Moving from Los Angeles to Berkeley in 1996 meant experiencing all kinds of low grade culture shock, from acquiring an eye for reckless pedestrians to learning the art of layering clothes. Another early jolt came courtesy of the East Bay Express, where I spotted a listing for a Zigaboo Modeliste gig at Pier 23. Zigaboo Modeliste!? The rhythmic mastermind behind New Orleans funk phenomenon the Meters? The Godfather of Groove himself, playing a regular gig at a neighborhood joint? Yes, the prophet of funk seemed little honored in his adopted hometown, a situation that’s changed too slowly in the proceeding decades.
Ashkenaz and Berkeley’s Them People Productions kick off a rich spate of Black History Month programming Saturday with an evening devoted to Modeliste’s music and contributions. The event opens with a conversation between Modeliste and Berkeley funk historian, professor, and KPFA host Rickey Vincent at 7:30 p.m., followed by a brief audience Q&A and a show at 8:45 p.m. featuring Modeliste’s band with his longtime vocalist Kelly Jones, New Orleans-born bassist Blyss Gould, guitarists Timm Walker and Chris Rossbach, and Atta Kid keyboardist Max Cowan.
“These legends need to have their stories told,” says Vincent, Berkeley High class of ’79. “It’s a great opportunity for Ziggy to tell those stories. This format is kind of a new concept. The idea is that you think and then you dance.”
It’s difficult to overstate Modeliste’s influence. His work translating various New Orleans street beats into an infinitely pliable rhythmic vocabulary made him one of the planet’s most sampled drummers. A short list of artists who’ve borrowed his beats, often without permission, starts with Ice Cube, LL Cool J, NWA, Public Enemy, Salt-N-Pepa, Digital Underground, De La Soul, Beastie Boys, Naughty by Nature and Queen Latifa. More than laying a funk foundation for the hip hop nation, he expanded a lineage of innovative New Orleans drummers that extends from Baby Dodds and Zutty Singleton through Eddie Blackwell, Idris Muhammad and James Black.
“I think Zigaboo is one of the most influential drummers around from the ‘70s,” New Orleans jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton told me when I asked him about his tune “Zigaboogaloo” from his 1998 album Payton’s Place (Verve). “Some of the things he was doing on the drums had never been done before in R&B, or in any type of music for that matter. He just knew how to get right to the pocket at all times.”
After a decade off the scene following the messy dissolution of the Meters in 1977, Modeliste has engineered a productive second act from his home base in Oakland, building a small empire, complete with record label, educational videos, and publishing. It’s a mark of the man that rather than becoming embittered after bad business decisions torpedoed the Meters at the height of their national visibility Modeliste decided to take on the music business on its own terms.
“When I started at 17 or 18, I saw a lot of great songwriters and artists who put a lot of great music in the world, who had a lot of success, but at the end of the day someone handled their publishing and wouldn’t pay them,” Modeliste told me in an interview several years ago. “I could tell you a whole bunch of stories like that but I don’t want to dwell there if I don’t have to. I want to take the bull by the horns.”
Modeliste didn’t just lay down the grooves that defined the Meters’ instrumental R&B hits such as “Cissy Strut,” “Look-Ka Py Py” and “Chicken Strut.” He co-wrote the tunes that established the Meters’ signature sound, builkt on lean, muscular, and emphatically danceable rhythms that directly inspired neo-groove outfits such as Galactic, the Greyboy Allstars and Medeski, Martin and Wood.
Modeliste was still a teenager when he joined the band led by keyboardist Art Neville in 1966, with Modelists’s cousin, bassist George Porter, Jr., and guitarist Leo Nocentelli. Working almost every night, the band quickly landed a gig as the house rhythm section for producers Allen Toussaint and Marshall Sehorn’s Sansu label.
“We had this high-powered engine and we had six nights a week, every week playing in the Quarter to fine tune it,” Modeliste said. “When we started actually recording, we knew how to play together. We knew how to breath together.”
The band turned out a slew of Top 40 R&B hits in the early ‘70s, and played on dozens of records by musicians such as Earl King, Betty Harris and Lee Dorsey. When they made the major label move to Reprise in 1972 it seemed like the band was on the verge of breaking through to a national audience.
The ambitious Wild Tchoupitoulas project, which expanded the group’s sound with Neville brothers Aaron, Charles and Cyril and two members of the Mardi Indians, indicated the band was looking for new directions. Despite critical praise and high profile situations like recording with Paul McCartney and opening for the Rolling Stones on the band’s 1975 world tour, too much bad blood had been accumulated.
“We did a lot in the short period of time in terms of contributing music,” Modeliste said. “But if you sign bad contracts from the very onset, there’s no way that can be a healthy scene later. The group started blaming each other. It was a very tragic thing, because it was like a really beautiful ride while it was going, with so much potential.”
While Porter, Art Neville and Nocentelli refounded the band as the Funky Meters, and the Neville Brothers became more famous than the original Meters ever did, Modeliste moved to L.A. hoping to break into the studio scene. But with the ascendance of disco, his funky beats weren’t in vogue and he stopped playing music for a while.
By the time he came to the Bay Area in the early ‘90s Modeliste was ready to get his own thing going. He gradually returned to band leading, and has gradually built up a devoted following. In New Orleans, he’s an institution, returning regularly for gigs, particularly during the Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Rickey Vincent, who got his start as a journalist at Cal in the early 1980s writing the weekly column “Below the Funk!” for The Daily Californian, admits he didn’t recognize Modeliste’s full achievement “until early 2000s, when some friends got all the Meters back together. That’s when I realized that Ziggy was lead singer on a lot of those hits. You have to be running the show if you’re the drummer and lead singer! He’s as legendary as Clyde Stubblefield and deserves to have the cadre of well-traveled followers checking him out, and at Ashkenaz you’re right up in front.”
Speaking of well-traveled drummers, Bay Area jazz mainstay Vince Lateano kicks off a new Tuesday night series at the Back Room, inaugurating Jazz in the Neighborhood’s latest educational program. A non-profit group devoted to ensuring musicians receive fair wages, the organization also seeks to bring students together with veteran players.
“The concept came out of the years and years I spent with one foot in the classical world,” says trumpeter and Jazz in the Neighborhood founder Mario Guarneri. “I’ve been to a lot of master classes and I like the idea of student groups coming in and working these professionals. It’s a fresh take on the traditional jam session.”
The bi-monthly sessions open at 7 p.m. with a brief set by the pros, followed by two student combos performing in a master class format with critique and advice provided by the veterans. The evening concludes with a traditional jam where members of the audience are invited to sit-in.
Funded in part by a grant from the Zellerbach Family Foundation and produced in collaboration with the California Jazz Conservatory, the sessions feature an array of ensembles, including bassist Marcus Shelby’s trio (Feb. 21), vocalist Kellye Gray’s quartet (March 7), guitarist Randy Vincent’s trio (March 21), and percussionist John Santos’s sextet (April 4).