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?

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.

The Tyranny of the Cool

bptm-morocco

Last week I opened up my blog by boasting about a Tinder date that I went on. I truly meant this only to be an attention grabber before I launched into an exploration of the decline of melody in music. Yet it appears that people were much more intrigued by my date than my musical musings. The overwhelming response to my blog post about the disappearance of melody in music was this: “how was the Tinder date though?” Well much like Fauzio, I aim to please, and so I’m going to indulge your thirst for a vicarious experience of NYC Tinder life and tell you about my date.

I had an incredibly pleasant time with a beautiful young Irish woman who was charming, upbeat, humorous, and delightfully outspoken. Our plan was to meet up at The MoMA, view some art, chat over coffee, and then part ways. Yet after the MoMA we had dinner together, and after dinner we went to a bar, and after the bar we went for a walk, and after the walk we met up with a friend of mine and chatted at a cafe, and after the cafe, we took the subway to my house and watched some Game of Thrones. And no, this was not a “Netflix and chill” kind of situation— get your mind out of the gutter people. It was just wonderful evening filled with really good conversation, laughter, and flirtation.

The truth is I’m not actually telling you all of that because I want to grant you your wish of peaking into my romantic life— (as usual) I have a larger point to make. Believe it or not, me going on that Tinder date, has everything to do with me fighting for the presence of melody in music. That’s right fools! I’m not abandoning my discussion of the decline of melody in music. Stay with me now…

What is melody? The technical definition of melody (per dictionary.com) is “The succession of single tones in musical compositions, as distinguished from harmony and rhythm.” But more generally what is melody? It is an active statement; it is the part you can sing; it is the part you remember. If you think of a musical composition as a story, as many composers throughout history have, melody is the dialogue and action that propels the plot. Harmony and Rhythm would be more like the setting and pace of the story. And yet if it is such an important part of the musical story, why then are more and more composers in jazz, film, and popular music abandoning clear melodies?

The simplest answer is that it is easier to not write a melody than to write a melody. While the simplest answer is often the correct one, I believe that there is also something more poisonous at play: on some level most everyone wants to be cool, and at some point melody became uncool. I can express this easier with a musical example. Listen to any or all of both of these pieces of instrumental music: Serenade no. 13 in G Major by Mozart and Lizard Point by Brian Eno. One has a very distinct memorable melody throughout, and the other doesn’t really have a melody. Which do you think is cooler (not better, just cooler)? Because it is much more mysterious and abstract I am going to guess that most people think that the Eno tune is cooler. A melody is a clear statement, and a clear statement is rarely going to be perceived as cooler than something more oblique.

We could think of it like this: a melody is like looking up and saying “I love how the sun beams through the trees in Central Park.” As nice and true as that statement may be, it is simply not as cool as just staring off at the trees, silent and expressionless as you smoke a cigarette. Certainly the latter is cooler, but is it better? No way. First of all, smoking is bad for your health. Secondly, you are not communicating anything to anyone else by staring off into space. You’re just living in your own cool, insular, lonely world. And yet we are all victims under the oppressive tyranny of the cool— nobody wants to be considered uncool, and yet nobody knows exactly what it is to be cool, thus many people simply avoid making statements (verbally or musically) for fear of being uncool.

So what the hell does going on a Tinder date have to do with writing a melody or being cool? Well, on Tinder I’m a perfectly cultivated cool guy. I have pictures of me holding a guitar, laying on a raft with sunglasses on, effortlessly posing with a real live butterfly on my shoulder, and an equally cool “about me” write-up to boot. Given the extra time to think up responses I’m also far more clever and witty in Tinder text message conversation than I am in real life. Thus, I could have contented myself to stay at home and just be a cool idea of a person, but I chose (as did she) to actually go meet up with someone and expose myself as a real, flawed human. In person, you hear my goofy laugh, you witness me fumble with words sometimes, and you sense my subtle nervousness and excitement about being on a date. I’m not as cool in person, but I am much more real— I’m someone you can actually connect to. It doesn’t matter how cool someone is on paper, the only thing that matters in romance is how well you connect with someone face to face, and the only way to do that is to get out of the house, go on a date, and put yourself at risk of being uncool. Thus, the acts of writing a melody and going on a Tinder date are both mini rebellions against the tyranny of the cool.

And even the coolest people can rebel against the tyranny of the cool. My friend Epiphany Morrow (musical artist, rapper, public speaker, philanthropist, and entrepreneur) is by all measures a very cool dude. This week Epiphany released his long awaited Legacy Project. Billed as the world’s first “living album,” The Legacy Project is a smartphone app offering an interactive music and video experience which draws users into a unique world of Piph’s creation. You most certainly should download it (just search “big piph” or “the legacy project” in your app store). Despite the fact that many would undoubtedly consider Epiphany a cool dude, the best part about him is that in The Legacy Project and in so many of his other endeavors he too routinely and unapologetically puts himself at risk of being uncool. For it is not because I think that he is cool that I respect and admire Piph (in fact I know him well enough to know that he is actually a closet-nerd)— no, I respect and admire him because he is incredibly genuine, disciplined, and creates art that has true perspective and substance behind it.

You may not see it, but I do: the acts of going on a date, releasing an app, and writing a melody are all important rebellions against the tyranny of the cool. Certainly nobody wants to be uncool, and yet the only actions or statements that have any meaning or weight behind them are those that do put us at risk of being uncool. And here’s the liberating truth: there is really no such thing as cool. When Miles Davis gave birth to the cool back in 1957— he gave birth to a phantom. Cool is simply a figment of our collective imagination. Love is real, beauty is real, laughter is real, and cool is not real. The sooner we all realize that, the sooner we’ll being to really live.