Friday, August 5, 2011

Jazz and Hip-Hop: Music of the Same Language

Re-blogged from, for which it was originally written

When Jazz started in New Orleans, it brought together, in one place, all of the influence that routinely came in and out of the port city. The marching band drums were consolidated into a single kit, the ragtime piano rhythms and harmonic ideas were brought together with a tuba and a banjo, and the marching band horns became a section in front of the rhythm section. Mash these elements into a club, and New Orleans was transformed into the birthplace for a music that has spanned generations. While, in recent years, Americans have hoisted jazz onto the “art music” pedestal, the simple truth remains that jazz, at one point, was considered a vulgar vernacular music of the day. In fact, the word “jazz” derives from a closely related vulgar word, which I will not repeat (hint: it has to do with sex). The most legendary jazz instrumentalists were strung out on all sorts of drugs: Louis Armstrong was a lifelong Marijuana devotee (where did you think that voice came from?); Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Miles Davis, Scott LaFaro, and many others were Heroin junkies for part, or all, of their career (Miles kicked Heroin for Cocaine, or so the legend goes). And yet, with this unsavory origin, they were able to create some of the most lasting and beautiful music of all time. Is the development of Hip-Hop all that different? Hip-Hop was also first developed as an underground culture. The first Hip-Hop parties were held in the Bronx during the late 1970’s, riding the wave created by soul and funk artists. DJ’s soon began taking these popular songs and chopping them apart to play the drums separately; audiences were in love. Soon a whole culture developed, with the New York City youth leading the charge. And, just like jazz, it spread from one innovative city to the rest of the country. 

With jazz, this journey began up the Mississippi River, moving north through St. Louis, Kansas City, Chicago, then it took the turn east to New York, where, to this day, it remains the jazz mecca of the world. Development of regional styles within jazz began: the Kansas City school (with Bennie Moten, and later, Count Basie’s orchestra), Chicago’s “hot” jazz, be-bop in New York (Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie), and “cool” jazz on the west coast (Lee Konitz and Chet Baker). You can see the same regional development in the spread of hip-hop though the country. As the hip-hop music and culture spread, some regional styles became clear: New York was laid back, focusing on lyricism and cultural statements (the ultimate example is Nas’ Illmatic); on the west coast, it was about banging and so, you saw the emergence of groups like NWA and gansta rap culture; and in the south, stemming from Atlanta and Miami, there was the dirty south movement, focusing on club culture and flash (for example, Outkast’s Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik).   

You can even see parallels between the figures of the two musics. Miles Davis was a figure who had a long career, working with many bands across many different styles of jazz and singlehandedly moving forward the progression of jazz. I would argue that Dr. Dre fits the bill for this type of artist in hip-hop. His career started in the beginning of the west coast school, and through his career, he has worked with many different artists. The ones with the highest profiles are, of course, Eminem (midwest), 50 Cent (New York), and Snoop Dogg (West Coast). I would equate the coast vs coast rivalry between Biggie and Tupac to the rivalry (though a friendly one) between west coast saxophonist Lee Konitz and east coast saxophonist Charlie Parker. Lee Konitz and his “cool” school were the direct rebellion to be-bop, the east coast style at the time. Today’s hip-hop and jazz cultures still have parallels. For example, Soulja Boy has emerged to please the masses, with simple, easily understood songs, much like Kenny G has done on the saxophone in helping to popularize the “smooth” jazz idiom. However, on the other side of the coin, there is Lil’ Wayne whose lyricism is complex and intelligent, and has helped to draw hip-hop out of an early 2000s dark age, back to a music which requires talent and dedication; much like artists like Brad Mehldau, Joshua Redman, and Wynton Marsalis did for jazz in the late 80’s and early 90’s. 

With these similarities, it is no surprise that jazz musicians and hip-hop artists have been drawn to one another. Miles Davis’ last album Doo Bop, from 1991, was full of hip-hop beats; A Tribe Called Quest routinely sampled jazz songs, like Weather Report’s “Young and Fine”, and their feature of bassist Ron Carter on “Verses From the Abstract”, both from their album Low End Theory; pianist Robert Glasper has been actively touring with Mos Def; guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel was featured on Q-Tip’s last album, and sat in with his old classmate ?uestlove and the Roots on the Jimmy Fallon Show, and was recently interviewed on NPR where they put his iPod on shuffle and when Biggie came on he knew all the words; and trumpet player Roy Hargrove, with his RH Factor, has toured and recorded with Erykah Badu and Common.    

Some jazz fans go out of their way to actively demonize hip-hop without knowing the history of, not only hip-hop, but of “America’s” music is general. Jazz and Hip-Hop are both great, and both are born from the efforts of the rebellious, who set out to fill themselves, and wound up starting new world cultures. So, let’s tip our hats to the innovators of both, the ones who weren’t afraid to do what they felt and by doing so, created America’s lasting, unique music.  

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