Although he's a native son, jazz music fans will forever associate Indy-born trombonist Phil Ranelin with the city of Detroit. It was in Detroit that Ranelin found his voice as an artist, forming the Tribe music collective with musician Wendell Harrison in the early '70s. Functioning as a record label, band and magazine Tribe tapped into the spirit of its era addressing revolutionary concepts in music and political thought, from black consciousness to universal themes of love and peace. The music Ranelin and company released through Tribe has lived on to impact several generations of musicians, influencing works of avant-garde experimentalism, EDM and hip-hop.
While so much of Ranelin's legacy rests on his time in Detroit, the trombonist is undoubtedly a product of the Indianapolis jazz tradition. Ranelin was born in Indianapolis in 1939, received his musical education here and gigged regularly locally until moving to Detroit in the late '60s.
Ranelin will return to Indianapolis for a September 16 date at the Jazz Kitchen. Ranelin's performance is part of the 2014 Indy Jazz Fest series, which also happens to coincide with his own 75th birthday tour.
I spoke with Ranelin via phone from his current home in Los Angeles, a city that has provided Ranelin with all the due praise and honor his hometown has failed to offer. There, Ranelin's birthday is recognized as Phil Ranelin Day, and they've proclaimed the trombonist as a "rare and valuable cultural City Treasure” and a "Cultural Ambassador for the City of Los Angeles." Ranelin's return to Indy should give local arts administrators and politicians reason to reflect on Indy's negligence in paying proper homage to the historic jazz movement of Indiana Avenue.
NUVO: You grew up during a musically rich period in Indianapolis. I know you attended Arsenal Tech high school, but I understand you also studied with the great educator Russell Brown from Crispus Attucks, as well as David Baker. Can you tell me about growing up as a musician in Indy during the late '50s?
Ranelin: Musically I think Indianapolis is one of the world's best kept secrets in a way. There's a wealth of knowledge there, and I was blessed to have been around that coming up. As you mentioned I studied with Russell Brown and David Baker. I had a total of maybe eight lessons with Baker but those lessons are still with me.
When I was a freshman at Tech, I discovered a record in the school band room. I used to look at this record from time to time for about a year before I ever played it. But when I was a sophomore I thought "Why don't I play this?" It was an album by Sonny Stitt and J.J. Johnson, and for me it was mind-boggling. At the end of the record there was something called "Teapot." iIt opened up with a Max Roach drum solo and J.J. came in immediately just playing on the changes. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. After it was over I looked at my classmate and said "You mean to tell me that a trombone can sound like that?" [laughs] Prior to that, I had only been playing marches in the marching band. It was a turning point for me getting more interested in the trombone.
A couple years later after I graduated from high school I had the privilege of meeting and playing with Wes Montgomery. I'd met Melvin Rhyne through one of Russel Brown's summer programs. I happened to run into Melvin one day and he said "Hey man, what are you doing right now? Why don't you come by The Hubbub. Bring your horn and I'll introduce you to Wes Montgomery." So I came through and Wes was his beautiful, beautiful self. Wes was always seemingly in a good mood. I played with Wes and he invited me back. I ended up going to jam sessions with him every week for about three months in a row.
NUVO: You came up during a time when many great trombonists were emerging from the Indianapolis scene. Guys like J.J. Johnson, Slide Hampton, David Baker and yourself took that instrument into new directions. What was going on at that time to push musicians to explore the trombone?
Ranelin: That's an interesting question. The trombone is such a difficult instrument it tends to lead you into figuring things out musically. A lot of trombone players end up being pretty good writers, and arrangers also. I think that's part of the nature of the instrument.
It is amazing that some of the top trombone players came out of this little town. I hear a lot of people say "Wow, Indianapolis is such a little place, but it's produced so many great players." And it's not just trombone players, Indianapolis has produced great brass players too like Freddie Hubbard. You've got Freddie Hubbard, J.J. Johnson, Wes Montgomery. There's three of the top musicians in jazz and they come from this little place called Indianapolis, Indiana.
NUVO: Speaking of Freddie Hubbard I understand he befriended you early in your career, and later on in the late '70s you both recorded together.
Ranelin: I just want to slightly correct you, Freddie Hubbard wasn't just a friend. He was a hero. He was only a year and a half older than me. We went to high school together. We developed a real close friendship, especially when I moved to the West Coast. At that time we were hanging out extensively. Every Thanksgiving I was at his house. He was a special friend and I valued him immensely. Freddie, for me, is my very favorite trumpet player. And I don't stand alone, that's not a biased statement. In terms of jazz a lot of people agree that it doesn't get any better than Freddie Hubbard.
NUVO: Can you tell me about your decision to move to Detroit and what led you to co-founding Tribe Records?
Ranelin: There again The Hubbub comes into play. I'd go by there and stand in with whatever band was there. There were a lot of great musicians coming through there including Grant Green and Eddie Harris. This particular time it was a band from Detroit and after the session was over the leader came and said "I really like the way you play. Are you staying pretty busy around here?" I said "No." He said "If you ever decide to move to Detroit, look me up immediately. I could get you some work."
That was music to my ears because I was getting very little work in Indianapolis. I didn't have any real ties in Indy at the time; my marriage had kind of broken up. So I decided to take him up on his offer. I moved to Detroit and immediately called him. He said "We're rehearsing, come on by." I go to the rehearsal, and come to find out it was a rehearsal for one of the Motown acts. In fact it was The Temptations. I played and I got the gig. They were heading out right that week on a 10-day tour and ironically enough the first stop on the tour was Indianapolis. At that point I'd only been gone from Indy for about a week, and most people hadn't realized I'd even left. [laughs]
A Cultural Manifesto is now available on WFYI's HD2 radio. Tune in Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 3 p.m. as NUVO's Kyle Long explores the merging of a wide variety of music from around the globe with American genres like hip-hop, jazz, and soul.
(Editor's Note: This article was graciously boosted on social media by Indy Jazz Fest [IndyJazzFest.net]. Indy Jazz Fest had no input on the content in this article or the decision to create it.)
I rank Moko as one of the best local releases of 2016 thus far and I strongly recommend catching Rehema's 10:30 White Rabbit performance Saturday night at Chreece.
NUVO: In your notes for the release, I read that the word "moko" means "womanhood" in the Polynesian language of Tonga. Why did you choose that word to represent this project?
Rehema McNeil: Overall, I wanted to reflect my upbringing. My father introduced the word "moko" to me years ago and I thought it sounded cool and clean. I felt it was fitting for this project because I have become a woman since the release of Davu.
NUVO: When we spoke last year I remember you telling me that Davu was essentially your first attempt at rapping, that you came from more of a spoken word background. Listening to Moko, it sounds like you've really found your voice as an MC.
McNeil: I'm still finding my voice. There's so much to learn, and the more you learn the more you realize that there's so much more that you don't know. It's a continuous journey and I'm looking forward to learning what's next. So I try to stay open to grow as a person and artist.
NUVO: On Davu your lyrics addressed themes relating to social justice. For example, your piece "Terrorist" commented on the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots in Oklahoma. Are there similar themes in your lyrics for Moko?
McNeil: It's a bit more personal this time around. I've been going through a lot of things, both good and bad. Those challenges helped to create character. So I wanted to write about it to release it. "Black Widow" speaks about beauty and identity and relationships.
On "False" I wanted to do a song based off Greek mythology. It tells a story about how hip-hop has become like gospel now for many people. People follow and adhere to the lyrics of the mainstream rappers and it changes their lifestyles. I didn't want to call the song "False Gods" because I didn't want it to be too preachy. So I called it "False" because I don't really agree with a lot of the things being told within music today.
NUVO: So you think the language of popular contemporary hip-hop is having a negative influence on young people?
McNeil: Yes, I would say so.
NUVO: You think it's contributing to violent or misogynistic attitudes?
McNeil: I love hip-hop and I think it's a beautiful art. As individuals every choice we make is our own. We can't blame media; we are only influenced and from there we make our own choices. I feel like whatever you expose yourself to repetitively, that is what you become over time. I'll leave it at that.
RELATED: Rehema at Chreece in 2015
NUVO: Womanhood is a central theme on Moko. On that topic I'd like to ask about your role as one of the few women emcees working the Indianapolis hip-hop scene. The rap scene here is very male-dominated. Do you have any thoughts on that?
McNeil: I have mixed emotions about it honestly. Part of it is an opportunity, because there aren't that many female emcees in the city that are dominating, so I have an open path to dominate and control the scene and saturate it with my music. But also I feel like I'm overlooked in certain areas, like getting booked for shows. I do get booked for more shows now, but that's more because of my personal connections. It's progressing, but it's slow like baby steps. At the same time I believe in creating my own doors and creating a buzz that is so broad and saturated within social media that people can't ignore it.
NUVO: Do you get a sense of whether there's more opportunities opening up for other women to follow your path?
McNeil: I would say yes. I hear women when I get offstage say, "Oh my god that was amazing. You were the only woman up there and you really represented!" That makes me feel good and I feel like it inspires other women to know that just because there aren't any women onstage you can still get up and do it.
NUVO: I want to get your thoughts on "Black Widow," which has a heavier club sound than any other work you've created thus far.
McNeil: I love to dance. I wanted to make a song that would make people get up off their seats and dance, and I feel like we achieved that. That song tells different stories. One of them is about being compared to another woman in a relationship and how that made me feel emotions of pain and disappointment, but ultimately helped me realize my self-worth, which is a beautiful thing. Then the song talks about identity and how the media paints a picture for little girls and young women to grow up to. I feel like every woman is beautiful, and there's not just one form for beauty. It's an anthem for confidence and finding your self-worth.