A rare local show from Seattle’s resident reggae pioneer

Winston "Flames" Jarrett on a visit back to Jamaica. The reggae legend now calls Seattle home. (Photo by Nicholas John Nakis)
Winston “Flames” Jarrett on a visit back to Jamaica. The reggae legend now calls Seattle home. (Photo by Nicholas John Nakis)

While Jamaican track and fields athletes have been racking up gold medals at the Summer Olympics, on Thursday, Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park will play host to Jamaican music legend Winston “Flames” Jarrett.

The concert is part of the Seattle Art Museum’s free Summer At Sam concert series.

Still singing at age 75, Jarrett was a pioneer in the 1960s rocksteady and ska scenes in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. As a member of The Flames, he played in the backing band led by hitmaker Alton Ellis, famous for songs like “Girl I’ve Got a Date,” “Cry Tough,” and “Rock Steady.” Those styles ultimately gave birth to reggae music.

Jarrett started his own band, The Righteous Flames, in 1969. He recorded in Kingston’s crucibles of reggae music, producers Clement “Coxsone” Dodd’s Studio One and Lee “Scratch” Perry’s Black Ark Studios. (Perry plays Seattle’s Nectar Lounge on September 17.)

Winston "Flames" Jarrett, immortalized in art for the forthcoming film "True Born African." (Courtesy Nicholas John Nakis)
Winston “Flames” Jarrett, immortalized in art for the forthcoming film “True Born African.” (Courtesy Nicholas John Nakis)

Seattle filmmaker Nicholas John Nakis calls Jarrett “the famous reggae singer that you don’t know who it is.”

Nakis produced True Born African, a documentary about Jarrett named for one of his songs, which premiered at the Jamaica International Film Festival in 2013. It’s slated for an official stateside DVD release early next year. The film includes shots from Seattle locales like Nectar Lounge, The Triple Door and KBCS’ The Reggae Party. Footage of the Olympic Sculpture Park concert will be included as part of the film’s special features.

“He’s one of those guys that was around for all of it,” Nakis explains. “He was part of the social glue in that whole roots and reggae scene, starting in ska and rocksteady.”

Jarrett settled in Seattle in the early 2000s, and reggae fan Nakis met the musician through mutual friends. Hearing Jarrett’s stories from the early days before reggae became one of the world’s most popular music genres prompted him to make the documentary.

For example, Jarrett told him about his conversion to Rastafarianism, a Jamaican religion with close ties to reggae music. Rastafarians believe that Ethiopian Emperor Hallie Selassie is a god, and when Selassie traveled to Jamaica in 1966, it was treated by the faithful as a divine visit. Upwards of 100,000 thronged Kingston’s airport for his arrival.

“There had been a drought in Jamaica for months and shortly after the plane touched down, it rained,” Nakis recalls. “All these people were treating this like it was an event of great religious significance, like something out of the Bible. That turned a lot of these guys into Rastafarians. It was Winston’s own moment of conversion.”

But the life of a reggae musician was not easy in the early days. The 1972 cult classic movie The Harder They Come – in which Jarrett appears – dramatizes the cutthroat world of aspiring musicians, who lined up daily outside of the major recording studios hoping for a big break. Jarrett was among them, Nakis says, which gives him “a lot of stories of the intimate life of musicians” many of whom later went on to fame, if not fortune.

Jarrett himself ultimately self-released his music to avoid getting ripped off by unscrupulous labels, a history he recounted in a January interview and live performance on KEXP’s Wo’ Pop with Darek Mazzone.

Jarrett began recording as a solo artist in the late ’70s before reforming The Righteous Flames to release 1989’s Jonestown. He recorded a Bob Marley tribute album in 1994.

“I love Seattle because here is blessed from his majesty come here and bless here,” Jarrett says in True Born African, referring to Selassie’s 1954 visit to Seattle. “And a lot of clubs are here, that we can express ourselves with the music.”

Despite calling Seattle home, Jarrett is more likely to be found playing live in France — where he remains a cult figure among reggae connoisseurs — than the Puget Sound.

And with forecasted temperatures and clear skies that might even pass muster in Jamaica, Seattle’s Olympic setting may produce its own gold on Thursday night.