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A PBS documentary on the history of rock & roll, broadcast about 15 years ago, features Little Richard talking about his ascent through the urban blues and R&B circuits and into his first recording session, where he was expected to play the stuff he played in the nightclubs. “But me and the young kids, we was tired of all that slow music—-we wanted to boogie!” he says. “Same as when rap music came in today; the kids got tired of what was going on and they wanted something different. They wanted something from their generation.”
Rock and rap both have strong powers of reinvention, creatively as well as commercially; jazz has the creative stuff down pat, but the commercial end has been one of the music’s central dilemmas for half a century. Artists know what they want to say, and how to say it, but how to get the masses’ attention with it—-in particular, young African-American masses?
The answer’s not entirely clear, but a good starting point might be to follow Robert Glasper’s lead. The pianist’s quartet, The Robert Glasper Experiment, played its innovative hybrid of jazz, hip-hop, funk, rock, and electronica over four sets at Bohemian Caverns this weekend, and every one of them was sold out. Hell, they were at least sold out; if the Caverns had rafters, people would have been hanging from them.
That’s happened before at the Caverns. Aging legends like Ron Carter and Benny Golson fill every seat in the house, too. The difference is the makeup. Whereas the audience that comes to see Carter and Golson tends toward the middle-aged and affluent (not to mention reverent local musicians), the crowd that lined up around the block to see Glasper was so diverse it could have been selected by a Hollywood casting director. Listeners young and old; male and female; white, black, Asian, and Hispanic were responding with equal fervor to Glasper’s edgy mix. And the quotient of young African-Americans was sky-high.
Some people may have been drawn to the club through familiarity with Glasper’s extra-curricular activities. His credits include recordings and live performances with Mos Def, Jay-Z, Maxwell, Common, Q-Tip, and Kanye West. For the strictly jazz folk, he’s also worked with Terence Blanchard, Roy Hargrove, and Christian McBride. He’s even got Carly Simon‘s name on his resume. But it’s obvious that what really gets people’s interest is his full-on embrace of the contemporary musical world. Glasper leads a band that on Saturday night featured—-for just one example—-himself on both a trippy Rhodes and harmonically gymnastic piano; Derrick Hodge on pointed, irresistably funky electric bass; Chris Dave with speedy, complex drumbeats with a hip-hop insistence; and Casey Benjamin singing and playing alto saxophone through a vocoder. All of this was for a rendition of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” It was relentlessly innovative and goddamn hip—-but it never, in its groove or its harmonies or its improvisational space, could be accused of that awful old trope of “abandoning jazz.” This was the real thing, and the kids loved it.
There’s a lot to see in this: Glasper and his band’s resourcefulness, Caverns captain Omrao Brown‘s marketing shrewdness and ear for creativity, another example of D.C.’s jazz rebirth. But it also points to the folly of the continued insistence of some forces in jazz that the music’s future lies in institutional support, unless your name happens to be Wynton Marsalis. Unless we’re willing to accept that jazz is music for bluenoses and “authenticity” worshippers, its future lies where the future of any art form always lies: in addressing the present. Along with a few others (notably his fellow Houstonian, pianist and former schoolmate Jason Moran), Glasper is revitalizing jazz for youthful audiences by giving them something for their generation. We’re in good hands.