The recent demise of Don Van Vliet, better known as Captain Beefheart, got me thinking about the different styles of some of our beloved bandleaders. Some are low-key; some are martinets; some seem to have been truly terrifying.
There doesn’t seem to be a reliable correlation between overall personality and band leading style. Certainly the Captain was a very nice man, a gentle soul, but from all of the reports that I’ve seen from his band mates he was ultra-demanding with his musical general’s hat on. I don’t know if he fined them for transgressions, but my impression is that he had what diplomats call “very frank exchanges” with them if their toes weren’t placed properly on the white line of his reality.
Jimi Hendrix was a nice man too, but his style seems to have been just to tell them, “try to keep up.” His style matched his personality. I’m sure that he remembered those days traveling with the Isley Brothers, who obviously tried to make back as much as possible of the band’s salaries from fines for everything from scuffed shoes to being out of tune (what’s a poor guitar player to do? Those things are inherently out of tune, they’re built that way).
James Brown, of course, is the prototypical martinet. Famous for fines and firings, he ran a tight ship, two hundred dollars a week and you’ll play all of the shows and recording dates that I can line up, and you’ll like it. I always thought that he should have fined himself for his organ playing and given the money to the band for putting up with him. I know he would never have hired himself to play the organ, no way. It all goes together though, he was the boss, no half-stepping, no back-talking, no looking back.
What was Miles like? How about ‘Trane? Ray Charles? Ray kept some great players close to him for many, many years. I think that’s probably a good sign. The only thing I recall Ray’s musicians complaining about is that Ray liked to play really slow sometimes, they called it “the Death Beat.” That can be tough. They stuck around though.
What kind of bandleader are you?