You probably know Nile Rodgers for his trailblazing work in disco, and as producer behind some of the 20th century’s most enduring pop songs. Did you also know that Rodgers started out as a jazz musician? At this summer’s North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, author Ashley Kahn sat down with the formidable bassist, composer, arranger and producer to discuss his jazz roots.
Before Rodgers ran away from home at age 14, his parents were beatniks who attracted many artists to his household in Greenwich Village — including Thelonious Monk, Gloria Lynne, and Nina Simone. “My house was sort of a hotbed for bebop, what we used to call modern jazz back in the day,” he says, “so it was just an amazing life that I had and it was the foundation for what I was to become. I had no idea.”
Rodgers wanted to become a jazz musician. But one of his teachers, jazz guitarist Ted Dunbar, warned him against becoming a jazz snob, urging him to be open to all kinds of music, even the pop jingles of the day. While Rodgers was absorbing this life lesson, he met his co-partner and co-producer Bernard Edwards. They wondered if they could make a recording that achieved some crossover success, as modeled by jazz artists Roy Ayers and Herbie Mann. And so the disco funk band Chic was born.
Forty-two years after Chic came to prominence, Rodgers stands on a staggering catalog of hits he’s produced, for everyone from David Bowie, Diana Ross and Madonna to Daft Punk, Pharrell Williams and Britney Spears. Chic’s “Good Times” remains one of the most sampled songs of all time.
A new Chic album, It’s About Time, out today on Virgin EMI, celebrates the band’s four decades of success, featuring collaborations with Lady Gaga, Emeli Sandé and Elton John.