Hip-Hoppers Come ‘Round to Jazz : Bird lives, and so do the sounds of Monk and Miles. Of course they do, but their jazz is new to a very different generation. The hip-hop crowd is discovering their parents’ music and making it their own.
Jazz was always slinking around the house where Al Jackson grew up.
Dad was a musician so there was no escaping be-bop and acid jazz, even if Jackson, a typical Angeleno youth, was more partial to hip-hop. He wanted to rebel against whatever his parents stood for and rap was the language of the streets, the beat that spoke to him.
But his dad just sat there calmly and said, “You will come around.”
Jackson, now 27, recounts this story late one summer night outside the Hollywood club Cosmos, as the jazz strains of the Umoja Quintet waft through the brick walls into the nighttime air.
Inside, five guys under 23 are jamming Coltrane, mixing classic bop with improvisational licks that define the ‘90s free-form style. Youngest is Ardom Belton, 19, who studies classical music at USC by day but is now working that stand-up bass till the sweat flows down his face, which is raised in ecstasy.
Outside, Jackson is conceding that his father was right: He and many others have come around.
“Everything originates from jazz,” Jackson muses. “It’s a black art form. But I was young. I didn’t understand that. Now my grandfather and my father and I have common ground. We’re on the same wavelength.”
To spread the gospel, Jackson started “The Soul Children,” a loose coalition of people who are curious about jazz and how the music has influenced their roots. At monthly “brown rice and BBQ” gatherings, Jackson shows other young people “where the hip-hop artists got their original music from.”
He is part of a small but steadily growing stream of people who are rediscovering the legacy and importance of jazz as a foundation for music, lifestyle and cultural pride.
Some, like Jackson, need only flip through their parents’ record collections to get in tune with the tracks of their childhood. Others find their curiosity whetted by the many hip-hop artists sampling jazz riffs today, including Me’Shell NdegeOcello, Digable Planets, Guru, KRS-One and A Tribe Called Quest.
While purists from both camps may have looked upon each other warily at first, the field broke wide open in late 1993, when the DJ project Us3 sampled boulder-size chunks from Blue Note Records’ classic jazz catalogue on its album “Hand on the Torch.”
Us3’s irrepressible single “Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)"--which is popping up on Top 40 and black music stations, but not jazz ones--generously samples Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island.” Other tunes dip into Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Donald Byrd and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
To everyone’s surprise, Us3 gave Blue Note its biggest hit in half a century of jazz records: more than 1.5 million copies sold worldwide, according to Tom Evered, Blue Note’s vice president of marketing.
The source music isn’t doing too bad either. New York’s Blue Note says sales are up 30% to 40% for jazz artists whose works are sampled by hip-hoppers. The growing interest has also led the label to re-release old records that have long been scarce.
On the West Coast, a spokesman for Tower Records on the Sunset Strip says that jazz sales are at an all-time high--up by one-third over the last 18 months--with standard recordings by Monk, Miles and Coltrane outpacing everything else and acid jazz such as Gil Scott Heron and Lonnie Liston Smith, moving a close second.
Live jazz is hot too. At clubs and coffeehouses from Umoja and Brass in Hollywood to Nick’s Cafe in Claremont and 5th Street Dick’s and World Stage in the Crenshaw district, intense young musicians are forging ‘90s versions of both classic and acid jazz and bringing the music back to its roots, to the smoky dives and back-alley clubs where it originated so many years ago.
In the process, they are exposing the sophisticated and yet elemental music to a young audience that probably wouldn’t shell out big bucks for a chic jazz supper club or feel at home as they do in a hip-hop venue.
Many say they’re tapping into an affinity that always existed.
“Old jazz was rebellious music, so it’s a natural place for rap to go,” says Ron Carter, manager of publicity for Warner Bros. Records. “People are getting tired of gangsta rap . . . and they’re going back and listening to jazz beats. Everyone’s catching the flavor. The producers, the deejays, the trendsetters, are reaching back and capturing some of that magic, and whatever they do, the kids are going to follow.”
Consider Dani Couch, 22, who studies sociology at UCLA. She used to listen mainly to rap. And funk, especially Prince. But in the last six months, she has branched into Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. They speak to her, these female jazz vocalists from several generations ago.
“A lot of my friends are getting into it,” says Couch, who is in Hollywood this night to catch the Umoja Quintet. “They like the sound, they like the beat. There’s a definite following.”
Roger Park, 23, from Arcadia, agrees. A jazz buff, Park started playing in junior high, forming a traditional jazz band that played weddings for kicks and pocket money. Park never envisioned the day he would play jazz at a nightclub for a grooving audience of his peers.
But that is exactly what happened with Aquaflesh, a stripped-down jazz funk band for which Park pounds the congas.
“A lot of us love jazz, but if you played this a few years ago it would have been weird, archaic. With the club scene now, you have a crossover. You can play for kids your age.”
Umoja drummer O. C. Davis III got hooked after hearing one of his dad’s Art Blakey records. At 22, Davis looks like hip-hop’s child, with a T-shirt, vest and blue knit cap plunked down on his head, b-boy style. And sure, he still loves rap. But jazz is freedom, he says, waxing expansive. “The directions you can take jazz is infinity. It’s the truest way of expressing yourself.”
Emile Poree, 20, who leads the Umoja Quintet, also speaks in superlatives about jazz. “I kind of had to find jazz on my own, but now can’t get away from it. I’m so deeply involved in it that it’s like a drug, like crack,” says the soft-spoken, bespectacled guitarist.
These young men savor their anomalous role in today’s music scene but add that youth attracts youth.
“Audiences are surprised at young people playing jazz. They want to know what inspires us to play this music, they want to know who our influences are,” Davis says. But they come back--the ultimate compliment. This is a hip-hop crossover crowd, where the common thread is reverence for the music. Both men and women wear buzz cuts, ponytails, dreadlocks. Urb magazine and Bob Marley T-shirts. Baseball caps. Braided leather necklaces. Baggy shorts. Tennis shoes. If Easy Rawlins were looking for his “Devil in a Blue Dress” in 1994, he’d come here, to Umoja on a Monday night.
As L.A. jazz goes back to its roots, kids are also getting into the culture, the fashion, the lifestyle. There’s little room for purists here. It’s a post-modernist found culture, the flotsam and jetsam of civilization stirred into a new pastiche.
Coffeehouses like Betelgeuse on Melrose and 5th Street Dick’s in Leimert Park are lacing their lattes and biscotti with jazz licks. At the clothing store Funkeesentials, T-shirts bearing likenesses of Miles Davis and Art Blakey are snapped up. Many spoken-word shows blend poetry and live jazz. Cult and alternative bands also pay homage to jazz greats on various new albums.
Jean Pierre Boccara, who runs LunaPark, a West Hollywood club, says that he too is booking more jazz-influenced bands this summer.
“There are more bands out there, plus I’m seeking them out because there’s a strong and very popular street-level interest for jazz and acid jazz,” Boccara says. “You hear it and say, ‘This is interesting, I want more of that, it’s not an alternative rock band.’ I get 10 of those tapes a week and nine sound the same, like REM or Smashing Pumpkins.”
At Poo-Bah Record Shop in Pasadena, which has a large jazz selection, manager Rick Snyder notices more young African Americans buying jazz with a good beat or groove--discs by Donald Byrd or Coltrane.
“People who tended to buy rap and hip-hop are now picking up ‘Straight, No Chaser’ as well,” Snyder says, referring to the Blue Note jazz compilation that has just come out on CD and vinyl.
“The whole hip-hop thing is turning people on to the jazz flavor,” says Daz Blackburn, a DJ who is one of the forces behind Brass, a jazzy funk club that happens each Thursday. “You hear something in an Eric B. & Rakim song and you say, ‘Yeah, that’s cool.’ And then you go and you find the original.”
His partner Marques Wyatt, who cites Coltrane as a personal favorite, points out that people in the know have followed the jazz-funk flavor for a couple years already. But he believes it is slipping into the mainstream thanks to the success of groups such as Us3 and the Brand New Heavies.
At the Atlas Bar & Grill in the Wilshire District and World Stage, jazz aficionados gather each week to hear live jam sessions from post-bopsters including critically acclaimed Black/Note and the Umoja Quintet. Both Umoja and Brass try to book two or three live bands each night. While they are semi-underground clubs without a fixed address, Umoja is currently Monday nights at Club Cosmos and Brass is at LunaPark each Thursday starting around 11 p.m.
“We’re trying to nurture this scene by putting these groups on and letting the audience see where the music is coming from,” Wyatt says.
Belton, Umoja’s stand-up bass player, says he feels like a jazz sensei each time he plays live before a young audience.
“We’re socializing people to jazz,” Belton says. “People want to know what jazz is but they don’t want to go to a jazz club. At places like Umoja, they can get hip-hop too. So you don’t throw them into jazz. But they can hear something new.”
One of the converted is Monica Morant, 23, of Pasadena. Just a few years ago, Morant says, she was intimidated by jazz and didn’t always understand it. Then she bought an album by Solsonics and grew inspired enough to track down the jazz riffs she liked.
(Ironically, copyright laws now make this easy since artists must credit songs they sample. That gives aspiring jazz buffs a veritable road map to tracking down an interesting melody line they hear on a hip-hop song.)
As Morant began to conquer jazz and claim it as her own, she discovered its magic. She found herself drawn to its improvisational elements, which she didn’t hear in other music. She started following Umoja Quintet around. She saw it kindle the interest of the club kids.
Now she and fellow jazz heads know about the Marsalises, Sonny Rollins, Chet Baker, Max Roach, Roy Hargrove. They debate the merits of Charlie Parker vs. Miles. Donald Byrd. Roy Ayers. Wayne Shorter. Jazz is smart music. It has historical reverb.
“Young people want to go back to the roots of their own culture and jazz is where that’s at, certainly for me,” Morant says, echoing Jackson. She pauses, cocking her head. “Oh, here’s my favorite song.”
It is Gary Bartz, a pioneer of acid jazz, a musical form from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s that emphasized a danceable heavy backbeat. The song is “Celestial Blues.” “You must get closer to the essence of life,” Morant recites the words. “Talk to the heavenly bodies of the universe.”
Along the path to jazz enlightenment, fans are discovering there’s nothing new under the sun. Musicians excitedly point out the parallel between jazz scatting and rap; between the limb-flopping jazz dancing of the ‘30s and ‘40s and hip-hop breaking.
Some worry that jazz is only the flavor of the month.
“There’s a lot of people out there who are claiming they’re for the groove, when they’re just on the bandwagon,” asserts Blackburn, the Brass deejay.
True enough, says Don Lucoff, a prominent jazz publicist. But he points out that bands like Us3 are opening up the ears of curious kids to jazz. Once they get a taste, they’ll be hooked.
“Most people get into jazz not because they heard Coltrane for the first time but because they heard something more accessible and went back to check it out,” Lucoff explains.
N o one expects jazz sales to suddenly rival rap or rock. But its influence reaches beyond its numbers, signaling a rising interest in musical sophistication, a hunger for authentic roots music.
Blue Note, which stopped releasing vinyl in 1990, changed its mind after the success of Us3, which highlighted the “groove” or “boogaloo” jazz years of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Savvy marketing folks saw deejays and collectors paying hundreds of dollars for rare records by Lou Donaldson, Grant Green and Big John Patton and seized a marketing opportunity.
So far Blue Note has reissued on CD and vinyl 18 obscure but critically acclaimed jazz titles from the 1960s, including Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter and Clifford Jordan.
Another who saw a niche that needed filling and took the A train was Tomas, a deejay and promoter for Umoja (which means unity in Swahili).
“I saw kids were interested in jazz but were way too young to go to a jazz bar and see these artists, so I started this club to play jazzy hip-hop along with jazz classics and classic reggae,” says Tomas, who uses no last name. “That brought out of the woodwork all these bohemian kids who were so inspired by jazz.”
While Umoja and Brass spin on the Hollywood axis, two of the most classic post-bop jazz bands gigging these days also have strong ties to the burgeoning Leimert Park jazz scene.
Its hub is World Stage, a performance/workshop space opened five years ago by drummer and longtime Ornette Coleman associate Billy Higgins with poet Kamau Daa-ood.
World Stage’s Thursday night jam sessions and the support of Higgins, who wants to get kids off the street and onto the stage, is credited by many with igniting the local jazz Renaissance. World Stage’s recording label is also a launching pad: It produced the critically acclaimed first album by post-bop jazz band Black/Note. This fall, World Stage will release the Umoja Quintet’s first record.
Also on the Leimert Park axis is coffeehouse and art space 5th Street Dick’s, which has live music every night of week. One of the songs on Black/Note’s new album, “Jungle Music,” is titled “5th Street,” a tribute to owner Richard Fulton.
Even cult and alternative musicians are turning to jazz for inspiration--or making a point to acknowledge their influences. Harley White of Papa’s Culture, a loose-limbed musical amalgam, included one song on its Elektra debut, “Toes,” whose smoky mournful horn was a tribute to Miles Davis.
Marc Griffin, the creative force behind MC 900 Ft. Jesus, pays homage to Davis’ “Bitch’s Brew” on his new album, “One Step Ahead of the Spider.”
“I would have never gone back and sampled those old records, I’d been there and done that,” said Griffin, who began playing trumpet in sixth grade and did graduate work in music theory at the University of North Texas. “But it’s some of my favorite music. And I wanted in my own way to echo that type of a feel.”
H arvey Kubernik, L.A.'s spo ken-word impresario who has long mixed poetry with live jazz, says his shows are drawing increasing interest these days and are often highlighted as “pick of the week” in alternative publications.
Kubernik has produced shows for Michael C. Ford, who bills himself as a jazz poet and dedicates works to Art Pepper, Monk and Mingus. He showcased Wanda Coleman reading her poetry as a horn player interpreted Thelonious Monk. On a recent spoken-word show at alternative college radio station KXLU, Kubernik did an interview over a 1962 Ornette Coleman recording.
This fall, the producer will release a jazz audio biography of L.A. jazz great Buddy Collette, who has been playing since 1938. The double CD is on Issues/New Alliance Records.
“It’s not about bongos and berets, it’s not that corny thing with sunglasses, this is horn players, stand-up bass and percussion,” Kubernik declares.
And the wave has yet to crest.
Says Boccara, a veteran of the music scene who has seen it all come and go since he opened the Lhasa Club back in the early 1980s: “Maybe after listening to so much music people have learned that jazz is a little more sophisticated than heavy metal. It’s the music we need more for the times. In a way, it’s more intelligent. It leaves space for you to appreciate and think about the music."*