Growing Up Jazz Part 1: The Biggest Lesson

The first time I sat down with Dara Roach, I walked out on her. I returned to the bar and grill in our Brooklyn neighborhood, but only after a much needed 30-second breather to digest the bomb she dropped on me, most casually between sips of her white wine. Up until this moment, I knew that Dara was a bright, beautiful woman with a magnetic smile. I knew she was, like me, a new mom looking to connect with like-minded local families, with a goal to further enrich our young toddlers’ social activity; the mission which brought us together that evening. All of this was more than enough for me to know she was a special person. That Max Roach was her dad…well, now, for this I wasn’t prepared.

Photo Credit: Kelley Vollmer Bruso

Misunderstand me not, this information did not lend itself to superficial surmising, or anything ridiculous like that.  But we’re talking about Max Roach, who happens to be one of my biggest cultural heroes.  Though I had not known Max Roach personally, he was close to my heart, symbolically.  The social and political underpinnings of his artistic expression and his inventiveness as a modern jazz pioneer, place him as one of the most significant African American figures of the last century.  I, like so many others, had attended his memorial service at the Riverside Church in Harlem three years earlier, and shared in the huge sense of loss and love the world felt with his passing.

Dara forgave, understood and found the humor in my sudden departure, and it opened up a wonderful discussion about family, and all of the dynamics and nuances that only a jazz kid can relate to.  The daughter and niece of jazz musicians myself, I felt a bond with Dara which propelled our neighborly association into an instant kinship.  Jazz’ll do that to you.

Growing up with such a distinctive patriarch is one thing, but Dara’s mother is a beacon all on her own; an Emmy award winning journalist, author and historian, with the nation’s first graduate degree in Black Studies, to be more specific.  Abundant fruits of such a parental powerhouse’s labor seem inevitable, and evidenced by Dara’s impressive resume, they are.  In addition to having spent years as a television producer for CBS News, TVOne, and BET News, Dara is the co-founder of Mosaic Digital Media.  She also, along with her four siblings (including her twin sister, Ayo) handles her father’s estate.  The saying, “To whom much is given, much is expected” comes to mind when I think about the massiveness of the latter.  Dara’s admirable level-headedness about it all seemed rooted in her very upbringing.

“My father is a musician with a very intense social political perspective on everything; his music, his life,” says Dara.  “[Yet] we grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut.  We were born in the City, then quickly moved to Massachusetts.  And then when I was a little kid, we moved to Greenwich, pretty much during a time when we couldn’t even go to the Greenwich Country Club because we were Black.  So you’re in this environment where you really are a kid [who’s like a] fish out of water.  I used to call us The Addams Family, because outside of my bedroom door in this huge mansion was a picture of Malcolm X…and that was the kids’ wing [laughs];  Malcolm X and all of these important figures in African American history.  So it was interesting.  I was walking between two worlds very early on.”

Dara with her parents and twin sister (courtesy of Dara Roach)

I’m not easily surprised to hear stories or experience incidents of modern-day racism, but I have to admit, I was taken aback that this type of legal, brazen bigotry had happened to someone in my peer group. And yet, it is Dara’s aforementioned calm demeanor about it which floored me once again.

“Because of who [my parents] were, so culturally identified, they realized this was something that has to change, and that bit of racism that we did feel was something they immediately discussed with us,” Dara explained.  “And even went as far as classism and racism within our own culture.  We weren’t allowed to be in Jack and Jill [of America].  And yes, we lived in the biggest house on the block, and [were] invited into these organizations…and nothing against Jack and Jill at all, but there were other Black families who were not invited because of their economic status.”  Being a child and dealing with such adult principals wasn’t always easy.  “Growing up with parents like that was kind of frustrating because every answer was no,” Dara reminisces with laughter.  “I wasn’t allowed to watch most TV shows, and thank God for The Cosby Show because that was about it!  But at the same time, they were trying to let us understand that we are who we are, we don’t tolerate discrimination, [and] we don’t tolerate any kind of generalizations…we just don’t tolerate it.”

The instilling of the level of fearlessness and confidence Dara describes, put the world at her fingertips, but professionally, Dara decided initially, she didn’t want any parts of entertainment. “It’s funny when you grow up around artists and musicians,” says Dara. “I remember when I first got into media, I was doing PA on film sets, and the question of whether or not I wanted to be in entertainment came up. But I wanted to keep my entertainment entertaining, and as long as you know these people and are behind the scenes, it’s not. I want be in a seat, in the orchestra, enjoying the show [laughs]. So I mean I love musicians, love my friends and family but sometimes you just wanna show up and be that wide eyed audience member, and not know that, ‘Well, this wasn’t supposed to be that way.’ So I said I’m going into news, which I did for many, many years… which is entertainment somewhat. It was a lot of fun, and now I don’t have a problem with it. I like the business of anything, whether it be music…. but at first I felt like I didn’t even want to be near it. I want to have fun, I want to enjoy it.”

However, having such a paramount figure like Max Roach for a father doesn’t quite give one a choice when it comes to being “on the scene”, especially in the wake of their passing.  As Dara explains, an understanding of the business and a solid, impermeable family foundation make it easier to deal with being responsible for the legacy a parent leaves behind.

Dara & Dad (courtesy of Dara Roach)

“It’s important to know that the responsibility of your legacy is the artist himself. If you do not make plans for your legacy, and you just leave it in your children’s hands to figure out, you are in trouble. Going through this process, which we haven’t even started, is a lot, if you haven’t made plans. And this is sort of like a PSA to musicians. There are people out there to help you figure it out. All artists, do it now. My father kept every piece of paper, and he has an amazing collection. He said he wanted to keep it together. We are doing that.” In terms of how these insurmountable tasks are divvied up, Dara says, “He put my older sister, Maxine, in charge of that and she’s been diligent in documenting everything that he held on to. We all participate in different ways, but she’s been very diligent and helpful. She’s also been very hands on in terms of preserving my father’s archives. You can also find someone who can help you through the process but you always want to be informed, and I think we’ve gotten really well informed, and we work together as a team.”

Among the many ways Dara and I relate, I have also felt the pain of losing a parent.  My father was a musician revered for his brilliance as a trumpeter.  The dichotomy between parent or human being, and legend can be a difficult one to process, especially once they have left us.  However, the carrying on of a legacy, which is probably the greatest responsibility a child can have, can also be one of the most healing tasks.

“Always keep our institutions in mind.  I think we should always keep our institutions in the loop,” Dara says regarding the sharing of jazz musicians’ tangible history.  “Some of them are newer, or not as well endowed but figure it out, I think that’s really important.  You want to make sure that you keep them in the loop despite experts who may not say this because they want everything to stay together — but if we don’t support our own institutions, who will?”  Dara is making good on this imperative philosophy, working with, for example, the Smithsonian, whose National Museum of African American History and Culture is slated to open in 2015.

“As well, I’m personally working on his digital legacy,” Dara announces. “So we are working on a website that’s going to honor him and keep his name and legacy out there. I realize, [for example], how twitter has exploded. Now, through the digital world, you can bring in and aggregate everything on Max Roach, so people are doing YouTube posts, or around his birthday, you always see a Twitter or Facebook, or Pandora spike. So we’re working on a site that is going to feed all of that in, and be like a living legacy. So everyday, we’re going to feed it by letting people see what you wouldn’t normally see from his collection. I’m really excited about that specifically, because I feel that’s another way that families can keep the legacies alive.”

Dara’s active participation is not only out of love for her father, and those who loved him, but a fierce protection as well. “You want to have a system for dealing with the fact that people are going to need certain things, whether it is photographs, book requests… people want interviews, people are writing books, they want this and that, and it’s important to have that public space, because one of the things that we’ve realized is that we have a responsibility to help people understand who he was and be accurate and if we’re not accessible, if no one even knows who to contact….like the Smithsonian contacted me through Facebook, which is great, but you want to be able to make that accessible so that people don’t have to look so hard and so that he can participate in things like the African American Museum at the Smithsonian. So that his legacy is involved when they are doing a book on jazz and bebop. You want to make sure that, even though he’s not here, he’s represented, and represented accurately. That’s a part that is really important to us — to keep his memory alive, and keep it accurate.”

Though I never had the honor of knowing Max Roach personally, who he was as a man had always shown brilliantly through his music.  Now, I can see through the beaming light of Dara Roach, who he was as a father.  “The biggest lesson learned from my father was to never underestimate your value.  Never pigeon hole yourself.  Embrace who you are and what your potential is.  My father is a person who believed in me and my ability to do anything, and I think that’s because he believed in himself and his ability to do anything.  He didn’t become “Max Roach” because he decided that he was going to let anybody tell him what to do.  We didn’t live in Greenwich, Connecticut because he decided that he was going to take whatever you want to give him.  So that idea of not compromising and knowing your value is the biggest lesson that he gave me, hands down.”♦

Read about one of Max Roach’s most significant albums, We Insist!, in my discussion with Christian McBride for the “Message In Our Music” series.

A Message In Our Music Part 2: Christian McBride

Simply put, there are bassists, and then there’s Christian McBride.

With a career as a musician, composer, arranger, and producer, which began two decades ago, McBride has since set thee standard and captivated fellow musicians and audiences alike with his astounding technical superiority, his inventive, demiurgic vocabulary, and a sound which is as tremendous as the Philly native’s outgoing presence and infectious charm.  McBride is the most significant bassist to come along in the last twenty years, and is inarguably, one of the greatest to ever play the instrument.

In and outside of the jazz genre, McBride has collaborated, recorded, arranged for and performed with many of the most essential artists in the business: Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, McCoy Tyner, Roy Haynes, Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock, Pat Metheny, Isaac Hayes, Chaka Khan, Natalie Cole, Lalah Hathaway, Sting, Carly Simon, Bruce Hornsby, The Roots, D’Angelo, Queen Latifah, and Kathleen Battle.  You can also add the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, to this royal roll call.  (McBride is a self-proclaimed James Brown connoisseur and avid footage collector.  Don’t go there with the man.)

McBride has an illustrious recording career, with over ten albums as a leader, and his latest album, The Good Feeling (Mack Avenue), earned him a Grammy award this past week.  His first big band recording, McBride rallied an array of dynamic musicians including Steve Wilson, Ron Blake, Nicholas Payton, and Xavier Davis.

 McBride has a long history of making bold statements away from his instrument, an attribute which has resulted in the imploring of so many esteemed organizations and initiatives.  He spoke on former President Bill Clinton’s town hall meeting “Racism in the Performing Arts”.  His four movement suite, “The Movement, Revisited”, which is dedicated to civil rights pioneers Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was commissioned by the Portland (ME) Arts Society and the National Endowment for the Arts.  In 2005, he was also named co-director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.  Reminiscent of the protagonism of James Brown, McBride has an uncanny ability to use his musical stature to foster social awareness.  It was an honor to sit with him, especially for this particular occasion.

Check out our discussion about three of McBride’s most essential politically-influenced albums.

Sonny Rollins Freedom Suite

“Well you know, Sonny has been a master of his instrument and craft for so long,” says McBride.  “Particularly if you listen to Sonny in the 50s.  His sound, his vibe… everything about him was pure Harlem.  I bought this record when I was in high school… maybe 9th or 10th grade. The reason why I love the freedom suite so much [is because]…if you ask most Black folks our age, and maybe even a generation before, what the greatest protest album, or politically aware album is, they’ll almost always say [Marvin Gaye’s] What’s Going On.  And I don’t have a problem with that.  We all know that it’s an absolute masterpiece…an unquestionable masterpiece.  But I find that’s the only album most people know.  That was 1971.  Freedom Suite is 1958, and the jazz musicians have been ahead of the political/musical curve for a very, very long time.  The Birmingham bus boycott was only three years old, and to my knowledge, Sonny Rollins and Max Roach were the only two musicians from that generation really overtly dealing with it.  Even in Sonny’s liner notes, where he talks about the “American Negro”.  To think that Sonny was that aware, or jazz musicians were that aware and would make a record about it in 1958…that really says a lot.  And so we know that he was obviously very socially and politically aware and active but then the music, the piece itself…the Freedom Suite…man, that’s some of the greatest music ever.”

As likely with many of my readers, I have felt a sense of social and political abandonment in Black popular music and other artistic mediums, which is quite disheartening.  To think that we’ve “arrived” in any way, is a sadly misguided ideology, and one I believe to be very dangerous.  Struggle is not akin to weakness.  In fact, it is quite the contrary.  To me, struggle is action.  I asked McBride about this expression in jazz and whether or not this is something that has, as in popular music, been wiped from the musical dialogue.

“I think there are a lot of cats out there who are making some very serious music that is politically and culturally aware,” says McBride.  “It might not have the same impact as it might have in the 50s when it was still, relatively, an unheard of thing.  But I think there are some musicians now whose creativity is fueled by what goes on in our culture and our world.  People like Orrin Evans, Russell Gunn…I myself have written an opus which will hopefully be released this year on Mack Avenue.  I think there are a lot of cats out there who really know what’s going on.  How it would be accepted is another thing.  Because I think we’ve all gotten too comfortable.  And I don’t mean that in the sense that to be politically and socially aware, that necessarily means that you have to be angry, but you gotta at least speak up for what you believe needs to happen.  Like Nicholas [Payton] starting people talking again about Black American Music…and I whole heartedly agree with him 100%.  Especially with the part [about the] resistance anytime Black people want to claim something.  We take different approaches to how we convey the message, but the sentiment is exactly on the same page.”

 Max Roach We Insist!

I was really happy that Christian picked this album to discuss, particularly because of the presence of Abbey Lincoln.  As discussed with Jason Moran in Part 1, anytime a woman’s perspective can be added to the discussion of social justice in America, it is to the benefit of everyone.

“I got to play that piece once with Branford Marsalis; it was me, Branford and Brian Blade,” McBride reminisces.   “That was so much fun.  But anyway, Max is on the Freedom Suite, and Sonny of course, was in Max’s group with Clifford Brown in the 50s.  Once the movement really did become “The Movement”, Max Roach was there early.  Max was very outspoken; he was very politically active in the movement before it caught fire.  He and Abbey.  When you hear Abbey Lincoln singing “Driver Man”…she’s another one.  When it comes to the civil rights era, music and black females, sadly, I think she unfairly gets overshadowed by Nina Simone.  But Abbey…you’ve got to give her her props.  What she and Max did together for many, many, many years — not just on We Insist! either — was very much ahead of its time and very influential on a broad scale because we all know Max was tight with Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier, and Dr. King, and the Black Panthers later on.  Max Roach was actually part of J.Edgar Hoover’s file cabinet; somebody did a story about that a few years ago.  He was being followed by the FBI.  Max was deep, deep in it.  So an album like We Insist! really puts it in perspective.”

Duke Ellington Black, Brown and Beige

Since Black folks came to this country, I suppose the issue of approach to our freedom has been a debated one.  During the civil rights era, the level of militancy neccesary was a constant debate, and what is deemed “militant” was another.  Even in music, this has been and still is, a point of contention.  Here, McBride illustrates how.

“There was an interview that Duke did for a Black newspaper in the late 60s, and the writer asked Duke, ‘Well how come you don’t write music for the people?’  The arrogance of youth, [laughs]!  And Duke, in his usual, classy, elegant and sophisticated style says, ‘Well I think I address those issues with Black, Brown and Beige’, and the guy says, ‘Well, what is that?!’

I have a hard time believing anything considered modern or…when you look at how we’ve evolved allegedly as a people, it’s hard to think that we made strides that Duke Ellington hadn’t already made long before anybody was even thinking about stuff like that.  You look at Duke Ellington’s music from the 20s, through the 30s, through the 40s…Duke was always addressing the beauties, the victories and the pains of Black folk.  Always been there, always.  So Duke was very much a role model and an example of someone who understood that he had a greater responsibility than to just write good music for his band.  He was always about the cry of his people.

Duke was always somehow able to express and convey the feelings of Black folk without being angry.  You could feel the sadness, pain, angst, but it was always done through this filter, this lens of triumph in the end… or hope.  I think that’s what separated Duke from the rest of the pack.

Now, speaking of this album specifically, you’ve got Mahalia Jackson.  These are two titans arguably at the peak of their powers collaborating together.  When you talk about fusion, to my knowledge, I can think of no greater example of one of the earliest collaborations of jazz and gospel. I know Milt Jackson and Ray Brown did it with Marion Williams in the 60s, but Duke and Mahalia…it gets no better than that.”♦

Listen to Dee Dee Bridgewater, Cassandra Wilson, and Dianne Reeves sing “Freedom Day” in honor of Abbey Lincoln on JazzSet live at The Kennedy Center.

Growing Up Jazz: An Inside Look at Family & Music

It’s Black History Month!

 Photo by Angelika Beener

Though television programming which celebrates Blacks throughout the month of February has gotten leaner and leaner each year, and an increased amount of savvy and investigative skills are required to find ways to observe the 29 day spotlight, I hope to be doing my due diligence here at Alternate Takes via a couple of very special series.  I’m really excited to share this one with all of you.

Black history is both perpetual and personal, and we can look at the history of Blacks in America from the broadest or most intimate of lenses.  In this next series, we are going deep into the heart of the music, with Growing Up Jazz, a unique look at the family dynamic of a jazz musician, through the eyes of his children.

We learn the most about jazz musicians through their art, as it should be.  The music, after all, says it best.  However, the music industry, critical analysis and brand marketing tend to dehumanize and disconnect him or her from the element that likely inspired the very art we hold so sacred — the family.  The edification of family is not often the first thing to come to mind when most think about a jazz musician; drug abuse and other ramifications of societal dysfunction are more accessible concepts, founded or not.  Yet, the family is and always has been a great source of inspiration and strength to jazz artists.  We’ll explore just how.

It’s coming soon!  In the meantime, Part 2 of A Message In Our Music continues this week, with the unparalleled Christian McBride!

A Message In Our Music Part 1: Jason Moran

Courtesy of Jason Moran

After assimilating the phenomenon which is Jason Moran, his eminence in music is even more mind-blowing once you consider the fact that he is just 37 years old. In addition to receiving just about every award, acknowledgement and accolade within the jazz spectrum, he is also recipient of the 2010 MacArthur fellowship, and has just recently filled the imperial shoes of the late Dr. Billy Taylor as the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Advisor for Jazz. Leading one of the most relevant and longstanding piano trios of our time, Moran has also performed and recorded with contemporary and legendary artists like Greg Osby, Cassandra Wilson, Steve Coleman, Sam Rivers, and Charles Lloyd. He’s a special guest on drummer Jack DeJohnette’s new release, Sound Travels; a stellar album with an array of artistic powerhouses like Bobby McFerrin, Esperanza Spalding, Lionel Loueke, and fellow Manhattan School alum, Ambrose Akinmusire. (Moran also produced Akinmusire’s critically-acclaimed Blue Note debut, When The Heart Emerges Glistening.)

His impressive resume aside, Moran’s influence as a pianist and composer is tremendous. The Houston native’s love for the visual arts has led to exciting and deeply resonant endeavors. It was a no-brainer for me to implore Mr. Moran’s participation for this project and it created a special opportunity to explore the mind of the man who is, as Rolling Stone magazine puts it, “shaping up to be the most provocative thinker in current jazz.”

Check it out, as Moran and I share some of our thoughts based around three pivotal social albums.

Charles Mingus Ah Um

“Mingus is…I think he’s related to me [laughs],” says Moran when asked about his decision to pick this album as part of our discussion.  “Only because I studied with Jaki Byard.  That’s how I think of my family.  Jaki Byard makes a lot of other people my relatives because I was really under him.  So, considering that Jaki was playing with Mingus was when they were playing much of this political music, I always think about what Mingus represented as sort of a much more hard-edged Duke Ellington, you know?”

An artist who has brilliantly utilized multi-media platforms to express himself as a musician, it’s no surprise that Moran would rely on more than the music to impact his students when teaching a master class at Manhattan School.  “I showed 45 minutes of [an episode of the PBS series] Eyes on the Prize.  It was the episode when they discuss the Little Rock Nine in Arkansas and Governor Faubus and…how crazy he was.  So I showed them the film for about 45 minutes, then at a certain point I just turned on a live version of “Fables of Faubus”.  It was around 12 minutes long…and then I watched the students react.  Because [for] most of them, “Fables Of Faubus” is just words or something that maybe Mingus made up.   There was a student from Finland in the class, and he said after watching it and listening to Mingus’ song, ‘Well, now it makes a lot more sense.  Because being in Finland, my friends and I used to always wonder where that energy came from.’  I said, ‘Yeah, exactly.’  This is an entire segment of the population whose life is dealing with stuff like this.  And we’re just watching an edited excerpt of people’s everyday lives.  You can’t imagine what that does to a population mentally and physically.  And we’re still trying to cope with all of that…even now.  So it broke down a lot of people’s understanding of society and the affects it has on music.  That everything is not just about a chord, or a melody or the greatest groove…it wasn’t about that.  It was therapy.  People were using the music as therapy.”

“You know, sometimes I go to these museums all around the world and they have portraits from the 1600s and 1700s, during the Victorian era [etc.].  Bunches of portraits…so we kind of get accustomed to seeing portraits of people other than us.  And in music, it doesn’t exist in the same way, but it’s part of the reason [my wife] Alicia and I are embarking on writing a series of portraits for artists we know, most of whom are African Americans, because for me, as a composer, I mean, I’ve written a song for my parents, and my family in Texas, but wow, maybe I should continue trying to explore that even further because what if you started to document your community?  Photographers document their community, writers document their community, or you’re doing it right now through an interview.  And musicians, what do we document?  How do we document our lives and the people who are around us?  That’s how you kind of put a date stamp on where the population is.  You take that moment to snapshot everything that’s around.  So Mingus does that.  He snapshots how crazy America is in the 1950s and 60s.   People won’t know that history so frequently, but here we are still talking about it.”

John Coltrane Live at Birdland

Personally, I will never forget the first time I heard John Coltrane’s “Alabama.”  It was haunting and spiritual on impact, way before I would learn of the gruesome events from which the song is inspired.  Spike Lee transports us to the height of tension in the Civil Rights movement in Malcolm X, when the song is a backdrop to footage of the brutal Jim Crow South, where four black girls Addie Mae Collins (aged 14), Denise McNair (aged 11), Carole Robertson (aged 14), and Cynthia Wesley (aged 14), were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama.  Written and performed by Coltrane just weeks after the tragedy, I have often wondered about how he dealt with something so devastating, so I was very excited when Moran suggested we talk about this album.

“I was at an event at Princeton and there was a panel discussion of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) members,” says Moran. “They were talking about how crazy it was to be down there in the South. Some of them were from up north and someone asked if there was a difference between how racism feels up north, versus how it feels down south. The panelist said the first day he got down south he was driving from the airport, and a cop pulled him over and told him, ‘I know why you’re down here, you need to get out of here.  You’re down here to make trouble.’ And that cop is not only the cop, he’s the sheriff, he’s the mayor, he has the biggest businesses in town. It was that massive and overwhelming sense of danger. Also, Nasheet [Waits] gave me some interviews of Kenny Clarke, and he’s talking about being down south with Louis Armstrong. When he got fired by Armstrong’s manager, they just kind of left him down in Georgia with his drums. A black cab driver was like, ‘What are you doing down here, you better get in this car’ and he took him someplace where Kenny was able to find his way back north. I mean, you can’t actually imagine this kind of trauma that people were feeling personally, and as a community. Then put it in the context of hearing about this bombing when Trane plays that song up North in New York…it’s like a hymn or a low moan. It’s impacting, it’s mourning, it’s most dark, you know? This is something real. It’s something prominent and it sounds like this. And it’s a collective moan of African America at that point.”

Nina Simone Live in Concert

Nina Simone is someone I was late to discover. Growing up, I was enthralled with the “singer’s singers” of jazz, and had not really given much thought to the magnitude of Nina Simone until I had, as my elders would say, “done some livin”.  Now that I have done just that, and more specifically, become a mother of a son who will become a Black man in America, the significance of Nina Simone in my life has increased exponentially. Moran suggested we talk about this album in particular because of “Young, Gifted and Black”, which for me,  feels more like the Black National Anthem than the actual one. It is the anthem which spoke to the time, and I think this makes it personal to me.

More from Moran…

“Sometimes I think the stylist — and there are lots of stylists within this canon — they change the context of the songs that they’re playing.  So Art Tatum adds all this dazzle and this sparkle and just feels like…I don’t know, like these really intricate chains from West Africa, you know?  Like these amulets of gold that kings and queens would wear, and now he’s paying a song like “When Sonny Gets Blue”, and he’s adding all of this to it, which is not there when the composer wrote it.  Same with someone like Earl Hines, where he’s adding these chords. So Nina is the same way. She sings these songs, and she’s totally changing the context.  Certain songs never sounded so real and pertinent to African Americans until they came out of Nina Simone’s mouth. You feel like it’s talking about your experience, so I think in a way, those kinds of artists also curate the kinds of songs that they think may have an abstract relationship to something political, but then she also does this boldly by writing these other songs. So here are these songs that honor these great people like Lorraine Hansberry with “Young, Gifted and Black”.  It’s a statement that marks the time in which it was written and Black Pride is kind of at its peak in the movement. So even the use of the word “Black” puts a date stamp on where we are. I remember my grandmother being in quoted in an article where she says she was colored, negro, black, and African American, all in one lifespan. So it date stamps it, which I think is just so important for the form. That you can look at the lexicon of African American songs that way. And also Nina as a pianist and how she accompanies herself, the kinds of chords that she uses, and how those sounds mix with the timbre of her voice…she was just unique all the way around.”♦

Watch a clip of IN MY MIND, the feature length documentary of Jason Moran & The Big Bandwagon’s take on Thelonious Monk’s Town Hall recording. 

“A Message In Our Music” Coming This February From Alternate Takes

Jazz (Black American Music) may not be the first genre to come to mind when dealing with the subject of music which is socially conscious, but it should.  While The Impressions, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, The O’Jays and Gil Scott-Heron gave voice successfully to the plight of Black America through song (and action), jazz musicians were making overt statements about race and culture many years before, and continued doing so alongside their peers across a range of musical classifications.

When we think about it, jazz music is essentially a personification of everything this country stands for in theory, but fails at in practice: freedom, democracy, liberty, and justice.  While some may condense the Black freedom struggle to the years that spanned the Civil Rights Movement, it’s not hard to understand why this is an incomplete and naive summation.  Within the last few years, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, Timothy Stansbury Jr., and James Craig Anderson have become household names and global reminders that America continues to bounce the check of equality that Dr. King so eloquently spoke of in his “I Have a Dream” speech almost fifty years ago.  From the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, to the African Liberation Movement, jazz has been an important musical narrative of the journey of Blacks in America for decades.

A Message In Our Music is a three-part series from Alternate Takes, featuring candid and enlightening conversations with modern masters Christian McBride, Vijay Iyer and Jason Moran.  Each will discuss jazz from this under-examined angle, while reflecting on the albums that are most meaningful to them on the subject.  Don’t miss this very special series this Black History Month!

#BAM at Birdland

L-R Ben Wolfe, Marcus Strickland, Orrin Evans, Gary Bartz, Nicholas Payton and Touré

After what has been wholly acknowledged as one of the most enthralling arts and culture debates of 2011, the Nicholas Payton-inspired firestorm over a post on the trumpeter’s own blog, which challenged the use of the word “jazz” has begun to marinate in its concept and mellow in terms of its seemingly incendiary intention, evidenced by last night’s first #BAM (Black American Music) conference, held at Birdland jazz club in midtown. Defenses were down and ears were wide open, as Payton led a panel discussion which included pianist Orrin Evans, saxophonist Marcus Strickland, bassist Ben Wolfe and veteran altoist ,Gary Bartz, who has been a long-time advocate of dumping the “j-word”, as jazz was relentlessly referred throughout the evening. Befittingly moderated by Touré, music journalist, cultural critic, and author of the provocative Who’s Afraid of Post Blackness: What It Means To Be Black Now, the conversation took a hiatus from the social network cosmos, challenging cynics who may have thought this argument would be fleeting at best and fall on its face at worst. “Just the fact that we’re all here about a word speaks of the issue that has been lurking underneath the surface for a long time,” said Payton. “This is not a new argument; this is an argument that has been had for many, many, many years. It’s just that now I feel we’re in a position to actually do something about it.”

Indeed the likes of Charles Mingus, Max Roach, and Miles Davis precede Payton and panel, when it comes to the aversion to the demeaning racial connotations the term “jazz” holds. Vince Wilburn Jr., nephew to Miles Davis, echoed his uncle’s sentiments from the audience, which also included pianist Geri Allen, author and professor Farah Jasmine Griffin, and journalist Stanley Crouch, to name a few illustrious figures who came to hear from Payton face to face.

Understanding the concept of disowning this term has been challenging on many fronts, even among fellow musicians, and many are wondering what relabeling the genre to one so broad-sounding as Black American Music can do in terms of marketing and selling product, as well as revivifying the music and its potential audience.  Others are concerned that labeling the music by race will have exclusionary consequences. “When you study the music it becomes quite clear that it is Black American music,” Wolfe contends. “And my question is, why is that an issue? That’s a beautiful thing…for everybody.” Payton underscored, questioning why no one challenges such undeniable cultural ties between Mexican people and Mariachi, or Polka and eastern Europeans, for example.

“No one is here on this panel because we’re talking about our career. This is about something I believe in,” says Evans addressing the afore mentioned concern. He argues instead that as artists taking such an anti-establishment stance, they have the most at stake. “I thought my house was going to be firebombed,” he joked, referring to his allegiance to the ever-controversial Payton. “So I don’t think anybody is out here to advance their career.”

The musicians on this panel may not be thinking career advancement per se, but there are many who are concerned with protecting theirs. Yet as jazz struggles through an incredible identity crisis, and very low overall marketshare (some 3% of all music sales, last I checked), one has to wonder what’s to lose. Outside of the term “jazz” having such deep racial connotations, it sets no clear musical indication, anyways. Jazz can be anything from Louis Armstrong to Kenny G…from Branford Marsalis to Mary J. Blige, depending on your location (the club or the cruise ship). So, while we don’t know what will come of the #BAM movement, and there are definitely some kinks to be worked out, it certainly has everyone’s attention (Payton’s recent posts have garnered upwards of 70,000 views and counting). That’s something we haven’t been able to say for “jazz” in quite some time. “We’re trying to find a more suitable label for this great music that is, for the most part, identified by a very, very arbitrary and disdainful word,” said Strickland.  “That’s what we’re here for.” ♦

Nicholas Payton plays Birdland through Sunday, January 8.

Thank you, from Alternate Takes

Well friends, 2011 is drawing near a close. This has been a really exciting year. I’ve been blessed to have reached some personal milestones, travel to different parts of the world, and experience the daily privilege of discovering the world through the eyes of the most beautiful person I know, my son Riley.

After many, many months of pondering and planning, I finally reached another goal, launching Alternate Takes this past spring. However, what has been even more amazing than getting my blog off of the ground, is the tremendous support and feedback I have received from my friends and readership. When I started Alternate Takes, in my heart I knew there was a place for it…a need for it, too. As I express quite often, no one group of people can dominate any subject without there being discrepancies, biases and even fabrication. Still, I didn’t know how well the messages I wanted to convey would be received. I’m not the first person to tackle these subjects within music and art, but matters of race, gender, and age are sometimes tough to navigate, even when your audience is the open-minded artistic type [wink, wink]. Somehow, going against the grain within these touchy matters can cause those who are not willing to hear you honestly, to label you as all the things you are not. Happily, I can say that not only has Alternate Takes been received with an overwhelming amount of support from those representing a spectrum of races, genders and ages, but as a result, many meaningful dialogues have been started, and in the process, I’ve met so many wonderful people who share a passion for this music, just like I do.

It is so important that I say this. As you know, in creating this blog, a huge stereotype I hoped to obliterate in the process was that Black women in my generation don’t love, know about, or support jazz. Since the time jazz music has been documented, Black women have been calculatingly omitted from the social aspect of its progression. The “common” Black woman is still forgotten, or worse yet, dismissed. This is an age old tradition which has successfully transferred a sort of unspoken public humiliation Black women face within the jazz scene which has written them off as simply disconnected and non-supportive. Hurtful as this is, the one thing I am most proud, is having had the opportunity to prove this to be a myth. With the launch of Alternate Takes, some of my greatest support has come from Black women. So many of you have diligently advocated for the relevancy and importance of an “Alternate Takes” type of platform. In a society which sends a relentless message that Black women, especially of this generation, are arch enemies, incapable of sisterhood, and culturally limited, you have gloriously exemplified otherwise; that we rally around each other and support one another’s positive efforts. Thank you for letting me know that you have my back, and for proving a bigger point, which is that Black Women Love Jazz!

To everyone who was gracious enough with their time to grant me an interview, thank you so much. The dynamic range of your talents and ideas are what has made this blog an interesting place for my readers to visit. I also thank you for your professional advice.

To everyone who has sent their tweets, shared a link on their Facebook pages, spread the word via word of mouth, and left their heartfelt, thought-provoking, and inspiring comments on all of these platforms, a huge thanks to you also. You really made the difference.

To my Nextbop family, thank you for inviting me on board as a contributor. It is humbling and invigorating to work with like-minded young people who love this music, dedicate and sacrifice their time, supporting modern jazz.

To every writer who has welcomed me into the journalistic jazz community — a HUGE thanks. Nate Chinen, thank you for speaking up about women writing about jazz, and for inviting me to participate in The Gig’s year-end roundup among such an esteemed panel of jazz writers and thinkers. John Murph, Ted Panken, Josh Jackson, Mike West, Howard Mandel, Matt Merewitz… thank you for the encouragement, advice, and kind words. NPR Jazz and Patrick Jarenwattananon, thank you for including Alternate Takes in your “Jazz Around the Internet” weekly roundups. Thanks to WordPress for being a great CMS and tool to facilitate the blog, and for thinking enough of my work to Freshly Press a couple features!

To all of the Alternate Takes readers, followers and subscribers, thank you for hearing me. From aficionados to the newly indoctrinated, you have received my voice with more than a fair ear. I’m so overwhelmed from all of the love, enthusiasm, and gratitude. I’m sending all of those sentiments right back to you.

2012 is going to be such an exciting year for music! I hope you will take the ride with me again as I bring you more interviews, editorial, and special series. When reading your emails and comments, there is one common thread that is most inspiring, and that is the expression of happiness that you have found a place which you believe is speaking to you, and the desire for me to “keep it going”. That is a promise I can keep! I will keep going.

In short (and long), thanks for embracing an alternate take. 😉

Coming up, look for features from artists who are releasing some of the most anticipated albums of 2012, and a special Black History series in February!

Have a blessed New Year!

All the best,

Angelika

On the Rise: A Conversation With Kris Bowers

Photo by Gianina Ferreyra

At the start of the second set at Greenwich Village’s Jazz Gallery last week, pianist Kris Bowers played for a packed and eager house.  A packed, eager, young, and particularly diverse house, to be more exact, with a look, vibe and mood much closer to a college music festival than what the typical jazz audience tends to resemble.  For a brief moment, I thought I was having auditory hallucinations with the amount of hoots and hollers being emitted from young, female voices.  It is a rare occurrence within the jazz club setting.  In Bowers’ performance debut as a leader, that would not be the last series of eyebrow-raising observations.

Bowers’ band for the evening was an assemblage of up-and-coming fresh faces in jazz with saxophonists Kenneth Whalum III and Godwin Louis, trumpeter Mike Cottone, bassist Earl Travis, and drummer Joe Saylor. The band of twenty-somethings played with a fire and focus beyond their years, performing an impressive amount of original material.  Bowers, who is an orchestrator, founder of a music company, and appears on the most significant hip hop album of the 2011, closed the moving set with a song from Bon Iver, the cutting edge indie folk band, which has been riddled recently with Grammy nominations.  At twenty-two years old, it would be impossible to prognosticate a journey which is just beginning, but it is clear that Kris Bowers is setting a precedent of individuality, pushing the jazz envelope with a fierce, yet understated momentum.

If I’ve misled you to believe that his musical boundlessness and vast experience compromises his significance as a bonafide jazz musician, let me set that record straight nice and early.  He is a tremendous pianist, with a world of history underneath his fingers and a wise restraint balanced by a conspicuously original sound.  He’s a bad cat.  He convinced a panel of pianistic paramountcy (which included Herbie Hancock, Ellis Marsalis, Danilo Pérez, Jason Moran and Renee Rosnes) of just that, taking first place at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition earlier this year, beating out some of the best undiscovered pianists in the world.  An experience Bowers described as nothing short of nerve-racking, “I was nervous, definitely.  Because you know, those were like all of my favorites [on the judging panel].  I hadn’t really met any of them…I knew Jason [Moran] but other than that I hadn’t met any of them, so to be playing all this stuff that I pretty much got from most of them [laughs] I was trying to…play the best that I could.”

Like most musicians on the New York City jazz scene, Bowers hails from outside of the five boroughs, specifically Los Angeles.  Initially studying classical music, Bowers made an organic transition to jazz, which he studied at both Colburn School for Performing Arts and Los Angeles County High School for the Arts (LACHSA).  After graduating in 2006, Bowers moved to New York, continuing his studies at the Juilliard School.  “The jazz scene in LA…I mean it’s kind of sad.  It’s pretty bleak,” says Bowers who is now a second-year master of music degree student in the Juilliard Jazz program.  “Mostly because of the geography of the city.  It’s so spread out, it’s kind of hard. Like, we don’t have an area like the Village where there’s a bunch of clubs you can go around to and to get together to play…it can take an hour to drive to somebody’s house, [for example].  And then unfortunately, a lot of the clubs are closing down, like The Jazz Bakery.  There’s just not many places to play out there.  I think most of the people want to come to New York once they feel like they’ve gotten to a certain level, or feel like they’re ready.”

Bowers’ New York state of mind has proven to be a wise one many times over.  If you’re going to be in the right place at the right time, New York is always a good place to start.  Twists of fate work their magic best in The Big Apple, as Bowers explains how a chance subbing gig landed him on the Kanye/Jay-Z magnum opus, Watch the Throne.  “Casey [Benjamin]  plays with Q-Tip and he was on tour with [Robert] Glasper, and he recommended me to do this gig at the Brooklyn Hip Hop Festival, and it just so happened that at that gig, there were special guests like Busta Rhymes, Black Thought, Monie Love, and Kanye, and at the time they were finishing up a couple tracks from Watch The Throne that Tip was working on, and they wanted me to play some string parts on one song, and to write some piano parts on this other song, so it kind of all happened in a matter of days.”

Writing string parts was likely no tough task, as you can add budding film scorer to Bowers’ resume.  “That’s something I definitely want to get into, honestly more than playing…especially eventually,” admits Bowers.  “I’d love to be able to dig into that.  I’ve always admired the role that music plays in a film and how it helps tell the story and how great music can enhance a film and bad music can ruin a film…just how much power the music has.  And also that it’s a literal translation of emotion; trying to compose and trying to write music that sounds scary, or sounds like this person is falling in love, or this person is angry…”

Photo by Gianina Ferreyra

With so many facets to Bowers’ career, and his vast musical inclinations, it’s exciting to think about what is in store in terms of his debut album, scheduled for an early 2013 release on Concord.  “I have a couple of ideas, a couple of special guests brewing who are pretty awesome,” says Bowers who is currently forming his band, something about which he is particular.  “The main thing I’m going for with the band is that I want to feature a band full of guys in our generation. Just because I feel like a lot of these guys with their first albums, it’s just [about] names and they have these veterans, and that’s understandable…but I feel like playing with the people I’m friends with and who I know are going to put as much energy [into the record] as possible.  They’re not just doing it for a paycheck.”

He elaborates further taking a cue from a master with whom he shared recent company.    “Like Herbie’s debut album Takin’ Off.  He had Dexter Gordon — he was a veteran — but everybody else on the record was around Herbie’s age. Even though now they’re jazz legends, at the time they were just like one of Herbie’s contemporaries, so I feel like what I want to do is play with people who are my contemporaries.”

There is certainly no shortage of worthy peers from which Bowers can choose.  The well of young talent in jazz today is startling; most notably on Bowers’ own instrument, particularly as it pertains to African Americans.  Not in the last fifteen years (at least) has there been such a surge of rising Black pianists, all making their mark in the same generation.  Bowers is in great company with the brilliant likes of Sullivan Fortner, Christian Sands, David Bryant, Joshua White and Johnathan Batiste, to name a few.  “It’s pretty great,” says Bowers of the strong representation.  “I remember even being in high school and kind of realizing that there were like three black kids in the jazz department…in an arts high school…in LA.  And when you think about the fact that this is our music…so yeah, it’s pretty great to see some young, Black piano players and all be kind of on the rise.”

And climbing fast.

===================

Getting To Know You…

AT: Who are your favorite pianists of now?

KB: Well, of people closer to my age, I would say Sullivan Fornter is one of my favorites, and also John Batiste.  Also, Lawrence Fields, Gerald Clayton, [Robert] Glasper, Aaron Parks…

AT: Do you have any favorite albums that came out this year?

KB: That new Thundercat album.  (Incidentally, that’s one of my favorites of this year also…but you’ll have to wait for the Alternate Takes Best of 2011 post for more details!)

AT: What are your favorite Hip Hop albums?

KB: The Low End Theory by A Tribe Called Quest.  That’s definitely one of my favorites.

AT: The last thing you listened to on your iPod?

KB: Bon Iver

AT: Name one person you would love work with?

KB: Quincy Jones

Kris Bowers performs Saturday, January 28th at the TriBeCa Performing Arts Center at 199 Chambers Street; (212) 220-1460, tribecapac.org.


Geri Allen On First Christmas Album & Embracing It All

Photo by: Karl Giant

Geri Allen is, with all certainty, the renaissance woman of Modern Jazz. Musician (and more pointedly, instrumentalist), scholar, professor, woman, mother, and African American, Allen has deepened the possibilities of what it means to be a jazz musician. It is likely for this reason that she has been recognized in ways not characteristic of typical jazz commendation. She is the first woman to receive the Danish Jazzpar Prize, she is a Guggenheim Fellow for Musical Composition (2008-2009), she has received honors and awards from various universities, as well as receiving the first Soul Train Lady of Soul award for jazz and an NAACP Image award nomination. Her ever-enduring desire to teach and learn is immersed in her artistry. She is a professor by profession, but she is a natural scholar.  With Allen, nothing is surface. Her works are always layered with a combination of cultural homage, imagination, and inventiveness. The jazz master, whose recording career as a leader is just shy of thirty years, is still embarking on uncharted territories, with the release of her first Christmas album, A Child is Born.

“It was really organic in the way that it happened,” says Allen as we talked during her layover to Pittsburg on a busy travel day. “It found its genesis in the church at Bethany [Baptist Church, in Newark, New Jersey]. We did a concert there two years ago, and the choir embraced the idea of doing this music, and I was so embraced by the church, you know? I felt like I had to come back…and I did come back. I felt so very grateful to be a part of it. So the music really did grow out of that… it has its foundation there.”

Beyond a mere word or concept, foundation has been a guiding principle in Allenʼs career, and while there are many who believe, on some level or another, that leaning on foundation and tradition is a surefire way to stagnate jazz, Allenʼs example could not be a truer testament to the opposite. One of the most innovative musicians in jazz, Allen believes firmly in embracing the totality of her culture in order to arrive at the highest form of artistic expression. “I think people who are innovators…they just donʼt drop out of the air,” says Allen of the idea of separating innovation from tradition. “There is something in place, something that was developed from a body of collective work, something the field or the culture agrees to call innovation, a body of work which has to be acknowledged and evolved within and through, a living and breathing criteria which can then be defined as innovation. There is a foundation in every culture, a respect for its traditions which are celebrated within, and then shared with the world. These define humanity at its best. I donʼt think innovation exists without an acknowledgment of and respect for foundation or culture.”

Allen holds fast to this concept most endearingly on A Child Is Born. The granddaughter of a Methodist minister, she grew up in the church, and found “deep connection” in that sense of community and heritage. She also made a trip to Bethlehem a few years ago, an experience she says undoubtedly influenced the making of this album. “We played the first Jerusalem Jazz Festival, [so] as soon as we got off of the plane and set our bags down, we went straight to the Western Wall, where people are praying and leaving prayers on the Wall. I canʼt even express the feeling of that communion between the people there. And so we performed and then we felt we were so close to Bethlehem, there was no way that we were going miss the opportunity. So, we made the trip there twice, and it was an amazing…I mean,to go to the place where Christ was born, to be there in the cave, to spend time there in meditation, it was certainly life-changing.”

A Child Is Born (Motéma)

Far from a setlist of re-harmed holiday heart-warmers, A Child Is Born is, for one, powerfully thought-provoking, at times pensive, which is a most appropriate evocation of mood given the deeply historical framework of this project. Emory Universityʼs Professor of Music, Reverend Dwight D. Andrews puts it best in his eloquent liner notes for the album in saying, “Ms. Allen has managed to capture the wonder and mystery, innocence, beauty, and hope of the Christmas season.” Comprised of a thoughtful mixture of classic and original repertoire, Allen explores traditional and ancient themes with interpretations of “Imagining Gena at Sunrise” and “Imaging Gena at Sunset” supported by stunning cover art by artist Kabuya Pamela Bowens, which depicts the Black Madonna and Child. The traditional “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” includes stirring vocal samples from the women of the Quilt Collective of Geeʼs Bend, Alabama. Her own “God Is With Us” is based on Matthew 1:23; the angel coming to Joseph in a dream with the message that the Virgin Mary will give birth to a son, Emmanuel, whose name is the titleʼs translation.

Allen also breathes new life into familiar Christmas repertoire with songs like “Away In a Manger”, “Silent Night”, “Angels We Have Heard On High”, and most notably for me, the Thad Jones classic, “A Child Is Born”, a performance which she dedicates to the composerʼs late brother, the illustrious pianist, Hank Jones, who himself was a genius at infusing modern gospel chords and substitutions in jazz repertoire. Allen channels Jones with her exquisite improvisations, marinating in the allure of the song’s chord changes, (and irresistibly quoting the Morey-Churchill classic, “Someday My Prince Will Come”) before getting to the songʼs melody a little after the half-way mark. Allenʼs virtuosic execution, gospel warmth, and breath-taking improvisations on this musical celebration of Christmas are, like all of her work, layered with meaning and reverence, presented with modernism and beauty. It is a balance she strikes unfailingly. Then again, sheʼd have it no other way.

It would be almost impossible (and almost irresponsible) for me not to delve further into this issue of tradition and modernism with someone as brilliant and gifted as Ms. Allen, as she defies the notion that giving reverence to tradition and foundation not only isolates oneʼs artistry, but subsequently pits one against a younger generation of musicians. Beyond Allenʼs originative musical demonstration, she is also one of the biggest advocates and supporters of the next generation of jazz musicians, teaching, mentoring, and hiring them. At this past Monterey Jazz Festival, I caught some of the set from her much buzzed about group Timeline, which features along with bassist, Kenny Davis, the young talents of drummer Kassa Overall and dynamic tap dancer, Maurice Chestnut. “There is a basic issue of connectedness to the culture, and the musicians…have to make an investment in that,” says Allen. “For me, there are certain musicians that I always felt made a really clear investment in that, and when I was growing up in Detroit that was just the way we did things. I mean, the people would come out and dance to the music, they understood what it was about, and they were just in it, because it was a part of the culture, and I think thatʼs what Iʼve wanted to have; that experience within jazz.”

Photo by: Karl Giant

Dance, and tap in particular, is becoming a bit of an underrepresented art, making Allenʼs inclusion of this element of African American heritage in jazz all the more significant. “I think that those aspects of who we are, are what make our stories interesting and unique,” she says.  With a Masterʼs degree in Ethnomusicology from Pittsburgh University, Allen’s long-standing rep for infusing various components of African American history into the jazz element of the culture, is largely influenced by one of her greatest heroes, Mary Lou Williams.

Vijay Iyer, who I really appreciate,” says Allen, “had courage to make a comment some years ago in All About Jazz that basically says people…they go to school and they get degrees in jazz, and then they want to disassociate themselves with the musicʼs culture. They donʼt want to say that theyʼre playing jazz. Then they come up with these other descriptions that people use today [laughs] and he said, ʻWhen did jazz become something to get around or away from?ʼ I think Mary Lou Williams knew that.”

I found myself relating to what Allen was saying from a journalistic vantage. My frustration with the lack of diversity in jazz journalism, and subsequent disappointment in the coverage and acknowledgment of this generationʼs jazz musicians of color is a reflection of a consequence Ms. Allen so acutely discussed, offering a challenge that left me deeply affected. “There is a rainbow of talented, young people out here playing the music today, and that is wonderful, this music is and always has been all embracing. Looking at the next generation of African American musicians playing this music it is important that we continue to embrace these young people as well and encourage them to celebrate their roots, and if other people in the field are not acknowledging that, we should be. I think we have to continue on in the spirit of what Mary Lou Williams was saying, and Dr. Billy Taylor… our heroes would say, this is your culture, embrace it. You donʼt want to lose who you are. And thatʼs what happens when you donʼt embrace your culture…you disappear.  These aspects empower the music, when it remains connected to it’s source.”

I donʼt think Iʼve ever heard words on this subject that have hit me harder than those. Itʼs like I gained ten years worth of perspective in just those few sentences. Sure, the disconnect between Black youth and their cultural inheritance in jazz, is something that remains the major inspiration for this very blog. It is a serious problem. Yet, not until Ms. Allen framed the consequence so candidly, did it click on all cylinders. “Thatʼs what I impart to my students,” Allen continues, “and I have a very diverse and talented group of young people, and they are understanding that this is a music that is culturally based, and it is a music which comes from the African-American experience. If they really want to learn on a deeper level, then theyʼve got to embrace the culture, and I think thatʼs really where the heart of our conversation is. This is the norm with other world musics, you must deal with the cultural criteria. That premise is understood by artists, students, and scholars alike universally. Why is this language a problem when it comes to jazz, why does this idea rattle some people today?”

There may be a lot to fix, but Allen is optimistic — of both the future of jazz and its relation to journalism. She emits a gracious hope which is illuminated in her most recent work, but it is a characteristic she has always embodied.

“Itʼs OK for people to have opinions, thatʼs fine…and itʼs OK to publish opinions, and thatʼs fine. I feel strongly that there is a renaissance of amazing scholars in this area of African American music and culture. Iʼm looking at the writers, people like Farah Jasmine Griffin, people like Robin D.G. Kelley, and George Lewis…people of that ilk, who really are establishing a level of responsibility for how we will write about the music and how we talk about the music. And I just feel that these are the ways to look, [instead of] getting so upset about some of these other things that are not really dealing with the real core of what is happening in the culture. Like the book that Kelly did on Monk…that sets the bar of what the expectation of jazz scholarships should be…real, substantive research on the music, based on a respect for the cultural criteria accepted by the field … the folk. The music truly deserves this level of care. Ten years, you know, Kelly did that research. That kind of time and that kind of love and appreciation for the subject matter is where I want to go, personally, to find out what the facts were on a much deeper level. These discussions about our innovator’s contributions are thrilling. And I think weʼre going to see more of this.”

The beauty in Allenʼs resolution is that it includes and challenges everyone across race, gender and generations. Her powerful message to jazz musicians that true modernism is in the understanding, accepting, acknowledging and embracing of the entirety of the culture; not dismissing, deleting or wishing it away, is as bold and transcending as her life’s work. As journalists, it is this same message…this foundation…that will keep us honest, and tell it like it truly is, and that, says Allen, just like the blues, “is something that never goes out of style.”♦

Don’t miss Geri Allen performing the music of A Child Is Born at Bethany Baptist Church, in Newark, New Jersey on Saturday, December 17th.  Concert is FREE.  Visit her website for more information.  Additionally, partial proceeds from this recording go to the YMWCA of Newark and Vicinity (www.newarkymca.org), who, in association with Bethany, provide quality programs for children and families throughout the community, with emphasis on those in crisis. 

Ali Shaheed Muhammad: On Life and The Low End Theory

This past September marked the anniversaries of some of the most pivotal music of my generation.  It has been twenty years since Nirvana shook up the pop culture macrocosm with their momentous Nevermind album, turning indie rock into a mainstream phenomenon.  Pearl Jam has also reached the double-decade landmark with their album Ten, which was released just a couple weeks before. Growing up in the 90s, thirty-something music junkies like myself revel in these musical milestones, not simply for the nostalgia, but because of the actual genius of these ground-breaking stalwarts. However, there is one group whose essentiality matches that of their rocker contemporaries. Twenty years ago, A Tribe Called Quest released The Low End Theory.  Hip hop would never be the same.

The Low End Theory was released on the same day as Nirvana’s Nevermind in September, 1991. The similarities between these pioneering groups are quite noteworthy. Both bands were impressively polished and keenly focused before landing any big deals. Both bands released solid debut albums that helped build an eager following, and both bands subsequently blew the figurative roof off of the musical stratosphere with their sophomore follow-ups. Ultimately, both bands changed the way music could be perceived by melding aesthetics that had not been imagined previously. A Tribe Called Quest is undoubtedly the most innovative and musical hip hop group of the 1990s, and arguably of all time. Their heavy jazz influence would aggressively gift intricate harmonies, warm chord changes, and rare grooves to the genre. While the Marsalis camp pushed straight ahead jazz into mainstream relevance once again in the 80s, the early 90s would serve jazz to the collective young, Black community by melding more jazz-funk/jazz-soul leaning music with hip hop. Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues set off the decade with a major motion picture about the life of a modern day jazz musician, (with the help of Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland, Robert Hurst, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Terence Blanchard as the actual band). The movie’s soundtrack included a jazz history lesson wrapped in rap, performed by the late emcee Guru of Gang Starr, who foretold accurately, in the last line of the last verse… “The 90s will be the decade of a ‘Jazz Thing.’”

Now let’s flip to the first line of the first song off of The Low End Theory, where A Tribe Called Quest unabashedly coined themselves on “Excursions”.  With pristine diction and his signature cadence, Q-Tip flows over a lone, fat, hard-grooving bass line about his father drawing correlations between hip hop and bebop. Fresh out of the gate, Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad were making a loud and clear statement that jazz was an integral part of their musical identities. I sat down with DJ/Producer Muhammad about their recording milestone, their recent documentary, and got some backstory on their love affair with jazz.

“My introduction [to jazz] came from Q-Tip, really,” credits Muhammad.  It wasn’t a hard sell for the Brooklyn native, who is a self-proclaimed musical sponge.  Muhammad grew up listening to a myriad of Black music: Blue Magic, Earth Wind and Fire, Teddy Pendergrass, Kool and the Gang, Parliament, Slave, and his mother’s personal favorite, The Spinners. Additionally, his uncle, to whom Muhammad was very close, was a bassist, and exposed him to the live local music scene. Jazz was just a heartbeat away and the progression was a natural one.

Courtesy of Ali Shaheed Muhammad

“There were a couple of other groups that were sampling jazz at that time,” adds Muhammad in terms of exposure. “Gang Starr, Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth, Main Source, and even prior to us (at that point, we were the newer generation of hip hop), you had Stetsasonic, who called themselves The Hip Hop Band. This is before The Roots, but they were sampling jazz, and they even had a song called ‘Talking All That Jazz‘, which was a very historic moment in hip hop, [because] certain artists were not embracing what the artists were doing at that time by sampling jazz.  It was frowned upon.  You have Marley Marl, who was also a legendary, iconic producer, and someone who’s footsteps we wanted to follow; and he sampled soul and jazz.  So, there were a couple of people who introduced it, but I think the way that we delivered it was in such a way that had not really been done… in that capacity, in that manner, in that sound.”

Q-Tip, Phife, and Muhammad’s mixture of adventurous lyrics, rambunctious personae, hard beats and high-level musicality certainly set A Tribe Called Quest apart.  “One of the things that I think contributed to the success of The Low End Theory was actually the last single from People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, and that was ‘Can I Kick It?’,” recalls Muhammad. “[That song] pretty much opened the doors of love from MTV and they really embraced us with that video.  It was sort of quirky.  The director had just done some cool things that I don’t think had been done [previously], and he kind of continued it with the videos from Low End Theory.  He was pretty advanced in his thinking.  But in any event, that album pretty much, I guess, had given us this sort of alternative hip hop kind of stroking that MTV liked at the time, which was a pretty big thing at that time.  It allowed for your video to be in heavy rotation and at that time, videos, in some sense, were dictating the popularity of artists and bands.  You know, we had kind of left off with that alternative style, but yet still hard with the drums [on] ‘Can I Kick It?’.  And we had come back with an album that wasn’t as…bohemian as the first album. It was actually a lot harder. So I think at that time, MTV was still willing to be a supporter of the record and I think the record just spoke for itself.  The strong artwork on the cover…and we just took our position and stood strong and the music just fell into people’s hearts the right way and the rest is history.”
Twenty years worth.

Photo Credit: Klaus Schielke

While by the 1990s, artists were proving that hip hop had staying power, there are not many groups who have evoked sentimentality, relevance, and a continued sense of modernism the way A Tribe Called Quest has.  Perhaps, it’s for this reason which they were the subject of a recent documentary, Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the first of it’s kind on a hip hop band, directed by Michael Rappaport. We learn a lot about the band, on both personal and creative fronts.  Musically, you definitely come to understand the universalness which jazz offers to any musical amalgamation.  The best example would be The Low End Theory’s “Verses From the Abstract”, which features bass legend Ron Carter, who gets a closing shout out from Q-Tip right along with Pete Rock, Special Ed, and Big Daddy Kane.  A Tribe Called Quest had an ingenious way of creating a platform which was devoid of generational or cultural hierarchy, framing instead, an incessant, streamed portrayal of Black culture.  On bringing Mr. Carter on board, Muhammad explains, “The whole idea of having Ron Carter playing on the record came from Q-Tip.  He just has a style of playing that is perfect, and I think Q-Tip admired that.  And as he does, [he would] come up with an idea of like, ‘You know what would be cool? If we do this, that, such and such.’  He came up with the idea, and that happened to be one of the ideas that really stuck and he was adamant about it.  One phone call from one A&R, one musician and engineer, and this person, an affiliate… and next thing you know he shows up with his bass!  And like the professional who a lot of those jazz greats are, you give the charts, that’s all they need, they read the chart, say, ‘Where do you want me to play?’ look it over, ‘OK play here?’, do it, and then they’re out [laughs].  No hanging out, no vibing, talking and kicking it… just real quick. We were just like, ‘Wow, he’s here,’ like little puppies [laughs], and so we were really excited about him being there and grateful that he loaned himself to this project.”

But hip hop wouldn’t be hip hop without a little drama, right? Muhammad says curiously, “I found out later on through this journalist, I think a European journalist… he said, ‘Ron Carter seems to be not too thrilled with you guys because he played on one song and apparently he’s all over the record,’ and we were like, ‘What?’ No. He played on ‘Versus From the Abstract’, and that’s the song he’s on.  Some people thought we had sampled his bass and twisted it up and chopped it up and put it on several other songs, and I think maybe he even got that idea.  Now, I have not spoken to Mr. Carter since, so I don’t know if that’s true, or just some crazy rumor that a journalist started but needless to say, he laid his signature slides down on ‘Versus From the Abstract’, and it was pretty dope having him on there.”

This golden era of hip-hop set an unyielding precedent for die-hard fans like myself who are now frustrated with the state of today’s mainstream so-called hip hop.  I asked Muhammad about his thoughts on the turns the genre has made, especially as of late.  In his careful and thoughtful fashion, he’s quiet for a while before he responds.

Photo Credit: Shino Yanagawa

“When you look at the so-called R&B charts, they’ve merged hip hop and R&B together so…this time in hip hop reminds me of the 80s; mostly 80s pop music,” he starts.  “A lot of groups like The Family, or songs like ‘99 Luftballoons’, and all these synthy Euro-pop bands.  That’s what a lot of the hip-hop reminds me of now.  I think it lacks a bit of soul.  It lacks warmth.  It lacks something that you can cling to.  I can’t speak for everyone else, but my love affair with music just comes from hearing what an artist is doing and being able to connect with them, and with their story and I understand the story of most of the rappers these days, but it’s so self-indulgent.  It’s not really talking about anything that connects us as human beings.  Even the music is just so cold.  Like, I love chords and chord progressions.  There don’t have to be any vocals there…like jazz music.  It just grabs your soul, and I feel like in popular black music right now, there aren’t so many groups in the forefront who have that kind of pull.” He ponders a while longer, before finally concluding, “I guess hip hop is always a reflection of life…I say that a lot.  And right now, I think people are cold.  They’re going through a lot.  They’re suffering.  We’re suffering…but we’re so disconnected from what I believe, is a spiritual connection.  When you have an absence of God in your life and the Creator, then everything goes cold.  Your soul just becomes dark, [and] you may not know why.  We’re in this vacuum just existing, soulless.  So it’s coming out in the music.”

Muhammad’s astute summation is rooted in both his Islamic faith and his experience in the music business, which he has often intertwined, creatively. Before releasing his 2004 solo project Shaheedullah and Stereotypes, an album which addressed head-on, his experiences being an American muslim post 9/11 and the core values of his Islamic faith, he was an intrinsic part of the necessitous and fecund neo-soul genre, which was sparked by a collaboration with the demiurgic D’Angelo on Brown Sugar.

Shaheed was introduced to the prodigious singer and multi-instrumentalist by his friend, mentor, and subsequent Lucy Pearl musical bandmate, Raphael Saadiq. “[Raphael] worked with D’Angelo, and wrote and produced ‘Lady’ and Saadiq is like an older brother to me,” says Muhammad. “Every time he came to New York, he would look me up, and one time he said, ‘I have to play something for you,’ and he played me D’Angelo. Once that happened, if we were in New York, we were together.  Or, we would go to Raphael’s house in Sacramento and just record just for fun. Not with the intention of really doing anything with it, but then it was like this stuff is really good, we should do something with it.” Lucy Pearl, Muhammad’s second band, was originally formulated with Saadiq and D’Angelo in mind as the other two-thirds. Though timing did not allow (D’Angelo was in the middle of recording his Voodoomasterpiece), Lucy Pearl did release a string of danceable hits, adding singer Dawn Robinson (previously of girl-power R&B group, En Vogue) to the mix.

Nowadays, Muhammad is knee-deep in his solo career, working simultaneously on three separate projects, and continuing on his never-ending quest to hone his skills as a musician. “As a kid DJ’ing, sampling, and looking for records, you just look for the best pieces, open loops, elements and parts that you can piece or put together, and now I don’t have to rely on that,” says Muhammad. “I can play a chord progression on a guitar. Sonically, I know how to make my drums sound like something that was played in 1960 compressed a hundred times over and put on vinyl. I know how to do that with a live set, so it’s like I’m really buzzing right now. I’m real happy, because I’m like, all this stuff sounds like a sample and it’s not.” Suitable on drums, bass and piano, Muhammad has just one of his long-term sights on learning the cello. “There’s still so much I don’t know, as far as theory. I want to be able to have that sort of understanding, that connection with music,” he says.

Photo Credit: Melissa Louise O’Neal

Muhammad’s tremendous respect for and admiration of jazz has obviously helped shape his career, but it also continues to be a source of inspiration. “With Tribe sampling jazz music, it definitely brought this turn around and I think this new love affair for jazz again,” he says. “There was this period — and I mean no disrespect to the legends and the greats who have paved the way, and are still staying true to the spirit of the genre — but there was this point where the face of jazz was very pop [with] smooth jazz, and Kenny G, and that was the thing, and I think that things were getting light. And here we come sampling the era and the period that was, for us, very progressive and it pretty much defined the…how should I say this… it defined the good conscious and the bad conscious of a person but put it to music. You know like, the mid to late 60s and early 70s period of jazz was really mean, and I think a lot of it had to do with the struggle, the civil rights movement, drugs, you know all these things… free love, and really taking a departure from that period of jazz that came before. Jazz musicians were really breaking off from sticking behind one strong front person and beginning to find their own voices, and individualities and it was a really rebellious things to do.  So that period of jazz is what we gravitated toward and we just felt it.  And by reintroducing it, but in our own way and adding our own little twist, I think it brought a greater interest back and what ultimately had come from that was this next generation of jazz musicians who grew up on hip hop, who also grew up listening to jazz. You know, you have guys like Robert Glasper who is clearly throwing it in your face [with] the stuff he’s doing, you know, covers on hip hop songs but with his twist on it. But you can hear even some of the spirits of Ahmad Jamal, like you hear all these things, but there is still a rawness and an edginess to it, and the same element that makes hip hop so loved is that element of, ‘I don’t care what you think, I’m not trying to impress you.’ Robert does it really well.  You [also] have Kendrick Scott, Brian Blade, Marcus Strickland, Chris Dave…there’s so many bad guys out there. I love seeing these guys play because it makes me feel like I’m in that, or of that era, when Miles was around or Max Roach…when those guys were coming of age and really leaving their mark on the art form, and on the critics, and the journalists and all that, and making the genre special, you know?  I feel like I’m in that period when I’m seeing these guys play.  And this is far from the lull point, this is like the beginning of what is, for lack of a better expression, starting some shit.  And I think it’s beautiful!  I think it’s so beautiful.”

The contention that sometimes exists between jazz authoritarians and hip hop artists is an ironic kind for A Tribe Called Quest, who transfigured the genre specifically by marrying the two.  “For all those people who were hating on hop hip, you know, the purists…at some point it’s like you know, we really gotta turn that around,” asserts Muhammad.  We all come from the same place, and we have the same struggle and damn anyone for frowning upon the of growth of a culture, the musicians, the art form.  So I think you can definitely look back to the 1990s era of hip hip and say it really changed the mood or spirit of jazz.  For anyone who says something different, they’re just fronters…they’re haters.”