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Sounds of Blackness

In General, Not the Vocal Group Who Sings "Optimistic" (though, you should totally listen to that song)
Anthony Dean-Harris
Editor-in-Chief / @retronius

Last week, I got ahold of Robert Glasper's upcoming album, Black Radio (everywhere February 28th), and was excited to tell folks at my radio station about it, as I usually am when I get new things that KRTU has yet to receive and we catch up on what newness everyone should have. Before I could articulate the album's greatness, I was cut off by a colleague who asked, "It's pop, isn't it? We aren't going to be able to use it?" I assuaged his doubt and noted that some of the album would still fit the station's sound and format but that brief bit of discourse stuck with me. Within the next three months, two of jazz's biggest young stars today will be releasing albums giving credence to the black radio sound, the aforementioned Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding whose Radio Music Society will be releasing in March. From what I've heard, both of these albums fit snugly at home over the airwaves of WCLK Atlanta (broadcast from Clark Atlanta University, the beloved historically black institution [but not as beloved as my own Morehouse College right next door, am I right, K Dub?) than my own KRTU San Antonio. However, that's likely the point. Both of these artists have very calculatedly tried to prove once more that jazz has nothing to fear from its founding blackness.

Let’s return to that initial anecdote. This week's column came to me primarily through my colleague's word choice of "pop" as opposed to the more accurate genre descriptor "R&B". It took me a week to realize that because of my immersion in black music (admittedly I listen to less R&B now than I used to because of the work that I do with Nextbop and the nigh-absolute immersion I have made into the jazz world [however, this epiphany is spurring in me a desire to get back to these roots a little more often]), I knew the R&B sound that these artists were intending to go for. Glasper is acting as an emissary of blackness to a jazz audience who may have little idea that outside of hosting Family Feud, Steve Harvey has another gig. Glasper's Black Radio is such a brilliant piece of work because of all the unwitting preparation he has put his audience through in order to accept it. His Double Booked of 2009 served to prepare the world that this was coming. He was creeping the Experiment into our lives, all the while giving folks like me memories of listening to the Tom Joyner Morning Show as a kid. Glasper has made an album in which he blatantly titles it what it is-- black radio. In an era of Pandora,, Spotify, and burrowing further and further into our personal iTunes libraries, Glasper reminds us of the simple joy of listening to the radio with a work as appropriate for the iPod as it is for The Quiet Storm. That's all the point-- this isn't just like radio, it's just like black radio. In this regard, Glasper (and Spalding relatively soon) are introducing the jazz world to a sound and influence that has its place in the genre. In fact, it was there all along. It seeks to retake its inclusion, if it ever truly left in the first place.

Much to my chagrin, it should be noted that this is what Nicholas Payton has been endeavoring to do through his independent release of Bitches and his move to throw out the baby with the bathwater (as Greg Thomas so wisely stated last week) in rebranding jazz as Black American Music (BAM). His intentions are noble, and perhaps his methodology is more akin to Malcolm X (or Huey Newton) than Martin Luther King, Jr. in the fight for blacks' jazz civil rights of acknowledgment, but folks like Glasper and Spalding are putting in the work without the off-putting, bombastic flamboyance nor picking up their toys and stomping off to play somewhere else. Much like President Obama's approach to policy, they focused on the long game. Glasper and Spalding kept their heads down, put in good work, and were vocal and definite in their stances about jazz music, but stressed inclusiveness in their statements. Their work will very soon speak for itself and because they haven't pit brother against brother, I'd like to believe their methods will reap great benefits.

All of this isn’t necessarily using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, I wouldn’t dare want to imply that the argued whitewashing of jazz over the years is oppressive (and those who would argue such a thing probably need to get over themselves), however I would like to note that a cultural force is altered through diligence, momentum, and timing. If there are those who believe that black influences are lacking in jazz, the argument is not to uproot but to instill. It is not to recreate but to transform. If the goal is to seek out the recognition of blackness in jazz, or even to bring back the notion of making music for the people instead of steadily more abstract music for other musicians, the work within the genre should speak for itself. Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding are not the first to endeavor this in these coming months but for this cycle and at this place in the history of the genre, they are indeed the most prominent. In that regard, we should continue to all keep our eyes on Glasper and Spalding and the good work they are doing to champion their sound to the jazz community and to the masses at large. Perhaps the sounds of blackness will be more readily on the minds folks who don’t know enough about it.

Anthony Dean-Harris hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.