A dynamo whether on piano or vocally, Ms. Eden Brent has taken the Blues world by storm over the last few years. A fan favorite on the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise where she holds court at the piano bar, or is trading licks and schmoozing it up with other keyboardists at piano showcases. But her relaxed self-effacing posture hides what is a truly talented musician and deeply interesting lady of the Blues. This is an interview originally done for BluesBlast Magazine and I thank them for allowing me to run it here. It has been edited from it’s original form.
To start with, tell us about Boogaloo Ames and your relationship with him. You, a white girl of privilege, and him, the classic black musician. How did you meet?
EB: Boogaloo had been living in the Mississippi Delta since the mid-1960’s but moved to Greenville, my hometown in about 1980. As a young teenager, I heard Boogaloo at parties and restaurants. When I was fifteen, he played my boat christening party. A year later he played my older sister’s wedding reception, and a few years after that, he played a celebration honoring my father as the King of the Queen of Hearts Ball, a kind of Mardi Gras type celebration here in my hometown. So I had seen Boogaloo play many times, and he was sort of a fixture all over the Delta. Everybody in the Mississippi Delta knew Boogaloo, and he normally entertained the white, wealthy social class there. All of the wealthier folks loved him because he could play anything, all the old jazz standards, popular country songs like “Release Me” and popular rock and roll songs like the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” He could play it all and he was very charming and charismatic. They all respected him, and I never heard him say “Yes Ma’m” to anybody like I had been brought up to do and some of the older folks from his generation customarily do. He drank with the white, wealthy, social class and visited with them and entertained them.
What was it that drew you in, to want to learn at his side?
EB: I always admired him but didn’t consider asking him to teach me until I enrolled at University of North Texas. Before that, I had planned on being a rock star. I had played in a couple of rock bands as a junior high and high school student, but usually the guys didn’t really want me or maybe even any chick in the band. They only needed me to play stuff like the piano solo in “Freebird” or the synthesizer solo in The Cars’ s song “Just What I Needed” or that cool opening synth sound and solo in Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”. As a freshman in music college at UNT, I was not making much progress learning how to play, really. I was learning a lot about music theory but having a hard time putting a practical application to the jazz harmonies and jazz concepts that were introduced. I would go to hear Boogaloo on college breaks and request certain tunes, and Boogaloo and I developed a kind of friendship. He knew my parents of course, but we were developing a friendship of our own. On college break sometime in 1984, I asked him if he would teach me. He taught me during my college breaks, nearly every time I came back to Mississippi. I even took a break from UNT for about nine months, moved home and worked as a commodities broker in training briefly, then attended classes at Delta State University. Boogaloo taught me during this time, too. I returned to North Texas to complete my bachelor’s degree in music theory. Throughout it all Boogaloo was providing the practical education that I really valued and the very thing I was not getting in music school. His style was magical. I watched people light up when they were near him and when they were listening to him play. He made everybody laugh and smile and dance and tap their feet. Everybody loved Boogaloo, and I wanted to learn to give people that kind of joy. After I graduated college, I studied with Boogaloo more regularly, and we applied for and received a Folk Arts Apprenticeship Grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission. The MAC paid Boogaloo to teach me twice weekly for a period of three months. I learned more in those three months than in any other single year that we worked together. I took it very seriously because we were required to submit a final report, and I wanted to make sure that I exhibited adequate progress so that he would get final payment. Boogaloo taught me throughout our friendship, but our teacher and student relationship developed into a performing duo and a lifelong friendship which continued until his death February 4, 2002. Boogaloo taught me the importance of a strong, rhythmic bass line in solo playing and some wonderful piano licks, but he also taught me how to dress properly and be gracious to the audience.
With Pinetops’ passing, where does that leave the state of piano blues?
EB: Pinetop was the eldest, celebrated living blues piano player from his era, so many of his contemporaries are many years departed. He also lived long enough to be a role model for another three generations of piano players, at least. So, he has influenced a lot of pianists that will continue to share his style with the world. During the Pinetop Perkins Foundation Workshop in Clarksdale last year, I saw the faces of students of all ages light up when Pinetop came around. He had a way of inspiring people with his presence. He had such a gentle demeanor, and even though he won so many countless awards, he always carried his fame with tremendous grace and was happy to give anybody the time of day. He never lost his connection to his humble roots, and that humility communicated to the folks around him. He made time for anybody from Senators to laborers to the unemployed and never let his fame overshadow the compassionate human being that he was. He seemed to take it all in stride, the fact that he had worked very hard as a laborer himself, that he had to quit playing guitar after he got stabbed in the arm, and all of his fame and recognition, too. He took all in stride. He seemed proud but not the least bit prideful. He set such a fine example for the rest of us to follow, and I think all of us will honor that and strive to be as generous a musician as he was. His influence on blues piano will be heard for generations to come, and his influence cannot be overstated. Piano blues will be in the capable hands of those that Pinetop inspired who will continue his legacy and pass it on to future blues pianists. And thankfully we have some fine recordings to help continue his legacy.
You are equally adept at the many different ranges within Blues music, from soft heartfelt ballads, to melancholy tunes, to shout and stomp jook joint boogie, both on piano and vocally. Do you have a favorite within these styles?
EB: I am very blessed to have an eclectic taste in music so I enjoy performing and appreciate lots of styles. I really enjoy entertaining and have always considered myself a better entertainer than a recording artist. I try to tackle various styles so that my shows can have a beginning, middle and end, just like a sonata or a stage play would have. In order to try to keep the audience’s interest, I try to incorporate boogies and ballads and shuffles and slow blues and soul songs and even some comedy, at least with funny songs. I work to keep the show interesting for everybody. Boogie is about the most fun to play, but I like to vary the rhythms and moods of the songs so that the show flows. When I sing a mournful ballad, I sometimes start to cry, and while I want to move the audience, I don’t really want to make them sad. So I try to offer happy songs and funny songs to give a little comic relief. I do love to sing ballads, like “Leave Me Alone”. I want the audience to feel something, to forget their troubles, to hopefully transcend the moment and leave the show with the feeling that they’re glad they came.
Besides Boogaloo, and Pinetop – who were your influences for you piano playing?
EB: Boogaloo was overwhelmingly my major piano influence, but I have listened to lots of pianists and have been influenced or at least impressed by most of them. I studied the jazz styles of Art Tatum, Errol Garner, Horace Silver, Nat King Cole, Bill Evans and other greats. I also studied blues piano records like Memphis Slim and Floyd Dixon, but I was most drawn to the women who sing and play, like Julia Lee, Camille Howard and Katie Webster. Boogaloo didn’t mention a lot of contemporary piano players, so it wasn’t until some years after we got together that I learned about contemporary greats like Marcia Ball. She and I actually know each other now, and it knocks me out that I am friendly with somebody whose music and career inspired mine. One of my newer inspirations is the best kept secret in blues music, Memphis pianist and singer Di Anne Price who delivers a song with as much charisma as anyone on the planet ever has.
Let’s see, in 2006 you won the IBC’s, in 2009 you walked away with 2 BMA’s, and in 2010 the Pinetop Perkins Piano Player Award, dang, that’s not bad !
EB: My career progress before becoming a member of my local blues society versus afterwards is remarkable. The Mississippi Delta Blues Society of Indianola sponsored me at the 2006 IBC which introduced me to The Blues Foundation, and the rest has been like a blues fairytale. I know that “blues fairytale” sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s the best way I can describe it. Apparently, I had the proper tools for a greater success, but The Blues Foundation and its membership introduced me to a worldwide audience that enjoyed my music. Since Boogaloo’s passing, the most important relationship that I have developed in his absence has been that with The Blues Foundation which changed my life exponentially.
Where does Eden Brent go now ?
EB: I’m headed to the top of course, but that doesn’t mean I won’t have to crawl back up from the bottom! The great thing about music is that the sky is the limit. In other words, there are no limits. I continue to strive towards developing my musicianship, style and performance. In music or any other art form, the blessing is the curse, since the artist’s pursuit is endless. Every success is satisfying, but no success is truly satisfactory. Every success celebrated, of course, but only tentatively because the drive toward progress is so strong. It is a blessing to always have something to strive for, but likewise, it is a curse to always have to strive for something.
I want to continue to write songs that folks relate to, make albums that people respond to and perform shows that audiences connect with, but I want to do these things with increasing perfection. Perfection can’t ever be reached, naturally, but the pursuit of it is relentless. I would be delighted to win awards, stay on the charts, and get great reviews, but pleasing myself and satisfying audiences are very personal and enduring rewards. As I’ve said before, while trophies, charts, reviews and other accolades validate one’s music to some extent, the musical pursuit is ongoing and very personally rewarding. I love connecting with people and visiting new places. Very often I am humbled by the kindness and generosity of music fans from all over the world.
What are you up to these days ?
EB: Last year was crazy busy with recording Ain’t Got No Troubles then promoting and releasing it. Lately my schedule has been slower than I enjoy. I am glad I got some time to rest, reflect and get myself together after a busy year, but now I’m getting a bit restless. My touring schedule picks up later this summer, but this year has had an unusually slow start. I am using the idle time to plan and develop the concept for my next album. I am still not sure exactly which direction this album will take me, but having the leisure time to knock around new ideas is kind of a luxury, and I’m enjoying that creative process at the Mississippi Delta pace. I’m writing some new songs and developing songs from an ongoing collection of song ideas that I maintain. I’m also practicing licks and bass lines and grooves that I should have mastered years ago, and I’m learning some new classic songs that I’ve always wanted to add to my repertoire.
Again, I want my next album to do be fresh and different. I don’t want to make Ain’t Got No Troubles II either. Ain’t Got No Troubles came to me by way of the title song just a week before I went into the studio with Colin Linden, so sometimes the perfect ideas come together at just the right time, but in their own time. I look at each album as a new adventure and a way to continue my musical journey. I want to grow and develop as a musician and songwriter and hope that each new album will show progress. I don’t have any idea how some recording and touring artists are able to record, promote, release and tour a new album nearly every year. That pace amazes but would exhaust me. After all, I’m from the Delta, and we don’t get in too much of a hurry around here! I’m still developing my songwriting abilities, and that craft requires practice. Music is an art form, but it’s also a business, and making an album is a great way to continue to promote and market your business. Perhaps I will even hone my business and marketing craft. I am hopeful that someday I might learn to be a more organized and better businesswoman. The only problem with all that is that if I had actually wanted a business career, then I would have likely chosen something a little more lucrative than a career in blues music, but guaranteed, it wouldn’t have been nearly this much fun or this rewarding!
I guess that’s the blues for sure!
Until next time,
Love, Peace & Chicken Grease,
photos: courtesy of Leslie K. Joseph, Dan Creed.
***The Pinetop Foundation will carry on Pinetop’s legacy through the annual workshops. The second annual workshop is scheduled for June 15 – June 17, 2011 in Clarksdale. Scholarships are available for students under the age of 21, but students of all ages are encouraged to participate. Ann Rabson will once again lead the piano classes, and this year’s workshop features the addition of a guitar workshop, led by Bob Margolin. More information can be found at http://pinetopperkinsfoundation.org/