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” Coming This February From Alternate Takes

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

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

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

Drum Composers Series Finale: Johnathan Blake

For decades, Philadelphia has boasted one of the most burgeoning jazz scenes in the world.  A thriving commorancy to legends like John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, the Heath brothers, and Philly Joe Jones, to name a few, the City of Brotherly Love has been the backdrop to one of the most essential eras in jazz.  Philly remains a cornucopia of jazz heritage, producing the likes of Christian McBride, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Derrick Hodge, Rodney Green, Orrin Evans, Ari Hoenig, and Jaleel Shaw.  Drummer Johnathan Blake is at home among this esteemed group, becoming one of finest talents on his instrument, and now making his mark as a leader.

Blake will release The Eleventh Hour (licensed by Sunnyside Records) at the top of 2012.  An extraordinary debut, Blake exhibits both his breadth of chops and his uncanny compositional skills.  The all-star ensemble includes saxophonists Mark Turner and Jaleel Shaw, pianists Robert Glasper and Kevin Hays, trumpeter Tom Harrell, bassist Ben Street, and Gregoire Maret on harmonica.  The Eleventh Hour is a fine album that is splendidly unfeigned and musically abundant.  This dynamic cast of players, who are all leaders in their own rights, synergize to produces one of the best straight-ahead jazz albums I’ve heard in a very, very long time.  Blake credits the long-standing brotherhood of his band members.  “What’s great is that most of the guys that are in the band are on the record, so we had been playing together for years,” he explains.  “Rob and I have been playing together since maybe the late 90s, so he’s played mostly all that music.  Ben Street, Jaleel, Mark Turner…my homeboys.  The only newcomer was Kevin Hays.  We had played together a couple times, so for him most of the music was new and it was nice to have him be a part of this project because he brought a different sound to some of the older music, so it kind of helped us gain a different approach to our playing, so that was good.”

The Eleventh Hour is not only a well-cast, brilliantly executed album, but the repertoire is striking and distinctive. Blake penned most of the albums tunes, with the exception of a few.  The band covers Randy Newman’s “Dexter’s Tune” from the tear-jerker movie classic Awakenings.  Written for Dexter Gordon, who appeared in the movie and passed away before its release, Blake’s band captures the feel and memory of the saxophone great, with Mark Turner’s gorgeous take on the thoughtful melody.  Blake also recorded Glasper’s “Canvas”, a moody, mantra-like beauty in 5/4 that features a vibrant exchange between Maret and Glasper, with Blake’s tasteful grooves elevating the experience and Mark Turner blazing the vamp.  The album also features a blithely swinging number entitled “Blues News”, written by Blake’s long-time employer, Tom Harrell.

Blake’s compositions are equally outstanding, full of  versatile virtuosity.  Blake began writing music very early, egged on by his youth ensemble director.  “The instructor of the program pretty much required us to all write music, and we all had to bring in a tune.  When we first started out, [we were] playing standards repertoire and some Horace Silver, some John Coltrane, but then I would say when I was around twelve or thirteen, he said, ‘I want you guys to come in with a tune,’ and so that’s how I first got into it.”

Born into a musical family, Blake began his musical journey modeling after his father, John Blake Jr., a renowned jazz violinist.  Young Johnathan began playing the violin as well at age three, before moving on to piano, and then landing most assuredly on the drums.  The ASCAP Young Composers winner would benefit from his formidable years as a multi-instrumentalist.  “For me, I think starting out with violin and piano kind of helped me be more aware of melodies.  I was talking to a couple different drummers who were also like that.  Like, Brian Blade is one that comes to mind.  Oddly enough, he started on the violin also and he said that kind of helped when he’s hearing melodies.  He also takes the guitar on the road when he travels, so I think there’s something to that…when you have that luxury of being able to play a melodic instrument.  I mean, the great thing about playing piano is that you have the percussive side but also the melodic sides, so it’s like a full orchestra.  It’s pretty amazing.”

Blake acquired the tools early on, but a push from his Dad undoubtedly developed his confidence as a composer.  Blake recalls, “I remember like the first one or two compositions, my dad would help me with the notation.  Then he was like, ‘You got it…you have to figure it out.’  And that was great.”  Blake also credits the willingness of his employers to wholly share the stage, and welcome new music.  “I think the other thing that happens too is that a lot of leaders, like in Kendrick [Scott’s] case playing with Terence Blanchard, Terence is open enough where he allows the other members  of his band to start composing, so that’s another way that allows side men to start getting their composer chops up and eventually getting them on records.  I think that’s kind of helpful too, and gives that extra little push to hopefully continue this [trend].  I’ve had the luxury of working with Kenny [Barron].  I’ve had the opportunity to bring in some tunes, so it’s really great to have a leader who’s open like that, where you don’t have to necessarily play all his or her tunes.”

Blake’s compositional aptitude and superior drum skills made for a natural progression to record as a leader.  “I think a lot of it has to do with [the fact that] our role is a more supportive role, like you know, backing the band, and pushing the band or whatever,” says Blake of the recent emergence of drummers who have become front men.  “So you’re never thought of as leading a band or writing your own music.  With this music, we always have to try to reinvent ourselves so to speak, and really try to push the envelope, and always try to grow.  So I think out of that came this idea of having drummers thought of as not just sidemen or as background support, but more as like, ‘Let’s see what this guy’s doing.’”

With the decision to record out of the way, the challenges of independently financing a record in the current industry climate loomed.  Blake welcomed the task, setting up a successful campaign to help raise the funds.  Blake used IndieGoGo to get his audience’s attention and implore his fans’ support.  This new way of using funding platforms like IndieGoGo and KickStarter have proved successful for other jazz musicians like drummer Otis Brown III, and guitarist Mike Moreno.  “I think the empowering thing is really just connecting with some of the fans,” says Blake about his campaign.  “We travel all around and you don’t even think about certain people that you meet and exchange emails with and become Facebook friends with, and you go on KickStarter, and it’s like man, this person from Spain who I met ten years ago just gave me money.  So, for me, I really like that kind of exchange and connection with some of the people that I’ve met along the road, on the journey, so that’s great.”  Like that early push from his father, Blake would now have to push himself on the business side.  “Some of the challenges were…I’m not the best salesman so it’s really hard to get in that mode.  You have to push yourself and get the word out, so it’s a challenge.  I’ve really been trying too, because I’m kind of on the shyer side, so it’s hard to be asking some people [for money].  I really appreciate everybody that’s donated so far, and even the ones that can’t, they’ve really just been sending encouraging words, which is really helpful for me, because it helps me to know that I’m on the right thing.  And slowly I’m saying that OK, this has allowed me to get out of that shell and really not be afraid to sell myself so to speak, because you have to be your own manager, your own sales person and stuff like that.  So it’s like, I have to learn how to do it some time, and now with this record coming out, this is the better time than ever.  So I’m really digging it, and really reconnecting with a lot of friends that I haven’t seen since junior high or high school, who have sent money.”

As the music industry shrinks and record labels continue to fold, it has become increasingly difficult for jazz musicians to present their music, no matter how impressive their talents and credentials may be.  However, the upside to the current circumstance is a leveling of the playing field for artists who aren’t in the small pond of jazz musicians signed to major labels.  “I think there was like a period where after a lot of these record companies went under and a lot of artists – especially jazz artists — were like ‘What are we going to do, how are we going to get our music out there?,’” says Blake.  “It’s not like the “Young Lion” movement where all these cats were getting signed to Verve, and stuff.  So we caught the tail end of that but it’s like, what’s my direction now?  For me, it’s kind of like a full circle moment.  There was a movement where like people were selling their own CDs out of the trunk of their car or whatever, and marketing themselves, and I think it’s getting back to that.  I really think this is a good time for us, and I also think that because of that, it also then showcases music that we want to play, which is allowing us to be writers.  Allowing drummers to come out and write because we have this outlet.  We don’t have to necessarily play the music of Billy Strayhorn; we can play the music of E.J. Strickland, or the music of Antonio Sanchez.  Now we kind of have a say.  It’s been a long time coming.”♦

Check the Chops!

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. ♦