50 years after death, Jimi Hendrix continues shaping Seattle music, as same racial inequities persist

©The Seattle Times

Seattle rockers Ayron Jones, left, and Eva Walker at Jimi Hendrix Park in Seattle on September 8, 2020. Fifty years after his death, Hendrix continues to influence many Seattle artists, including Jones and Walker. - Steve Ringman/Seattle Times/TNS

SEATTLE — 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.

Like Hendrix, Jones is a self-taught guitar hero in his own right, drawn to Jimi’s unorthodox style that allowed him to play chords and solos simultaneously. Also like Hendrix, it enabled Jones to make the traditional rock trio sound brawnier than its ranks.

“At the time, you don’t realize how inspirational that is to your playing,” Jones says of sharing Seattle DNA with the icon who came up generations before him. “Cats in Austin, Texas, sound like Stevie Ray Vaughan … because that’s their guitar hero, man; that’s the cat that came through their neighborhood. In Seattle, if you came from my neighborhood, it was Jimi Hendrix. So, it was hugely impactful and influential to my sound.”

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.

In the Seattle music pantheon, much of the focus tends to land on the grunge era. The unlikely cultural phenomenon spurred by a muddy blend of punk and heavy metal is fresh in our collective memory, many of its towering figures (almost entirely white men) still active participants in the Seattle music community. But Seattle’s musical heritage didn’t start or stop with the flannel-clad game changers, tracing back at least to Quincy Jones and the Jackson Street jazz clubs of old.

While there are various Hendrix tributes scattered across the city — from the small statue on Capitol Hill’s Broadway to Paul Allen’s Hendrix-inspired tourist magnet Experience Music Project (now MoPOP) — several artists interviewed for this story said the city has been slow to properly honor the legacy of a hometown hero who immeasurably altered the course of music history. However, the 2017 addition of Jimi Hendrix Park was an important step, they say.

“There’s just a lot of history forgotten because we were so focused on Kurt Cobain — which, I love Kurt Cobain,” says Walker, who titled her band’s album “Cobain & Cornbread,” a phrase she once used to describe The Black Tones’ sound. “He was great. But I think even Kurt Cobain is tired of hearing about Kurt Cobain.”

A memorial march and rally organized by Hendrix’s niece and brother, Tina and Leon Hendrix, and the King County Equity Now coalition, begins Friday with a noon march from Garfield High School to the park. Plans call for live music with performances from Leon Hendrix, percussionist Juma Sultan (who played with Hendrix at Woodstock), Hendrix tribute artist Randy Hansen and others.

We’ll never know how music history would have unfolded without Hendrix blazing a heavy, psych-blues trail (nor would we want to). But Hendrix undoubtedly helped set rock ‘n’ roll on the path that ultimately led to grunge. “In my mind, Jimi was in a lot of ways the first grunge superstar,” Jones says. “He was the guy who turned it up loud — the feedback, the stereo sound, the loud-soft — all that. Seattle music, the face of rock ‘n’ roll in general wouldn’t be what it is today without the innovation of someone like Jimi.”

Says Jimmy James: “You listen to him play ‘Wild Thing’ at Monterey Pop Festival in June of 1967, it had a grungy sound, something you would later hear in stuff like ‘(Smells Like) Teen Spirit’ or the Melvins. … He was already in the future before the future was even here.”

While grunge acts are often more closely linked to the generation of bands that swam in Hendrix’s distortion-harnessing wake, at least one of grunge’s chief architects was heavily inspired by Hendrix.

“Hearing his songs on KISW when I was 10 … 15, 20 (years old), it changed my life,” says Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard. “His artistry is unmatched and he shows what’s possible in terms of the universalness of music — particularly the universalness of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll, and the freedom and the power that that form can have. I think about Jimi Hendrix a lot.”

Racial divides

The history has since been corrected, but for years Hendrix — who was of Black and Native American heritage — was frequently described by fans and the press as someone who transcended race. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Despite cutting his teeth on the “Chitlin’ Circuit” — a vibrant network of safe haven Black clubs across the segregated South — and playing music firmly rooted in the blues, he was hurt by the fact that Black radio stations didn’t pick up his music. During the last year or so of his life, Hendrix made efforts to reconnect with his Black audience, playing an outdoor concert in the heart of Harlem and assembling his all-Black Band of Gypsys. Meanwhile, his predominantly white fan base and rock press often stereotyped him and fed into various racist tropes.

Hendrix’s hometown wasn’t exempt from these racial divides in the late ‘60s.

“African Americans in Seattle weren’t listening to KISW and KJR,” says Thaddeus Turner, one of Seattle’s most versatile and respected guitarists, who once played Hendrix in a Teatro ZinZanni production. “We weren’t listening to a lot of mainstream radio. We had those few hours of the day where KYAC came on,” he says, referring to Seattle’s first Black-owned radio station.

Reared on Parliament-Funkadelic and Michael Jackson, it wasn’t until Turner got to high school that he discovered Hendrix through white rock guitarists he met at Garfield and Ingraham high schools. “For Black people, they didn’t pick up Hendrix and listen to it. It was kind of a trip,” Turner says. “It reminds me of the dilemma of Black musicians in Seattle — if you don’t have a white audience, you don’t have an audience at all usually.”

While rock circles of all stripes remain predominantly white, representation is slowly improving, in Seattle and beyond. Though she’s reluctant to take much credit, Walker has played a crucial role in making the Seattle rock scene a more inclusive place, whether sharing The Black Tones’ stages with other Black artists or playing diverse voices on KEXP’s local show “Audioasis,” which she’s hosted since 2018.

“A lot of us have a similar story of being called ‘Oreo’ or being told that we’re super white because we like rock music, a ton of times, from both the Black community and the white community,” Walker says. “Jimi Hendrix had a good reason to be upset — I was upset. But also, it’s not the Black community’s fault they were presented with ‘Hey, you’re not included in this thing. This is a white thing, whether you like it or not,’ and didn’t open the true history of that to us. So, racism caused those comments to happen toward Jimi Hendrix, to me, to Jimmy James.”

Though racial inequities still exist in the Seattle music scene, across genres, maybe Seattle can help push the needle beyond the Emerald City.

Since signing with Taylor Swift’s former Big Machine label group this year, Jones looks poised to become one of the next ambassadors of Seattle rock to the outside world — a role the proud Seattleite seems eager to fill.

As of this writing, “Take Me Away,” Jones’ first single since labeling up, was approaching the top 20 on Billboard’s mainstream rock songs chart, looking up toward Chris Cornell’s “Patience” at No. 3.

“If you look at the (rock charts), there’s some Black artists out there leading really amazing groups, but in terms of solo rock artists now, man, that’s few and far between,” Jones said earlier this summer.

For all the barriers Hendrix broke during his short but wildly influential time in the spotlight, 50 years later, there’s a lot more progress to be made. More than a statue on Broadway, perhaps that’s the best way to honor his legacy.

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©2020 The Seattle Times

American singer and guitarist Jimi Hendrix performs on stage on May 24, 1967 at Grona Lund in Stockholm, Sweden. - Svenska Dagbladet/Getty Images North America/TNS
Innovative rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix jokingly thumbs for a lift while waiting with his baggage at Heathrow Airport, London. - Central Press/Getty Images North America/TNS
Rock guitar virtuoso Jimi Hendrix (1942 - 1970) caught mid guitar-break during his performance at the Isle of Wight Festival, August 1970. - Evening Standard/Getty Images North America/TNS