Does Jazz Need a Mainstream?
In 2022, we all love our podcasts. I grew up listening to the radio with youthful focus, a clock radio (yes, with the numbers not expressed as LEDs but as little metal flippy things that make a soft “chink” every 60 seconds – the reassuring heartbeat of a 1970s adolescence) that sat next to my bed in the Jersey suburbs of New York. That’s how I first heard musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and Jackie Wilson, and Frank Zappa. New York City radio at the time was capable of being free-wheeling and genre-crossing. Podcasts are different, being on-demand and primarily talk, but they offer the bounty of incredible variety whenever you need it.
I listen carefully to two that feature the culture of improvised music. Indispensable and I hope well-known is “A Noise From the Deep”, a conversation show hosted by trumpeter/composer Dave Douglas and sponsored by his Greenleaf Music umbrella. This series just reached its 100th episode, and its variety and depth are remarkable. Douglas brings a musician’s ear and perspective to every conversation, but it makes sense to folks who are just fans as well. It’s a treasure, not least because Douglas focuses diligently on the music itself.
“The Jazz Session” and Nicky Schrire
The other “jazz” podcast I’ve recently started to enjoy is called “The Jazz Session”. It was created in 2007 by Jason Crane, a musician, poet, and jazz radio pro who worked at Rochester’s Jazz90.1 before moving to around New York State and the country and even living in a van, interviewing musicians on the road. “Jazz Session” seems to be the first jazz podcast also featuring long-form interviews with musicians.
A musician has helmed the show for the last eight months. Nicky Schrire is a South African woman who has also lived in London, New York (where she came for graduate studies at the Manhattan School of Music), and currently Toronto. She has released four albums, three of which I wrote about for PopMatters back in 2014. As a musician, she has a bell-like voice that tries to find an original way to sing within the jazz tradition but without being caught in reimagining old standards like a faded carbon copy of Ella/Sarah/Billie and so on. That said, her life as an artist since I first interviewed her has fulfilled my worries: it’s not easy to break through and find an audience, and so she has been playing and recording – but also teaching music in South Africa and working in the arts as a journalist and curator.
As a podcaster, then, Schrire is nearly ideal. She has spoken in recent months to folks like Kate McGarry, Michael Mayo, Tierney Sutton, and Theo Bleckmann (all contemporary creative vocalists) as a peer, a fan, a student, and a critic all at once. But she has also turned her attention to the business side of this music, interviewing Dave Stapleton (the head of the relatively new and wonderful Edition Records), Lydia Liebman (the terrific publicist), producer Matt Pierson as well as a journalist, manager, and booking agent. Schrire gets that music is not just magic and art and inspiration but also requires a structure of other elements. During her interview with Luciana Souza, the producer (and musician) Larry Klein pops in – he is married to Souza – and we are all reminded that the creative arts are built on partnerships requiring different elements of craft. In a bit of kismet, her most recent interview is with Dave Douglas himself – and so my two jazz podcasting voices were going at it together.
I connected with Schrire again by Zoom myself and found her to be as fabulous in conversation with me as her guests – but maybe a little less guarded and willing to challenge me in the best possible way. To give just one example, she suggested that the South African pianist that everyone loves to hold up as her nation’s greatest was really not as great as Bheki Mseleku, which sent me off into a voyage of digging his music. And (see below), it turns out that he is essential listening for a critic trying to dig into contemporary South African pianists and musicians.
Is The Music Too Abstract or Academic for Its Own Good? Enter Jason Miles.
Perhaps more relevant in my conversation with Schrire was how this music can remain relevant for regular listeners in the future. Though jazz wasn’t exactly popular music one generation ago, there were ways to sell records and make a living in the 1980s and 1990s. (Sort of.) Even putting aside “smooth jazz”, there is a sense for many folks that today’s creative musicians have lost touch with the importance of melody, of accessibility, in this music. Put another way, is today’s scene likely to create another Pat Metheny or Diana Krall? Schrire and I don’t necessarily agree on this, but she makes a mindful and informed case that beauty in creative music ought to be more prized than complexity and novelty. She is fairly blunt in explaining that much of today’s creative music is too abstract for her taste. And, she implies, for its own good.
In this way, my conversation with Schrire dovetailed neatly with my reading of a new memoir written by producer/keyboard artist Jason Miles. Miles has been a collaborator with post-comeback Miles Davis (Tutu, Amandla), bassist Marcus Miller, and David Sanborn, as well as soul icon Luther Vandross. His music is steeped in the New York sound of the 1970s and 1980s – that delicious era when players like Richard Tee, Eric Gale, Cornell Dupree, Chris Parker, David Sanborn, Michael Brecker, and Steve Gadd were equally likely to be playing with Paul Simon, John Lennon, on Saturday Night Live or shoulder to shoulder with the top talent in soul or jazz.
The Extraordinary Journey of Jason Miles, A Musical Biography is mainly a bunch of classic music stories of a kid (and then adult) who moves through the incredible New York scene in that time, working with not only Marcus Miller and Miles Davis but also Tommy LiPuma, Chaka Khan, Michael Brecker, Roberta Flack, Ivan Lins, and other folks. But just beneath the surface, the book argues for the music’s strength and power from that era. Miles, in recent years, has put together a show called “To Grover with Love” that channels the music of Grover Washington, Jr. He believes that healthy doses of strong melody and soulful groove don’t have to water down the “jazz” content or serious value of music.
I’m not sure that Jason Miles or Nicky Schrire have me fully convinced that the best thing for the music is to tone down its abstraction or daring. I think the art form has plenty of room for Marcus Miller and William Parker, Pat Metheny, and Miles Okazaki. And, of course, I am riveted by the musicians who sometimes bring the daring and the grooving together.
Robert Glasper’s Black Radio III
This brings us to pianist/producer Robert Glasper and his inevitable Black Radio III. Glasper is the contemporary musician who sits most comfortably astride “jazz”, hip-hop, neo-soul/R&B, and whatever else you want to call Black music in the new century. With three Grammys in R&B categories (one each for the first two Black Radio albums and one for soundtrack work on Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis film), work with Kendrick Lamar, being the pianist with a band that played at this year’s Oscar telecast, and collaborations with so many others who defy category, Glasper is an advertisement for how musical sophistication in the legacy of Herbie Hancock and Ramsey Lewis (to choose just two forebearers) can still be POPULAR.
The new recording in this series is not trying to be “jazz”, but it sure is hip. Hip-hop stars of a certain age, such as Big K.R.I.T., Q-Tip, and Common mingle with Esperanza Spalding and Gregory Porter from the “jazz” side of the tracks. Jennifer Hudson sings, as do H.E.R. and Lalah Hathaway. This is music rich in melody but with a much more modern approach to rhythm and production – it mostly could not have been made in Jason Miles’s studios from the 1975-1995 era, and it is much more edgy than the music of Schrire’s typical guests.
For all this, I think that Glasper follows the dictates of my favorite “jazz” musicians in that he stamps all his music with a clear voice. You listen to the piano groove of “Over” featuring the singer Yebba or the rhythm section sound on “Better Than I Imagined” with a killer spoken word section by Meshell Ndegeocello, and you know you are tuning into Glasper’s musical world.
If Black Radio III is where music is headed, whatever the category, then I am in. It’s dreamy, catchy, melodic, emotional, and sophisticated. I want this stuff AND mad, atonal compositions in 17/8 time with crazy saxophone solos. We don’t have to choose.
The Charles Mingus Centennial
With Charlie Parker’s 2020 centennial year wiped out by the pandemic, it has felt hard to go in strong on other anniversaries. If we could celebrate Bird then, why bother with any others?
But every few years, I find myself lost in a re-listen to a classic by Charles Mingus, and it’s hard to resist that right about now. Mingus could be the patron saint of Not Choosing Between Melodic and Daring.
Born in Arizona (his dad was in the US Army at the time) but raised mainly in Los Angeles, Charles Mingus was a black man who today would be seen as multi-racial. His first love was the cello, but a lack of opportunity and training – and an early exposure to Duke Ellington’s music – brought him to jazz. He was playing with Louis Armstrong by 21 and with Lionel Hampton before 1950 and co-founded an independent record label with Max Roach by 1952. Mingus’ writing and playing were second-to-none, but we do not often state enough that he was the first genuinely great bassist bandleader in the music. His compositions can stand with those of his idol Ellington, his peer Thelonious Monk, and anyone else. The breadth of his work stretched as wide as anyone’s, from swing and gospel roots to bebop brilliance to the undisputed core of an avant-garde. Two of the albums that can be claimed to be among his last are vocal recordings by Joni Mitchell, and a sweeping recreation of his long-form composition “Epitaph” is telling.
As I have been listening to Mingus this month, I have spent time in three places. I have always been partial to his “Changes” quintet, with pianist Don Pullen, George Adams on tenor saxophone, and Jack Walrath’s trumpet – a recent live recording of them from Bremen in 1975 is stupendous, but their two studio albums and a live one from Carnegie Hall date with some other players also hold a place in my ears. Of course, I have never been able to get enough of the Mingus bands that included Eric Dolphy from the early 1960s. Dolphy was, in a sense, Mingus’s Coltrane. Just as Trane captivated Miles Davis and made his bands more explosive and magical, Dolphy was a particularly glorious voice amidst the Mingus identity. All the small-band records from that time (the live recording from Antibes and the sublime Charles Mingus Presents Charles Mingus from 1961 and without piano are my favorites) are genius-level, defying the notion that Ornette Coleman was so far “out” or that jazz was somehow being ripped apart by too much atonalism in the 1960s. Mingus straddled it all with ease.
But one record I can’t get enough of is a somewhat peculiar date from the Dolphy era. Dolphy left the Mingus band in 1964 while it was touring Europe, and he would die from undiagnosed diabetes in June of that year. But in 1963, Mingus brought his regular “workshop” band – with Dolphy, tenor saxophonist Booker Little, and pianist Jaki Byard – into the studio to play arrangements by Bob Hammer, who had also arranged the music for the masterpiece The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady. Hammer’s charts on a set of Mingus tunes that were already well-known call for four brass (two trumpets, trombone, and tuba) and four reeds with a rhythm section.
The result, Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus (which includes two ballad tracks from the Black Saint session) is a hybrid beast of a Mingus album. At 11 pieces, the band is lush and big but still fleet, with the low brass positively rocking and growling on tunes such as “II B.S.” and “Hora Decubitus”. The session is power and speed, both – the LeBron James or Rob Gronkowski of a jazz group. Dolphy is there on “Hora” to turn a 12-bar blues into something otherworldly, but just as often, the band is a gospel revival (“Better Git It in Your Soul”) or the most sophisticated of modern jazzers (THE most immortal “Goodbye Porkpie Hat” there is). I know two people who fell in love because of Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus. (The “Mood Indigo” here is, well, dreamy.)
Really, who can blame them?