I’m going to go ahead and pick an internet beef with NPR’s A Blog Supreme, a site that covers jazz music. In a sense, they started it: not with me, but rather with Quincy Jones in a recent article entitled, “Quincy Jones v. Kanye West, And Why It Matters for Jazz”. Here’s the context: according to Patrick Jarenwattananon of NPR, a magazine reporter compared Kanye to Q as “the producer everybody wants to work with”. Q was quoted as saying:
How man? No way. Did he write for a symphony orchestra? Does he write for a jazz orchestra? Come on, man. He’s just a rapper. There’s no comparison. I’m not putting him down or making a judgement or anything, but we come from two different sides of the planet. I spent 28 years learning my first skill. I don’t rap. It’s not the same thing. A producer has to have some sort of skills that enable him to be a producer. It’s totally different to know what to do with 16 woodwinds you know from piccolos down to bass clarinet. It’s a whole different mindset. No comparison. None.
and further elaborated:
I’d appreciate it if people didn’t take my comments about Kanye West ( @KanyeWest ) or anyone else for that matter out of context to contrive a story. I have nothing but respect for my little brother Kanye and what he has achieved in his young career and I look forward to watching his evolution as an artist. There is a reason why we put him on the new We Are The World 25 for Haiti — he’s a great rapper. But having been in the music business for more than 60 years and having been fortunate to accomplish what I have over that time, it’s not unreasonable to put a comparison of Kanye at this time in his career and myself into the proper perspective. This is not dissing Kanye, this is simply trying to express that I’m not a rapper! I don’t need to take anyone else’s props away from them. Let’s all just try and keep the record straight.
Okay, I’ll grant you that Q doesn’t come off quite as gracious as he normally does. Whatever, I also happen to think he’s probably right. It’s slightly amusing to think back to an anecdote from Q’s autobiography in which Michael Jackson’s father is quoted to have said, “Qwancy ain’t no damn producer!” (Maybe this is all fodder for a Kanye autobiography.) Jarenwattananon says, “… it also seems clear that Jones thinks that Kanye is not yet his equal. And I have a hunch that his rationale, while perhaps flawed, illuminates something important about the state of jazz today.”
Now this is the line that piqued my curiosity. Illuminates something important about the state of jazz today? What could this be?
“It seems as if in some way, Jones believes that coming up in the jazz community and coming up in the rap world are fundamentally different pursuits … He doesn’t seem to understand the equivalent level of commitment in the hip-hop world — or maybe he doesn’t believe it exists?”
I can’t really figure out where Jarenwattananon goes from here: he seems to meander through a confusing argument comparing the complexity of popular music in two different periods of time. I think that his point here is that pop music and musical knowledge 50 years ago might have been more analytical than it is today. (I’m refraining from answering his claims line-by-line because in good faith I don’t think they were intended for that close scrutiny, despite being written. Having said that, I think there are sweeping generalizations being made that are without support and I suspect would be difficult to support properly.)
And then, the author writes a question that goes to a deeper issue, touching on an issue that’s been on refrain since the golden ages of jazz faded away: is jazz dead? He doesn’t ask this outright but instead asks about the state of jazz today. This is tied back into the logic of the following:
–Here is one of — and arguably the greatest among — the living legends that links practically all eras of jazz together who is claiming that his production accomplishments are not equaled by this modern hip hop producer.
–The author posits that Q might mean this because of the differences in musical knowledge then versus now, and that popular music then was, essentially, more analytically sophisticated than it is now.
–Instead of asking “what about jazz today”, we can just as easily ask “what about music today”.
The author’s conclusion is, “Even after all that, I’m still not convinced Quincy truly does occupy a different planetary orbit … But there’s something to his line of reasoning.” A line of reasoning that seems to rest on a lot of poor explanation, perhaps.
One thing that surprises me is that the author decided not to go after differences in marketability and commercialization. The logic here would be that Q’s laurels were formed on the art of music, and today, one could argue that a lot of music is often guided by what’s commercially successful (a lot of rap sounds the same, man). Therefore production then and production today were very different beasts.
Back in Q’s day, artists were interested in making money from records, sure, but my impression without more than anecdotal evidence is that they were often equally interested in the art of jazz. There are countless stories of the greatest jazz leaders and sidemen who were thrilled to have a shot to be on stage with Miles and Bird, figuring out what they were creating and how to do it themselves. Way before Thriller or Cyndi Lauper, do you think Hamp was thinking, Gosh, how will adding this kid on trumpet affect my bottom line? Lionel Hampton knew that the swingingest band in the biz was going to get him paid. You got a sense that he trusted in that — the art came before the payday. A little later, Q went broke in Europe touring what he felt was the greatest band he’d ever assembled. It turned out to be not commercially viable but damned if it wasn’t the best big band on the planet. The musicians in that group believed in it enough to continue playing even when they knew they were broke.
Now today, there’s definitely an underground cache of hip hop artists and producers who clearly believe in the art of hip hop. J-Live, Talib, Mos, Common, Wordsworth, Eminem, K’naan, and yes, Kanye all came from this tradition. The very roots of hip hop from Afrika Bambataa on up come from this tradition: art first. And while a select few arguably have risen up from the underground to terra firma contracts and big label marketing, there is a sense that there is an altogether different stream of rap out there that seems to have forgotten where it came from. It might have started from Snoop, Warren G, and Big, and it has blazed a trail to a commercial mess of nonsense and glorification of arguably the darkest parts of urban American culture. By the way, not even Tupac Shakur was guilty of this, contrary to popular belief: many of his tracks laid down some seriously uplifting, positive messages. This is not to say that art is all happy endings; but it’s very difficult to believe that a large portion of modern popular rap music isn’t disingenuous.
It is equally disingenuous to say that making an honest living putting out junk music that sells is a poor choice of professions. It is difficult if not impossible to stand aside and judge the choice that one artist makes, artistic legacy be damned.
What’s endlessly fascinating to me, someone whose first musical love was probably the late rhythm and blues and hip hop of the 90s and who grew to love jazz and blues only later in life, is how all of the musical forms are connected. Hip hop owes much to jazz — its socioeconomic roots, its rhythmic character, and its improvisational soul. I cannot imagine that hip hop would have been the same without this important musical precursor. This is not to say that Q is quite right, but the argument could be made that hip hop’s commercial success today can stand on the shoulders of giants: Diz and Trane and Duke and Mingus and Monk and Miles and Bud and Brownie and Herbie and Q.
While I think I would have to be further convinced that music is somehow globally suffering today (Sonya Kitchell, K’naan, Raphael Saadiq, Medeski Martin and Wood, Soulive), I think it’s important to embrace and strive to understand how music is reflective of our culture, now, without forgetting from where it came. Jazz has steadily changed, maybe evolved, and probably grown. Hearing some people play who are considered jazz today, it sounds more like badly written études in western art music. That’s not where jazz went. Soulive is modern jazz. MMW is modern jazz. These cats are doin’ it like what the old lions might recognize (though even it is far from the same). It followed Miles out of the 60s and into rock ‘n’ roll, and it followed Herbie Hancock into electronic funk. You can even trace a straight line right through Herbie with Grandmixer D.ST. on Rockit to bridge jazz and hip hop. The music has moved a long way. Mos Def said it before, “So the next time you ask yourself where Hip Hop is goin’, ask yourself where am I goin’? How am I doin’?” Neal Evans of Soulive once said that all these labels are nuts. (I’m paraphrasing.) It’s Good Music. That’s what really matters — no matter who the artist is. Or the producer.