‘Jazz Is the Teacher, Funk Is the Preacher’ Continues the Connection Between Black Power-era Art and Progressive Jazz and Funk

Soul Jazz Record's second tie-in to the Soul of a Nation art exhibit brings the funk, alongside a wide range of progressive populist jazz from the early '70s.

Jazz Is the Teacher, Funk Is the Preacher
Various Artists
Soul Jazz
23 November 2018

It would appear that the progressive jazz and funk of the late 1960s/early 1970s is the gift that keeps on giving, at least to cratediggers and reissue compilers. I’m not even going to try to list the many collections of hard-hitting music from the Black Power/Black Panthers era. Suffice it to say if you’re interested in the soundtrack to that era of black American history, it’s not all that hard to discover it anymore. Not only have major figures from James Brown to Curtis Mayfield to Gil Scott-Heron seen their work anthologized and included in era-spanning compilations, or reissued by boutique labels, numerous obscurities have again seen the light of day, and many of them still ring true 40-plus years after the fact.

But many of those collections owe their existence to hip-hop, capturing the funk beats and attitude in the air in the days when DJ’s and rappers first rocked New York City clubs and playgrounds in the mid-’70s. The UK label Soul Jazz has gone after a rarer niche: the underground, socially conscious jazz happening on numerous small labels, music that was dearly beloved by its woke audience back then, even if the un-woke might have thought it strange had they ever heard any of it.

Jazz Is the Teacher, Funk Is the Preacher is the label’s second tie-in to the comprehensive art exhibit Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, which premiered at the Tate Modern in London in 2017 (and opens at the Broad in Los Angeles in March 2019). The first collection. Afro-Centric Visions in the Age of Black Power, was a round-up of Afrocentric and spiritual jazz from the era, with well-loved artists like Scott-Heron, Joe Henderson, and Roy Ayres alongside lesser-known jazz performers like Doug Carn and Horace Tapscott. The new collection mines similar territory, but expands the pallette somewhat to take in some of the era’s forward-thinking funk.

Anybody already familiar with the era probably knows the compilation’s opener, “Theme De Yoyo” by the Art Ensemble of Chicago (1970); Soul Jazz previously included it in its 1995 collection of the era’s avant-jazz, Universal Sounds of America. In fact, many of the artists here, if not the actual tunes, are available elsewhere, but that doesn’t lessen the impact of capturing the range of musical activism happening back then. That range takes in everything from jazz-funk poet Sara Webster Fabio (“Work It Out”), to the searching duet by drummer Rashied Ali and saxophonist Frank Lowe (“Exchange Part 2”).

Not surprisingly, much of this music happened on the underground tip, whether via grass-roots community projects (the Har-You Percussion Group, with “Welcome to the Party”) or through artist-run collectives (Detroit’s Tribe, with “Beneficient” featuring Wendell Harrison and Phillip Ranelin). But some of this was accessible enough for larger concerns to pursue, as with Gary Bartz NTU Troop (“Celestial Blues”) and Don Cherry (“Brown Rice”), both originally issued in America on important jazz-oriented labels (Milestone and A&M, respectively).

It’s important to note the stylistic range captured here – contrary to received wisdom, all ’70s jazz was not pyrotechnic jazz-rock fusion or wandering excursions into formless improvisations. Oneness of Juju’s “Space Jungle Funk” pretty much comes as advertised, while “Byron Morris and Unity’s “Kitty Bey” (also previously reissued on Universal Sounds of America) weaves jazzy solos, electric piano comping, and multiple percussion instruments into a breathless 12-minute workout. This was and is challenging music, but hardly esoteric fare – it was music for the masses, provided the masses gave it half a chance.

Jazz Is the Teacher‘s departures from the various flavors of jazz are welcome in capturing more of the full zeitgeist, but not necessarily news. Baby Huey’s “Hard Times” is already a well-known hip-hop sample, and one might imagine different tracks from Funkadelic and Scott-Heron than “Nappy Dugout” and “Whitey on the Moon” respectively. Indeed, there was all matter of underground funk happening that fit the activist, self-determined spirit of the visual art; one might want to consult a breakbeat collection for crucial tunes like the Honey Drippers’ “Impeach the President” (1973) – not as source material for future rap records, but as vital statements on their own merits and in their own time.

No doubt, the melange of jazz and funk represented here was a different thing than more commercial combinations by Grover Washington Jr., the Blackbyrds and other popular acts. This was music inspired by, and seeking to inspire, a brighter day for the black masses, open with and to vast new possibilities for black self-expression, just as the visual art (and literature too) was doing. One might wonder what happened to this impulse, or how this strain of black music became less populist and more pop, but perhaps that’s a story for a future compilation.

Aside from adding to the renewed appreciation of the music that influenced the art behind Soul of a Nation, Jazz Is the Teacher shows that the well from whence this music came hasn’t yet been depleted by reissuers. The riches of indie, black-oriented labels like Black Jazz and Strata-East have barely been explored, not to mention the cutting edge of ’70s free jazz as captured in the New York City loft scene and other venues. But what’s presented here is a good snapshot of progressive black music from the era – musically adventurous, but still rooted in everyday life and not too abstract for general enjoyment. It reflected a growing sense of black American people’s connection to African culture, it tapped into their sense of modernity in responding to the conditions of the day, and it fueled inspiration and hope. And many of these selections wouldn’t sound all that out of place in a 2019 playlist or DJ set alongside the contemporary music they’ve influenced.

Ironically, the song from which this collection takes its name is not included here. That was a tune by James Blood Ulmer, a guitarist whose outre gumbo of jazz, blues, and R&B took off in the late ’70s, especially after his Tales of Captain Black (Artist House, 1978) album with Ornette Coleman. The tune in question first appeared on his 1980 album Are You Glad to Be in America?, which was released by, believe it or not, the UK post-punk label Rough Trade. That made a little sense, since Ulmer’s frenetic, march-like tunes and staccato guitar attack resembled some of punk’s energy; he was in fact a leading figure in the sub-sub-genre people tried to label as “punk jazz.” But this tune, like the rest of the album, was neither wholly punk nor wholly jazz. Yet although while the music of “Jazz is the Teacher” bears only the barest stylistic resemblance to the selections on Jazz Is the Preacher, its lyrics strike closer to home: “Jazz is the teacher / Funk is the preacher/ Tell ’em for me early in the morning / One without the other / You just got the blues.”

RATING 8 / 10