Cerritos, damn! Photo courtesy Cerritos Performing Arts Center
Cerritos, damn! Photo courtesy Cerritos Performing Arts Center

A Touch of Jazz

Bobbi Humphrey was born in Texas and learned to play the flute in Texas and learned everything else in Texas too because she stayed until she'd gone through two different colleges all the way to Southern Methodist University—motto Veritas Liberabit Vos!—and a intramatricular talent contest where she played her flute for judge Dizzy Gillespie, who could see that Bobbi Humphrey was at this point too much for the tiny state of Texas to handle anymore, so he pointed her toward New York City. And Bobbi Humphrey wrote a little note to the Apollo Theater (located in New York City) inquiring about the performance options for Texan jazz flutists, and they telegrammed back saying WE'RE SAVING YOU A SEAT STOP. Basically there she went: at 21, she was on Blue Note as their first female signee and certainly their first female Texan jazz flutist and they dropped a top-flight set of technicians behind her and she took a few test steps and put out Blacks and Blues in 1973, which is instantly obvious as her best record just by a pass over the cover—Bobbi Humphrey in a thin tee with a thin flute and a wide grin and her hair just struck by lightning, as probably was her flute too.

"Chicago, Damn!" is the first track, and it blows in with a canned gust of wind and about two minutes of classic Mizell Bros. chrome bodywork—the Mizells' handy touch for heavy rhythm puts this in orbit over the dirt-and-earth backline on something like Herbie Mann's Memphis Underground—and then Bobbi herself whispers in with a city-specific curlicue that's part art ensemble and part muddy waters. Her flute fit so well with the Mizells, floating—Mizell brother Larry worked on the Apollo program, so he knew plenty about the virtues of floating—over a textbook jazz-fusion arrangement and playing push-pull with room-sized synthesizers. Then "Harlem River Drive" nudged up to "Harlem Nocturne" as another definitive moment of city-in-song (it sneaks in on a keep-the-meter-running rhythm), and she even sang (first time on record) on the third track ("Just a Love Child") with a beautiful flautist's voice that was a gentle melody on gentle breath, and then she gave half the hip-hop producers of the golden age a little trick they'd use over and over with title track "Blacks and Blues," a song (like the Skull Snaps' "It's a New Day") that felt prewritten for someone's future beats.

"Blacks and Blues" strapped on a lot of drums for Eric B. and Rakim, cuddled up in some dust and fuzz for K.M.D., hid behind a big pile of noise for Fat Joe and producer Chilly Dee, slipped some horns over to Prince Paul and Justin Warfield, made some space for Common and Digable Planets and Jazzy Jeff, who called his new song "A Touch of Jazz" probably because Humphrey's sound was so personal and confident—the early '70s at their accessible best, a happy between for new thing jazz and new Motown—that it could signify a giant slice of genre in just a few minutes (same thing as Muddy Waters). Blacks and Blues came out and got her to the Montreaux fest in Switzerland and slid her toward the first of many awards—best instrumentalist, best vocalist, best flutist!—and even played prelude to her work on Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, but it also really caught and established who she was and how she could sound, a perfect and economical statement of identity riveted down in two days and still bright and shining even now. Recent research for this article uncovered that Bobbi Humphrey's hair has settled out most of the lightning by now, but she still holds her flute like it just got struck anyway—electric jazz in the best way.



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