Marcus Miller: Suspending the Rules

As Marcus Miller catches me up on a major project he’d been working on over the last couple years, he stops mid-sentence to give me some background, humbly explaining, “I had produced an album called Tutu for Miles Davis.”

No big whoop, right?

When you talk to the bassist, composer, producer, arranger, and film scorer, his down-to-earth and disarming demeanor is center stage, while his illustrious career speaks volumes for itself. In the twenty-six years since that landmark album with Davis, Miller has carved out his own distinguished path, setting himself miles apart from the pack. His collaborative efforts include an esteemed list of trailblazers across musical styles and genres including Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin, Elton John, Mariah Carey and Herbie Hancock. He has also positioned himself as one of the most highly sought after black film scorers in Hollywood while simultaneously enjoying a successful solo career. On Renaissance (Concord Jazz), his eighth studio album as a leader, Miller’s message away from his instrument is just as profound as the music performed by he and his fresh band of dynamic, young players. “I think that music is really just a mirror to whatever’s going on in the world, and we’re just in a time where people are kind of playing it safe,” Miller proclaims. “People are nervous; people are thinking about money all the time, so they’re not taking the chances they used to take. It’s difficult — even if you’re doing something interesting — it’s difficult to get people to hear it. Record companies are just trying to stay in business so they’re not really concerned with presenting new, challenging music. So it’s more like the business people are calling the shots more than they used to. Back in the day, it was the music lovers who called the shots, and then they’d have to explain it to the business people. Not a lot of guys around like that anymore. Everybody’s just trying to keep the doors open. Music and business has always been an uncomfortable relationship, but right now the music is really suffering.”

Miller’s effortlessness at being completely himself oozes out of every corner of Renaissance, and if it’s about risk-taking, he has accomplished said mission on an album which directly references a span of over thirty years of black culture, including songs from Michael Jackson, WAR, and Janelle Monáe.  Although for Miller, it’s just a day in the life of a musician bred in the thriving 70s music scene of Jamaica, Queens. “It’s a reflection of the madness in my mind, which sounds really normal to me. It all just sounds like soulful black music. It’s all so related, so I don’t really hear it as eclectic as other people do.” Miller also presents some of his most prolific writing to date, with eight original compositions that showcase his talented band which includes trumpeters Sean Jones and Maurice Brown; alto saxophonist Alex Han; keyboardists Kris Bowers, Federico Gonzalez Peña and Bobby Sparks; guitarists Adam Agati and Adam Rogers; and drummer Louis Cato. The band has been touring extensively over the last two years, and came together around Tutu Revisited, a project started in tandem with the French Miles Davis exhibit, We Want Miles.

“The museum curator who made the exhibit asked me if I would play all the music from Tutu for the exhibit. So I said I would really like to do something in conjunction with this museum. Miles wasn’t really a guy who liked to look back… I’m not sure he would have liked that, but I said maybe if I get some young musicians who could reinterpret it and turn it into something from today, maybe that wouldn’t be so bad, so that’s what I did. I found Alex at Berklee, and he recommended a drummer, and the drummer recommended another musician, and next thing you know, I have this band of 20-something cats, and instead of two gigs, it ended up being two years on tour, because people started getting wind of what we were doing. I felt myself being re-energized with this band. The band before, I had for a long time, and I found myself playing different and playing with a different energy and I kind of got hooked on that feeling.” Like his iconic mentor, Miller now finds himself in similar circumstances — a source of inspiration, organically bridging the generational gap.

Marcus Miller and Kris Bowers. Photo by Bibi Green.

“Miles never talked about being a mentor,” says Miller. “I’m not even sure he was consciously trying to be a mentor but just being around him as a young person… that’s how young people usually learn from older people anyway. Not necessarily from hearing them run their mouths, but just observing them and seeing how they run their everyday lives, and I had the benefit of watching him for a little while and how he made decisions and was just getting through life and I think it really affected me. I couldn’t tell you exactly how. The only thing I know is that I try to get the best out of my musicians where they can shine. I try to put them in situations where they can discover something about themselves.”

To his point, Miller carefully crafted the exquisite repertoire found here with this specific group in mind and brought them in on the process, most notably on the arrangement of the 1971 classic, “Mr. Clean”, written by another early mentor and unsung cultural hero — the late, great “Young, Gifted and Black” composer, Weldon Irvine.

“I was born in Brooklyn, but at the age of ten, I moved to Jamaica, Queens, and started my musical life there,” Miller reminisces. “Eventually at about fourteen [years old], I started meeting these bad musicians from Jamaica like Omar Hakim, and Tom Browne and Donald Blackman… and when I first met them, every one of them would refer to Weldon. Weldon was the mentor of the Jamaica cats. He’d put together gigs, because all of us were too young, so he was the one to coordinate and call all the guys together to play, and he was the one after the gig who would have some of us sit in the back of his Chevy Nova and listen to it on cassette (because he would record everything). He’d ask us to explain ourselves… the musical decisions that we made. He’d make us tell him what we had planned for our lives…what our goals were. ‘Mr. Clean’ was like his theme song, and on every gig we’d do with Weldon, we’d play different versions of it. We’d do it really funky and nasty or really jazzy. We had an off day on the road while on tour a couple of years ago, and we decided to rent out a rehearsal studio and we just worked up our own arrangement. It was so great to see these guys discover something I discovered so many years ago.”

Vocalists Dr. John, Rubén Blades and Gretchen Parlato make memorable guest appearances throughoutRenaissance, with Blades and Parlato partnering up on a gorgeous rendition of Brazilian composer Ivan Lins’ “Setembro”. Dr. John is a stunner, dropping New Orleans-flavored rap verses on the Janelle Monáe smash, “Tightrope”.

“I was listening to that Janelle Monáe cut, and I was just like, man this is so sweet! I was listening to that bass line and I said that sounds like one of those New Orleans piano players from back in the day, sort of boogie-woogie. I said I want to do a version of this song and accent the New Orleans aspect of this song and show the roots of where it comes from. With Dr. John, as soon as he says one word, you hear New Orleans. So I called him up and asked him if he’d be interested in collaborating. I said, ‘One thing is you’re going to have to rap, so get ready.’ He said, ‘Man, I don’t know how to rap.‘ I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll teach you.’ So I flew to New Orleans and we worked on Big Boi’s rap, and it was a lot of fun.”

Though Miller is now of veteran status, he insists that the inspiration is reciprocal and he is just as passionate about learning from his bandmates. With a band whose members have worked with artists like Beyoncé, Kanye West and Mary Mary, Miller is seeing first hand how his reputation as a limitless musician is influencing the next generation of jazz players, who can sometimes struggle with a community which can be heavily divided at times on matters of authenticity and does not always reward the idea of boundary-pushing.

Marcus Miller and Kris Bowers. Photo by Bibi Green.

“I think the biggest thing to consider is that if Charlie Parker had listened to people like that, he would never have ended up playing the way that he did because bebop was so different from the music that preceded it,” Miller says. “And then you can go down the line: If Miles had listened to those people in the 50s, if Trane would have listened to those people, he would never have done what he did. [For] people who are a little less secure, it’s really hard for them to accept new music… because you don’t know the rules yet. All the jazz musicians who I admire like Sonny Rollins; he’s not scared of anything. Herbie Hancock; he’s not afraid. Miles wasn’t afraid. It’s just the kind of people who aren’t that talented and that open, who want to set up the rules because they feel uncomfortable; they know they can’t hang. I know jazz guys who put down funk music, and then I’ll be on a gig, and invite him to come sit it with us, and he gets his head blown off [laughs]! He can’t even get started, because funk music has it’s own set of rules. It has its own requirements. A lot of jazz cats don’t have the tools, and vice versa. Although funk cats are smart enough to stay off the stage! But I’ve played with Aretha Franklin. You wanna put down R&B as a jazz musician? Come with me and sit down while Aretha sings in front of you, and I dare you to pass judgement. Stevie, Luther Vandross, Donny Hathaway — come on! That is the top level of musicality. So you just have to respect these different languages. It’s like, stop being a snob, man.”

It would be impossible to have a career distinction as singular as Miller’s and not have such a philosophy, or at least something close to it. It would be even more unimaginable to be a product of the school of Miles Davis, and not push against the status quo. Miller’s ability to do so both unapologetically and authentically, will likely be a significant part of his legacy, and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

“It’s people in America who still want their music to be like European classical music… because with European classical music, the book is closed. You can’t write like Mozart anymore, you can’t write like Beethoven. That all happened, so European classical music has a real structure to it now because the book is closed. Once the book is closed you can put music in categories because it all happened and I think that there are a bunch of people in jazz who would like jazz to be the same way. They don’t really feel comfortable with what jazz really is. They’d rather it be America’s classical music, and they’re taking that shit too seriously. They’re trying to make it classical music, and jazz isn’t dead yet. Once it dies then you can say, ‘OK, this is jazz, that’s not jazz.’ As long as you got people out here still making it, you have to suspend the rules.”

** Writer’s Picks: “Detroit”, “Mr. Clean”, “Tightrope”

Gil Scott-Heron’s ‘Last Holiday’

“One of the things that was evident to me way back when I’d gotten into John Coltrane’s music was that you had to keep reaching.  I think when you stop reaching, you die.”  Gil Scott-Heron’s words are powerful when you think about the impact of the poet, author, musician and activist, (who would have been 63 years old this month), which produces a list as extensive in range as the profound gifts he shared with the world.  His social anthems “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, “The Bottle” and “Home Is Where the Hatred Is” not only elucidated the plights and resilience of Black Americans, but were progenitorial inspiration for hip-hop’s modern messengers like Public Enemy, Yasiin Bey (Mos Def) and fellow Chicago native, Common.  That his impact is perhaps even greater than we may have understood during his lifetime is what is most resounding in his posthumous memoir, The Last Holiday (Grove Press).  The book’s title refers to Scott-Heron’s experiences as the opening act of Stevie Wonder’s 1980 tour which primarily served as a vehicle to create awareness and garner support of a national holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King.  The first and only federal holiday honoring an African American, Scott-Heron gives a touching and vulnerable account of the experience, as well a reminder of the integrality of Wonder’s work. “Somehow it seems that Stevie’s efforts as the leader of this campaign has been forgotten,” he says.  “But it is something that we should all remember.”

Scott-Heron devotes much of the text to his 20s and the women who greatly impelled him.  Raised by his fiercely confident grandmother in the Jim Crow South, Scott-Heron was one of three Black students to integrate his junior high school, and broke similar barriers in high school when he and his mother moved from Jackson, Tennessee to New York in the mid 60s.  His views of America undoubtedly shaped by these experiences, they also gave young Scott-Heron tremendous insight to what was possible, evidenced by his becoming a critically acclaimed novelist and recording artist before his college graduation.

Throughout the book, he seems to purposely clarify that his first and greatest love is writing.  The words on each page make a perfect argument for his passion as a mix of prose, poems, alliterations and vibrant analogies make for total assimilation.  His words glide right off the page as he describes highly inspiring accounts of time spent at Lincoln University, turning down his first book publishing offer, and his ingenious method of gaining a writing fellowship at John Hopkins.  We see his earliest signs of activism his freshman year at Lincoln, when a bandmate of his future longtime collaborator, Brian Jackson, died an avoidable death when the ill-equipped and poorly run campus medical facility failed to aid the student who was suffering from an asthma attack.  Scott-Heron led a school standoff which subsequently shut the school down until a list of personally crafted administrative requests had been met.

Fans of Scott-Heron’s music will appreciate details shared about his relationship with Jackson, whom he credits throughout the book, describing him as both friend, and essential and talented partner.  Recalling the studio session to record “John Coltrane and Lady Day” he writes, “All I’d had for that song at first was a bass line and a chord thing with it.  I never would have been able to really hook up that progression properly if Brian wasn’t there…I didn’t know anything about suspended fourths and all that.”

Although appropriately credited for his influence on hip-hop,  Scott-Heron seems most purely connected to jazz.  “I had an affinity for jazz and syncopation, and the poetry came from the music.”  His mentions of Miles Davis are noteworthy, and there is a definite sense of adoration for him as a cultural figure.  His words are boyishly charming as he tells stories about first hearing a Fender rhodes on Miles in the Sky, or how meeting Michael Jackson some years before he would make a surprise appearance on the MLK tour was “not as electric” as meeting the trumpeter icon. Scott-Heron also must have admired Davis’ band.  Asked who he wanted to work with on what would become the seminal Pieces of a Man, by veteran producer Bob Thiele, Scott-Heron’s wish list of Ron Carter, (along with Hubert Laws and Bernard Purdie) was materialized.

There are a few frustrating points in the book in terms of resolution.  Readers may be left wondering what happened to his relationship with Brian Jackson, or why he grazes over the last 20 some-odd years of his life, making little to no mention about his personal, yet public struggles.  It’s hard to tell if this is a matter of editing, or Scott-Heron exercising his right to let the reader in on as much as he is willing to divulge.  Either way, the areas that he chooses to delve deep are well worth the read, and diminish any gaping.  Though Gil Scott-Heron died last May, he will be remembered as one who never stopped reaching, and through this memoir, for the man who “didn’t want to get stuck doing just one thing”, that reach may become longer than ever. ♦

Jazz Community Responds to Trayvon Martin Tragedy

Trayvon Martin

Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Danroy Henry. Ramarley Graham. Orlando Barlow. Aaron Campbell. Timothy Stansbury. Oscar Grant. In the land of freedom and opportunity, the possibilities for these names to become household ones should be endless, and are what fundamentally define for what America stands, at its core. Instead, these names represent a reality which has been carved out specifically for Black males of this country. Sadly, we add 17-year-old Trayvon Martin to this list of people who will never reach the potential on which America thrives in theory, but fails in practice.

The story of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, Black teenage boy who was stalked and subsequently murdered last month by a crime watch volunteer who deemed him “suspicious” as he walked home from a convenience store, has been elevated to an international one, largely in part by social and Black media outlets.  President Obama has called for  Americans to do some “soul searching”, personalizing the tragedy in a statement last week.  Nationwide rallies and public statements from influential figures in politics, entertainment and elsewhere have taken over mainstream media, which initially all but bypassed this story.  As a mother of a young son, as a journalist, and as a part of the jazz community, it remains a priority for me to do my part in keeping this story in the forefront of the American conscious.  It was also important that sentiments within the jazz community be well represented alongside those of the rest of the world.

Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, (who was not part of a registered watch group, and who has a record for previously assaulting a police officer), has yet to be arrested; protected by one of the scariest laws in the nation. “It’s this backward, unjust, NRA- driven law that has let Zimmerman go free,” says pianist Vijay Iyer of the “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law which is currently in place in 24 states. “[President Obama’s] choice to step into this firestorm was courageous, and also strategic. All the focus has been on the 3-second-long ‘If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon’ quote, but he said some other very important things, too.” Iyer points out that as President, Barack Obama cannot override the law, which was passed in Florida in 2005, but says his statement that ‘we examine the laws and context for what happened’ is a ‘clear reference’ to “Stand Your Ground”.

The following is courtesy of Al Jezeera:

Here is a full explanation of the “Stand Your Ground” bill, as explained by Josh Horwitz, Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (“Arming Zimmerman”).  The first prong of the law explicitly removes an individual’s duty to retreat from a conflict when he/she can safely do so . The second prong explicitly protects killers acting under the first prong:

“A person who uses force as permitted in s. 776.012, s. 776.013, or s. 776.031 is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force … A law enforcement agency … may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.” [emphasis added.]

Despite the racial divide which this story has illuminated, President Obama’s imploring of the nation and its parents to have basic empathy in this case is something drummer Otis Brown III is relating to and coping with. “I explained the whole case and we talked about it,” says Brown who has two sons under ten years old.  “It’s like, do I really have to have a talk with them now about how some people are not going to like them or immediately treat them a certain way  because of the way they look?  We did, and they understood it, but as a parent, it’s kind of disheartening when you see a look come over their face… you see their mind working and I saw it when I was talking to them.  It was definitely a teaching moment. It’s the reality of how we live that you have to talk to your kids, especially Black males and for me, it was a crazy juxtaposition because we were just featured in [Esperanza Spalding’s] “Black Gold” video, and I’m explaining that concept to them… understanding and knowing your worth, and no more than a year later I have to, on the other hand, explain that some people think you’re worthless.”
Like so many others, Brown used his social media platform to denounce the notion that Trayvon’s hoodie sweatshirt somehow led him to a death sentence.  “The stats of how violent Black youth may be or how they dress is an ad hominem argument to the Trayvon Martin case,” says trumpeter Nicholas Payton.  “Zimmerman killed that boy in cold blood. He pursued a young man who was clearly more scared than he. You mean to tell me I need to modify my behavior or style of dress to thwart the danger of being shot by a pathological killer?”

Saxophonist and educator Wade Fulton Dean adds, “Let me be clear, a hoodie or any article of clothing for that matter, is not a catalyst for suspicion or a prediction of criminal activity.  Let’s be real, brothers Malcolm and Martin were struck down in suits.”

Saxophonist Marcus Strickland recounts “one of many” reminders that no matter how Black males may try to appear less “threatening”, (which is a poisonous ideology to begin with) they are not exempt from racial profiling.  “At 19 years old I had the great honor to play with Wynton Marsalis at a very exclusive event.  People of all races were very generous to us with their kind words after the performance.  I felt great!  Then as I walked home from the train that night, still dressed in a tuxedo, with an instrument that was appraised to be $5,000 at that time, strapped to my back, an elderly lady looked back at me and proceeded to walk much faster and get her keys out so she could quickly enter the safety of her apartment building (she also yanked at the door to close it faster).   I thought to myself, ‘No matter what I do, where I go, or how I dress my skin color will always conjure up the same image in the mind of people like this woman.’  Trayvon could have easily been me or anybody else of color, and as you see, a hoodie has nothing at all to do with it.”

“There is nothing we as Black people need to do to stop people from committing hate crimes against us,” says Payton.   “What needs to stop is the idea that the killing of another person based on prejudice is ever justifiable, no matter the race. The notion that we as Blacks have somehow brought this on ourselves is the same red herring they’ve been trying to sell us for centuries. I ain’t buying.”

“A hoodie is worn by people of all colors, not exclusively by dangerous Black males,” adds Strickland.  “Furthermore, not all Black males are dangerous.  The hoodie is not the issue, bigotry is the issue.  Although I deeply appreciate the many pros of the The Post Civil Rights era it is not an era of Post Racism, it is merely the spawn of more excuses and more subtle ways to carry out racism. The Sanford Police Department is full of it, Geraldo is full of it, and Zimmerman should have been arrested by now.  Given George Zimmerman’s history of violence, his racial slur in the 911 call, Zimmerman’s agressive pursuit of Trayvon, and the eye-witnesses’ accounts of no reason for the shooting there is already enough reason to make an arrest.  The tragedy has garnered a response from the President of the United States and the FBI  – shouldn’t that, in addition to the evidence, be enough warning that it’s time for an arrest and trial?  Furthermore, if Trayvon were not Black with a hoodie on would he be shot by Zimmerman?  If Trayvon were were not Black would it take this long for the Sanford Police to realize there is not enough evidence to prove Zimmerman’s innocence?  Has Trayvon’s skin color influenced the Sanford Police departments benefit of the doubt for Zimmerman?  Should the benefit of doubt rule over due process and evidence against Zimmerman?”

The questions posed are deserving of answers, especially to Trayvon’s parents.  Iyer is optimistic, but also calls out the silence and ignorance of right-wing media. “The nationwide grassroots protest movement formed around [this case] has been inspiring.  The national conversation about this incident has been characterized by typical racism and hotheaded ignorance that has become commonplace in the FOX News era, as television commentators continually weigh in without any factual knowledge or expertise.  This has created an ongoing atmosphere of hostility that validates prejudice over justice, righteous indignation over compassion, and divisiveness over community.”

Community has been a big part of this story, and it seems the Black community’s reaction is being put to the test, with a sort of call to action for how Blacks should respond to Black on Black crime.  Spiritual advisor and life coach Iyanla Vanzant spoke this past Sunday on Washington Watch With Roland Martin about the pathology of Black on Black crime, and that by devaluing life, it leaves the community vulnerable to these types of horrific crimes.

Brown points out the nation’s overall blind eye to Trayvon and how devaluing of African American lives is well beyond a Black issue.  “Just a couple of weeks ago, there were millions of people  trying to get Joseph Kony… White, Black, whatever. Retweeting stuff, posting stuff, and now that it’s an American kid that gets killed… it’s real lopsided that we have mostly people of color protesting. You don’t really see other races galvanizing in the same way, but Joseph Kony, it’s like, ‘Oh he’s a war criminal.’  So are African kids more valuable than African America kids?  It shouldn’t be the case the either way, but there should be the same amount of uproar for this case.”

“It angers me that America still is hell-bent on painting blackness with this wide, uninformed, mono-chromatic brush,” says Dean. “Blackness is not a stereotype; blackness is not a mystery. Blackness is a narrative of complexity and triumph. Professor Henry Louis Gates said, ‘If there are forty million black Americans, then there are forty million ways to be black.’ We are indeed a nuanced people. We are equal participants in this brilliant enterprise called America. The suspicions and misconceptions do harm and tarry from participating in celebration which is Black culture. And so I say to all of America, do not label your brown skinned brother and sister. For the label that you attempt to place on them can easily be placed on yourself.”

I cannot say that Trayvon Martin was a “typical kid”.  Black males in America do not have the luxury of such a general, fair and balanced terminology.  Personally, I don’t know a Black male who has not been profiled in some way or another.  “To be honest, I feel like I’m profiled very often,” says saxophonist Jaleel Shaw.  “There have been many times that I’ve been pulled over by the police, double checked at an airport, or watched in stores. Although I can say there are many times that I haven’t, the times that I have definitely stick out. Today, when a cop car is behind me, or before I even walk into some places, I sometimes feel uncomfortable.”

Cards as stacked against us as they are, I cannot help but look at Trayvon Martin as a regular kid; a kid who loved the outdoors, had aspirations of a career in aviation, and had a girlfriend he was crazy about.  He doesn’t just look like President Obama’s potential son, but my own actual one.  Which leaves me breathless.  I have come to grips with the fact that my son’s life lessons, and those of his non-Black friends will be very different.  Teaching my son how to deal with overwhelming racism within law enforcement, and raising him to be a kid who stays out of trouble in the first place, is something I am ready for.  To explain how something like this can happen to a kid who did all of the right things is what I’m not.

**A special thank you to all of the musicians who took time out of their busy schedules to let their voices be heard on this matter.

Growing Up Jazz: To The Roots

Photo by Angelika Beener

March is Women’s History Month, and personally, there isn’t a more fitting honor than talking to my mother for Alternate Takes’ Growing Up Jazz series.  As many of you now know, jazz has been my lifelong soundtrack.  There aren’t many things (if any) that have influenced me more than the artists and recorded music I grew up listening to.  For this series, I wanted to dig deeper — beyond my own experiences — to the source of my influence.  Through this candid interview with my mom, I’m able to have a greater appreciation for the gifts that have shaped my world, and hers.  From her culturally rich neighborhood, to the musicians who would have everlasting effects on her life, to her close relationship with her uncle, Thelonious Monk, my mother sat down for a rare interview to discuss the roots that are still impacting us, generation after generation.

Lyman Place…

Courtesy of Robert Gumbs

“Lyman Place was a very unique block,” Mom says of the one street long block, which she grew up on, in the Bronx, New York.  “There was so much talent.  You had people like Elmo Hope and Leo Mitchell. You had rock ‘n roll writers like Genie Kemp, who wrote ‘Church Bells May Ring’.  You had Larry Locke, who wrote a tune for Little Anthony and the Imperials, and producer Phil Spector was in my sixth grade class.  And we had lots of music venues in the neighborhood.  The two neighboring streets were Freeman Street and 169th Street.  On 169th Street there was Goodson’s Town and Thelonious played there. Shirley Scott, Jimmy Smith… they all used to play there.  A few blocks away, there was The Blue Morocco, where Nancy Wilson and Gloria Lynn and a lot of folks used to perform.  Then there was the 845 Club on Prospect Avenue, which was about four blocks up.  Everything was within walking distance.  Miles Davis played at the 845.  Thelonious would come by, but I think it was kind of a joke that he would never sit down and play, but he would participate as far as his presence, and it was a hang.  My friend Robert Gumbs, who was about the age of 17 at the time, and a couple of his friends were actually responsible for having regular jazz performances there.  They convinced the manager to bring in this type of music.  So the neighborhood was pretty rich.  And then Maxine Sullivan…”  Pausing, as though not to go on and on, mom seemed to be having her own revelation about just how much history ran through this four or five block radius.  “Tina Brooks grew up not far from me, on Boston Road, a few blocks up the street,” she continued.  “Then there was my junior high school, Junior High 40. A lot of musicians went there like Jimmy Owens and Larry Gales.  [General] Colin Powell went there, too.”

Growing Up Jazz (With Monk)

“That was my normal with Nellie and Thelonious,” she says of growing up under the love and direction of a jazz icon. “I didn’t spend a lot of time in other children’s houses, either. That wasn’t really allowed, so I didn’t start seeing any differences until the rare occasion when I would, and their houses just seemed… strange…. boring.  They didn’t seem very lively.  There was no house that I preferred to be in besides my own.  Most children want to go here or there, but everybody wanted to come to our house.  I can still remember seeing Nina Simone coming down the hall and sitting on the couch and my father making some of his smothered onions.  He could take the simplest food and make it so tasty.  I remember the laughter.  It was very normal, until people would speak to me in the street, and people would say, “How’s Monk?!”  Then we would see him in the newspaper.  But even going to the clubs, it was just Uncle Thelonious playing.  I can still remember my sisters and brothers and I, all seated there, and I can still see Coltrane in the kitchen area eating a peanut butter sandwich, and not really having very much to say.  But being the niece of Thelonious, it was always like it was their pleasure to meet us.  We always felt like we were somebody.  We were on equal par in that way.  Family was everything, and he made sure that everyone knew that.”

Monk’s Music

“One of my fondest memories is of “Played Twice”.  There are some [songs of Monk’s] that make me feel a bit melancholy.  When I would play that song, I would ‘play it twice’ and many more times.  And I used to like to dance to it, and one day — we very rarely asked him to play anything, he would just sit to the piano and we would enjoy — I asked him to play that for me, and then I started dancing to it. After he saw that I was enjoying the dance, he just took it out!  He just kept playing it, and he just started laughing and I started laughing… that was a real fun moment.

 

Timing Is Everything

“I had cooked some fried chicken livers, rice and gravy, and it must have been one o’clock in the morning.  There was no real schedule for anything… we didn’t do clocks [laughs].  But I’ll never forget it was the very next morning, which was really just about five or six hours later, and the food was still on the stove, and I threw it out.  And Thelonious came out of the room looking for the food, and I said, ‘I threw it out; it was out all night.’  And he said, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘Well I figured it went bad.’  So he said, ‘So you make a turkey on Thanksgiving and you make all that food early in the morning…you eat that all day long, don’t you?’  I said, ‘Yeah.’  So he said, ‘Well, because it was nightfall you thought it needed to go in the garbage???’  And by the time he finished with that I felt silly [laughs].  Because we were actually talking about a few hours, and I had never thought about that.  I thought once you go to sleep and wake up… but when you think about time. He said, “Because timing is everything.”  And timing is everything.

Life Lessons

At a time where misogyny in jazz was so rampant,  Monk was a great admirer of women in jazz.  He also had a great reverence for the women in his personal life.  Musically, he paid endearing homage to his wife (“Crepuscule With Nellie”), his sister-in-law (“Skippy”) and his niece (“Jackie-ing”).  As part of the village who raised my mother, he also took great pride in this role. “He respected women musically, as mothers, teachers, guidance counselors, if you will, and he also respected their musical ear, which a lot of musicians for some reason, didn’t do,” Mom explains.  “I guess just like in sports.  This was before my time, but it carried on to where I would witness it: Whenever he would write a tune, he always took it to my mother for her thoughts.  That’s what he thought of her musical ear.  And so he respected women on every level.  He was also a great protector, and you always felt the security, which is very important in a woman’s upbringing.  It gave me a great sense of security and I always felt that I was somebody. Even in public, the way we would be addressed when we were with him, and without him.  And he carried himself in such a way that he could demand that kind of respect for us in his absence.  So I was always very proud.  He and Nellie would also explain his life to us as children and over and over again as we got older, so even though you didn’t totally understand what they were saying on some levels, when you heard it again… he was constantly feeding.  Because I guess he knew that we would hear a lot of conflicting stories, so no matter what came at us, we were bulletproof… I wouldn’t care what it was.  And even if it had validity to it, it didn’t affect us at all.  The negativity never affected us.  Thinking about it now, that was really something.  But… we were one.  We were strong, and it was like an unconditional love relationship to protect him as he protected us, and it’s just amazing to accomplish that.  They did a hell of a job in our grooming in that way.  And we stood very strong, and we still do to this day.  Through his teaching, we had an understanding of what money was, and what you should and shouldn’t do for it.  He would always say, ‘In life, be careful what you compromise.’  Always know in all directions.  Always, meaning forever and in all ways.  And had he not lived by those rules, he, of course, would not be who he is.  And so he could have made money many, many years before he started making money, but by not compromising, you really win in the end.  So, money comes when it’s right and for the right reasons.  And so in that kind of teaching, people have come to us — not just me, but my other brothers and sisters — with all kinds of ideas to write about him, [or ask about] “family secrets” and all the things they don’t know, which is a lot.  And it’s never been appealing, it’s never been a question or a waver.  It’s almost offensive for you to ask.  To this day, if someone asks a question about him, we’re reluctant to what we give up.  And so that’s in stone.”♦

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 digesting 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 endeavors well beyond the mere “unexpected”.  It was a no-brainer for me to implore Mr. Moran’s participation for this project; 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.