played piano, so between the two of them, that's how I got to be a musician."

Wesley has also done some teaching, as an adjunct professor at the School of Music in the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, as a visiting artist at Columbia College in Chicago, and at the Berklee College of Music.

But teaching was not his first choice.

"I don't really like teaching," Wesley admitted. "I don't actually have the patience for it. Like a lot of musicians, I did it to supplement my income."

Fred Wesley - Damn right I'm somebody

Wesley is a jazz player at heart. "Jazz was some of the first music I ever played," he recalled. "My father had a big band, and he played a lot of Count Basie's music. I always wanted to play with Count Basie."

He got his chance to join the Count Basie Orchestra in 1978.

"The opportunity came up and I jumped at it," Wesley said. "But, speaking of supplementing my income, it wasn't quite the income I was used to when I was playing with Funkadelic and George Clinton, so I had to leave. But I loved it while I was there."

Wesley released a number of jazz albums after leaving the Basie orchestra, and spent some time in Los Angeles doing studio work and writing arrangements. "I got to meet a lot of people, and I had a good time in L.A. That was a highlight of my career," he said.

Published in 2002, Wesley's autobiography "Hit Me, Fred-Recollections of a Sideman" documents his both harrowing and hilarious experiences on the road, on the stage, and in rehearsal rooms and recording studios.

Wesley is recovering from a recent knee replacement. "I'm getting around better and better now," he insisted. "You know, I can almost run!"

"I'm 79, I guess it's time for me to get around a little slower," Wesley conceded. "I can still play and I still enjoy the music like I did before. I will keep doing it, and I don't see it ever boring me or me getting tired of it. I'm going to do it forever."

Fred Wesley and the New JBs are making time between European tours to perform at Jazz Alleyin Seattle, August 18-21. They're filling in the shows left vacant by Maceo Parker, who has retired from touring, according to an announcement from Jazz Alley.

Wesley has fond memories of playing music in Seattle, especially with his longtime bandmate and friend, saxophonist Pee Wee Ellis, who died in September 2021. "I've got a lot of friends in Seattle," he said. "At least, I hope they're still alive and still there!"

Expect to hear "a little bit of this, and a little bit of that," said Wesley. "We have to do a little bit of 'this', in order to identify with the one who made me famous, James Brown. But we do a little bit of 'that', too, so that I can get my jazz in."

"My music is all mixed up now, you know, because I'm all mixed up," Wesley continued. "A little jazz and a little funk, a little of everything."

Originally from Detroit, Robin Lloyd has been presenting jazz, blues and Latin jazz on public radio for nearly 40 years. She's a member of the Jazz Education Network and the Jazz Journalists Association.