All That Jazz: An American Art Form Hits Another Beautiful Gear

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Pharaoh Sanders performs during the recessional at the Ornette Coleman Funeral Service at Riverside Church on June 27, 2015 in New York City. (Photo by Taylor Hill/Getty Images for Big Hassle Media)

One of the most sublime live music experiences I’ve had is also the most difficult to put into words. It was, appropriately, at Riverside Church in New York City in 2015 for a funeral service on a rainy June day. The music genius that was Ornette Coleman, whose performances, compositions, improvisations and interpolations helped usher in the avant-garde free jazz movement and burnish his name among the pantheon of jazz greats, had just passed at age 85.  

Perhaps nothing drove home this legendary musician’s place in the universe than watching jazz legends including Cecil Taylor, Joe Lovano, Ravi Coltrane, Henry Threadgill and Jason Moran pay tribute to their colleague and friend. But when saxophone great Pharoah Sanders, then in his 70s, played a pathos-filled and elegiac sax solo for Ornette it seemed to channel a kind of divine inspiration evoking a sweet melancholy, tears and an ineffable communal connection that just maybe touched a higher power uniting this house of worship in a moment that very well could have been Ornette himself. 

That’s my story at least and I’m sticking to it.

“It’s open to interpretation, you can channel as a listener your own meaning and superimpose your own thoughts and reactions to the music,” explains Karl Morse of Arrival Artists, whose impressive roster of musicians includes, Shabaka Hutchings, Nubya Garcia and The Bad Plus.  “It’s also improvisatory, so every time you hear it, it’s going to be different and that can be an immediate reaction to the energy of the crowd or the room they’re playing, or the festival or the mood that they’re in that night. That allows for an elasticity, which is exciting in music.” 

Indeed, in these strange times of malaise with a global pandemic, economic challenges, obscene violence, lethal weather, a mental health crisis, rampant homelessness and so much else to consternate, jazz can offer a place of unarticulated but highly relatable solace. 

Some of my most favorite live performance moments of the last several years happened within the wide and wondrous swath of jazz which continues to evolve, mutate and hit ever-widening audiences. This included catching shows promoted by Jazz Is Dead at L.A.’s Lodge Room shows by Hutchings with Sons of Kemet, Makaya McCraven, Lonnie Liston Smith and Roy Ayers; stumbling upon Kamasi Washington’s incendiary set at Mr. Music Head Gallery in Hollywood; Jaimie Branch playing with Angel Bat Dawid at IRL in Greenpoint; and her set with Anteloper at Rhizome in D.C.; Nubya Garcia’s play at the sold-out 6K-seat Anthem in D.C. warming up for Khruangbin; Miles Mosley playing the best set at the Echo Park Rising festival; Robert Glasper at The Blue Note in March with an hilarious Chapelle cameo; and Dinner Party with Glasper, Kamasi and Terrace Martin at One Eyed Jacks in New Orleans which went until at least 2:30 a.m.

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Emerging Luminary: The phenomenal Jaimie Branch (trumpet) with her FLY or DIE quartet with Jason Ajemian, Chad Taylor, and Lester St. Louis, is pushing beautiful boundaries of what jazz can be. Photo by Peter Gannushkin

Since at least the ’80s, so much jazz was kept alive in the samples of hip-hop artists from old school acts like A Tribe Called Quest to De La Soul to Eric B. & Rakim to more recently J. Dilla and Kendrick Lamar. This came up when speaking with Alex Kurland, Director of Booking at Blue Note Entertainment, which put on the Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley with Glasper July 29-31. In fact, Kurland, in his bookings has brought together jazz and hip-hop legends, which included a certain legendary 82-year-old jazz keyboardist, arranger, and record producer with a master rapper and storyteller. 

“The history of hip-hop is based on iconic samples, and Bob James is a pivotal figure in the history of jazz sampled in hip-hop,” Kurland says.

“Bob James has been sampled countless times across countless iconic hip-hop songs. You’ll hear him in Wu-Tang Clan and their individual members throughout Slick Rick, Rakim, A Tribe Called Quest and many, many records.  So we brought in Slick Rick, whose song ‘Children’s Story’ is one of the most famous hip-hop standards and samples James. So we created this moment with Talib Kweli and his band, which is unbelievable, with Bob James on keyboards and Slick Rick on stage with them doing ‘Children’s Story’ live for the first time with Bob actually playing keyboard and those samples live. And they had never worked together before. So those magical moments is what we’re all about, because it’s historic, it’s very special, and there’s an appreciation from the audience and from the artists to share that moment together, and that’s really meaningful for us.” 

The late Meghan Stabile, who tragically passed away in June, was a trailblazer in bringing jazz and hip-hop together on stages with her Revive Da Live performances at venues like NYC’s Zinc Bar, the Winter Jazz Festival and many other stages. Her Revive events lived up to the promise of re-connecting jazz and hip-hop in the live space, though she left this planet way too soon.  

This week’s cover artist Robert Glasper, curated his first festival, the Blue Note Jazz Festival Napa Valley, featuring an assortment of musicians who touch jazz, hip-hop, R&B and electronic music. This includes Chaka Khan, Maxwell, Flying Lotus, GZA, Black Star, Erykah Badu, Snoop Dogg, Madlib and others. Though he’s steeped in and studied jazz, these days he doesn’t like to use the four-letter word. Though jazz purists may scoff at the notion of such a varied line-up being used in the same breath as jazz, Glasper’s talented and smart enough to not play that game. 

“The true tradition of jazz is that it always changes, it’s supposed to,” Glasper said in an Instagram post. “The true tradition of jazz is that you’re supposed to grab from your surroundings. The true tradition of jazz is that you’re supposed to be relevant and play from the now. Charlie Parker, Lester Young, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, they were playing their now. So we have to play our now and use our influences and that’s what this Napa Festival represents, the now.”  

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Kamasi Washington performs during the 2022 Apollo Theater Spring Benefit at The Apollo Theater on June 13, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images)

The now means that artists like Thundercat, a virtuoso bassist, is currently on tour with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and playing stadiums; Shabaka Hutchings is destroying stages at Bonnaroo; at this year’s Grammys, New Orleans’ own Jon Batiste won more Grammys than anyone; and Kendrick’s Pulitzer Prize are helping to bring these sounds to new and different levels. 

Ashley Capps, who co-founded Bonnaroo and promotes some of the most adventurous festivals out of Knoxville home base, discussed the moment jazz is having. 

“There’s definitely a resurgence of interest,” he told Pollstar. “There are new generations of incredibly gifted young musicians very influenced by jazz, but also all of these other traditions, and there’s scenes of fans who have grown around them. I do think it goes in waves like other scenes do. There’ll be a resurgence and then it kind of peters out for a bit and then comes back. We’re definitely experiencing a wave right now and a very exciting time for all jazz musicians.”

The Ascension: How Robert Glasper’s Life & Music Are Taking Him To A Higher Level

Promoter Avails: Jazz Is Dead’s Andrew Lojero On Why Jazz Is So Very, Very Not Dead

Agency Intel: Arrival Artists’ Karl Morse On The Four Letter Word: Jazz

Boxoffice Insider: Jazz On The Road; Wynton Marsalis & Orchestra Set For Fall Tour

Khruangbin Charts With Summer Sellouts

In Memoriam: Meghan Stabile, Who Revived Live & Jazz

Fest 411: Ashley Capps On Jazz & The Live Market’s Growing Big Ears