Interview with Charles Baty - the masterful "Little Charlie" of the Nightcats - one of most inspirational figures

"The blues is a way of communicating through music, showing your emotions – whether happiness or sadness – in a musical manner and hopefully entertaining the audience while doing this."

Charlie Baty: Skronky Tonk Grooves

Guitarist and bandleader Charles Baty of Little Charlie & the Nightcats is one of most inspirational figures in West Coast. Last years Baty created his own combo 'Little Charlie And Organ Grinder Swing'. This project has been a dream of Charlie Baty for quite a while now and it's finally here with their debut album 'Skronky Tonk' (2016). Almost hidden in the semi-anonymous confines of a touring blues band, Baty -was born in Alabama in 1953- is a masterful player whose talents easily reach beyond a traditional low-key, 12-bar existence. The story of Sacramento-based blues, swing and jump combo Little Charlie & The Nightcats began back in the early 1970s when Charles Baty--a harmonica-playing UC Berkeley student--first met Rick Estrin. With Rick already an accomplished harp player, Baty decided to switch to guitar full-time and the two formed a blues band. After relocating to Sacramento, Baty quickly reinvented himself as a take-no-prisoners, one-of-a-kind guitarist. With the addition of a drummer and a bass player, Little Charlie & The Nightcats were born.

"My musical philosophy is that there is much to be learned from the great musicians of the past and their legacy should not be forgotten. It is good to immerse one in the sound of a master, like Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, or T-Bone Walker and try to find ideas and approaches that are similar but not identical to theirs." (Photo: Charles Baty aka Little Charlie, 2015)

In early 2008, Baty announced he was entering "soft" retirement, no longer tours with the band, except for possible reunion shows in Europe and select North American festivals. Baty was as a special guest on JW-Jones, Bluelisted (2008), an album which marked the first time in his career that he documented his harmonica playing on a recording, and the first time he and another West Coast blues musician, Junior Watson, had recorded together on the same tracks, and in Mark Hummel's album The Hustle is Really On (2014) with Anson Funderburgh and Kid Andersen. Now, as Little Charlie And Organ Grinder Swing released the album 'Skronky Tonk' (2016) by Ellersoul Records. There is no mistaking Charlie's creative blues guitar playing as he is truly tops in this field. Charlie always played some jazz tunes with the Nightcats, which has led him where he is today. This record finds him in one of his favorite settings, ina organ jazz trio. His former Nightcat band mates, Lorenzo Farrell on Hammond organ and J. Hansen on drums join him on this swinging project. This record showcases jazz, ballads and blues all done with Charlie's unique guitar stylings.

Interview by Michael Limnios

Special Thanks: Frank Roszak, Charles Baty, Val Davis & Rachel Kumar

What do you learn about yourself from the blues and what does the blues mean to you?

By learning how to play blues on the guitar and harmonica, I’ve learned how to express myself musically in a variety of musical styles – blues, jazz, swing, gypsy jazz, even Brazilian choro music – because I was able to learn how to play by ear, listen to other players, and play as a part of a group. The blues is a way of communicating through music, showing your emotions – whether happiness or sadness – in a musical manner and hopefully entertaining the audience while doing this.

How do you describe Charles Baty sound and songbook? What characterize your music philosophy?

I would say that the Charles Baty sound is a swinging, aggressive, happy, relentless approach to music and the songs in my songbook range across musical styles, but are mostly vehicles to stretch out and solo in different styles – again blues, jazz, swing, gypsy jazz – but always keeping a blues feel and a sense of humor. My musical philosophy is that there is much to be learned from the great musicians of the past and their legacy should not be forgotten. It is good to immerse one in the sound of a master, like Charlie Christian, Django Reinhardt, or T-Bone Walker – and try to find ideas and approaches that are similar but not identical to theirs. It is more important to play melody than demonstrate prowess on any instrument.

"I had to learn how to give up the security of a regular job in order to tour and travel as a blues musician. That taught me to have confidence in myself, my ability to be hired and my ability to please audiences." (Charles Baty on stage, Portland / Photo by Val Davis)

Which is the most interesting period in your life? Which was the best and worst moment of your career?

I think that the present is the most interesting period of my life. To be able to play music that I love with different groups and different settings is a dream come true. Just a few years ago I played jump and swing and blues with Duke Robillard while in Hawaii, then came home to California and played jump blues with Mark Hummel one night and the very next night I was playing gypsy jazz with my own combo. It’s refreshing to keep on changing one’s hat and to keep being musically challenged. The best moment in my career was Muddy Waters telling me on stage that he liked my sound. The worst moment of my career was when my wife died and I had to take time off from music because of sadness. 

What’s the best jam you ever played in? What are some of the most memorable gigs you've had?

One of the most fun jams was in 1988 in New York, when Albert Collins came to a Little Charlie and the Nightcats gig and played on two sets with us. We played a really scary gig in Australia one time in the middle of a sugar cane field with strange creatures around us in the cane (deadly frogs and snakes), a giant bonfire inside the room that we were playing, and a giant fight broke out amongst the sugar cane workers. I was sure that we were going to die! I’ve done some gigs with Mark Hummel and other fine harmonica players, and on one of these gigs I heard Sugar Ray Norcia play the best harmonica that I’d ever heard in my life. It was extraordinary!

"We're excited with our new CD 'Skronky Tonk' on the Eller Soul label. For years, in Little Charlie and the Nightcats, Jay Hansen, Lorenzo Farrell and I played tons of blues and jazz and decided to embark on this side project to showcase our love for jazz, blues and Brazilian music."

Are there any memories from ‘Skronky Tonk’ studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?     

The great organist Jim Pugh came down to listen and offer encouragement to our organist Lorenzo Farrell. We recorded hours of music and had a great time, recording many alternate takes and songs that weren’t used on the CD. Sometimes it is necessary for Lorenzo Farrell to play a keyboard with an organ setting on gigs, but the sound of a real Hammond B-3 through a Leslie speaker is the best possible sound and that is what we used. Our drummer J Hansen wanted to play percussion on some tracks, and ended up playing bongos on one song.

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and as artist and has this helped you become a better blues musician?

I had to learn how to give up the security of a regular job in order to tour and travel as a blues musician. That taught me to have confidence in myself, my ability to be hired and my ability to please audiences.

A meeting point for musicians and favorite among hipsters, California was/is ahead of its time as it embraces. Why this state was a Mecca of avant-garde people and musicians?

I guess that living in California can offer a more liberal perspective of things and its year-round pleasant weather can enhance the creative process. But I think that there are plenty of other areas around the United States, such as New York City, Austin, Chicago, Seattle and Nashville where there is a lot of great music and creativity.

Are there any memories from Little Charlie & The Nightcats which you’d like to share with us?

My entire time with Little Charlie and the Nightcats was a lot of fun, musically and otherwise, and I have plenty of fun memories. One such memory was while we were playing ‘Don’t Do It’ one night. For years I had been playing the guitar behind my back on the first solo and then our bass player would pick up the bass and play behind his head also. One night I was surprised because our drummer Jay Hansen suddenly stood up and played drums behind his back too! He had learned how to do this on his own and just surprised us one night. Things like that make playing music more surprising and fun.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I feel that musicians of the past practiced more and took more pride in their musicianship. I am afraid that younger musicians are not going to work hard enough to reach a sufficiently high caliber of musicianship. My hopes are that young people will really jump back into blues, swing and jazz and tackle the music and appreciate it even more than in the past.

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would ask for better pay for musicians. I wish musicians were treated like artists and not bums.

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you? Which memory makes you smile?

I used to play in a basement bar in Berkeley, CA called Larry Blakes back in the 80’s and 90’s. My memories of the band room and what went on down in that basement always make me smile. Many famous people came by to sit in, people like Boz Skaggs, Gregg Allman, Robert Cray, Kim Wilson, Tom Fogerty – it was a crazy place. We played a 4-day tour in the Pacific Northwest with Albert Collins where they celebrated his birthday every night with a cake and a celebration. It turned out to be his last birthday – he died later that year of cancer. I smile because he had quite the birthday party and he sounded incredible.

Which is the moment that you change your life most? What´s been the highlights in your life so far?

The most profound moment was the one in which I realized that I was born to be a musician and that I would be doing it the rest of my life. Highlights in my life including playing with Muddy Waters, playing guitar with Samson Schmitt, making a couple of TV commercials for Taco Bell, spending a day with Carey Bell learning about how to play the harmonica, and driving in the van with Willie Dixon and band. Not to mention making my first jazz record in an organ trio setting!

"My hopes are that young people will really jump back into blues, swing and jazz and tackle the music and appreciate it even more than in the past." (Photo by © Rachel Kumar)

What is the best advice ever given you and what advice would you give to new generation?

Don’t hold back and give everything that you have.

What are the lines that connect the legacy of Blues with Jazz and continue to Jump and Swing music?

The great musicians who bridged the gap between Blues and Jazz and Jump and Swing had unique musical identities, sounds and personalities and they allowed their personal fingerprint on everything they had. People like Charlie Parker, Illinois Jacquet, Lionel Hampton, Charlie Christian had unique sounds and played with energy and vigor. Modern players like Duke Robillard, Doug Deming and Joey DeFrancesco continue that process. It’s about tunes and swing, but it’s also about personalities and telling a story when you play music.

What has made you laugh lately and what touched (emotionally) you from the blues circuits?

I laugh when I hear a good solo. I was laughing a lot when playing with Duke Robillard over in Hawaii – he’s got great ideas. I love to listen to Steve Guyger – a great harmonica player and vocalist. That guy has more soul in his playing than most and total command of the blues idiom. 

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really wanna go for a whole day..?

That’s a tough one, but if I could travel in time I’d want to go back to 1938. I would start in Paris, France and go watch Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli play with the Hot Club, then I’d continue over to New York City and watch Charlie Christian play at Carnegie Hall with Benny Goodman, then I’d swing over to Kansas City to listen to a young Charlie Parker play the beginnings of bebop. Then I’d grab a hamburger for 5 cents!

(Charles Baty & Rick Estrin) Photo caption: "That was (and still is) my Buick. I think this picture was taken before Rick was driving. The shot was taken in downtown Sacramento, but to me the picture has a vibe of the deep South. We used to spend hours playing Little Walter, Jimmy Rogers, and Muddy tunes, just playing blues down by the river or outside in some park and talking about tone and styles and I guess trying to understand what made guys like Little Walter stand out from the pack. Then we played small dives around Sacramento, tried to spread the message and when guys like Phil Givant and Tom Mazzolini and Bruce Iglauer believed in us and helped us out we eventually started playing festivals and making records."

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