Kymberly Jackson has crowned herself "The People's Flautist." It came to her in a dream.
"It came to me quite literally in a dream one morning -- night-morning, dark morning," she explains. "I was dreaming that I was in concert, big concert. I think my ego was at work. And I heard someone announcing: 'Ladies and gentlemen, the People's Flautist!'"
Kymberly then puts her hand to her mouth and simulates adoring crowd noise: "Haaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhh."
A 42-year-old Los Angeles native, Kymberly has spent the last decade slowly invading Oakland's hip-hop/ jazz/Latin/funk scene with a quirkily infectious personality and some viciously virtuosic flute skills -- the Jimi Hendrix of woodwinds. She'd light the thing on fire if she could avoid burning her mouth.
Currently hustling toward her flute-oriented MFA (master of fine arts: "I like the way it sounds. I like saying it") at Mills College, Jackson doesn't hit the club scene five nights a week. Her concert appearances are rare -- the next one is a holiday jaunt on December 13 -- but seriously memorable. She brought the house down at Carlos Mena's weekly series of hip-hop odds 'n' ends back in May, storming the stage with funk-flavored flute explosions.
That same mania infected a recent Thursday night two-show invasion at posh Kimball's East in Emeryville, where Kymberly joined her smooth four-piece band, Urban Legends, for intimate shows that weren't sold out but were most assuredly souled-out.
"First I go inside, and we -- we, meaning all the ancestors, everybody in here [she taps her head] -- we start jamming," she says. "And then it comes out. The energy goes out to the people."
The people do not have the option of ignoring this energy. "Flute is designed to ride over a 150-piece symphony orchestra if it's played correctly," the People's Flautist notes. "Some people have a misconception: 'Aww, she gon' play the flute, that's so nice, that's soft.' And then they hear me: 'Woooo girl, can you turn that down? She loud!"
A few fun facts:
Her clothes are usually entirely white, head to toe. "Spiritual comfort wear," she calls it. "I feel safe and protected. Yeah. And it's very challenging to get different fits and be cool."
She terminates casual conversations, voicemail outgoing messages, and concert appearances by wishing you "Peace, love, and nappiness." She stole it from a Lost Boyz album. "It's humor," she says. "It's fun. It's just me saying, 'Hey, I love you.' A nappy thing is a fun thing. So have some fun. Don't take it so seriously."
She picked up the flute in junior high, after a failed stint with the drums (she couldn't handle the drumroll). Her first official pop flute song was "The Hustle." Yes, "The Hustle." Kymberly struggles to live this down. "My sisters still today say, 'When you gonna play "The Hustle?"' I'm like, 'Not.'"
Yes, the People's Flautist has four older sisters. Three of them held court at the table immediately behind me at the 8 p.m. Kimball's gig, hooting appreciatively throughout the show. When Jackson called for requests, they immediately demanded Stevie Wonder's "Do I Do."
Speaking of Stevie, you can find Kymberly on his Hotter Than July album; she also has worked with Walter Beasley, El DeBarge, and the Coup. Boots caught her set at Berkeley's Juneteenth fest and invited her to play on the group's 1993 debut, Kill My Landlord, despite Kymberly's initial response: "Who are you?"
Jackson is intimately familiar with a certain Outkast hit: "It's okay -- you can say 'I'm sorry, Ms. Jackson.' Everybody says that to me at one point or another." I hadn't, yet.
Kymberly is currently working to wrap up her debut album, MY Time, by 2004 when she expects to become an MFA. Early demos betray her status as a classically trained flute specialist enamored of jazz' elegance but waylaid by her love for Cameo, Parliament/Funkadelic, Herbie Hancock, and the Jackson Five. But her closing tune at Kimball's East revealed her true love.
Kymberly: "Before we go, we gotta leave you with a little EARF ..."
One of her sisters: "WEEE-ind ..."
Everyone together: "And FIRE!!"
The band then launches into a killer sing-a-long version of "Fantasy." (You know, the "twelfth of never" one.)
"I keep going back to Earth, Wind and Fire," Jackson admits a few days later. "That's the influence. That's the standard. That's what I want to reach." She blissfully recalls their late-'70s-early-'80s heyday: "Man, drums were spinnin' in the air, they had choreography; they didn't have dancers, they did it. There was so much movement, so much excitement ... there was showmanship, there was costumes, there were lights -- lights, camera, action."
That premium on performance is the People's Flautist's MO. Sometimes she jumps offstage and storms into the crowd, blowing an unamplified solo right up in our faces, close enough to smell her perfume and hear her frenzied between-note breathing. It's her way of battling the trends of concertgoers paying $100 a pop to endure synthesizers, bad choreography, and lip-synching nonsense.
"You can hear that I'm playing this flute 'cause I'm right here in front of you," she says. "And you see my fingers movin' -- there ain't no DJ, there's nothin', and if you ask me to do it again, it's gonna sound different. ... Real. Live. Live music."
Can the People's Flautist -- who also sings, scats, composes, and gives lessons to folks who can't drumroll -- turn this into a career? Why not? She recalls a recent discussion about the strict difference between being an "artist" and a Madonna-class image-driven "star," but she longs for both poles: "I can't help it," she says. "I like the idea of an artist-star. I think I'm capable of doing that. I'm an intelligent woman. I have a very sharp mind. And I know what I want. And I'm willing to be patient and pray and work for it."
And with that, Down in Front drives off to Yoshi's, where East Bay neo-soul sensation Goapele treats a packed house to her own funky bid for artist-stardom. Can a white-clad flute specialist weaned on "The Hustle" be next in line?
People: People's Flautist. People's Flautist: people.
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