About Jazz and Hip hop

I get a kick out of listening to Art Tatum’s fingers fly across the black and white keys, and I get a kick out of listening to Big L spitting rhymes about the Harlem streets. I get excited about Mos Def joining Talib Kweli on the microphone, the same way I am thrilled by Bill Evans having a conversation with Scott LaFaro in his own language.

Jazz and hip-hop, two languages born out of African-American culture and historical, social struggles. One finds its origins in the New Orleans cultural melting pot, uniting minstrelsy military music with ragtime, Creole and European traditions, and finally the blues, with its painful history of slavery and racial abuse; the other born out of the streets of New York City, from gang violence and social inequalities, met with funk –thus somewhat of a grandchild of jazz – and new technological music tools.

Both constantly deal with racial issues, finding their roots and icons in the African-American culture, but ultimately blossomed in diversity – who could deny the contribution of The Beastie Boys on one side, and of the Chet Bakers and Gerry Mulligans on the other?

The similarities between the two do not just reside in their origins but also in their nature itself. It is a new language, a new form of expression, extremely rich and inspired by previous, arguably more limited ones. The way John Coltrane came up with a way to get to us through his playing and his “sheets of sound”, taking the music to a new, personal level to express his limitless mind and illustrate his ideas, is comparable to the way the young members of Run-DMC added their rhymes and wit to the catchy beats, telling stories in the language of hip-hop, a derived form of poetry made to express new ideas as well.

Jazz started as a new form of entertainment, the Original Dixieland Jazz Band was a fun band to listen to, introducing the new bouncy jazz rhythms to the New Orleans masses, thus encouraging the dancing and coming up with the barnyard effects that earned them some popularity. Hip-hop started the same way, finding its origins in the Bronx’ disco parties where the first masters of ceremony such as Grandmaster Flash used the new technology to get the crowd going, and unveiling the infinite possibilities of sampling loops from records.

From this start as a form of entertainment, both genres evolved and developed, gaining in content and depth.  Eventually, jazz gets to a music that is very deep, sometimes even spiritual, and gets to the listener’s feelings and emotions, a strong art form telling many stories. Hip hop follows the same example, growing and gaining in maturity, going from party music to intense narration of social struggles and deep reflection on many different topics.

If early jazz can be compared to early hip hop, innovators that came around and changed the language can also seem similar in certain ways. The way Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker revolutionized jazz in New York with the coming of bebop reminds me of how the Notorious B.I.G. along with Tupac Shakur gave the art of rapping a new turn and defined a new, more modern form of hip hop. Also, the raw, percussive and unique sound of Thelonious Monk’s playing reminds me of the style the Wu-Tang introduced to the hip-hop world. Finally, in a sadly comical way, the modern commercialization of hip hop reminds me of the same phenomenon happening to jazz music, in that perspective, I guess I could say the Kenny G of hip hop would be Lil’ Wayne. Of course all these parallels and comparisons are very arbitrary and personal, and could be argued over in many ways.

Similarly, one may see how the division in history of jazz into different sub-styles can be compared to how hip hop’s different forms are divided according to periods but also are geographically spread across the U.S. map. The way bop and modal jazz in New York was interacting with California’s new cool jazz in the 1950’s reminds me of the East coast-West coast differences and relations that always existed in hip hop, although this version of the story might be a lot more conflictual.

Jazz is often simplistically defined by rhythm and improvisation. Syncopation is key and the ability of the artist to play around the melody, coming up on the spot with his own phrases and ideas are what people often seek in jazz. Although hip hop took rhythm back to basic binary beats, improvisation has always had its place in the culture. “Freestyling” is the essence of hip hop as a form of music, and the ability of an MC to come up on the spot, on any beat, with rhymes, wit and lyrical surprises, often bragging and boasting, often differentiate a good rapper from a bad one. And that celebration of spontaneity extends to the other disciplines of the hip hop culture: the vinyl scratching is improvised, the break dancers often do not have a specific choreography that they follow, graffiti artist always have a form of spontaneity in the creation of a piece.

The looping and use of “breaks” in hip hop defined maybe the main difference between the two genres that illustrate the evolution of the audience’s perspective of music and a really interesting testimony of the development of music. The first hip hop pioneers, such as DJ Kool Herc, realized that in the parties they were throwing in the Bronx, playing disco and funky music, people were responding particularly to certain bits of the songs he would play.

These technics were born out of an effort to isolate these bits of music that were thrilling the crowd, and repeat them in order to make the parties more fun. This is where we see the difference between the enjoyment of jazz and hip-hop. Jazz improvisators build up to reach ultimate, thrilling levels of music. Try to listen to Coltrane’s legendary Acknowledgment, starting in the middle of the solo, you might feel a little lost and not enjoy the intensity of the tune as much as you might if you had listened to the whole piece.

Hip Hop does not have this patience. Much younger than jazz, living in New York City, where everything goes fast and the youth lives at a hundred miles per hour, there is no time to sit down and let the music build up to a thrilling climax. Hip hop unleashes the thrill at the first second. It finds the sound bite that people love and bang it, repeat it with a heavy beat, in accordance with the way this youth lives on speed and abundance.

That said, one could see how the two genres, with all these similarities, had to blend at some point, or more specifically how one could use the other. Hip hop artists have been inspired by jazz since the beginning, as the latter offers so many opportunities for loops to be used in the hip hop form, it is an infinite source of beat making that fits the language with its history, mentality and attitude. A Tribe Called Quest went out and screamed “We Got The Jazz!”, and they certainly did, with Q-Tip’s ability to dig out the sickest loops from the jazz world and marry it to a catchy beat, before dropping his rhymes on top. Common and Guru and many more hip hop artists used jazz as a major form of inspiration for their music.

But jazz, well alive today, also feeds on hip hop occasionally, let’s not forget Miles Davis’ last record, Doo-Bop, recorded shortly before his death, is highly oriented towards the hip hop world. Davis’ tendency to identify new musical trends and bring them to life by adapting his music to them showed one last time, inviting jazz musicians to approach the hip hop world, the same way he invited them to approach funk and rock in the developing of fusion. Still today, jazz artists like Robert Glasper keep blending hip hop into their music, showing the two genres can work together not only through the sampling of older jazz records by hip hop artists.

The tradition of jazz lives on, and so does the tradition of hip hop. And when both cross, we get some of the best music produced by artists nowadays, in my humble opinion.

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