It's a good thing that Mr. Robert "Kool" Bell didn't answer his cell phone when I first tried to call him. Had he picked up, I wouldn't have had the pleasure of hearing his groovy voice mail greeting: "You have reached Kool, and it's kool to leave a message."
Formed in Jersey City, N.J., in the mid-'60s, Kool & the Gang began as a group of high school friends playing under the name Jazziacs. The band cut its teeth in New York City clubs, and by the '70s, the jazz-
Bell and his gang of musicians—these days, the ensemble contains 12 to 14 players on average—continue to wield their funky prowess in durable tracks ("Jungle Boogie," "Ladies' Night," "Get Down on It," etc.), live performances around the world and charity efforts. The band works with Boys & Girls Clubs of America and over the years has raised money to fight famine in Ethiopia and AIDS in Kenya, and is now working on a Haiti project.
When Mr. Bell called back—I couldn't refuse that invitation to leave a message—he spoke about the old school and new school, and the meaning of Kool with a K. By the time we went to press, tickets had unfortunately sold out to his Saturday show at Buffalo Thunder. We offer this interview as a consolation.
What did you listen to growing up?
Growing up, there was a jazz thing happening and also R&B; I grew up listening to people like John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Ron Carter, Wes Montgomery on the jazz side. And I really liked the whole Motown era with The Temptations, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles. I also listened to James Brown, Sly & The Family Stone.
If Kool and the Gang has a mantra or a mission statement, what is it?
Music is our message and we seek love and understanding around the world. In fact, we have a song called "Music Is the Message." We also have a song called "Love and Understanding." We support various charities ... I guess you could say our mission statement is humanitarian.
One of your albums is called Spirit of the Boogie—what is the spirit of the boogie?
Over the years you have all kinds of boogies. In the '40s and '50s it was the boogie-woogie, you know, and then in the '70s we came out with a hit called "Jungle Boogie.” So we try to continue the spirit of the boogie, which was just a dance spirit that happens on the dance floor.
The band got its start playing New York City clubs in the '60s—what was that like?
That was great—it kind of helped us get our playing abilities together—playing around the Café Wha? and The Village Gate, and just being in New York in the jazz scene during that time. It was jazz-Afro-Cuban sort of music going on ... like Chico Mendoza, Joe Cuba and all of those guys.
What makes you guys want to keep touring?
We're still enjoying it. There's always new challenges because you got the old school and the new school. Some people think that Kool & the Gang is not together anymore, you know, retired. That is what keeps us going—the whole spirit of staying out there and doing what we do.
Speaking of the old school and the new school, how do you feel about your tracks being sampled by hip-hop artists like De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Nas and the like?
We don't have a problem with that. It kind of keeps us fresh—no pun on the word—with the younger audience that listen to some of the people who sample our music.
How does the meaning of the word “cool” change when you replace the “c” with a “k?”
Well that was just something that I wanted to do because when I moved from Ohio to New Jersey and the band started, everyone had a nickname and I wanted to fit in, so I came up with a nickname also. A couple guys called themselves Cool and spelled it with a “c.” I kind of liked the name, and I said, “Well let me change the “c” to a “k” and keep it Kool.”