“There have been others, but never two lovers like music…music…and me.”
– Michael Jackson
It has always been slightly unsettling for me to celebrate or commemorate an artist around the anniversary of his or her death. After all, it is what a particular artist accomplished or inspired during their lifetime that is being remembered, and only logical that we therefore reflect upon them during their coming into the world, and not their departure from it. But when it comes to Michael Jackson, it’s a different story — at least for me, and I believe, for many. I think this is because Michael’s actual death was so profound. The gaping hole left in the hearts of millions symbolized that losing Michael Jackson was the single most culturally impacting event of our lifetime. I’m sure you know exactly where you were and what you felt when you learned that Michael was gone.
I was either so young, or not yet born when we tragically lost musical giants like John Lennon, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Lee Morgan. Furthermore, my mom was pregnant with my older brother when both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and had already mourned the previous deaths of JFK and Malcolm X. America has undoubtedly suffered terrible loss of artistic, cultural and political icons within the scope of our lifetimes. But, the interesting thing about Michael’s death, which is so distinctive, is that because his career spanned over 40 years, our parents and even grand-parents loved him just the same as those of my generation, and for all intents and purposes, actually “knew” him first, as much as the Thriller generation loves to claim him as being “really” ours. (I’m guilty).
Michael’s impact is so far beyond music, and the various contexts through which he can be intensely studied and analyzed are indicative of that. One thing that deeply affected me upon his death was that for all who thought that Michael Jackson forgot that he was Black…well, the media had not. But thankfully, neither did Black folks. Michael was celebrated and memorialized most appropriately by his people; without the damper of controversy and distractions, which were exacerbated by the media. The beautifully relentless home-going celebration at the Apollo Theater in Harlem was the most brilliant example to the world that Michael not only understood his roots, but he was the embodiment of Black culture.
That being said, Michael’s indelible influence on the world is unprecedented and I cannot even grasp the totality of what that really means. It surpasses any sort of quantification. In a sense, like Michael himself, his influence is not to be understood but simply appreciated and respected. There’s nothing else to do with such an other-worldly gift we are so blessed to have experienced. Here, some of the most prominent artists in modern jazz have taken a moment to reflect on what Michael Jackson means to them. Besides, Michael’s musical influence reaches every corner of every genre of music; a lesser discussed topic as it relates to jazz, but perhaps one of the most important angles to look at. Enjoy.
“To me, Michael Jackson is important as an artist because not only did he understand the role of the artist in society — he went far beyond it.”
– Ambrose Akinmusire
“One thing that’s great about Michael, which isn’t often discussed or recognized, is that Off The Wall and Thriller are, for lack of a better word, Jazz records. The chordal structures, melodic content, string and horn arrangements, the Blues, the drive and swing of the rhythm section are all hallmarks of the so-called Jazz idiom. They represent, so far, the pinnacle of success for Black Popular Music and it is of no coincidence that those two records coincided with the return of the music otherwise referred to as straight-ahead Jazz. These records did more than just turn people on to Michael Jackson or R&B, they made people fans of music at a time when the industry was in a slump, much like so-called Jazz did around the turn of the century. ‘Thriller’ and ‘Off The Wall’ are essentially a continuum of the work first established on the ‘Hot Fives’ and ‘Hot Sevens’ by the world’s first Rock star, Louis Armstrong.”
– Nicholas Payton
“Michael Jackson proved that music and dance are probably the most powerful uniting forces in this world. His style continues to cross genres, religious beliefs, class systems, and political and racial divides more than any other artist to date. Everyone in every corner of the world knows his name and image. And all of this came from this simple fact of how unique and great his music and dancing really was. It was produced, executed, and recorded to the highest level, and it will keep on influencing peoples’ lives beyond our years.”
– Mike Moreno
“MJ is an icon. Unbelievably talented and devoted his life to his passion for art and humanity. So hugely influential and groundbreaking, and seemed like such a beautifully gentle, caring soul. Growing up on his music, I think we all felt a personal connection. He makes us want to sing along, get up and dance, lay down and cry, stand up and shout, reflect upon and then actively do something. That’s what art should do. I will forever shake my head in amazement at his singing, his dancing; he was the greatest entertainer who ever lived and quite possibly ever will. No one can touch that.”
– Gretchen Parlato
“The feeling I always got from MJ’s music is that he never hid or second guessed his inner voice and passion. You undeniably feel every word and every dance move. So overwhelmingly inspiring.”
– Casey Benjamin
“I believe Michael Jackson was here to show us how small the world really is, and his vehicle was his talent as an entertainer. No matter where one is from, when one is born, what language one speaks, what doctrine one reveres, etc… most of the world that existed during or exists post his life has been moved deeply by Michael’s talent. This is evidence of something much larger than fame. It is evidence of what is possible. Genius, in my opinion, is not measured by mere talent. It is measured by what those talents have contributed to the world. His impact on us was so huge because he constantly had a vector, a purpose for the talents he was given.”
– Marcus Strickland
“Nobody has been MEGA famous for as long as he has. Also, with the ability to change and be a pioneer in each change. He is a master vocalist-performer-dancer and just has a musical sound of his own. Not to mention he has inspired everyone, and is hands down, the most famous person to walk the Earth.”
– Robert Glasper
“Michael Jackson was clearly an artist of the highest order. Perhaps the quality that he possessed which stood out to me most was his ability to convey a particular message with utmost sincerity, sophistication, character and execution. His influence is seemingly infinite and his legacy will live on forever. I am truly grateful that I was born during his lifetime.”
– Marcus Gilmore
“Michael was a beacon for excellence as an artist. He was always looking for the next level of perfection.”
– Kendrick Scott
“MJ is the epitome of timeless. His influence on my generation is profound. From his music to the ‘Beat It’ jacket. You wanted to sing, dance, and be like Mike. And that impact is just as strong on my 5-year old.”
– Keyon Harrold
“Michael Jackson was a great inspiration to me for many different reasons, but there are three that stand out. One, he checked out and absorbed everything. If you listen to songs or look at videos of MJ when he was young, he knew James Brown, Ray Charles, and all the legends that came before him. He knew many genres of music and appreciated them. I even saw a video of him tap dancing to Mingus on You Tube. The beautiful thing is that you can hear all of these influences in all the music he did. Two, he was a true activist/humanitarian. He wasn’t afraid to speak out about the bad things that were going on in the world. He wasn’t passive and he put his thoughts in his music. He wasn’t trying to be politically correct and didn’t care what others thought. Three, he was all about moving forward. If you look at MJ throughout his career, he always surrounded himself with those that were current and had something fresh to say. He reminds me of Miles Davis in that way.”
– Jaleel Shaw
“Michael Jackson single-handedly squashed every stereotype in music. His God given ability, style, and personality are the blueprint to date.”
– Kenneth Whalum III
I loved the cartoons in the Thriller record sleeve.. The one of MJ and paul mccartney pulling the girl was particularly memorable.. Seeing that image, it was hard to hear the song and not laugh! That record and the album art were definitely a highlight of the Vasandani family record collection.
– Sachal Vasandani
“MJ for me was and still is the total package of an entertainer. He had everything: the voice, moves and the charisma. He was always striving to better himself as an artist. He never took his talents for granted. He always knew where he was going and what steps to take to get him there.”
– Johnathan Blake