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Jazz Is Dead: A new school look at old school music

 Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Lonnie Liston Smith and Adrian Younge
Ali Shaheed Muhammad, Lonnie Liston Smith and Adrian Younge

After talking to Lonnie Liston Smith about his new Jazz Is Dead 17 release, I wanted to know more about the creative minds behind this movement that is all about music, culture, community and ultimately legacy. So I connected with Adrian Younge, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Andrew Lojero, three of the four founders of Jazz Is Dead, to explore how and why they've been introducing a new young audience to instrumental music and to some of the legendary players who've been creating it for years.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Pat Prescott: For people who don't know, just explain what Jazz Is Dead is all about. I'd love for you to elaborate a little bit on a line that I saw on your website in the About section that says, “This is Jazz Is Dead, a love story.” What do you mean by that?

Adrian Younge: It's really interesting, because we created something that in many ways has become its own entity. I think the better way to say it is that we have started something and we've continued to add fuel to something that has become its own thing. Because it's not just us. They’re people like yourself and many others that come to our shows and or engage in the music. It’s this symbiotic relationship that led to this galvanized movement of people that already existed. People that needed to have a community to share these feelings, ideas, and thoughts.

I think starting with Andrew, putting together these incredible concerts, we're seeing people live on stage that many of us never knew we'd ever get to see at this age. Beyond that, record albums with them and become their friends. We tell them, “Hey, there's a lot of young people out there that really love you.” We have these shows, and you see these legends super happy and in tears to know that their work has not been lost. It's something that is preserved. I think everybody, especially artists, no matter how successful you are, you're always kind of thinking like, “All this work that I've done, me not spending time with my family, was it all worth it?” All this to say that Jazz Is Dead is literally a movement of people that love classic music and support the lifestyle of timelessness through, I through the auspices of jazz.

As we're looking back now on 50 years of hip hop, this music has always embraced jazz and has really spotlighted jazz in a very special way. We were talking about this earlier, how when I first heard about you guys, it was like around 2019 when you were just getting started. And I was so intrigued. Then, of course, the pandemic hit, which had a major effect on anybody that was trying to start a movement. But what you guys did is you kind of went underground and laid a wonderful foundation for what you've been able to do since then. Ali, I'd like you to talk a little bit about that connection of hip hop to jazz and also how you used the pandemic to really put together a strong foundation for this movement.

Ali Shaheed Muhammad: My introduction to jazz came through my grandmother and my uncle. I wasn't really checking for jazz. Going to grandma's house, she's playing Ella Fitzgerald. I wasn't really digging Ella. It wasn't until much later in my life that I began to appreciate Ella Fitzgerald and how important she is to the culture of jazz. But for me, hip hop was the gateway to jazz and discovering artists like Roy Ayers and Gary Bartz and the Mizell brothers—everything that they touched from Bobby Humphreys and so many others like Donald Byrd, Eddie Harris, and Lonnie Liston Smith. It was digging in the crates and discovering those records to be inspired to construct my form of music via hip hop. That really was the gateway and it became a huge love affair.

When we say that this is a love story for us, to add on to what Adrian was saying earlier, it's a continuation of that discovery and the lineage of the music of Blacks in America, and it goes way back once you start to connect all of the dots. This music for Adrian and I, for Drew, for Adam Block, these were the records that we grew up on and these are the artists that we listened to. When we had the opportunity to build on this idea of Jazz Is Dead in the form of recording, naturally we went to these luminaries that we grew up listening to who have given us a voice as musicians in our own right. But really it's all about them and paying homage to them.

"Lagos" - Tony Allen & Adrian Younge

I believe 2018 was the first series of performances. In February of 2018, we were able to record with Brian Jackson, Doug Carn, Roy Ayers and Gary Bartz. Again, these are our idols. We were digging in the crates, listening to them and trying to dream of making music like them to actually being in the studio and making the music. Then there was the excitement we had for not only the live performances, but the records too. We knew that the public did not know, because we never talked about the records that were to come.

The pandemic hit just as we were ready to pull the curtains back and say, “Not only have we been putting on these beautiful shows, but we have this brand new music with these luminaries who are still incredible contributors and artists of the culture right now.” That was a bit of a challenge, but at the same time, I think people were looking for something to cling to. The entire world fell into uncertainty and wanted something wholesome and good to cling to. The decision to continue to put the music out I think happened at the right time when people were supportive of this movement.

This whole live performance component is a huge part of what it is that you're doing, and anybody that loves jazz knows that to really appreciate it, live is just the way to see it, because it brings out all of what it has to offer. The spontaneity, the originality, the fact that every performance is different. Drew, you've had the big job of trying to take this vision and put it into a live setting. Talk a little bit about that and the importance of that and also the fact that you've been able to attract a really nice young audience, people who aren't traditionally associated with listening to instrumental music. How have you done this and what do you think about what you've done so far?

Andrew Lojero: I think we all did this together in our own ways, whether it's through social media messaging or Adrian and Ali hosting the concerts and really making sure the point makes it across. It's also in choosing the repertoire. I don't get to do it for every artist, but there are a few folks that have been so kind. Like Lonnie Liston Smith, Ronnie Laws and several folks who are really gracious about letting us program what they play. Lonnie said that he hadn't played the Fender Rhodes since the seventies and that he hadn't played any of the songs that we chose since the ‘70s, which is astounding to us and to our audience.

It's this really handcrafted, bespoke approach of trying to take our years in hip hop programming and DJing and that kind of musical perspective. Applying it to this setting is what really drives it to the new space. The name jazz itself is particularly geared towards and meant to, firstly, make young people feel like this is something they can mess with. And make young people feel like this is not their grandparents' music, and this is not their parents' music, but this could be their music. The approach initially is meant for that. And on the other end, I think the added bonus is that it really pisses people off that love jazz and that have been fighting for jazz and that have been jazz fighters, if you will, for the last several decades. It's not the intention to piss people off, but it is the intention to make people feel something. If you love jazz, it makes you feel like, “Damn it, no, it's not dead.” Or it makes you feel invigorated in the path that you’re on already.

If you’re ambivalent to jazz, you'll find out in that moment that you're actually not ambivalent to jazz, because you don't like the way that sounds. You don't want to live in a world where jazz is dead. So, in all ways, it makes people feel something. I've promoted concerts for close to 25 years now, and it's very hard to leave a lasting impression on a poster.

We put this thing up and people run into our shop screaming, “Jazz is not dead!” And then they run back out and run down the street. There's a real special connectivity to it. I think the young audience is relating and resonating with the idea that they've just uncovered a huge wealth of music that they previously weren't giving themselves access to.

"Dawn" - Lonnie Liston Smith, Adrian Younge & Ali Shaheed Muhammad

I think also the older audience is being exposed as well to some new ideas. That maybe jazz isn't this sacred thing that we can't ever touch or ever do anything to. That takes away the magic of what this music is about—the spontaneity, the originality, all of that. I think another thing that you guys have done that has made this especially unique is the fact that you got this whole old school/new school approach. It’s a new school look at old school music, but done all in analog. Talk about the recording process. I spoke to Lonnie Liston Smith recently and this was one of the things that floored him more than anything else. Walking into your studio was like walking into a space that he was already really comfortable in.

Adrian Younge: Yeah, that was beautiful. You're coming into an environment where there are no computers. You're recording straight to analog tape. If you mess up, you decide if you want to do it again or if you want to keep it. You're walking into a place where there are no buttons you could press to correct yourself. It's everybody walking into a space where we're embracing human error. We want to feel like the music is bespoke, organic.

To me, that was my problem for jazz for a while. It just started sounding sterile and feeling stale. When I'm hearing Black music that's derivative of lifestyle and culture, I want to feel the spirit in the music instead of just hearing licks that people learned in school. What's the lifestyle around it? Most of it I learned from hip hop because hip hop was sampling these records, especially cats like my partner Ali, who was finding these rare gems that maybe didn't even get that much love in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. But then it had this crazy revival because the music was just so timeless. Us trying to continue those conversations of yesterday through the vantage point of hip hop is something that is going beyond the sample. It's not just sampling. It's us actually going back to work with these cats to make new music for generations to listen to and sample. It’s a lot of layers, but it's so fun and fulfilling.

Lonnie talked a little bit about how excited he was to find that you guys were going to actually be creating together. This is not just like taking all of Lonnie Liston Smith's biggest hits and just redoing them. This is about creating some new music together, and I think that that's a really important thing too.

Ali Shaheed Muhammad: That was the ultimate goal for us. Because both Adrian and I have come from sampling and a part of our journey is to learn how to play these instruments, to be able to take our own intellectual and artistic expression and our feeling in the relationship with these instruments and then really move it versus being locked into someone else's idea or the limitation of a sample.

We matured to the level that when we're in a studio with someone like Lonnie Liston Smith or Gary Bartz or Marcos Valle, it's like we're having the same conversations they were having when they were 19, sitting in the room with Miles. But we also have the freedom of hip hop where we weren't given anything. We didn't have schools, we didn't have opportunities. We forced this opportunity. We forced the creativity. We came into the world being raw and real. That's the emotion that Adrian and I go into the studio with. Let's be raw, let's be real, let's be unscripted. We both are prepared because we study these luminaries’ music and their music is part of our fiber. But then let's just go in and be new and unconventional. I think those are the spirits that moved icons like Miles Davis and Lee Morgan and John Coltrane and Alice Coltrane and Dorothy Ashby and Duke Ellington. We feel the freedom in their music. We feel the dreaming and the feeling of that.

That's how we wanted to engage with these luminaries. Just saying, “Hey, I know you might have heard we're hip hop cats, but we are up the same oak.” I think when you walk into Adrian's studio, it's very clear, whatever you were doing in the 2000s or ‘90s or the ‘80s, or whomever you were working with right now, that this is different. When you walk into this studio, when you're speaking with us, it's different. These cats, they're family, you know?

"Trucha" - Garrett Saracho, Adrian Younge, & Ali Shaheed Muhammad

Drew, I want you to talk about this a little bit. I looked at your roster and it also reveals a global focus that I think is radically inclusive, which I love. You mentioned Marcos Valle and Garrett Saracho, somebody else you've been working with. You're really connecting world cultures to this music.

Andrew Lojero: I feel like a lot of it has been connected for us. We mentioned hip hop a lot in this conversation, and we're really focusing on booking music that hip hop samples. It's Turkish funk. It's Afrobeat in High Life. It's Jamaican. As you can see from the roster, and if you knew the third series that's about to be announced next year, you'd see that we are absolutely hooked on Brazilian music and cultures. In general, I think the tracks and the blueprints have been laid for us. We just were keen enough to follow it. The less we deviate from it, the better the results seem to be. The three of us are just following what seems to be the most natural progression.

A lot of it is stuff I've been working on for decades. and then some of it is Adrian and Ali being inspired or having an idea. They had a podcast a few months ago when they were talking about Eddie Palmieri. I'd been working on Eddie Palmieri, but that gave me the extra gas that I needed to get the ball to the goal line. All of this feels like it's already set for us and we just have to follow the path and get ourselves out of the way.

It is a unique creative collaborative that you guys have dreamed up here. I want to congratulate you on your NAACP Image award. I'm sure honors like that mean a lot. In closing, I'd like for all of you to address what is it that you want to see happen as a result of what it is you're doing. Do you consider that what you've done so far has been successful, and what is your greatest hope for the impact that you can make?

Adrian Younge: First of all, listening to your interview with Lonnie was just beautiful, because he talked about how he hadn’t recorded in a long time. To hear his exuberance while he talked to somebody that he's known for so long about why he did this and hearing how happy he is in his voice, that's the love story.

It's just we're doing things. All these luminaries gave so much to us, so we want to give something back to them. What we want to give back to them is, first of all, just our gratitude and then peeking through the window to see what kind of love they get. The more we can get that reciprocal feeling of them, showing us love, us giving them love, and then just feeling it from the world. The more we get that, the more successful we know we are because this is not something where we're making a bunch of money doing this or that.

We’re rich with love and culture. That's what it really is about for us. I always tell people that, yeah, we get to record with these people. We get to do these shows with these people. But at the end of the day, the most important thing is just getting a phone call from them the next day just because they're your friend and they really want to talk to you about life.
The more we have of those kind of instances where we're really meeting our soulmates, then the more successful we are, in my opinion. That’s how I look at it.

Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad
Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad

For me, it's when you have a singer like Syd and a group like The Internet and other groups of that ilk hear a Jean Carn record that came out right now, that they would go, “Oh my God,” That it is so inspiring to see this artist who's been around 50, 60 years making records, but still able to not conform to the formulaic aspect of what people call success in music, but to remember our lineage, especially if we're looking at where our country is going right now from the political perspective of how in the snap of a finger and in a flash, decades of growth and fighting can be wiped away.

And for what reason? Because we didn't embrace that connection, that we got to a point of striving to live the dream of being artists that we disconnect from generations . Those who come before us, they have the knowledge because they lived it. And they have the business knowledge, which is extremely important, no matter how much the business changes. Those fundamentals still remain the same.

If we have this connection, then there's a sharing of information that allows for not only us in the contemporary space to have success, but those who are to come after us. I think what we are doing with bridging this gap, where we have this venue where you see a 80-year-old with a great-grandchild that's eight years of age, that's a beautiful thing. That's not something that is placed in mainstream to show the importance of legacy, to show the importance of lineage.

Hopefully, whomever the next eight-year-old that came to see Jean Carn or Doug Carn right now or that came to see Joao Donato right now could see themselves and remember how we all relate to one another and how important it is for us to really remember our humanity. Because in a heartbeat it could be stripped away and we could be blown back. All this advancement of uniting and realizing freedom, what it means to have freedom, what it takes to be free, it can all be wiped away. And it's like starting all over again. We don't have to do that. We can effect change and do it through the music and teach people.

Andrew Lojero: I’d love to see Jazz Is Dead looked at like a fellowship for these artists. Looked at like the way people kind of look at grants or awards and down the road we can set up national, if not international, tours for these artists and an album for these artists, and a kind of rebranding for these artists. It's getting ahold of each one of them and really modifying them and their image for an entirely new demographic and audience.

It's already a non-profit even though it’s classified as a for-profit organization. I feel like if we could move into that space eventually down the road is like for those artists receiving a grant. That's the kind of the pragmatic in me that really wants to leave something in the way of sustenance and something that could really make an impact on these people. So that the audience knows that what they're doing is changing the life of someone who's influenced their life.

Pat Prescott is a native of Hampton Virginia and a graduate of Northwestern University. After 5 years teaching middle school, she started her radio career in New Orleans, Louisiana at WYLD-FM. After a brief stint at New Orleans legendary rock station WNOE, she moved to New York to host the midday show at former heritage jazz station WRVR. During her 23 years on New York radio, Pat worked at WBLS, WLIB, The National Black News Network and contemporary jazz station CD 101.9.