Think of the black action films of the 70s.
A lot of things come to mind, don't they?
Resplendent Afros and leather jackets.
Low production values. High return on investment.
Weekend double features in city theaters.
Famous (or infamous) faces.
Pam Grier. Richard Roundtree. Jim Brown. Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. Jim Kelly.
Sublime highs—Shaft, Superfly, The Mack—and ridiculous lows—Dolemite, Scream Blackula Scream, The Thing With Two Heads.
But mostly, you think of cool.
And what cool sounds like.
Cool sounds like the high-hat at the beginning of the theme song from Shaft.
Or James Brown counting down at the start of “The Boss.”
Or Curtis Mayfield devilishly whispering “I'm your pusherman.”
Or Earth, Wind & Fire running through Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song.
And yes, it sounds like Roy Ayers and Dee Dee Bridgewater on the Coffy soundtrack.
And now, 45 years later, both Roy and Dee Dee are playing at the 2018 Richmond Jazz Festival.
Let's take a second and talk about Coffy for those of you who've never had the pleasure of seeing it.
It's a story about a nurse whose brother overdoses.
She seeks revenge on the local gangsters, as you do in action movies.
Along the way, she hides razor-blades and a murder weapon in her Afro.
She shoots her deceitful boyfriend in the crotch with a shotgun.
I shouldn't have to tell you that it's a classic.
It stars Pam Grier (Goddess of Black Action Film, Blessed Be Her Name) in her first headlining role.
Outside of Westerns, the action-movie genre was in its infancy when Coffy hit screens in 1973.
Which makes Pam Grier the first female action star, and her character, Coffy, the first female action hero.
“You can stand up by yourself, if necessary, and that's what Coffy is all about,” Grier said years later. “Nowadays, you don't have to lose your femininity to be powerful, you maintain it.”
Into this whirlwind stepped Roy Ayers.
By the time he went into the studio, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Jimmy Cliff, and Earth, Wind, and Fire had already laid down markers with epic soundtracks.
Coffy wouldn't disappoint.
Ayers himself wrote, arranged, produced, and performed on the album. To put his sound together, he drafted in his Ubiquity band and an all-star team of sidemen: Billy Nichols on guitar, Richard and Dennis Davis on bass and drums, and Dee Dee Bridgewater and her then-husband Curtis on vocals and horns.
If you're looking for the platonic ideal of that 70s black action sound, look no further than Coffy's opener, “Coffy Is The Color.”
There's Billy Nichols' wah-wah pedal dicing up the guitar track.
Harry Whitaker's beautiful keys tinkling up and down the piece.
Curtis Bridgewater, Jon Faddis, Wayne Andre, and Garnett Brown punching out eighth notes on horns.
And Ayers himself, Dee Dee Bridgewater, and Wayne Garfield pouring honey over those vocals.
You can hear it playing over the opening credits of your Friday night out or your long, cool drive through the city. In short, “Coffy Is The Color” does what an opening track should: get you very, very excited about what's coming next.
The rest of the album slides effortlessly between jazz, funk, torch songs, what we'd now call Afrobeat, and straight up rock n'roll. Dee Dee Bridgewater gets a star turn herself on “Coffy Baby,” singing over lush accompaniment. The instrumental tracks often change rhythm, tempo, and feel, but they evoke a definite time, place, and feeling without any lyrics at all.
The album only reached #31 on the Billboard Jazz Chart, but it left its mark. When Quentin Tarantino was arranging the music for Pam Grier's comeback vehicle Jackie Brown, he swiped four of Ayers's tracks--”Escape,” “Brawling Broads,” “Aragon,” and “Exotic Dance”--for the soundtrack.
AllMusic puts the album in the pantheon of all-time great 70s soundtracks, right next to Hayes's Shaft and Mayfield's Superfly. Take a few minutes and appreciate the magic.
On Saturday, August 11th, Roy Ayers and Dee Dee Bridgewater will be playing one hour and one stage apart at the Richmond Jazz Festival.
Who knows? If we're lucky, maybe they'll make a little Coffy together.