Thursday, May 31, 2007

"100 Greats in 100 Days" #054, Ed Bradley and The Neville Brothers: Tell It Like It Is

Ed Bradley (1941-2006) was a class act: a correspondent, an author, and an advocate for people of color for his entire life. He “afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted.” He never sold out and he never backed down, but he was smart and tough enough to fight his battles and find his friends, on ground of his own choosing.

He also had brass balls. He was a public school teacher in Philadelphia, he walked into riots in Philly and Paris with nothing but a microphone and his iron will, and he reported from Vietnam and Cambodia. He caught shrapnel in Southeast Asia and he integrated the pontifical narcissistic Old White Men's club of Sixty Minutes, where he was always treated as the junior correspondent even though he had more guts and more integrity than the entire rest of the program’s staff. Reduced to taking the last slim pickings on that ode to mentally-geriatric Beltway punditry, which has embalmed the features and egos of Mike Wallace; the “Get off my lawn, you damned kids!” crazy-old-man querulosity of Andy Rooney; the fallen virtue of the great Morley Safer, who served his time in ‘Nam and then accepted the long assisted-living-community twilight of Sunday evening; and trotted out as the token “person of color,” Bradley always walked the walk. He never talked down, he never played the race card (hear that, Clarence Thomas?), and he conducted himself with all the panache, savoir-faire, and clothing sense of the great Duke Ellington, who said “Self-discipline, as a virtue or an acquired asset, can be invaluable to anyone.”

He won 19 Emmys, and even though he was ghettoized every time Wallace/et al were scared to talk to Al Sharpton or Bob Dylan or Muhammad Ali, even though he was always treated as the junior partner, he carried it with grace and style. And he didn’t take any crap from Martians, to quote Michael Herr. Chris Rock put it best, in speaking about Ed’s interview with a Michael Jackson long-gone into delusion and psychosis: “Ed Bradley looked at Michael Jackson like ‘N*****, is you CRAZY?!?

He was also, for his entire career, a voice for Ellington’s “Great Black Music,” hosting the Jazz at Lincoln Center program, and appearing at many festivals and on TV specials. And one night he sat in with Art, Aaron, Charles, and Cyril Neville at Tipitina’s, who knew another Brother when they saw one.

Big Easy loopiness meets Tinsel Town lunacy, in this one: we’ve sat through the goofiness of Dennis Quaid still channeling his Jerry Lee Lewis persona, of Herbie Hancock once more forcing his way into a television musical situation where, despite his genius in jazz, his lack of the funk was painfully evident. The Dixie Cups have sassed their way one more time through Iko Iko and John Haitt—not someone you necessarily think of as the funkiest dude on the planet—has, with Aaron, taken Yellow Moon for a spin. Gregg Allman has never sounded better on Midnight Rider than he does with the Brothers behind him.

There’s the best backup band the Brothers (profiled in “100 Greats” #29) ever had, with Brian Stoltz on guitar, Tony Hall on bass, and the great Willie Green, spiritual heir to Zigaboo Modeliste, on drums. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band has laid down the groove the way bands have been laying it down for the second-liners for over a hundred years, Bonnie Raitt has demonstrated once again that there’s no “sell-by” date for Sexy, Buckwheat Zydeco has proven, with My Ya-Ya, that dumb is no impediment in New Orleans, and even Jimmy Buffett has rekindled his Afro-Caribbean roots (Jimmy can step out when he’s not playing for yuppies; who knew?).

And out lopes Big Ed, dressed in a purple shirt and a pair of deep-pleated pants, the diamond stud winking in his ear, to cakewalk, inevitably, through Sixty Minute Man, with a beautiful Crescent City nod-and-a-wink, and who gives a shit whether he sings in tune, the man just personified class, you know?

This essay is for Ed, who never backed down from who he was but never settled either. He was a good friend to The Music and to his people.

He was a gallant gentleman.

[13 Mar 08 ETA: and, in the wake of his death, his New Orleans friends who loved him sent him home in the grand old way: with a Second Line parade from the Treme Brass Band:]

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