Sometime around 2001, Birmingham jazz guitarist made a decision that may have changed not only the arc of his career, but also that of the city where he was raised.
With his career on the upswing after his signing in 1998 with Warner Brothers’ Zebra Records – the brainchild of industry legend Ricky Schultz – Essix decided it was time to say something musically about growing up and living in the South.
He generously took time recently to sit in one of the front rows of the Alys Stephens Center for the Performing Arts to reflect on the unlikely direction of his career. Living in Boston years earlier, where he got his music degree from Berklee College of Music, he had found himself missing the South, Alabama and Birmingham. He returned home, where he had spent the years building his skills and reputation.
His first CD with the Zebra label — Small Talk – was “probably the best selling I’ve ever done.” But he had something to say about his roots, and he wanted to say it through his guitar.
“I wanted to go back and do music that influenced me and inspired me when I was coming up, so I approached Rickey and told him my plans and he said that’s a great idea, go for it,” said Essix.
Essix decided at the outset that it had to be recorded at Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, which has gained nationwide attention during 2013 as a result of the major documentary on its role in creating legendary hits for artists ranging from Little Richard to Aretha Franklin to the Rolling Stones.
“I said if I’m going to do this about the South and soul and R&B music, I’ve got to do it at Fame. It was probably one of most memorable and spiritual recording sessions I’ve ever been a part of. We recorded the basics for the whole record in 14 hours. We just flew through it and got inspired performances from everybody involved.”
He gave it the title of South Bound, with such tracks as Rainy Night in Georgia, Ode to Billie Joe, and Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.
But Essix had a lot more to say. He followed up with more southern Flavor in 2004, with Somewhere in Alabama, and Abide with Me, featuring Negro spiritual tunes and hymns.
By 2009, he moved his spotlight to his hometown of Birmingham, where he grew up in the Fountain Heights area and now plays a pivotal role in the arts community as artist coordinator for the Alys Stephens Center.
His Birmingham CD, is no less than a celebration of the challenges and people of his city, with such cuts as Steel, capturing the city’s industrial roots, Shuttlesworth Drive, honoring civil rights leader Fred Shuttlesworth, Brother Bryan, reflecting the humanitarian work of the longtime Presbyterian pastor, and We Shall Overcome, the anthem of the civil rights movement.
That brought him to to a point where he realized he had to deal frankly with the matter of civil rights, which was the focus of his latest CD, Evolution.
“This was very uncomfortable for me, because as an artist, I’ve always viewed music as a way to escape. But I felt that if you’re going to talk about Birmingham and the South, you have to in all honesty deal with that subject matter at some point, and I felt like it was time,” said Essix.
Evolution captures the civil rights struggle musically, reprising his Shuttlesworth Drive (but adding a clip of Shuttlesworth’s own voice at the opening) featuring a moving arrangement based on the anthem, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.”
In all of this, Essix has thrown his energies into the life and culture of Birmingham, with a special commitment to supporting and showcasing the area’s musicians.
When City Stages died, he saw a void and moved to fill it by working with Jason Henderson to organize the annual Preserve Jazz Festival at Moss Rock Preserve. The event has grown steadily, featuring a mix of local, regional and nationally known artists. In keeping with his goal of spotlighting his fellow musicians, Essix has declined to make the festival a showcase for himself, preferring to back up other artists or remain backstage managing the event.
“One year I didn’t play at all, and I actually got some hate mail,” he said with a chuckle. “I didn’t understand that people connected me with the event in that way. My whole idea was to start and manage it, and I didn’t know people expected me to play.”
His work at the Alys Stephens Center keeps him in the background as well, but he likes it that way. “I have some input into the programs, which I’m very proud of, because I think we’ve brought some very good acts here,” he said.
He points with special pride to the center’s recent Light Dreams festival, which combined the work of numerous artists with multimedia that turned the Alys Stephens Center’s entire southern facade into a giant projection screen. Appropriate for a guy who also teaches Music Technology at UAB.
At age 53, Essix looks to the city’s civic and cultural future and seeks to help build it.
“I think Birmingham is in a renaissance period right now. I think we have potential right now to do and be anything we want to be. I want Birmingham to be that world class city that we can be. I think the community is driving it more than the leadership. I think it’s what the young people want, especially. I know it’s certainly want. The time is now.
“We plan to have a lot of curated events that showcase various artists, that hopefully will drive and include the music community. The goal is to be more inclusive with the community and the artists in the community. I think that plays a big role in the identification of a city and defining who we are as a city.”
For more information about Essix and Alys Stephens Center, please visit: