Jazz Community Responds to Trayvon Martin Tragedy

Trayvon Martin

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

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

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

The following is courtesy of Al Jezeera:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#BAM at Birdland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nicholas Payton plays Birdland through Sunday, January 8.

Ali Shaheed Muhammad: On Life and The Low End Theory

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

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

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

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

Courtesy of Ali Shaheed Muhammad

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

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

Photo Credit: Klaus Schielke

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Shino Yanagawa

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

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

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

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

Photo Credit: Melissa Louise O'Neal

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

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

Alternate Takes Week #11: Album for the Week

Introducing Keyon Harrold

Trumpeter Keyon Harrold is the epitome of what it really means to be a modern jazz musician.  He is also arguably the most important and incredible trumpeter of this generation.  On his ironically titled Criss Cross debut, Introducing Keyon Harrold, he clearly needs no introduction.  The St. Louis phenom has one of the most commanding sounds you’ll ever hear, and it’s likely that if you listen to any other medium of Black music, you’ve already heard it.

Harrold is a producer, arranger, and writer who has collaborated with hip-hop’s giants: Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, and 50 Cent to name a few.  He is also an integral part of R&B superstar Maxwell’s renowned live band, for whom he has also been an arranger for.  He can be seen in Jay-Z’s “Roc Boys” video, as well as on any number of stages, including, and currently Cirque du Soleil’s The Immortal Tour, an epic tribute to King of Pop, Michael Jackson.  But be not mistaken; Harrold’s versatility and affinity for a profusion of musical styles in no way denotes his indisputable paramountcy in the realm of jazz.  His debut album could not be more validating.

For Introducing… Harrold calls upon his contemporaries; saxophonist Marcus Strickland, pianist Danny Grissett, guitarist Jeremy Most, bassist Dezron Douglas, and drummers E.J. Strickland and Emanuel Harrold.  The album also features Harrold’s teacher, mentor, and employer of many years, Charles Tolliver.

The album is an outstanding collective of mainly original tunes, as well as a gorgeous take on the Horace Silver classic “Peace”.  Harrold’s compositions are brilliant and authentic, and also infuse touches of his gospel roots and hip-hop predilections.  Harrold’s performance throughout is exceptional.  Not only is he one of the most masterful living technicians on his instrument, his evocation of passion and beauty in his playing is unparalleled.  There are few musicians who can bring me to tears from playing one line…Harrold is that cat.  He doesn’t even have to be soloing, or playing a lead melody for that matter.  There is an anointing on his playing that is rare and supremely ancestral.  And while he has certainly learned and assimilated the language of the masters before him like Clifford Brown, Freddie Hubbard, and Woody Shaw, Harrold has distinctively reinvented the foundation, creating a vernacular that is unique, fresh and inspiring.

Along with the stellar performances from all involved, Harrold’s mixture of beauty, grit, fluidity, and rawness bring this album to life.  His amazing sense of melody is demonstrated on original tunes like “Sudden Inspiration” and “The Awakening”, where Harrold’s entrance on his solo is such a pretty mixture of said melody and rhythmic perfection, with drummer Strickland propelling the whole band.

I can’t say enough about this musician or album.  But I will say this: If you don’t own it, or you haven’t heard Harrold in this context, do yourself a favor and modify your library, and your soul.

 

 

Marcus Strickland: Triumph of the Heavy

Triumph of the Heavy CD release party THIS THURSDAY, 9/29 at NYC’s Le Poisson Rouge.  Details here.

Photo by Angelika Beener

Musician, composer, producer, label executive and visionary, Marcus Strickland is a powerhouse, on and off of his instrument.  And on his seventh album as a leader, he’s more confident than ever.

Triumph of the Heavy Vol. 1 & 2 is jazz saxophonist Marcus Strickland’s fourth release from his Strick Muzik record label.  The double album features two of Strickland’s ensembles: his long standing trio of drummer and twin brother, E.J. Strickland and bassist Ben Williams, and his quartet which features the afore mentioned musicians, along with the fairly recent addition of rising star pianist David Bryant.  Scheduled for release this August, Triumph is Strickland’s second double-album; a necessity of format if you’re trying to keep up with the musical multifariousness that has become his signature.

Strickland, who has led trio, quartet, and quintet bands, produces hip-hop beats, and has an affinity for singer/songwriters, attributes his versatility to the partnership between his creativity and the boundlessness he has established on the business side.  “I’m always doing many things at the same time; making beats at the same time I’m writing jazz music.  And also I have my own record label, which kind of allows me to record whenever I want to.  So I don’t really have to go about it in a systematic way, as most artists have to do when they’re on a label.  I can be as spontaneous as I want to, with that freedom in place.”

Having created a brand for himself partly out of necessity, in a climate where major labels are shrinking, that freedom has produced four vastly different projects from Strickland, with four different bands and highly developed concepts.  He’s covered huge territory from Jacques Brel to Outkast, acoustic to electric, with spoken word artists and hip-hop production in between.  A prolific writer, he is undoubtedly going to have tremendous impact on future generations from a compositional standpoint. On Triumph Vol. 1, Strickland brings it back to his roots of the classic quartet, with what Strickland calls “a fresh approach to the piano’s role in the group” and a whole new set of originals. “David [Bryant] is like the first person since Robert Glasper that I played with and felt like ‘Wow this cat knows the art of comping.’  It’s such a lost art these days.  Comping is so important.  So on top of the fact that he’s an extremely incredible musician, he’s got the sensitivity that I’m looking for.”

Photo by: Dave Kaufman

In true Marcus Strickland fashion, he is also reaching beyond just musical versatility, introducing yet another set of skills, playing alto saxophone on almost half of Vol. 1.  “I’ve always yearned to play alto again because I started on alto when I was eleven years old, and by the time I got into high school and it was time to get a professional instrument, tenor was my main love because everybody I listened to was on tenor, so that’s when I switched to tenor.  But I always wanted an alto.  I have really been concerned lately with just the instrument itself.  The whole story behind the saxophone is just incredible.  The inventor of it, the many things going on sonically when the saxophone produces sound…it’s just incredible.   The pure execution on the instrument, that’s what I got more into.  So, I really started shedding on that; classical etudes, my own etudes, really getting into the sound, the harmonics, overtones and stuff like that. But you know, recently I got a saxophone endorsement, and one of the first things I asked them was to give me an alto.  And soon as I got it, I just started shedding it.”

Vol. 2 captures Strickland’s trio live at Firehouse 12, a studio in New Haven, CT.  “It may be that the only thing more powerful than a strong triangle of musicians is one that has performed for an extended period of time,” says Strickland of his seasoned trio.  “I was like man, I’m about to go back to quartet, but I wanted to capture the trio after touring so long.  It’s just a strong triangle.  That’s a strong sound there; just the bass, drums and the saxophone.  It’s just a very significant sound.  So I really wanted to capture that, but in a different light.  On Idiosyncrasies (the all-trio album released on the Strick Muzik label in 2009), we did a lot of covers and on this one I did mostly originals that I wrote as we started touring and everything. I started coming up with different vehicles so I wanted to get those down.  And to get it down in front of a live audience, that was great.”

Jelly & Stricks

Few of today’s jazz musicians have had clearer visions for themselves as artists than Strickland.  At 31 years old, Strickland’s career has already spanned a decade, gaining him leaps of perspective.  “I’ve recorded three records outside of Strick Muzik so that makes a total of seven so I think this is a point where who you are as an artist really gets tested.  Because you now have a body of work.  It’s not just one hit album that you’re trying to make.  It’s like, ‘OK I’ve had several records that have been very successful, what am I going to do next?’  When you get to a point where you have a body of work in your past, it can either take away ideas from you, like ‘Oh I’ve already done that, I don’t know what to do next.’  Or, it can give you more confidence than you’ve ever had before because I know that this is gonna be great.  I know that I’m capable of putting out some great music that’s very relevant and very important.  And that’s exactly how I felt when going into the studio.”

For Strickland, his substantial recording catalog is the result of his professed growing process which includes the need to document each phase of his course.  “I have to make it into a product in order to really get past it, and I really want to get past it because I’m always yearning for the next step, the next plateau.”

Named “Rising Star, Tenor Saxophone” in Downbeat’s 2010 Critic’s Poll, “Rising Star, Soprano Saxophone” in DownBeat’s 2008 Critics’ Poll and “Best New Artist” in the JazzTimes 2006 Readers’ Poll, Strickland has long commanded the attention of both fans and critics.  He released his first album, At Last (Fresh Sound) in 2001, and placed third in the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz saxophone competition the following year.  He has been an integral part of bands of heavy hitters like Roy Haynes and Jeff  “Tain” Watts, and has a long resume of features, recording with Robert Glasper, Charles Tolliver, and countless others including Dave Douglas, another long-time employer.  With the release of album number seven, the “next plateau” may bring about endeavors characteristic of the symbolic number.  Strickland’s experience and savvy from a business perspective makes him a sagacious ally for the future of jazz recording artists.  “I think I want to step back a little bit after [this release] and look into trying to do some things for other people that, you know, many major record labels are not really interested in.  I really wanna take my time and think that through and get a very good plan for it.”

Inspired by his girlfriend’s epiphany about the substantive quality of jazz versus some of the dictates of popular radio, Triumph of the Heavy is appropriately titled; a testament to Strickland’s musical caliber, robust tone, and his rightful place as a titan of our time.  Whichever way you spin it, Marcus Strickland comes out on top. “I’m always taking chances, but I’m no longer afraid to do it,” asserts Strickland.  “I know I’m gonna be good on the other side.” ♦

 

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

“Michael Jackson single-handedly squashed every stereotype in music.  His God given ability, style, and personality are the blueprint to date.”
– Kenneth Whalum III


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

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

Thank you, Michael.