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Ayers to take stage to help kick off JAMS 2003

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For a true musician, the road never ends.

In the case of Roy Ayers, who just released his 88th album, the road he most recently traveled took him to Switzerland, Germany and Japan, and the road that lies ahead includes a stop in Jamaica for the Jamaica Arts and Music Summer Festival Friday.

The vibraphone player who grew up in Los Angeles first got hooked on his instrument when he was 5 years old and legendary vibe player Lionel Hampton gave him his first set of mallets.

“When he would play, he would go walking around the hall, leaving just the bass player and drummer on stage, and he’d walk around singing ‘Hey Babu Riba.’”

By the time Ayers got to high school — Jefferson High, which was also the home of the late Barry White — he formed the Jefferson Combo, where he was playing piano.

Ayers described the burgeoning music scene of the mid-’50s, with all the doo wop and R&B groups, as a major influence on many of the L.A. musicians who were still in high school. The schools, many of which were in some of L.A.’s seediest neighborhoods, would have student and band exchange assemblies, and though kids may not have gotten along well on the street, in the concert hall they were all united.

By 1958, at 18, Ayers had switched to playing the vibes for a string of small groups.

He got his big break in 1966 when he joined up with Herbie Mann’s band and started youring the world.

“Mann was the best and greatest band leader that I’ve ever played with,” Ayers recalled. “He put a group together with so many other fine musicians and we put out some great records.

In 1970, Ayers forged out on his own, creating his band Ubiquity, which signed with Polydor Records. He put out a string of records with that group and in 1977 released the R&B hit “Running Away,” which is still a radio standard and dance hall favorite.

Through the years, Ayers has worked with a number of popular artists, and many who are not well known at all. But through it all, he has enjoyed collaborating.

“When individuals come together, something creatively unique and different comes out,” he said.

In his latest recodring, “Mahagony Vibe,” Ayers is joined by Erykah Badu and R&B legend Betty Wright, who both lend their help on some vocal tracks.

Badu had been recording with Ayers in Dallas when she mentioned that Wright was in town. Ayers, a big fan of Wrights’ music, said he was surprised that he hadn’t heard of her playing nearby. Badu said, “Oh she’s not playing. She’s actually my best friend, and she happens to be in town. Do you want her to sing on the album?”

“Then she picked up her cell phone, called Betty and just like that she came to the studio to lay down some tracks,” Ayers said.

“I don’t know of anybody who has two singers of such caliber — people who normally don’t record with anybody else — together on a single album,” Ayers said.

The 62-year-old musician credits his youthful look and demeanor to playing music all the time.

“Look at Lionel Hampton,” he said. “The guy had three strokes and he kept playing. You couldn’t get him off the stage. Lionel Hampton would swing you into bad health. He couldn’t play Vegas because when people came out of a Hampton show, they were too drained to go back to the tables.”

Ayers said he hopes to keep his energy much the way Hampton did until the day he died, late last year. He sees his JAMS Friday night headliner, Illinois Jacquet, in that same category.

“I’m so proud to be in a show with him,” Ayers said. “He paved the way for people like myself. He was playing when you couldn’t just get on a plane to get to the next gig. You had cars, buses and trains taking you around.”

And the bus will take him away again. He has dates planned all throughout the East Coast in August and September.

Ayers will play at the JAMS Under the Stars kickoff concert Friday night in Kings Park, on Jamaica Ave. between 150th and 153rd streets. The concert, which features headlined Illinois Jacquet and his Big Band, is set to start at 6 p.m.

For more information on JAMS, go to anweb.com/ccj. For more on Roy Ayers, go to www.royayers.com.

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