WNY's All Time Greatest Band: Lukas Foss-era BPO v. Dyke and the Blazers
Foss photo by Jim Tuttle
What are the criteria for choosing the all-time best band for a city or region? A friendly barroom debate on the subject might extend past closing time without even getting to a discussion of the actual bands. The best band isn’t necessarily the band that sold the most records or concert tickets. And it’s probably not the band that played note-for-note versions of your favorite tunes back in the day when you and your buddies went out every Tuesday night to drink two-dollar pitchers. The best band—defined as a group of musicians playing music of a specialized type—might not even use guitars or amplifiers.
To this listener, the best bands are musical trailblazers who carve out a path followed by subsequent generations of musicians around the world and yet, no matter how far they travel artistically or even physically, never fail to represent their hometown. Choosing the best all-time band for some cities is easy. San Francisco? The Grateful Dead. New York? The Ramones. Western New York? Hmmmm. That’s a toss-up, but here’s my stab at it.
Over the past half-century, Western New York has been the launching pad for two of the most influential bands in all of music: the daring Lukas Foss-era Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and funk godfathers Dyke and The Blazers. Kleinhans Music Hall, the home of the BPO, is just a few miles from the corner of Jefferson and Broadway, the center of the neighborhood immortalized in song by Arlester “Dyke” Christian, but the music of the two bands couldn’t have been more different.
Under the direction of Lukas Foss from 1963 to 1971, the BPO led the symphonic world into the twentieth century and beyond, past the warhorses of the classical repertoire, and performed without reservation works by modern composers like John Cage, Igor Stravinksy, Milton Babbitt, Iannis Xenakis, Gunther Schuller, Elliot Carter, Darius Milhaud, Morton Subotnik, and Arnold Schonberg. Recordings for the Nonesuch label and worldwide tours cemented the orchestra’s reputation, while Kleinhans concertgoers were treated to a flood of new sounds and even an experimental performance with the Grateful Dead. In the 1960s, Buffalo was hailed as a global center for the arts and the BPO provided the sweeping soundtrack for the story.
When a band of musicians from Buffalo’s vibrant R&B scene found themselves stranded in Phoenix after a gig backing the O’Jays fell apart, the group renamed themselves Dyke and The Blazers and immediately found an audience for the extended jams that captured the raw rhythms and undiluted vibe of the inner city streets in a way that James Brown’s early funk singles only hinted at. In 1967, the band released its first single, “Funky, Funky Broadway”—the first pop hit with the word “funk” in the title and later a hit for Wilson Pickett—which not only gave the burgeoning musical phenomenon a moniker that stuck, but also solidified funk as a powerful new direction in music. From funk came disco, rap, and hip hop (Tupac, Ice Cube, and Prince have all sampled Dyke), the influence reaching across all continents and many cultures (contemporary African music for starters). It’s not a stretch to assert that Dyke and the Blazers (there was a rotating cast of Blazers from Buffalo, Phoenix and L.A., but Dyke was the true leader and visionary) are the most influential band to ever come out of Buffalo. After Dyke was gunned down on a Phoenix street in March of 1971, the rapidly ascending J. Geils Band dedicated its breakthrough second album to the memory of Arlester “Dyke” Christian and introduced Dyke’s “So Sharp” to their rock audiences. A recent boxset released on England’s prestigious Ace label has kept Dyke’s flame of primal funk alive. Listen carefully and you’ll hear Dyke’s tribute to Buffalo right through his final recordings.
Jazz programmer Bruce Eaton writes frequently for Buffalo Spree.