WBGO Blog
  • If You Were A Jazz Tune Running For President, What Would You Sound Like?

    February 27, 2016. Posted by WBGO.

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    Marcus Roberts' Race for the White House is a set of jazz compositions inspired by presidential candidates Trump, Carson, Clinton and Sanders. (Image Credit: /Courtesy of the artist)

    Presidential campaigns may inspire people to vote, but they rarely inspire people to compose music. Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts takes up the challenge on a new EP called Race for the White House, which explores the personas of four different candidates from this year's election cycle.

    One of those candidates is Donald Trump; you can hear the song Roberts wrote to represent him below. It features a whistle, which he says is meant to express a particular vision of Trump.

    "That symbolizes Donald just looking over his vast estate and just chilling and just having a great time," Roberts says. "And then the trumpet interrupts him just to make a bold statement of, 'I'm going to make America great again, all by myself.'"

    Roberts says he was inspired by the unique personalities of the presidential hopefuls, and the challenges they face in communicating with potential voters.

    "It's almost like you have to get into other people's experiences so that they can see their experience in you, and vice-versa," he says. "And I think that's a very important component of what's going on right now in America. I think everybody wants to feel like they're being understood and related to, as opposed to preached to or told what they should think."

    Roberts lost his sight at age 5, so he's never actually seen these candidates. But, he says, you can learn a lot about politicians by listening to them — things you might miss just looking at them.

    "If a person is nervous, they might talk a little faster — or, if they're really in command, they may project more of a louder voice," he says. "If they're really happy, they might use a higher pitch. There's a lot of information there when you hear people talk."

    Roberts discussed translating those traits and tics into music with NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • Snarky Puppy: 'Music For The Brain And Booty'

    February 25, 2016

    The large instrumental band Snarky Puppy, which just won its second Grammy Award, is hard to pin down to one place. Its core is now in New York, but its members have toured and recorded all over the world, and their spiritual home is still Dallas, Texas. It's where they'd take in gospel performances in area churches; it's near where they initially met at music school at the University of North Texas in Denton. As bassist and bandleader Michael League explains, you can hear all those collisions in the pocket of their complex and beyond-category grooves. Snarky Puppy makes what it calls "music for the brain and booty" alike.

    Jazz Night In America recently flew to Dallas to visit Mike League's old stomping grounds and take a deep dive into his fascinating compositional process. Then we witness its execution in a sold-out, live, hometown Snarky Puppy concert at The Door in Dallas.

    Copyright 2016 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

  • Toshiko Akiyoshi's Jazz Orchestra Brought The Club To Concert Halls

    February 16, 2016. Posted by David Tallacksen.

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    Toshiko Akiyoshi developed a reputation as a fierce bebop player. But she says she wasn't completely accepted in the jazz world as a woman and an Asian. (Image Credit: Courtesy of the artist)

    Pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi was the first Japanese musician to become popular with jazz fans in the U.S. Oscar Peterson demanded that his label record her; Charles Mingus hired her for his band. Then she went on to form her own acclaimed Jazz Orchestra. On Tuesday afternoon, Akiyoshi reassembled that group for a rare performance at the Appel Room at Jazz at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall.

    Back at the grand piano in her Upper West Side brownstone, 86-year-old Toshiko Akiyoshi says the occasion for her orchestra's reunion is to celebrate two milestones — when she started her professional career, and when she moved to the U.S.

    "It's very easy to remember, because I started in '46, so it will be the 70th anniversary," Akiyoshi says. "I came to this country in '56, so it will be the 60th anniversary in this country."

    Akiyoshi put together her first Jazz Orchestra in Los Angeles in 1973 with her husband, saxophonist Lew Tabackin — he was playing with the Tonight Show band, and helped fill her 16-piece orchestra with some of the best studio musicians in town. Akiyoshi says all of the sax players could also play flute and clarinet; that led to her signature style.

    "The saxophone players — if you wanted to be studio player, you had to double everything. So I thought, 'Maybe I can write a woodwind section.' And it became one of my trademarks."

    Along with the texture of woodwinds, the Toshiko Akiyoshi Big Band is distinctive in its use of Japanese instruments and themes.

    A few years after the band was formed, the musicians performed in Minneapolis, where a University of Minnesota student named Maria Schneider heard them play.

    "That concert was so powerful for me," Schneider says. "The music was so beautiful, and there was something about it being displayed in that concert hall — and her conducting and her playing — just the whole took me, and it made me all of a sudden ask the question, 'Wow, could I do that?'"

    Schneider is composing for and leading her own jazz orchestra. She says Akiyoshi helped pave the way.

    "It wasn't that she was a woman," Schneider says, "but it was that somebody was doing jazz that was infused with classical — it was concert music."

    Akiyoshi studied classical piano in Manchuria, China, where she was born in 1929. At the end of WWII, her family was forced to return to occupied Japan.

    "We came back and my parents lost everything," Akiyoshi says. "I could not hope to get the piano. And it was during occupation time. And [there were] many clubs: There was the officer's club, NCO club, the Sergeant's Club, and they all need musicians. On top of that, the Japanese wanted to dance, too, and there wasn't that many musicians. So I was hired immediately."

    Akiyoshi was a teenager. She studied jazz and began to perform in small combos. In 1952, pianist Oscar Peterson heard her in a Tokyo nightclub, and he persuaded the head of Verve Records to record her.

    Akiyoshi came to the U.S. to study at what was then called the Berklee School of Music in Boston. She was the first Japanese musician at the school. She moved to New York and developed a reputation as a fierce bebop player, but she says she wasn't completely accepted in the jazz world as a woman and an Asian.

    "In those days, 'Japanese play jazz, really?' And when it come to girl — 'Really, really?' kind of thing."

    Her husband, Lew Tabackin, says she continued to face discrimination, but he says they have no regrets.

    "I think we did pretty well, considering we had a band for 30 years," Tabackin says. "We did some really great things. You know, we made a contribution. How many people can actually feel that they've made a contribution?"

    Toshiko Akiyoshi disbanded her orchestra in 2003 to focus on her first love — and, at 74, to try to get better.

    "I started missing piano," Akiyoshi says. "Because I started as a pianist, and all my writing come from my experience as a player. So 30 years I say maybe I stop, disband it. Maybe I try to concentrate on playing piano. Maybe I'll be able to play just as good as before. I can at least try."

    Akiyoshi says she hopes she's given something back to jazz, which she says has been very kind to her.

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

  • The ELEW Trio With Veal And Tain

    February 11, 2016

    Eric Lewis' career has circulated both in and out of what he calls "the jazz republic." Performing under his given name in the 1990s, Lewis was a powerful up-and-coming pianist who toured in the bands of Wynton Marsalis and Elvin Jones. As his career progressed — or failed to, from a business perspective — he found that a lot of contemporary rock music also spoke to him deeply. So, performing under the name ELEW, he devised a new theatrical, high-energy method of solo piano he called rockjazz, and his cover songs took him to TED Conferences, national tours, America's Got Talent, celebrity gatherings and the White House. But he never left the late-night straight-ahead jam sessions: In fact, he's just recorded And To The Republic, a return to the jazz trio format featuring some major players.

    Jazz Night In America follows ELEW to the studio, and to Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola within Jazz at Lincoln Center, where his burning band includes Reginald Veal on bass and Jeff "Tain" Watts on drums.

    Copyright 2016 WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center. To see more, visit WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center.

  • Maurice White Of Earth, Wind & Fire Dies At 74

    February 4, 2016. Posted by WBGO.

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    Maurice White flanked by singers Ralph Johnson (left) and Philip Bailey (right) of the band Earth, Wind & Fire perform at the Wiltern Theater December 11, 2004 in Los Angeles. (Image Credit: Carlo Allegri/Getty Images)

    Maurice White, the founder of Earth, Wind & Fire, the band known for hits like "Shining Star and "Boogie Wonderland," died in his sleep overnight. He was 74.

    Verdine White posted the following message on the group's Facebook page:

    "My brother, hero and best friend Maurice White passed away peacefully last night in his sleep. While the world has lost another great musician and legend, our family asks that our privacy is respected as we start what will be a very difficult and life changing transition in our lives. Thank you for your prayers and well wishes."

    White founded the horn-driven band in the late 1960s. "The group went on to sell more than 90 million albums worldwide, displaying a flashy and eclectic musical style that incorporated his influences from growing up in Memphis, Tennessee," The Associated Press reports.

    One of the Earth, Wind & Fire's most famous songs was "September," a song that's a go-to at wedding receptions everywhere. NPR Music wrote about the origins of the song in 2014.

    "The story of the song begins in 1978. Allee Willis was a struggling songwriter in LA — until the night she got a call from Maurice White, the leader of Earth, Wind & Fire. White offered her the chance of a lifetime: to co-write the band's next album. Willis arrived at the studio the next day hoping it wasn't some kind of cosmic joke."

    It wasn't a joke, and over the next month, the group wrote one of the happiest-sounding songs ever.

    "The trigger for that yearning feeling, Peretz says, is the opening line. White asks, "Do you remember?" and we supply the memories. It's a song that can bring all of the generations together, which makes it perfect for family gatherings. The true meaning is up to us — including, Allee Willis says, that strangely specific date.

    "'We went through all the dates: 'Do you remember the first, the second, the third, the fourth ... ' and the one that just felt the best was the 21st,' Willis explains. 'I constantly have people coming up to me and they get so excited to know what the significance was. And there is no significance beyond it just sang better than any of the other dates. So ... sorry!'

    "That's OK, Allee. Maurice was right. It doesn't matter what it means. When we hear it, it's September 21st, and we are dancing again with our family, in a song that never really ends."

    Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.