Nile Rodgers: From Jazz Roots

More than four hitmaking decades into his career, the leader of Chic still regards jazz as an inherent part of who he is

Nile Rodgers at the 2017 Glastonbury Festival
Nile Rodgers at the 2017 Glastonbury Festival (photo: Jill Furmanovsky)

After Chic blew up and you became a producer, you had a chance to work or play with some big jazz names—like Al Jarreau in ’86.

Al Jarreau, L is for Lover. I think that’s maybe one of the best records I’ve ever done. It’s amazing the way I got to play on it, the way I got to … I’m with Al Jarreau, for god’s sake. Yes, we did do our commercial single, “Moonlighting,” but then we didn’t put it on the album because we thought it would ruin our great jazz record. Boy, was that a dumb mistake, because “Moonlighting” got so big and then people would’ve heard our other stuff. We shot ourselves in the foot.

I played a few jazz concerts over the years. I never like to be a showoff guitar player except when I’m playing with other showoff guys. Then I love it. Like if I get to play with John McLaughlin, forget about it. 

You have?

Oh, many times. That’s why we’re such good friends. I’ve done at least three or four live shows with John. I bring a different thing to the jazz game because I’m still a funk-jazz guy.

The gigs I’ve done with John have all been sit-ins where it’s an all-star group. Once it was me playing with his group Shakti in Switzerland—we did a television show. Then we did a thing with Carlos Santana, Wayne Shorter, and John at the Montreux Jazz Festival [in 2004]. That was ridiculous. I remember John being an awesome ping-pong player. I’m going off topic here. 

That’s okay. Anyone else?

Oh, Herbie Hancock! I’ve been on records with Herbie, and one night he was playing at the Vanguard in—probably early ’80s or maybe ’79, but I think it was around the time I met Bowie. Anyway, I sat in with Herbie and we played “Stella [by Starlight]” and I had never played like that in my life. He had a television show on PBS [Rockschool] for a minute and I remember him talking about me one night, saying, “There’s this cat Nile Rodgers. Don’t count out this dude.” I couldn’t believe it. Of course, I was in Chic and we already had hit records, but … Herbie Hancock was on TV talking about me? 

Tell us about the latest Chic album, It’s About Time.

Since the start of Chic, every record has had the same concept: We’re a brand-new act, still an opening act for bigger stars, so we still have to tell you the name of the band. There’ll always be a song that says, “We’re Chic and this is our new show.” And that’s how this new album starts—the first thing we let the public hear is “Till the World Falls,” with the intro: “You are now listening to … CHIC!”

I always believe that the concept of a live show is a real performance—live instruments, voices—and that’s what we live for. The record is a snapshot of what we actually do on stage, so if you come and see us you’ll see what I’m talking about. 

There’s a lot of guitar on this album, and not just those signature rhythm licks—I’m thinking of your solo on the title track.

I think this is the most self-indulgent record I’ve ever done except for my first solo album [Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove, 1983], which was absurdly self-indulgent, so much so that I’m almost embarrassed. On this record I brought back Chic alumni, like Philippe Saisse, who was with me the night Bernard died [in 1996], and we wrote a song together and it’s more jazzy and show-offy than I usually play. We asked Lady Gaga to sing on “I Want Your Love” and her voice was perfect for that song.

This album is also about healing. In a weird way, I needed to get it out of my system. I’m the only original member left, and after surviving cancer a couple of times, losing so many friends, having to get over the death of my partner Bernard, I felt I had to keep the vibe of Chic intact and not make it totally about me. That’s just not who I am—I really am a generous person. I like being in a band, even if now it says “Nile Rodgers & Chic” on the posters.

Nile, I think you’re the perfect person to ask about this. You’ve spent your whole career connected to both dance music and jazz, and now look at the stuff that’s happening today, with jazz and hip-hop playing together in very exciting ways.

That’s not new, because jazz and hip-hop have always been connected. It may seem like it’s more of a thing now, but you gotta remember some of the most commercial hip-hop records: Digable Planets or Us3 or Q-Tip and those guys. They were all fooling with jazz, they all loved that vibey, swingy thing because it went great with funky drums as the beat. Some of the earliest hip-hop records were dealing more with funk and some semi-gospelly things, but they jumped to jazz very quickly, and they got strength from going there. There’s guys like Nas, whose father [Olu Dara] is an accomplished jazz player, and that’s another connection.

Nowadays you hear guys like Anderson .Paak, who I love, and Childish Gambino, and I was thinking that’s just so damn cool—they’ve got the kind of strength that jazz musicians had when I was a kid in the ghetto. Even if you were just starting out. We knew that there were only a couple of ways out of the ghetto, either sports or music. And I was protected just walking down the street with that guitar, it was like a shield around me. I was walking around with the drug dealers and the gangs, but nobody would bother you because that instrument in your hands gave you that power.

What’s interesting is that it’s always been okay to recognize the connection between jazz and James Brown, but for some reason to say that you were inspired by a disco group would be politically incorrect. Chic doesn’t have the credibility for being connected to jazz because it’s too commercial or too corny or disco sucks or whatever. That’s just how it was. It’s cool and I accept that.

I’m proud of all we did. I’m proud of our connection to jazz and that many people think that hip-hop began with Chic. I heard LL Cool J say one night, when they asked him what the single most important event in hip-hop was, LL says, “Shoot, the release of ‘Good Times.’” There was a time when every MC had a rhyme for “Good Times”—not just “Rapper’s Delight.”

I think history is coming right for you. Younger listeners don’t listen with filters like they used to. Chic is cool, and disco isn’t a bad word.

You know what’s cool? Harold Mabern tapping me on the shoulder and Herbie Hancock on PBS saying, “Don’t sleep on this guy.” That’s cool.

Ashley Kahn

Ashley Kahn is a Grammy-winning American music historian, journalist, producer, and professor. He teaches at New York University’s Clive Davis Institute for Recorded Music, and has written books on two legendary recordings—Kind of Blue by Miles Davis and A Love Supreme by John Coltrane—as well as one book on a legendary record label: The House That Trane Built: The Story of Impulse Records. He also co-authored the Carlos Santana autobiography The Universal Tone, and edited Rolling Stone: The Seventies, a 70-essay overview of that pivotal decade.