Ambrose Akinmusire: An Emergence of Truth

Photo by Demandre Ward

Ambrose Akinmusire was born in 1982, a symbolic and transformational year in jazz.    Wynton Marsalis had just released his self-titled debut album on Columbia Records, while he was still a part of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.  This album would prove symbolic, as it represented what was to come; a desperately needed re-emergence and preponderance of acoustic and straight-ahead jazz.  This revitalization during the 1980s produced several pivotal artists who bridged the cultural gap, and served as the catalysts who incited the current generation of jazz musicians.  Now, almost exactly thirty years later, Oakland native Akinmusire is at the apex of a similar potential revival.

Winner of the 2007 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Trumpet Competition, Akinmusire has been on the jazz radar as a paramount player for a few years now.  Fast forward to the present… Downbeat Magazine named Akinmusire both Rising Star Jazz Artist of the Year and Rising Star Trumpet in their 2011 Critics Poll, in addition to giving his Blue Note debut, When the Heart Emerges Glistening, a glowing four-star review.  The Los Angeles Times named Akinmusire one of their 2011 “Faces to Watch” and The New York Times has also hailed the virtuoso, placing him on everyone’s it-list.  Now this time, the critics are unanimously on the money. Akinmusire and his quintet have emerged as a force with which to be reckoned; raising the stakes when it comes to individuality, intent, vision and modernism.

Unlike the respective eras of his predecessors; when Blanchard, Payton and Hargrove exploded onto the scene, Akinmusire has arrived at a time when there is so much disparity, discrepancy and downright indifference about jazz.  Follow any social media threads about the genre and it’s instantly apparent that there are a lot of disparaging sentiments toward the general state of jazz and every imaginable (and sometimes unimaginable) sub-context.  And whether you agree or take issue with what’s on the table, the underlying truth is that people are frustrated, making Akinmusire’s advent that much more substantial.

Much of the jazz audience proclaims an air of stagnation, lack of inventiveness and compromise of the art form.  Akinmusire agrees.  These subjects are compounded by matters of race, culture and the overall state of the music industry, making the waters for diagnosis conveniently murky for most, but not all.  “I don’t think many people are doing it,” Akinmusire blatantly states.  “I think a lot of people want the approval of critics, so they end up dumbing their shit down.”

For Akinmusire, the intent is first and needs to be established long before getting on the band stand.  His quintet is made up of close friends and long-time collaborators: tenor saxophonist Walter Smith III, pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Harish Raghavan and fellow Oakland native, drummer Justin Brown.  Growing up in Oakland, Akinmusire’s philosophies about loyalty and community are entrenched in his artistry.  “I try to be as honest as possible with myself.  I try not to hang out with people who I don’t like.  I try to trust my instinct.  In five seconds of being around somebody, I know whether or not I can really vibe with them.  So, I think that’s related to the music too.  I try to surround myself with musicians who I feel challenged by as opposed to musicians who are just killing.  I try to surround myself with musicians who I don’t know how they’re going to sound six months from now, or five years from now, or ten years.   If I hear somebody playing, and I can say OK, twenty years from now, I know exactly how they’re going to sound; I don’t really fuck with them. I think all of that is related.”

From the opening track of When the Heart Emerges Glistening, there is a relentless fire which rages from the band, causing a neck-snapping reaction from the listener.  It is reminiscent, but only in the sense that you are transported to a time when jazz as a whole was courageous and bold.  The telepathic nature of the band’s interaction and the ensuing execution is mind-blowing.  “I think that everybody in the band is extremely hard on themselves; they’re never satisfied,” says Akinmusire, as he tries to put their chemistry into words.  “Like, if we had the best performance ever, and you come backstage, we’re all gonna be sitting there with our heads down like ‘Man, that sucked I need to practice.’  Everybody is constantly shedding and trying to move forward.  And there are no egos in the band at all…at all.  Nobody ever gets mad at the other person for messing up or changing parts or anything like that.  So, I think there’s that and also we’ve known each other for so long.  I grew up with Justin.  I met him when he was in middle school.  I’ve known Walter since 2001.  Harish, I’ve known for maybe 6 years.  Gerald, I met when he was still in high school, and Sam Harris (the new pianist in the group), I went to Manhattan School of Music with him.  And I just grew up like that.  I grew up in North Oakland and there’s this saying that you stick with your crew from the beginning to the end, even if there have been some weird, funny development issues, it will eventually…you know…it’s like family.  No matter what, you’re supposed to have their back.  I think that everybody who I have in the band has the same sort of outlook and I think you hear that in the music.

To co-produce the album, Akinmusire called upon his mentor, fellow Manhattan School alum, and Blue Note label mate, Jason Moran, to help translate the magic which is so essential to the band, to record format.  “I didn’t have to explain anything to him; that’s why I picked him, because he’s all about hitting and being real honest…he embodies that in his art,” explains Akinmusire, who wanted the album to feel as raw and in-the-moment as possible.  “It was just a constant reminder to come out of the booth and see Jason sitting there.  It was like, I gotta be about the music.  I can’t be like I’m on Blue Note and stressing about this shit.  He helped to relax me and helped me to remember my purpose as an artist.”

This element of intangible guidance and rearing from Moran is quite familiar to Akinmusire.  Having never had a trumpet lesson until he reached college, he honed his skills as a trumpeter in a very unconventional fashion, especially for these days of extreme institutionalization of the music.  Akinmusire recalls, “I went to a jazz camp… I don’t know how we heard about it.  Maybe there was a flier at the school, and I went.  And all these old-school musicians were teaching there and they sort of became my mentors.  Bassist Herbie Lewis… I met him, and then Donald Bailey, who played with Jimmy Smith and all these people.  They just sort of started mentoring me.  They would pick me up from the house, and take me record shopping or bring me on their gigs, and I would just sit there.  Some taught at college. They would pick me up and take me to their college classes.  They really just started mentoring me.  I never really had a teacher.  I didn’t sit there and play rudimental studies, and stuff, it was really ‘groid’, like ‘Here’s a trumpet and I’m going to teach you about the history…about the music.’  Just through stories, just old-school style.  Like, most of these guys, they were old-school.  They didn’t know shit about classical studies, they just picked their shit up and played…smoked weed; some of them were ex-Black Panthers, like real ‘groid’, you know?  I mean, I would get with Roy [Hargrove] and Nick [Payton] when they came into town like, ‘Is my embouchure OK?  Yeah?  OK, cool.’  But I never had a lesson.”

This crucial piece of Akinmusire’s story is no doubt the principal component of the development of his prodigious voice.  It also manifested as an expected point of contention, when he got to the collegiate juncture of study.  “By the time I came to high school, I already knew Billy Higgins, I knew Joe Henderson.  So you got these cats [at Manhattan School] telling me blah-blah-blah, and I’m thinking, ‘That’s not what he was just telling me.’  So there was a lot of arguing.”

The institutionalized setting in which jazz has found itself engulfed, is one of the most debated issues, with most viewing the predicament as a double-edged sword.  The argument being, that while the formal setting of jazz in schools gives exposure to young people who may not have otherwise discovered the art form, in a time where venues for jazz are closing at record speed, and pop-culture is eerily dominating, the flip side is an ill-appropriate, overly-Westernized approach to jazz, stripping it of its most essential elements; otherwise known as its “Blackness”.

We’re all being honest here, right?

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

The overall discontentment with jazz is comfortably enigmatic, until you dig deeper and realize this “thing” everyone is missing, is the part which is most ancestral and least able to be captured in a school setting severely devoid of Black people.  Consequently there are two broad views:  One which has many Black people arguing that they are being written out of the jazz “present” and conversely, the other has many people strongly, but naively believing there is no room or relevance for race in a discussion regarding jazz.  Akinmusire’s take is based on neither premise, per se and as in his music, Akinmusire’s honesty is no bullshit.

“I don’t think you can take someone’s culture,” he explains.  “Once something becomes tangible, then you can take it away and that’s because we don’t have it here in our hearts.  So maybe that’s why I don’t understand [the first viewpoint].  It’s like, I’m Black; you can’t take that away from me. I live jazz; you can’t take that away from me.  If we have a whole community who understands that it’s here [points to his heart], you can’t take that away from us.  That’s the way it was with the be-boppers, before jazz education came and made it this tangible thing and a lot of people started believing it.”

The moment he said that to me, my vision cleared.  Honestly, it never really dawned on me that the onus might be on the Black jazz community, or lack thereof.  Akinmusire was born to a Mississippi-raised mother, and a Nigerian father; neither of whom were musical or very familiar with jazz.  The first musician on either side of his family, who was discovered by jazz, and not the other way around, Akinmusire truly speaks from a rare and untainted perspective.

“To say ‘this is ours’…that’s a known thing, we don’t need to necessarily say that, and saying it is not necessarily  going to make people not want to take it away if that’s what they’re trying to do.  It’s just going to exclude people like, ‘Oh I can’t do that.’  And those people might have valid things to say and contribute to the music.  I think if you just live that…like, to me, Mark Turner is like that.  He’ll never say a word.  Or, like Marcus Gilmore.  These cats don’t talk, but if you get on the band stand with them, you know you have to deal, and that’s some black shit.  Like yeah, this is our music.  But if you’re not stepping up to the plate and playing like that, then yeah you have to talk ‘They’re taking it away.’  You think Trane had to say that?  He didn’t have to say nothing. You think Lee Konitz was going to get up there with the John Coltrane Quartet?  You don’t have to say nothing.”

BOOM.

It was a bucket of ice water thrown to the face, but I’m wide awake and that’s a good thing.  The truth is, Black art forms have been habitually and historically compromised, but there comes a time when the discussion has to lead to a diagnosis and the diagnosis has to lead to a treatment and then, the treatment has to begin and Akinmusire, through his words, but ultimately through his music, has given jazz a serious bedside visit.

“George Wein hit me up last year and was like, ‘I want you to play at Zankel Hall,’”  Akinmusire tells me as we stroll down a Williamsburg street on a sunny Brooklyn afternoon.  “He wanted the quintet.  I said, ‘How about I do a big band…an all-black big band?’  He was like, ‘Yeah it’s cool!  Is that because you want to reclaim the music?’ I said, ‘No…it’s just that I want the community;  I miss the community.’  When I was coming up it was really inspiring.  I used to go out and see Roy Hargrove, Eric Lewis, Marcus and EJ Strickland, Bilal…that shit was so inspiring for me to come to New York and see all these great Black musicians just really trying to push themselves and now that doesn’t really happen and I think that the music is suffering because of the lack of community of Blacks.  If we don’t have a community, we can’t really complain, so I think that’s what needs to happen first.”

Photo by Clay Patrick McBride

 

That sense of community also influences Akinmusire’s writing, as he composes specifically with his tightly knit quintet in mind. He says of the interwoven nature of his band, “It’s a blessing and a curse because I can’t write for anybody else, because I’ve been playing with Walter for so long. Justin is the only drummer I’ve been playing with consistently for the last thirteen years.  I mean there was Zach Harmon, when I was working at the Monk Institute. That was two years.  But really, with all of my compositions, I’m hearing Justin.  So when I play with other people, when they try to interpret their way it just doesn’t feel right… same thing with Walter.  He has such a specific sound and tone and way of phrasing and you know, we phrase together so when I play with somebody else and they’re not really getting it, I find myself feeling uneasy and getting upset… same thing with Harish.”  Akinmusire penned twelve of the thirteen songs on When the Heart Emerges Glistening, his pieces as distinguished and refreshing as his playing.  The album feels cinematic, in part with a theme-like pensiveness throughout. There is nothing surface about this album, but it never compromises its accessibility.  It is one of the most modern statements to come along in a while, with the culmination of history that is obviously Akinmusire’s foundation clearly not acting as a hindrance to his singular voice.

 

“I feel like people who consider themselves traditionalists are ignorant, and that comes from a lack of understanding that whatever it is you’re analyzing is related to the history of that time,” says Akinmusire about the strongholds which many so-called jazz purists have cemented in their expectations.  “So bebop was relating to what was happening at that time and it was modern at that time.  So I just try to play the music that’s of the now right now and that’s related to me and I just try to be honest with who I am.  Today I feel this way and tomorrow I may feel another way and I think it takes courage to say what I thought yesterday was wrong and I think a lot of people are scared to do that.  That’s one thing my girlfriend has taught me.  She’s very honest and she will die for honesty, and that’s something that has affected my music… same thing with my mom.”

 

What is most treasurable about Akinmusire is that like the title of this record, which represents a stripping down of all that is apparent to expose what is really important in life, he himself, stripped of the critical acclaim and accolades is, at his core, the epitome of an artist.  The word honesty or a variation of such is used in this piece alone fourteen times, not because of redundancy on my part, or naïveté on Akinmusire’s.  But because it’s the engine of innovation; the thing which will help elevate jazz to its purpose once more.♦


 

Orrin Evans: On Big Band and Taking Bigger Stands

Photo by Angelika Beener

Last week, I caught up with Orrin Evans for an interview for Alternate Takes.  The pianist, composer and band leader was in town for a gig at the Zinc Bar in Greenwich Village with his much-buzzed-about big band.  A couple of songs into the second set, Evans turns his famously hospitable energy toward the audience, as he introduces the band.  “Welcome to Captain Black Big Band.  For those of you who have read my recent Facebook rants, Captain Black is the tobacco my Dad used to smoke,” Evans defends.  “…but I am wearing a dashiki, so it can mean whatever you want it to!”

He proceeds to introduce the tune the band just played – “Captain Black.”  He then jokes encouragingly to his predominately White audience. “Come on guys, you can take it,” speaking of all of the “Black” references being tossed in their laps at lightning speed.  It is classic Orrin Evans fashion to make his audience laugh, think and cringe, all at the same time.  His honesty, though sometimes tough to hear (depending on where you’re coming from) is distinctively wrapped in warmth and convincingly well-intentioned.

Evans’ recent “Facebook rants” about Blacks mobilizing in the jazz industry in terms of an increased level of participation and ownership on the business side, among some other topics, have received some heated backlash from a few, and even apprehension to concede from some of his Black contemporaries.  For Evans, his philosophies are ingrained; the result of a household filled with robust cultural awareness and exposure, education, and a fierce intention to raise a child who was keenly aware, and secure with his identity.  “My father was Professor of African American Studies for 30 years at Trenton State College, and Professor of English at Princeton University, and I grew up in the Black arts movement because he was also a playwright.  Then I grew up with my mom who was an opera singer who came through Opera Ebony and Opera North which was the Black opera company, so in my house it was constantly ‘hold you head high.’”  When it came to the cruel names his dark-complexioned sister was taunted by, Evans reflects on his parents’ response, citing just one of the countless teachable moments that they would take advantage of throughout his upbringing.  “My father would grab all the kids in the neighborhood, and sit them on the steps and say ‘Check this out.  This is Africa and this is why there are different complexions…’  So that’s how I grew up.  So I can’t do anything different.”

Orrin Evans grew up in Philadelphia, PA, and emerged on the New York City jazz scene in the mid-90s after attending the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University. A flourishing time for young jazz musicians, he was quickly recognized as an exceptional talent, and released his first album as a leader in 1994, and has at least ten more albums under his belt, to date.  He has dozens of recording credits, and has played with an array of jazz and popular artists like Bobby Watson, Pharoah Sanders, Antonio Hart, Roy Hargrove, Mos Def, Common, Dave Douglas, Brandford Marsalis, Sean Jones, Ravi Coltrane, and The Mingus Big Band.  He is a label executive, producer, arranger, educator and most recently, a big band director.

Posi-Tone Records

Captain Black Big Band is comprised of a combination of local and renowned jazz musicians from the Philadelphia and New York area and has included Ralph Bowen, Wayne Escoffery, Tia Fuller, Jaleel Shaw, Tatum Greenblatt, Brian Kilpatrick, Tim Warfield, Stafford Hunter, Frank Lacy, Brent White, Todd Marcus, Luques Curtis, Anwar Marshall, Gene Jackson, and Donald Edwards – – to name some.  The album, which bears the same name as the band, is comprised of original tunes by Evans, Ralph Peterson, Gianluca Renzi and Todd Marcus.  It is a joyous and meaningful assemblage of music, life and love, captured via live recording dates in both NYC and Philly.  I was caught off guard when Evans explained the genesis of such an ambitious project.  “The idea behind it was just boredom,” says Evans.  “That’s the truth.  Sometimes living in Philly, and that two hour commute to New York…I just wanted to do something.  And I had just gotten back from Portugal where I led this big band of college students, and I thought, wow, that was kind of fun, and I said well maybe I’ll do this during my down time in Philly. Nothing more.  But then when it started, I said this is really coming together.  And I have to admit, I married the right partner.  My wife was like alright, you’re bullshitting, we’re gonna do a record; gotta do the record.  I just did this to be doing it, and it kinda grew into something.  I called on other friends to fill in where some of the college students who were in Philly couldn’t handle.  I called Gene Jackson and Donald Edwards, and a lot of other people.  And I’ve never arranged for a big band.  And the thing is, people think that I did all these arrangements.  Charles Mingus didn’t do a lot of arrangements for his big band.  I wrote the tunes and then I was blessed to have Todd Bashore do a pile of arrangements and so the band started coming together.  And my thing is, what I’ve realized was like, New York…actually the industry…they want something to talk about.  So, here it is; Orrin Evans’ next thing.”

If you’re trying to keep up with Evans — good luck.  High on energy and ideas, he’s already working on the next big band album, as well as a new release from his group Tar Baby; a trio that includes bassist Eric Revis and drummer Nasheet Waits.  Based on a concept from African-American folklore, Tar Baby represents a powerful message.  “I grew up with Uncle Remus.  My father, like I said, was a playwright and used to read Uncle Remus stories.  The story of the tar baby is pretty much that Br’er Rabbit wanted to trick everybody and you can grab the tar baby and you’re stuck on what is real.  So we all got into a thing that tar baby is jazz. These other musicians — black, white, purple, green — don’t wanna grab onto.  They don’t wanna get stuck on the concept that this is Black music.  So there it is, and Tar Baby was born.”

Last year, Evans also released Faith In Action, which received critical acclaim.  The album is a tribute to one of his most important mentors, Bobby Watson.  A bold and inspiring homage, Faith In Action is a strong argument for playing the music of the living; a seemingly lost tradition in jazz today.  “I’ve recorded Duane Eubanks tunes, a Chris Beck (a 20-something year old drummer from Philly) tune on my last record.  A big part of it is that I have never forgotten where I came from.  Everybody came through Bobby Watson, I don’t care who you are.  If you’re in the same age range as me — between 32 and 55 – you came up through Bobby Watson.  Frank Lacy came through Bobby Watson, Chris McBride.  Roy Hargrove; his first recording date was with Bobby Watson.  Benny Green.  I mean, I can go down the list.  Regardless of what people may think.  People may say ‘Bobby’s cool…’ and Bobby is cool.  Bobby may not be John Coltrane.  Bobby may not be Kenny Garrett; I don’t really care.  The point is, how did I get in the door?  The problem is a lot of us forget where we came from.  I remember being in the Metronome, and I was playing with Rodney Whitaker and Ralph Bowen.  And remember seeing Bilal, Robert Glasper…all of them were there checking out the music.  They’ve always been checking out the music.  They will always talk about that time.  That time meant something to them.  The problem now is a lot of younger musicians are like ‘I’m just here,’ like they’re in Star Trek and they pressed a button and they morphed here.  I cannot deny that I got in the door through Bobby Watson. He opened the door and let me in. That’s all that record was about.  Let me play his music.”

From L-R: David Gibson, Bruce Williams, Orrin Evans, Conrad Herwig, Andy Hunter, Tim Green. Photo by A. Beener

Like so many before him, Evans has kept with the tradition of not just paying homage to those pivotal figures in his life, but utilizing jazz music’s vital role as a means of social commentary with his stirring composition, “Jena 6.”  Songs like Ambrose Akinmusire’s “My Name is Oscar” and “Jena 6” are unfortunate reminders of the world we live in.  I asked about the importance of telling these stories in jazz.   “Now it’s important to tell the story through the music and dot-dot-dot…whatever medium that is.  And when you get the microphone and on Facebook and on Twitter, ‘cuz others need to hear that story.  You never know.  Like today is my mother’s birthday.  But that’s important for me to tell tonight because I’m 36 years old and don’t have either one of my parents.  But I still feel empowered.  So, I tell that story because someone in that audience that I’m gonna play for tonight might have lost their mother, or may have lost their father.   So it’s important for me to play “Jena 6,” because I’m telling a story just like Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus.”  Just like Max, or Miles, but I can’t let it stop with playing a song.  Because sometimes you play the song and nobody knows who Orval Faubes was.  Nobody knows that he’s the dude who prevented desegregation in schools, so you have to say it, too.”

It is perhaps the “saying” that many of today’s musicians are struggling with, especially in the shrinking music industry climate.  “There’s tons of people that come to mind that are really willing to speak up.  But there’s also a lot of people that are scared.  They’re really scared because they’re all grabbing for the same thing.  There’s four booking agents, there’s four managers, and those people are in control of… you look at the top jazz people who I love and respect.  They’re like, if I wanna play there, I need to be cool with this person, so everyone is holding on to the little bit that they have.  That’s number one.  They don’t want to ruffle any feathers.”

For reasons understandable, Evans takes the relationships with his band mates seriously; especially off of the bandstand.  The social climate seems to suggest that bringing up truthful points — not opinion — is enough for an artist to be labeled with unfair and assumed agendas or platforms.  For Evans’ supporters (or supporters of any other Black jazz musician that dare have a mind to speak), there is an understanding that there may be consequence for any level of an agreeable attitude.  To illustrate, two artists (whose names will not be mentioned here) have had their record labels contacted, and were specifically asked not to comment on Evans’ Facebook comments.  Though Evans’ fans and supporters far outweigh the few who are taking issue, the horror of what that kind of action symbolizes in the grand scheme of things is worthy of the dedication of an entirely separate post.  But for Evans, it is quite simple.  “My lead alto player calls me an hour before you got here and couldn’t make it [for the Zinc Bar gig tonight].  So I’m thinking, is there a shortage of lead alto players in New York?  No.  Is there a shortage of lead alto players that are comfortable with my rants on Facebook?  That have known me, known my wife, are familiar with my kids, and know where I’m coming from?  Yes.  So I’m like, shit.”  Of course, Evans gets his altoist before the end of our time together, but his point is well taken.  “I just need family around me.  I wanna look at every person on that bandstand, and they know me.  They know my family.  That’s really important to me.  Not just ‘cuz you the baddest cat.  I can call the baddest cat.  We all can.”

On his way back from Texas to New York to meet me for this interview, Evans’ described his appreciation for the flood of phone calls and text messages he received from an array of jazz industry figures as he walked through Newark airport.  For Evans, the abundance of messages of hopes that he’ll continue to do this all important — if sometimes unpopular — enlightening, is motivation enough.

In terms of music, Evans is proving to be more prolific than ever.  Recently placing in this year’s DownBeat Critics Poll in the Big Band category, and releasing the gorgeous and relentlessly swinging Freedom (Posi-Tone) and several projects coming down the pike, Evans is still one of jazz music’s top contenders. ♦

Benefit Concert for Saxophonist Dayna Stephens July 4th

On Monday, July 4th, The All-Star Bay Area Musician’s Community will come together at Yoshi’s San Fransisco in support of dynamic saxophonist and composer Dayna Stephens, who is battling a rare kidney disease, and is in need of a transplant.  The concert’s line-up is scheduled to include Marcus Shelby, Lavay Smith, John Santos, Ray Obiedo, Faye Carol, Kenny Washington, Mike Olmos and Wil Blades among others.

Stephens, who is loved and respected equally on and off of his instrument, was diagnosed with Focal Segmental Glomerulosclerosis (FSGS) which affects 20 out of every million people.  The awareness of FSGS was heightened when NBA superstars Sean Elliott and Alonzo Mourning were stricken with the disease within a few years of each other.  Both have recovered successfully.

Stephens is unanimously described by his peers as a uniquely brilliant saxophonist and an inspirational human being.  Stephens’ outlook and disposition are the apotheosis of being attuned with one’s humanity and artistic expression.  In his own words, “With all this in mind, the music must go on.”

And indeed it will.

Stephens recently completed a successful KickStarter campaign for his new album which will feature an awesome ensemble of musicians including fellow Bay Area natives, trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire and drummer Justin Brown.  The album will also feature saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, pianist Taylor Eigsti, and bassist Joe Sanders.  Singer Gretchen Parlato will appear as a special guest on the album, and has a long-time musical and personal friendship with Stephens.  “He’s a beautiful human being…incredible musician.  So genuine and humble but such a monstrous talent.”

Brooklyn born and Bay area bred, Dayna Stephens began playing saxophone at 13 years old.  He attended Berkeley High School, and was consequently accepted to Berklee College of Music in Boston.  He has since played with an array of great musicians like Kenny Barron, Roy Hargrove, Tom Harrell, Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder, Jeff Parker, Freddie Hubbard, Steve Coleman, Oliver Lake, and many more.  One of the Thelonious Monk Institute’s brightest rising stars, Stephens began to emerge as a very talented arranger and composer, while thriving on his instrument.  It was here that Parlato (another Monk Institute student) and Stephens developed their relationship.  Stephens also appears on Parlato’s latest release, The Lost and Found, offering the title track, which he previously recorded on his stellar debut album The Timeless Now, in 2007.  “It was an instrumental piece, already with that title, and he asked me to write lyrics,” explained Parlato.  “So I just unraveled his theme.. this theme in our lives of opposition, and learning to accept it… everything is always up/down, good/bad, high/low, moment to moment in the bigger picture of our existence.”

These sentiments about Stephens’ incredible perspective and positive attitude are echoed by Stephanie Dalton, who is director of Urban Music Presents; the organization producing the upcoming benefit.  “The day to day living while being on dialysis is truly remarkable; 11 hours at one time and two additional hours throughout the day.  Yet in spite all of this, he is recording a new album, regularly performing and teaching and mentoring.”

Dalton, who has plans to put on a similar event in New York City in the fall, expounds on Stephens’ humility.  “Dayna would never ask for help.  I just thought it was something I could try to do to raise awareness for him, as this will be a long sustained effort.”  The continued efforts are sorely needed, as the kidney transplant is only the first step to healing.  “He is on the list to receive a transplant, and once he gets the transplant, he is facing over $4,000 a month in prescriptions for the anti rejection meds,” says Dalton.

The state of health care in America along with the challenges of the security of health insurance for musicians is a seemingly unmitigated issue, and the center of the frustration for many.  Musical colleague and friend Dwayne Burno recently overcame a bout with kidney disease, and has been a source of support to Stephens in recent months.

If the jazz community can reflect Stephens’ perpetual light, this benefit should be outstanding.  Nothing less is deserved for a musician who inspires so many above and beyond jazz.  “I always say he’s an angel on earth,” says Parlato.  “When you are around him you feel like he has a bigger purpose…like something really deep is going on.” ♦

To help, please send donations to:
Jazz Foundation of America
Memo to read: In care of Dayna Stephens to:
Jazz Foundation of America
322 West 48th Street
6th Floor
New York, NY 10036
Also, visit HELPDAYNASTEPHENS.org for more information on how you get tested to see if you are a match.  Get involved!

Please Note: Dayna cannot accept contributions directly
.

Please watch this video to find out exactly how you can help and get involved.

Sentiments from the jazz community…

“In addition to being one of the most creative and exciting young musicians
on the music scene, Dayna Stephens is also a wonderful human being.  Dayna
is a graduate of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Performance and he
has made everyone at the Institute extremely proud with his many
accomplishments and with his commitment to moving the music forward.”

Chairman of the Board of Trustees
The Thelonious Monk
Institute of Jazz
“Dayna Stephens for me is the voice that New York is missing.  His sound on the saxophone is so warm and so rich and so unique. I’ve really gotten to know him over these past few years. He recently became my neighbor and we have had the great fortune of sharing the stage together in Kenny Barron’s band. He is one of the most gentle souls you will ever meet. I’m honored to call my brother and friend.  Love You, D.”
– Johnathan Blake
Dayna is truly one of the most gifted musicians of our time and is as humble as they come.  I’m luck to say I played my first gig with him, and to call him my teacher and mentor.  He is a true innovator of his craft.
– Justin Brown

“Dayna has a genuinely great ,warm spirit that shines through him and his music…”
– Robert Glasper
“Dayna is a wonderful musician, an  incredible player and… one of the nicest guys that I know.  Just playing with Dayna is very inspiring – he makes me reach. I love that.”

” ‘Dude’… that’s one of the words he used often (smile).   Dayna’s heart is pure as a kid’s heart.  He’s always ready to help in any situation. When it comes to music, he has one of the best saxophone sounds I’ve ever heard.”
– Lionel Loueke

“I remember first meeting Dayna.  We attended the Aspen Snowmass camp together, and every night there were jam sessions where he’d actually play acoustic bass ALLL night!  The fact is, he sounded great on bass as well as tenor.  I admired his passion for music, and I still do to this day.  Working with him on Gretchen’s album was a highlight for me.  It had been a few years since I heard Dayna, and to hear the growth, depth, and artist that he has become inspired me.  I feel privileged to have worked with someone with an undeniable strong voice on his instrument, and I look forward to hearing more from him!”
– Derrick Hodge

“Dayna is one of those special-few brilliant musician folk who plays and lives from the heart.  Being around him and hearing the expression of his art makes the world of music (and friends) a better place.”
-Becca Stevens

“I saw Dayna as a gorgeous musical and personal presence in The Monk Institute years ago when he was in LA.  Dayna’s improvisational synergy with Gretchen Parlato on  Juju, from Gretchen’s latest CD shows what a master he is. A deep feel and profound listening and love comes from Dayna’s playing. For me, he represents the very best of what music is all about.”

Dayna Stephens has been a constant inspiration for me since we met at Berklee.  His humanity shine through his music and he’s always been a person of humility and extraordinary talent. I wish Dayna the best.”
-Kendrick Scott

“Dayna is my favorite tenor player to play with. I fully respect and admire his musicianship. Dayna brings a certain spirit to the music, one that I can only describe as ‘like a big hug’. His sound is so warm. His ideas are so creative. Everything he plays feels like an invitation. He has that rare special quality where he can make everyone in the band sound better.  As a person, Dayna shows genuine love and compassion for all those around him. His genuine selflessness transcends the music and effects all the people he encounters. This is what makes him a true artist and a beautiful person.”
– Gerald Clayton

 

Remembering Michael

“There have been others, but never two lovers like music…music…and me.”

Michael Jackson

It has always been slightly unsettling for me to celebrate or commemorate an artist around the anniversary of his or her death.  After all, it is what a particular artist accomplished or inspired during their lifetime that is being remembered, and only logical that we therefore reflect upon them during their coming into the world, and not their departure from it.  But when it comes to Michael Jackson, it’s a different story — at least for me, and I believe, for many.  I think this is because Michael’s actual death was so profound.  The gaping hole left in the hearts of millions symbolized that losing Michael Jackson was the single most culturally impacting event of our lifetime.  I’m sure you know exactly where you were and what you felt when you learned that Michael was gone.

I was either so young, or not yet born when we tragically lost musical giants like John Lennon, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and Lee Morgan.  Furthermore, my mom was pregnant with my older brother when both Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, and had already mourned the previous deaths of JFK and Malcolm X.  America has undoubtedly suffered terrible loss of artistic, cultural and political icons within the scope of our lifetimes.  But, the interesting thing about Michael’s death, which is so distinctive, is that because his career spanned over 40 years, our parents and even grand-parents loved him just the same as those of my generation, and for all intents and purposes, actually “knew” him first, as much as the Thriller generation loves to claim him as being “really” ours.  (I’m guilty).

Michael’s impact is so far beyond music, and the various contexts through which he can be intensely studied and analyzed are indicative of that.  One thing that deeply affected me upon his death was that for all who thought that Michael Jackson forgot that he was Black…well, the media had not.  But thankfully, neither did Black folks.  Michael was celebrated and memorialized most appropriately by his people; without the damper of controversy and distractions, which were exacerbated by the media.  The beautifully relentless home-going celebration at the Apollo Theater in Harlem was the most brilliant example to the world that Michael not only understood his roots, but he was the embodiment of Black culture.

That being said, Michael’s indelible influence on the world is unprecedented and I cannot even grasp the totality of what that really means.  It surpasses any sort of quantification.  In a sense, like Michael himself, his influence is not to be understood but simply appreciated and respected.  There’s nothing else to do with such an other-worldly gift we are so blessed to have experienced.  Here, some of the most prominent artists in modern jazz have taken a moment to reflect on what Michael Jackson means to them.  Besides, Michael’s musical influence reaches every corner of every genre of music; a lesser discussed topic as it relates to jazz, but perhaps one of the most important angles to look at.  Enjoy.

—————————————–

“To me, Michael Jackson is important as an artist because not only did he understand the role of the artist in society — he went far beyond it.”
Ambrose Akinmusire

“One thing that’s great about Michael, which isn’t often discussed or recognized, is that Off The Wall and Thriller are, for lack of a better word, Jazz records. The chordal structures, melodic content, string and horn arrangements, the Blues, the drive and swing of the rhythm section are all hallmarks of the so-called Jazz idiom. They represent, so far, the pinnacle of success for Black Popular Music and it is of no coincidence that those two records coincided with the return of the music otherwise referred to as straight-ahead Jazz. These records did more than just turn people on to Michael Jackson or R&B, they made people fans of music at a time when the industry was in a slump, much like so-called Jazz did around the turn of the century. ‘Thriller’ and ‘Off The Wall’ are essentially a continuum of the work first established on the ‘Hot Fives’ and ‘Hot Sevens’ by the world’s first Rock star, Louis Armstrong.”
– Nicholas Payton

“Michael Jackson proved that music and dance are probably the most powerful uniting forces in this world.  His style continues to cross genres, religious beliefs, class systems, and political and racial divides more than any other artist to date.  Everyone in every corner of the world knows his name and image.  And all of this came from this simple fact of how unique and great his music and dancing really was.  It was produced, executed, and recorded to the highest level, and it will keep on influencing peoples’ lives beyond our years.”
– Mike Moreno

“MJ is an icon. Unbelievably talented and devoted his life to his passion for art and humanity.  So hugely influential and groundbreaking, and seemed like such a beautifully gentle, caring soul.  Growing up on his music, I think we all felt a personal connection.  He makes us want to sing along, get up and dance, lay down and cry, stand up and shout, reflect upon and then actively do something.  That’s what art should do.  I will forever shake my head in amazement at his singing, his dancing; he was the greatest entertainer who ever lived and quite possibly ever will.  No one can touch that.”
– Gretchen Parlato

“The feeling I always got from MJ’s music is that he never hid or second guessed his inner voice and passion.  You undeniably feel every word and every dance move.  So overwhelmingly inspiring.”
Casey Benjamin

“I believe Michael Jackson was here to show us how small the world really is, and his vehicle was his talent as an entertainer.  No matter where one is from, when one is born, what language one speaks, what doctrine one reveres, etc… most of the world that existed during or exists post his life has been moved deeply by Michael’s talent.  This is evidence of something much larger than fame.  It is evidence of what is possible.  Genius, in my opinion, is not measured by mere talent.  It is measured by what those talents have contributed to the world.  His impact on us was so huge because he constantly had a vector, a purpose for the talents he was given.”
Marcus Strickland

“Nobody has been MEGA famous for as long as he has.  Also, with the ability to change and be a pioneer in each change.  He is a master vocalist-performer-dancer and just has a musical sound of his own.  Not to mention he has inspired everyone, and is hands down, the most famous person to walk the Earth.”
Robert Glasper

“Michael Jackson was clearly an artist of the highest order. Perhaps the quality that he possessed which stood out to me most was his ability to convey a particular message with utmost sincerity, sophistication, character and execution. His influence is seemingly infinite and his legacy will live on forever. I am truly grateful that I was born during his lifetime.
– Marcus Gilmore

“MJ was an extension in the evolution of Black entertainment.,  He pulled from James Brown, Sammy Davis Jr. and Jackie Wilson, making him the greatest in his time.”
– Jesse McB
ride

“Michael was a beacon for excellence as an artist.  He was always looking for the next level of perfection.”
– Kendrick Scott

“MJ is the epitome of timeless.  His influence on my generation is profound.  From his music to the ‘Beat It’ jacket.  You wanted to sing, dance, and be like Mike.  And that impact is just as strong on my 5-year old.”
– Keyon Harrold

“Michael Jackson was a great inspiration to me for many different reasons, but there are three that stand out.  One, he checked out and absorbed everything. If you listen to songs or look at videos of MJ when he was young, he knew James Brown, Ray Charles, and all the legends that came before him.  He knew many genres of music and appreciated them.  I even saw a video of him tap dancing to Mingus on You Tube.  The beautiful thing is that you can hear all of these influences in all the music he did.  Two, he was a true activist/humanitarian. He wasn’t afraid to speak out about the bad things that were going on in the world.  He wasn’t passive and he put his thoughts in his music. He wasn’t trying to be politically correct and didn’t care what others thought.  Three, he was all about moving forward.  If you look at MJ throughout his career, he always surrounded himself with those that were current and had something fresh to say. He reminds me of Miles Davis in that way.”
Jaleel Shaw

I loved the cartoons in the Thriller record sleeve.. The one of MJ and paul mccartney pulling the girl was particularly memorable.. Seeing that image, it was hard to hear the song and not laugh! That record and the album art were definitely a highlight of the Vasandani family record collection.
– Sachal Vasandani

“MJ for me was and still is the total package of an entertainer.  He had everything: the voice, moves and the charisma.  He was always striving to better himself as an artist.  He never took his talents for granted.  He always knew where he was going and what steps to take to get him there.”
– Johnathan Blake

Thank you, Michael.

Fate of Coltrane Home Is Uncertain Again…

Me and Mrs. Fulgoni at Town Hall meeting in 2004

I am so sorry to learn that the final home of John Coltrane is once again an endangered historical landmark, according to an article in today’s New York TimesThe Coltrane Home’s official website states that “A nationally significant historic site, The Coltrane Home in Dix Hills, is in danger. Listed as one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places by the National Trust for Historic Places, and saved from demolition following a worldwide grass roots effort several years ago, it remains in urgent need.”

thecoltranehome.org

The news has stirred up all of the emotions that I felt when I first learned of this issue back in 2004.  I remember getting a call from Steve Fulgoni, historian for the Half Hollow Historical Association in the Dix Hills area, where Coltrane’s last home is located.  He is an avid John Coltrane lover and supporter, and probably one of the nicest people I’ve ever met (his wife is quite a wonderful person as well).  Anyway, he informed me that he was heading up an effort to have a hearing of sorts at Huntington Town Hall to make the case for the home to escape demolition and rightfully be deemed a historical landmark.  He asked if I would mind attending and reading the letter I had previously written about my feelings about Coltrane and the importance of the home.  I could not have been more honored by the invitation, and I went.  It was an experience I’ll never forget.  It was the first time I met Ravi Coltrane, and Matt Garrison (son to legendary bassist and Classic Coltrane Quartet member, Jimmy Garrison).  Fairly new in my career in jazz and advocacy, this was such an impressionable moment for me; the first time I felt that rewarding feeling that comes from understanding I somehow had a personal hand in something so important.  But according to today’s Times article, “lack of funds” have stalled the efforts and put the home in danger, yet again.

John Coltrane is the single most influential artist in my life, and I look at it as no less than my duty to get back to business and do whatever I can.  Won’t you also?

To help, please visit www.thecoltranehome.org or contact sfulgoni@thecoltranehome.org.

Here is the letter I read at Huntington Town Hall in 2004.

Nicholas Payton on Jazz, Politics and the Courage to be Himself

“If I can’t be myself, what’s the point in saying anything?”

Photo by: Angelika Beener

This is a mantra that trumpeter Nicholas Payton lives by. Outspoken, at times shocking, at times brutally honest, at times perfectly poetic, Payton is as verbally diverse as he is musically.

At just 37 years old, Payton has the depth and breadth of experience and perspective of someone twice his age. A musical prodigy and professional musician for over twenty years, the New Orleans native is the culture, and an authoritative figure in Black music. The GRAMMY® winning musician, with nine albums to boast, is also accomplished on several instruments including piano, bass, and drums; an adeptness he was able to demonstrate on his latest album Bitches, an autobiographical musical memoir of love and heartbreak.

One of jazz music’s most vigorous provocateurs, Payton has unabashedly confronted every elephant in the room when it comes to jazz, particularly as it pertains to race, culture and politics. Payton does not shy away, instead forcing critics, fans, and fellow musicians alike to deal with the uncomfortable yet imperative subjects. If ever there was a figure in jazz today, who voices what others only ponder, it is Nicholas Payton, who has carried on the tradition of some of the most outspoken jazz musicians I can think of: Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis. (Must be a trumpeter thing. The trumpet, after all, has always symbolized an awakening, a truth, a call to action.)

“A lot of folks have gotten really upset with me about a lot of stuff I’ve said, and that’s OK,” says Payton. “To me, you wouldn’t be getting upset really, if what I was saying didn’t have any merit, you know, and it’s affirmation to me that I need to continue to speak. I do feel like I have a gift of sorts to provoke thought, and to get people to think and to have a voice out here for what I feel is not really represented in the way that I feel that it should be. To not do that, to me is…I would feel like I’m not being responsible. I would feel a burden of guilt, perhaps, for not doing something about something I feel like I am called to do, so to speak.”

There is arguably no genre of music that reaches more points of contention when it comes to definition than jazz.  Critics, documenters and so-called historians have long used their position and power to inject their theories of what is and isn’t jazz – many times with detrimental consequence to black inventors. Moreover, black jazz musicians have experienced their share of disproportionate exposure, appreciation, and financial support.  Internally, the subject has been strained between musicians, and as the spectrum of jazz musicians broadens, so do the theories of what constitutes as credible. Payton deals with this issue head on, striking a chord with some, and a nerve with others resulting in a divide that is more often than not, a racial one. “To me you’re not furthering the so-called jazz tradition if you don’t address the fundamentals of what that thing is. To me, it has to have to have a blues sensibility… it has to have a groove sensibility. If you obscure both of those and highlight the European elements of it, then to me it ceases to be what’s known as jazz. I mean, it’s fine for what it is, but don’t call it jazz.”

In our ridiculously labeled “post-racial” era, it seems as if when someone brings up the issue of race as a matter of speaking their truth, in turn, they will automatically be looked at as some form of a racist. Currently, it is conveniently almost in poor taste to even bring up race, treated as a cop out to some, others branding one as being angry for acknowledging it. Payton refutes all of these suggestions, and challenges people to deal with what’s on the table. In a generation where an African-American tradition can be almost devoid of African-American participants in various mediums on any given day (read your average jazz blog, magazine or festival or club line-up), we have come face to face with a cultural crisis.  Post young lion era, jazz has become less of itself and more of something else: grunge, rock, country, ambient…

Photo by: Adam Weiss

“I do have a problem in general with just this whole notion that so-called jazz can be whatever you want it to be. Just this whole, like, ‘Oh, you can mix this with Indian music and not have to deal with [the tradition], you can mix it with Eastern European music…’ It’s like, why? Why is that necessary? Those [styles of] music have those traditions.  Most ethnic music… most music [styles] period, have an improvisatory aspect of it. So why is it necessary to take Black music and just kinda make it what you want, and that’s OK?  That’s really what my whole beef is. People have died to play this music. This music is our path to freedom. And now that we are able to enjoy some of the fruits of all the work that our ancestors did, you’re not just gonna take this and make it what you want to make it. Respect our tradition.”

When it comes to the passing on the tradition to Black youth, Payton is not so sure that the mark is being met, and with good reason. In fact, I can attest to this myself. When working on a radio broadcast a few years back, which featured the top five or so college jazz bands in the tri-state area, including Julliard, The New School, and SUNY Purchase, there was not one black musician among them – in ANY band. A blaring signal to me that the institutionalization of jazz may not be in the interest of serving black youth.

“When has an institution ever been a good thing?,” Payton blatantly stated to me. “In anything Black, already the connotation to me is not good.  When does that ever mean anything positive?  Prison is an institution. Institutions are funded by people who have money who want to see a certain thing. Which doesn’t necessarily serve the so-called  “people”, and doesn’t necessarily serve the so-called ‘community.’ It serves some kind of interest. It’s become an institution and that’s so not what the spirit of the music is supposed to be. A big reason why you’re not seeing Black kids matriculate into college level programs is because there aren’t high school level programs… jazz bands after school, etc. If you look at… programs… I don’t want to call them out, but a lot of institutions that have high school outreach. Which ones do they go to? They don’t really go to the ones in the ‘hood. Where are those musicians coming from? The Black church used to be a big source. Music in general is just dying in the black community. There used to be a piano is every house, didn’t matter if you was poor or not. People sang in the choir, they had some kind of musical outlet.”

Being from New Orleans, Payton is as close to the social foundation of jazz music as anyone can get, and he consistently draws clear correlation between the culture and the music, which he believes need to co-exist, unquestionably. “Jazz music has a social function, and I think the music has gotten away from that, and the more it’s sort of gotten in other arenas like the concert hall, and the performing arts centers, and the schools, it became something else. It’s life and you have to feel it, and that intuitive part of it, which is the most important part, it’s all but overlooked. You go to colleges, and you know, all these young cats, and they can read fly shit and they can play all these changes and intricate things, and then you call a medium tempo blues, and they can’t hold it together. That’s a part of the problem.”

Photo by: Ingrid Hertfelder

Photo by Ingrid Hertfelder

Payton’s protective stance has been a hot button for many. His one or two sentence observations and proclamations about jazz on Facebook can easily garner upwards of two hundred spirited response comments – a testament to his belief that while all is calm on the surface, just below is a sea of controversy. And everyone wants in. But while he may have a reputation for being a thorn in your side, depending on where you stand on the issues, he is also a staunch supporter of today’s up and coming jazz musicians, often a humbly silent hero behind significant good deeds in the jazz community. For Payton, it’s just simply the right thing to do.

“I’m not just paying lip service. I’m not just trying to be controversial or drum up controversy. I mean these things. And to me, if you gonna talk the talk, then you gotta walk the walk. I want to support that because you know, I can’t say all of this shit about well ‘such and such doesn’t do for the music’ and not contribute myself. And I feel a lot of musicians are selfish, like if someone don’t give them a CD or if they gotta pay to get in a club, they won’t go, and I don’t do that. If I show up, unless the guy [at the door] recognizes me off the bat, I’ll pay the whatever. Because this is how I make my money. How you gonna expect to get all the time and you don’t want to ever give? I feel like I’ve been blessed and given a lot, and for me just to be able to support cats who I feel have a voice, and who have done some interesting things. I’m not a rich man, I’m not Coca-Cola [laughs] but I’ll give my last dollar to someone I feel is trying to do something, because quality has to be supported. And if I don’t do it then who’s gonna do it? I don’t look to wait for somebody else to do things if I feel I have the power to do it. I really feel like we’re fighting a losing battle here and there’s just not enough people who are willing to do shit for one another in this world, and I just don’t wanna be that kind of person, and I don’t care if I don’t see anyone else doing it, then I’ll die trying to do the things I believe. Otherwise what worth is my life if I’m not consistent in not only what I say, but what I do… how I live? On every level, I wanna be the same person, and exude all the things that I believe. Otherwise my life is for naught.”

Inspired in part by the way jazz musicians are still treated and regarded in our society, Payton believes things need to change on a lot of levels. “That’s why I’ve come to have disdain for the word jazz. Because it automatically just means that you’re gonna be disrespected. It’s OK to treat you any kinda way. It’s OK that there are only two people in the club, it’s OK for them to tell you, ‘There’s a whole menu, but ya’ll can only eat this off the menu.’ It’s OK to not have a dressing room, or a dressing room with no ventilation. At a certain point you have to learn to say no.”

Payton has said “no” to much of what’s going on in the world of jazz today, but never without profound insight.  Whether you agree or doggedly reject where he’s coming from, you will walk away different. He will leave an impression on your brain, and a desire in your heart to at least think about what he’s saying.  his is the most intriguing aspect of Nicholas Payton off of his horn. At the end of the most heated debate, the one sentiment that everyone can agree on is that they respect Nicholas Payton for being who he is.

“But on a broader level there’s room for it all to exist. I’m not gonna hate on anybody’s right to express themselves the way they want to, but I’m certainly gonna say what I have to say about it and because I feel like what I represent is not really talked about, I find myself having to be vocal because no one is really saying it. And I’ve kinda had to accept somewhat being the fall guy for what is actually right. So I’m like, well, cool, if that’s what it has to be… fine. But I know what I can’t do. I can’t just be the kind of person to sit there and let it happen, because to me then I’m part of the problem…that’s not me.”

Check Out Josh Jackson

Josh Jackson of The Checkout

When you visit jazz music magazine, The Checkout on the web, you don’t feel like you’ve time warped five or six decades into the past.  You immediately feel like jazz is fresh, vibrant, now — and cool.  But this isn’t some manipulation or illusion; it’s just an accurate depiction of what’s really going on.  Finally.

Josh Jackson, creator and producer of The Checkout, which airs on WBGO-Jazz 88.3 FM,  is the man behind the music.  He has taken his passion for music and partnered it with his extensive radio experience and tech savvy, to bring modern jazz into the forefront of the multi-media world we’re submerged in.  The Checkout is a one-stop-shop and a jazz lover’s haven for exclusive content via interviews, live studio sessions, playlists and podcasts.  No where else can you hear/see an in-studio session with Brian Blade, hear Esperanza Spaulding discuss what’s on her iPod via Shuffle, view a live twitter feed, and hear Sonny Rollins discuss his experience living blocks away from World Trade on 9/11 — in one place.  I put Mr. Jackson on the other side of the microphone to ask what he set out to do differently when conceptualizing the program.  His answer?  “I think what I wanted to do, is what I still want to do, and that is cover the [jazz] scene the way it is.”

This may sound simple, but jazz music is perhaps the most complex art form there is in terms of identity; the past and present, both needing and fighting each other at the same time.  Nostalgia versus stagnancy.  Labels and definitions being oxymoronic, or much-needed boundaries in how the music is created.  All of these sensitive subjects can make it difficult for a responsible broadcaster to produce and deliver.  Jackson strikes an impressive balance in this area, and is creating a loud buzz in the jazz community and beyond.

Jazz has lacked proper exposure over the last few decades, and newer artists have suffered the most.  Jackson seems to have a need to make up for lost time.  And while The Checkout has unfailingly featured jazz music’s greats and legends, the program is an unsurpassed platform for artists just stepping into their own.  “I don’t advocate for The Checkout being all of WBGO; The Checkout is one hour in a week of WBGO programming.  But I do advocate that WBGO, and any other station in any other market, consider having a show like The Checkout, so that there is a space on the dial in whatever market, where you can see the musicians that are operating today, no matter what age they are,” states Jackson. It is this kind of thoughtful balance that lends to The Checkout being a show for everyone.  “There is a great audience for jazz, despite what people tell you. [It is]  fragmented and scattered, and so my job as a broadcaster is to find the net that’s gonna catch all those fragments in all those places. And cumulatively, I do believe that it’s a bigger audience than what a lot of research would tell us. The interesting thing about The Checkout is that it has an incredibly diverse audience, demographically.”

This diversity is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the program. The debate between the generations has classically been one about “whose jazz” matters and whose lacks relevancy, with the younger breed of musicians often becoming  frustrated with constantly fighting the ghosts of jazz past.  Jackson diffuses this pointless fire by not making a case either way, letting the artists speak for themselves — all of them.  “I’m not a critic,” says Jackson.  “And I also don’t have that sort of critical stance of separating art as some kind of object to look at and to study. I mean, that’s a very Euro-centric way of assessing criticism and so I know I’m not that.”

Not that, but who Jackson is, is an award-winning producer of several documentaries, with more than 250 live concert recordings under his belt.  He’s also co-founder his own media company, and a main contributor to National Public Radio’s NPR Music.  However, you won’t find any trace of pretentiousness, which is a valid stigma that the storytellers of jazz must face and fight to eliminate, as many people have accredited the elitist attitude within the jazz community to the genre’s declining audience.  “You have to deal with people who aren’t fans the way an insider is a fan, and you have to connect with them on their level sometimes,” Jackson explains.  The human connection that Jackson has made his broadcasting mantra, has served the program well, as aficionados, casual listeners, and newcomers alike, can all enjoy The Checkout equally.  Jackson’s being tapped in this way, has informed several of his endeavors.  Most vividly, Live at the Village Vanguard.

Photo of Jamire Williams by John Rogers/WBGO

A joint venture between WBGO and NPR Music, Live at the Village Vanguard is a program which brings the complete live jazz experience into the homes and laptops of the world, giving them first-hand insights to these concerts with live streaming both on the radio and online.  Participants can also chat live and watch a live video stream of the concerts.  The nature of interplay and interaction in the jazz ensemble inspires a similar intercommunication on the side of the audience.  Jackson, who is a huge fan of both the club and the live recordings the Vanguard has historically released, is proud to call the Vanguard home.  On being able to pull off something of this magnitude, Jackson enlightens, “One of the things I think I know about media right now is that there are a lot of ways that people are accessing content.  Now we have the technology and now we have a generation behind me of digital natives, who…This is what they know: that all information is available any time, and so we’ve got to keep up with that.  For a place like WBGO, still the biggest part of the pie is the FM transmitter, but at the same time there are people who are streaming the signal online, and accessing it on their mobile device.  The cost in the technology is what’s going down.  Now there’s the ability for a place like WBGO, who doesn’t really have a lot of money to invest on the technology end, to do streaming video, and to incorporate a chat so that people can communicate with each other while the music is happening. And also I think that aside from You Tube, jazz has suffered in a lot of ways since maybe the 1960s in not having a lot of exposure on the video side. You know, it’s one thing to listen to a record; it’s another thing to watch a performance and to hear musicians reacting to each other.”

Otis Brown III & Esperanza Spalding backstage @ Vanguard (by John Rogers/WBGO)

Jackson is just as deft at exploring jazz musicians as people as he is at showcasing their talent.  And it makes sense that I find Jackson as interesting as his program.  But what drives Josh Jackson?  “…I think I wanna know who these people are, you know? Because my experience has been that they’re all…they’re all interesting people in some way.  I wanna know more about the people who do this and what their thoughts are, and also to connect with them on some way that I can connect with them. I can’t play like Wayne Shorter; I can’t write like that, you know?  None of that stuff.  But also, he’s a human being and so are our listeners so if you’re just willing to listen to what someone has to say, typically you’re going to find some kind of connection on a level that you may not have expected.  And that opens up a whole new way to hear things, sometimes.  I mean, the best interviewer is a listener. I go in with maybe a handful of questions that I kinda want to get to at some point, but I don’t have like this kind of grand design…plan, about how this thing needs to happen.  I’m always thinking about the listener when I’m interviewing somebody.  I’m thinking about somebody who’s meeting so-and-so, for the first time…and sometimes that someone is me, too.”

In my opinion, what The Checkout illustrates best is that the more we tell the truth about jazz, the more interesting it is.  And the truth is, jazz is not one dimensional and encompasses more than some will allow in their own minds.  Now, I am a firm believer that jazz is not “whatever you want it to be”.  I’m not that liberal.  But I do believe that the genre has room for everyone who is making music within it.  And it’s a lot of people.

“The point of The Checkout I think is that it’s for everyone,” Jackson concludes. “The only thing you have to have is a willing ear, and you have to be willing to listen.  It’s a show for listeners.”

And we’re listening.

——————————————————————–

One of my favorite segments of The Checkout is Shuffle.  Jackson has his guests place their iPods on shuffle mode, and discuss the first 5 songs that show up in an attempt to gain further insight about the musician and how what they listen to may inform their own artistry.  “People for the most part have fairly diverse listening habits.  And yet, maybe not as wide as a lot of jazz musicians,” Jackson suggests.  “So there’s ways of introducing the audience to some things they’ve never heard, and I’ve never heard.”

I played the game myself in honor of my interview with Mr. Jackson.  Here’s what popped up in my iPod!

Angelika’s Shuffle List

“Morgan the Pirate” by Lee Morgan from Search For the New Land (Blue Note)
“Giant Steps” by John Coltrane from Giant Steps (Altlantic)
“Lift Jesus” by Kim Burrell from Everlasting Life (Tommy Boy)
“Valse Triste” by Wayne Shorter from The Soothsayer (Blue Note)
“My Little Brown Book” by Duke Ellington and John Coltrane from Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (Impulse!)

The Checkout airs on Tuesday evenings at 6:30pm on WBGO/Jazz 88.3 FM and on WBGO.org

The Grammy Cuts (Its figurative nose, perhaps?)

Ahmir & Angelika

The recent decision by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences to cut 31 Grammy categories has received deserved backlash and reaction from the Black and Latino communities.  The cuts have limited the cultural diversity of the Grammys and include the loss of categories like Best Contemporary Jazz Album, Best Rap Album and Best Latin Jazz Album along with slashing the R&B and Instrumental categories in half.  When I first read about this in the New York Times a few weeks ago, my feelings went from disappointment to rage when I learned that the cuts came after an “open letter” from former record exec Steve Stoute.  He claimed that “the Grammy Awards have clearly lost touch with contemporary popular culture,” and makes his “case” by citing shake-ups in big categories within the last few years  — two of them being victories of Jazz artists.

So, let me get this straight.

The Grammys is a popularity contest?  Excuse me, Mr. Stoute, but I thought the Grammys was at least posing as the authority in recognizing great MUSIC…not popularity.  I thought the MTV Awards covered the popularity contests.  And what’s even more perplexing is what I hope to answer here: Why would a Black man single-handedly spearhead a campaign to stunt the recognition of Black music? Eminem, Kanye West, and Justin Bieber (losers to Steely Dan, Herbie Hancock and Esperanza Spaulding, respectively) are talented artists, but is a temper tantrum on this level the answer?

Before DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince won the “first” Grammy for a rap album, it was Herbie Hancock who won the 1984 Grammy with “Rockit”.  Mr. Hancock put hip-hop, break beats, and this type of Black culture on the major music map.  Having an artist like Hancock introduce hip-hop to the Grammy stage would prove to be of great benefit to the hip-hop community.  I would love for Stoute to explain how Hancock’s 2008 win over Kanye West is a demonstration of losing touch.

While Stout and the Grammy association are trying to make a claim that the cuts give the Grammys more exclusivity and credibility, it looks more like the same tired ass story of money and business as usual, with “special interests” being the motivator.  For certain artists, this could mean never (or never again) being artistically recognized on the level of a Grammy.  Ahmir Questlove Thompson’s initial reaction?  Two words: “It sucks.”

“I mean it’s a travesty because nine of those categories are what I was eligible for,” Thompson explained.  “There’s no more Best Rap Album, there’s no more Duo/Group category for hip hop…there’s none of that stuff so I don’t know…where that leaves me.”  This symbolic rug being pulled from under Thompson and other artists with tremendous artistry, talent and fan base, but perhaps a lack of uber commercial success, are finding themselves in the same precarious position overnight.

Thompson, who has hosted an annual Grammy jam session with The Roots on the eve of the Grammy telecast for the last several years, suggests that the problem has been misfired at the amount of categories, and the real issue may lie elsewhere.  “If anything, I would like to adjust the voting.”   He went on to tell me about an experience he had at the 2008 Grammys, when he was sitting with a group of artists in the Latin category.  Singer/songwriter Jose Feliciano swept most of the categories, to the frustration of many of his contemporaries.  They argued that Feliciano continued to be a thorn in their side because he was the most recognized name on the ballad; that he was winning on his familiarity and not necessarily on musical merit.  “In 2009 when I got my ballad and I was looking at the categories that I don’t know, you know I found myself actually validating that whole issue.  I think if there has to be an adjustment made, I wish we could sort of make it like the Mercury Prize in Europe or like how Canada’s works. There’s a jury…a jury of knowledgeable music snobs, bloggers, musicians…a jury of people that vote on a particular category and they’re very knowledgeable of it.  I think that’s a better adjustment for the awards.  It’s sort of like a license.  When u get your license, they’re not gonna let my C Class license drive…they’re not gonna let me operate a bus or a truck. They won’t let a vegetarian judge a Texas rib contest and I don’t think that certain industry people should just have access to certain categories that they just mark off.”

Agreed.  It seems as though Stoute got it way wrong, and the consequence is more than what he bargained for. “Since your complaining, Steve Stoute, we’re gonna take all your candies and cookies away,” Thompson illustrates, describing the frustration he suspects NARAS had with Stoute’s whining open letter. Stoute’s rant over who is and isn’t Grammy worthy, arguably caused an important balance of Blacks and Latinos to go down in the flames of never being acknowledged in music’s “highest honor”.   Way to go.  The affects of this decision are too early to predict, but the message that says artistry plays a back seat to economics is loud and clear.  “But you know, it’s like half these people aren’t necessarily doing what they do for any monetary award but the occasional annual pat on the back [from the Grammy committee] would really be nice.”

It would be nice, and it would be right.

Thompson ends our conversation on a lighter note.  “I’m producing [Jimmy] Fallon’s comedy record, so thank God that [category] hasn’t been touched!”

My Name Is Oscar

When listening to trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire’s new album, When The Heart Emerges Glistening (Blue Note) I purposely skipped track 9, as a matter of practice.  “My Name is Oscar” is a tune written by the Oakland native in tribute to Oscar Grant III; an unarmed Black man who was murdered by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer.  The officer shot Grant in his back while he lay in a defenseless face-down position on the train platform in the early morning hours of New Years Day, 2009.  Being a New York native, and living through so much police brutality, it was a song I didn’t want to face.  But I did today.  I needed to face the song.  I’m not sure what compelled me to do this, but I knew that the murder had been documented by several witnesses, and I watched the video while listening to the song.  That was a good and a bad idea.  A bad idea simply because it was so very hard to watch (I had avoided the unbelievable horror of the footage until now).  But a good idea because it put the issue of police brutality in my face in a way I have never dealt with.  That’s not to say I had never seen Black men terrorized by the police.  Much to the contrary.  But I think dealing with Oscar Grant’s death was so important, especially living in a pseudo-post-racial society.  In the last three decades, I was able to reflect on the countless racially-inspired murders of Black people, committed by officers paid to serve and protect them.  Grant, Amadou Diallo, Timothy Stansbury Jr., Sean BellAiyana Jones and on and on and on and on and on…..

And just last week, The Pleasantville Police Benevolent Association honored the officer who shot and killed Danroy “D.J.” Henry, an unarmed, Black college football player in 2010.  The officer was honored for the “dignified and professional manner [he’s] conducted himself throughout his career and this ordeal.”

Killing Black men is dignified and professional in America.

Oscar Grant III

On “My Name is Oscar” drummer Justin Brown (also from Oakland) emits a brilliant and emotionally rousing performance while phrases like “live,” “don’t shoot” and “we are the same” echo in the folds of the solo.  When I listened to the song, it reminded me of how jazz has always narrated the human struggle.  From John Coltrane, to Max Roach to Branford Marsalis, and now to Mr. Akinmusire, jazz musicians have always been fearless about putting the Black struggle in the face of their audience.  This is the most commendable and important work.  To make people think differently about the world they live in, and to inspire change, is the best work.

Perhaps because I’ve seen this happen and go unpunished too many times to count. Perhaps because I have a brother named Oscar.  Perhaps because I’m raising a Black child in America.  Or probably because of all of the above…I must say that “My Name Is Oscar”  is one of the most important anthems of our generation.  Check out Mr. Akinmusire’s website, and he and his band are not to be missed whenever in your area.

Gil Noble: Jazz, Journalism, Lessons and Legacy

Rest in peace to the GREAT Gil Noble.  A last name such as yours could not be more befitting.  A great debt is owed you from not only the Black community, but the world.  What would journalism be without you?

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

Originally posted October, 2011

After 43 years on the air, last Sunday, ABC’s Like It Is came to a sudden and saddening end.  Emmy award winning producer and host Gil Noble suffered a stroke this past July, and the fate of the program had been subsequently undetermined.  The last episode, which re-aired yesterday, was hosted by ABC newscaster Lori Stokes and featured Noble’s daughter Lisa, Bill Cosby, Danny Glover, Al Sharpton, journalists Bill McCreary and Les Payne, and New York City Councilman Charles Barron, who praised Noble’s maverick style of journalism, having profiled political prisoners like Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu Jamal.  Noble, who has interviewed some of the most prolific figures in American history, from Adam Clayton Powell, to Muhammad Ali, to Bob Marley, is known for being one of the most provocative journalists of our time.  With Noble ultimately becoming unable to return to the public affairs program, ABC has created a replacement called Here and Now, which is receiving push back from the Black community for its seemingly half-hearted development.  There is also concern that the new program, while promising to pay particular interest to topics relevant to the Black community, will not be in the same raw spirit, which is Noble’s legacy.  If that’s to be so, it’s a real shame.  There has been no other program that has given voice to the totality of Black America — politics, current and public affairs, arts, culture and more — than Like It Is.  Further, I can’t think of a journalist more progressive, introspective, and passionate than Gil Noble.  He was also the first image of a Black journalist that I had ever seen, which made an indelible impression on my conscious and subconscious young mind. Growing up watching Like It Is every Sunday was as routine as afternoon football, church, or any other traditional Sunday activity.  Being part of a household which nurtured both the arts, and social and cultural awareness, Like It Is was a reflection of my real life lessons and experiences, particularly as it pertained to jazz.

Noble, an accomplished pianist who initially pursued a career in music, is an avid jazz lover.  He has been on the Board of Directors and involved with Jazz Foundation of America for many years, and he frequently showcased jazz musicians on his program. Unlike the comically short and incomprehensive interview segments that are so typical when it comes to jazz profiles on television, Noble would dedicate his entire program to the likes of Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan, Dizzy Gillespie, Abbey Lincoln, Dr. Billy Taylor, Lena Horne, Max Roach, Carmen McRae, Erroll Garner, and Wynton Marsalis.  His narratives, in-depth and introspective, helped develop my broad view of how jazz musicians could be perceived beyond my own personal understanding.  Noble presented jazz in journalism from a vantage unlike anyone else.  He was not only a student and lover of jazz music but a strong advocate for young people having a solid education on the subject.

During his interview with jazz pioneer Sarah Vaughan, she takes him on a tour of her Newark, New Jersey home town, which included a stop by her elementary school.  The children playing in the school yard of the building gravitate toward the cameras, and chat it up with the host and his subject.  As they begin to walk away, Noble stops in his tracks and addresses the students through the school’s gate.  “Do you know who this lady is?,” he asks.  He then responds to the rounds of flat “No’s” with, “No?  That’s part of the problem, isn’t it?” Noble’s blunt yet eloquent scrutiny was his signature.  As he walks away he underscores, “If you don’t know who she is, when you go back to class, ask your music teacher who she is, and why she never told you about her.”

I may have been fortunate to have been exposed to the arts and jazz from a child, therefore enjoying the reinforcement on television, but it was not until adulthood that I realized how immensely crucial and precious this program was for that one example alone.  That the likes of this type of education was reaching a network television audience every week remains monumental.  So you can understand my elation to make his acquaintance about five years ago.

When trumpeter Charles Tolliver was preparing to release his big band album, With Love, he had a distinct vision for his project, down to the liner notes, which he implored Gil Noble to write.  Tolliver, who got his professional start through his friend and mentor, saxophonist Jackie McLean, wanted to pay homage in a personal way.  Noble grew up with McLean in the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, and they were best friends from childhood on.  Tolliver thought it would be most fitting and honorable if Noble would pen the notes for his Blue Note debut (which he did, beautifully).

Working on this album with Tolliver, I remember that blustery day, trekking up to ABC in the Lincoln Center vicinity to talk details with Mr. Noble and Mr. Tolliver.  There were full circle moments to go around that day, for both Tolliver and myself.  For me, meeting the man who inspired my perspective about jazz coverage in mainstream media, would prove life-changing.

We sat in a waiting area initially, and then we were brought into Noble’s office.  We waited about ten minutes for him to join us, during which time I timidly perused his immense library of books.  The room was adorned with African artifacts, artwork and posters, including the famed photo of 52nd Street nightlife in New York City, which was the hub for bebop in the 1940s.  When he entered the room, my stomach dropped.  He is a tall man, but his presence was ten times that of his height, though his demeanor is intensely quiet, similar to his on-air persona.  He sat disarmingly relaxed behind his desk, and Tolliver and I opened the conversation.

We talked about music, and Charles’ project, but mostly about Jackie.  J-Mac, as he was nicknamed, had just passed away, and I could see the sadness in Noble’s eyes as he spoke of him.  The loss of his best friend was obviously hard, and the vacancy in Noble’s heart was transparent.  Noble talked about their childhood, their adventures together as teenagers, and he spoke specifically about the way drugs plagued the lives and careers of so many jazz musicians, and how McLean, who suffered from and conquered drug addiction, educated him about the music industry, as it related to the fragility of growing up Black in that era.  It was a conversation that I will never, ever, ever forget.  Getting a one-one-one education from someone as brilliant and wise as Noble, in the presence of a jazz master in Charles Tolliver, discussing a jazz giant in Jackie McLean was an experience I don’t think many are fortunate to have.  Yet now more than ever, these experiences are crucial. The climate of mainstream jazz journalism (and especially criticism) today is not only broadly monochromatic and misguidedly audacious, as usual, but technological advances give voice to virtually anyone who feels like being an authority on jazz, which isn’t always a good thing.  (Examples: Writers who haven’t lived as many years as some artists have had professional careers making proclamations about who is and isn’t innovative, or telling off the Black community of jazz musicians, blaming them for why they are being left out of the dialogue.)

[Taking a deep breath].

Additionally, writers seem to be writing for other writers, rather than using their platforms to work in tandem with the music and nurture a community at large which — fathom this — actually gives a damn.  The dangerous duo of ego and lack of diversity remains the affliction that keeps journalism in jazz from reaching full potential.  Too many journalists in jazz have traditionally put themselves in front of the artists, and ahead of the music. Moreover, there is still a severe lack of proportion when it comes to editorial and coverage of African American jazz musicians.  This subject itself highlights the unfortunate division within jazz as it pertains to race, with Blacks and Whites largely on total opposite ends on the matter. However, if the spectrum of journalists reflected the diversity of the musicians playing this music, we would have a much better representation of the music overall. Balance is crucial, and autonomy in jazz journalism is ridiculous.

What watching Gil Noble all of these years, and having that candid and personal conversation with him has taught me is infinite.  But in more specific terms, what it taught me is that as a writer, especially a writer of color, I have to be passionate about truth.

Your allowance of my elaboration, please.

Tim Soter/WireImage

The beauty of being a writer, or of performing any artistic expression, is freedom.  In that freedom, there is the allowance to see, hear, feel and interpret things as one wishes.  It is truly liberating, and as a writer, I am the last one to impose the gall that I so detest in journalism on other writers.  In other words, “Do you.”  But what I am saying is that as a Black person, writing about a Black art form, which is mainly analyzed, critiqued and examined through the scope of White men, I have a duty beyond being poetic or incitable. There is another level of responsibility, and here lies the essence of Noble’s genius.  His depictions of artists were always supported with a social contextualization (let’s go back to his doubling-back to those students with that message about Sarah Vaughan).  Jazz is one art form that cannot be written about it a bubble, because it is distinctively intertwined with a culture.  Why this is a concept that is resisted and resented in journalism is bewildering to me.

But thank goodness for Gil Noble.  He is my hero.  Acutely informed, with an immense amount of integrity and creativity, he has laid the groundwork that I can only hope to aspire to build upon.  His passion for jazz and politics, and his ability to create a television program which successfully married these subjects for all audiences, for decades, is most inspiring.  Most importantly, his convictions spoke through his journalism, but his journalism did not speak through his convictions.  He didn’t have to spend time identifying who he is to his audience…it’s eloquently obvious in everything he produced.  That’s class.

It is my hope that Like It Is will remain on the air somehow (perhaps through syndication, a-hem, a-hem, BET and TV1, step up).  Most importantly, I hope his wish for the program’s archives to be utilized in schools comes to fruition. It is a sorely needed narrative.

Interestingly, Like It Is debuted just two months after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, and was largely inspired by this event.  The last broadcast of Like It Is aired on the same day as Dr. King’s memorial dedication.