Living in the Bay Area means that strolling into a bar, cafe or restaurant can offer an unwitting encounter with musical genius. It’s not unusual to discover an illustrious player performing in an unheralded setting. (Pioneering salsa percussionist Louie Romero can be found playing at the Mission District’s Revolution Café every Monday, for instance.) Back in the mid '90s, Pier 23 was the spot for Zigaboo Modeliste, who turned the bayside venue into his home base while he established himself as a bandleader with a long-running Sunday residency.
The New Orleans drummer co-founded The Meters as a teenager in 1965 and designed the sinewy, distilled second-line grooves that have been endlessly recycled, imitated and sampled ever since. As the rhythmic architect and co-composer of signature tunes like "Cissy Strut," "Look-Ka Py Py" and "Chicken Strut," Modeliste created a body of work that paved the way to a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for his band last February. (The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is still unaccountably sleeping on The Meters.)
Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage celebrates Modeliste’s 70th birthday on Friday, Dec. 28, with his New Aahkesstra and special guest George Porter Jr., the bassist for The Meters. It’s the latest sign that the Bay Area has provided a welcoming platform for the drummer’s second act after he spent nearly a decade in the Los Angeles wilderness following the dissolution of The Meters in the late 1970s.
"I had a tremendous start here from the ground up at Pier 23," says Modeliste from his home in Oakland. "It was something we looked forward to doing every week. From there it blossomed into doing other things—a bunch of private parties, some festivals. Most of the people I played for at Pier 23 are married now and have kids. My wife Kathy started this deal, Funkify Your Kids—matinee shows where I’m playing for their children. You never know where music is going to take you."
Modeliste’s insistent grooves have taken him around the world, while providing fellow musicians with a seemingly bottomless pocket of funk. A short and far-from-complete list of acts that have sampled his Meters beats include A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A., Ice Cube, Scarface, Cypress Hill, Public Enemy, The Beastie Boys, Naughty by Nature, Heavy D and Big Daddy Kane. Harry Duncan, the funk aficionado and KCSM DJ who’ll be spinning records at the Freight show, describes The Meters "as essential to the evolution of funk as, say, the classic John Coltrane Quartet was to jazz or the '50’s Muddy Waters band was to Chicago blues." He attributes this influence to Modeliste, "an often-imitated, never duplicated musician's musician."
Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart remembers intensively studying Dr. John’s classic 1974 album Desitively Bonnaroo (Atco), which features The Meters as the primary band. "I listened to that over and over just to get the feeling that he lays down," Hart says. "He’s simply one of the best drummers that have ever walked this Earth. He’s not about the solo, but in the world of the groove, he rules. I just played with him recently and the feeling he has is like a river. It’s fluid, liquid."
Coming up on the New Orleans scene in the early 1960s, Modeliste spent countless hours woodshedding with George Porter Jr., his cousin. When it came to studying seminal Crescent City drum masters like Idris Muhammad, Earl Palmer, James Black, Smokey Johnson, John Boudreaux and June Gardner, he was pretty much on his own. In a scene where individuality was prized, established players were often reluctant to share information.
"Nobody wanted to teach me anything," he recalls. "Anything you had to learn, you had to make sure you were looking at the person doing it. You had to go see other people play and figure out how they fit into that universe. When I started gigging, I was always with older musicians, and they were into Coltrane, Ahmad Jamal, Clifford Brown and Max Roach. You get on the bandstand and before you go into any other routine you had to play some jazz. If they called a song and you didn’t know it, they talked about you so bad."
Modeliste is loath to talk smack about anyone, carrying himself with the soft-spoken style of a Southern gentleman. While he does give the occasional master class, he usually parries the frequent requests he gets for lessons. Rather than teaching, he prefers to lead by example. For young musicians who want to immerse themselves in his music, the recordings offer a universe of rhythmic information.
Berkeley drummer Scott Amendola, who infuses jazz settings with a finely honed palette of grooves, encountered The Meters in college. Modeliste's highly personal approach to second line beats shaped his sense of rhythmic possibilities, options that surfaced most conspicuously on the 1996 Charlie Hunter Quartet album Ready…Set…Shango! (Blue Note).
"I practiced to Zig for countless hours and weeks and years," says Amendola, who follows Modeliste into the Freight on Feb. 4 for his 50th birthday celebration. "The way he danced around the two and four and made it sound so good and so interesting. His sound is so powerful and freeing. He showed how you can put so much personality into a beat."
While Modeliste is fully aware of his enduring influence, he’s not one to brag on himself. Maybe it’s the way that The Meters have never quite received their due despite influencing so many better-known acts. Eventually, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame will come calling (they’ve been nominated several times already). And in the meantime, the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award caught Modeliste by surprise, though he’s not ready to put away his sticks.
"It blindsided me," he says. "I never expected that. I’m elated the trail we blazed was not for nothing at all. The Lifetime Award is about a body of work and influence, and I cherish that. I’m hoping the music we put down can be used in a positive way forever. Maybe if I’m lucky, I may get another."
Zigaboo Modeliste performs at Freight & Salvage on Dec. 28. Details here.