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Paul Fleming: Soul Provider

by Mike Roelofsen

This interview first appeared in The London Free Press Oct 4, 1998. Copyright © 1998 Mike Roelofsen, London Free Press.

You could call 55-year-old Paul Fleming London's soul man. When not playing saxophone at the London Jazz Festival or as part of his 40-member Stratford Soul Singers' gospel band, you'll find him painting magnificent watercolours of jazz musicians, streetscapes and everyday people - each reflecting African-American music and culture of the southern U.S.

While jazz, blues and gospel music are his passions, he still enjoys the odd bit of rock 'n' roll and country, too. Just don't ask him to listen to '90s alternative rock.

What came first? The music or the paintings?

Music did, although I've always been pretty good with a pencil or a paintbrush in my hand. I started playing the trumpet when I was 17, growing up in Windsor. The first time I heard Ray Charles, I was hooked. I was a convert to soul, jazz and the blues.
How do you explain the connection?
They all have common roots. And that's being African-American.They were true alternatives to classical European music. Beethoven. Bach. You know. Jazz has since acquired a legitimacy it's never had before.
Does that mean you don't like rock 'n' roll or country?
No, I like the early stuff and I listen to it occasionally, but there's really only two kinds of music: good and bad.
What about today's music you hear on the radio?
To me, most of it's diluted and distorted. There's far too much influence by record producers, who aren't musicians themselves. It's too commercial . . . lots of new labels, but not much new music.
What do you think of alternative music?
I only hear it by accident and when I do, I cringe. It's just crap. They bang and thrash around a lot and they try to imitate real musicians like Jimi Hendrix, but they just don't get it. They miss all the subtleties that made him great.
When did you start painting seriously?
About two years ago, I decided to take my painting as seriously as my music.
How many paintings have you done?
At least 200 by now. I have a brush in my hand every day. I want to share that side of life I think we should all know and appreciate. . . The part that says something about the human condition. Real people with a rich and proud history. To put it another way, the last person I'd paint is a guy sitting in his car, stuck at a traffic light, arguing with his wife on his cell phone.
Where do you draw your inspiration?
Some of it from memory, sometimes from an image that comes to mind when listening to a particular piece of music. And from old photographs, too usually black and white ones.
Were you born in the wrong place at the wrong time?
Maybe I was. There's a certain nostalgia about jazz and other African American music that's in my blood. My wife and I went to the south recently on a holiday and it was like deja vu. I could have sworn it was like going home, but I'd never been there before.
Do you get emotional about this?
Yeah, can't help it. Sometimes I get enraged by hard sell, in-your-face radio stations that celebrate anarchy, violence and chaos for no other purpose than to make a buck.
Do you have any heroes?
Ray Charles, The Beatles, The Band, even Elvis in his early years. They all had their roots in the same place. I admire those music writers who were born to write and there aren't too many of them around anymore.

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