Hailed as the gateway into jazz for younger audiences, America’s jazz soundtrack wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the musical stylings of GRAMMY Award winner Robert Glasper.
Glasper’s music has helped to propel the genre forward by taking hip hop and fusing it with R&B such as his collaborations with artists like Erykah Badu, The Roots, and Kendrick Lamar. In an interview with NPR last year, Glasper said that there’s a reason why jazz audiences tend to be older and whiter.
“I think a long time ago, white people made jazz into like something you sit down and you appreciate, like golf….,” Glasper explained. “They took the dance floor away put chairs in it, you know what I mean? And then for a long time we weren’t allowed to go to jazz clubs. Black people weren’t allowed to go to jazz clubs. Even the people who were performing, the artists you went to see wasn’t even allowed to come in through the front. You know they had to go to the back to the kitchen and you know we were treated like s***, but we were the main act. So, it’s not something that we’re used to doing, going to jazz shows is not something that’s normal. So, I think it has something to do with that. I think black people just love new stuff,” said Glasper.
Born in Houston, Texas, the jazz pianist was inspired by his mother, a gospel pianist and vocalist. He was inspired by his mother, but one of his early music influences was Roy Hargrove gave him the idea to be who he was musically. “I was a senior in high school and Roy Hargrove came to my high school and he had on overalls and Timberlands. I couldn’t believe it. First of all, I’d never seen an all-black band. So, this is my first time seeing an all-black band and its jazz. It shouldn’t be like that that’s what it was. Never seen that before. And they all were dressed like me and they looked like me. That inspired me to be who I am,” Glasper told NPR.
He went on to study music at the New School University in Manhattan where he found performance work and worked on his craft with artists like bassist Christian McBride and saxophonist Kenny Garrett. After graduation, Glasper went on to work with a multitude of artists including his musical influence Roy Hargrove, as well as Carly Simon, and Mos Def.
In 2004, he released his debut album Mood. Canvas, and In My Element followed in 2005 and 2007.
In 2009, Glasper released Double Booked, which featured Herbie-Hancock inspired songs with two separate bands. The first of these was his trio with drummer Chris Dave and bassist Vicente Archer. They recorded several songs including a cover of Thelonious Monk’s “Think of One.”
His electric band, dubbed the Robert Glasper Experiment, featuring Dave, electric bassist Derrick Hodge, and Casey Benjamin on saxophone and vocoder.
In 2012, the Robert Glasper Experiment released their first stand alone album, Black Radio which blurred the lines between jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and Rock & Roll landing it on the Billboard jazz charts at number one. The same year, Glasper released Black Radio Recovered: The Remix EP. In 2013, the Robert Glasper Experiment returned with new addition drummer Mark Colenburg, for their sophomore album Black Radio 2. The album won a GRAMMY for “Best Traditional R&B Performance” for a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America.” The song features Lalah Hathaway and Malcolm Jamal Warner.
Glasper returned to his piano trio format in 2015 with Covered live at Capitol Studios in front of an invited audience.
Glasper also played on Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly,” and Maxwell’s “blackSUMMERSnight,” and for Don Cheadle’s 2016 Miles Davis biopic, Miles Ahead, he curated the soundtrack and wrote original music for the film.
He also recorded Everything’s Beautiful” a tribute album to mark Miles Davis’s 90th birthday. The album features the single “Ghetto Walkin” with Bilal.
The Robert Glasper Experiment then returned to the studio in 2016 and for the first time wrote and arranged songs resulting in ArtScience with singles “Day to Day,” and “Thinkin’ About You.”
Glasper then assembled a new supergroup, Reflect+Respond=Now, featuring Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah on trumpet, Derrick Hodge on bass, Taylor McFerrin on synthesizer, Justin Tyson on drums, and Terrace Martin on synth and vocoder. Their debut album, Collagically Speaking, released in 2018, mixes R&B, 1970s jazz-funk fusion, cosmic soul, and instrumental hip-hop.
Coming Up Next
Several cities, including Nashville, have had the chance this year to experience the Robert Glasper City Winery Tour. The intimate tour wraps up in Oakland, California on April 18. Glasper let Rolling Out Magazine in on his future plans. “I’m doing a lot more film scoring this year. I did the score for an HBO documentary about the Apollo Theater coming out in the fall. I’m also working on a new pilot, a comedy on ABC staring Leslie Odom Jr., and I’m doing another Black Radio [album], and that’s slated to come out in 2020,” he revealed.
Glasper continues to inspire and open the portal to new jazz enthusiasts.
To keep up with Robert Glasper, check out his website.
The Prince of Sophisticated Soul, Will Downing, is back adding another layer to his contributions to America’s soundtrack with an inspiring message on his 21st album, The Promise.
In 2007, Will Downing faced the unthinkable; a sudden onset of the auto-immune disease polymyositis that left him nearly paralyzed. During this trial, Downing says he didn’t curse God, but instead offered a prayer, “Lord you see me through this and I promise I will give you all the honor, and the praise wherever I go.” Over a decade later, Downing is making good on his promise with a 10 song thank you letter on his first ever gospel album, The Promise. With his distinctive rich baritone, Downing infuses his inspirational message with R&B and Jazz overtones, making it a departure from traditional gospel sounds.
Will Downing spoke with the National Museum of African American Music about crafting a praise worthy album that fulfilled his vow and how the illness changed his perspective and has influenced his music moving forward.
What inspired you to do this first gospel album and talk about the title, The Promise. What took you so long to do a gospel album?
Will Downing: The Promise is a promise that I made to my mom years ago that I would do a gospel album. So that’s one inspiration, and the other was obviously when I was sick and you know, you’re making that negotiation with God, like ‘hey, you get me out of this one, I’m going to do this.’ I’m one of the few people that actually make good on their promise. I’m making good on my promise because I can’t tell you the amount of times I’ve said ‘Lord, please get me up out of this bed, I got you, trust me, I got you.’
So, I’m making good on my word there and the reason that it’s taken so long for me to do it and because this is actually one of the first few times that I’ve had kind of musical autonomy to do what I wanted to do musically. Not that they [record labels] tell me what to do, but when I was at Universal, I was contracted to do an R&B album or contemporary jazz album. I always had to fulfill the contractual agreement. Now that I’m kind of doing the independent thing and able to kind of do a one offs with a label like Shanachie Entertainment. If they’re interested in buying it then that’s what you get. You automatically know what you get. There’s no contract with me saying I have to do an R&B album, I have to do a jazz, or whatever. This is something that I have done, self-financed, and then sold it to them to distribute.
In an interview with JET Magazine, you mentioned that you used live instrumentation on your Black Pearls album. Did you do that for The Promise as well?
Will Downing: Oh yes. There’s a lot of live instrumentation on there. I’d probably say like 70 percent. It kind of really brings the spirit of the music alive to me. You know, there are certain things you can program, but then there are other things you just can’t get that feel. This is supposed to be a feel- good record. It’s supposed to be an inspirational record. It’s supposed to be informative and heartfelt, so you need a lot of musicians to kind of bring stuff like that to life.
How would you describe your gospel sound for fans that are expecting to hear that traditional gospel sound?
Will Downing: I stayed in my lane. I know who I am, I know what I do, and I know what I do best. I’ve made enough records to know what will attract people to the music. You have to be yourself and that’s the type of record that I made. I made it so that musically, it didn’t really deviate from what I’ve always done. What I did was put a message on top of that and that is the inspiration. How was the process of putting this gospel album together different from your previous albums?
Will Downing: Well, with albums like this, I mean you really have to be vulnerable and you have to open up and you know look at yourself for real. It’s really no holds barred. You have to let it all out. I think that I’ve been able to do that in the past with songs. I think with this album, you really take a good look at yourself and, and you can’t be ashamed because you may find yourself crying and letting it all out that way. It’s very therapeutic, to let it out and you know that there’s other people out there in the world that feel the same way and maybe they’ve never heard someone say it and say ‘it’s okay.’
Was there a moment while you were recording that you literally had to step away and break down?
Will Downing: Well, it’s interesting because when I listen to the album as a collection, sometimes I find myself breaking down now. I mean because it really puts you in touch with yourself. You know, all the things that I’ve gone through throughout my life, I mean, it’s not just really just 2007, but it’s everything going forward. It’s your whole existence, you know, you are putting it out on whatever this digital format is now. So, you’re really saying what’s on your heart, going through the whole process of how you’ve been your entire life and how grateful you have been throughout the ups and the downs. Hopefully people can identify with the album and it makes them feel good about themselves as well. Let’s discuss some of the songs on The Promise. Talk about the song “Look at Yourself in the Mirror.”
Will Downing: Well, it’s one of those songs that’ll make you think twice about doing something because you have to look at yourself and know there’s someone, a greater or higher being, looking at you as well. When you look at yourself in the mirror, you should be pleased. It just makes you rethink everything before you do it.
How about the song “I Hear Your Voice?”
Will Downing: That is one of the only ones I didn’t write. I hear it and lyrically, I hear a voice ringing in my ears, and wonder ‘is that you Lord?’ Don’t you always question yourself or when something’s going and wonder if you are supposed to be doing this? Am I supposed to be here? Is it God guiding me? I don’t know about anyone else, but I find myself questioning a lot of the things that go on in my life, karma, and all that stuff. If I do something wrong, or if something wrong happens to me, I think, ‘Lord is that you giving me a little light tap saying like, don’t do it again?’ When things go right, it’s the same sort of thing. I would assume there’s a lot of people that feel the same way.
What about “You Blessed My Life?”
Will Downing: It’s an acknowledgement of all the things that have gone right in my life. The worst things that have happened to me ended up with a blessing attached to it, you know. So, the song is just being grateful for the good and sometimes the not so good, but even just the lessons. I’m still here to talk about it where there’s a lot of the people that haven’t had that opportunity to wake up this morning. I’m grateful for the life that I have and for what I do, because to me, this isn’t work. I’m blessed to be able to do this for a living and support myself and my family. The song “God is So Amazing” is really a full circle moment for you.
Will Downing: Most artists will never rarely say that they have a favorite song on a record. This one to me is my favorite because I recorded that song originally back in 2007 when I was really, really, really sick. That is when the doctors had pretty much written me off and it was like the last song that I recorded off of the After Tonight album because I didn’t think that I was going to make it, to be honest with you. And if you listened to the original recording, you can hear the strain in my voice. You can hear the weakness. I mean, it was just something I just did the best that I could with what I had and to be able to come back 11 years later, and re-do the song while upright as opposed to sitting in a wheelchair or laying in a hospital bed like I was when I did the original recording is a before and after picture, to show you that God is truly amazing because look at where I was then and where I am now.
Looking back over the years, with your experiences with your health, and finally coming full circle with this album; has your approach to music changed?
Will Downing: I mean it affects everything you know, because like most young people you think that you’re invincible, because you never think anything is going to happen to you and then when it happens, that’s the wake-up call. So, you start realizing that that your time is limited and what you say and what you do is impactful and important and how you spend your time and what you say is also very important. So, you just can’t throw anything out into the universe the older that you get. It makes me think about everything that I’m doing. As opposed to in the early days, the ulterior motive might have been to just do this or that and get a check, like I’m going to sing this song and get this money. So, as you get older, you start thinking that maybe that wasn’t as important as you thought it was and you start trying to get yourself together and making changes. You become more about society- based things and people, and how you live your life. The less time you have, the more meaning.
Social media has been blowing up with young R&B singer Jacquees making the declaration that he is the King of R&B of this generation. What are your thoughts on this?
Will Downing: The King of R&B? Please (laughs). There are so many artists that are really starting to come into their own and they have had several records out. I often ask myself who is the future? You look at Raheem DeVaughn who has been around for a minute, then you look at someone like myself, then it’s like you’re still just starting to me. So, it’s like a bunch of artists who could stake claim to it and they are really good, but this Jacquees, I’ve never even heard of him. He’s got more work to do.
Who do you think is the King of R&B?
Will Downing: I don’t consider what these artists do today as real traditional R&B. There’s a new face to R&B that I don’t even recognize to be honest. I mean R&B is more than just a beat and a baseline, it’s a way of life, and a mindset. The traditional sense that I know R&B to be, these kids haven’t even touched that and it hasn’t been touched in a while. From a lyrical standpoint, these guys aren’t finding a slick way to say I want to get with you, they just get straight to it without putting some polish on it. Even with the female artists, it’s the same sort of thing. Every song these days is explicit. As R&B artists, we are supposed to be the slickest talking, smoothest, educated, and putting the high gloss on what we’ve laid down, so why are you making the music raw like this? I don’t know what to call this but it’s not the R&B I remember.
Someone puts out a record and it lasts a month or two months maybe, and then they’re gone. It’s just a new day and it’s hard for like old artists like myself to identify with it. I mean I have a real problem with it. A real problem. Obviously, there are some extremely talented people out there that aren’t getting their due, and then these new folks come out and sort of brand themselves. So, you became big because someone pressed “like” on your page. (laughs). If you go back in history, people put in work and I don’t see a lot of work being put in today. Don’t get me wrong, they are cute, look good, but you have to say something. There’s a lot of people out there that put it down and put in a lot of work.
My music matters because (fill in the blank).
Will Downing: My music matters because I was here. It’s changed people’s lives. I’ve had and am still having an impact on the world.
For more information, check out Will Downing’s website.
With a multi-platinum selling vast genre discography that spans decades, the legendary Jody Watley is still a musical force to be reckoned with today.
Jody Watley was destined for the stars the minute she stepped out on stage for the first time with her godfather, the legendary Jackie Wilson. She started setting trends as a dancer on the show Soul Train. As an original member of the group Shalamar, Watley’s distinct tones can be heard on classics like “A Night to Remember,” “(This Is) For the Lover in You,” and “Second Time Around.” In 1983, Watley left the group and a few short years later launched her solo career that further cemented her role on America’s soundtrack. Watley’s debut album skyrocketed up the charts with hits like “Real Love,” “Looking for a New Love,” “Don’t You Want Me,” and “Still a Thrill.” The album garnered her a Grammy for Best New Artist and catapulted her into style icon status.
Watley’s musical journey continues today with her new group Jody Watley featuring SRL. Watley, along with Nate Allen Smith and Rosero McCoy, are a vocal dance trio that has already made a musical mark with their newest single, “The Mood” as it is has claimed the number two spot on the U.K. Soul chart and number one in the Netherlands. Watley’s solo jazz single, “Waiting in Vain,” landed in the Top 20 Smooth Jazz Network.
I spoke with Jody Watley about her career highlights, her new music, and inspiring a new generation of artists in music and fashion.
You have a long list of accolades, but what would you say are the top three highlights of your career?
Jody Watley: The Black Music Honors of course, where I received the Crossover Music Icon award. It was just awesome, especially since I’ve been in this for a couple of months or so as an artist (laughs). To be doing it this long and to have the influence that I’ve had and to actually have it acknowledged, that actually meant a lot. Winning the Grammy for “Best New Artist” and “Looking for a New Love” was released in 1987. Obviously, the whole album changed my life in so many ways. Winning the Best New Artist that year is always going to be super special and again during that particular time in my life.
I had performed with Stevie Wonder, who is one of my childhood heroes, and I still love him today. He had a television special on MTV back in the late 80s when his song “Skeletons” came out. I performed “Superstition” with him on his special. The ironic thing is I had done that song in a talent show when I was in 7th grade with the group that I had called Black Fuzz (laughs). We were called Black Fuzz because we all had these big afros and I was so nervous. Even though by that time I had been an artist for a while, there is nothing more nerve wracking to me then performing with someone that you admired growing up. Those are the three that really stand out.
Another highlight is I remember when I got the call that I was going to be in People Magazine’s 50 Most Beautiful People issue. It meant a lot because at that time, they weren’t covering really any black artists except Whitney Houston for something like that. I shaved all my hair off and people wondered why I did it. I didn’t want it to be about the hair, I just wanted to clean faced, with my crooked teeth, and just do it like that.
Speaking of crossing over, going into your debut album Jody Watley, did you go in with the mindset that you wanted to crossover to other genres?
Jody Watley: One thing I know for sure is that I didn’t want to be like anybody else that was out at the time. Michael and Janet [Jackson] were doing the choreography and they were very great at it and no one does it better. I wanted to be different and make the statement that you can be different. I wanted it to be funky and have my spirit come through in it. It was never about the crossover, it just came. Maybe for some it’s a goal, but I just wanted to make the statement that I’m Jody Watley, this is my debut album and I’m not trying to be like anybody else, just being me and I want to make it cool for other girls that feel like they don’t fit in, that it’s cool to be them and be different. I really just wanted to make that statement, the style that black girls could be rockers too, with the heavy metal chain belts and all that. I wanted them to see we can do whatever we want to do. That was most important to me.
It has been a little over 30 years since Jody Watley was released. If you could hop into a time machine and go back to 1987, is there anything you would have changed at that time?
Jody Watley: In thinking about it, I would have had a different manager. For my first manager, I looked to see who managed Michael Jackson and Madonna, because they were really successful and I wanted them to be my manager. Freddy DeMann managed both of them. I went to them for management and when all was said and done, Freddy was going to manage me, but Madonna said he couldn’t manage me and manage her too, so they ended up shifting me to a junior manager in the company named Bennett Freed and he was really inexperienced. He was in over his head. He also managed the group ABC from London. He said you will probably sell 50,000 and they will probably sell platinum and it ended up being the other way around. I sold double platinum and they sold 50,000 (laughs). He made a lot of mistakes. I succeeded anyway. I think anytime you have someone in your circle, and that’s me speaking to myself even now, that it’s usually a red flag if they don’t really believe in you, get rid of them. If I had to change one thing, I would have gotten a different manager since it wasn’t going to be who I really wanted to manage me anyway. That experience and really pushing your vision through, that’s really the only thing I could think of from my debut album. It succeeded despite of him, it was God and the universe and destiny. He was the weakest link.
You are a style icon and you can see your influence even in artists today. When you look at them and see what they are doing, do you see that influence as they are creating their own lanes with fashion?
Jody Watley: I think it’s awesome, in particular with Rihanna. She’s my favorite. I’m so proud, I love it. I have a lot of Fenty and I pretty much have supported everything that she’s done from Puma, to the clothing line, to Fenty. I really love that she has been able to capitalize off the fact that she’s stylish.
One of the things that I wanted to do was to have a clothing line since people wanted to dress like me, but I couldn’t get anyone to take it seriously. That again goes back to having the right manager. I did convince MCA to give away tiny Jody Watley perfume for promotion for the third album. So again, it was ahead of all the record companies and marketing companies, and they just didn’t get it. I couldn’t get the right person to see why it made so much sense, but to see it come to fruition for those artists, I think it’s wonderful and I feel a part of that.
You have been cited as an inspiration for many artists, but who inspires you these days?
Jody Watley: I’m inspired by Rihanna, I love what she’s doing. Even with everything that I’m doing, you know the consistency with branding along the way when people think of me whether it’s past or present style; there’s always an unpredictability. What’s she going to do next? Or what is she going to do now?
Like right now I have a jazz single out and I have an R&B group out and we have the number two R&B single in the U.K. and those are unexpected things. I am always inspired by people who are continuing to evolve and keep it moving. Oprah and people who are very business minded and creative. People who make other people feel inspired by the things that they do whether it’s through their social media, or out of the spotlight, and they are doing something good and it’s not stagnant. Oprah and Rihanna are up there. Richard Branson is another one. I read a lot about business people from John Johnson and how he built the whole Ebony and Jet to Berry Gordy and Motown.
My biggest inspiration coming up was my dad, because he was a very forward thinker. I am an Aquarian like him, he passed away a long time ago. He would do things like have Christmas in August and would say live in the now don’t wait to use these special dishes, if you want to dress up, do it. My dad was very influential in how I viewed life early on. Life is so precious.
Talk about your jazz single “Waiting in Vain.” People may not realize that you are such a versatile singer.
Jody Watley: My parents loved jazz when I was growing up. The many artists that came out of Motown were also very influential with me as a little girl. Jazz music was too. Nancy Wilson is one of my favorite singers of all time. I just love the genre. The first jazz single that I did was in 1990 for a project called Red, Hot, and Blue. It was the first project that created HIV and AIDS awareness and it was a charitable record. All of the proceeds went to create HIV/AIDS Awareness. We got to do Cole Porter songs any way we wanted. I chose jazz since it wasn’t a Jody Watley album, it gave me the freedom to do something different and show that side. I’m comfortable singing it and my tone suits it. So since then I’ve been wanting to do something and so I did a jazz version of Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain.” It’s so beautiful it’s got a Bossa Nova feel to it, I just love it. Even though I’m a dance girl at heart I’m a jazz girl too. It’s taken off so great.
It just shows a different side. Jazz is a big part of soul music and our culture. It’s my way of showing love to an art form that in many ways is overlooked. That was part of the inspiration also for releasing it. I’m really happy whether it is R&B, pop, electronica, dance, jazz; it’s all good.
You mentioned your new group, Jody Watley featuring SRL. The single “The Mood” has a different vibe. Is there an album in the works?
Jody Watley: Our target date for the album Bridges is June. Bridges is such a metaphor for life and is about evolving and leaving things in the past and moving onto other things. It represents so many things. I’m so glad our music is being well received. Our show is fantastic.
How would you describe the group’s sound?
Jody Watley: It’s a whole different vibe. It’s contemporary R&B and it’s got the pop flair to it. The album Bridges is pretty eclectic. There’s a mixture of hip hop, dance, and contemporary R&B. I call it a gumbo of styles but rooted in soul music. So, I think Jody Watley featuring SRL is a sonic revolution of love and it’s rooted in the love that we all have for quality music. It’s a mixture. It’s all fresh, we aren’t trying to be anything. We are the next great music trio for the now and moving forward. I’m proud of this album.
How do you stay relevant and the key to your longevity? Is the key really being able to be versatile enough to do all of it?
Jody Watley: It’s true, my fan base is so diverse. It is because I’ve never gotten stuck. I always make new goals for myself and it keeps people guessing and excited. New fans are coming on board, and people are often shocked I’m still doing it and that’s nice too to be able to surprise people. I think that’s how you do stay relevant and current; you don’t get stuck in the past and resting upon your laurels. The easiest thing is to go do a greatest hits tour and there’s nothing wrong with that, I do my greatest hits too but as an artist and just being alive, I’m always saying how can I be fabulous today? (laughs) I think that’s important and I like to remind people of that.
Why is having a place like the NMAAM so important?
Jody Watley: It’s so necessary and so important, rhythm and blues and soul music is the foundation for so many music genres in America. It is American music and influenced generations of people. To have that history which is often lost in our country, because it’s not just for us, it’s for the world. To have a place that is honoring the rich and profound richness of the legacy of our music, which is music for the world to me. If I’m in U.K. or Germany, American soul music is everywhere. There should be a place for all time where it is preserving African American music. It’s crazy that we haven’t had this before, but it’s better late than never and it’s very necessary and if we don’t do it then it won’t be done.
Fill in the blank: My music matters because…
Jody Watley: My music matters because it’s strong and joyful.
Crafting iconic music across multiple genres has allowed Grammy award winning singer, songwriter, producer James Mtume to create his own blueprint as his contribution to America’s soundtrack. The name “Mtume” means “messenger” in Swahili, and it fits his persona since he has delivered a powerful message of not being afraid of exploring, growing, and pushing boundaries in his musical career. His discography consists of jazz, R&B, funk, and pop.
While Mtume is the biological son of saxophonist Jimmy Heath, he was raised by his mother Bertha Forman and James “Hen Gates” Forman, a pianist with Charlie Parker’s band. He went on to fill his bucket list of top three talents he wanted to work with, McCoy Tyner, Freddie Hubbard, and Miles Davis.
The Philadelphia native took what he learned from working with Miles Davis and began creating avant-garde jazz compositions filled with culturally conscious themes. In 1972, the Mtume Umoja Ensemble released Alkebu-Lan – Land of The Blacks, followed by Kawaida, Alkebu-Lan, and Rebirth Cycle.
By the ’80s, Mtume took jazz and transformed it with drum machines and synthesizers. The jazz, funk, and R&B sound created Mtume’s brand of “sophistafunk” that can be heard in songs like “What Ya Gonna Do with My Lovin?” by Stephanie Mills. He also produced and wrote for artists like Phyllis Hyman, Donny Hathaway, Roberta Flack, Teddy Pendergrass, R. Kelly, K-Ci and Jo-Jo, and Mary J. Blige. He co-wrote the Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway classic “The Closer I Get to You,” and Stephanie Mills’ hit song “Never Knew Love Like This.”
In the 1980s, he created the band Mtume that included singer, songwriter Reggie Lucas and vocalist Tawatha Agee. In 1983, Mtume released the legendary hit “Juicy Fruit” from the album Juicy Fruit, a song that broke new ground with a man writing risqué lyrics from a woman’s point of view. That song would later provide the template for sampling in hip hop especially after the Notorious B.I.G. sampled the song in 1994. The group had other hits including, “You, Me, and He” and “Give it On Up (If You Want To).” Mtume’s magical pen has scored music for movies and television shows such as “Native Son,” and “New York Undercover.”
Mtume has consistently proven time and time again that he is a force to be reckoned with when it comes to straddling the lanes of music genres. I caught up with the living legend to talk about groundbreaking moments, creating timeless music, and why the face of R&B is changing.
Shameika: What has been the highlight of your career?
James Mtume: It’s hard to say the biggest, that’s like my favorite movie, there’s more than one. One highlight was being able to score the music for the show “New York Undercover.” At that time, I was probably the only black composer for a dramatic series on television. They were hiring black people for comedies, but “New York Undercover” was a groundbreaking show and it reflected us. The challenge for me was to put our music on television in a way that it had never been heard. That was an extremely gratifying emotion for me.
Shameika:It’s still a huge part of our culture even today.
James Mtume: Absolutely. I also had the opportunity to have a special place in the series called Natalie’s. It was a place where I could bring in new artists, redo the tracks, and have them perform a classic. For example, Mary J. Blige performing “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” or 112 doing “After the Love is Gone.”
I also had the opportunity to bring in classic artists and have them redo their hits like B.B. King did “The Thrill is Gone,” Ashford & Simpson, Chaka Khan, and more. So, it was very time consuming because I had to put in 17 hours a day between scoring and redoing those songs. None of those tracks were from the record, I had to redo those and that’s where my producing chops were very helpful.
Shameika: Your music has had a huge influence on R&B, Hip Hop, and Jazz over the course of several decades. Why do you think your music is timeless?
James Mtume: I always say I never lied to the music and the music never lied to me. One of the axioms and principles that I try to do music by is always be honest to the idiom that you’re writing in. If I’m writing in jazz, then it’s straight up jazz, if I’m writing funk, it’s straight up funk, if I’m writing pop, then it’s straight up pop. It’s just about honoring the music and also never being afraid to embrace change. You know if you listen to where I started in avant-garde jazz, I did a couple albums of that then that was it. Then I joined Miles [Davis] and that’s where the electronic influence came in. So, to be able to grow and be honest with how you are growing. You always have to embrace change. I always tell people if you don’t change, eventually you’ll be changed by change. I was able to move from acoustic to electronic because it was a natural evolution for me. It was not like I was fighting reality, I tried to embrace it.
Shameika:A lot of artists seem to feel they have to conform to the type of music that’s out now, whether it’s incorporating auto-tune, or completely changing their style to fit what’s hot right now. What are your thoughts on that?
James Mtume: That’s a great point. If you just change because it’s what you think is happening, that’s called adaptation, trying to fit in. If you change because you are fitting into something, that’s metamorphosis. I evolved into those things.
“Juicy Fruit” was considered vulgar. When I took that song to Epic Records they didn’t want to release it. I had to fight to get the song released because they were so afraid of that one line. It’s the line that everybody waits to sing. Now if you compare that one line to what’s out here now, it’s like a nursery rhyme (laughs). You have to write for where your heart is. If you just write to fit in, it never works because it’s just imitation. I don’t believe in imitation, I believe in innovation.
Shameika: Speaking of “Juicy Fruit” you broke ground writing sexual lyrics from a female’s point of view. How different was that switch for you?
James Mtume: No two women can make another human being, and no two men can make another human being. It’s a male and a female sensibility that creates all of us. Now I’m not talking about sexual preference, that’s a different conversation. I’ve always believed that most men have a problem embracing their femininity. You have masculinity and femininity, women have it too. My mother explained it to me. So, writing as a male from a female’s perspective, it’s very easy for me. I just write from that. “You, Me, and He” was another one I wrote where a woman was telling a man about another relationship. There are plenty of songs, especially in R&B where the man is telling the woman about something. The man had to hear it. It wasn’t really a challenge, but it was an interesting perspective to have. So that’s why when you hear “Juicy Fruit,” the lyrics are very imaginative. I think women are much more sensual and they don’t think in stark ways like men do. “Candy Rain, comin’ down, taste you in my mind, and spread you all around,” and “You’re my chocolate star” that’s just where I come from, and I address that part of myself. It has nothing to do with sexual preference, it has to do with sensibility.
Shameika: How did you find your musical voice?
James Mtume: I think it goes back to the way I grew up, and the context that I grew up in. I grew up in a musical family. My biological father is Jimmy Heath, jazz saxophonist and composer of the world-famous Heath Brothers. My uncles are Percy Heath and Tootie Heath. The father that raised me, and I don’t use words like stepfather, but the father that raised me was also a great pianist out of Philadelphia, James “Hen Gate” Forman. I grew up maybe at dinner one night there might be Dizzy Gillespie, or another night it might be Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, or Miles Davis. They would come to Philly and more often than not, they’d be over to the house. So, I grew up listening to these great jazz musicians as a kid. That was in the late 1950s. So, I’m watching the birth of R&B, here’s Motown exploding, and we had Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” so I kind of had both worlds growing up with jazz, funk, and R&B. Of course, there was James Brown, so I’m musically schizophrenic I guess (laughs). I love all of it. I think that also allowed me to be open to growth, knowing there was more than one world. Of course, as I got older I began to listen to European classical music. When people say classical music they automatically mean European, but I say no there’s also African American classical music, our classical music is jazz. I can safely say I grew up with the classics. It was all full circle.
Shameika: You grew up listening to Miles Davis and then went on to work with him. What was the biggest lesson you learned from working with him?
James Mtume: The biggest lesson I learned working with him was once you cross a musical bridge, burn that bridge so you can never go back. That’s been my mantra. Once I feel that I’ve crossed, or accomplished a goal in one dynamic in music, I burn it, I can’t go back. If you don’t have a rearview mirror, you can only go forward. You can’t even see what you just did. People, especially artists get stuck in the quick sand and think they need to do the same thing and do the same music. But if you don’t grow then you are stagnant. If you burn a bridge you can’t repeat yourself. That’s what I learned from Miles. He also said once you begin to hear a new sound in your head, you have to change your band. When you change your music, you have to change your band. Who better to learn that from than a man who changed the direction of all music 3 or 4 times? Miles constantly evolved and succeeded. It also evolved with music.
Shameika: If you can’t go back then what do you think of people that say they miss the music from the earlier decades? Do you miss any music at all?
James Mtume: I always say this, music is the only art form that touches you, but you can’t touch it. What I mean by that is I can touch a book a poetry, a sculpture, or a painting, but I can’t touch a B Flat. You can’t touch sound, and yet sound touches you. That’s what makes music different from every other art form. Where were you the first time you heard a certain song? Was that with your first boyfriend? We have emotional and mental memory banks that takes us back to a period. I understand when people say they miss the music. I don’t miss any music period. I just acknowledge what was good during that period and what wasn’t. There’s only two types of music, good and bad, everything else is personal preference.
The thing that I do miss is the absence of young black bands. If you were to ask me to name you three black bands right now, I couldn’t. You can say The Roots and that’s where you get stuck. I love The Roots, but take them out then who do you have? Why are there no black bands? When I came up there was Earth, Wind, & Fire, Kool and the Gang, Parliament Funkadelic, Ohio Players, and the list goes on and on. You don’t have any black bands now and bands have a different emotional connection with people. That’s a sign, they don’t sign young black R&B singers if we really want to be honest about this. Usher has been around 20 something years, Chris Brown and who else? It drops off. Now videos are being made to replace the original sound of the art form.
They are out there but they’re not black. Justin Timberlake is doing it and he’s not black. It’s becoming more and more true. I say the goal of this business was to control black music without using black people. Some of these young artists are really talented but none of them are black, they won’t sign them. If you think about it, most of the young R&B singers are young white singers and some of them can really sing. What I’m saying is young people coming up don’t have a reference. We created an art form that we’re not even claiming anymore or that has been taken and removed from us. I don’t care what male R&B singer you had, we still had Al Green, I don’t care what young white band you had, we still had Sly Stone. We don’t even have the references anymore. That’s happening to rap music. Whoever controls the image of the music, controls the definition of the music. So, the image of R&B and soul music is not our face.
Shameika: What do you think of many artists just going the independent route since they aren’t being signed?
James Mtume: I think that’s the good part about social media; the technology. You can do your music, press send, and it’s all over the world. It’s like that’s the last refuge, because going the regular route doesn’t exist for us anymore. You are being redefined, and this is the music that you created and you are no longer the face of that. It started happening with the videos. I have a daughter that’s chocolate, that’s my chocolate star, and she was watching a video, she was probably around 6 years old, and she looked at me and said, “I guess I can’t be in the video.” I think she was watching a Prince video or something like that and she realized that there were no dark-skinned girls in it. I think about when we shot the video for “Juicy Fruit”, and we came off the road, shot it in one day. There’s an Asian girl in it and I’m not racist or anything, I didn’t think anything about it, but I looked back at it and thought all the videos are being watered down. I didn’t see the Rolling Stones having to have 80% black women in their videos. Why do we always have to crossover to them and they don’t have to crossover to us? That’s a very important point. They have also destroyed the honesty of our music, it became more about who you look like and how you look. It was crazy, I saw a lot. Rick James and I even talked about it. They watered down the music, you couldn’t even be honest to who your audience was.
Shameika: To your point about video, or at least T.V. shows; over the years there were shows that gave African American artists a platform like “Soul Train” or even “106 & Park,” and none of those exist anymore. What are your thoughts about that?
James Mtume: That’s a good point. Yes, we had those and we had Arsenio Hall. He got taken off the air, and the reason why that’s important for me to bring up 1995 was the first season for “New York Undercover.” In 1994, earlier that year, “The Arsenio Hall Show” was taken off the air. That’s one of the things that made me think about Natalie’s. In the script it was just a place where the cops went to meet and talk. I said you know what, Arsenio is off the air and there’s nowhere for people to see black artists. “Soul Train” was still on the air but that was a staple, but on a regular television series, there was no where to see black artists so that’s why I came up with the idea to bring in young artists and redo a classic and bring in classic artists to redo their hits. We started getting mail saying a lot of people were tuning in just to see who was going to perform at Natalie’s in the next episode. There was no place else for us to be seen.
We’d be foolish to not acknowledge that there’s been a design put in place. There’s not even black music departments anymore. There’s a phrase in one of our songs that says “there would be no R&B if not for me” and that’s what has happened.
Shameika: Your work has also been sampled a lot. Are there any particular songs that stand out to you that you love that sampled your music?
James Mtume: First of all, “Juicy Fruit.” I say we are the grandparents of hip hop sampling. That’s a result of Biggie and Puffy embracing it. I remember when Puffy asked me about wanting to sample “Juicy Fruit.” My only thing was anybody that wants to sample my music has to pay me. Back then a lot of artists were being sampled and not being paid. We cut our deal and that was great.
But to your question, I really loved Keyshia Cole and Missy Elliot’s interpretation on “Let it Go.” I’ve been sampled by Eve, Common, DMX, Nas, there’s so many names. Tamar Braxton, Jay-Z did on his first album Reasonable Doubt. I’ve had a major connection with major hip hop artists and I’m grateful for that because it’s important to feel that your music was able to expand beyond your own generation. I’ve been very fortunate with that. It goes back to being timeless. I always wanted to have the feeling that if you put on my music 30 or 40 years later, it would still have the feeling that it was recorded yesterday. That’s how I feel about a lot of great jazz, like Miles Davis. It taps into purity and it taps into that essence and a high musical standard. We can put on Motown records and when I hear “My Girl” it’s still great. Same with music by Curtis Mayfield, and he’s one of my inspirations. The fact is those are great songs. I put on one of my favorite things, jazz, and think oh my goodness it sounds like these cats recorded it this morning. That’s what you want to strive for; to make music that doesn’t get locked into a time reference.
Shameika: What else are you working on?
James Mtume: I pretty much retired in 1997 after “New York Undercover,” the only thing I did was co-wrote a song for a great singer named Bilal called “Soul Sista.” Right now, I’m working with Tawatha Agee, Mtume’s lead singer. We are back in the studio working on a new project for her. After 8 years of turning them down, I’m finally doing “Unsung.” It will air in June.
Shameika: In Kashif’s last interview with Mass Appeal. He mentioned you were one of his musical heroes. How did you feel about being hailed as a musical hero?
James Mtume: My man! Oh wow! Maybe I can give you a little background. Kashif got with Stephanie Mills and had all the charts from all those records we were doing. I remember him telling me that he would sit there and watch and study the chord changes we were doing. He said “it really opened up a door to me.” Needless to say, Kashif went on to create his own genre and his own set of accomplishments. I’m really flattered. I didn’t know that.
Shameika: Fill in the blank: My music matters because….
James Mtume: My music matters because I am just part of an endless link of black music.
African American History
For more information on James Mtume and other musical legends, visit the NMAAM website.
“In any situation that we find in our lives, when there is something that we feel should be better, we must exert effort to try and make it better. So, it’s the same socially, musically, politically in any department of our lives. I think music is an instrument. It can create the initial thought patterns that can change the thinking of the people” – John Coltrane.
Revolutionary. Groundbreaking. Those are just words to describe jazz saxophonist John Coltrane.
Many consider the North Carolina born and raised artist as one of the most important and controversial artists in the history of jazz. He is considered a father figure in the development of avant-garde jazz and his recordings in the 1960s laid the foundation for modern jazz.
“My music is the spiritual expression of what I am… I want to be the force that is truly for good.”
That’s exactly what the documentary Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary by filmmaker John Scheinfeld captures as it brings John Coltrane to life, by going beyond his artistry and tapping into who he was as a man. The film features never before seen family home movies, footage of Coltrane in the studio with his band, along with hundreds of rare photos and television appearances. His musical journey is told by the musicians who worked with him; Sonny Rollins, McCoy Tyner, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath, and Reggie Workman. It includes the musicians inspired by his art like Common, John Densmore, Wynton Marsalis, Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter, and Kamasi Washington. The story isn’t complete without his children Ravi, Oran, Michelle Coltrane, and Antonia Andrews, along with biographers and music lovers Bill Clinton and Dr. Cornel West.
Academy Award winner Denzel Washington breathes life into John Coltrane’s voice to illuminate what he may have been thinking or feeling during pivotal moments throughout his life and career.
Coltrane’s father was a tailor who played several instruments, and in school John studied the E-flat alto horn and clarinet before picking up the saxophone. In 1939, his father and grandfather died, and he eventually moved to Philadelphia and studied at the Ornstein School of Music. He made his professional debut on the bandstand in 1945 at a cocktail lounge.
Chasing Trane highlights the events, experiences, and challenges that shaped Coltrane’s life and his sound. His music and style was influenced by some of the greats like Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Miles Davis.
It’s the story of the journey of a man who tapped into his spirituality and in the process created a body of work that still transcends time. Coltrane didn’t start his solo career until he was in his 30s and over the course of seven years, he crafted a revolutionary sound that parallels the intense period of civil rights in the United States. His artistry and life captured the political consciousness and action of African Americans during that period.
Coltrane’s 1965 album A Love Supreme is one of his most globally acclaimed records. It’s an album where he bent and twisted the notes to shape a musical scripture of work. The four-suite album is not only noted for his technicality but for its transcendence and exploration into the spiritual realm. The work was nominated for two Grammy awards.
Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary kicks off the new season of Independent Lens on PBS on Monday, November 6 at 10pm on PBS. The National Museum of African American Music will participate in a live-tweet session during the premiere. Follow @TheNMAAM and join us!
With a recognizable rich baritone voice that’s as smooth as butter with jazz fueled phrasing, Will Downing’s 20th album Soul Survivor celebrates his 30th anniversary in the music industry.
Downing started his career in the ‘80s and over the course of time, the industry has hit some high and low notes, sounds have changed, but one thing remains the same; Downing’s ability to lead any music lover into a euphoric state and take them on a musical journey.
Soul Survivor weaves together elements of contemporary jazz, house music, R&B, and soul throwing back to three decades of feel good music. The album features duets with Shanachie Entertainment labelmates Avery Sunshine, Maysa, Najee, and Phil Perry.
I got the chance to chat with the Prince of Sophisticated Soul about the new album, working with some familiar faces, and why making timeless music will always be his goal.
Shameika: This is your 30th anniversary, 20th album, so what is the key to Will Downing’s longevity in the business?
Will Downing: God, good luck, and musical consistency. From day one I’ve been pretty much doing what you are hearing now. A hybrid of R&B, contemporary jazz, a little bit of traditional jazz, and some soul all lumped in together. I think that what I’ve recorded over the years, are good songs. Good songs last forever. I’m very blessed and fortunate in that regard.
Shameika: Is that what prompted you to name this project Soul Survivor?
Will Downing: Yes, and actually I wasn’t the one smart enough to do that (laughs). Actually, a friend of mine Hollis King, we were talking and I was telling him that it was my 20th album, 30th year recording. I told him I was going to call the record 20/30 and the phone went silent. So, he said, “this is too monumental of a thing to be that cold and impersonal to just say numbers. You survived when others couldn’t because some people can’t say they have five albums out or seven albums. You are a soul survivor,” he said. So, that’s what made me run with it.
Shameika: The album is a tribute to the different eras of music that you have participated in, from each decade? Is it fair to assume that’s what you were going for when you put this album together?
Will Downing: Yes, see you aren’t as crazy as you think (laughs). We kind of went back to the original, the first song I released in America was a version of “Free” by Deniece Williams, then it was a version of “A Love Supreme” which was originally done by John Coltrane, it was kind of a house feel. It was basically a nod to God. So that was my thinking of ‘I just want to say thank you’ when it came to certain songs. It was basically taking little pieces of all the things that I’ve done over the years and we just sort of closed our eyes to what is happening musically in the world today since everything is so trendy. We said let’s just write some really great songs, remake some great songs, and really just make some music the way we used to make it, and that’s what we did.
Shameika: Talk about working with Avery Sunshine. The two of you singing together is just magic!
Will Downing: Avery and I worked together before on a duet in the past. The way I was introduced to Avery, was I had this friend call me and say “Will this is going to sound crazy but I just heard this woman that sounds like the female equivalent of you.” I said I have got to hear this. I did my homework, checked her out and found that she did remind me of me, like the phrasing is some of the stuff that I would do or even lyrically that they were writing. Out of the blue I called her and we’ve been buddies ever since. She’s incredible and has a great spirit. I love the marriage of our vocals together. It’s very easy to work with her. We are doing some shows together, we have a few dates lined up in November in December.
Shameika: That sounds like a great show! What is your goal every time you step into the studio? This is your 20th album, did you say you wanted to put out timeless music?
Will Downing: That was my mindset, to really not get caught up in the everyday of the music business or social media. I don’t hear enough music out here that represents music the way I remember it. You can call it old school, classic, or whatever, but there’s some good stuff and when people want to hear good stuff, they always go back to the classics. My job as an artist is to make something timeless and classic, to make it last more than three or six months. I like my records to be remembered like I remember Songs in the Key of Life or What’s Going On, or all the albums that I have loved over the years. We just decided to make what we thought was a good record. There’s nothing on this record where we felt like we had to do it just for radio, we said if it feels good, that’s what we’re going with. It all just worked out musically.
Shameika: The single “When We Make Love” has you tapping into your inner Barry White. Talk about that.
Will Downing: (Laughs) You can call me Barry Black! Well that pretty much sums it up, we were going for that Barry White. There are certain artists that have moved me over the years. When my voice changed at a very young age, Barry White was one of them. So, this is like a musical nod to Barry in a way.
Shameika: Talk about the remake you did for “Stop to Start.”
Will Downing: This is a song I’ve always loved. I kind of forgot about it for a while then a friend of mine called me and said she wanted to hear that song on my radio show. So, I put it on, then I thought this would be a great song to remake. I’ve always done the Stylistics in the past and I’ve always loved Russell Thompkins high voice and I can obviously do it a whole octave lower and give it a different spin.
Shameika: You also worked with Najee on this project. How did you decide which song to put him on?
Will Downing: We were doing two projects at one time. He was working on his album, Poetry in Motion, and I was working on that and we were doing a tribute song to Al Jarreau. We were driving somewhere and “Hurry Up This Way Again” came on and he said ‘I’ve always heard you singing this song.’ So, kind of as a surprise for him, I did an arrangement of the song and played it for him the following week in hopes of putting it on his record. He said since I was on another record on the album, they didn’t want to make it a duet album, so I decided to just keep it and put it on my record.
Shameika: What do you hope listeners take away from Soul Survivor?
Will Downing: I hope that this is an album that they can put on for years to come. Also, it’s an album from me, that if something happened to me today, that this would be a good representation of who I was and my ability as an artist. Hopefully there are some songs on there that touches your soul and identify with. That’s the goal, or it should be the goal for every artist with every record to create something that someone will pick up 50 years from now and go ‘Damn that guy can sing, or this lady is unbelievable!’ I think we achieved that on this record. I’m ecstatic. I have no regrets on this album. Every note, every breath, it’s the way I wanted to sing it, it’s the way I wanted to tell the story, it’s just right.
Shameika: Why do you think having a place like the National Museum of African American Music to celebrate and preserve our musical soundtrack is so important?
Will Downing: How can it not be? You need something to memorialize that we were here. There was something before today. We are standing on the shoulders of people who built the foundation for who we are. That’s exactly what I’m doing as an artist right now, building something so that someone can come along later and say they learned from me. You have to have something like this to let folks know that we were here and this was our contribution. This is what we are, and we want you to take this a step further and keep rolling with it. To me, that’s what museums are all about.
Shameika: What’s your favorite moment in musical history?
Will Downing: That’s a tough one. I’ve seen so many things that have moved me. I don’t know that I can narrow it down to one thing. I remember when I decided what I wanted to do. I was in high school and my parents dragged me to see James Earl Jones do a one man show on Paul Robeson on Broadway. I went kicking and screaming, but I remember that being the moment I decided after the show of what I wanted to do. Moments like the first concert I ever went to, meeting Stevie Wonder, and as far as things that changed the world, musically like albums like What’s Going On that made people socially aware and conscious. For me musically, the first time I walked on a stage under my own name. I had done many records under an assumed name. The first time I walked on stage was in London at the Dominion Theatre where people actually paid money to come see Will Downing. To me that is historical and monumental in my eyes.
For more information check out Will Downing’s website.
Hearing the horns on songs like Michael Jackson’s “Butterflies,” Erykah Badu’s “Other Side of the Game,” or Musiq Soulchild’s “Half Crazy,” you automatically know who is behind the notes that are singing along to the song like a vocal on the track. It’s none other than trombonist Jeff Bradshaw. He has a list of receipts where he has worked with the likes of Jill Scott, Jay Z, Kirk Franklin, Earth, Wind, & Fire, Floetry, Erykah Badu, Patti LaBelle and many others. The trombone virtuoso honed his chops alongside some of the greats and some of the biggest names in the Philly soul movement. Bradshaw’s solo projects highlight his expertise at blending elements of jazz, soul, R&B, and funk into a musical experience. From his 2003 debut, Bone Deep, to 2012’s Bone Appétit Volumes 1 and 2, and 2015’s Home: One Special Night at the Kimmel Center; Jeff Bradshaw is consistent with creating a musically evolved utopia for music lovers.
I had the opportunity to chat with the trombonist about his upcoming tour and why learning about music history is important.
Shameika: Mr. Bradshaw, what does jazz music mean to you?
Jeff Bradshaw: The funny thing about me is that people call me a jazz musician because I’m an instrumentalist. Even though jazz is a sacred true American art form; and I respect it and love it and studied it growing up but, I was never trying to be a jazz artist. I was just a guy that loved music. I was born and raised in church, surrounded by brass bands in church, church music, and great musicians. I played trombone because my father played trombone and I was surrounded by so many other musicians who played it. I play several other instruments like trumpet and baritone, the drums, a little piano.
I was raised on gospel, and classic R&B. I grew up listening to James Brown, Sly & the Family Stone, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, and lots of other great artists that sang our music. I just loved that era of music. Since I’m self-taught, all of the music that I learned to love all became a part of my repertoire and who I would become as a trombonist and as an artist. I would learn to play lyrics and not notes. My father taught me to play the words of songs instead of the notes on music sheets. I sing with the trombone and that’s why when people hear me play they know it’s me. My style is distinctive because of the way the instrument was taught to me. People need to hear the words of a song. People weren’t used to hearing that trombone sing. So the gospel songs, jazz, soul, hip hop and R&B and the music that I was raised on and picked up growing up, it all would manifest into one style of soul hip hop and R&B and people would call me a soul jazz artist, a jazz artist, and a neo-soul artist; pretty much whatever label they give you that week (laughs). I was inspired by everything, so many musical movements, so many genres from Muddy Waters to Gil Scott Heron, Marvin Gaye, to Donny Hathaway.
Shameika: What is the most important quality for musicians today? A lot of artists studied the greats in the past, but you don’t see it so much today. What kind of advice would you give to aspiring artists and musicians?
Jeff Bradshaw: Just do what the great ones did. The great ones studied the great ones. You don’t know where you are going until you know where this music came from and know how people suffered for you to have the opportunity that you have. You have stages and the platform that you have now because of the ones that came before you. People had music stolen from them, and performed by other artists because they were black and they wouldn’t play it so white artists would take our music and perform it on the radio stations. So they need to understand that they need to learn the history. You need to understand this platform wasn’t just given to you, it came from the blood, sweat, and tears of artists that came before you who didn’t get proper royalties, didn’t get publishing, or didn’t get taken care of in regards to business. Do your homework.
Shameika: Why would you say the National Museum of African American Music is so important at this point in time?
Jeff Bradshaw: We need this sacred place that holds our history so people will have a frame of reference. Look at how right now we have Future with “Mask Off” and songs like that with catchy hooks and a funky beat; well we had that in the 1990s, and you can trace it all the way back to the 1940s. We had folks like Cab Calloway and Clark Terry, that had very clever and hip things vocally over beats. Those were hip stories they were doing then. For example, Cab Calloway’s “Minnie the Moocher,” when he’s doing “hi-de-hi-de-ho;” it’s just like the clever and hip ways they say things now. You don’t want to discount what the young people like, but back then music just had more substance. Hip Hop was about storytelling, and rappers now, they still tell stories, but without substance. There needs to be a means to an end.
Shameika: You had a health scare last year that sidelined you for several months. Has going through that experience changed how you view or create your music?
Jeff Bradshaw: No, it didn’t change how I create my music. Instead it actually made me realize that tomorrow is not promised. Imagine getting ready for a show and you just pass out in rehearsal and you have one of the most awful diagnosis of diverticulitis that you can possibly have. I didn’t know what that was, but it was painful and it almost killed me. So I had to learn about my body and how to eat from all the years of touring and all the damage I’ve done. I had to look at how I can go from here and have a better life. It sidelined me for six months. Love saved me. The love of my musician friends and my friends and fans came to my aid. They held me down when I couldn’t hold myself down. Jill Scott posted a Go Fund Me page and did a benefit concert for me. You don’t know how blessed you are, or who is in your corner, or how you have affected people in your life until you are down and literally cannot provide another dollar for yourself. I lost 66 pounds during that time. I literally didn’t have the strength to pick up my instrument. I’m good now, I eat right and am taking care of myself.
Shameika: You are hitting the road pretty soon for a pretty special event, talk about your upcoming tour.
Jeff Bradshaw: I’m starting my birthday tour in Charlotte, North Carolina on August 30th. Then I’m heading to some other cities like Tampa, Orlando, Washington D.C., and Cleveland. In certain cities I’ll be bringing special guests. In Charlotte, I’ll be solo since it’s a smaller venue, but when I get to the D.C. area, on Saturday September 2nd, my special guests are Algebra Blessett and Glenn Lewis. When I hit Cleveland on September 3rd, my special guest is Conya Doss. It’s going to be a fun week. My actual birthday is September 4th.
Shameika: That sounds like a fun way to celebrate a birthday! Last question, what would you say is your favorite moment in musical history?
Jeff Bradshaw: I have a few moments that stick out for me. I recorded “Butterflies” with Michael Jackson, and I recorded a song with Earth, Wind, & Fire that Floetry was featured on. But one of the biggest moments for me, was being asked to be a special guest on “The Tonight Show.” It was amazing, knowing all the history of the show, including all of the greats that had performed on “The Tonight Show with hosts like Johnny Carson and Jay Leno. When I was asked to perform as a special guest to sit in with The Roots all night long, that was one of my many historic moments that stands out to me. I just played all night long. It was cool, a little kid from the hood that didn’t go to Berklee College of Music, Julliard, or any of those accredited music schools, that was self-taught, and sitting on “The Tonight Show” going off; it was a great day for the hood. It just reminds me that it’s all about our ambition, drive, and our hunger. It really shows that you can do anything.
Check out the clip of Jeff Bradshaw’s favorite moment in music history:
Keep up with Jeff Bradshaw on social media @IamJeffBradshaw for more information.
The global acceptance of African American music from classical music to popular music represents a historical journey full of challenges, adversity and political influence. Despite the impressive number of European composers that embraced Afro-American materials, many people still felt that Afro-American music, like its creators, was inferior, imitative and hardly a starting point for any art-music work.
The history of adverse race relations and hostility towards black music and black culture represents a journey that can be traced back to the beginning of the United States of America. The American founding father who was called the “Apostle of Americanism” wrote these persuasive words:
“[Negroes] astonish you with strokes of the most sublime oratory; such as prove their reason and sentiment strong, their imagination glowing and elevated. But never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration; never saw even an elementary trait of painting or sculpture. In music they are more generally gifted than the whites with accurate ears fortune and time, and they have been found capable of imagining a small catch. Whether they will be equal to the composition of a more extensive run of melody, or of complicated harmony, is yet to be proved. Misery is often the parent of the most affecting touches in poetry. Among the blacks is misery enough, God knows, but no poetry. Love is the peculiar ostium of the poet. Their love is ardent, but it kindles the senses only, not the imagination. Religion, indeed has produced a Phillis Wheatley; but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.(Thomas Jefferson: “On Negro Ability.” In The Writings of Thomas Jefferson [ed. H. A. Washington]. Washington, D.C., 1854, pp. 380-87.)
It is important to note that while Jefferson was in France, he would witness black achievement in the arts that the American slavery institution could not produce. Jefferson witnessed the superstar black violinist, composer and conductor, Chevalier de Saint Georges, who was the musical director of the leading concert orchestra in Paris and he also attended the Paris, debut concert of the young black violin virtuoso, George Bridgetower. Jefferson would later amend his thoughts on black achievement in the arts with thoughts about the mix raced nature of the Negro genius he witnessed in France.”
Patrick Lee’s Explanation
In his 1782 book, Notes on Virginia, Jefferson made numerous observations about differences he saw or suspected in the Negro race, to the extent they were less endowed than the white race. He isn’t retracting that position now 27 years later, but he is open to that possibility. He states:
1. More than anyone else, he would be pleased to be proven wrong.
2. His observations were limited to his personal experience and only in his native state.
3. Blacks’ opportunities for education and expression in Virginia “were not favorable.”
4. He expressed those 1782 views “with great hesitation.”
5. They still possessed their measure of human rights regardless of their human talents.
6. Other nations were growing in their awareness of those rights.
7. Blacks were making “hopeful advances” toward “equal footing with the other colors of the human family.”
8. Gratitude to this letter’s recipient for:
a. the many opportunities given Jefferson to reconsider his earlier, limited opinions.
b. “hastening the day of their [blacks’] relief.”
Jefferson was always a product of the 18th century South. You can pluck some statements from his writings to make him look completely racist. Others could portray him as a near abolitionist. The issue is complicated, and the truth is between those extremes. In his autobiography, Colin Powell called Jefferson “an uneasy slaveholder.” I think that’s the best and most succinct description I’ve heard.
Are you eager to be proven wrong?
Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed on the grade of understanding allotted to the Negroes by nature, and to find that in this respect they are on a par with ourselves. My doubts were the result of personal observation on the limited sphere of my own State, where the opportunities for the development of their genius were not favorable, and those of exercising it still less so. I expressed them, therefore, with great hesitation; but whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the person or property of others. On this subject they are gaining daily in the opinions of nations, and hopeful advances are making towards their reestablishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family. I pray you, therefore, to accept my thanks for the many instances you have enabled me to observe of respectable intelligence in that race of men, which cannot fail to have effect in hastening the day of their relief.
Thomas Jefferson was indeed an “Apostle of Americanism” and his ideas represented a prevailing inferiority consensus about the true nature and value of black people so that before 1900 only a very few American composers sought to use any black American music sources. The most notable composer to do so was Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who successfully used Negro folk music almost fifty years before Antonin Dvorák issued his manifesto about the central importance of Negro melodies for classical music.
It was not until after the turn of the century that significant ideas to incorporate Black American folk materials into art music would resurface. This idea again became acceptable for respectable composers in the United States only after its legitimization by the European taste and acceptance of Black American music and culture.
During the 1920’s & despite all opposition, European composers continued their enduring love affair with Black American music from negro melodies and negro spirituals to the blues and jazz and a more sophisticated, symphonic jazz style began to emerge—
The emergence of the “symphonic jazz” movement celebrated American composers such as Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker and George Gershwin and reflected the enduring love affair between European classical music and American Jazz. In Europe, this style of composition became known as a “symphonic jazz” and the European Composers embracing this new sound were called “Jazz Symphonists.”
The Symphonic jazz movement was a continuation of the “New World Symphonists” use of black music and seemed to point to a bright new future of jazz influenced classical music… but people had different views on the matter: There were influential tastemakers who were horrified by the mixture of jazz and symphonic concert music and for them, this new jazz mixture represented a fatal blow to taste and high culture.
There were differences of opinion regarding the true jazz or the symphonic crossover. The polished trend of symphonic jazz, established a degree of esteem and respect for black music yet some, preferred the original sound of the authentic jazz. Many resented the dismissive stance that the symphonic style held for the original African-American features which were the roots of jazz. At the same time, many European composers recognized the only jazz music of technical importance in that small African American section of it that was genuinely negro music.
Many European composers felt that Americans were too “Jeffersonian” in their views about black culture and felt that Americans took their own true American music for granted. By being foreigners, these composers felt that Europe gave them the necessary aesthetic distance to embrace Black American music. The book “New World Symphonies” by Jack Sullivan on page 225 states a European composers view that…”The Americans seem to live too near Tin Pan Alley & they suffer from the immense disadvantage of being on the spot.”
Many European composers were not fully satisfied with Gershwin’s American use of black music and considered it “sophisticated trappings” …. and described it as “the hybrid child of a hybrid…ashamed of its parents and/while boasting of its French lessons.”
The book New World Symphonies states that some European “Jazz Symphonist” composers felt that “the hot negro records still have a genuine and not merely galvanic energy, while the blues have a certain austerity that places them far above the sweet nothings of George Gershwin.” Even though many composers allied themselves with the anti-Gershwin crowd, many Europeans including such unlikely composers such as Arnold Schoenberg, celebrated Gershwin’s genius.
While debates continued over the variety of contributions in the symphonic jazz movement –
The European composer Kurt Weill was happily obsessed with the darker, sexy and more dangerous aspects of jazz. He utilized sultry saxophone and percussion and slinky seductiveness in his compositions such as “The Bilbao Song” and “Surabaya-Johnny.” He composed a sexually provocative “commercial love” duet in “Mahagonny.”
Despite racial difficulties and differences of opinions, composers such as Ravel and Lambert insisted that jazz and symphonic jazz was destined to be an important wave of the future, that would endure the collapse of music into noise theories— the formula driven theories of serialism and backwards looking antique thinking of neoclassicism. For them, jazz held a bold future with rich and divergent sources of emotional resonance much broader than the rigid rules that regulated serialism or the antique romanticism of neoclassicism.
Jazz with its new rhythmic sophistication provided a new basis for the creative explorations of concert composers more so than any other folk music since the dances that inspired Bach, Mozart and Dvorak. Jazz represented an internationally comprehensible language that captured the spirit of the age and Ellington and other black artists surpassed the commercialized Tin Pan Alley jazz caricatures and became the main international inspirations
Black music and culture has outlived American slavery and racism & surpassed the low expectations of Thomas Jefferson, to become a national light house & source of inspiration, that guides a global audience to the sound of America.
In my next blog, I will continue (part 2 of my last 4 blogs) wrapping up my Classical music & Black History series.
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