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There's a moment on saxophonist James Carter's 2004 album Live at Baker's Keyboard Lounge where bassist Ralphe Armstrong steals the show. It's on the well-named "Foot Pattin'." After a quartet of tenor saxophone solos — by Carter, David Murray and the since-departed greats Franz Jackson and Johnny Griffin — Armstrong steps up to wolf down his solo like a hungry man treated to a home-cooked meal. The crowd goes nuts. That's just a small sampling of the bassist's prodigious chops.
Carter's live date was just one of 97 albums Armstrong has graced in his career. His unbelievable résumé includes performing with, to name a few, John McLaughlin, Frank Zappa, Eddie Harris, Aretha Franklin and Detroit-based rappers D-12. (The late Proof of D-12 nicknamed Armstrong Triple-OG.)
Sometimes it's hard to know when to take 53-year-old Armstrong seriously. One minute, he's running down his high profile gigs. The next he might recall the time trumpeter Miles Davis poked fun at a bright red suit Armstrong wore onstage, said you could see the bassist's big behind from a helicopter, and he needed to trim down. After Armstrong gets you laughing, he'll climb on his soapbox to complain about musicians being shortchanged and disrespected.
That was the way the conversation went the other day during an interview at Bert's Marketplace, where Armstrong plays every Thursday — when he's not on the road — for the jam session anchored by the SBH Trio. Armstrong, dressed in a thick navy track suit, baseball cap and aviator shades, talked for over an hour about his storybook career, his family life and his activism.
Armstrong's late dad, Howard Armstrong, was a larger-than-life character. Born 100 years ago this year, he played with the likes of Sleepy John Estes, Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie during the Depression. He moved to Detroit to work in the plants during the 1940s and in the 1970s reunited with old string-band buddies to record and perform across the country and abroad as Martin, Bogan and Armstrong. Before passing away at age 94, he was the subject of two documentary films, one of them (Louie Bluie) directed by the acclaimed Terry Zwigoff of Crumb and Ghost World fame.
"He was a good father. He could talk the paint off a new Cadillac. I am just like him," says Armstrong, one of four sons, at a table near the bandstand, munching on a grilled turkey burger with the works.
His dad wanted Armstrong to following in his footsteps. At age 7, his dad taught him to play the violin, even though Ralphe hated everything about it. "Playing it was like feeding a kid spinach," he says. But he was enamored with an uncle's upright bass and begged for his own until his old man built him a makeshift instrument. It wasn't the kind of upright bass he hoped for, but Ralphe was happy nevertheless.
Then rather than the traditional music of his dad, the younger Armstrong gravitated to modern sounds. He idolized former Detroit bassist Ron Carter, who had achieved fame with Miles Davis. Armstrong recalled meeting Carter at Ford Auditorium. Carter invited the teen to sit in, appreciated his enthusiasm, and suggested he work on his technique. Whenever Carter was in town, he would give Armstrong pointers: "He would stay at a place in Southfield. He'd invite me over and made me play a particular scale a hundred times while he watched a basketball game on TV."
At 13, Armstrong got his first professional gig, subbing for the bass player with the post-Smokey Robinson Miracles. "My teacher asked me why I had missed school. I told her I toured with the Miracles in Washington, D.C. She sent me to the counselor's office, and the counselor sent me home with a note saying I was suffering from delusions and I need help," he recalls. The next day, Ralphe's irate mother, Anne, confronted the counselor with his $200 pay stub from Motown.
At Northwestern High School, Armstrong studied with saxophonist Ernie Rogers. Armstrong became the bassist in the house band for RAPA House, Rogers' after-hours joint, which he structured as a training ground for aspiring jazz musicians.
"He was bursting with talent and energy back then. The thing I tried to do was slow him down a little, and channel it and let him play. I feel like I accomplished that. There was no doubt in my mind back then that he would develop into a renowned musician," Rogers says.
The vogue in the early '70s was fusion, a flashy mix of jazz, funk and rock, with a heavy reliance on electronic instrumentation. Miles Davis introduced this hybrid with such groundbreaking albums as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. With spin-off groups such as Mahavishnu Orchestra and Weather Report, the movement was in full bloom.
One day after school, Armstrong visited Detroiter Michael Henderson, a bass guitarist on Davis' Jack Johnson and later sessions. It seems a fusion quartet based in Connecticut named the New McGuire Sisters (to this day Armstrong doesn't know why the founder picked that name) needed a bassist. Henderson recommended Armstrong, who auditioned over the phone, got the gig, and quit high school to take it, which led to guitarist John McLaughlin, another Davis alum, seeing Armstrong with the McGuires and approaching him.
Says Armstrong: "He told me he was going to call me. I thought to myself, 'Yeah, right. You're going to call a black kid from Detroit to play in your band?'"
True to his word, McLaughlin called, and after careful consideration, Armstrong — who was being wooed by other prominent bands as well — decided to join McLaughlin's Mahavishnu Orchestra. He stayed two years, recording Apocalypse, Visions of the Emerald Beyond and Inner World, the last of which went gold. (In 1998, Armstrong sued the English group Massive Attack, Adidas, Virgin Records and Paramount Pictures for copyright infringements over sampling of his track, "Planetary Citizen," from the latter album. The lawsuit was settled out of court, he reports.)
In Mahavishnu, Armstrong also met violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, and later recorded and toured with him as well. Ponty considers Armstrong his favorite bass player of all time.
"He had these Motown grooves plus incredible chops; he could play as fast on electric bass as John could on guitar or me on violin. I started my own group, and when I heard that that John disbanded Mahavishnu the following year, I hired Ralphe. He toured and recorded with me until 1980," Ponty says via e-mail.
High-profile jobs with Frank Zappa, Carlos Santana and Herbie Hancock followed. Somehow, given his heavy touring schedule, he managed to marry and start a family.
The bassist stopped touring for 20 years, to help raise three kids, Evan, Allen and Angela. They're all in high school and college now, but being there for them when they were small was important. Armstrong found steady, well-paying work around Detroit with trumpeter Johnny Trudell and the Fox Theatre Orchestra and with Aretha Franklin among others. He became a business agent and chief union steward for the musicians union. He also became a musician-activist.
With a group of prominent musicians, Armstrong went to Washington, D.C., and convinced U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Detroit) to introduce legislation for recording artists to receive royalties for radio airplay as songwriters and publishers do.
Currently, China and the United States, Armstrong notes, are the only countries where singers and musicians aren't compensated for radio play. Conyers' bill HR848 — which has generated strong opposition from black radio station owners in particular — is something Armstrong gets riled about. He dismisses the idea that radio deserves a pass on royalties in return for its role in exposing music to audiences and generating sales.
"Back in the day, you could go to a radio station and they would help you. They would play your record," he says. "Now if you go to that same radio station and ask them to play your music they will call security on you."
On the road again
In 2003, Armstrong resumed touring. His first major gigs were with pianist Geri Allen and drummer Lenny White, and currently he takes to the road with saxophonist James Carter. He's on tour nine months out of the year. He loves it. And he's also just finished a pilot for a reality-style show about a 5-year-old drummer he's discovered.
As if that weren't enough, Armstrong feels the timing is ripe for a debut album as a leader. Armstrong describes the tentatively titled Planetary Peace as a mix of straight-ahead acoustic jazz, R&B and fusion. He's recruiting famous pals like keyboardist George Duke and drummer Lenny White, for example. And he underscores that he's not just dropping names like that to puff himself up.
"My peers like John McLaughlin and Jean-Luc Ponty and many others helped me get to this level. I'm not just rattling off names," he says. "If you walk around bragging about how great you are, in reality you're not that great at all. Do you know who told me that? Miles Davis did. He said when the people around you and your fans praise you, then you're really doing something great."
Ralphe Armstrong plays Thursdays as part the SBH Trio, which anchors the weekly jam session at Bert's Marketplace, 2727 Russell St., Detroit; 313-567-2030.
Charles L. Latimer writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.