Milton native Alex Leong jammed with legendary drummer Clyde Stubblefield in January at the Tonic Room in Chicago.
By Jake Magee, GazetteXtra.com
CHICAGO—The most important thing to Alex Leong is making sure people have a good time when he plays his music.
The trombonist said he got that mindset from Clyde Stubblefield, the legendary funk drummer best known for his work with the late James Brown.
Leong, a 32-year-old Milton native, started playing with Stubblefield in the mid-2000s while living in Madison. Monday nights at the King Club on King Street belonged to Stubblefield and his funk-fueled band.
Leong heard from a friend that Stubblefield was looking for horn players, so Leong went to see Stubblefield perform. Leong introduced himself afterward, saying he could play trombone.
Stubblefield invited Leong to play.
“Clyde is just so laid-back and very cool like that,” Leong said.
Leong sat in with the horn section the next week and followed cues from Stubblefield and the band. Stubblefield invited him back again, and it became a pattern.
“At that point, I was in the band,” Leong said.
He played in Stubblefield's group for three years before moving to Chicago in 2008.
In January, Leong and Stubblefield had a reunion of sorts at the Tonic Room in Chicago. Leong heard the drummer would be in town, so he “dropped everything” to go see him play again.
And he made sure to bring his trombone.
Stubblefield was hosting an hour-long drum clinic at the Tonic Room, signing autographs and taking pictures with fans afterward.
“That's the biggest lesson that can be learned from being in Clyde's presence is just how he interacts with people,” Leong said.
Leong, Stubblefield and bassist Joe Dart, known for his contribution to the band Vulfpeck, then took the stage for an impromptu jam session. The group followed Stubblefield's lead on several funk, country and James Brown-inspired tunes.
“There's so much excitement and natural chemistry when you're jamming with somebody,” Leong said. “It's the excitement of not knowing what we're going to create.
"That's the point of live music, that you're reacting to the moment. That's what makes live music thrilling.”
Besides playing with Stubblefield, Leong performs with the Ridgeville Community Band in Evanston, Illinois, and with the Four Star Brass Band, a New Orleans-style group.
“I enjoy having that variety of performance opportunities,” Leong said.
Music has long been a part of Leong's life. He first took up the trombone at the age of 11. His parents and older brother also are musically inclined.
At first, music was just another school activity Leong participated in.
“Music wasn't as competitive (as sports)," he said. "It was more of a fun thing to do. I wanted to play the music I was listening to.”
Leong's father, Wilson, didn't realize how much of an impact those early years would have on his son.
“We didn't know he was going to be involved in music during his school years,” Wilson Leong said. “Now he's made a career of it. We're pretty excited.”
After graduating from Milton High, Leong attended Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois, graduating with a degree focusing on recording, audio production and studio work. He soon realized the industry was shifting away from studios and toward “bedroom musicians” who produced with computers, so he began focusing on live performances.
Leong works as an engraver for Musicnotes, the world's largest digital sheet music retailer and publisher, based in Madison. While it's his job to make sure sheet music is correct, his passion continues to be live music.
“Music is such a powerful thing that makes you feel young again," he said. "Just seeing smiles on people's faces, it doesn't get any better than that.
"As long as I can keep playing and keep it fun, that's my main focus.”