Russell Gunn celebrates the legacy of ‘Blues People’ by Amiri Baraka
In the early ‘90s, a pride of young lions came roaring on to the jazz scene, defining and staking the territory with music of their generation, hip hop. It was through my close association with Roy Hargrove that I met some of the architects of this new hip hop/jazz fusion, including Common, D'Angelo, Guru and trumpeter Russell Gunn, not long after he arrived in New York. He eventually relocated to Atlanta, so I was thrilled to catch up with Russell and to talk about his exciting new project, with his 27-piece Royal Krunk Orchestra. Commissioned by the Apollo Theater to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Blues People written by the Father of the Black Arts Movement, Newark's own Amiri Baraka.
Lezlie Harrison: We met back in the early ‘90s when you first landed. Your generation came in with a bang, and kind of flipped the scene up a little bit, which I liked. I remember you hanging around the Jazz Gallery, with Roy [Hargrove], D’Angelo, Common. You were with some hip cats. How have you been since then and what have you been up to?
Russell Gunn: I like to keep it moving. To speak to what you were just saying. I think the reason that in those ‘90s that we had a small amount of edge to us is that it was a really great time. That doesn't happen a lot. It was a time when you had a generation of kids that grew up in and around hip hop. And, at the same time, a lot of our great jazz musicians were still alive at the time. So we had one foot in the future and one foot in the past authentically.
It was so exciting. Like you said, we still had John Hicks around, Art Blakey around. It was just wonderful to see the torch being passed and to see how the younger generation really absorbed the lessons that those masters had. Unfortunately, we don't have that as much anymore because people transition, but you certainly are one of the leading members of that generation. I loved that you worked with Branford Marsalis’s Buckshot LeFonque project.
And I was working with Maxwell. And D’Angelo in his beginning, thanks to Roy. That was exciting. I was listening to R&B. I came out of that.
You’ve gone from Chicago to East St. Louis to New York. Now you're in Atlanta. What brought you to Atlanta?
When I moved to New York initially, I went with what I considered to be a plan. I never planned on making that my permanent home. I'm from East St. Louis and that lifestyle is what's more comfortable to me. Once I felt like I was established enough, I moved to Atlanta. Partly because of that and partly because the new emerging hip hip hop scene in Atlanta was what I wanted to be a part of.
So tell me something. Now I know the term Krunk comes out of Atlanta. School me on Krunk.
But it's more of a general term to describe a state of being excited or even overexcited. It's kind of like when you are up here, you need to bring it all down a little bit.
Now you've brought it all the way up here with your 24-piece band called the Royal Krunk Jazz Orchestra. Tell me a little bit about it.
For the project, it's going to be 27 pieces. But the genesis is that I've always considered myself to be a better writer than an actual trumpet player. I was always geared towards writing for larger ensembles, even though I didn't have the training. I never studied. I didn't even learn how to play the trumpet, but I had to teach myself that. I didn't learn anything about composition or arranging from school. I had to learn all of that on my own. But something in me always wanted to write for a larger ensemble.
When I used to have a band called Ethnomusicology, it was not a large ensemble, but it was like 10 people. It was a lot to be writing for, as a small jazz group. But I always heard larger [ensembles]. Once I got the opportunity and I decided that this is what I wanted to do, and I decided that I was a composer, I said, “All right, I'm a composer. Let me stop and get into this and learn what I can and develop.”
Now you're leading a 27-piece Royal Krunk Jazz Orchestra, which will premier your new commissioned work “The Blues and Its People,” which is celebrating the 60th anniversary of Blues People written by Amiri Baraka, the poet/writer/activist who hailed from the great city of Newark, the home of WBGO. His classic book Blues People: Negro Music in White America was written in 1963, and it traces Black music from slavery to contemporary jazz. Tell me about your connection to Amiri Baraka and what inspired you to pin these new seven pieces of music to celebrate the 60th milestone.
I actually got to meet him only once, some years ago. So I didn't really know him. I knew about him, of course. When I first came to New York, I was actually brought to New York by a great alto saxophone player named Oliver Lake. I learned a lot about Amiri that way. Oliver will be on the program with us that evening.
What happened with the commission was that when Leatrice Ellzy-Wright from the Apollo decided that she was going to make this project happen, she asked me to be the musical director. Initially, I was just going to pick some songs and present them. But I was already in it. I wrote maybe about four or five pieces, and then I presented them to her. I said, “I think this is the way we should go.” And she was like, “Yeah, this is the way we should go.” So they decided to go ahead and commission the whole thing.
You have a serious lineup for that celebration coming up on February 18 at the Apollo. Jazzmeia Horn, Craig Harris, Stefon Harris, Jessica Care More. What other surprises do you have?
Like I said, my mentor Oliver Lake will be there. Davell Crawford, the great pianist and singer from New Orleans, is going to be there. I have a singer coming that you may not know in the jazz community. His name is Leon Timbo, but he's really well known in the gospel community. The great Weedie Braimah on djembe. So, it's gonna be really cool.
Examining Black life in America can be traced through the evolution of Black music. What are your thoughts on the state of Black music today?
There's two things with that. One is that all contemporary music is always gonna be considered to be some BS by those that preceded it. I’ve heard stories of Louis Armstrong hearing bebop for the first time and being like, “Come on man.” And I've heard stories of bebop players listening to Ornette Coleman and saying, “Come on, man.” What I've always noticed is that there's always that stream of great contemporary music that the masses generally don't hear about. There's so much music out there that's so uplifting and so steeped in the tradition, and so steeped in history. It’s really hard to answer that question because I know the answer from one perspective and from another perspective, then you would have a different answer. I think when Baraka wrote this book in 1963, Black music was not as varied and layered as it is now.
You've written these seven new pieces that celebrate this 60-year-old iconic book and it looks like a wonderful theatrical production you've put together. Are there costumes and what kind of surprises that we should be looking out?
Well, there will be some surprises. I don't have that big a flair for the dramatic. But there will be some surprises. We will look good. We will be fly. We will be on some African stuff.
You're always fly, you're always hip, you’re always cool. Russell, what do you feel about going into that iconic institution, the Apollo Theater, to present this wonderful piece of music?
There are really no words for that. Actually, I played there once in the small side theater years ago. At the time, I'm pretty sure the theater was doing some construction, but the dressing rooms that we had to use were still over there on that side, and the dressing room was like 12 stories up. The crazy thing is maybe a week ago I watched a documentary about the history of the Apollo and all of the people that played there. I was listening to people like Gladys Knight and others talking about how they had to walk down from the eighth floor. I’m like, “That was my first experience.” But to actually present my musical sensibility on that same stage where people like that were presenting their musical sensibility for the first time is amazing to me.
It'll be amazing to see your name on the marquee when you roll up there to the Apollo Theater on 125th Street.
I should mention that if you live and work or study in Harlem, then you can get half off on the tickets through the Harlem Initiative, which can be found on the Apollo website.