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Posted at 3:18 PM ET, 12/11/2008

Q&A: Roberta Flack

By Rhome Anderson

Roberta Flack's return to Washington is buoyed by a ton of history. After a stellar academic career on a full music scholarship at Howard University, she spent a number of years in local piano bars honing the balladry that made her famous. She was also a classmate of beloved soul legend Donny Hathaway, who would eventually join her on some of the biggest records of her career.


Roberta Flack returns to the club that helped launch her career, this time as a spectator -- mostly. (Photo by Laurent Gillieron/AP)

Flack was actually discovered in Bohemian Caverns, the club that Davell Crawford will be playing in for the first time this weekend. I chatted with Flack about her enthusiasm for the young New Orleans piano master and what it would take to get her to join him on the microphone.

Update: Flack will introduce Crawford and sing two songs with him for each set, according to Charlie Fishman, executive producer of the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival.

What's your connection to Davell Crawford?
I'm a big fan. I met him last year through another friend of mine, Johnny Kemp, who had a big record back in the days called "Just Got Paid." He was calling me up one day and said there's somebody moving to town that you should meet. He's a really great musician and he's a fan.

From the perspective of someone known for an extensive piano background, how would you describe Crawford's piano work?
Brilliant, genius. And has been, I think, all of his life. I'm sure that in his earlier days he was absolutely knocking people down when he sat down at a keyboard.

Have you and Crawford been developing repertoire together?
He just came as someone who is extremely talented and I decided that I wanted to see if I could do anything to help him. I've had very good fortune as a result of being a person who worked in Washington D.C, taught school there, went to Howard University. It occurred to me that this might be a wonderful place (to introduce Crawford).

So what type of material will you do together for this run of shows?
Probably nothing and maybe something. I want you guys to hear him. I have been warned that people will probably say, 'Do something!' and I might! But I don't feel like I have to, because I think he's going to take up the whole set musically and nobody's going to miss the fact that I'm not playing because I will be yelling and supporting him. We haven't planned to do anything together but there are a few things that I've done with Donny that the whole world knows, hopefully. And certainly I've been supported by my fans across the world in terms of their response to things I've done with other singers such as Luther [Vandross] who was in my band for three years, and Peabo Bryson, who I recorded with, and George Benson.

There's a number of things we could do. I don't have a chance to do a lot of things in a club setting these days, so when I do I like to go back to the days where it was very intimate and very small and whatever was happening was happening in that moment. I can remember at Mr. Henry's, looking up and seeing people like Carmen McRae, Johnny Mathis, Ramsey Lewis. It depends on what happens in Bohemian Caverns, which I've actually only performed in on one other occasion. [The night in 1968 when Les McCann was inspired to eventually hook her up with Atlantic Records.]

What is Roberta Flack's creative life like these days?
Busy! I'm doing that Beatles album. I have my own record label, the Real Artists' Symposium. We used to say in the South, that sounds "hankty," or stuck-up. It's not stuck-up but it is kind of hankty because a lot of people use the word artist to describe what other people and they themselves do. I'm from the Howard University School of Music, and we were told -- and I firmly believe -- that an artist is a person who completely and totally dedicates themselves to the art, whether it's dance, music, painting, writing, whatever it is.

At this point in your career, after doing so much legendary work, what would be your dream project?
I have a school, which is another kind of lofty idea that I had, called the Roberta Flack School of Music [in the Bronx]. We got a big donation from the artist known as Prince when we started, which I tried to send back because I didn't know who had sent it, but finally His Excellency was revealed. This year we went to a jazz festival at the University of Mississippi where the students had a chance to perform with college students. Not a lot of junior high school students can play "So What." Most of these young students are Hispanic and/or African American. Because we wanted to introduce them to something new, we gave them the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Sergio Mendes. To hear them sing something in Portuguese makes me cry, and it may not be a sad song! They're so into it!

-- Rhome

By Rhome Anderson  | December 11, 2008; 3:18 PM ET
Categories:  Music  
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