A New Day in Harlem

How a thriving community of hip-hop generation jazz musicians is reclaiming hallowed uptown ground

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Christian Scott
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Jamire Williams (l.) and Christian Scott
By Giovanni Russonello
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Gerald Clayton
By Giovanni Russonello
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Ben Williams
By Giovanni Russonello

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“I have a problem with the word ‘jazz,’” Christian Scott says. The 28-year-old trumpeter is sitting on the edge of a barstool at Red Rooster Harlem, his right hand wrapped around a grape cocktail called the Savoy. “Jazz is not the trunk of the tree; blues is the trunk of the tree. To say I play jazz music is inaccurate, because a lot of what I’m pulling from is directly descended from a predecessor to jazz. So why would we call it jazz? It’s based on all of these things that blues created.”

In Harlem, where bebop was born and the birthplace of hip-hop is just a stone’s throw away, Scott believes a musical transformation that has been simmering for more than a decade is finally reaching a boil. And its touchstones go well beyond jazz. “There’s something brewing up here,” he says. “It’s always been a reservoir for artists, but when you look at things now, these are, for lack of a better term, A-list young jazz musicians. You have the same thing happening with visual artists here, you have the same thing happening with young, black film directors. It’s almost like a second coming of the Harlem Renaissance.”

Never before has there existed such a large crop of young musicians well versed in the acoustic jazz tradition. We largely have Wynton Marsalis to thank for that; in the 1990s, he enshrined jazz in the American canon and built it an executive suite in the educational establishment. But for all of their knowledge and love of the tradition, what most energizes the young jazz musicians living uptown today is the creative community they have forged, one centered on a constantly evolving musical language.

As a composer, the 27-year-old pianist Gerald Clayton says he’s most inspired by the work of his peers. “When I’m writing music, I’m thinking about the people who are playing it, so those guys are always an inspiration to me,” he says. “The Dayna Stevenses and the Gretchen Parlatos and the Ambrose Akinmusires and the Logan Richardsons.” It’s a sentiment that many in his cohort share, and notionally it puts them in the company of all major artistic movements, really, from the Parisian avant-garde painters of the early 20th century to bebop’s inventors in the 1940s. Movements, not isolated concepts or fads but remembered tectonic shifts, are made by groups of like-minded individuals whose worldviews correlate and spar and ultimately result in a beloved body of work.

Harlem’s 20- and 30-something jazz musicians belong to what some journalists and scholars have dubbed the hip-hop generation, and their innovations are tethered to the urban heartbeat among which they came of age. Their influences range widely, from Rachmaninov to Robert Johnson to Radiohead. But at jam sessions in uptown living rooms and home studios, young players are consistently making groove-based music that seems hitched to the same lifeline as the hip-hop they grew up with, and has conspicuous ties reaching back to the music of West Africa and much of the rest of the world.

Five days before our conversation at Red Rooster, Scott opened a two-night run with his quintet at the Harlem Stage Gatehouse, a converted aqueduct dating from the 19th century. On the stage under a magnificent stone archway, the band built to bristling, cloudy atmospherics, cut through with Scott’s writhing, bottled-up squeals. On drums, Jamire Williams turned it all inside out with hijacked backbeats and broken polyrhythms.

After the concert, Scott stood behind the merch booth, signing T-shirts and CDs. A tall young African-American man, just a few years Scott’s junior, lingered, made eye contact, then approached the star. Not knowing what else to say, he got to the point before he got to hello: “Hey, you’re the reason I came to New York.”

Scott glanced up. “Ah, no, don’t put that on me, man!”

“Well, not just you. But you, Robert Glasper, Gerald Clayton.”

“Alright, man. Well, good luck.” Scott offered a handshake and a warm smile.

Satisfied, the man turned to leave. On his way out the glass doors, he told me that he hails from Texas, and he’s an aspiring musician himself. His parents only listened to smooth jazz, but he discovered the real thing during high school, along with his other loves of hip-hop, R&B and rock. It is the crop of similarly open-minded young musicians, an astonishing number of whom live in Harlem, that brought him to the Big Apple.

***

It’s just after 4 p.m. on a Tuesday, and Gerald Clayton is playing his Yamaha grand piano in the sun-drenched apartment he shares with drummer Justin Brown. This is where Clayton, Brown and bassist Joe Sanders (who lives in an apartment upstairs) hashed out the tunes that comprise Bond: The Paris Sessions, the pianist’s Grammy-nominated sophomore album. It’s also where trumpet phenom Ambrose Akinmusire’s band, which includes Clayton and Brown, often gets together. Sometimes painter Alix Delinois, whose portraits of legendary musicians are now on exhibition at the Jazz Gallery in Greenwich Village, comes by to hang out. The story of innovation in Harlem is one of cross-pollination, so it is also one of shared spaces.

On this particular afternoon, I’m across the room, in awe, sitting down for dear life, as the pianist winds his way through a dazzling reharmonization of Bill Evans’ “Waltz for Debby.” His left hand’s punctilious rumblings are set off by the warm and wakeful harmonies of his right, dropped lightly onto the keys like dimes from an unfurled fist.

Clayton is known as one of the hip-hop generation’s most learned piano practitioners, and his mastery of the keyboard’s palette conjures a bulbous sphere rather than a single linear spectrum. Not only is he just as comfortable with the keyboard’s highest range as he is with its lowest; he knows how to lead or to accompany, how to stir up fire or soothe with a ballad, how to inhabit a trenchant swing feel or groove hard on the downbeat. His playing is equal parts Oscar Peterson and Brad Mehldau.

Clayton is one of the four Harlem-based players on drummer Kendrick Scott’s latest release, Reverence. Scott, a 31-year-old Houston native, is known as a nuanced stylist, deft songwriter and consummate host. Like Clayton, he gets much of his education from contemporaries in his neighborhood. Scott remembers an afternoon in 2010 when he invited the drummers living in Harlem over to his 146th Street apartment. “I had [Marcus] Gilmore and Justin Brown and Pete Van Nostrand and some other cats just come over and hang. I set up a few drum sets in my drum room, and we just went at it. We talked about swing, and then Marcus showed us some Steve Coleman grooves,” he says, referring to one of the first musicians to entwine hip-hop with jazz in the 1980s. “Sometimes when I think about Jo Jones and I think about all these guys, I think about how blessed they were to really hang together and to come together as a community. That’s the beauty of what’s going on in Harlem right now, that all of our peers are in a certain community and in a certain vibe. Everybody is so individualistic and so different, but I think that the movement of what’s happening right now in Harlem is pretty heavy.”

Scott sees hip-hop as a major influence on his playing, but also looks across oceans for much of his inspiration. His first record, The Source, often found the drummer and his rhythm section synthesizing a deep flow somewhere between Grandmaster Flash, Fela Kuti and the Carnatic tradition. If Scott’s music articulates a philosophy, it’s that an improvising musician in today’s world can, if he desires, draw on a global library and assemble his own foundation, his own canon.

Bassist Ben Williams, a rising star who lives just a few blocks north of Scott, clarified his own, not unrelated credo with his debut record, State of Art. “The Great American Songbook is an open book to which we should continue to add pages,” he writes in the liner notes. “Don’t get me wrong, I love the old standards, but I have a much more personal connection to music of the ’90s than that of the ’40s. This album is my honest and humble attempt at expressing (musically) what it feels like to be alive in 2011.”

The record features bottomless grooves from Jamire Williams (no relation), aided by Clayton on piano and electric keys. The group bounces through hip-hop, anthemic R&B offshoots and go-go, the swinging funk subgenre indigenous to Williams’ hometown of Washington, D.C. On one track, the MC John Roberts raps a biographical tribute to hard-bop trumpet great Lee Morgan while Christian Scott interjects horn lines soused in the blues.

State of Art emerged in June and was at the top of the JazzWeek charts by August, earning positive reviews from JazzTimes and DownBeat along the way. But a more telling litmus might be the perfect 10.0 rating it received from the Revivalist, a new online magazine. Revivalist is run by Revive Da Live, a jazz-presenting organization based in Harlem that has become the centripetal force among the young musicians blazing trails north of 110th Street.

Twenty-nine-year-old Meghan Stabile founded Revive in 2006, when she was an undergrad at Berklee in Boston. After leaving school, she moved to New York, where she now runs her concert-organizing apparatus and publication out of an apartment on Bradhurst Avenue across the street from Jackie Robinson Park. In the past half-decade, Revive has forged a track record that reads something like a manifesto. Its shows have included a tribute to Roy Ayers at the Gatehouse featuring pianist Robert Glasper and DJ Pete Rock; a double-bill pairing jazz trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s Sexxxtet with MC Talib Kweli; and the weekly Harlem Evolution Series jam session, which until recently attracted a range of the city’s young jazz musicians and artists to Creole Restaurant on Third Avenue and 118th Street (earlier this year, it dropped the “Harlem” from its name and moved downtown to the Village’s Zinc Bar). The audiences at Revive shows come from a wide range of backgrounds, and the median age always hovers around 30.

Simone Eccleston, programming and arts education manager at Harlem Stage, says the Harlem Evolution Series offered a “creative space for all of these younger musicians to come and just jam with one another.” It attracted “scholars, writers, arts administrators, other artists. When you went there, you were fed,” she recalls.

When Stabile and I talk, she is sitting at her desk in the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, trumpeter Igmar Thomas. In the other room, behind a closed door, he runs through rudiments while a hip-hop track bounces out of his speakers.

Stabile tells me that she operates with the understanding that jazz—as it always has—needs to stay in constant contact with contemporary culture in order to retain its potency. “[Revive] always was about giving musicians a platform to express their artistry and musicianship, and also to expose a hip-hop audience to jazz and expose jazz audiences to hip-hop,” she tells me. “Throughout history, jazz has evolved into something else. Robert [Glasper] said it best to me: ‘This is the hard-bop of our generation.’ It has to evolve.”

***

Jamire Williams, the drummer, arrived in Harlem in 2005 and moved into a building at 139th Street and Riverside Drive. Without immediately realizing it, he found himself living in the apartment next to piano great and fellow Houston native Jason Moran. “I was always hearing him practice,” Williams recalls. “And then I’d be working on sampling stuff, and I’d get a knock on the door like, ‘Yo, what’s that!’”
Moran, 36, was one of Harlem’s first musicians to comfortably assert a place for hip-hop techniques—sampling, for one—in jazz. “It’s another form of composition,” he says. “Some people do it with a pen to paper and they sit at the piano, some people do it with an MPC [music production center].”

While Moran often experiments with samples and electronic effects, his acoustic piano playing also exhibits the stark influence of modern hip-hop producers like J Dilla. In a solo rendition of “Body and Soul” recorded for the 2002 album Modernistic, Moran uses his left hand like a looping machine, repeating a one-bar pattern that disrupts and recasts the tune’s constant harmonic modulation. On his latest record, 2010’s Ten, Moran covers Thelonious Monk’s “Crepuscule With Nellie,” which the legendary pianist always played according to a strict arrangement with hardly any improvisation. In his version’s raucous climax, Moran teases out one fleeting phrase, transmutes it into a gospel refrain, and wraps the whole thing around a beat with all the bob and bounce of an early 1980s Afrika Bambaataa track. Ten ended up earning a sort of critical quadruple crown: album-of-the-year honors from NPR Music, the New York Times, JazzTimes and DownBeat.

In Harlem, Moran’s high profile has added a stamp of legitimacy to the fundamental shift already well underway. But he is quick to emphasize that the backbeat-driven, groove-based music that’s so ubiquitous uptown these days isn’t altogether new: It “stands on the shoulders of what people like Greg Osby were doing 15 years ago, even though they were rarely very successful,” Moran says.

One of these pioneers was Marc Cary, now 44, who transposed his experience in D.C. go-go to the Manhattan rap game. “I had a studio since the late ’80s, so I had been recording cats, like a lot of the Dipset crew,” he says, referring to the famous Harlem hip-hop collective. “I started up at 156th and St. Nick, on top of Sugar Hill—right across from Duke Ellington’s building, right next door to Bud Powell’s building, next to Art Taylor and Abbey Lincoln. I was sneakin’, doing that shit, because I was in [Taylor]’s band, and he was like, ‘I don’t wanna hear no hip-hop!’”

Cary recorded an electro-jazz album with MC Shon “Chance” Miller in 2006, featuring a track based around Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.” Just a few days later, the pair found out that Hughes’ old home was on the market. They leased it, renovated it to reflect the décor from the poet’s day and built a two-story performance and recording complex. Referred to on the scene simply as “Langston’s,” it quickly became a meeting place and jam session hub for hip-hop and jazz musicians. Personalities from MC Prodigal Sunn to bassist Tarus Mateen spent all-nighters collaborating on projects. As a concert venue, the timeless address was a locus of Harlem’s burgeoning artistic class, and a proving ground for young musicians. “When I moved up, [Cary] was like, ‘Oh yeah, you uptown now, you gotta come by Langston’s!’” Jamire Williams recalls. He was behind the drum set there one night during a packed-out performance when the basement tenant, a relative of the landlord, flipped a switch. In an instant, all the electricity in the place was gone. Cary, who’d been playing electric keyboard, groped over to the Fazioli grand piano while Williams shifted the beat, the music continued, and the crowd kept dancing.

Cary and Chance lost their lease after a falling-out with the landlord, and Langston’s joined the ancestry of Harlem’s fabled musical incubators. There had been James P. Johnson’s 140th Street brownstone, where the greatest stride pianists of the early 20th century would play cards and cut on the piano all night. Then came Minton’s Playhouse on 118th Street, where Thelonious Monk, Kenny Clarke, Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker traded licks and compositions in the early 1940s, giving rise to bebop.

Harlem fell into decline in the middle of the century, victimized by deindustrialization and middling government support. The neighborhood that had once been the capital of black nationalism and art soon found itself hollowed out, and the spotlight of the jazz world was redirected onto downtown clubs: the Village Vanguard, the Five Spot and later Bradley’s. But by the end of the 1990s, economic boom brought rebirth, and as always, an influx of artists led the way. With the closings earlier this year of the Harlem Evolution Series and St. Nick’s Pub, a popular jam session hub, it remains an open question where the general public can go to witness history being made. But it’s clear that at jams in so many musicians’ homes, the onward progression is thriving.

***

During the 1980s and ’90s, the so-called Young Lions discerned that the rise of jazz-rock fusion had created a chasm between jazz’s mainstream and its tradition of rigorous instrumentalism. These fresh-faced neoclassicists, who found their ambassador in Wynton Marsalis, mastered bebop’s vast emotional palette by studying the work of jazz greats from 1965 and earlier, and by gigging with old masters. The movement—though it could also be called a campaign—succeeded famously: Many of the Young Lions found international acclaim, and with the help of Marsalis’ work at Lincoln Center they winnowed out an important place for jazz in the American musical canon. They also comprised the first major movement in jazz not to innovate a new style.

Since the early 1900s, jazz had been a scion of the blues tradition, carrying its spirit of strength and resistance through a series of rhythmic and harmonic permutations. When the Young Lions sought to save jazz by reanimating the art of a past era, they overlooked the fact that the blues lineage, with its personal revolutions and community consciousness, had long ago found new life in soul and funk and, by the late 1970s, in hip-hop. The Young Lions returned jazz to a standard of high musicianship and recognition of its roots, but they could not help it regain its place on the moving walkway of tradition’s timeline. Their policy of retrenchment often divorced their music from the social realities of the times.

So when Christian Scott, one of the most socially conscious of Harlem’s contemporary jazz musicians, resists the term jazz, he is staking a claim to the full breadth of the African-American, and simply American, musical lineage—one that must include hip-hop if it is to hold its own in a conversation with today’s audiences.

But many musicians in their mid-30s and older, no matter where they fall on the question of stylistic rigidity, worry about the sheer musicianship of today’s new breed. There is a great deal of concern that for all the benefits of the jazz education system Marsalis helped establish, it is now rife with subpar teaching and a misplaced focus on impetuous individualism. This, they say, has created a generation of musicians who do not understand jazz’s nuances.

Roy Hargrove, 44, was among the youngest and most famous of the Young Lions. Nowadays, to rankle him is as easy as asking what he thinks of the new stylistic changes occurring among young jazz musicians. “That’s something that bothers me: people talking about innovating all the time,” he says. “You can’t just set out to say, ‘Oh, I’m going to innovate.’ All you can do is learn how to play the best you can, and if your music happens to reach a certain level of consciousness with the people, that’s what innovation is.”

It’s not so much that musicians are looking for new syntaxes that bothers Hargrove; he feels they lack a solid grip on the fundamental language. “There’s something missing when you’re not dealing with learning the fabric of the music. Cats are going around putting down bebop, when that’s the shit. You have to learn that,” he says. “When you go to hear them play, there’s something missing, and you know why: because they’re not dealing with the very essence of what it is for them to learn how to play.”

Cary says that because so many young musicians learned their chops far away from jam sessions, jazz clubs and churches—the music’s historical proving grounds—there are “a lot of people that can play on top of anything, but you don’t get the feeling that they are actually a part of what they’re doing. You don’t get that connection.”

To today’s consternated elders, the opportunity to fuse jazz with less instrumentally challenging musics provides an escape, a possible cop-out for rising musicians seeking work and distinction. Most of these young cats might be able to groove, the keening goes, but they just can’t swing.

But Cary, for one, insists on separating the points. He says that any loss of proficiency should not be a cue for jazz to resist osmosis with other genres. “For me, jazz documents a timeline, it documents an experience,” he says. “When black folks were tired of going in the back door, and when they were dealing with civil rights, it was a direct reflection of the Civil Rights Movement. So the music itself is a direct reflection of the communities and the politics and the way of life that we live in. … It’s a living music, because we’re dealing with improvisation. What’s surprising is, a lot of people are like, ‘How did hip-hop get into jazz?’ Well, let’s look back at jazz. Jazz is a direct reflection of popular music. [Jazz musicians] took the music that was popular and redid it.”

***

After an hour and a half of volleying at Red Rooster, Christian Scott and I walk out the front door and head west down a crowded 125th Street. It’s early November, and a chill nips up from the ground even as the sun spills out of a cloudless sky. As we approach the statue of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. that looms at the corner of 125th and 7th Avenue, the pounding of drums rises above the midday clamor.

A small group of men is playing congas and djembes at Powell’s feet, as they do most afternoons. Three police officers stalk past us on the sidewalk, and Scott eyes them as they pass. “That’s nice,” he says. “They usually make these guys stop playing. I’ve gotten in debates with them more than once about that.”

We stop at the corner and his face settles into a familiar half-smile. “Benin,” he says, glancing toward the drummers. “That’s where that beat comes from.” Scott explains that growing up in New Orleans under the guidance of his uncle, the great Mardi Gras Indian chief and jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison, he got a firm grounding in the roots of African-American music.

Listening to the cyclical weave of the drummers’ cadence, open-palmed bass thumps in a disciplined exchange with high-ringing rim shots, you can’t say that the beat these men have created swings—not in the sense that most Americans understand the term—but you wouldn’t say that it doesn’t.

Originally published in January/February 2012

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