Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Wesley, Fred (Jr.)

One of the most in-the-pocket practitioners of jazz trombone, Fred Wesley has enjoyed a broad and successful career in popular music. Best known for his pioneering work in the funk groups of Ike and Tina Turner, James Brown and Parliament, Wesley has also worked as a producer and leader of jazz projects. Wesley's style borrows heavily from the blues, often juxtaposing riffs against one another in two-measure phrases. His ability to create a high-energy groove in this context is unparalleled.

Wesley was born on July 4, 1943, to parents Fred Wesley, Sr. and Vetta S. Wesley in Columbus, Georgia. The family moved to Mobile, Alabama shortly thereafter. His first musical memories were of his grandmother, who taught classical piano lessons, and the jukebox next door that sometimes interrupted them.

Wesley's father taught the choir at the local high school, and organized a local big band in his spare time. The younger Wesley's trombone career began when, one summer, his father informed him that the band needed a trombonist. If he could learn how to play the instrument, the gig would be his.

Wesley also excelled in his school band, and began gigging locally with the support of the director. He became especially proficient as an improviser, and fell in love with bebop and the sound of his idol, J.J. Johnson. He went on to graduate from Central High School in Mobile and received his Associate Degree in Music from Alabama State University in 1962.

His first major professional break came when he was asked to play in the backing band for Ike and Tina Turner. He stayed with the group for the rest of their tour, where he continued for a few months before leaving them to join Hank Ballard in Atlanta, Georgia. Ballard, however, did not live up to his promises of regular work, and Wesley returned home to Alabama.

Back in Mobile, Wesley lived with his grandmother and led a jazz sextet called New Sounds. Wesley insisted on playing only jazz and bebop with this group; in fact, he refused to play the popular James Brown song Cold Sweat despite audience requests, believing that it was below their level of artistry. Work was sporadic, however, and Wesley decided to further his musical education by enlisting in the Army School of Music in Little Creek, Virginia in 1964.

While in the Army, Wesley was stationed at Redstone Arsenal, back in his home state of Alabama. The commanding officer there, Bob Edmonds, was a passionate fan of jazz and had requested Wesley to play in the base's big band. The quality of the music and the strong friendships Wesley made in the group outweighed his initial disappointment of being stationed so close to home. This was Wesley's first experience playing jazz regularly with white musicians. Wesley also married his wife, Gertie Lee Young, during this time. But with the Vietnam War escalating, Wesley decided not to re-enlist, and was honorably discharged in 1967.

He began leading another regional band based in Huntsville, called Mastersound. But the band broke up and Wesley returned to Mobile with his family, where he was offered a job as the city's first African-American milkman, as a part of an effort to integrate the workforce there.

Just as he was settling into his day job, however, Wesley was offered the trombone chair with the James Brown band during their tour in Ocala, Florida. Brown toured and recorded extensively with Brown during the next three years, where he developed a close musical rapport with Alfred "Pee Wee" Ellis and in the horn section. When Ellis left the band, Wesley was promoted to bandleader. Soon after, though, disagreements with Brown forced Wesley to leave the band in early 1970.

Having saved enough money to move, Wesley decided to relocate his family and career to Los Angeles, California. Coincidentally, he was offered the trombone chair in Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, but declined because it would require frequent travel between Los Angeles and New York. Based in Los Angeles, Wesley freelanced with a number of jazz and rhythm 'n' blues bands, only to return to the greater financial security offered by the James Brown show at the end of the year.

After his second stint with Brown, Wesley signed on to write arrangements for Bootsy Collins and George Clinton of the Parliament/Funkadelic groups. After a contract dispute with Clinton, Wesley stopped working with them. His departure coincided with Al Grey's retirement from the Count Basie Orchestra, and in 1978 Wesley was hired as his replacement.

Unfortunately, Wesley's salary with Basie couldn't support his family in Los Angeles, and in 1979 he returned home to pursue a career as a producer. In 1980, he released his first album under his own name, House Party. Although the title track became a hit single, the record was never widely released. None of his other projects ever made it as big hits, either, and the series of near-misses and the prevalent drug scene led Wesley into a deep depression and cocaine addiction.

With the support of his brother Ron and other family members and friends, Wesley began recovery from his addiction in Denver, Colorado. As a part of his recovery, Wesley was determined to rediscover his jazz chops, and spent much of his time practicing. In 1990, Wesley released his first solo jazz recording, New Friends.

During the rest of the 1990s, Wesley reunited with his former James Brown bandmates Maceo Parker and Pee Wee Ellis to record a number of successful albums, including Life On Planet Groove and Roots Revisited produced by Steven Meyner. His association with Meyner's label Minor Music also resulted in a number of other jazz releases as a leader, including Swing & Be Funky and Amalgamation.

Wesley also began touring and performing with his own band during this time, which toured and recorded in between his stints with Parker and Ellis. Since then, he has toured and recorded occasionally, including many guest appearances with various artists including James Taylor, Soulive and Dr. John. He published his autobiography Hit Me, Fred! Recollections of a Sideman in 2002, and remains an active performer of jazz-inspired trombone.

Select Discography:

As a solo artist:

House Party (Curtom, 1980)

New Friends (Polygram, 1990)

Comme Ci Comme Ca (Polygram, 1991)

Swing & Be Funky (Minor Music, 1992)

Amalgamation (Minor Music, 1994)

To Someone (Good Hope, 1999)

Full Circle: From Bebop to Hip-Hop (Cleopatra, 1999)

With James Brown:

Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud (King, 1969)

Sex Machine (King, 1970)

Payback (Polydor, 1974)

Doing It To Death 1970-1973 (Polydor, 1984)

Star Time (Polydor, 1991)

Soul Pride: The Instrumentals (Polydor, 1993)

As Fred Wesley and the JBs:

Food for Thought (People, 1972)

Damn Right I am Somebody (People, 1974)

Funky Good Time: The Anthology (Polydor, 1995)

As Fred Wesley and the Horny Horns:

A Blow for Me, a Toot for You (Atlantic, 1977)

The Final Blow (AEM, 1994)

With Parliament:

Mothership Connection (Casablanca, 1976)

Clones of Dr. Funkenstein (Casablanca, 1976)

Trombipulation (Casablanca, 1980)

With Bootsy's Rubber Band:

Stretchin' Out in Bootsy's Rubber Band (Warner Bros., 1976)

Ultra Wave (Warner Bros., 1980)

With Count Basie:

Milt Jackson, Count Basie & The Big Band, Vols. 1-2 (Pablo, 1978)

With Maceo Parker:

Roots Revisited (Verve, 1990)

Mo' Roots (Verve, 1991)

Life on Planet Groove (Verve, 1992)

Southern Exposure (Verve, 1993)

Funk Overload (Verve, 1998)

Contributor: Alex W. Rodriguez