Q&A with veteran musician Jimmy Carpenter - gained a reputation as a master Blues, Rock n' Roll and R&B saxophonist

"But the fact is that musicians have always been at the front of social and political issues. Because of the nature of our creativity we are sensitive to racial and social issues, and I believe it is up to us to speak out for what we believe: for me it is Equality, Respect, and Social Justice."

Jimmy Carpenter: Soul Doctor & His Sax

Jimmy Carpenter, saxophonist, singer-songwriter, and arranger, began his musical journey over 35 years ago. In the '80s, he toured the east coast with the renegade blues band, The Alka-Phonics, in the ’90s with the blues-rock band The Believers, with whom he learned about the music business. Over the years, Jimmy has toured internationally with Tinsley Ellis, Jimmy Thackery, Walter Wolfman Washington, Eric Lindell, and others. In 2012 Jimmy joined Mike Zito, his long-time friend and musical cohort, and recorded and toured as a member of Mike Zito and the Wheel. In addition to touring nationally & internationally, Jimmy has written, arranged and recorded the horns for many artists, and has gained a reputation as a master Blues, Rock-n-Roll and R&B saxophonist. Jimmy has also released three solo albums: Toiling in Obscurity, (2008); Walk Away (Vizztone 2014), and Jimmy Carpenter Plays the Blues (Vizztone 2017).

Jimmy Carpenter / Photo by Paul Citone

After many years in New Orleans, he currently lives in Las Vegas with his partner in crime and musical inspiration, Ms. Carrie Stowers. In addition to leading his own band and playing with numerous others, he is the Musical Director for the Big Blues Bender, and leader of the Bender Brass, The Bender’s house band. He is the current president of the Las Vegas Blues Society, and in 2019 was nominated for a Blues Music Award, his 4th for Best Instrumentalist/Horn. On September 20th, Gulf Coast Records will release 'Soul Doctor', the new studio album from saxophonist/singer-songwriter Jimmy Carpenter. Jimmy was excited to be invited to record on Gulf Coast Records, founded by his long-time friend and frequent collaborator, Mike Zito, and new friend Guy Hale. 'Soul Doctor' is Jimmy Carpenter’s fourth solo project, produced by Jimmy and recorded in Las Vegas at Nonebody Studio 1.

Interview by Michael Limnios

How has the Blues and Soul music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

My entire life has been built around Blues and Soul (and Rock-n-Roll!)... I see life and the world through the lens of music, and the music has given me the opportunity to travel all over the world, meeting wonderful fans, promoters, press... it is quite special to go to another country, not as a tourist but as a welcomed guest, and meet people that want to show me what their town, country, neighborhood is all about. It makes me understand that at our core, people everywhere are very much the same. We all want to be able to work, take care of our families, have a roof over our heads. The interesting parts are the small differences, like what we eat, drink, listen to. My favorite part of traveling, besides the people I meet, is the food. I am an adventurous eater, and I will try just about anything. I love it when local folks are excited to show me their cuisine.

What were the reasons that you started the Saxophone researches? How do you describe your songbook and sound?

When I was a kid, my father had some Dave Brubeck records, featuring Paul Desmond on alto sax. I loved the melodies Paul played, and his beautiful sound. At the same time, Boots Randolph had a TV show, and he started the show by coming out playing Yackety Sax, with go-go girls on each side... I was hooked on sax by about age 9. I fell in love with Soul and Blues music in my late teens, and began to listen to King Curtis, Junior Walker, Illinois Jacquet, and dug deep into that rootsy, bluesy sound. And I am still in that mode. My original songs are blues based, but not necessarily blues changes. I love melodies and hooks, both vocal and instrumental, and I strive to make the saxophone fit the song. My setlist contains original songs, right now most from my new album, some classic blues by people like Magic Sam, sax classics form Junior Walker and King Curtis, some soul by Bobby Blue Bland and Otis Clay...it all fits with my songs, because that's where I'm coming from too.

"My entire life has been built around Blues and Soul (and Rock-n-Roll!)... I see life and the world through the lens of music, and the music has given me the opportunity to travel all over the world, meeting wonderful fans, promoters, press... it is quite special to go to another country, not as a tourist but as a welcomed guest, and meet people that want to show me what their town, country, neighborhood is all about." (Jimmy Carpenter / Photo by Paul Citone)

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

My dad told me when I was a kid, "you can't steer a boat that isn't moving…" Seems simple, but it's true, and I always try to keep moving. If I'm overwhelmed or things aren't working, I try to go another way, but not just sit. Often, I have met a player or someone in the business, and years later they become an important part of my life. I met Tinsley Ellis in 1979. We always stayed in touch, and in 1998 he invited me to tour with him We did about 250 shows that year. Jimmy Thackery I've known since about that same time, and in 1999 I joined his band for 6 years and made 3 great records. I met Mike Zito in 2001, I think. He always kept in touch, and 8 or 9 years later I was touring the world with his band, and now I am a proud artist with a new record on his label, Gulf Coast Records. Connections and friendships are what makes the world work!

Are there any memories from gigs, jams, open acts and studio sessions which you’d like to share with us?

There are many, and I'm making more every day. As a fan I am sometimes deeply moved by someone's performance. Living in New Orleans for many years I saw and played with some amazing, historically significant musicians. One night during a small festival in Nola, I stood about 10 feet from Robert Jr Lockwood, playing with just his bass player. It was so powerful, so beautiful that I had tears rolling down my cheeks, I have them now remembering it. That is the power of music. Another night in New Orleans, I was playing with Walter Wolfman Washington, and Stevie Wonder jammed with us. I traded 4's with him on Further On Up the Road! During the recording of my new album, Soul Doctor, there were a lot of special moments: Nick Schnebelen's guitar on the title track, my girl Carrie Stowers' background vocals on When I Met You, and knowing that a groove is super solid and fits the song, like Wanna Be Right... 

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

The music of the past was about musicianship and songwriting. To some degree it still is but what makes it to the mainstream is often just not interesting musically. I love to write songs, I love to hear well-written songs, no matter the genre. And I want to keep doing that, striving to create songs that people can identify with, dance to, sing along with. I have no delusions, I just want to keep making records and playing quality, exciting, emotional shows. Soul Doctor is my best work yet, and I want to get out and play these songs for people.

Jimmy Carpenter / Photo by Jeff Fasano

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

I would like to see musicians get the respect they deserve in the world in general. Often our craft is thought of as a hobby or something fun to do. It is really a life-long commitment that requires monumental work, often for very little pay. We face possible rejection of our art almost daily. It means being willing to live your life on the edge, with almost no financial security, no retirement... It is a scary way to make a living. Artists in general bring a huge contribution to society, yet for the most part their work is not valued by society, at least not in deed. I always say, if you like an artist, buy their records, go to their shows, show them you care!

As the current president of the Las Vegas Blues Society, what touched (emotionally) you from the local scene?

At one time, the Las Vegas Blues Society had about 1500 members, did 2 major festivals each year, hosted 4-5 jams every week. It was very impressive. Over the years that followed it dwindled, and almost died. When I came to Vegas, I was of course interested in the Blues scene, and my girlfriend, Carrie Stowers, suggested I join and get on the board. At that time we were down to about 90 members. We now have a vibrant and motivated Board, including Carrie and I, and I'm proud to say we are getting close to 350 members, hosting 2 great jams each month, and other special events, including our Fall Into the Blues Festival in October. There are some great musicians in LV, and the Blues is Alive and Well!

What would you say characterizes local sound and circuits in comparison to other blues scenes in the USA?

Well, honestly there are very few places to play here, places where you can do your original music, or the blues in general. This is a town driven by casinos, and they book cover bands almost exclusively. There is a great blues bar here, operating more of less continuously since 1976, called The Sand Dollar Lounge, and another, Saddle-n-Spurs, where you can hear great blues and roots music. We are working hard to expand the reach and opportunities for blues players, and we are making progress. But we need the support of the audiences. It all goes down to business, and we have to find ways to make it profitable for the club owners and promoters.

"The music of the past was about musicianship and songwriting. To some degree it still is but what makes it to the mainstream is often just not interesting musically." (Jimmy Carpenter & Mike Zito jammin' on stage / Photo by Kevin Umlauf)

What is the impact of Blues and Soul music to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications? 

Like I said, I see the world through music. In the 50's and 60's, Soul and Blues helped bridge a racial gap between black and white. In a world that was largely segregated, it introduced the races to each other, as white kids heard what black musicians were doing. It opened doors and fostered respect and admiration, and the music was a beautiful thing to have in common. I grew up in North Carolina, where shows were often segregated, and I've heard many stories about the people defying the rules to come together and dance to the great music being made by both white and black performers. These days the world is about as divided as then, and I hear all the time that musicians should "stick to the music and not express their views." But the fact is that musicians have always been at the front of social and political issues. Because of the nature of our creativity we are sensitive to racial and social issues, and I believe it is up to us to speak out for what we believe: for me it is Equality, Respect, and Social Justice.

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

I would like to spend half of that day back in the late 40's and early 50's, checking out my saxophone heroes in the clubs and theaters, up close and personal. I love the sounds they had, the swing and rhythm of the songs, and the arrangements of that classic music. Then I'd like to go to the future, to a time when real music is respected and supported, where artists cannot just survive, but thrive, with fair pay, healthcare and respect in their communities.

Jimmy Carpenter - Home

Photo by Marco Luchetta

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