Reclaiming Jazz In The 21st Century
Jazz is both influential as a musical genre and a way of thinking: Artists have been liberated by the idea of building something new out of the immediate present. The form has been largely propelled by innovations from black artists, even though its importance has been diluted by a complicated racial history and a period of waning relevance in the 20th century’s latter half. But time couldn’t detach jazz from its blackened roots, and the recent reclamation of jazz not just as an important part of music history, but still an abundant source of creative strength, is a testament to this.
Last year, Louisiana-bred trumpeter Christian Scott—also known as Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah—made that connection when he released his sprawling Centennial Trilogy (Ruler Rebel, Diaspora, The Emancipation Procrastination). The trio of albums was released to mark the 100th anniversary of the Original Dixieland Jass Band’s “Livery Stable Blues,” which is widely considered to be the first jazz recording ever commercial released.
But even Scott’s nod is evidence of the genre’s complicated and troubled history. “Livery Stable Blues” was a novelty record made by a group of white musicians and was released years after the 19th century black cornetist Buddy Bolden pioneered the foundations of what would become jazz. That didn’t stop Original Dixieland Jass cornetist Nick LaRocca from calling himself the creator of the genre, even going as far as to tell Tempo magazine, “Our music is strictly white man’s music.”
“That’s why we made the Centennial Trilogy: to close that chapter,” Scott said. “They were pantomiming and making fun of what black people in New Orleans did. Period. Anyone that’s saying that’s not the case, they’re up to something.”
Scott’s trilogy is moreso a reclamation and reassertion of a narrative than it is a commemoration. The trilogy’s instrumentation swings from its roots in Louisiana brass to beautified reinterpretations (Radiohead’s “Videotape” gets a cover) to freeform expressionism. It’s as much a statement of his own ambition as it is a homage and celebration of America’s most greatest musical art form.
Other recent projects by black artists may not be as overt in their intentions but the results are similar: Jazz-inflected songs that portray the genre not as cultural artifact, but a relevant form of expression to be celebrated. That’s a thread traceable through the boyish joy in the Social Experiment’s 2015 album Surf; the N’awlins brass that gives Master P’s closing speech on Solange’s a sense of ancestral pride; and Kamasi Washington’s cosmic hosannas on Harmony of Difference. They’re both a declaration of an identity and a reclamation of a lineage.
The renewal comes after jazz as a concept went stale in the mainstream for decades. By the ’80s, it appeared that the genre no longer directly spoke to the black experience as hip-hop started its reign as Black America’s most common language. Before then, jazz artists had to constantly defend against being besieged by whiteness, though LaRocca’s type of false self-aggrandizement would become less profane as the 20th century progressed. Even though there were white jazz musicians who did pay homage and respect to the genre’s black origins (Dave Brubeck is a famous example), it often appeared that the wider public wasn’t eager to do the same. Like with pop, white artists tended to get more credit. Oftentimes, to their chagrin.
Despite the perceptual bias, jazz was notable for featuring music’s first integrated bands. Those bands and the who’s who of the genre eventually found an epicenter in New York before the parties in the Bronx started capturing attention in the 1970s. Like hip-hop, jazz would find its next step forward elsewhere in the 21st century.
Jazz’s hotspot moved from New York to Los Angeles in the decades since jazz’s prime thanks largely to the Brainfeeder label, a collective of like-minded experimentalists featured saxophonist Kamasi Washington, virtuoso bassist Stephen “Thundercat” Bruner, and founder Steven “Flying Lotus” Ellison. Flying Lotus—grand-nephew to pianist Alice Coltrane, John Coltrane’s wife—had long featured threads of his jazz lineage in his kaleidoscopic electronic soundscapes, but those strands were at their most tightly wrought on 2014’s You’re Dead! A 36-minute rumination on death, the LP unapologetically featured genre hallmarks like weepy saxophones and dizzying yet accessible bass performances. Plus, Herbie Hancock plays the keyboards on two tracks.
The concise but ambitious You’re Dead! would be dwarfed during the first half of the following year. Kamasi Washington’s The Epic, which dropped on May 5, 2015, was a nearly three-hour odyssey whose grandeur possessed enough heart to captivate critics and listeners. Of course, the mainstream centerpiece was fellow Los Angeles native Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, an opus that attempted to combine multiple modes of black musical expression in a singular package with Flying Lotus, Washington, and Thundercat’s help. Although To Pimp a Butterfly is Lamar’s vision, it can’t be overstated how much of the album—not to mention The Epic and parts of You’re Dead!—lends itself to the collaborative spirit. This is not dissimilar from jazz’s constructs, where communal art can exist in the same space as individual achievement.
The jazz reconnections aren’t just limited to Brainfeeder collaborations either: Tyler, the Creator got a Roy Ayers feature for 2015’s Cherry Bomb and doubled down on those leanings on 2017’s Flower Boy, which saw him give up his early-career crassness for what’s considered to be his best albums. A Tribe Called Quest has been making a unified sound out of hip-hop and jazz for decades, and they returned in 2016 to do so one final time with the album, We Got It from Here…Thank You 4 Your Service—a celebration of the culture that raised them and a tribute to late Tribe member Phife Dawg. They give jazz a renewed currency when it’s woven into a language as common as hip-hop.
We Got It from Here’s anti-Trump anthem “We the People….” also recollects jazz’s history as a soundtrack to civil rights movements. This is history circling back on itself: Charles Mingus’ “Haitian Fight Song” and “Fables of Farbus”—the latter of which referring to the Arkansas governor who openly defied the Brown v. Board of Education case—both came out during the height of the original civil rights movement, and John Coltrane’s “Alabama” was a rousing response to the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing that killed four African-American girls.
Recent examples not only interpolate jazz elements, but explicitly tie them to a black lineage. The Epic’s penultimate track is “Malcolm’s Theme,” an overt eulogy to the civil rights icon. Of course, Lamar’s “Alright” and the emotive sax that lends its ecstasy has already been touted by many as the new Black National Anthem amidst the wave of anti-police brutality protests. Scott argued that a genre like jazz intrinsically provides furtive respites for the distressed.
“Generally when people are having a difficult time in America or things are going on socially or politically that are creating a lot of upheaval, then generally you see a rise in the demand for creative improvised music, because the abstraction allows the listener to have a contemplative state when they listen to it,” he said. “Traditionally when these moments happen, it seems to me that the people prefer to go to musical spaces that have larger nutritional value.”
Very few of these jazzy interpolations come across as dilettantish trips to a distant style. What makes the reclamation convincing is how the genre nods feel like naturalistic expression of one’s identity, whether as an individual or as part of a pedigree. Even with his rabble-rousing demeanor, Tyler, the Creator’s swerves into jazz has a knack for feeling restorative. Solange’s sonic reconnection is a personal journal as well as a communal, joyous recognizance for her listeners.
Recently, Queens legend Nas gave jazz’s legacy a nod in an open letter to commemorate Black History Month. A lifelong student who’s been influenced by the genre from the jump—that’s his father Olu Dara’s trumpet wailing at the end of Illmatic’s “Life’s a Bitch”—he noted how saxophonists and rappers are one in the same, “native storytellers who shined a light on our purpose, preserved our legacy and, without question, rocked the house.”
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