The first time I heard Bruce Henry sing was in May 2003 at the Fitzgerald during a Leigh Kamman tribute concert. Even though it was a star-studded event — Karrin Allyson and Bill McLaughlin were co-hosts, Debbie Duncan sang, Percy Hughes played sax — I came away with a head full of Henry’s big, beautiful baritone, a passionate instrument with a 3½-octave range.
I’ve heard him several times since, and his most recent CD, “Connections” (2003), is a permanent part of my playlist.
Born in West Point, Miss., home of Howling Wolf, Henry grew up in Chicago and was singing publicly by age 5 in his family’s Baptist church. His pianist father surrounded him with the music of Count Basie and Duke Ellington.
Henry was classically trained, but the siren call of improvisation (Nina Simone, Al Jarreau, John Coltrane) won out. Today he maintains a busy schedule of performing here and abroad, teaching (privately and at the FAIR magnet school in Crystal), and leading his ensemble Freedom Train, a performance group with a 15-voice choir, five-person dance troupe, seven-piece band, and a spoken word component with a mission of sharing African American music and history with all people. He also serves as music director for the Bridge worship service at 11 a.m. each Sunday at Messiah Evangelical Lutheran Church in South Minneapolis.
Henry brings a rare and not-to-be-missed holiday show to the Dakota on Thursday, Dec. 20. His band will include Jason Craft on piano, Gary Raynor on bass, Daryl Boudreaux on percussion, and Wendell Henry (no relation) on drums. I talked with him about what to expect and more.
MinnPost: Will you perform only holiday music, or can we hope for “Afro Blue,” “House of the Rising Sun” and “The Sound of Music”?
Bruce Henry: You’ll get a mixture of holiday songs, favorites and originals. I’m still working on a new piece that needs to be finished by Monday. If the washboard is there (at the Dakota), you’ll hear Aaron Neville’s “Louisiana Christmas Day.” We’ll also do a jazzy arrangement of “A Child Is Born” and “Winter Wonderland” as an ode to Ray Charles.
MP: These days, we start hearing holiday music at Halloween, and we’re sick of it by Christmas. How do you keep holiday songs fresh for yourself and the audience?
BH: I went years without doing holiday music. I heard it too much. When I did private and corporate shows, I got by without doing holiday songs — I gave them to the band. And then, somehow, I got the spirit of Christmas again. I’ve found some nice arrangements that freshen up the music, very jazzy. … I might not catch the Christmas spirit on Halloween, but sooner or later that candlelight feeling is gonna come.
MP: What else are you up to these days?
BH: I’m writing a business plan for the Jazz Vocalists of Minnesota (Henry is one of the founding members). And I’m in rehearsals with Freedom Train. That’s my baby, and we are a tribe. The idea is to combine our love of African American culture with activism. Our next public performance is April 19th at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist Church. It’s a fundraiser for their Dignity Center and right up our alley, trying to raise money for the good work they do for homeless people. … I’m also doing the school thing, finishing my undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota in Afro studies with an emphasis on black music history. I’ve been a college senior since 1975. I’ve taught, written curriculum, done workshops, but it’s all been self-taught. Now I’ll get that piece of paper. I’m shooting for graduating by Christmas 2008.
MP: Your latest CD, “Connections,” came out in 2003. Is there a new recording on the horizon?
BH: We recorded a live CD at the Dakota 2½ years ago. I don’t know why they haven’t released it.
MP: Last week, we asked local jazz artists which CDs by other local jazz artists they would give as holiday gifts. What would you give?
BH: Can I only say one? No? OK, then. … Lucia Newell’s “Steeped in Strayhorn.” Something by Moveable Feast. And I’d give Debbie Duncan’s holiday CD, “It Must Be Christmas.”
MP: What do you want for Christmas?
BH: That’s a heavy question. What I really want is all of my family together in peace and good health. We’re having everybody over this year (to Henry’s home), and my mom and dad aren’t coming (from Chicago). But I haven’t given up on them yet.
MP: The Dakota calendar says your show starts at 8 p.m.; your website says 7:30. What time does it really start?
BH (laughing): I guess we’ll have to find that out together. Weeknight shows at the Dakota usually start at 7. But if the calendar says 8, I’m going with 8.
What: Bruce Henry’s Holiday Show
Where: The Dakota, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis
When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 20
How much: $5
George Avaloz: In last week’s post, drummer Phil Hey named Avaloz’s “The Highest Mountain” (2004) as his holiday gift pick. Avaloz began his career as a young Mexican hat dancer at community celebrations on St. Paul’s West Side. He has since played drums with Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan, Quincy Jones and Billy Eckstine. The Artists’ Quarter, 9 p.m. Friday, Dec. 14 and Saturday, Dec. 15 ($10).
Ginger Commodore: Between performances of “Black Nativity: Twenty Years of Holiday Cheer!” at the Penumbra, the Moore by Four member and former Sounds of Blackness singer brings her holiday show to the Dakota. It’s probably safe to expect selections from her 2002 holiday release “Merry Christmas…With Love.” The Dakota, 7 p.m., Tuesday, Dec. 18 ($5).
iQuit Experimental Music Series: Chris Bates performs the first set on solo bass, layered with loops and electronic effects. The second set features Poutums Jazz Trio + 1 (Chris Thomson, Adam Linz, Alden Ikeda, Jon Pemberton; Thomson, Linz and Ikeda are the trio, Pemberton the plus). Rogue Buddha Gallery, 9 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 20. ($5 donation).
Find jazz calendars online at Jazz Police. Click on Twin Cities, MN in the black menu bar at the top.