How Jazz Persisted Beyond the Stage

All of the producers who worked with Nas (center) on “Illmatic” pose after a studio session. Pete Rock (the only producer not pictured) produced one song on the rapper’s 1994 debut – “The World Is Yours” – which went on to pioneer the presence of jazz in contemporary hip-hop.

SAMUEL HYLAND

In his autobiography, Malcolm X describes 1940s New York as a city comprised of scat-singing, finger-popping, and “re-bop-de-bop-blap-blam.” In Illmatic, the same New York – 50 years ahead – is dubbed the “dungeon of rap, where fake ni**as don’t make it back.” 

The era of the big band is not the only one to undergo a similar fate. Long before Duke Ellington first walked onstage at the Colton, the institution of slavery amplified what would become blues music – until, centuries later, Bob Dylan took the stage at Newport in 1965 with a stratocaster, and the blues symbolically gave way to rock & roll. Even further, for much of the time before the discovery of America, contemporary music primarily existed in the church – until even that was eventually eclipsed by the secularism of the Renaissance. In the case of jazz in the 1940s, the same principle rang true: time was ticking. Not necessarily time on Earth, that is, but simply time in a spotlight soon to be taken by the rapper – who had no say in reversing the process – even if, like Nas, he was the son of a renowned jazz musician.

Where the determining power did fall, however, was the hand of the producer. Included in this authority was the final word as to whether genres lived or died. 

What did Pete Rock do with this jurisdiction? The improbable: he lifted jazz up from its deathbed, and into the 21st Century.

Three minutes into a 1994 interview with MTV’s Fab Five Freddy, the camera cuts to the birthplace of such a feat.

We’re in the studio. There are cup-bearing revelers pacing back and forth. There are 1-year-old babies seated atop large vanities. In one corner, somewhere within a maze of mixing boards and synthesizers, you can find the turntable making all the racket. It’s Pete Rock’s basement.   

“So the beats, man, this is like – where y’all make the music?,” the interviewer asks.

“This is where we make all the flavors at,” responds C.L. Smooth, Rock’s then-associate.

Pete Rock (left) and C.L Smooth released several albums together before disbanding to pursue solo careers.

The camera then pans to Pete, who, hunched over the aforementioned setup, bops his head to chopped and screwed string, percussion, and vocal samples compiled from various different records. 

When later asked to identify a “main ingredient” of such prowess, he offers: “totally bouncing off where we’re coming from.”

Pete Rock grew up the son of Jamaican immigrants, one of which he regularly accompanied to a DJing gig dominated by countless heaps of jazz reggae – so in the first track to ever see his production (Mood For Love by Heavy D & the Boyz), such a background is thrown in the face of the listener.

It opens with the jazz factor: a boisterous, echoing brass rendition of the original reggae sample’s guitar riff. Then, the Jamaican: in articulate, yet offsettingly fluid patwa, two male voices scat above the bassline until one muses: “A man once told me love is the best thing that a man could have.” 

The original track sampled by “Mood For Love” – Yellowman’s Zungguzungguguzungguzeng – features a wah pedal on a noticeably softer guitar version of Heavy D’s rendition. It still is jazz, but the unmistakable connection the genre has with brass makes that element further stand out in Pete Rock’s track.

The “main ingredient” – homage to one’s heritage – is discernible over decades of work. In The World Is Yours, it reveals itself in the somber jazz piano of Ahmad Jamal. In Big L’s Holdin’ It Down, it peeks through the cracks via a looped one-second Dankworth sax interval from 1963. And today, with LPs like To Pimp A Butterfly, it’s all but doubtless that when hip hop first took hold of jazz – it never let go.                  

Pete Rock did not change jazz itself. He simply rebranded it, repackaged it, revitalized it – the difference being that it was accessible. With jazz no longer steering an independent cultural presence, the producer allowed its journey to continue, hip-hop in the driver’s seat and jazz riding shotgun.

Matt Trammell is a music journalist who has appeared in the New Yorker, Billboard, and The FADER, amongst various other publications.     

“Genres don’t really die, they just get absorbed into the larger contemporary practice,” he told me via email. 

He referenced trending singles by Dua Lipa, The Weeknd, and Doja Cat as testaments to the cycle, citing that all three tunes are of the disco fold despite people saying the category died decades ago. 

“We don’t call them disco songs, because we don’t really identify disco by itself anymore,” he wrote. “We just use its style and technique to make what we want to now. Jazz won’t die as long as people remember what it sounds like.”

Jazz won’t die as long as people remember what it sounds like.”

– Matt Trammell

In a way, Pete Rock was doing exactly this: ensuring that we remember what it sounds like. In the words of Mr. Trammell, “people can recognize what jazz sounds like, but they don’t really know modern jazz musicians by name.” When considered  in this sense, it’s apparent that jazz had to change as music did so itself. As any genre begins to step out of the limelight, the artist, by nature, must take that step with it – but in the case of jazz specifically, the genre was oriented towards its sound (rather than its musicians) long before a changing musical climate forced it back into that sphere.  

Take the 1950s for instance. In an era like that, music was not as much about the object as it was about the ambience. A vinyl was not spun to be fixated upon. It was spun to create an atmosphere in which something bigger would take place, the likes of a social gathering, a convention, or Sunday dinner.

To quantify the difference between then and today, I looked into the complete list of Billboard chart-topping LPs for the year 1957.

There were only nine albums – five of them soundtracks – some of which remained in the number 1 slot for up to four months at a time.  

Take the list for a year ago, though, and you see something entirely different: Compared to 1957’s nine, forty-six records populate the table, the longest top-spot tenure of these being a mere three weeks. 

The provocateur: a “microwave society”. As material obtainment became more realistically immediate, consumer culture slowly clawed its way out of the womb. You didn’t see people mailing John Coltrane “*WHEN * NEW* +MUSIC**DROPPING**:)!!!!” (taken from a Playboi Carti comment section) in 1963, nor did you see theories upon theories of album rollout schemes grace the agenda of a Johnny Hodges fan club meeting in his heyday – because people cared more about how the music made them feel, as opposed who specifically made it. If the LP made America feel good, it was going to stay atop the charts for as long as it took for something else to have the same effect. If the opposite occurred, it was on to the next. 

Playboi Carti’s fanbase is an example of the level of consumerism that did not apply to music in the 20th Century.

Today, you can have a collective sense of urgency attached to music because it has transcended atmospheric purposes. No longer do we spin (or even own, for the most part) vinyls to merely set the mood – as individuals, we identify with a certain sound, seek it out, and consume as much of it as we can in order to satisfy whatever it may be within us that must be quenched. It is when we are without such nourishment that we begin to grow impatient. That is what constitutes no album surpassing a three week stay atop the Billboard 200 – America isn’t listening to the same LP for four months straight, because America needs new music now

For jazz, that immediacy manifested itself in a digital rebirth. The new stage for the big band? Hip-hop, electronica, and any other genre you can think of. The nucleus, though: still the sound – and more importantly – the feeling it emits.  

Melbourne-based DJ & Producer Prequel is a prime example of what this looks like in a modern scope. 

“In terms of my productions and their incorporation of Jazz elements I just try and find things that evoke a certain feeling,” he told me in an email. “I guess the fact that I incorporate Jazz into more of a “dance-music” arena is my modern spin on it, but also with certain elements in my productions I use a lot of improvisation, which obviously comes from my (limited) Jazz knowledge.” 

Prequel (right) is pictured above performing a set in Melbourne. Among other genres, the DJ incorporates jazz music extensively in his mixes despite not being a self-proclaimed virtuoso.

Listen to his 2018 EP Without You, and the latter is perceptible. And Though It’s Been Too Long begins with the solemn keystrokes and unorthodox drum patterns that have long embodied jazz as a genre – but by the six-minute mark, the DJ manages to incorporate fading vocals, dissonant electric guitar riffage, and a groove-heavy synth bassline reminiscent of music’s newfound electronic presence. In The Song I Said I’d Make For You, another track off the Without You EP, a saxophone permeates the house background established within the first two minutes, carrying on through its entirety. The ideologically opposed natures of jazz and electronica come together not to form something tense, but refined in an artistry that disregards preconceived discord.   

“Jazz will never die,” he added to the email. “Most music is based on Jazz (Soul, Funk, Disco etc). It continues to evolve, get re-interpreted, find a wider popularity again and be continually fused with other genres in new ways.” 

In the music industry, no one ever truly disappears. Death is impossible. New life is always within reach. Everything is infinite. 

For jazz, though, the question persists: Is Jazz Dead?   

A look at the genre by itself points to the affirmative.

But that’s surface-level.     

Take a peek at the deathbed many built for it years ago, and you’ll find nothing but a shedded hospital gown, a saxophone, and a postcard from the present.

BELOW: The entire email interview with Prequel.

Note: In every interview I conducted for this article, I asked about both the “death” of jazz music, and the relationship between music and society. Everyone had something very interesting to say – and although I could not include them all in this article, for a forthcoming piece, I will publish every interview transcript.

SAMUEL HYLAND: To what extent do you feel jazz has evolved over time? With your music, what would you say the balance is between classic elements of jazz and the modern spin you put on it?

PREQUEL: I’m not a formally trained musician and my knowledge of Jazz is certainly not at a fully realized and studied position. Jazz has evolved a huge amount over time though, in terms of phrasing, styles of playing instruments, “sub-genres” being created and it’s fusion with other elements just to name a few. In terms of my productions and their incorporation of Jazz elements I just try and find things that evoke a certain feeling. My music has to evoke a feeling and it has to continually do that, especially with the “loop based” music I make. I guess the fact that I incorporate Jazz into more of a “dance-music” arena is my modern spin on it but also with certain elements in my productions I use a lot of improvisation which obviously comes from my (limited) Jazz knowledge.
SH: I’ve noticed that in a lot of your music, you combine many elements from across various genres; some of my favorite examples are the mix of piano and percussion in “And Though It’s Been Too Long,” and the transition between sax and electronica near the end of “The Song I Said I’d Make For You.” What goes into making mixes like this? How do you approach combining these pieces to make one track?

PREQUEL: I always ask what I feel the song calls for. I don’t add (or subtract for that matter) any elements out of the want or desire to just add things for the sake of it. I’ll ask questions like “what does this need more of?”, “does this have enough X?” and (perhaps most importantly for me) “does this have enough forward movement”. Percussion loops or elements usually help me achieve the “forward motion” I’m looking for when I work on songs. In terms of fusing live instruments with more electronic elements, again, it all comes down to what I feel the song needs to achieve what I’m trying to say. It’s always a case by case basis.
SH: With DJing in general, songs are more about ambience/sound than lyrical presence – but in songs like “Walken,” you include small snippets of speech to go alongside the music. What does this do for the track(s)? 

PREQUEL: With “Walken” that little vocal part just happened to be in the last part of the loop so I ran with it. It’s also a nod to how Dilla would chop his loops and have little vocal refrains in there. It adds texture and as my music is often without lyrics, it gives me a title I can use!
SH: To most people I’ve asked, jazz was only truly relevant in the first half of the 20th century. Listening to music today, though, (as you have proven) it’s influence is evident in various different records – across many genres. Do you think jazz will ever truly “die”? If no, does this apply to all genres?

PREQUEL: Jazz will never die. Most music is based on Jazz (Soul, Funk, Disco etc). It continues to evolve, get re-interpreted, find a wider popularity again and be continually fused with other genres in new ways.  As for other genres it’s hard to say. They said Hip-Hop was going to just be a fad and look how wrong they were. They said the same thing about Trap and that’s predominately featured in EDM and a lot of Hip-Hop in recent years too. It also depends on your definition of “die”. All music is recorded/documented (now even more so) so can any of it truly die?
SH: What do you think the relationship is between music and society? As both change, do you think one may reflect the other?

PREQUEL: It’s a classic question of whether life imitates art or art imitates life. I think they work in tandem a lot of the time. Some people make music that reflect their lives and their worlds and others make music of how they want the world to be.
SH: As an artist, do you feel that you’ve had to evolve with the music industry? To what extent do you think artists can retain the approaches they started out with, and to what extent do you think they must adapt?

PREQUEL: I think they should adapt if they want to stay “relevant” but the question is to what extent should they have to do so. Obviously social media plays a big part in this but there are still options within that where you can choose how to engage with it. I think if you have an idea of what art you want to be making you should stick with that as much as possible but also be open to tweaking things. I’ve had to make changes to songs and shorten other songs before and it’s not my favorite thing to do but releasing music is also a collaborative process. There are certainly some things I won’t budge on if I feel they really compromise the vision of what I’m trying to achieve, what I’m trying to say or really how I’m trying to say it. I have a lot of references in the music I make (not just the obvious ones) so I get a little attached to those elements and if they are trying to be taken away from me I usually stand my ground. But things like making slight arrangement adjustments I’m more open to (not initially!).

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