Essix Celebrates Birmingham’s Beauty and ProgressBy Grant Martin
Fifty years ago, Eric Essix saw the worst of Birmingham. As a young child living in the city’s Fountain Heights neighborhood, Essix grew up near the epicenter of the Civil Rights Movement.
What: Eric Essix performing with Five Men On a Stool and Tracy Hamlin
“I had a great childhood and a great time growing up here,” says Essix, a renowned jazz guitarist—and member of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame—who has served as the artist coordinator for UAB’s Alys Stephens Center (ASC) since 2010. “I experienced some of the segregation and discrimination, but I saw it all through the eyes of a young child. It wasn’t until I got a little older that I could look back and appreciate the changes that had taken place and the gravity of what had happened here.”
On Thursday, September 19, Essix will perform selections from his latest CD, Evolution, at the ASC’s Jemison Concert Hall at a concert commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement in Birmingham. Essix says he sees the event as a celebration of progress. “When I began recording Evolution, I was inspired by feelings of healing and hope,” he says. “My goal for the album and for this event is to inspire other people to look at what we’ve done and the progress we’ve made in 50 years—to make them want to do even more to unify our community.”
Evolution of an Artist
After securing a record deal with Nova Records in the 1980s, Essix was admitted to Boston’s prestigious Berklee School of Music, where he earned a degree in 1993. It was during his three and a half years in Boston that “I began to really recognize the love I have for the South,” Essix says. “My family, the food, the culture—everything about being down here became more important to me once I had the opportunity to step away for an extended period. I just decided, ‘I’m going home.’”
Essix returned to Birmingham after graduating from Berklee, but soon his recording and touring schedule took him all over the world. He performed in every major city in the United States, as well as such far-flung locales as India, Ukraine, and various Caribbean islands.
Those global influences dominated his style for some time, but Essix says that eventually his Southern heritage began to lay claim, starting with Southbound in 2000 and Abide with Me, a collection of spiritual music, in 2005. “Southbound was the first record where I really focused on my Southern roots and the blues, gospel, country, and soul music that I grew up listening to,” he says.
In 2010, Essix gave up the full-time recording/touring life to join the ASC as artist coordinator and teacher in the UAB Department of Music. Soon after, he began work on Evolution, his most intensely personal project to date. “No other album deals with subject matter that is so powerful,” he says. “Each of my records after Southbound had songs that have some kind of connection to the Civil Rights Movement, but I never thought of doing a complete album around that theme until I was told of plans locally to commemorate the anniversary. I decided it was time.”
Originally intended as a compilation of civil rights-themed songs, the album grew into a collection that mixes covers with original songs. It begins with a version of the 1962 Bob Dylan song “Blowin’ in the Wind” and also includes an interpretation of the 1963 song “Alabama.”
“John Coltrane wrote ‘Alabama’ right after the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church,” Essix says. “It’s an extremely powerful song. You can find live recordings of it that will make the hairs stand up on your arm. I couldn’t reproduce it the way he did, but I did a solo version, and I thought it was important to include it on this album. It’s just such a powerful song.”
Essix says his close connection to his hometown has given him a unique perspective for this project and has brought him to what he sees as a perfect moment in his career.
“I can’t say if my career would have been different if I had moved to Los Angeles or New York over the past 20 years, but I do believe that I am where I am meant to be at this stage in my career,” Essix says. “Being at the Alys Stephens Center has given me a chance to be part of something bigger than myself, and teaching has completely changed my perspective. I have a different sense of what I want my legacy to be. Earlier in my career, I wanted to be recognized and remembered as a great musician, but today I think more about the influence that I might have on some younger musicians. That’s a legacy that would mean more to me than any number of albums sold or how fast I can play a guitar.”
Eric Essix may be the most recognizable jazz musician currently based in Birmingham, but he is actually one in a long line of jazz musicians from the Magic City.
Most notable is Erskine Hawkins, the big band leader whose most famous work, “Tuxedo Junction,” was inspired by the Ensley club of the same name. That song became a jazz standard in the late 1930s and ’40s, with Glenn Miller’s version becoming a top seller in 1939.
“There was a thriving jazz scene in Birmingham in those days, particularly downtown, where there was work for jazz musicians almost every night,” says Steven Roberts, D.M.A., an assistant professor and director of jazz studies in the UAB Department of Music. The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, at the historic Carver Theatre only a few blocks from campus, commemorates that era—and plays host to living legends. Roberts notes that big names such as Cleve Eaton, Frank Adams, and Tommy Stewart can often be found roaming the exhibits. “That place is a real treasure in that you can listen to those guys and soak up so much history,” he says.
Birmingham’s jazz future remains bright, Essix and Roberts agree. “There are some fabulous jazz musicians here, and a lot of them are our students or are on our faculty,” Roberts says.
Students hone their skills in the Department of Music’s Jazz Ensemble (set to perform on Nov. 12, 2013, at 8 p.m. at the Alys Stephens Center) and Jazz Combos (performing Nov. 15 at 7:30 p.m. in the Hulsey Recital Hall). They also get regular work at events across the city, Roberts adds. “Some of our students are among the top freelance musicians in town.”