Legendary musician and artist Lee Oskar has called Redmond home for the last 15 years.
He was a founding member of the Latin/Funk/Fusion band WAR, collaborating with former Animals singer Eric Burdon on their 1971 breakout hit “Spill the Wine.” It’s Oskar’s distinctive harmonica leads that you’ve heard on that hit and others such as “Low Rider, “The Cisco Kid,” “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” and “All Day Music.”
These days, Oskar runs Duvall-based Lee Oskar Harmonicas, performs with The Lowrider Band and Lee Oskar and Friends — and paints “every minute I can eke out,” he said in an interview this week at Evergreen Hospital and Medical Center in Kirkland.
An exhibit of his beautiful acrylic paintings is part of the “Healing Art of Evergreen” program and is hanging in the hallway outside Evergreen’s Emergency Department through late July. A portion of his proceeds for any paintings sold will go toward this award-winning medical facility and particularly its care for cancer patients.
Oskar is a fan of Evergreen because of a man named Kile Jackson who underwent treatment for throat cancer there, with exceptionally positive results.
One of Oskar’s old friends, a singer/musician named Steve White, was treated for the same type of cancer elsewhere. He survived but without the ability to speak or sing again.
“He still plays and has an incredible attitude, but it’s upsetting to see the vulnerability,” Oskar noted.
When he met Jackson at a local blues club and heard his cancer story, he wanted to meet the doctors and see the technology at Evergreen, Oskar explained.
“I saw such dramatic results, so different from what happened to Steve. I said, ‘What do you need?’ and the answer was ‘awareness.’ I find this is an incredible facility, has a great reputation and still a lot of people don’t know it’s here on the Eastside. … The work they do has a huge impact on quality of life, allowing people to still have some integrity,” Oskar said.
Oskar described his art exhibit at the hospital as “a vehicle to create stories, awareness for people here. I want my paintings to be meaningful.”
He said he’s been enthralled with art since his childhood, when he expressed himself with a ballpoint pen and looseleaf paper.
Painting became a serious pastime in the late 1990s and he then took his art in another direction.
“Pen drawing is very detailed,” said Oskar. “With acrylics, I like to use really strong, solid hues and shapes. … I like the contrast of silhouettes, to capture a subject very simply and make it look three-dimensional. The contrast of the silhouettes with a sunrise or sunset is very powerful.”
His paintings at Evergreen have a strong Northwest vibe, either bursting with vibrant greens or oranges or placid blues and purples — as backgrounds for stately trees or soaring birds.
“When I start something, I don’t always know where’s it’s gonna go,” Oskar said. “I know I want an incredible sky or water or trees but I don’t sit there sketching. Man’s worst disease is thinking. Go with the flow and the magic comes out. Music is the same way. That’s what jazz is, improvisation. I hear the note as it comes out of my instrument, bounce it around.”
Also, said Oskar, “Spontaneity is the same whether you’re the musician or the audience, using their imagination. People can feel when the music is ‘thinking’ as opposed to ‘from the heart.’ When people don’t take chances, it’s boring.”
We asked Oskar about his decades in the music business, starting in a time — late 1960s/early ’70s — when both people and music felt a lot more “free.” He certainly has great memories, he acknowledged.
“We played everything from huge festivals to holes in the wall,” Oskar reminisced about WAR. He added that his current Lowrider Band includes four of the five original members of WAR. As has often happened with bands from that era, someone else trademarked the original name.
“We were with Jimi Hendrix the day before he died,” Oskar remarked. “We hung out with Bob Marley, traveling in Europe. We played soccer with him in Germany around the same time as Woodstock here. … The spirit then was of a different gender. Now it’s to monopolize.”
Another favorite career moment, said Oskar, was “playing for a quarter-million people, when Harold Washington was the (first and only) black mayor of Chicago.”
Besides his devotion to his visual art, Oskar said he’s on a mission to promote excellence in harmonica music spanning all styles, not just the folk or blues genres where harmonicas have been widely heard.
For more information about Lee Oskar and Lee Oskar Harmonicas, visit www.leeoskarmusic.com.
To learn more “The Healing Art of Evergreen,” visit http://www.evergreenhospital.org/body.cfm?id=247