Adaptive Evolution

Adaptive Evolution

It was lunchtime during the Arts & Ideas Festival, and people had gathered in clusters on the New Haven Green to be stirred up by familiar Motown and dance funk hits. The music was the breezily familiar stuff on the setlists of wedding and corporate party bands, but something was special about this band, both knowing and assured. Your nodding-along might have momentarily slowed to process how easily they fell into the stepped three-part harmony of “My Girl,” or extrapolated “Get Down On It” from “Hollywood Swingin’,” or soloed over “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.” The drums, meanwhile, stayed locked into the groove, even when the drummer, Derek Graham, was doing the singing. “Boogie Chillun is the name; funky music is the aim,” announced frontman Vaughn Collins, adding that Boogie Chillun has been in existence since 1991, which prompted current keyboardist Wayne Patrick to crack that he was then all of 10 years old.

In talking to the band leaders, Graham and Collins, about Boogie Chillun’s longevity, it becomes obvious that adaptability is the game. Some 50 players have performed with the band between and among its three significant lineups over the years, which says a lot about Graham and Collins’s dedication to keeping it afloat, like Theseus’s ship. But all those players have also made the band more floatable. The current lineup, which includes Jean Sandoval and Luis Rivera on electric and bass guitars, respectively, is the longest-serving, going back over a decade. Still, sometimes, Collins says, “one of guys can’t make it so we have to pull from an on-deck circle of guys who… still love to come back and do shows with us.” (In fact, they had done just that at the Arts & Ideas show, with jazz funk bassist Steve Clark.)

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As players have adapted to the needs of Boogie Chillun, the project has also adapted in return, becoming a wide-ranging genre stew in the process. The band started as backup for Collins’s performances as a hip hop artist signed to SOLAR Records. Collins had been forming rap groups, winning MC battles and DJing since high school. Within a year of his professional debut, he was ready to change gears. “I was getting a little disenchanted with the direction the hip hop industry was going. I just wanted to make music—not necessarily gangster music or dance music. And I didn’t want to work with the labels anymore.” He moved toward blues and funk, looking to front a different band for each style. Graham, who answered his ad for both drummer slots, suggested that one Collins-fronted band could do both.

“We just meshed it together,” says Graham, remembering his first rehearsal with the other auditioning musicians. “Since brought the bass player in, he could do both. The guitar player, he could do both. And Vaughn was like, ‘You know what? I could do both. So let’s just do that.’”

Boogie Chillun blossomed quickly, playing their first gig at Toad’s Place within 6 months. As the decade wore on, they often returned to Toad’s, sometimes to headline, sometimes to open for national names like War and Ziggy Marley. They began performing original material too, accumulating enough to begin selling their own CD at shows in 1993. “We were mixing originals and covers. And a lot of times people didn’t know which was which,” Graham says. “They’re dancing to it and don’t even know it’s an original song.” (This was also true of their Arts & Ideas set, where they had slipped in their 1999 single “Be A Rock.”) “There was Funkadelic, George Clinton, Ohio Players… And Jimi Hendrix, because the guitar player could definitely rock out.” Having so much in their repertoire enabled them to tailor their set to the venue. “Typically we go into a place, gauge the crowd… A lot of times you can kind of almost pre-see what’s going on because of the clientele—age, color, all that kind of stuff.”

The New Haven and regional club scenes were vibrant enough to accommodate such versatility, Graham says. “We used to have jazz clubs here in New Haven—jazz, R&B clubs. The ’90s was very hot. It was a hotbed here for live music.” Boogie Chillun typically played four nights a week, sometimes driving to gigs as far afield as Old Saybrook. “We just kind of turned into an all-purpose band. So when somebody called for a band: ‘Can you do that?’ ‘Yes we can.’ ‘Can you do-?’ ‘Yes. We can.’”

At the extreme end of their tether—both geographically and musically—was a gig played, to the best of Graham’s recollection, somewhere in Massachusetts. “Vaughn books the gig… And I’m like, ‘Dude, where are we, man?” … I don’t know how well this is gonna go here, because they’re yelling, ‘Skynyrd!’ and stuff like that.” The band hastily cobbled together a setlist that relied on their guitarist’s fluency in Hendrix and, indeed, “Freebird.” Graham remembers turning to the guitarist—Kenny Burgess—before they went on, saying, “‘We’re gonna ride your coattails all night long.’ And that’s what we did.”

Collins likewise recalls a gig on a chartered party cruise, the party already underway somewhere on Long Island Sound before the band discovered that the organizers had booked them under the preconception that they were an all-reggae act. “We spent two hours playing reggae versions of every R&B song we could think of,” he says.

The band changed again in 1996 when Graham took a leave of absence to become a stay-at-home dad. It was time for a break anyway. Graham had been playing in clubs, starting in the New York metropolitan area, since the age of 14. In 1983, he and his then-group Stocking Cap recorded a raucous single called “Wave Craze” for pioneering rap producer Duke Bootee. It topped the charts both regionally and overseas. (“Did I see any money off of that? No.”) His first stint in New Haven was with an a capella group called the Redding Brothers—singing, of course, but also drumming to make the songs more danceable in clubs.

During Graham’s absence from Boogie Chillun, Collins briefly experimented with contemporary hardcore funk. (“It was loud,” he says, “but it was fun.”) Sometimes Graham would fill in when his successor couldn’t make it. But the sound that saw them through the turn of the decade was rootsier, in part because “the guys who became available and gravitated around me were guys who knew more soul and R&B,” as Collins notes. That the guitarist at that time, George Baker, had actually played on some of the original Motown records and later served as Marvin Gaye’s musical director arguably mooted the question of collaborating on anything else. “Guitar George” Baker still performs in New Haven at the age of 81, occasionally filling in at Boogie Chillun gigs.

Chillun’s adaptability brought them an entirely new audience in 2004 when Collins decided the band could do something at Jackie Robinson Middle School—where he was teaching at the time—for Black History Month. They put together a set that would show an assembly full of students the progression of African American music from gospel, blues and jazz to Motown and funk. They pitched the idea to other schools and eventually to Arts for Learning, a Hamden-based nonprofit devoted to arts education, which now sends them to schools all over Connecticut.

The timing couldn’t have been better because, according to Collins and Graham, the demand for danceable live bands at clubs had dried up in New Haven. “A lot of people are kind of going to the DJ scene,” Graham says. “Especially the younger crowd.” Part of the mandate of the program—now expanded and called Roots Of American Music—is the restoration of the live instrument to the newest generation’s experience of music. Recalling his own youth, Graham says, “There were bands—not deejays, not samplers. Bands—on every corner of my neighborhood. Basements. Outside. Just everywhere, live music was being played.” Collins is likewise devoted to the ensemble; he had, after all, formed Boogie Chillun as an alternative to the DJs and backing tapes being used by touring rappers in his youth.

The unexpected benefit of the new audience is the mutual surprise of encountering members of their old audiences among the teachers. Says Graham, “We’ll see them in the school systems now… They could be way out in Storrs or they could be out in Glastonbury, and like, ‘Wow, is that the same Boogie Chillun?’ Yes it is. It’s cool to know that your music went out like that.”

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Written and photographed by David Zukowski.

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