How Jimi Hendrix, Racism and Grunge Intersect, 50 Years after the Guitarist’s DeathBreaking News
tags: African American history, music, Seattle, Jimi Hendrix
He’s not onstage, but Jabrille “Jimmy James” Williams is busting out the deep cuts. It doesn’t take much prodding to get one of Seattle’s premier guitar players — a certified Jimi Hendrix aficionado — on a roll, recounting with love tales of lost jam sessions and other Hendrixian legends that burn as brightly as a flaming Stratocaster.
Even his stage name, a pseudonym Hendrix himself once used, is partly an homage to the Seattle-reared music icon. “Jimi Hendrix represented everything that has to do with the word ‘freedom,’” James says in a phone interview. “People want to put him in a box, but he never fit into a box. That’s what I always loved about him.”
The ace guitarist with instrumental soul troupe The True Loves and the Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio is hardly alone. Decades after the last note rang out in the old Sicks’ Stadium during his final Seattle performance in 1970, Hendrix’s legacy continues to fuel the music scene in his hometown — a city he had a complicated relationship with before and after his career’s London liftoff.
It’s almost impossible to quantify the vast impact that Hendrix, who died 50 years ago Friday, Sept. 18, had on pop culture. He pushed the limits of what the guitar was capable of and his almost mystical individuality has inspired generations of artists across genres and continents to wave their freak flags, too.
“He came like a comet,” James says. “He came, he burned bright, shoot through the sky, burned everybody’s eyelids off and then he left. … He went back to whatever dimension he came from.”
Half a century later, Hendrix’s spirit lives on in some of Seattle music’s modern-day luminaries — as do the effects of racism Hendrix endured throughout his lifetime.
Shared Seattle DNA
The Hendrix stories Ayron Jones grew up hearing weren’t of torched guitars or legendary jams. They were of Jimi Hendrix the friend, the neighbor, the babysitter. Hendrix grew up primarily around the Central District and attended Garfield High School, where a bronze Hendrix bust now resides. Some of his earliest shows were at Washington Hall and the Yesler Terrace Neighborhood House.
But when Jones roamed the same Washington Middle School halls Hendrix once did, the blues-fusing hard rocker had no idea Hendrix was the guy in the mural on the wall. Nor did he realize a friendship with Hendrix’s nephew would one day lead to his first real break in the music biz, playing with the opening band on a Janelle Monáe tour nearly a decade ago.
That Seattle heritage is part of what convinced a 15-year-old Eva Walker she was Hendrix reincarnated. Think about it: They were both from Seattle, kind of “awkward and skinny,” and loved the guitar. The Black Tones singer/guitarist laughs at her teenage reasoning now, though you’d be forgiven for mistaking some of her wah-wah drenched solos for Hendrix’s second coming. If not for the Seattle legend, however, the ferocious garage-blues band Walker fronts — a leading force on Seattle’s rock scene — might never have come to be.
Walker had been drawn to the guitar since age 9, but it wasn’t until high school she got her hands on one, acquiring a loaner from one of her teachers.
“I remember someone had told me on the bus or something, ‘Black people don’t play guitar.’ I was embarrassed,” Walker says. It made her question whether she should continue playing. “Then I discovered Jimi Hendrix … and I freaked out — ‘Whoa, Black people do play guitar!’ He was extremely inspiring.”
As a fan of the British Invasion bands who emulated Black rhythm and blues artists from the States, it wasn’t until Walker worked her way backward that she realized rock ‘n’ roll was created by Black artists like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, who once reprimanded a flamboyant young Hendrix for wearing too fancy a shirt, not wanting his sideman to draw attention away from him.
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