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Funky Nation takes over Jazz Fest
Big Sam Williams on New Orleans, Katrina, his new album, and the late Allen Toussaint
Sam Williams - photo by Willow Haley

Big Sam’s Funky Nation @Savannah Jazz Festival

7 p.m. Sat. Sept. 28, Forsyth Park. Free and open to the public.

IT’S NOT that Big Sam Williams put the world of New Orleans jazz and R&B behind him. Far from it.

That music, and the culture surrounding it, will always be part of him. How could it not? Like Wendell Pierce’s “Treme” character Antoine Batiste, Williams was born and raised in the Crescent City and learned to play trombone in his middle-school marching band.

From there, he studied with jazz artist Kidd Jordan and, while still in his teens, co-founded the Stooges Brass Band. His next step was to join the famed Dirty Dozen Brass Band.

But through it all, the larger-than-life singer, trombonist and bandleader has also had a severe case of the funk, one that gets stronger with each new release from his band Big Sam’s Funky Nation.

In March 2018, Williams and his bandmates released their latest album, “Songs in the Key of Funk (Vol. 1).” 

The title is a nod to Stevie Wonder, but that only hints at the depth of ’70s and ’80s funk influences contained within, from early Prince and Rick James to the Gap Band, George Clinton and Zapp.

And then there’s the brassy recent single “PokeChop,” with its old-school hip-hop bassline straight out of the Sugar Hill Records playbook, the timeless call-and-response vocals, and the funkiest bounce-rap vibe this side of Big Freedia.

Strange as it may seem, the accompanying video, with its tasteful twerking and wireless keytar, is actually the first official music video in the band’s 15-year history.

After all, being his own hype-man isn’t Williams’ idea of a good time. Being onstage is. Whether working sweaty clubs or open-air festivals, the band’s kinetic fusion of funk, jazz and rock really comes to life onstage, and has much the same effect on the crowds.

I recently spoke to Big Sam about the new album, the secret to blending bounce and second-line rhythms, returning to his hometown after Hurricane Katrina and working with the late Allen Toussaint.

You’ve always tapped into a variety of musical styles, even going back to when you were just starting out with the Stooges Brass Band. How would you say your sound has changed through the years? 

Big Sam: You know, coming from New Orleans, people think of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band — they think about brass bands in general — and they think of Preservation Hall Jazz. Then, when it comes to funk, they think about The Meters and the Neville Brothers, you know, Dr. John, that kind of thing. And being from New Orleans, born and raised, we still have that backbeat in us, in the grooves, and in the songs that we write. But it's also different.

In what ways?

Big Sam: Well, with this album, I wanted to represent the band the way that we should have been represented all of these years. When you listen to it, you can hear a heavy Gap Band influence — or Morris Day & The Time — but then you'll also hear those little hidden rhythms in the background that are more like the Neville Brothers, The Meters and Allen Toussaint. Some of the earlier albums were kind of like detours, but we still had some of these grooves within those albums.

We’re really a dance band, and “Songs in the Key of Funk” is really a dance album. You pop it in, and you want to shake something. It’s like when you come to our shows. You get sweaty. You’re not about to sit down and think you look cute just watching us. [Laughs.]

So I know that, when Allen Toussaint passed away back in 2015, you and Trombone Shorty led his second line tribute. And he was really the most talented, well-dressed and polite artist I’ve ever encountered. I can’t imagine how emotionally powerful that must have been for you.

Big Sam: It was crazy, man, it was devastating. You know, we all love Allen, and by that point I had played with him for 12 years. It was just very emotional — it was hard for all of us. It was really sudden, too. And still to this day, it saddens all of us. He was like the nicest, most genuine person you would ever meet. And he's a genius, man, he has all of these hits, and a lot of people never heard of him. That's the crazy part. He's also the only cat I've ever toured with where, every single night, I'd get chills just listening to him play.

So if a school kid who's just learning how to play were to ask how you take all these different rhythms — bounce, second-line, funk — and make them all work together, what would you say?

Big Sam: I'll say this: It's all related, and they're all syncopated. With bounce, you have the hand claps going like non-stop, all eighth notes — or quarter notes, depending how you want to think of it. And then with second line, you got that back beat. And with funk, you just kind of cut that back a little bit. So all New Orleans music is related, it all goes back to African rhythms and things like that. You can mix in the Mardi Gras Indians, all of that, and make one big party.

Let's talk about the city of New Orleans itself. I've read that the legislature still refuses to raise minimum wage above $7.25, that developers are rebranding the 7th Ward as "The New Marigny," and that Charity Hospital never reopened after Katrina.

Big Sam: Right.

And yet you still have more great recording artists and session musicians than any other city in the world. What are the reasons for that?

Big Sam: It's New Orleans, baby. I mean where else in the world can you get this type of food, this type of music, this type of culture? You know, where else can you literally walk out of a club onto the street with a drink in your hand and police not bother you? People love all that, and it attracts people to the city. Especially the food and music, man, our whole culture is one-of-a-kind. So people are willing to sacrifice those things in order to be here. But yeah, it sucks for a lot of locals, man, because, like you said, they won't raise the minimum wage, the housing isn't affordable at all anymore. I mean, prices have skyrocketed since Katrina. Every year it becomes more expensive, but people are willing to make whatever sacrifices they have to make, just to be here, because it's New Orleans.

After the flood, you commuted back and forth between San Antonio and New Orleans every week to play. What did you see when you got there?

Big Sam: It was like a ghost town. Like nothing was here, it was just empty, it smelled really bad, it smelled like death. And they had the National Guard, they had the military, you know, everybody was down here, the streets were lined with tanks and stuff. It looked like a third world country, man, and I was heartbroken, I said, man, I can't believe this is my city.

And then, slowly but surely, it started coming back. But like you just said, some areas are still not up to par, there are still abandoned properties, and the insurance companies refuse to pay people their money so they can get their houses back. So, you know, I’d say we’re 87 percent back. But the culture, the way we live, the lifestyle, everything is still here. cs