As a former collaborator of Ike & Tina Turner, James Brown, Parliament-Funkadelic, Bootsy Collins, Ray Charles, Van Morrison, Pancho Sanchez, De La Soul, and Vanessa Williams, Fred Wesley’s career has found the kind of success and diversity that most can only dream of. As director and band leader of the New JBs, Wesley delivers a powerful yet relaxed mix of jazz, R&B, and hard-driving funk that he likes to call “100% funky stuff for party people”.
The son of a big band leader and a high school teacher, Wesley began playing piano and trumpet as a child. But around the age of 12 he received a trombone from his father and quickly switched over the instrument that would later make his name.
Now the world’s most renowned and distinctive jazz/funk trombonist, Wesley began his career as a teenager when with Ike and Tina Turner. Speaking of his first professional work in his autobiography, Hit Me Fred, Wesley says “This was not the kind of gig I had hoped for… but I was broke and had to give it a try”. He quickly became disgruntled with Ike for not letting the band play anything too jazzy but bided his time until something better came along.
Soon something did. His next job with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters was ‘better’ in the sense that they had more hit records than Ike and Tina Turner. However, Wesley remained musically unfulfilled, until his job with James Brown….
Ballard, despite his success, had proven erratic and unreliable, often leaving Wesley waiting penniless in digs while away sorting out financial disputes. While waiting in Washington for Ballard to return and pay his bill, Wesley ran into James Brown, who offered him a salaried position within his backing band. At the time, salaries were virtually unheard of for musicians, who could only expect to get paid for the shows they played. Despite this, Wesley initially declined, as he was looking for something more jazzy.
However, when Pee-Wee Ellis later reoffered Wesley the job as Brown’s trombonist, Wesley was about to start work as a milkman! So, this time, he was forced to accept. “It wasn’t like I was faced with the choice between a jazz gig and a funk gig – the choice was between music and milk”, Wesley explains in his memoirs.
Moving from trombonist to music director and primary composer for James Brown and the JBs during this 1968-75 stunt, Wesley led much of the arranging. The original release of class Doing It to Death was actually credited to Fred Wesley and the JBs and sold over a million copies.
From 1975 to 1978, Wesley played with George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic. He then made his name in jazz when joining the Count Basie Orchestra and found great success with To Someone in 1988, his first recording as a jazz band leader, and subsequent classics, Amalgamation, Comme Ci Comme Ca, Full Circle, and Wuda Cuda Shuda.
Fred Wesley and the New JBs have recorded and toured since 1996, with their action-packed live shows drawing on the full and wide range of Wesley’s talents.