The Macy Blackman and the Mighty Fines band: playing Ashkenaz on Thursday April 2. Photo: courtesy of band

Maybe a Manhattan methadone clinic wasn’t an auspicious setting for encountering a musical hero, but Macy Blackman wasn’t going let an opportunity to hang out with New Orleans drummer Charles “Hungry” Williams go to waste. Looking to get clean in the bitter winter of 1978, Blackman was sitting on a couch in the lounge of the Bernstein Institute strumming a guitar when someone informed him that Fats Domino’s drummer was in the next room.

“After a while he came in and started singing Chuck Willis’ ‘You’re Still My Baby’ with me,” says Blackman, a Kensington resident for the past 13 years. He celebrates the release of his new album Friskin’ the Whiskers with his band The Mighty Fines at Ashkenaz 9 p.m. Thursday, April 2.

A pianist, cornetist, and vocalist with a gruff, rhythmically assured delivery, Blackman is one of Northern California’s leading exponents of classic New Orleans R&B, and he absorbed a good deal of the music directly from the source. He and Williams struck up a fast friendship after that first encounter, and ended up playing music together up until the drummer’s death in 1986. Blackman, who still supplements his income as a piano technician, even taught Williams his trade.

“He didn’t stay for the whole stint at the Bernstein Institute,” Blackman says. As we say, Charles was there for the season, not the reason, but we stayed in touch. He taught me so many songs, and we even wrote some together. Even after he couldn’t play the drums anymore he was an incredibly good singer. Whenever I was playing he’d come over to sing.”

Born in 1948 in Wilmington, Delaware, Blackman spent his formative years in the Philadelphia area. By high school he was leading a combo that found work backing up R&B vocal acts like the Orlons, Lee Andrews and the Hearts, and The Tymes (who scored a number one hit with “So Much In Love”). By 1966 he was in the thick of the action in the Big Apple, where he earned a musicology degree from New York University and played in a vast array of musical settings.

As his presence in a methadone clinic suggests, Blackman had more than his fair shared of misadventures too, and he was recently clean when he landed in the landing in the Bay Area in 2000 to teach jazz and rhythm and blues history courses at the UC Berkeley. The teaching gig lasted a few semesters, long enough for Blackman to build up a reputation as a player steeped in New Orleans jazz, blues and R&B. As a bandleader, he’s as comfortable rockin’ Ellington and Gershwin as his is swingin’ Joe Turner and Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson.

“I still love that King Oliver stuff, that traditional New Orleans polyphony, and I’m trying to get that into the R&B,” says Blackman, who draws liberally from the songs on the classic Louis Armstrong album Satch Plays Fats.

Featuring Blackman on piano, cornet and vocals, Nancy Wright on tenor saxophone and vocals, Ken “Snakebite” Jacobs on baritone saxophone and clarinet, bassist Bing Nathan, and the latest addition, veteran drummer Larry Vann, the Mighty Fines offer a singular take on the Crescent City continuum, combining the freewheeling polyphony of traditional jazz with the rolling grooves of Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew.

The band started coming together through a series of chance gigs that Blackman earned on the strength of his rhythmic prowess. Playing a Mardi Gras show at Enrico’s in 2003 with Bing Nathan earned them a weekly trio gig at the lamented North Beach institution with Jack Dorsey, a veteran drummer active on the Bay Area scene since 1968.

By 2005 Blackman had added a saxophonist to the combo and moved over to the revivified Condor Club. When Hurricane Katrina marooned “Snakebite” Jacobs in San Francisco he stepped in as the band’s tenor player until he returned to New Orleans for a riverboat gig. Though Blackman hadn’t heard Wright play before, he hired her for a night based on her vaunted reputation. She lived up to her billing. After hearing his on tenor, “I thought, oh my God! Where you been all my life?” Blackman says.

When Snakebite announced he was returning to the Bay Area, Blackman informed him that Wright owned the tenor chair, but he was welcome to bring his baritone sax. That was March 2007 and the Mighty Fines have been a quintet ever since.

Wright’s career has taken off since joining the Mighty Fines, and these days she’s one of the region’s busiest saxophonists specializing in blues, R&B and soul jazz. Assiduously coaching her on vocals, Blackman has encouraged Wright to sing more, resulting in a Mighty Fines book featuring numerous duets, like the Kaye Star and Tennessee Ernie Ford hit “I’ll Never Be Free.”

No stranger to New Orleans sounds, Wright relocated from her native Dayton, Ohio to San Francisco in 1984 to work with the Crescent City R&B combo Hot Links. The Mighty Fines gig has allowed her to delve deeply into the New Orleans repertoire, while also providing a steady forum for honing her vocals, which has led to her singing more on her own gigs too.

“Macy does the stuff you don’t get to hear elsewhere,” says Wright, who recently released a stellar album Putting Down Roots that features her vocals as much as her horn. She plays Vallejo’s Empress with Tommy Castro and the Painkillers Theatre on April 4, and returns to the Cheese Board, where she’s a regular, for an April 8 lunch gig with the Nancy Wright and Rhythm and Roots Band.

“He’s really encouraged me on the vocals,” she continues. “He’ll ask me to sing tunes I would never pick for myself. For better or worse I’m fearless, so I’m getting to sing some Irma Thomas stuff that I love.”

Andrew Gilbert writes for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....