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Robert Glasper at SXSW in March 2012. (The Washington Post/Getty Images)

The Black Arts: Making Jazz In The Mainstream

by Patrick Jarenwattananon
Dec 20, 2012

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Patrick Jarenwattananon

Had you been watching The Tonight Show with Jay Leno one Monday night last March, you might have seen pianist Robert Glasper leading his Experiment band from the NBC studios in Burbank, Calif. Had you preferred the Late Show with David Letterman, you might have seen bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding front a horn-heavy ensemble at the Ed Sullivan Theater in midtown Manhattan.

The coincidence was striking. For one night, the two prime late-night music showcases went to two improvising musicians: both African-American, well under 40 years old and well respected by the jazz community. That community is generally unfamiliar with mainstream attention. Suddenly, two of its representatives were on national television at once, a continent apart.

How were they in a position to do this? The music they chose to play certainly had something to do with it. Both featured a strong lead female vocalist, backing vocals, tunes with rhythmic and harmonic twists unusual for today's pop, beats that wouldn't fly in bebop, improvisation filling the spaces in between rather than extended solo features. It wasn't straight-ahead jazz.

Both also were promoting new albums. "Radio Song" leads off Spalding's Radio Music Society, while "Gonna Be Alright," featuring the vocalist Ledisi, comes from Glasper's Black Radio. ("Gonna Be Alright" is the vocal version of "F.T.B.", a piece Glasper first recorded for piano trio years earlier.) The presence of the term "radio" is a tip-off: These records were aimed toward mainstream pop broadcasters.

Their visions of what might make for good radio are suffused in black identity. Though the title Black Radio is officially inspired by the indestructible black boxes in airplanes, an alternate meaning resonates loudly on an album full of R&B and hip-hop leanings performed exclusively by African American musicians. Radio Music Society is less forward with its messaging, and less specific about its pop influences, but its lead single "Black Gold" is about taking pride in African origins, and it comes with a video which unsubtly drives the point home.

These visions didn't ultimately result in big hits with actual commercial radio stations. According to Blue Note Records, the Glasper single "Ah Yeah," with Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette Michele, peaked at No. 22 on Urban Adult Contemporary radio. Figures weren't available from Spalding's label at press time, but none of the songs appeared on Billboard's pop or R&B/hip-hop charts.

But the recordings still reached many ears. As of last week, Glasper's Black Radio had sold over 128,000 copies worldwide, and Spalding's Radio Music Society — the first full-length album from her since her 2011 Best New Artist Grammy award — peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard 200 albums ranking. These are huge figures for jazz artists, even the most prominent, who rarely reach a tenth of those sales figures or appear on any charts to begin with.

Glasper and Spalding were the ones to reach a mass audience, but they'd be happy to acknowledge that their recent directions have emerged from a larger creative ferment within the jazz community. Not that the admixture of jazz, a black-origin art popular in the 20th century, and hip-hop or modern R&B, the black pop of today, is particularly new. But the spotlight afforded both musicians this year sheds light on a wider cultural conversation going on about the music this year.

BAM

The first great jazz-world debate of 2012 actually started in late 2011. It mostly sounded like: "What do you think about Nicholas Payton?"

In late November of last year, Payton, a trumpeter and composer, posted a series of aphorisms on his blog declaring that the term "jazz" had lost its value. Almost since its inception, musicians have lamented the term as a pigeonholing or a pejorative, but Payton's declaration went viral. As the discussion continued among the greater jazz community, sometimes in an acrimonious tone, Payton adopted an alternate description for his art, a broader classification he calls Black American Music.

"My feeling is that I am not in need of distinction or categorization or separation from other great black musics," Payton told me in an interview early this year. "People like Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, whomever — I don't think it's something that black Americans thought of to take and separate and divide these little children up and title them and make them all whatever they like. That's perhaps a marketing idea or some kind of other idea. It's not an artistic one. When a musician creates, they create within the breadth of all the things they love and do, and the four-letter word [jazz] just doesn't cut it."

The idea of Black American Music — #BAM, as Payton often appends Twitter updates - fueled the Internet debate anew. So powerful were the feelings around it that a real-life panel discussion, comprised mainly of Payton and fellow musicians in favor of the nomenclature, convened at the New York venue Birdland in early January, when many of the country's biggest jazz presenters and journalists were in town for an annual conference.

The formulation did not ultimately take hold among institutional powers-that-be, but it certainly foregrounded the issue of African-American ownership for those paying attention. Thus, the stage was primed for two well-supported album releases in late February and mid-March from young black artists — and others who followed in their wake.

Lost slightly in the debate was the fact that Payton himself released a genre-crossing album of his own in late 2011. Bitches, a bedroom-R&B song cycle reflecting on an ended marriage, features Payton overdubbing himself on all instruments: trumpet of course, but also keyboards, bass, drum machine programming and lead vocals. Like Glasper's Black Radio, it features several guest vocalists, one of whom is Esperanza Spalding.

"I am trying to bring back popular music to its heyday before it became the J-word, back when Josephine Baker was at her prime and this whole new wild sound was sweeping the world," Payton said. "I want to recapture that feeling and the essence to bring all of that stuff together because it never should have been broken up."

Bringing It Together

That thought makes sense for many among the current twenty- and thirtysomething generation of young jazz-trained musicians: hip-hop, modern R&B and electronic beat-based music are as much a part of their musical milieu as their conservatory training. Like Glasper and Spalding, some are also openly reflecting modern black-origin pop on their instruments.

Take the drummer Karriem Riggins, perhaps best known in jazz circles as a sideman for the late Ray Brown or for the current touring band of Diana Krall. He's also been producing for rap artists for a long time, and this year he released Alone Together, an entirely self-produced album of hip-hop instrumentals. In addition to the titular nod to the jazz standard, he produced many of these tracks during free moments on tour with Krall.

Or the bassist Kenneth Rodgers, who grew up in the Philadelphia jazz scene, and is a student at Berklee College of Music. As Gizmo, he's also an R&B arranger, songwriter and vocalist, and you hear those talents on his debut album Red Balloon. He's 21 years old.

The title track from Red Balloon features the drumming of Jamire Williams. This summer, Williams unveiled Conflict of a Man, the first album from his own hybrid band, ERIMAJ. Featuring the vocalist Chris Turner - who is currently singing backup vocals for Esperanza Spalding — ERIMAJ was once described by The New York Times' Ben Ratliff as "a band that dissolves lines between rhythmic traditions in jazz and hip-hop as well as I've ever heard." This summer, I spoke briefly with Williams about that mixture. "We've found a sound that's very contemporary, but it's still unnamed," he said. "It's still nothing that can really be pinpointed. It has jazz sensibilities, it has hip-hop feel, it has the soul, it has rock. But it's not one or the other. It's just a natural, organic thing that just came about."

Who else? The young Toronto trio BADBADNOTGOOD gained notoriety for its instrumental translations of dubstep and hip-hop beats; a few weeks worth of Internet debate about their attitudes later, they were spotted backing R&B breakout star Frank Ocean on stage. The operatically-trained singer Abiah released his second album this year, a collection of acoustic R&B ballads, and if the piano backing sounds familiar, that's because it came from his cousin Robert Glasper. There was the jazz-funk of saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin and the classic soul inspiration behind singer Gregory Porter, who both released albums on the same jazz label. Electronic beat wizard Flying Lotus is hip deep in this. We were reminded of his jazz connections this year when the Vijay Iyer Trio did a version of "MmmHmm," a song he made with Thundercat; and then again, sadly, when we learned of the passing of his collaborator Austin Peralta, who was only 22.

And there was Christian Scott, who, like fellow outspoken New-Orleans-bred trumpeter Nicholas Payton, devised his own coinage for his musical fusions. His "stretch music," as he calls it on the liner notes to his double-CD release Christian aTunde Adjuah, accommodates a wide variety of hip-hop and rock vernacular into his compositions. One of the tunes he's recently arranged for his quintet was "No Church In The Wild" — an instrumental expansion on the Jay-Z/Kanye West rap song which features a hook from Frank Ocean. In fact, there's actually a commercial recording of "No Church In The Wild" coming when Scott and fellow young musicians of the New-York-based NEXT Collective release an album of pop covers in February.

What's Next

With momentum behind the likes of Glasper and Spalding, and no shortage of young musicians in their wake, the free exchange behind the term Black American Music — if not necessarily the term itself — is likely to grow. Glasper himself appears on at least two genre-crossing Blue Note albums coming next year — one from the jazz-trained singer Jose James, who just made his own late-night TV debut, and another from jazz-trained bassist Derrick Hodge, who plays in Glasper's Experiment band. And both Glasper and Spalding have been nominated for 2013 Grammy Awards, another mark of mainstream recognition.

In the historical view, jazz experiments from the hip-hop generation — or hip-hop from jazz-trained musicians - have been around for decades already. But now some of it is poised to merge into the mainstream of black popular music. So could any of this ever hit commercial radio?

The pianist Ethan Iverson is no stranger to crossover success, being the pianist in The Bad Plus. Iverson, who is white, once reflected in writing: "Black communities in America today have very little to do with jazz, choosing to celebrate hip-hop, soul and other popular musics instead. The minute some instrumentalists figure out how to really align the most mysterious qualities of jazz with this contemporary folklore there will be some hit jazz records again."

Bridges to the "contemporary folklore" this year have prized traditional artistic priorities. They primarily rely on the contributions of highly-trained instrumentalists, usually working together in real time. They see talented vocalists as one piece of the puzzle, not the centerpiece. They make space for improvising and spontaneity and experimentation, however limited. They've largely had an organic quality, a feeling of "how can we reflect these sonic impulses as a band," as opposed to "how can we make a hit?"

Perhaps this year commercial radio tastemakers weren't ready to program Robert Glasper next to Rihanna or Nicki Minaj. Perhaps the efforts themselves weren't quite catchy enough. Perhaps certain sounds or values prove too huge a handicap in the realpolitik of today's pop marketplace. But judging from the musicians who led, and the listeners who followed, expect to hear much more from young jazz musicians making radio in their own image.

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