Esperanza Spalding has often said that she hopes to use the fame from her 2011 Best New Artist Grammy to help give her friends and mentors in the jazz world the recognition they deserve. She got her chance earlier this month, when Spalding and her longtime teacher and mentor, trumpeter Thara Memory, accepted the Grammy for their arrangement of “City of Roses” from Spalding’s 2012 albumRadio Music Society.
Spalding started studying with Memory as an 8-year-old jazz prodigy, and credits his instruction with giving her a foundation in music. Memory went on to create the American Music Program, a magnet school which has been credited with training a new generation of jazz players — including Spalding and saxophonist Hailey Niswanger.
“City of Roses” is a celebration of Spalding’s hometown of Portland, Ore. For the recording, Spalding wanted to showcase the city’s jazz scene and the power of mentorship. She and Memory decided to include students from his Pacific Crest Jazz Orchestra in the session, along with local professional musicians such as saxophonists Renato Caranto and trombonist Dan Brewster.
The group reunited in August 2012 for a benefit concert for the school; there, they performed this version of “City of Roses” for a hometown audience.
The trumpeter and educator Donald Byrd, a top jazz practitioner in the ’50s and ’60s whose later work shaped black pop music through multiple generations, died Feb. 4 in Dover, Del. Haley Funeral Directors near Detroit confirmed the news, which was first circulated online last week. He was 80.
Donaldson Toussaint L’Ouverture Byrd played music based on bebop in the ’50s — in New York and in Europe — then funk-fusion and R&B in the ’70s, and wound up at the top of the charts. Soon after that, his music found its way into hip-hop. But no matter what style he was playing, Byrd was a teacher.
That Detroit Flavor
Born in Detroit, he attended Cass Technical High School. For jazz, Cass Tech has proved to be an incubator of talent: Alice Coltrane, Paul Chambers and Ron Carter went there, among many others. From other area high schools, and public universities like Wayne State, the Motor City was turning out exceptional musicians in the ’40s and ’50s.
“Oh, there’s a million of ‘em,” says the saxophonist Lou Donaldson, 86. “Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Elvin Jones, Hank Jones, Thad Jones, Yusef Lateef. Byrd came with what we call the Detroit clan … and he had that Detroit flavor to his playing.”
Donaldson is not from Detroit, but he did meet Byrd later, after they both played in military bands and moved to New York City.
“I was playing at Minton’s Playhouse and he came by with his horn,” Donaldson says. “To me he sounded great, like Fats Navarro and Clifford Brown. … We became friends, we got a group together and we played at the Café Bohemia.”
Donald Byrd played on more than 50 albums in that time, some with Lou Donaldson, and some of them with luminaries like John Coltrane, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey and Max Roach. Donaldson says they were all playing bebop, after the innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie had turned jazz upside down. In particular, Byrd was at the center of a variant known as hard bop, which added rhythmic intensity and dialed up the blues.
“He was a very lyrical player, a very economical player, a very thoughtful player,” says Nicholas Payton, a contemporary trumpet player. “He was one of the real melody-makers at that time. A real thoughtful, introspective player with a very beautiful sound.”
And Byrd was still in school while he was tearing up the New York scene. He got his master’s degree in music education from the Manhattan School of Music and studied in France. He got a doctorate from Columbia University’s Teachers College and a law degree. Nicholas Payton says Byrd told him black musicians needed to be in academia.
“Someone needs to be able to lay things out in such a way so that we establish and have a voice in those circles,” Payton says. “That was a big part in why he sought out that part of his education, and why he had a heavy presence in historically black colleges.”
Payton says that in the early ’60s, Byrd was also worried that jazz was losing touch with the black community — that it was being co-opted by the mainstream. In 1963, he released a recording called A New Perspective, featuring a gospel choir and a song called “Cristo Redentor.”
“That album put him on the map,” said trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, 76. “It spoke to the black culture and the church, the home, and it spoke to the whole black aesthetic and all those beautiful voices. … That became everybody’s favorite.”
Belgrave says that Byrd continued to work in education after he had a hit on his hands.
“It’s a passion that you have for your craft,” Belgrade says. “It’s more important than a little money. Didn’t have anything to do with that. Has to do with what was in his heart — and what’s in his heart is this music. And this music needs to be promulgated.”
Jazz relies on an oral tradition: Musicians learn from their elders and play in bands with their students. Byrd wanted to help create curricula that built on that foundation. He taught at Rutgers and Howard and North Carolina Central and Delaware State. He and Belgrave were both at the Oberlin College conservatory in 2007.
According to Belgrave, Byrd stuck it out in academia even though he suffered the snobbery of peers teaching European classical music.
“At all these schools that he taught, he had a problem with the administration because of his approach to teaching,” Belgrave said. “Because they didn’t have respect for jazz.”
The Blackbyrds And Beyond
In the mid-’70s, Byrd debuted his latest evolution. He formed a band out of his students at Howard University and called them the Blackbyrds. He asked Howard alumni Larry and Fonce Mizell to work with him. The Mizell brothers had created songs for the Jackson 5, and the 1973 album Black Byrd didn’t sound like hard bop or “Cristo Redentor.”
The album hit the R&B chart, the jazz chart and the pop chart. The Blackbyrds’ subsequent albums were popular too, and Byrd became the rare jazz musician to make some real money. In fact, the story goes that when Miles Davis gave him grief for driving a Ford, Byrd replied, “That’s just the car I take to my plane.” Yes, he was a pilot, too.
Saxophonist Gary Bartz played on some of Byrd’s fusion recordings and became close with him.
“We got a lot of flack for all of that,” Bartz said. “You know, ‘They’re selling out, they’re selling out.’ We’re not selling out. First of all, when you make a record you want to sell it.”
Bartz says the purists that railed against Byrd’s funk-fusion sound were confused.
“There are no genres,” Bartz says. “There are no different types of music. You can’t have different types of water. You can have dirty water, you can have clean water, you can have Perrier, you can have Evian, but when it boils down, it’s water. … It’s just music.”
The trumpeter picked up a new generation of listeners when his work with the Blackbyrds was mined by hip-hop producers. Nicholas Payton says the Mizell brothers albums re-established his relationship with the young black community — and at just the right time.
“It was hip-hop before hip-hop,” Payton says. “A lot of his records were a part of the sound that, in the golden era of hip-hop, what a lot of those artists looked to, to sort of model themselves after. It was funky records from the ’70s of Dr. Byrd’s.”
Dr. Byrd welcomed hip-hop. In the ’90s, he worked with rapper Guru, who used his funk-fusion recordings for the Jazzmatazz project.
In an interview with JazzTimes, Donald Byrd predicted that when he was 80, he’d be hipper and mentally sharper than he was at 40. “I’ll know more stuff,” he said. Thanks to his constant evolution, we do too.
Visionary hip-hop producer J Dilla never found mainstream success during his brief lifetime. But in the seven years since his death, Dilla — who would have turned 39 today — has come to represent a major inflection point on hip-hop’s evolutionary tree. At his peak in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he suggested syntheses that hadn’t seemed possible. He played fresh games with texture and tone. He recast the sample as a malleable component, rather than the monochromatic backbone it had seemed to be. And he injected a softened, swaggering humanity into the rigid slap of classic hip-hop drumbeats.
His magnum opus, Donuts, was reissued on vinyl last month, and the posthumous Music From the Lost Scrolls Vol. 1 came out on Tuesday — the first in a series of previously unreleased recordings. In Detroit on Saturday, the rapper Talib Kweli, violinist and arranger Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, and a handful of other artists will perform at the second annual Dilla Day, a concert celebrating Dilla’s career.
Dilla’s reach stretches way beyond hip-hop: For one, he’s recently cast a long shadow over contemporary jazz. He never belonged to jazz’s inner circle, but since his death in 2006 from a rare blood disease, his legacy has helped pull the genre back into kissing contact with modern popular music.
“He’s so important,” says jazz drummer Karriem Riggins, who collaborated extensively with Dilla and is himself a hip-hop producer. “Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams and Miles [Davis]: He’s in the same category to me.”
The jazz world today finds itself swamped with young talent eager for reinvestment in the discourse of contemporary culture. The shift has roots that run in a lot of directions. It’s a reaction to the neo-traditional revivalism that capped the last century, and to jazz’s withered commercial infrastructure in the wake of the 1990s CD bubble. Add to that the simple fact that millennial jazz musicians grew up listening mostly to hip-hop, R&B and rock.
The crush of these influences on jazz was a matter of when, not if. But no movement takes hold without a hero, and J Dilla has filled that role. “Pretty much anybody else in hip-hop — from Jay-Z to Kanye [West] — you can tell a musician you don’t like them and it’ll be like, ‘Okay, cool,’” says Kenneth Whalum III, a jazz saxophonist who tours with the R&B singer Maxwell. “If you go into that same setting saying you don’t like Dilla, it’s not okay for you to be there anymore.” He’s kidding, but only by half.
A Human Encyclopedia
So what set Dilla apart? Why has his brand of virtuosity proved so captivating to the jazz crowd?
For one, Dilla was a sort of human musical encyclopedia. In his studio, he sorted thousands of vinyl records, many of them jazz, into specific sections and kept them alphabetized so that he could dig up the right sample as soon as inspiration arrived. He didn’t just rely on his collection, either. He was always ready to pick up a guitar or a bass, or saddle up behind the drum kit, or hammer out chords on the keyboard.
Dilla would happily wrangle split-second clips from albums just for the timbre of a single note, or the texture of vinyl, or the clack of a snare drum hit. “Every track he did, he had different drum sounds,” says Damion Reid, a jazz drummer who grew up listening to hip-hop in the 1990s. “Most producers around that time — like DJ Premier and Diamond D and guys like that — they kind of had a sound. When you heard a beat, you knew it was them because of the drums. [In Dilla's music], I would hear that every sample, every drum, every nuance, every atmospheric sound was strategically placed. Jay Dee embodied, to me, the culmination of all those things.”
Then there was Dilla’s approach to crafting the rhythms of those drumbeats. Many beatmakers use a method known as quantizing, which lets you perfectly subdivide electric drum-machine sounds into positions within a measure. From there, the pattern can repeat indefinitely as a loop. Dilla preferred to play beats on a drum machine by hand in real time. That allowed him to color his creations with a signature rhythmic sway: languorous, leaned back, landing just behind the beat. In some ways, it was a new paradigm for the swing rhythm that had been born in West Africa and grew up with jazz.
“He was one of the first cats that kind of broke down the rigidity and the rules and the boundaries of hip-hop,” says DJ HouseShoes, a Detroit producer who worked with Dilla starting in the 1990s. “Hip-hop had a stiff, structured code to it, and that definitely got loosened up after his reign.” Dilla’s sample choices and drum textures might’ve been so protean as to be hard to identify, but his proudly laggard strut shines atop his tracks like a personal seal.
The Rise Of A Giant
James Dewitt Yancey was born Feb. 7, 1974, and grew up as the oldest of four children in a household on the east side of Detroit. Both his parents were musicians, and he showed natural prowess early. In high school, he started making hip-hop beats and rapping alongside two classmates, with whom he would go on to form the trio Slum Village. By the mid-1990s, word was traveling about his production chops, and he was collaborating with artists in New York and Los Angeles: The Pharcyde, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes.
In 2000, Slum Village released its breakthrough album, Fantastic, Vol. 2. But the year was more notable for the release of two other CDs, both by singers, that Dilla had helped produce: Mama’s Gun by Erykah Badu and Voodoo by D’Angelo. Marked by the unhurried, swirling fantasias that were becoming Dilla’s stock in trade, these records helped confirm the arrival of a new subgenre. It was vamp-driven, insouciantly seductive, happily lodged between the live sock of classic Motown and the tinkering studio savvy of hip-hop. The music was called neo-soul.
Later in the decade, Dilla would release a string of solo albums that stretched his hazy canvases to their fullest breadth — soul vocals and jazz harmony and rattling funk beats sprawled out together in a warm bath. These records, including the classics Welcome 2 Detroit (2001) and Donuts (2006), didn’t grab the spotlight, but they laid themselves out for posterity, and upped the ante for all vigilant producers.
“His music had that soulful jazz thing, but it also had a bounce to it,” says the rapper Common, a collaborator and close friend. “Somebody could dance to it. I think those records had a huge impact on the way producers thought about music.”
Gateway To ‘A Spiritual Space’
Just as he helped solidify neo-soul more than a decade ago, Dilla seems to be freeing jazz-trained musicians today to reconsider how their music might sound, and what defines it. Listening to the generation that’s come under his influence, you realize that some of jazz’s supposed fundamentals interest them deeply. Others, not so much.
The combustion of group interplay, and improvisation that can seem to tug on the boundaries of a band or a song: These things remain exciting. But long, exhaustion-seeking solos pointed at some final emotional summit? Swing rhythm that clangs contentedly on the ride cymbal? Not necessarily.
“At home, I have my Rhodes and drum set set up,” jazz pianist Robert Glasper says. When his bandmates come over, “we’ll play a Dilla beat for literally an hour, because it feels so good, and that’s all that matters to me. I think that’s harder [than playing chord changes]. It takes discipline. He’s the producer that makes you change the way you play. … When you just play the beat for what it is, the repetition definitely gets you into a spiritual space.”
“I’d rather repeat something for 30 minutes than solo for 30 minutes,” Glasper adds. “A lot of jazz musicians don’t have that mentality, [but] my band loves to just make beats.”
In Glasper’s work with his electric band, the Experiment, you can hear this concerted drilling-down, especially on the 2009 album Double Booked. Chris “Daddy” Dave’s drums land after the beat with an almost metallic clatter; most of the time, he ignores the ride cymbal. As accompanist, Glasper might hammer a single note on repeat for an entire minute — as if he himself were quantized — or hunker down to work subtle adjustments on a compact chord progression. He has a way of playing chords in swiftly splashing arpeggios so that most of the notes hit barely behind the beat, and the harmonies emerge in a wash of prettiness. It’s not unlike the effect Dilla’s splices could have on an Isley Brothers sample.
The Legacy Of A Phantom
You can also feel Dilla’s impact in the work of ERIMAJ, a band led by drummer and producer Jamire Williams. The influence reaches beyond the laid-back, clunking physique of Williams’ drum attack. It’s also in his ideal of a pastiche: strings and Rhodes and acoustic bass, and an electric guitar that might have been chopped from a Radiohead track. The band’s first album, Conflict of a Man, even includes a cover of Dilla’s “Nothing Like This.”
Saxophonist Greg Osby was on the front lines of attempting to fuse jazz with hip-hop in the early 1990s, when the idea was still green enough for incredulity and ridicule. Today, jazz musicians don’t seek a conscientious merger of genres so much as they use jazz concepts to reassemble the parts that have made hip-hop, R&B and neo-soul so contagious. Jazz training is starting to look like a competitive advantage more than a career roadmap.
“Jazz was born of a hybrid of folk musics,” Osby says. “And for a long time, jazz has gotten away from that. It became so left-brain and strident, its purposefulness has been obscured. Hip-hop, with its loops and its emphasis on the low end, gives a healthy nod to the black mystique and the black struggle in the United States. A lot of intelligent jazz musicians have recognized that as something that they need to reinstate and reintegrate into the output, because it’s been lost.”
In J Dilla — the musical archivist, the sonic poet, the bass knocker — Osby sees someone who has helped young jazz musicians square their belief in instrumental expressionism with their love for the modern blues music that is hip-hop.
“Dilla, he recognized this,” Osby says. “He’s kind of like a folk musician, almost like a pied piper, and he’s drawing in a lot of people with his assessment of a wider variety of material. Dilla will be like one of those Coltrane figures, where people will be talking about him in a legendary or phantom-like status forever. He was that experimental.”
Ten Freedom Summers. Image courtesy of allaboutjazz.com
By Jeff Dayton-Johnson
Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith is among the most adventurous players in jazz, having worked with musicians ranging from Anthony Braxton to John Zorn. At 70, he seems to be only now hitting his stride. Ten Freedom Summers is his new composition cycle dedicated to the history of the Civil Rights movement. Spread over four and a half hours, featuring a jazz quintet and a chamber music ensemble, it’s tough, challenging work. The suite traces milestones of the movement — culminating in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Memphis “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech, delivered on the eve on his assassination in April 1968 — and situates them in broad historic and thematic contexts.
KUSP’s Jeff Dayton-Johnson says there are few precedents for this work in jazz, in terms of ambition and creativity.
The reissue of Straight Life highlights early fusion solos. Image: allaboutjazz.com
By Jeff Dayton-Johnson
Last year’s reissue of Freddie Hubbard’s 1970 CTI label disc gives Hubbard, George Benson, Herbie Hancock and Joe Henderson room to demonstrate their virtuosity. The original session took place at a time when much of jazz was showing the influence of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. This is no exception, but its lengthy improvisations often venture outside he mainstream.
The Los Angeles band Jazz Punks have recorded an album of creative arrangements mixing well-known rock ‘n’ roll (Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, Radiohead, The Clash and more) with canonical jazz tunes (“A Night In Tunisia,” “Oleo,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” etc.) Smashups’ abrupt changing of gears and the piling up of musical references owe something to hip hop DJs.
But the performances are live and Jazz Punks are a strong jazz combo. KUSP’s Jeff Dayton-Johnson says the record is witty and well-played, and could introduce rock ‘n’ roll fans to classic jazz — and vice versa.
French jazz pianist Guillaume de Chassy leads a piano-clarinet-bass trio through a series of intimate, introspective adaptations of compositions by Poulenc, Prokofiev, Schubert and Shostakovich (among others) on a new record entitled Silences. From jazz, the trio borrows improvisation and empathy; from classical, the language and grammar of the compositions. Jazz and classical music are often combined, but not always happily. KUSP’s Jeff Dayton-Johnson says Silences, in its understated way, is an innovative marriage of the two musical traditions. The icing on the cake: a lush reading of the theme song to the 1945 film Adieu chérie. Jeff Dayton-Johnson’s review of Silences at allaboutjazz.com Jeff Dayton-Johnson’s 2007 interview with Guillaume de Chassy
Jazz musicians have long been drawn to Moroccan music for inspiration. Three new releases illustrate that this musical cross-pollination is alive and well. Pianist Randy Weston ran a nightclub in Morocco in the late 1960s. His 1972 release Blue Moses, issued for the first time in the US on CD, adapts Moroccan themes to a big band that features trumpeter Freddie Hubbard and saxophonist Grover Washington Jr.
The Boston collective Club d’Elf, meanwhile, whose members include jazz pianist John Medeski and oud player Braham Frigbane, introduce a heavy dose of psychedelia in the mix on their Electric Moroccoland, and even feature a Maghrebi version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” sung by Hassan Hakmoun.
Finally, oud master Majid Bekkas, who has frequently collaborated with jazz players, brings us Mabrouk, a marvel of small-group improvisation.
Moroccan and jazz musics mesh so well because both are already syntheses of so many styles. Jazz brought together African and European practices in New Orleans; Moroccan music, meanwhile, mixes Arabic, Berber and sub-Saharan traditions.
Read Jeff Dayton-Johnson’s review of Majid Bekkas’s Mabrou at allaboutjazz.com.
San Francisco’s Keystone Korner hosted performances by Miles Davis, Bill Evans and other renowned jazz musicians. Keystone Korner operated in the 1970s and 80 in San Francisco’s North Beach. Photographer Kathy Sloane says her own art came of age in the club.
Review by Jeff Dayton Johnson (Listen to review above)
If you scroll down the list of Grammy Nominations, you’ll find a track entitled “Falling Men” from the album “Shut Up and Dance,” written by John Hollenbeck and nominated as best instrumental composition.
Courtesy of Annabelle Tiaffay /ONJ
The album is by France’s national jazz orchestra, or,Orchestre National de Jazz. The ‘ONJ’ was created by the French Ministry of Culture in 1986 and is led currently by Director Daniel Yvinec.
KUSP’s Jeff Dayton-Johnson says it’s tight, propulsive work. You can also read his article at: allaboutjazz.com.