A dynamo whether on piano or vocally, Ms. Eden Brent has taken the Blues world by storm over the last few years. A fan favorite on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise where she holds court at the piano bar, or trading licks with other keyboardists at piano showcases. But her relaxed self-effacing posture hides what is a truly talented musician and deeply interesting lady of the Blues. I was thrilled to get the chance to sit down and talk to her about how she got here, and where she is headed. Enjoy !
BB: To start with, tell us about Boogaloo Ames and your relationship with him. You, being pretty much, a white girl of privilege, and him, the classic black musician. How did you meet?
EB: Boogaloo had been living in the Mississippi Delta since the mid-1960’s but moved to Greenville, my hometown in about 1980. As a young teenager, I heard Boogaloo at parties and restaurants. When I was fifteen, he played my boat christening party after I christened the M/V EDEN BRENT, a towboat built and owned by my family shipyard and river transportation company. A year later he played my older sister’s wedding reception, and a few years after that, he played a celebration honoring my father as the King of the Queen of Hearts Ball, a kind of Mardi Gras type celebration here in my hometown. So I had seen Boogaloo play many times, and he was sort of a fixture all over the Delta. Everybody in the Mississippi Delta knew Boogaloo, and he normally entertained the white, wealthy social class here. All of the wealthier folks loved him because he could play anything, all the old jazz standards, popular country songs like “Release Me” and popular rock and roll songs like the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” He could play it all and he was very charming and charismatic. They all respected him, and I never heard him say “Yes Ma’m” to anybody like I had been brought up to do and some of the older folks from his generation customarily do. He drank with the white, wealthy, social class and visited with them and entertained them. They adored him. Everybody adored him.
BB: What was it that drew you in, to want to learn at his side?
EB:I always admired him but didn’t consider asking him to teach me until I enrolled at University of North Texas. Before that, I had planned on being a rock star. I had played in a couple of rock bands as a junior high and high school student, but usually the guys didn’t really want me or maybe even any chick in the band. They only needed me to play stuff like the piano solo in “Freebird” or the synthesizer solo in The Cars’ s song “Just What I Needed” or that cool opening synth sound and solo in Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”. As a freshman in music college at UNT, I was not making much progress learning how to play, really. I was learning a lot about music theory but having a hard time putting a practical application to the jazz harmonies and jazz concepts that were introduced. In other words, I could talk about jazz harmony but I couldn’t play it. I would go to hear Boogaloo on college breaks and request certain tunes, and Boogaloo and I developed a kind of friendship. He knew my parents of course, but we were developing a friendship of our own. On college break sometime in 1984, I asked him if he would teach me. He taught me during my college breaks, nearly every time I came back to Mississippi. I even took a break from UNT for about nine months, moved home and worked as a commodities broker in training briefly, then attended classes at Delta State University. Boogaloo taught me during this time, too. I returned to North Texas to complete my bachelor’s degree in music theory. Throughout it all Boogaloo was providing the practical education that I really valued and the very thing I was not getting in music school. His style was magical. I watched people light up when they were near him and when they were listening to him play. He made everybody laugh and smile and dance and tap their feet. Everybody loved Boogaloo, and I wanted to learn to give people that kind of joy. After I graduated college, I studied with Boogaloo more regularly, and we applied for and received a Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission. The MAC paid Boogaloo to teach me twice weekly for a period of three months. I learned more in those three months than in any other single year that we worked together. I took it very seriously because we were required to submit a final report, and I wanted to make sure that I exhibited adequate progress so that he would get final payment which was sizable. Boogaloo taught me throughout our friendship, but our teacher and student relationship developed into a performing duo and a lifelong friendship which continued until his death February 4, 2002. We celebrated birthdays together and went out drinking and dancing. Boogaloo taught me the importance of a strong, rhythmic bass line in solo playing and some wonderful piano licks, but he also taught me how to dress properly and be gracious to the audience. He was really something.
BB: You have been quoted as saying something to the effect of ‘music school taught me to think, but Boogaloo taught me to Boogie”, tell me more about this and the differences that exist between thinking and really playing music. What is your background musically?
EB:I took piano lessons from the age of 5 and continued throughout my high school years. I also played flute in marching and concert band in school, so I’ve been reading music from a musical staff almost all of my life. I also played piano and keyboard in junior and high school jazz band where I was first introduced to the idea of reading chords rather than notes on the grand staff. To this day, after all of these years of reading music, I am still not a very proficient sight reader, even though I practiced that craft for countless hours in my life. I always preferred memorizing or improvising. I continued my musical education at one of the more respected music colleges in the country with a very celebrated jazz department. But, there’s only so much direction that a composer can give on a musical staff. For instance, certain rhythmic figures are not easily written because when they are noted on the staff, they are actually not exactly precise. If played exactly as notated, a good bit of ragtime, blues and jazz would sound very stiff and not communicate the true essence of the composer’s intent. Much of piano boogie and blues is a little lazier than can be written on the music staff, and it sounds almost like the left hand and the right hand are independent of each other, like they are being played by two different people. Boogaloo had a wonderful grasp of this and was able to show me, sometimes note for note. And he encouraged me to practice my hands separately so that I could learn to use my hands independent of each other. Boogaloo was able to show me what the music is supposed to sound like, not what it looks like on the music staff. He taught me that music doesn’t have to be precise. It’s really more the essence of music that is important and memorable and moving.
The academic education that I received at North Texas did help me to understand the techniques that Boogaloo was teaching me. Most importantly, my academic education gave me tools that aided my understanding and helped me to remember what he showed me lesson to lesson. I also recorded our lessons on a cassette recorder, but having notes and figures notated on staff paper to help me practice the licks and bass lines he was showing me was very helpful, and I would not have had good ways to communicate that without my North Texas experience. The two types of education actually complemented each other nicely, and neither without the other would have been as effective. In other words, the whole was much greater than the sum of the parts. I’m really lucky to have had both experiences, and I think it gave me a more rounded musicianship. I’m very proud of my music degree from North Texas and also very proud of my time with Boogaloo.
BB: With Pinetops’ passing, where does that leave the state of piano blues?
EB: Pinetop was the eldest, celebrated living blues piano player from his era, so many of his contemporaries are many years departed. He also lived long enough to be a role model for another three generations of piano players, at least. So, he has influenced a lot of pianists that will continue to share his style with the world. During the Pinetop Perkins Foundation Workshop in Clarksdale last year, I saw the faces of students of all ages light up when Pinetop came around. He had a way of inspiring people with his presence. He had such a gentle demeanor, and even though he won so many countless awards, he always carried his fame with tremendous grace and was happy to give anybody the time of day. He never lost his connection to his humble roots, and that humility communicated to the folks around him. He made time for anybody from Senators to laborers to the unemployed and never let his fame overshadow the compassionate human being that he was. He seemed to take it all in stride, the fact that he had worked very hard as a laborer himself, that he had to quit playing guitar after he got stabbed in the arm, and all of his fame and recognition, too. He took all in stride. He seemed proud but not the least bit prideful. He set such a fine example for the rest of us to follow, and I think all of us will honor that and strive to be as generous a musician as he was. Certainly there will never be another Pinetop, but we do have a shining example to strive towards. His influence on blues piano will be heard for generations to come, and his influence cannot be overstated. Piano blues will be in the capable hands of those that Pinetop inspired who will continue his legacy and pass it on to future blues pianists. And thankfully we have some fine recordings to help continue his legacy. I’m so happy that he lived to be the oldest Grammy winner and to celebrate that recent Grammy with Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. It is a fabulous reunion album of two living legends who have paved the way for the rest of us.
The Pinetop Foundation will carry on Pinetop’s legacy through the annual workshops. The second annual workshop is scheduled for June 15 – June 17, 2011 in Clarksdale. Scholarships are available for students under the age of 21, but students of all ages are encouraged to participate. Ann Rabson will once again lead the piano classes, and this year’s workshop features the addition of a guitar workshop, led by Bob Margolin. More information can be found at PinetopPerkinsFoundation.org.
BB: You won the the Pinetop Piano Player Award from the Blues Foundation at the BMA’s, what was your relationship with Pinetop?
EB: I met Pinetop at his Homecoming in Clarksdale in October 2002 held annually at Hopson Plantation. Ike Turner was in town, too, and I met both of them there. Ike had been a student of Pinetop’s way back, and I noticed that Pinetop was wearing a suit just like Ike’s band members had been wearing that weekend. It showed me that Ike still had a great admiration for Pinetop and was looking after him a little. I was completely star-struck, of course, and Pinetop was really sweet to me that afternoon. I got my photo made with him and was really excited about that. Since then, I saw Pinetop at Mississippi and blues events and always made a point to sit and visit with him when I saw him. We’d smoke cigarettes together and snicker at all the pretty gals passing by. I played at the Mississippi Blues Trail Marker unveiling in Clarksdale in 2008 where Pinetop was an honoree. I started into “Pinetop’s Boogie” to encourage Pinetop to play because I could tell that everybody wanted him to. And he did, and he was wonderful. I watched him with adoration during his short set that day and gave him a big tip for playing. We only worked on the same stage together once, at a Mississippi Grammy event in 2009. I was really proud to sing a duet with him at that event and knew that the moment would always be a career milestone in my memory. Then, last year, when my name was announced as the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player Award recipient, I know the smile on my face must have said it all. What a moment! I’ve never really felt like music is a contest, and I take awards for what they are: a way to celebrate everybody, not just trophy takers, but all of the nominees. Winning an award isn’t necessarily the measure of one’s ability or quality of one’s work, but winning does validate your music to some extent, and it really meant a lot to me to hug and kiss Pinetop and his manager Pat Morgan at that “winning” moment and to pay homage to Pinetop and to my mentor, Boogaloo. I admire Pinetop and am really proud of his Mississippi roots, and I want to honor his memory and follow his example. The Pinetop Piano Player Award is really the award I have wanted more than any other, and I am so grateful that I was able to live that moment while Pinetop was still with us. I’m grateful that he shared that moment with me. It don’t get no better than that.
BB: You are equally adept at the many different ranges within Blues music, from soft heartfelt ballads, to melancholy tunes, to shout and stomp jook joint boogie, both on piano and vocally. Do you have a favorite within these styles?
EB:I am very blessed to have an eclectic taste in music so I enjoy performing and appreciate lots of styles. I really enjoy entertaining and have always considered myself a better entertainer than a recording artist. I try to tackle various styles so that my shows can have a beginning, middle and end, just like a sonata or a stage play would have. In order to try to keep the audience’s interest, I try to incorporate boogies and ballads and shuffles and slow blues and soul songs and even some comedy, at least with funny songs. I work to keep the show interesting for everybody. Boogie is about the most fun to play, but I like to vary the rhythms and moods of the songs so that the show flows. When I sing a mournful ballad, I sometimes start to cry, and while I want to move the audience, I don’t really want to make them sad. So I try to offer happy songs and funny songs to give a little comic relief. I do love to sing ballads, like “Leave Me Alone”. I want for the audience to feel something, to forget their troubles, to hopefully transcend the moment and leave the show with the feeling that they’re glad they came. I like all of it, but not all repeatedly throughout a show. For instance, I used to work with a blues band that performed a lot of tunes in a row that vamp on only one chord with maybe a certain catching riff, songs like “Wang Dang Doodle”. I love that song, but I don’t want to play it “all night long.” Eventually, I want to change keys or play a chord progression or a different groove or rhythm. So, I love playing all sorts of grooves and keys and tempos, but I enjoy all of them best when they are followed by something contrasting but complementary.
BB: How did you develop your vocal style?
EB: What’s really funny is that I’ve never really considered myself a singer first, always a piano player first, but more people respond positively to, or compliment my voice than my piano playing. It’s kind of ironic that I spent years and years trying to be a piano player and most audiences think of me as a singer first. I always sang, ever since childhood. Everybody in my family sings. We sing together during family holidays and gatherings and harmonize nicely together. I grew up in a house where we often sang together after supper and nearly always sang a song or two for guests who visited. Often when I and my family are guests of a party, we are coaxed into performing a tune or two. So I suppose that my voice sort of developed naturally. In music school at UNT, voice was my second instrument, but I was studying classical voice, very different than the more popular style that I sing now. I was singing soprano then, too, and I am definitely an alto in my chest voice or popular voice. It seems much more natural to me because even my speaking voice has always been rather low. I am repeatedly referred to as “Sir” on the telephone, much more often than “Ma’am.” What’s great is that even though I never felt that my voice was suited for classical or opera, many of the techniques that I learned were helpful for any style. For instance, breathing from below the diaphragm (as I had also learned when playing flute in high school band) is helpful to maintain more vocal and pitch control. Opening my mouth and throat gives better vocal tone and control. Even visualization techniques are helpful. For example, if I imagine the pitch above a high note that I am having trouble hitting or that I tend to sing flat, it helps to more consistently hit the proper note. My visualizing the pitch above the high note, or trying to sing that problematic note a bit sharp helps to achieve the desired pitch.
All in all, the thing that developed my vocal style is singing a lot and singing everything from arias to Aretha. Singing is on one hand very simple because even babies can do it. But on the other hand, singing is complex because there are many things to focus on: annunciation, breath, pitch, vibrato, dynamics, melody, phrasing, rhythm and emotion. The trick is to somehow use all of the elements of the voice and melody to convey the message of the song, whether pensive or sassy or humorous, whatever. I love to sing, and I am thankful that my voice has been well received by audiences. The voice is the most universal and powerful instrument in the world. I’ve listened to and mimicked many voices and even horns and violins. I love lots of singers, but probably my most favorite are the voices that are unusual or androgynous and voices that have a lot of overtones. The voices that I am least drawn to are those that are simply pretty without being distinctive. I would rather listen to a not so pretty voice sing with feeling than a pretty voice sing without. I wouldn’t say that I have any major influences exactly. Anybody who I have ever heard sing has influenced me, and I love listening to both men and women. I’ve listened to many different styles, but my study of jazz probably colored my style more than anything else, besides Boogaloo. I studied the jazz greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Dinah Washington, June Christy, Chet Baker, Billie Holiday, and loads of others, as well as many blues and soul greats. One of my most influential albums was Aretha Franklin, Aretha Sings the Blues, recorded in 1965, I think, and on it she not only sings great blues but plays great blues piano, too.
BB: Besides Boogaloo, and Pinetop – who were your influences for you piano playing?
EB: Boogaloo was overwhelmingly my major piano influence, but I have listened to lots of pianists and have been influenced or at least impressed by most of them. I studied the jazz styles of Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Horace Silver, Nat King Cole, Bill Evans and other greats. I also studied blues piano records like Memphis Slim and Floyd Dixon, but I was most drawn to the women who sing and play, like Julia Lee, Camille Howard and Katie Webster. Boogaloo didn’t mention a lot of contemporary piano players, so it wasn’t until some years after we got together that I learned about contemporary greats like Marcia Ball. She and I actually know each other now, and it knocks me out that I am friendly with somebody whose music and career inspired mine. One of my newer inspirations is the best kept secret in blues music, Memphis pianist and singer Di Anne Price who delivers a song with as much charisma as anyone on the planet ever has.
BB: Let’s see, in 2006 you won the IBC’s, in 2009 you walked away with 2 BMA’s, and in 2010 the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player Award, dang, that’s not bad !
EB: My career progress before becoming a member of my local blues society versus afterwards is remarkable. The Mississippi Delta Blues Society of Indianola sponsored me at the 2006 IBC which introduced me to The Blues Foundation, and the rest has been like a blues fairytale. I know that “blues fairytale” sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s the best way I can describe it. Apparently, I had the proper tools for a greater success, but The Blues Foundation and its membership introduced me to a worldwide audience that enjoyed my music. Since Boogaloo’s passing, the most important relationship that I have developed in his absence has been that with The Blues Foundation which changed my life exponentially.
BB: Where does Eden Brent go now?
EB: I’m headed to the top of course, but that doesn’t mean I won’t have to crawl back up from the bottom! The great thing about music is that the sky is the limit. In other words, there are no limits. I continue to strive towards developing my musicianship, style and performance. In music or any other art form, the blessing is the curse, since the artist’s pursuit is endless. Every success is satisfying, but no success is truly satisfactory. Every success celebrated, of course, but only tentatively because the drive toward progress is so strong. It is a blessing to always have something to strive for, but likewise, it is a curse to always have to strive for something.
I want to continue to write songs that folks relate to, make albums that people respond to and perform shows that audiences connect with, but I want to do these things with increasing perfection. Perfection can’t ever be reached, naturally, but the pursuit of it is relentless. I would be delighted to win awards, stay on the charts, and get great reviews, but pleasing myself and satisfying audiences are very personal and enduring rewards. As I’ve said before, while trophies, charts, reviews and other accolades validate one’s music to some extent, the musical pursuit is ongoing and very personally rewarding. I love connecting with people and visiting new places. Very often I am humbled by the kindness and generosity of music fans from all over the world.
BB: Your latest release ‘Ain’t got No Troubles’ was produced by Colin Linden, how was it to work with him?
EB: Colin is an absolute joy to work with. He is very knowledgeable about sound gear and microphones and techniques to achieve the right sound, and he’s an expert at conveying the mood of a certain song. He has loads of very technical knowledge and ability, but he is also very personable and charming and clever and funny. He is tasteful in every way, personally and in his many musical professions. Colin is a truly versatile musician and not at all limited to any particular style of playing. He did fabulous guitar work on the album and exactly what was appropriate for the material. I love his playing and it enhanced the music in all the right ways. He is also a great song writer and one of the most played and requested songs on the album is a tune of his called “Later Than You Think” which has a mysterious sort of edge and chord changes that are really fun to play. I also had a ball playing that piano solo. He wound up making the most honest studio recording of me ever, and I am so pleased with it. I admire him very much not only because of his tremendous ability as a producer, engineer and guitarist, but I also admire him because of his very easy disposition. Recording has never been more relaxed for me, and his method completely erased all my fear of the studio and the recording process. He knew that I was intimidated by the process, yet he made it so easy. All I did was play and sing, and he did everything else. What’s interesting is that as a teenager years ago, Colin came to Hollandale, Mississippi, only about 25 miles from my home, and apprenticed with Sam Chatmon of the Mississippi Sheiks, much the same way that I apprenticed with Boogaloo. I am sure that I probably saw Colin at Chatmon’s grave marker dedication in Hollandale years later, but we weren’t introduced at the time. It’s too bad. Interestingly, I didn’t know this story about Colin and Sam until we had been in the studio for a couple or three days, but I have often thought this shared history contributed to our getting on so well. Colin is a genius and a man of many hats, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. He wears the same damn outfit everyday, and I love it! He is my Blues Rabbi.
BB: How did you two meet, and what drove you to work together for this release?
EB: Colin and I met at the Blues Music Awards in 2009. I believe that we spoke briefly at the awards, and then were introduced again the next day at Marcia Ball’s noon show at Alfred’s. Bill Wax looked at me with a seriousness and encouragement and said, “Here’s somebody you need to know,” just before introducing me to Colin. I was looking for a producer at that time, and I was aware of Colin’s work with others, particularly the two albums he produced of Janiva Magness, which I adore. Later in the year, I emailed Colin and asked if he would be interested in producing a record for me, and in his reply he wrote that he would “cartwheel through the streets of Memphis” to make a record with me. Well, when I read that, I knew he was just right for the album. I was already a fan of his work and flattered by his enthusiasm. I am so happy that we met and made the album together. I am very proud of it. I think it’s a great record that has a certain timelessness, and I’m not saying that because it’s mine. I’m saying that because Colin Linden did a spectacular job. The record could not have been any better. It is exactly what I wanted but did not know how to describe or achieve. Mississippi Number One had been really well received and was awarded the Blues Music Award for Acoustic Album. I wanted to follow that success with something different that could once again please the listening public. I wanted Ain’t Got No Troubles to be fresh and delightful, and Colin did that. What’s funny is that on about day three of tracking I met Colin a little bit earlier, before everybody else got to the studio, and I leaned over to him with worry and quietly said, “Colin, I don’t want to make Mississippi Number Two.” He laughed and assured me that it wouldn’t be. Boy was he right. I am very proud of Mississippi Number One. It is a fine album that I believe also has longevity, and I still love listening to the whole album. I especially love rolling all the car windows down and listening to the title track at maximum volume while driving Highway 1 at maximum speed, but I didn’t want to make the album twice. And Colin didn’t. He made exactly the album I would have produced if I knew how.
BB: What are you up to these days ?
EB: Last year was crazy busy with recording Ain’t Got No Troubles then promoting and releasing it. Lately my schedule has been slower than I enjoy. I am glad I got some time to rest, reflect and get myself together after a busy year, but now I’m getting a bit restless. My touring schedule picks up later this summer, but this year has had an unusually slow start. I am using the idle time to plan and develop the concept for my next album. I am still not sure exactly which direction this album will take me, but having the leisure time to knock around new ideas is kind of a luxury, and I’m enjoying that creative process at the Mississippi Delta pace. I’m writing some new songs and developing songs from an ongoing collection of song ideas that I maintain. I’m also practicing licks and bass lines and grooves that I should have mastered years ago, and I’m learning some new classic songs that I’ve always wanted to add to my repertoire.
Again, I want my next album to do be fresh and different. I don’t want to make Ain’t Got No Troubles II either. Ain’t Got No Troubles came to me by way of the title song just a week before I went into the studio with Colin, so sometimes the perfect ideas come together at just the right time, but in their own time. I look at each album as a new adventure and a way to continue my musical journey. I want to grow and develop as a musician and songwriter and hope that each new album will show progress. I don’t have any idea how some recording and touring artists are able to record, promote, release and tour a new album nearly every year. That pace amazes but would exhaust me. After all, I’m from the Delta, and we don’t get in too much of a hurry around here! I’m still developing my songwriting abilities, and that craft requires practice. Music is an art form, but it’s also a business, and making an album is a great way to continue to promote and market your business. Perhaps I will even hone my business and marketing craft. I am hopeful that someday I might learn to be a more organized and better businesswoman. The only problem with all that is that if I had actually wanted a business career, then I would have likely chosen something a little more lucrative than a career in blues music, but guaranteed, it wouldn’t have been nearly this much fun or this rewarding! I guess that’s the blues for sure!
BB: OK, here’s one for ya. tell us about some music that you listen to purely for Eden Brent? Stuff that not many people know you listen to? Like in my case my guilty music pleasure is sometimes going back to listen to Paul Revere & The Raiders…LOL…what’s the stuff no one would ever imagine you liking?
EB: I have so much favorite music! My favorite late night radio stations are the gospel ones like “Hallelujah FM” and the true blues stations where the DJ talks through most of the song, giving shout outs and singing along with the record and talking about the recording artist who’s singing. Right now on my turntable is Mozart’s Symphony 29 in A Major. In my cassette deck is a recording of my 32nd birthday party where all my Greenville blues friends showed up to play. In my car CD player is my sister Bronwynne’s new album that is my absolute new favorite thing. I love Ray Charles and Betty Carter singing “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye” and I’m a sucker for cool rock and roll like Yes’ “I’ve Seen All Good People” or “Roundabout.” Several years ago my sisters and I were performing at a local festival. In the middle of our concert we launched into AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” It was a wonderful choice, right there in the middle of my boogie and blues and my sisters’ country, folk and indie singer/songwriter stuff and all three of us harmonizing on classics like CSN’s “Helplessly Hoping.” I love Thin Lizzy doing “The Boys Are Back in Town,” and one of the best rock and roll songs ever written is “Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent. I guess the rock and roll would be the most surprising to people who’ve heard me, but I don’t know. The blues had a baby and named it rock and roll, right?
Interviewer Chefjimi Patricola is a classically trained chef, blues loving writer and creative master of Blues411.com. He can also can be found on FaceBook and at festivals and clubs in your neighborhood and town.