The One Where a White Guy Talks About Hip Hop and Jazz

This week, because I enjoy being both efficient and lazy, a large portion of this blog post is going to be the abstract to my master’s thesis. My thesis is due next fall so the final abstract will surely look a bit different than what you are about to see here. This is simply a preliminary abstract that I have to submit tomorrow to the honorable Dr. Dave Schroeder (director of jazz studies at NYU) so he can make sure that i’m not going to do anything terribly misguided or unrelated to jazz in my research. Unfortunately I fear I may be doing something terribly misguided and unrelated to jazz. You be the judge…

“Back in the days when i was a teenager,

before i had status and before i had a pager,

you could find the Abstract listening to hip hop.

My pops used to say, it reminded him of bebop”

-Q-Tip (Excursions)

The purpose of this research is to examine the connection between hip hop and jazz. Certainly there have been a number of jazz artists to utilize hip hop beats in their songs (notably Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, and Branford Marsalis), as well as a number of hip-hop artists to utilize jazz samples in their songs (notably A Tribe Called Quest, Digable Planets, and De La Soul). Yet the connection between jazz and hip hop is deeper than mere examples of cross-pollination. Herbie Hancock himself has acknowledged the relationship between beboppers composing new melodies over Tin Pan Alley chord changes and hip hop MCs composing new lyrics over funk grooves from the ‘60s and ‘70s, while the journalist Harry Allen proclaimed outright that “hip hop is the new jazz” (Tate, 388).

There are many similarities between jazz and hip hop. Both hip hop and jazz were created and developed by working class African Americans. Each genre served, and often still serves, as dance music (although jazz has in many cases evolved beyond a danceable rhythm, it is interesting to note that Dizzy Gillespie said in his autobiography: “Jazz was invented for people to dance. So when you play jazz and don’t feel like dancing or moving your feet, you’re getting away from the idea of the music”). Jazz and hip hop also share musical priorities such as an “obsession with syncopation and timbral exaggeration” (Tate, 388).

The above are just a few general connections between hip hop and jazz. Yet during the course of this research, I will attempt to discern the exact degree to which hip hop is jazz. I will do this by comparing and contrasting each genre’s creation, and social function, and aesthetic trends. Finally, I will do rhythmic transcriptions and formal musical analysis of verses by notable rap artists in an attempt to discover the musical similarities between dexterous rappers and jazz virtuosos.

What’s up nerds! It’s me Lucas, back from formal research writing land and back in the cozy casual world of blog writing. Seriously, anything goes here! Watch.

Weird GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

See!

Ok, anyway let me soften the blow of my previous accusation. I don’t think that my research will be misguided or unrelated to jazz. I see clear social and aesthetic connections between jazz and hip hop. Yet I do realize that there is potentially a big problem with me exploring this topic: I’m white. Yes, I’m white. I don’t know if you all realized this from the fact that I look, sound, and act really white, but it’s true, I am white. And yet a foundation of this research is the fact that both hip hop and jazz were created by poor and working class African-Americans. I obviously have no idea what it is like to be black or tan. I’ve never known anything other than easy living on Caucasian lane.

If I were to at all try to explain the subjective experience of the creators of jazz and hip hop, I would be speaking about something I know nothing about. Sure, I have black friends, yes I play jazz and hip hop— this gives me the authority to talk about the African American experience right? Nope. Not even a little bit. White musicologists have a rich history of overstepping the domain of their knowledge and experience when analyzing African American music. Early 20th century accounts of blues, jazz, and African American folk songs are full of simplistic and racist portrayals of black people. I hope to avoid this trend at all costs.

Luckily, my research is redeemed by the fact that this is formal academic writing (i.e. the most boring, soulless, lame-ass writing in all the land). In this paper, there will be no room for subjective commentary, simply objective description. I’ve chosen to write about the connection between jazz and hip hop not because either is part of my cultural tradition, but simply because I really love to listen to and play both. And if you have to write a long-ass boring research paper, it might as well be about something you love right?

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Lessons in Love

Here at NYU I am exposed daily to some of the most talented and successful musicians in the world. I’ve never been (and likely never will be again) surrounded by such a diverse and eclectic group of true musical masters. By virtue of this, I’m gaining a clearer picture of what it takes to “make it” in the musical world. No, I cannot point to a single factor that will guarantee musical success—  anyone who is in the business of reducing success to a single factor is probably trying to sell you something. There are always many unique elements— talent, discipline, luck, influential friends, facial symmetry, instrument choice, era, location, etc.— that may have lead a musician to his or her brand of success. Yet among the multitude of varying success factors, there is one thing that I think all the musical masters have: Love.

That’s right kids, buckle up, because this blog post might get a little sappy.

This seems obvious, but it is worth stating anyway: you have to love music to be successful at music. True, I can’t think of any musician I know who doesn’t love music, but I can think of a lot of musicians (myself included) who sometimes forget about that love because we are distracted by concerns like making money with music, pleasing an audience, or becoming a better musician. There’s certainly nothing wrong with considering those things, but I think it is important that they not cover up the essential fact that we are doing all of this because we just love music.

This semester I have the incredible honor of taking both an improvisation class and a guitar ensemble with the great John Scofield. By all measures John Scofield is one of the greatest and most important living musicians— he is an incredible guitarist and a prolific artist who has recorded and performed alongside jazz legends such as Chet Baker, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Herbie Hancock, Jim Hall, Tony Williams, Joe Henderson, and many more. Here is a man who (rightfully) could carry an air of self-importance— and yet what shone through when I met and interacted with him was just a selfless, joyful, and gracious love for music. After a two hour guitar ensemble in which he patiently played arrangements of his songs (at much slower tempos) with me and four other guitarists, he then treated us all to an impromptu rendition of the beautiful standard Days of Wine and Roses. It is clear that he doesn’t think of himself as “the great John Scofield” the way that we do as fans. Instead, he is the great musician that he is because he maintains a deep love for music that pushes him to keep playing, learning, and listening.

On Wednesday I was treated to another lesson in love by the delightful Mary Scott,  the widow of the English saxophonist and jazz club owner Ronnie Scott. Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club opened in 1959 and has been the most important jazz venue in London ever since. In 1964 Mary Scott, an avid lover of jazz, ditched her nursing studies and began working at Ronnie’s, thus beginning a long series of interactions with some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time. She spoke to all of the NYU jazz studies grad students about the onstage power and offstage antics of people like Ben Webster, Chet Baker, Stan Getz, Buddy Rich, Wes Montgomery, and countless others. She told us that when Bill Evans played there you could hear a pin drop in the room because everyone in the audience was listening to the beautiful music with rapt attention. She said that Sonny Rollins would always treat the club staff to an after hours solo concert that would sometimes last until the sun came up. All the while that she was telling us these amazing stories, Mary was glowing with sincere love for the music and musicians.

Again, there are countless reasons that Mary Scott and John Scofield have gotten to live the incredible lives that they’ve lived. You cannot discount the luck of simply being at the right place at the right time. Yet John and Mary’s experiences couldn’t have happened to just anyone. A fundamental reason that John Scofield has gotten to perform and record with brilliant musicians and that Mary Scott has gotten to hear them and know them personally, is that each has a deep devoted love for the music.

A lot of things need to go right for you to be success in anything. I can’t tell you what the right conditions are for you to become a famous musician, or a well known author, or a brilliant inventor— I’ll leave it to Malcom Gladwell to tease all of those out. However (no matter how corny it sounds) I do know one thing: you have to have love.

How to Levitate


img_0967—Sunset at Coney Island, not related at all to this post, but this was my view on Sunday evening—

Billy Drewes can levitate. The jovial saxophonist/composer who has collaborated with Woody Herman, Lionel Hampton, Tony Bennett, Herbie Hancock, John Scofield and countless others, incredibly is teaching my improvisation class at NYU. He used the first day of class to get to know us, the ten bright eyed graduate students in his class, and tell about his background. He included in his rich backstory the fact that on at least three occasions he thought he was levitating: once after being administered a generous dose of codeine at a hospital, once after being put in a euphoric state via acupuncture, and once during a powerful improvisation at a concert with Eddie Palmieri. Each time he had to physically check to see that he was still on the ground, and each time that act of checking broke the spell. After spending a couple hours with him, it’s no surprise to me that he’s accidentally dabbled in levitation. Despite his undeniable status as a heavy-hitter in the music world, Drewes is incredibly light-hearted and easily swept up in his surrounding experience.

Yet it takes much more than happy thoughts to get off the ground in music. After a week of being surrounded by incredibly talented and accomplished students and teachers, it is clear to me that I’m just beginning to crawl. Frankly I’m not used to feeling so far behind my musical peers. In Little Rock I was sometimes told that I was the “best guitarist in town”— that was certainly a gross overstatement yet I enjoyed the ego boost of feeling like I was among the cream of the crop. Here no one is going to accuse me of being the best, nor of being particularly creamy at all. Yet I didn’t come here to prove myself as “the best” (a generally bogus pursuit if you ask me), I came here to learn. And in a mere hour and forty minute class with Billy Drewes I learned several musical tricks of the trade.

“I’d get the most done when I didn’t have my instrument… just singing,” he said, talking about how he would practice. In other words, any instrument has its physical strengths and weaknesses. You’ll be compelled to play or not play certain things depending on which instrument you play. Yet if you are singing or even just thinking music, you have no limitations other than your musical imagination. It doesn’t matter if (like me) you are not the most talented or natural singer— if you start with your mind and voice and then transfer those ideas to your instrument, you’ll often come up with new and more natural ideas, ideas that truly come from inside of you rather than merely existing on the surface of your instrument.

Later in class he asked us “does everybody read pretty well?” and the room fell silent. If its not obvious, he was talking about reading music (let’s safely assume everyone in my graduate program knows how to read words). “That’s an important thing,” he went on “if you don’t have that, you kinda cut yourself off from things.” Drewes was a strong reader when he was at Berklee College of Music in the 1970s, and as a result he was able to get plenty of gigs. He explained why: “It’s a time thing. It makes rehearsals go faster.” If you can read, you can work all the time.

A large part of our class was also devoted to talking about composition. He was curious if any of us composed music, and everyone did except for one. Drewes himself recently embarked on a composition project called “first ideas” in which he wrote 24 pieces of various lengths, styles and textures which were all simply his fist ideas, with no editing or rewriting. He told us when composing to “keep every idea,” a suggestion that was repeated to me later in the week by my Film Scoring instructor Irwin Fisch. For musical content that does not quite fit in with a current piece often proves perfect for a different piece days, months, or even years down the road.

The ideas above seem obvious to me now—perhaps I should have come up with them on my own. Yet ideas like these are easier to trust when they’re coming straight from the horse’s mouth (especially a horse who has made a living since the 1970s performing and composing music, who has collaborated with a laundry list of jazz masters, and who currently plays saxophone, clarinet, and flute for the Village Vanguard Orchestra). Every day at NYU, I’m being inundated with great ideas. Earlier I described this as “learning the tricks of the trade,” but the truth is, I haven’t really learned anything yet. Musical knowledge is not transferred verbally. The only way I can learn these lessons is to sit down and apply them. I confess I am not the best reader, I rarely practice without having my instrument in my hand, and I don’t keep every musical moment that I compose. I’m still crawling. Yet I firmly believe that if I work hard to incorporate the musical wisdom provided by my brilliant instructors here, I too will be able to levitate someday.

By the way, here’s what I’ve been listening to this week: