The New Golden Age Of Jazz

DON’T tell Ryan Gosling about Kamasi Washington. It’s similarly unwise to invoke the names Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Hiatus KaioyteKendrick Lamar, Esperanza SpaldingTerrace Martin, Robert Glasper, or BadBadNotGood too. Just to be safe.

You don’t want to retroactively ruin the central conceit driving the Oscar-winning musical La La Land — a romantic fantasy in which somehow the most absurd thing isn’t stalled pedestrians crooning and soft-shoeing on a Los Angeles freeway, but rather a taupe Canadian piano traditionalist singlehandedly saving jazz.

The truth is the musicians enumerated above have revitalised jazz to a condition unseen since Miles Davis croaked his last “motherfucker”. The genre isn’t merely creatively and commercially relevant again — it’s inciting mosh pits and appearing on Adult Swim, artfully merging with rap and somehow rendering the generation gap largely obsolete.

"That class he put together was just monstrously talented.”

Of course, jazz has always embodied Bob Dylan’s adage: he who isn’t busy being born is busy dying it. It perished for the first time in front of the world’s eyes in 1955, when 34-year-old Charlie Parker’s veins and saxophone finally turned cold.

By then the wild and unhinged mutation of European classical music, voodoo rites, New Orleans second line, Southern blues, African traditions, and Negro spirituals had already been fitted for a casket a half-dozen times.

New Orleans jazz lapsed into senescence. Ragtime, skiffle, and swing all met an untimely demise. Even now, you can still find nonagenarians bemoaning everything that followed the last breaths of cornetist, Bix Beiderbecke. No wonder jazz is the only genre to spawn its own funeral soundtrack.

Over the past half century, it’s received more obituaries than the American dream. It died in ’57 when bebop gave way to the birth of cool. People sneered that it expired when Miles ascended into abstract fusion; others will tell you that it passed when Miles literally discovered the seven steps to heaven and smooth jazz assumed commercial dominance.

Odds are the most popular jazz musicians of your lifetime were previously walking dentist office cavities, Dave Koz, Kenny G and Harry Connick Jr. So if people caterwauled that jazz was dead, who could argue otherwise?

Every few years, someone anointed a crown prince with ostensibly resuscitative powers, but it never left intensive care. In the ’80s and ’90s, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and his brother saxophonist Branford were tasked to bring jazz back, but despite the latter’s collaborative album with hip-hop producer, DJ Premier and uh, Buckethead, it didn’t quite take.

During the first half of the ’90s, hip-hop entered a jazz phase, partially inspired by the original samples that excavated and re-imagined gems from the Blue Note, Impulse!, and Verve catalogs.

Tribe Called Quest asked who had the jazz. Guru of Gangstarr wrote jazz tribute anthems with couplets like “Charlie Mingus … such nimble fingers.” Digable Planets won a Grammy for the Rebirth of Slick, making cool jazz actually cool for the first time in decades. But Death Row and Bad Boy’s emergence made modal sounds seem quaint and holistically lacking in jigginess. Jazz couldn’t quite compete until now.

Back To School

THERE is any number of places to pinpoint the return of what never entirely left. The most obvious and important moment was Kendrick Lamar’s 2015, To Pimp a Butterfly album.

Part free jazz freakout, part bold assertion of radical black consciousness in the face of systematic oppression, part testament to the importance of sustained optimism and self-love, Lamar’s third album conscripted Robert Glasper, Thundercat, Flying Lotus, Terrace Martin, Washington, Ronald Bruner Jr and Josef Leimberg.

“I’d be playing [Kendrick] all kinds of records,” Thundercat told me when I interviewed him shortly after the album’s completion. “We’d be going down the lines into the lineage. A little bit of everything. He was sitting there going ‘What’s this? What’s that?’ Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams. I played him ‘Little Church’ and he was like ‘What the fuck is this?’ I was like ‘This is Miles Davis man.’ ‘Little Church,’ one of the baddest records.”

The result was a new form of fusion, less refined but equally novel to Live-Evil or Bitches Brew. It rendered the stress and chaos of the zeitgeist into a song cycle with post-traumatic saxophone licks, concussive drums, and astral levitations that wouldn’t seem out of place on John Coltrane’s last ascensions.

That’s to be expected when you enlist Flying Lotus, whose great-aunt was harpist Alice Coltrane, wife of John, whose abstruse jazz explorations traversed continents, constellations, and physical form.

But Kendrick’s Grammy-winning triumph was the culmination. The story really starts in South Central, where revered educator Reggie Andrews, a music teacher at Locke High School in Watts formed his “multi-school jazz band.”

The idea was to unite gifted students from all over the city, including Martin, Washington, Thundercat and his brother Ronald. The spawn of gifted musicians received another layer of the foundation from Andrews, a gifted musician in his own right, who penned hits and produced for the Dazz Band. His previous protégés had included Patrice Rushen, The Pharcyde, and Tyrese.

“Locke could be a violent place. A lot of the young cats over there were angry and misled and didn’t know how to express themselves,” the saxophonist, producer, and rapper, Terrace Martin told me last year. If there’s a connector bonding the disparate players that helped to revive jazz, it’s Martin, who can seamlessly make G-Funk anthems for YG one day and back Herbie Hancock the next.

“They condition kids down there,” Martin added. “The only hope I saw was through Reggie Andrews. He’s a genius. He could write songs. He understands harmony. He was soulful. And that class he put together was just monstrously talented.”

The West Coast Get Down

ANDREWS would bring his teenage students to perform in front of 20,000 people at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. It offered them an early test of their merits and inspired them to think beyond the small jazz clubs where they refined their chops.

Yet the story of the jazz revival can’t overlook these dingy smoke-wreathed clubs. First known as the Young Jazz Giants and then The West Coast Get Down (a collective that includes nearly everyone mentioned in this piece —plus pianist Cameron Graves, bassist Miles Mosley, and trombonist Ryan Porter), there were countless indelible nights at Leimert Park venues like 5th Street Dick’s and the World Stage.

To pay their bills, the members of the crew gigged with Raphael Saadiq, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, George Duke, Snoop Dogg, Stanley Clarke, and the late great Gerald Wilson. If their names weren’t internationally famous, they were already known as baby-faced virtuosos to an older generation of artists that recognised their nascent greatness.

"I wanted to dispel the myth that non–jazz fans couldn’t grasp jazz."

During the early years of this decade, the West Coast Get Down’s residency at Piano Bar became the stuff of folklore. At their final show last year, a snaking line of 20- and 30-somethings waited up to three hours in a lacerating chill, smack dab in the midst of Hollywood’s bottle service swamp.

The rate of revolution accelerated with Thundercat’s debut album, 2011’s The Golden Age of Apocalypse. Produced by Flying Lotus, the album found the northwest passage between George Duke and ‘80s cartoons, vintage baseball cards and Weather Report — not to mention the flourishing beat scene booming out of the Low End Theory every Wednesday night at the Low End Theory in northeast LA — a place where everyone from Thom Yorke to Erykah Badu and Prince popped in to see what was simmering.

Tragedy struck in 2012 with the death of piano prodigy Austin Peralta, a singular figure whose overarching vision and importance can’t be overstated. By 16, he was being called the future of jazz and collaborating with Ron Carter and Chick Corea, Before plunking his final note, he’d recently finished his seminal album, Endless Planets, which cast a cosmic and futuristic tint on contemporary jazz.

Upon his passing, Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers called him “a transcendent musician, the kind of kid that made the future of music look bright”. His untimely demise helped further galvanise the community, introducing an additional level of focus and deeper awareness of life’s fragility and consequences.

Passing Of The Torch

SO by the time Kendrick Lamar discovered the West Coast jazz scene, the flame was already lit. All he had to do was pour a little gasoline.

Watching Lamar at the 2014 Grammys was idiosyncratic Melbourne singer Nai Palm and her outfit Hiatus Kaiyote, who themselves were nominated for their genre-bending Q-Tip collab, ‘Nakamarra’.

Though unwittingly spearheading a nu-soul revival back home, their “Mahavishnu Orchestra fronted by Erykah Badu” sound put them on the radar of none other than Robert Glasper, who hand-picked them for the Miles Davis tribute Everything’s Beautiful; Questlove, who described their music as “undeniable”; and even Prince.

Back in the US, Portland’s Esperanza Spalding — a dynamic bassist and singer who drew inspiration from Miles Davis Quintet alumnus Ron Carter and Brazilian singers like Milton Nascimento — was crossing over in a big way. In 2011 she became the first jazz act to win Best New Artist at the Grammys, beating out Justin Bieber and Drake.

BadBadNotGood, a jazz trio from Canada had also emerged, boasting the co-sign of Odd Future and the creativity and innate propulsion to make teenage hip-hop heads thrash like they were watching Black Flag.

“I wanted to dispel the myth that non–jazz fans couldn’t grasp jazz.”

Their ability to fuse boom-bap beats with bone crushing drums, celestial keys, and cold-blooded horn riffs recalled the work of LA’s Madlib — best known for his psychedelic production, but who quietly spent much of this millennium making one-man jazz band gems in a studio overflowing with vinyl above a Masonic lodge in Highland Park.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for Kamasi Washington to drop his sprawling triple-disc masterpiece, The Epic. Released just two months after To Pimp a Butterfly in May 2015, Washington’s supernal riffs channeled John Coltrane, Fela Kuti, and Pharoah Sanders. Within a month, The New York Times and Pitchfork crowned the-then 34-year old king—an investiture he was ready to handle.

“I always felt like jazz had this looming, bad reputation as something people didn’t like, and I thought, ‘That’s not true. I wanted to dispel the myth that non–jazz fans couldn’t grasp jazz,” Washington told me last year, wearing a brown tribally patterned overcoat and woollen cap while we ate an organic restaurant in his native Inglewood.

“It was never about ‘bringing jazz back.’ It was about music I love that has a healing effect on people. I didn’t want people to close themselves off.”

Unlike Gosling’s character in La La Land, Washington was no traditionalist. While his music clearly exists in a storied lineage of tenor saxophone players, it captures the hip-hop fury you’d expect from someone raised on N.W.A. It captures the manic energy of its time but boasts a regenerative tone and indefatigable strength.

In the wake of his success, the West Coast jazz scene has embarked on a staggering run that few expected, including opuses from Thundercat (Drunk), Josef Leimberg (Astral Progressions), Bruner Jr. (Triumph), Martin (Velvet Portraits), and Cameron Graves (Planetary Prince).

“Jazz just has new life again. The torch is being passed,” Thundercat says. “You feel the sentiment by the music becoming more intense or having more depth to it.”

“The light’s shining through again when it comes to the creative mind state. And that’s what jazz is: the ability to improvise, the ability to tighten up, play fast, play slow … it’s all of that. The idea of jazz is travelling right now.”

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