TENOR MAN: [Interview] – Karl Denson On The Greyboy Allstars’ Humble Beginnings, ‘West Coast Boogaloo’, & ‘Como De Allstars’ [B.Getz on L4LM]
When the Greyboy Allstars first coalesced in early-’90s San Diego, the fresh-on-the-scene jazz-funk revivalists embraced a free-wheeling vibe of improvisation that was emblematic of their youth. A crucial residency at celebrated Green Circle Bar evolved into all night jams channeling the meditative, merciless grooves of Grant Green and Idris Muhammad, Leon Spencer, Kool & the Gang, Rusty Bryant, and the J.B.’s. They were mining the annals of classic rare-groove and boogaloo, while injecting elements of hip-hop and psychedelia into their mystic brew.
At the dawn of the jazz-funk/jam band revolution, the embryonic Greyboy Allstars stormed through cities large and small, towns college and cowboy alike. They swiftly became a white-hot household name and tireless party syndicate that cut across deeply entrenched music scene boundaries. Initially comprised of saxophonist Karl Denson, guitarist Elgin Park (Mike Andrews), keyboardist Robert Walter, bassist Chris Stillwell, drummer Zak Najor, and (briefly) percussionist Steve Haney, the band was responsible for introducing an old-school brand of adventurous, jazz-influenced instrumental exploration to a new generation of DJs, hip-hop kids, ravers, Deadheads, neo-hippies, skaters, surfers, and stoners. Riding the crest of a funk wave across a half-decade, the Greyboy Allstars became Stateside ambassadors to the Acid Jazz sound, albeit a bit different than what exploded across the pond in the U.K. a few years earlier.
A quarter-century down the road and long-since a full-time endeavor, the band is still active on multiple fronts. On July 3rd, they released Como De Allstars, an inspired full length LP and their first in seven years. A month later saw the vinyl reissue of 1994’s landmark effort, West Coast Boogaloo, via Light In The Attic. The former was recorded in Dallas and Los Angeles last year; the latter in a single, scorching session with iconic J.B.’s trombonist Fred Wesley way back when. The pair of 2020 releases serve as memorable bookends for what’s evolved into a stalwart career for the bold boogaloo mavens.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, before the Greyboy Allstars experience unfolded, virtuoso saxophonist/flutist Karl Denson was first and foremost a methodical jazz cat, yet he was best known as the tenor man with legendary funk-rocker, Lenny Kravitz, heard on his early trifecta of platinum-selling albums and subsequent world tours. Denson’s myriad album credits include the Allman Brothers Band, Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette, Fred Wesley, Slightly Stoopid, Gov’t Mule, and Soulive, among others. In 2014, thanks to Kravitz’s persistence, Denson rather cosmically succeeded the late Bobby Keys in the Rolling Stones‘ touring band, with which he’s trotted the globe and rocked sold-out stadiums ever since. For the better part of the past twenty years, the man affectionately called “Diesel” has been piloting his own funky R&B squad, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, a Jazz Fest After Dark and Jam Cruise institution. The man is, without question, among the hardest-working players in the game.
With the palpable excitement behind the recent Greyboy Allstars record releases, we reached out to Karl to get the scoop on how the GBA journey first began. He provided details on the connection and collaboration with San Diego underground king DJ Greyboy, which gave birth to what became this quintessential ensemble. He also reflected on the band’s halcyon days, the lightning-in-a-bottle that was West Coast Boogaloo, and the chemistry and creativity behind Como de Allstars.
Read the conversation with Live For Live Music‘s B. Getz below, edited for length and clarity.
B.Getz: The first time I caught Greyboy Allstars was at Club Toast in Burlington Vermont, in the Spring of 1997. Melvin Sparks in the house! I left that two-show engagement with a compact disc of West Coast Boogaloo. Absolutely essential record in my life, then and now. Coincidentally, you’re re-releasing that landmark LP.
Karl Denson: We are. It’s colored vinyl, by the way.
B.Getz: Even better!
Karl Denson: Yeah. It’s pretty cool looking.
The Greyboy Allstars w/ Melvin Sparks – Club Toast – Burlington, VT – 4/13/97
[Video: Dream Authority Music]
B.Getz: It’s definitely gonna be an instant collector’s item. It’s a seminal album for so many of us. Late ’90s, West Coast Boogaloo really unlocked the trap door to that style of music, the rare groove, for a whole generation of kids. The vault opened us up not just to the Greyboy Allstars, but the music that inspired you. Any reflections you might have of that era of the Greyboys, from the humble beginnings, the early San Diego scene with DJ Greyboy, up through West Coast Boogaloo in ’94, ’95?
Karl Denson: Well, it was just such a surprise, I think, it really was. My main takeaway… well, I had been kind of working with DJ Greyboy. We did the “Unwind Your Mind” and “Grey’s Groove” back in ’92. And that was awesome because I was traveling with Lenny Kravitz and Fred Wesley in Europe. And I would go to clubs, I’d go to clubs after the shows and these little acid-jazz clubs, DJ clubs and I would hear freaking “Unwind Your Mind”. We were in Europe! And so it was an amazing thing. And then I came home and my career started taking off from there.
B.Getz: That’s dope! How So?
Karl Denson: I got my own record deal. I put out my first record in ’92 also (Blackened Red Snapper). And so it was a big year. I started working with Fred Wesley at that point. And I was doing the Lenny Kravitz thing. And then I decided to break away from Lenny, and go do my own thing in ’93.
B.Getz: Sounds like one helluva exciting time to be alive!
Karl Denson: Pretty much [laughs]. So I left Lenny in the fall of ’93 and literally just got home. Then Greyboy goes, “Hey, I’m putting the band together to do my record release party.” And so in December ‘93, I walk into a garage and there are the other four guys. And we’re just basically trying to make some music for Grey’s party. And we’re playing these tunes, Rusty Bryant and Sonny Stitt. And the pocket is amazing! I’m just like, “Whoa, these guys feel good.” And, like, nobody was a jazz player! [laughs]
The Greyboy Allstars – Green Circle – San Diego, CA – “Check Out Your Mind” – 7/13/94
B.Getz: So, in that garage was the birth of the Greyboy Allstars. What do you remember about those early jams and rehearsals?
Karl Denson: Robert Walter didn’t even have a left hand at the time! You know what I mean? He was a right-handed piano player, but he had good ideas, and Elgin, he’s a freaking… the greatest jazz hack ever on Earth. He was totally a rock guy and just had a feel. Everybody had great feel. And then Zak on drums and Chris on bass, they had it too. It was just like, “Wow, this is really fun.” Immediately. So, by the time we had done a couple of rehearsals for Greyboy’s show in San Francisco, I was already thinking, “Wow. I’ve got to figure out how to get some more gigs so we can keep playing because this is really good.” And that was really just how the whole thing began.
B.Getz: Sounds pretty organic.
Karl Denson: It was just… this organic convergence where we just ended up in the same room together and looked at each other and went, “Oh, this is kind of fun.” And here we are 25 years later.
B.Getz: A long time ago, I read somewhere… did the baseball player, Garry Templeton, introduce you? The San Diego Padres star?
Karl Denson: Yes, to DJ Greyboy. Garry, we went to high school together. He graduated the year before me, he’s still very tight with my brother. They golf together. They’re very, very tight, over all these years. And my brother graduated three years before Garry. Garry had a friend, Flynn I think was his name, and Flynn knew Greyboy. I don’t know exactly how it worked out, but it was Garry’s friend Flynn who met Greyboy, and then they told him about me and then Greyboy showed up at a club I was playing regularly, with a friend of mine, Derek Bordeaux, in Laguna Beach. I think it was a Sunday gig or some weekend thing. Greyboy showed up and Flynn introduced me. We started talking, and the fact that he knew Boogaloo, that was a clincher for me.
[Photo: GBA, DJ Greyboy, Gary Bartz, 1994 – via Greyboy Allstars Facebook]
B.Getz: Thanks for breaking it down like that, because we’ve been fans of this whole era for so long, but I never really connected the dots quite like that. I was talking with Robert Walter about this last year. He was explaining how there was the flood of kids like us, the jam kids, who came up on the Grateful Dead or Phish, or the Allmans and Widespread Panic… We showed up right around when Jerry died, summer of ’95. 25 years ago, as a matter of fact. Finding the Greyboys at that moment in time, it was an awakening, it felt really revolutionary to us.
Karl Denson: So Jerry died 25 years ago?
Karl Denson: Wow. So yeah, so we happened right when he died. That’s really amazing!
B.Getz: Yeah. It was cosmic. Well, for us it was. We needed that new thang, and boom, West Coast Boogaloo. Even though it was old-school, it was our new sh*t. So how do you remember it… were you going to jazz clubs and DJ nights and then all of a sudden, a bunch of pot smoking hippies started coming to the gigs? [laughs]
Karl Denson: Because at that point we were still chic and it was DJ music. So we were playing real dance clubs and DJ clubs. And then after maybe a year or two into it, the DJ clubs went more house, and they went drum and bass. And so, we didn’t follow that trend. We stayed where we were and Eric, our manager at the time, he funneled us into the jam band scene. We started playing late-night after parties for when Phish was in town or when The Dead was in town or Widespread Panic. That’s how we discovered you guys.
B.Getz: It was incredible to be a part of, the coming-together of different scenes. With the whole “end of the Dead” thing, that void… it had to be filled. So, it was just really a fertile time for music that jammed, for bands that took you on a ride. I think it’s the improvisational, “what if?” factor and the adventurous nature of a performance, with every song version played differently night-to-night, there are many innate parallels. The music’s not the same genre, per se, but there’s a lot of principles or approaches at play that are.
Karl Denson: Yeah, yeah. I definitely have always thought that the jam band scene is, to a great extent, a real jazz scene.
B.Getz: I’ve always really been drawn to the whole boogaloo, rare groove ethos, primarily because of the Greyboys. You were on stage with Fred Wesley, Melvin Sparks. Legends we only knew about because you put us on, or maybe a few of us read the liner notes of the funk classics. Remember, pre-easy-internet days, we had to go to the computer lab at school, or log on to AOL dialup… Or most often, spend hours thumbing through records, crate digging or whatever. We couldn’t take out our phone and Google up, “Who’s Melvin Sparks?” You put these legends in front of us, on our radar. We were youngins, and that really opened up the floodgates. So let me just say thanks, for the keys to the kingdom.
Karl Denson: You’re very welcome.
The Greyboy Allstars ft. Fred Wesley – “People Get Up & Drive Your Funky Soul” (James Brown) – 1996 (Live)
B.Getz: So at what point in time did you realize that this wasn’t just a side thing, a fun and games funk jam, or just sort of something you’re doing adjacent to Karl Denson, the artist? When did you realize the Greyboys were going places? Do you have any gigs that really stand out where there was a moment where you’re like, “Damn! We’re really doin’ it?”
Karl Denson: You know what, man? We didn’t have any grandiose plans or anything. It was more like, just we were having fun and we were doing what we liked. And I guess at that point, within that first year, we went from playing… There was a Wednesday night that we did in San Diego, a famous place, The Green Circle, which DJ Greyboy had been spinning there on Wednesday nights for awhile. And so he put us into the mix with him on Wednesday and that thing blew out, man. It was like… I mean, literally the room, when we first started, the room probably held 70 people at the most. And we would put a few hundred people through there on a Wednesday night. And then they took over the next room, which was say another 70, 100 people. So say we could get 200 people in that place. And we would run 600, 700 people through there a night and it was just a buzz. And then within a short amount of time, everybody, every club in town, you had a proliferation of bands like us. And The Price of Dope with Cheme [Gastellum].
B.Getz: That’s an awesome band name. Love Cheme!
Karl Denson: Yeah. That was Cheme’s band. They were doing it too. And so then all of a sudden, all these clubs started doing this music. So we could literally play six, seven nights a week at home and then we’d make a quick jaunt up to San Francisco once a month and play the Elbo Room. Then San Jose and Santa Cruz, and it was just like… We were just making music, man. And for me, especially, being a real jazz guy, I was like, “Dude, we are getting away with murder here. We’re playing Horace Silver in a rock club right now.” I was completely aware of what was going on and it was blowing my mind! [laughs]
B.Getz: To a jazz traditionalist, there’s a certain amount of sacrilege or audacity to that. But how else are you going to reach the masses?
Karl Denson: To those guys, if you can’t see the beauty of that then you’re just missing the point because Horace Silver… It’s like you’re listening to James Brown and then you think of where did James Brown come from? James Brown came from Horace Silver and from Lee Morgan and from all that stuff, you know what I mean? So we were playing the roots of that in a dance setting. It was just mind-blowing. I literally can remember 50 times being on stage and just looking around and going, “I’m playing a freaking Wayne Shorter tune right now. We’re playing “Tom Thumb” and people are dancing.” You’re like, “This is insane.”
The Greyboy Allstars – West Coast Boogaloo – Full Album
B.Getz: That’s amazing. And it’s just fortuitous… that void of the Dead and the scene you’re describing, the SoCal scene you mentioned. Of course, up here in the Bay, this is a fertile ground for that sort of acid-jazz, or just avant-garde dance music with live instruments. And also it’s the Mecca of where a lot of psychedelic music once lived. People were looking for something new that was still old and authentic.
Karl Denson: And you have the convergence of hip hop. I mean, that’s where it really came from, was the fact that the hip-hop, the DJs ran out of rock records to sample, and they started sampling jazz records.
B.Getz: Yes. An endless well of hot samples! You’ve delivered me so many samples through the years. Through all your projects. You’re like a hip-hop encyclopedia.
Karl Denson: [laughs] Exactly. So that was where I found it, in the dance clubs. All of a sudden you had the Digable Planets and A Tribe Called Quest and all that stuff, Guru, [Jazzmatazz] where he started grabbing these cool samples from jazz records. Ahmad Jamal samples and stuff. And that was where I perked up at that point. I was like, “Whoa, I know that. And I’ve lived that.” And that’s when I was like, “Okay, something’s happening and I need to be on it,” that’s when I met Greyboy. And we were both talking about the same music, boogaloo. And then it morphed into that. It was such a convergence. And then you’re coming from the other side with The Grateful Dead and it’s such a beautiful building that was constructed.
B.Getz: Yes it was. Pivotal. Beautiful. Let’s fast forward to the now, because I know you’ve also dropped a brand new Greyboy Allstars record, which I’ve gotten pretty familiar with over the past couple of weeks. So many years later… how did y’all come together to make Como De Allstars?
Karl Denson: The beginning of this record… well, this record was kind of built in a few sessions. The main session, we were in Texas, and our gig got rained out and there was a crazy flood. And so, rather than just sitting around in our hotel, we were like, “Well, let’s rent a studio.” So we actually rented a studio for a couple of days and went in and just wrote tunes.
B.Getz: Is it easy these days? Old hat?
Karl Denson: This band is so prolific. I would love for a time to come when I could do nothing but this for a while, because I mean, we literally can write a song an hour. I’ve seen it so many times where we’ll write really good songs, one an hour, just cranking it out. And pretty intricate, when you take the germ of the idea and then where it ends up an hour later, it’s pretty amazing. And it’s never been a problem with this band.
B.Getz: It’s got a really Latin feel. That was my first takeaway. Maybe it’s flute, that Latin thing. Was that a concerted effort? A Texas influence?
Karl Denson: It’s more of a nod to Cymande. It’s kind of Latin, but Caribbean.
The Greyboy Allstars – “Como De Allstars”
B.Getz: Definitely a subtle inspirational message, especially with the lyrics on the title track. Right on time, because the people need a rallying cry.
Karl Denson: Mike (Elgin Park) wrote those lyrics and that tune, I think all of it’s kind of a nod to the Cymande kind of ’70s positivity vibe. It just turned out that we ended up with this political situation that we’re in now and so it’s a good coincidence that we were feeling it in the same way, so that it became timely.
B.Getz: Do you have a personal fave on the new album?
Karl Denson: I think “Executive Party” is my favorite, and then “Complete Breakfast.”
B.Getz: Great song name right there. Who doesn’t love a complete breakfast?
Karl Denson: Yeah. I love that song too.
B.Getz: Thanks for the time, the energy, and all the music, Karl. We appreciate you.
Karl Denson: Thanks Brian!
The Greyboy Allstars – Como De Allstars – Full Album