Inspired By Ray: The Ray Charles Symposium is coming to the Berklee Performance Center in Boston on September 21-23. The three-day event includes an academic/artistic conference on the iconic legend (who died on June 10th, 2004 at the age of 73,) whose music transcended genre as well as the color barrier. An all-star tribute concert (titled inspiRAYtion) is planned for Saturday, September 22, and will feature performances by country/bluegrass icon Ricky Scaggs, alternative rocker Tracy Bonham, jazz phenom John Scofield, singer/songwriter Doug Wamble, as well as Charles’ back-up singers, the renown Raelettes. I recently sat down with the program’s curator, Matt Glaser to discuss the symposium and how the work of Ray Charles has shaped and inspired countless singers and musicians of today:
DG: I understand that this symposium is your baby, correct?
MG: I guess it is, but I don’t want to claim paternity until the event is underway! All jokes aside, it is my baby, but I had a lot of help from my Berklee colleagues and staff – it really is a team effort, which has always been our aesthetic here. It actually had its beginnings in our American Roots Music program: I wanted to do a program which explored the connections between blues, country and jazz in American music, but was having trouble finding a conduit when it occurred to me that the music of Ray Charles is the perfect prism through which we can amalgamate these genres, as well as explore their common denominators. This led us to reach out to the Ray Charles Foundation, who were very supportive of the project, and offered their total cooperation.
DG: What can folks expect during the symposium?
MG: During the day, there will be panel discussions and individual presentations by renown scholars dealing with Ray Charles in the context of his explorations in gospel, jazz and country music, small group performances will take place as well, and the whole thing will culminate in the tribute program, inspiRAYtion on Saturday – featuring performances by Ricky Scaggs, John Scofield, Doug Wamble and members of The Raelettes, who sang backup on many of Ray’s greatest hits. There will also be performances by some of Berklee’s esteemed faculty.
DG: Beyond the obvious “tribute” dynamic, what makes this concert noteworthy?
MG: The idea behind this concert is to do new and slightly unanticipated conversions of Ray Charles classics, including performances of some of Ray’s more obscure material (read: less commercial). I didn’t want this program to be a “greatest hits” concert – that’s been done countless times before, and with the omnipresence on tv of the great biopic Ray, one can hear those tunes any time. So you wont be hearing “What’d I Say?” for example, but you will hear “Hit The Road, Jack” reimagined by the John Scofield Trio.
DG: Of course, what makes a lot of Ray’s musical catalogue obscure is its relative unavailability…..
MG: Yes, so much of Ray’s recorded output is not available on CD – the years he spent on ABC/Paramount (which represents the second half of his career) has been mired in legal disputes over ownership and copyright, so only vinyl enthusiasts have access to many of his out-of-print recordings.
DG: And there are no similar legal issues for you in terms of performing the obscure tunes?
MG: No – you can legally perform any of the tunes in Ray’s catalogue so long as those performances are not being recorded or for broadcast. Besides, the folks at the Ray Charles Foundation have got our back on this – they have green-lighted everything we’ve done in terms of putting this symposium and concert together, so that’s not a concern.
DG: Certainly, Ray Charles’s influence can be felt across the spectrum of popular music…
MG: Which is why our focus will encompass a variety of topics, such as Ray Charles’s influence within the Black churches, the blind community, contemporary pop music, etc. As an illustration: Charles’s Modern Sounds In Country and Western Music album, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this year (and was rated #105 in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time) was groundbreaking, and remains one of the most popular titles in his catalogue. Steve Wonder has always cited Ray Charles as a musical mentor, along with many of his fellow artists on Motown.
DG: I’ll be honest with you Matt, I thought I knew a lot about Ray’s music, but I was not familiar with his excursions in jazz.
MG: Very early on in Ray’s career, he made a name for himself by being a be-bop pianist, singing in the style of Nat King Cole and Charles Brown. Jazz was a core component of Ray’s musical identity, even when he was delving into other genres. He was such a well-rounded musician, folks started seeking him out as a jazz teacher, including a young Quincy Jones, who learned how to arrange during his stint with Ray. Then there’s his catalogue on Atlantic Records, where he recorded straight-up jazz records with the likes of legendary vibraphonist Milt Jackson (of Modern Jazz Quartet fame) and others. Later, Quincy Jones arranged Ray’s ABC/Paramount album, Genius + Soul = Jazz. His Atlantic recording, The Genius of Ray Charles features Ray backed up by the Count Basie Orchestra – so you can see, there is an enduring legacy of Ray Charles as a jazz musician.
DG: Do you think perhaps the more commercial work of Ray Charles overshadowed his jazz explorations, which is why folks like me might not know of this work?
MG: I think people don’t realize that jazz was at the core of his identity. One thing that’s apparent is Ray was a cunning businessman: for example, when he moved from Atlantic Records to ABC/Paramount, he finagled a contract which gave him 75% of all royalties, as well as complete ownership over the master tapes, which was unheard of – even Frank Sinatra, who was as big if not bigger in terms of popular music, didn’t have a contract as sweet as that. Maybe part of that business savvy entailed the down-peddling of jazz, as we are all aware that jazz has never been the road to economic prosperity in the United States (laughs.) That said however, any time Ray played live, his setlist always reflected his eclecticism, and included gospel, jazz, and country alongside the canon of popular song.
DG: And what is it about Ray Charles, the artist, which remains as timeless as his music?
MG: To put it succinctly, the answer would be – soul. That’s a difficult qualifier to explain to any degree of satisfaction, but I would make the argument that, regardless of how eclectic his musical tastes were, or how esoteric his choice of material might be, every moment of Ray’s music was profoundly soulful in its execution. Despite his being a very accomplished musician and jazz academician, he never approached performance on an intellectual level, which is amazing when you consider how effortlessly he could play around with time signatures on some very complex jazz pieces, yet still imbue it with a strong sense of soul.
DG: Was he formally trained as a jazz musician?
MG: He studied a little bit at a school for the blind which he attended in Florida as a young man, but that would be the extent of Ray’s formal training. He learned by listening, and by performing with people in various bands. That’s where he picked up everything he knew, and developed a natural affinity as a musician and artist.
DG: You hit the nail on the head about the omnipresence of the movie Ray, by the way – it was on television again last night. What did you think of the biopic, starring former In Living Color alumnus Jamie Foxx?
MG: I think it’s a spectacular movie in terms of biopics, which I realize can sometimes be fodder for ridicule…..I’m thinking right now of that parody of biopics, starring John C. Reilly…….
DG: You mean, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story?
MG: Yeah, that’s the one! In the case of Ray though, I think everyone involved did a wonderful job of conveying the genius and timeless contribution Ray Charles has made to American roots music, and it stands up to repeated viewings, which is why, I guess, it’s become a staple of broadcast and cable television.
Inspired by Ray: The Ray Charles Symposium, runs the weekend of September 21-23, at Berklee College of Music and the Berklee Performance Center. Tickets for the three-day event are $100, and include admission to the all-star concert, inspiRAYtion. For more information and to register for this event, click here: