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Jae Sinnett: The Emotional Impact of Black Music

The day my mother brought me home after giving birth back in 1956, her mother, my grandmother, had the majestically powerful gospel singer, Mahalia Jackson, playing on the stereo. Not sure if that was intentional but I was raised in a very spiritually grounded family. The black church became my second home and black gospel music was an everyday feature on our turntables. The Mighty Clouds of Joy, the Dixie Hummingbirds, the Soul Stirrers, the Reverend James Cleveland, the Five Blind Boys and many more. Paralleling this style were the soul and R&B music genres. Soul, R&B and gospel are based on the same musical emotional foundation - the blues.

Soul music is a vocally dominated style. At its inception much of R&B was instrumental. Soul also merged more gospel and hymn elements into its style, and R&B featured more jazz with the African American swinging rhythm and improvisation coming out of the '40s. African American music up to this point was labeled “race music,” a term many considered derogatory but Jerry Wexler, with Billboard at the time, coined R&B “Rhythm and Blues,” newly identifying this new style of black music. Louis Jordan was a leading practitioner of early R&B. Jordan and his band the Tympany Five dominated the R&B charts at the time. Jordan was an American saxophonist, singer, and songwriter who played jump blues – a swinging up-tempo mix of jazz and blues, and a precursor of modern R&B. In his band he established the use of the electronic organ, helping to establish the path for classic R&B, urban blues, and rock and roll.

During those early years of listening to black music, one thing I definitively remember, was the feeling the music gave me. It was very different than the feeling I had watching and listening to someone like Elvis Presley. I loved the entertainment value of what Elvis was producing but his music was more intellectually curious for me than emotional. I remember trying to dance like him but that was solely for emulating which I thought was cool at the time and I noticed the girls LOVED it! Ha! It wasn’t about being emotionally stimulated. When I listened to Ray Charles sing, I FELT him. It wasn’t something I just heard and reacted to. Same with hearing Aretha Franklin or James Brown or Sam Cooke. The common thread? The emotional sensibilities of the blues was prevalent in all of this soul music.

I couldn’t explain any of this at that time. I simply experienced it. I heard, listened and felt it. Black music made me want to move even when I didn’t want to. That’s power in music. It was deep in my gut. My soul. When I heard Little Richard I felt the same emotional sensations I had experienced listening to Louis Jordan. Or into the '60s with James Brown. This was also the first time I noticed a difference in how black musicians made what they played feel which was different than what I heard white musicians playing. When I heard Buddy Holly or Jerry Lee Lewis as a very young boy and on records, from what I can remember, I enjoyed them but I found the emotional content different. They were entertaining but I rarely went back to listen to them. I gravitated towards the music that made me feel good and it was the music that surrounded me during my formative years. Music that reached my soul. Not just my head. It wasn’t a bad or good thing but simply, different.

Those early listening experiences shaped me for decades to come. When I became a musician I wanted to play the music that made me feel good emotionally. I called it the music of the soul back then. Early rock was laced with the blues so many of the rock bands I loved and listened to were blues-based such as Cream or Led Zeppelin. Or Jimi Hendrix of course. When “Jimi James” did his brief stint with The Isley Brothers, that was emotionally powerful. That’s when I was first introduced to Jimi Hendrix. Then jazz came into my life. It was the same listening methodology. I gravitated towards black music and the musicians playing it because that’s what I connected to in the deepest emotional way. That was literally the first music I felt that wrapped its soul arms around my emotional being. When I first heard bassist Ray Brown swingin' on the Benny Golson classic remake of Killer Joe by Quincy Jones, I had never felt a bass player like that before. It was a guttural experience for me. So amazingly soulful and swingin'! The feel. Same when I first heard A Love Supreme by Coltrane. That emotional content. The power. The spirit.

I enjoy much music by different artists of all ethnicities. I learned to appreciate stylistic variations and differences with musicians. As an artist I get different things from different players. The artists I’m more drawn towards play with a deep soul commitment. They are profoundly connected to the blues. Some of it I find intellectually stimulating only and some of it reaches my heart, but the music that reaches my soul and lives with me the longest and influenced me the most from day one, is great black American music and its profoundly deep emotional impact.

Jae Sinnett hosts Sinnett in Session, The R&B Chronicles, and Students in Session on WHRV FM.  He also shares his love of the culinary arts on Cooking with Jae on Facebook every Sunday at 6 p.m. Plus, catch up with past episodes