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Pittsburgh bassist Dwayne Dolphin brings the funk with touring icon

A man plays a bass on stage.
Rita Kuenen
Dwayne Dolphin performs with Fred Wesley and The New JBs last year in the Netherlands.

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In 1990, famed trombonist and bandleader Fred Wesley was assembling a group he called The New JBs.

Wesley warranted the band’s name more than most: In the late 1960s and early ’70s, when the legendary James Brown was at the peak of his influence, Wesley was the Godfather of Soul’s trombonist and music director, and in some cases even a composer, on tunes like “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud,” “Mother Popcorn” and “Hot Pants.” (“Fred, take us higher!” Brown shouts on “Doing It To Death.”)

Among the founding members of The New JBs was a young Pittsburgh-born bassist named Dwayne Dolphin. Dolphin was already one of Pittsburgh’s most respected jazz players; today, 34 years later, he’s still that, and still in The New JBs, too. And on Tue., June 18, Dolphin will be onstage at Pittsburgh City Winery when the band plays a rare Pittsburgh gig as part of its six-city late-spring U.S. tour.

Wesley, reached by phone at his home in Montgomery, Ala., can’t say enough about Dolphin. “He’s the finest bass player that I’ve known,” said Wesley. “He’s a great musician.”

That’s no small praise coming from Wesley, whose gigs after leaving Brown’s employ included working with late-’70s Parliament-Funkadelic and Bootsy’s Rubber Band, led by bass legend Bootsy Collins.

Dolphin, who had joined Wynton Marsalis’ band right out of high school, in the early ’80s, recalls connecting with Wesley after a fellow bassist told him the trombonist was putting together a group.

“Fred’s interview on the phone was, ‘Hey, man, can you play a D7 chord?” says Dolphin. “I said yeah. ‘Can you play it for 45 minutes?’ I said yeah … He said, ‘Can you play it with all your heart?’ I said yes. He said, ‘I’ll see you in Switzerland.’”

“Like anybody else, I saw [Wesley] in videos with James Brown,” says Dolphin. “It was a bit overwhelming at first.”

That first gig, in Zurich, foreshadowed decades of concerts overseas, as far afield as Australia, Japan and South Africa.

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Most of Dolphin’s bandmates, including fellow charter members like drummer Bruce Cox, have had strong jazz backgrounds. But while the group’s repertoire leans on Brown classics and other funk, Dolphin says at first, Wesley let the musicians interpret it as they pleased.

“Finally, one day, which was one of the best days of my life, he said, ‘Hey, guys, I want to teach you how to play funk my way,’” says Dolphin.

“We’re jazz guys. We think to vary things all the time,” says Dolphin. “And he taught us, ‘No, you guys are gonna have to simplify.’ And once we simplified, then you could hear the parts coming together, because now everyone had a place to be, as opposed to being a jazz guy and being wherever you wanted to be.”

“That definitely changed me,” said Dolphin. “The band really started to flourish, I thought.”

Along with Dolphin and Cox, and Wesley on trombone and vocals, the group includes guitarist Reggie Ward, trumpeter Gary Winters, keyboardist Vince Evans, and Jay Rodriguez on sax and flute.

These days, the New JBs perform mostly in Europe; the brief tour that starts Sunday, in Portsmouth, N.H., is its first U.S. circuit since 2008. Dolphin estimates he spends two or three months each year on the road with the group.

It’s a significant complement to the diverse Pittsburgh gigs that might find Dolphin, in the course of a week, playing jazz, funk or Brazilian music. But he says most people here don’t know about his 34-year association with Wesley.

“I never really talk about it much, just because Pittsburgh is a real serious jazz city,” Dolphin says. “It just never seemed worth the while [to tell people], ’cause they’ll say, ‘Hey, that’s great, Dwayne. Now play some jazz!’”

Dolphin says he regards Wesley, who turns 81 in July, as Brown’s musical son, and his younger bandmates as part of that same lineage.

“When you hear it from us, you hear the last part of the James Brown legacy,” he says. "We’re the grandchildren. We take it very seriously.”

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: