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!

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.”

Drum Composers Series Part 4: Ari Hoenig

Photo by Angelika Beener

There is nothing conventional about drummer Ari Hoenig.  Even as a sideman, he is not your typical drummer, with over sixty recordings to the much-in-demand Hoenig’s credit.  However, Hoenig’s amalgamation of technique, innovation, and creativity are what make him difficult to compare, and impossible to peg.

Since the Philly native’s emergence on the New York City jazz scene in the late 90s, Hoenig has played with the likes of Chris Potter, Kurt Rosenwinkel, Dave Leibman, Joshua Redman, Shirley Scott, Richard Bona and more.  Hoenig also found a long-standing home in the trio’s of two of today’s most exceptional pianists: Jean Michel Pilc and Kenny Werner; the former urging Hoenig early on to make steps toward the forefront.  “He never really gave me any musical advice [per se], but he did build my confidence a lot.”  Jean said, “For one, you should definitely start your own band. I’d love to be a part of it, and even if not, you know, this is something that should definitely happen.”

Pilc surely knew about what he was talking and would later occupy the piano spot on two of Hoenig’s albums.  Hoenig released his debut album, Time Travels, in 2000, and never looked back.  With eight albums as a leader, Hoenig has been a trailblazer for the new wave of drummer front men, and the ultimate prototype of the modern drummer’s wingspan.

Hoenig is also a flourishing and prolific writer.  Like every drummer in my “investigative series”, I asked Hoenig about his writing process.  His latest album, Lines of Oppression (Naive Records), offers seven original tunes, including the title piece which is a mixture of complex melody, lush harmony, and rhythmic intensity.  The album features previous collaborators and pathfinders in their own right; pianist Tigran Hamasyan, guitarist Gilad Hekselman, and bassists Orlando Le Fleming and Chris Tordini.  “I’ve never studied composition formally.  I mean, I’ve always kind of composed stuff just on my own but I’ve never actually had a class in it.  But I’ve noticed that there are a few different ways that people compose.  At least the way that I describe it.  From the melody is one, which is not a way that I do; almost never.  Maybe one song I started from the melody.  I start out with the chords usually…the harmony.  Probably eighty percent of the time, my songs are written with the chords first, the harmony first.  I sit at the piano.  I do play piano a lot.  And I write on piano all the time.  The drum part, as you will, actually never ever gets written.  That’s the very last thing, if it even is.  So, I don’t think about what I’m doing when I play on drums at all in terms of writing.  So, when I sit down and everyone has gotten their thing together, then I just play whatever seems right.  I write a few tunes with the bass line first, as well.  If you listen to any of Dave Holland’s music or…a lot of bass players actually write like that.  Like, a bass line, and then the tune kind of comes around it.”

Before I sat down to chat with Hoenig, I read somewhere that he hated the actual process of song writing.  With Hoenig being the author of one of my favorite ballads, “For Tracy”, I half-dispelled the question when I posed it to him, and was surprised when he confirmed on the matter.

“Oh yeah, that’s totally true,” Hoenig admits.  “The only part that I like about it is finishing.  I like to mess around with coming up with ideas, but as soon as this thing clicks in my head that ‘Oh, I should write a piece, and this should become a tune…’  From that moment until the moment I finish the song, I can’t stand it.  I don’t like the process.  Why don’t I like it?  Because it makes me feel…it’s like a puzzle.  It’s a challenge but it’s more than that.  It’s a personal challenge.  It gets in deeper than you’re trying to just do a puzzle that you know you’re going to eventually do, because you know there’s a solution.  But writing music, you don’t really know that there’s a solution.  Nobody’s worked it out before you.  If you’re writing a piece, you know…so what if it never works out?  I don’t know…I mean, it’s so personalized and it’s a certain amount of angst for me.  I have to force myself to do it. If I want to write a piece, I have to really force myself.  I’ve actually spent very, very little time writing music, and I haven’t written any songs that I haven’t used, except for one that I wrote in high school that is just stupid that I will never use.  It actually only took me five minutes to write.”

Hoenig’s off-center humor and humility augment the intrigue of his musical mystique.  Beyond being a conspicuously skillful drummer with seemingly boundless creativity, he can literally transform the use of the drum in ways rarely seen.  Hoenig’s affinity for melody has been manifested in his mind-blowing ability to create fluid melody lines on the drums, making the “non-melodic” classification of the instrument a misnomer.

Hoenig’s first two albums (Time Travels and The Life of a Day) are completely solo recordings.  Hoenig plays a collection of originals and standards, using the drums to produce aspects of the composition that are seemingly impossible to create.  This is most recently illustrated on his latest album, where the band performs their version of Bobby Timmons’ Moanin.  Hoenig brilliantly takes on the soulful melody of the call-and-response type bluesy classic.

Photo by Jimmy Katz

“I started playing melodies on the drums pretty early on,” explains Hoenig.  “I guess [I was] around 18, and I heard Max Roach, for one, do it.  Jeff Hamilton did stuff similar, and another drummer named Earl Harvin who I was really influenced by.  Not so much [for] getting the notes out of the drums, but being able to play a tune on the drums with the basic contour and the ups and downs, and even more importantly, the phrasing.  Just being able to get the phrasing on the drums.  So if you listen to Mack the Knife and you hear Ella [Fitzgerald] sing it, you want to kind of be able to emulate her phrasing.  And just getting the phrasing without even worrying about the pitches of the drums, it’s going to be noticeable, like people are going to recognize that.  So I started doing that, and then I realized that I can actually get some of the notes too, out of the drums, so then I just started developing this system of how I can actually play whole pieces with the melodies on the drums with the actual pitches.  So I realized I can get either a 9th or a 10th from the floor tom to the snare drum and I can get all the notes in between so I can play any tune as long as they’re not really wide ranges.  Sometimes a really high note would have to be played an octave lower [for example].”  Hoenig also confirms that he has relative pitch; an aptitude he inherited, likely from his parents, both classical musicians.

While Hoenig is consistently reluctant to accept much praise in terms of his ability to reconstruct the drums, he is passionate about how invested drummers need to be inside of the music, beyond keeping the time.

“I think drummers sometimes — not the really good ones — but other ones, tend to be able to play the drums, but not really know the songs that they’re playing that well.  So you can be an amazing technician and drummer and have a lot of coordination, and, you know, [be] a ‘drummer’s drummer’, but if you don’t know the music that you’re playing, it just automatically means that you’re not as good.  It just will not make you as good as a musician, and that’s noticeable to everybody.  I mean, melody is something that I hear really strongly on all of the songs that I play, and if I’m playing a session and a gig that I don’t know, I’ll make a point to learn the song, and really know the song.  A lot of songs have the same form, for example, like a lot of blues have the same form but they have different melodies, so if you’re going to compose a solo, for example, on that form, I want it to be different than any other song, not any other form.  I’m not thinking the form like ABA or like blues twelve.  I’m thinking of the song.  And I think the really good drummers do that.  You know…drummers know that, but that’s something that I stress a lot especially with my students.”

Hoenig’s career is as multi-faceted as his playing, with several interesting projects on the horizon.  For one, he has reunited with Jean-Michel Pilc and bassist Francois Moutin to record Threedom (Motema) which is due for release next month, marking the resurgence of one of the most nonconforming and essential trios in today’s jazz music scene.  Hoenig is also currently touring with saxophonist Chris Potter in a series of duo concerts across Europe, where they will perform a set list that is heavily dedicated to the music of Thelonious Monk.  Hoenig, who has recorded a fair share of Monk tunes on his albums as a leader, described his unsurprising fondness of the eccentric icon.

Photo by Jimmy Katz

“It’s just that his tunes…they’re very rhythmic.  They’re melodies that some would call slightly awkward, which I wouldn’t even say that.  It’s just they have an interesting thing to them which is different than the ones people used over and over and over again.  Or any standards that are written with just chords and melody but no real rhythms in the tunes, so Monk – all the songs have that.  They’re built into the melody.  So it’s not just about playing the melody and the changes, but during the solos it gives the tune somewhere to go.  It’s almost saying like OK, there’s a destination…places to land.  So yeah, Monk’s tunes are especially appealing to me.  [With Chris Potter], we play probably close to half Monk tunes.  It’s fun.  And I actually used to do a duo with another drummer named Andrew Griffith in Dallas, and we did some Monk tunes as well, and for a drum duo I feel like it works really well, and actually with anybody.  Duo with anyone…those tunes definitely speak to me.  They give me a lot of ideas.”

Hoenig’s incessant need to push beyond so-called limits, and reinvent not only himself, but the vehicles used in his expression, also make him an optimal educator.  Hoenig has authored Systems Book 1: Drumming Technique and Melodic Jazz Independence (Alfred Publishing 2011) and writes for Modern Drummer Magazine.  He has also released The Ari Hoenig Songbook, which includes the complete lead sheets of Hoenig’s compositions.

Angst transformed into beauty, indeed. ♦

Pilc-Moutin-Hoenig perform at the Blue Note in NYC on August 30 & 31.  Click here for details.

Coming in August: A Drummer Composers Series!

Photo by Francis Wolff

Every Tuesday in August!

The drum is one of the most integral parts of the jazz ensemble, and is a primary identifier of each era of jazz music.  Yet, the drums are not always fully appreciated or understood in the larger scope of the discussion.  Being a non-melodic instrument, the drums and the drummer are sometimes pushed into a corner of reliable and necessary contribution.  This is not to say that the collective of legendary drum heroes have not been justly celebrated, but drummers generally do not receive the same fanfare, or even public interest  as their melodic counterparts.   But the drum is as important as any other instrument in the jazz ensemble, and this is a great time to highlight that, especially in the context of composing.  Over the last several years, there has been a wave of jazz drummers who are coming to the forefront as bandleaders, recording their own albums, and most interestingly for me, composing their own music.  This year alone brings albums from drummers Jeff “Tain” Watts, Adam CruzJohnathan Blake, and Otis Brown III to name a few.  In addition, drummers like Kendrick Scott, Eric Harland, Brian Blade, Antonio Sanchez, E.J. Strickland and others have released wonderful work as band leaders and are all uniquely strong composers.  Alternate Takes is giving you a look inside, and giving a window into understanding their writing process, outlook, influences and signatures.  The series also attempts to edify the audience with discussion of drummers throughout earlier generations who have been influential writers.

Starting August 2nd, and continuing each Tuesday in August, the Alternate Takes Composers Series kicks off with drummer E.J. Strickland.  Look for more interviews from Adam Cruz, Johnathan Blake, Kendrick Scott, and Eric Harland and explore the other side of the rhythm — the writer.

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?

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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.