Art Kane’s 1958 photo “A Great Day in Harlem” is arguably the most iconic image in American music history. Capturing 58 jazz artists in front of a brownstone, including legends like Thelonious Monk, Count Basie, Horace Silver and Dizzy Gillespie, that photo represented all the best and brightest that jazz had to offer and that New York City was the nerve center for that incomparable movement. While that photo, along with fabled haunts like Birdland, Small’s Paradise and Village Vanguard, are among the first images to come to mind to all those who think of jazz’s so-called glory days, it must be documented that Manhattan did not have a monopoly on great jazz players. A bridge ride away, the borough of Brooklyn was home to some of the most important musicians ever. From Art Blakey to Carmen McCrae, Wayne Shorter to Noel Pointer, Kings County was home to jazz royalty. Jack Dejohnette once famously played John Coltrane compositions at Brooklyn Museum with ‘Trane’s own son, Ravi.
Today, a new jazz renaissance is upon us, and once again Brooklyn is the pace setter. Venues like Park Slope’s Littlefied and Williamsburg Music Center host some of the hottest up-and-coming improvisers, and recording studios like Systems 2 are favorites among artists like Vijay Iyer. The artists who presently reside in BK are the ones making the most noise in jazz at large as of late, fusing other genres together with more classical sounds. Some say this current community of Brooklyn jazz artists is out to destroy jazz, as opposed to the heroes of the past. The irony is that those same heroes also felt just as stifled by the term “jazz” and were only able to define it by rebelling against its conventions and carving their own niche. This crop of 21st century movers and shakers differ in techniques and backgrounds, but what binds them all together outside of sharing a borough is their commitment to marbleize several influences together to create something no one’s ever heard before. Here are some of those movers and shakers:
- Fort Greene
This Grammy winning pianist/composer may hail from Houston, TX, much like a number of progressive music heads like Chris Dave, Kendrick Scott and the Roots’ Mark Kelley, but he’s been living in BK for over a decade. During that time, his ingenious incorporation of hip-hop and alternative music into his own signature composition style helped create what he dubbed, “the hard bop of our time.” Surely Brooklyn’s eclectic melting pot of music influenced his artistry; he’s just as comfortable covering J Dilla and Jay-Z as much as Nirvana and Radiohead. His Black Radio recordings with his Experiment band, featuring Dave (formerly), drummer Mark Colenburg, bassist Derrick Hodge and saxophonist – and fellow Brooklynite – Casey Benjamin, have made him the face of jazz today, as well as a go-to producer to artists of varying genres – He’s currently overseeing forthcoming albums for Chaka Khan, Jill Scott and Seun Kuti.
- Fort Greene
Jose James is a man who’s known rivers. This singer/songwriter’s muse has led him from his native Minnesota to Seattle and London before eventually coming to Brooklyn. James thrills the world with his unique brand that’s equal parts Bobby McFerrin, Gil Scott-Heron and A Tribe Called Quest. Brooklyn has been his main woodshed for his most recent and inspired works. He recorded much of his Blue Note debut LP No Beginning No End in BK’s Motherbrain Studios and has performed at venues like the Weeksville Heritage Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s R&B Festival. It also doesn’t hurt that some of his chief collaborators have also been Brooklyn residents like Glasper and bassist Solomon Dorsey.
- Bedford Stuyvesant
Esquire Magazine and NPR both recently called Gregory Porter “the next great jazz singer” in America. That assertion is false; the “next” should be omitted, as Porter is the premiere vocalist of our time, now. He commands audiences’ attention with a monolithic baritone that can be as soft and comforting as a warm pillow and as thunderous and devastating as a typhoon. After living in California much of his life, the singer/songwriter headed East to Brooklyn, performing at Littlefield, Manhattan’s Lincoln Center and even in the streets of his Bed-Stuy neighborhood with his quartet (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6bg3rWyGOwg) . Soon enough, he was lighting up Broadway in It Ain’t Nothing But the Blues, and then, earned himself two Grammy nominations for his albums Water (2010) and Be Good (2012). His latest album, Liquid Spirit, incorporated much of his neighborhood in its artwork and marketing; a symbol of sense of history and sincerity.
Son of Grammy winning vocalist Bobby McFerrin, Taylor has made his mark with his own means of oral contortion. He can be described as a Darth Vader of rhythm; amalgamating machine and man into an indistinguishable display of improvisational sorcery. A New York inhabitant for a dozen years, he’s quite familiar with the lay of the land, residing in Fort Greene, Bed-Stuy and now Williamsburg. When he’s not collaborating with folks like Flying Lotus, he’s been earnestly working on his debut solo album, Early Riser for Brainfeeder Records. In the meantime, make sure to catch him at BK hot houses like Music Hall of Williamsburg and The Paper Box, or cop his remix of James’ latest single, “Come to My Door.”
The creators of a new genre they call “jafunkadansion (jazz-fusion-dance-funk),” this large ensemble is without definition, and they like it that way. Founded by bassist Michael League in Denton, Texas, Snarky Puppy, in a nutshell, is David Axelrod on steroids, with spastic horns, mind melting organ play and groove for days! Although they seldom stay in one spot for long due to their extensive globetrotting, SP’s principles refer to Brooklyn as home,often rehearsing in Bushwick and recorded their 2012 album groundUP at Shapeshifer Lab – owned by Matthew Garrison, son of Coltrane bassist Jimmy. The first stop on many of their tours is usually Brooklyn Bowl, whose hosted shows by John Legend and The Roots, The Headhunters and The Funky Meters.
Regarded as one of the most lyrical saxophonists today, Strickland, who’s Miami-bred and currently bound to Brooklyn, is among the most emotional sounding instrumentalists in music. Evident in covers of Outkast’s “She’s Alive” and Ben Williams’ take of Goapele’s “Things Don’t Exist,” Strickland is one of the best when it comes to molding the tone of his horn to that of a singer. He walks the fine line between more traditional presentations with acoustic quartets featuring drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts and his own electric Twi-Life band which is more progressive, incorporating hip-hop and soul.
- Park Slope
Much like the aforementioned, Fischer isn’t originally from BK, but he didn’t have as far to travel, originating from New Jersey. A keyboardist and composer, Fischer primarily serves as band leader of jazz/funk outfit Soul Cycle, combing, as Revive once referred, the “sleek funk of Jeff Lorber” and the “delicate touch of Chick Corea.” When he’s not tickling the ivories of his synthesizers at BAM Café or Shapeshifter Lab, he’s running shop at his Electrik Indigo Studios in Brooklyn’s DUMBO district, producing and engineering artists like Laura Izibor, Rachel Eckroth and Lakecia Benjamin. His latest album, Retro Future, continues Brooklyn’s reputation of honoring the heritage of legends by being forward thinking and individualistic.
Look out for Part 2!
Words by Matthew Allen (@headphoneaddict)