The elusive, enigmatic Olu Dara in many ways defies definition. Genre-bending genius tends to confound, but with Dara's style, one label seems to stick -- journeyman. That persona conjures up fitting images of his life and career, moves that have taken him from the organic grace of Natchez, Miss., as a child named Charles Jones III to Harlem's worldly sophistication; from a hard-working, discouraged and relatively obscure player in New York City's avant-garde loft jazz scene to a sudden star after decades of effort.
"Place is everything to me," Dara says by phone recently from his Brooklyn, N.Y., home. "I'm always where I imagined I would be. I've always been in the right place at the right time. I've seen wars, peace, revolutions, all that stuff, firsthand. But, I never like to stay in one place too long."
This innate sense of personal evolution helps explain why Dara, in his 50s and at the urging of his sons (including hip-hop star Nas), decided to release his first album under his name. In the World: From Natchez to New York, released in 1998, reflects the concept -- superb musicianship, picturesque songwriting and an intriguing medley of folk, blues, jazz, funk and even hip-hop (courtesy Nas' signature flow) are the work's hallmarks. Songs move from Nas addressing the perils of urban life over Dara's stirring cornet in "Jungle Jay" to a soothing, acoustic lullaby for his youngest son in "Kiane." That such seemingly divergent styles -- coupled with varied inspirations of "place" from Africa, Mississippi and New York City -- result in profound artistic expression laid over tight grooves and a mythic, yet sensual, ethos represents much of Dara's journey.
"Well, if you were like me, wouldn't you have left, too?" Dara asks rhetorically of his decision to leave Natchez in 1958. "There was nothing to do down there. No economic opportunity. Segregation. If you can't go to the library, how are you going to get an education?"
Already accomplished as a teen in trumpet, tap dance, piano and cornet, Dara enrolled at historically black Tennessee State University in a quickly aborted effort to study medicine. Upon leaving school, his wanderlust led him to the Navy, and he traveled the world. Yet, the boyhood lessons of Natchez remained.
"Natchez being what it was, for me it was running straight to the woods to eat fruits and berries," Dara remembers. "To me, that was paradise. Poor neighborhoods, poor counties, but an opportunity to eat fine meals on a daily basis. That was enjoyment.
"My mother told me once my music, to her, sounds like a poem," he continues. "My mother wasn't wrong. It's the same with my visual arts; it all does the same thing. It's from the oral tradition. It's storytelling; it's all reality. I don't make up any of my songs. This comes from my adventures in Mississippi, my love of people and nature."
When Dara was denied rank in the Navy, while in port in New York, he left the military and, he thought, music as well. "I was happy to be away from music," he says of his 20s. "I was doing all kinds of things -- real estate, I worked for a Japanese newspaper company, I ran discotheques."
Yet, advice from musician friends in his Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood inspired a return to music. The transition wasn't easy. "New York was really elitist about Southern music, the soul and funk," Dara says. "They were all bebop. I formed my own bands, but a record never came out. 'Too African,' they said."
Filling a void for "black bands that played original dance music," Dara led The Okra Orchestra and the Natchezissippi Band for years before his 1998 breakthrough with In the World. In 2001, Dara released Neighborhoods.His first two albums were released on Atlantic records. Dara has since left Atlantic, and has no plans for a new album.
"I felt comfortable doing what I was doing before (the success)," Dara says. "These albums get me more known internationally, but not much else. They help the record company sell records. It's a shrewd business. I was wasting my energies with them. I found I could tour on these records. Now, I'm happy to be independent." And Friday, as a successful artist making music on his own terms, Dara returns to New Orleans, fulfilling a childhood dream once again. As a 12-year-old, Dara traveled with his school band by bus to a band competition at the Municipal Auditorium. "Our uniforms, our instruments, we were too rural to play that festival, so we just got back on the bus and went back to Natchez. That hurt. I wanted to be heard playing down there. I told myself I'd even take my horn out on the street there one day. That was my dream."