For a certain generation of listener, the sound of Gary Bartz’s alto saxophone doesn’t trigger memories of his indelible playing on Miles Davis’ Live-Evil or McCoy Tyner’s Expansions. Instead, that sinuous sax instantly evokes the chorus of “Butter,” from A Tribe Called Quest’s 1991 breakthrough album The Low End Theory. As the jazz-inspired rap trio boasts of being “smooth like butter,” the chorus is accompanied by the insinuating melody of “Gentle Smiles (Saxy),” a track from Bartz’s 1975 album The Shadow Do.
“I never was a real fan of jazz until I listened to Tribe,” Adrian Younge admits. The hip-hop producer has partnered with A Tribe Called Quest co-founder Ali Shaheed Muhammad on a series of cross-generational collaborations called Jazz Is Dead, which pairs musical elders like Roy Ayers, Doug Carn, and—most recently—Bartz with modern beats crafted using vintage studio equipment.
“Tribe showed me the kind of jazz that I really vibed with. Like with ‘Butter,’ that saxophone break was just the illest to me. Gary’s sound is a Tribe sound, but his world came first. Then Tribe took his world and made his world their own.”
The Jazz Is Dead series epitomizes the cyclical nature of the influence that jazz, hip-hop, and R&B have had on one another throughout the various genres’ (co-)existences. Younge is hardly alone in being a young hip-hop fan introduced to jazz through Tribe’s samples and collaborations, which famously included a guest appearance by Ron Carter on The Low End Theory. But hip-hop’s grooves and collage-based construction have also fed back into contemporary jazz in a way that has reshaped the trajectory of the music.
And that’s just how it should be, Bartz said recently on a Zoom call from his Oakland home. “I believe there has never been an innovation in this particular music that has not come through a working band that was a mix of young and older musicians. The older musicians have the experience, the know-how and the knowledge. The younger musicians are learning that, but they bring a new energy, a new experience, a new sound. So it’s a very good combination. Art Blakey saw that many years ago.”
As Bartz suggests, inspiration and influence don’t travel in a straight line. They’re cyclical, as evidenced by the path that brought him to Jazz Is Dead 6. Although the saxophonist started his career as a diehard Charlie Parker acolyte, within a few years of becoming a leader he had founded Ntu Troop, a band that fused hard bop with the consciousness-expanding soul music making strides in the early ’70s, along with a decided political focus.
“We’re using our instruments to speak freedom into reality.” –Adrian Younge
That kind of genre hybridization made the music of Bartz and his contemporaries ripe for the sample hunters of early hip-hop. Muhammad recalled discovering Bartz through the crate-digging exploits of his Tribe Called Quest bandmate Q-Tip. “There’s a lot of expression in that small loop,” he said of “Butter.”
“Gary’s music is jazz, but it’s almost like R&B to a degree in its soulful and compositional aspects. It was a departure from the jazz of an earlier time period. His flow in terms of his horn playing is still free, but the way the compositions approached a popular song format definitely stood out.”
The music on the Bartz edition of Jazz Is Dead closes that circle in a way, with Younge and Muhammad crafting sleek, jazz-flavored grooves for the altoist to explore. His voice scythes through these hypnotic tracks, tracing keening arcs through the blissful vocal choruses of “Visions of Love,” fluidly coursing over the smooth contours of “Day by Day,” and parrying the burbling funk of “Soulsea” with precise, darting statements.
Bartz insists that his work with Jazz Is Dead and another recent project, a collaboration with the U.K. spiritual-jazz ensemble Maisha, doesn’t mark a return but is instead a continuation of a lifelong progression.
“I’m always in the music,” asserted the saxophonist, who turned 80 last September. “I’m always listening and learning and playing. It’s like Double Dutch: You might be out for a while, but then you jump back in and you’re right in the rhythm. Even looking back, you’re still looking forward, because you see the new ways things can be done and what can be added to some of the older things.”
On a less positive note, political and social “things” also have a tendency to cycle back, compounding unresolved issues and endlessly repeating the arguments of the past. Bartz referred to Ntu Troop as “a product of the ’60s,” particularly the unrest and violence that had erupted throughout the turbulent decade, but the terms he used couldn’t help but resonate with the news of the day.
“Things were so volatile in the ’60s,” he recalled. “Presidents and leaders were assassinated in public. We had a coup, and not a bloodless coup. I had gotten to the point where I felt that the world didn’t need another musician. We needed somebody to try to fight the problems that we had. But through my friendship with Max Roach and Abbey Lincoln and my work with Charles Mingus, they showed me the way I could be active in the struggle without having to join the Black Panthers—which I was ready to do. That’s how Ntu Troop came about.”
The initial version of Ntu Troop debuted on Home!, Bartz’s third leader album, released in 1970. Featuring trumpeter Woody Shaw, pianist Albert Dailey, bassist Bob Cunningham and drummer Rashied Ali, this incarnation was much closer in spirit to the cutting-edge acoustic jazz of the day, of a kind with the adventurous explorations of the great Miles Davis and John Coltrane groups.
That was, in fact, Bartz’s aim at the time. He’s often expressed his disappointment that by the time he was invited to join Davis’ band in 1970, the trumpet icon had already moved into the electric fusion experiments of Bitches Brew. “That wasn’t the music I wanted to play,” he said.
“I grew up seeing Miles with Coltrane and Philly Joe and Red Garland and Paul Chambers, and the band with Wynton Kelly and Cannonball. I was actually at Birdland the night after he got beat up by the police [in 1959]. But we had one rehearsal and I realized I didn’t have to do anything different. I just played along with what I heard, and I began to see that Miles wasn’t playing anything different either. It was just the rhythms around us were different. So I began to understand what it was, and I evolved.”
Ntu Troop morphed into its more soul-leaning, politically pointed form around the same time, with the release in 1970 and ’71 of the two volumes of Harlem Bush Music: Taifa and Uhuru. This incarnation of the band brought vocals to the fore with the addition of singer Andy Bey, supplemented by the interjections and narrations of Bartz, all set to the tribal R&B rhythms laid down by Juni Booth or Ron Carter on bass, Harold White on drums, and Nat Bettis on percussion.
“I was speaking to my community,” Bartz said. “I was trying to create messages and talk about things. Bird and Max Roach and Charles Mingus all tried to do that; they were musical activists. But words are more powerful. In the blues, which this music is based on, we were talking about our problems. That’s where the spirituals come from, those songs from the plantation where the captured people were sending coded messages. So this music has always been activism, whether we knew it or not.”
That sentiment was echoed by Younge and Muhammad, who connected with Bartz on a political level as much as a musical one. Though the Jazz Is Dead collaboration forgoes lyrics, they insist that the message is nonetheless there in the music.
“One of the reasons why we felt so close upon meeting is because we share a lot of the same political views,” Younge explained. “Syncopation and sound, rhythm, soul—I feel like that’s our ancestors speaking through us. It’s part of our African diaspora, and the African diaspora starts with freedom. So when we’re here in America and we’re starting to become more empowered—after the Negro spirituals, after the blues—jazz is how we’re getting our message out. We’re using our instruments to speak freedom into reality. And Gary has been doing that, using his voice to tell a whole story with chords and melodies so you know what the intent is.”
Speaking to Bartz about the crossing of genres that has characterized his career is complicated by the fact that he refuses to recognize any difference between styles of music. The closest he’ll come to mentioning “jazz”—a name that he disdains as a “curse word” on par with the N-word—is to speak of “this music” or “American-made music.” He was a supporter of Nicholas Payton’s campaign to rechristen the genre Black American Music, but even that is bound up in his resistance to making such racial distinctions.
“I’m not a Black man,” he declared. “That’s what we’ve been taught, but what the hell is a Black man? We’re so many different colors. That’s something that was perpetrated on humans, especially in this country, which is really detrimental to everybody. It’s all a farce to control people. Consequently, we don’t even know who we are. I’m not going to be stupid like they want me to be and say I’m a Black man. I’m not a Black man. I’m a hu-man.”
It took some time and—as with his change of heart regarding Miles Davis’ music—an evolution in thinking for Bartz to come to these revelations. Growing up in Baltimore, he worshipped Charlie Parker above all else, making him deaf to music outside of bebop in ways that he now regrets.
“I beat myself up almost every day because I never went to see Lester Young,” he said. “All I was interested in was bebop, and consequently I missed probably the most important proponent of bebop—because that’s where they all came from. You know, when I first saw Picasso’s paintings I had a problem with him. I couldn’t understand it until I saw a small pastel painting of his in the Guggenheim one day that made me realize the power. He could do many [different] things, and music is the same.”
Bartz’s appreciation for the diversity and commonality of musical expression grew through his studies at Juilliard, but his conservatory training also revealed a source of friction that he continues to wrestle with as a professor at Oberlin College. The essence of his music, Bartz insists, is rooted in an oral tradition, and yet academia has forced it uncomfortably into a system modeled on the notated tradition of European classical music.
“The music created in this country is the greatest music ever, which is still not recognized in the school systems. They recognize the European classical concept over this American music, which is based on an African and Eastern concept, totally by ear. The only reason why you need to write music down is because somebody can’t hear it. You don’t see Trane or Miles with music stands; you don’t see musicians playing with music stands in Africa. That’s why the music is so stagnant nowadays: We’re hearing a form of Euro-jazz.”
“The only time I improvise is when I make a mistake.” –Gary Bartz
That’s not to suggest that Bartz hasn’t drawn from the classical tradition, though again its inspiration only punctured his consciousness after a period of study and discovery; most importantly, it took a human-level connection. “When I moved to New York at 17 to go to Juilliard, every time I heard a so-called classical piece of music it sounded like the same song,” he said.
“We had to study biographies of the different composers, and when I read about Mussorgsky his history sounded [familiar]. He came from a military family, but he wanted to be a musician. He’d go AWOL and they’d find him drunk somewhere in an alleyway, but he would write this beautiful music. I won’t mention any names, but that sounds like some people that I know. So these composers began to be human to me, and I saw that there is no difference between their music and our music. The umbilical cord is the human.”
That thread of humanity weaves throughout Bartz’s 1970s output, which takes its place alongside the contemporary songs of Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Curtis Mayfield as well as the subversive work of African-American filmmakers like Melvin Van Peebles in finding the beauty in contemporary Black life. The overriding mood of Ntu Troop albums like Singerella: A Ghetto Fairy Tale or subsequent solo outings like Music Is My Sanctuary isn’t anger at the oppressors looming overhead but a street-level celebration and an urging toward uplift from day-to-day struggles.
For young musicians starting out a generation or two later, still contending with similar issues, it was enlightening to find such messages in fairly obscure corners of the record bin. “Obviously we’ve gotten a great amount of joy from the honor of being in the room with these luminaries,” Muhammad said. “But it’s really important for these types of generational collaborations to happen because of the information we receive about being Black in America. Traditionally, and unfortunately, there are a lot of broken homes [in our communities], a lot of single parents and fathers that are not present. So we’re blessed, because these relationships between elder and junior are vital to the continuance of humans being human.”
The uneasy distinctions between the classical and jazz traditions, to use terms that Bartz would refute, lead to another major semantic bone of contention for the saxophonist. Where many who dislike the term “jazz” prefer some form of “improvised music” as a more descriptive alternative, Bartz insists that he is not, in fact, an improviser. He is a composer, whether committing notes to paper or inventing in the moment, in front of an audience.
“The only time I improvise is when I make a mistake,” he said. “I have to improvise then, because I didn’t plan on doing it. ‘Improvise’ means you’re guessing. Sometimes I do that on purpose, but that’s a musical device. I don’t improvise my solos, I compose them.”
Bartz’s compositional voice has made him a distinctive presence even as the music around him has changed. By the end of the ’70s, the gritty soul and funk of Ntu Troop gave way to the slicker, disco- and pop-oriented sounds of early-’80s outings like Love Affair and Bartz, as well as his work as an in-demand sideman for crossover artists from Norman Connors to Phyllis Hyman. In more recent years he’s reconnected with his earliest inspirations, paying homage to Trane on Coltrane Rules: Tao of a Music Warrior and Parker with Bird at 100, featuring an all-star alto frontline teaming Bartz with Bobby Watson and Vincent Herring.
But for Younge and Muhammad, connecting with Bartz meant flashing back to a specific moment in time when the saxophonist was among the most vital and innovative artists of his generation.
“When you listen to these legends, you think about their heyday,” Younge said. “And that’s usually deemed as the time of vinyl culture, right before the mid-to-late ’80s where it starts to become soft [i.e., smooth] jazz. These guys remind me of what we would be if we were the same age, doing the same thing at the same time. So let’s go back to the essence, back to that time when they were exploring sound and finding themselves in music. But let’s go back to that time and do something brand-new.”
Bartz himself may take exception to that description. For him, every time he steps on stage or into the studio is something new. “My ears are like a satellite dish,” he said. “They hear everything: every note everybody in the band is playing, somebody falling down backstage, sirens outside. That’s how wide my ears are open. Because that’s what musicians are. We’re hearing boards. All the great musicians understand that the art form is hearing.”