In a recent essay titled "Liberating 'Black Radio': The Robert Glasper Experiment," Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal offers the term "cosmopolitan blackness" to describe how the new LP from jazz pianist Robert Glasper, Black Radio, depends on a willingness to buck all puritanical approaches to jazz in favor of a more relevant, experimental and soul-influenced repertoire. It's an anti-jazz jazz. As its title hints, the album also indicts modern black radio, cluttered as it is with music programmers with no sense of adventure or history.
Glasper has admitted to being "bored with jazz"—not bored enough to abandon it entirely, but just enough to infuse it with new ideas and energies more than show off. On Black Radio, Glasper boldly suggests a new sound by trussing seasoned jazz with stars from the realms of R&B and hip-hop—Erykah Badu, Bilal, Lalah Hathaway, Lupe Fiasco and Mint Condition's Stokley Williams.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, Glasper spoke from his San Francisco hotel room about the museum of jazz radio, the tedium of other jazz musicians and sharing space on the Billboard charts with Rihanna.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: In Durham, we actually have a jazz radio station (WNCU-FM, 90.7) that broadcasts from N.C. Central University, a historically black university. People could tune into that station rather than a more commercial "black" station, so why don't they?
ROBERT GLASPER: I don't expect them to. It's kind of hard to accidentally discover new jazz. You actually have to listen to a jazz station or read a jazz magazine; there's probably only 25 jazz stations in the whole U.S. And nine times out of 10, when you turn it on, they're playing stuff from like 1950. It makes the music sound old—like it's already done and now we're just paying homage. It's a generational gap, just like it's hard to make some 75-year-old like Lil Wayne.
Recently on NPR, you talked about how the traditional mind-set often finds jazz artists "sending our grandfather out to the playground." Do you ever find yourself conflicted when it comes to collaborating with other jazz musicians who don't want to push the envelope?
I don't collaborate with jazz artists. I'm on a different vibe now. I don't necessarily want to anymore, at least not now. I've done that for years, but now I'm on my own journey. Everyone's not a part of that journey. The only other jazz cats I've collaborated with are the ones in my band.
Stokley Williams is mostly known as the lead singer for the R&B band Mint Condition, but during Black Radio, he gets into a jazz-scatting routine. How often do you detect jazz sensibilities in traditional R&B artists? Does that affect the collaborative process at all?
I could tell off-top that he was a jazz cat. Chris Dave, my drummer, has known Stoke for years, and Stoke went to a performing arts high school like I did for jazz. Ledisi went to one. Bilal went to one. Erykah Badu went to one. Stoke knows standards, and he's a jazz musician at heart. It wasn't hard at all.
If collaborators don't have that jazz background, do you try to push such an agenda on them?
Not at all. It's more so my world and their world coming together. I just want them to be comfortable.
You often mention Bilal as your favorite singer. What does he demonstrate about being a jazz vocalist that not all singers can?
He's studied jazz. He was in a jazz big band and did jazz gigs. With him, it's just a vocabulary of understanding chord changes. He knows the technical parts of his voice like the back of his hands. He was all-state opera, so he really knows the music.
In order to sing jazz or play it, to a certain degree you have to master your instrument. To be able to scat or sing these melodies, you have to have mastery—unlike R&B, where anyone can sing it. There's no R&B song that nobody can really sing. Everybody can't sing a Charlie Parker hit or a John Coltrane melody. But if you're a jazz musician, you have to study just to be able to play the music, even to be bad at it. You have to obtain all of this knowledge, and that's what Bilal has done.
With all of the vocal features on Black Radio, was it hard to let your guests take center stage?
Being selfless is very important. Once you get rid of the need of wanting to show off, then the real music can come alive. I love playing as a sideman. It's almost like putting makeup on somebody; I like making stuff look beautiful. Especially for this record, I didn't do much soloing at all. I wanted this record to cross over, and the radio is not going to play a song with a three-minute piano solo.
How much is Black Radio actually being played on black radio?
I think I'm on like 15 Urban/ Adult Contemporary stations. "Ah Yeah," featuring Musiq Soulchild and Chrisette Michele [embedded above], is being played a lot. We were like No. 4 on the hip-hop/ R&B charts on Billboard. It's Tyga, Drake, Rihanna and then Robert Glasper Experiment. The album is No. 15 out of 200 of any genre, and a big part of that was because of the video play for "Ah Yeah." A lot of people wanted the record because of that song.
How do you feel when people might assume that it's just a Musiq Soulchild or Chrisette Michele song and they don't know it's from a jazz artist's album?
I don't mind that, because for me it's just like being a producer. A lot of people don't know who the producer is; all they know is who sings on it. People would love a song and not know that it was from Quincy Jones' Back on the Block. I produced Black Radio, so it's mine, it's all of ours. As long as you like it, I don't care whether you realized who produced it or not.
Duke University is sponsoring your two-day residency. The relationship between jazz and the academy isn't anything new, but do you have a problem when a historically black university has students who find more prestige in the marching band rather than the jazz ensemble?
The marching band is fun. It's spiced up. It's entertaining. They probably play songs that are off of the radio. That's what black marching bands do: They go out there and play songs by Rihanna, Chris Brown. They dance with it and get everybody hype. It's modern, and it's relevant. But I bet you that if I go in that school, the jazz teacher hasn't even told his students to make some sort of arrangement of a T-Pain song or some shit. They're probably studying something that's old and that no one of this generation cares about. It's a history class, and no one is excited about history. They're excited about what's going on now.
A lot of hip-hop fans were introduced to you through the "J Dillalude" tribute from your In My Element LP. When did you become a J Dilla fan?
I used to play [the J Dilla-produced De La Soul song] "Stakes Is High" in my set in 2002. I was a fan of his since high school, when Busta Rhymes' "Woo-Hah! Got You All In Check" came out. That "Still Shining" joint from that Busta Rhymes record [1996's The Coming] is my favorite hip-hop beat of all time. I was always playing Dilla live. It was Q-Tip's idea to put it on a record.
Bilal and I flew to Detroit, and I hung out with Dilla and worked with him for two weeks in his basement. I had a rapport with him then. I'm a musician, so I gravitate toward chords and melodies. Dilla was all about that.
Are there any other hip-hop producers out there who you think are on a similar path?
Producers? Now? I don't know. 9th Wonder is the one now, but I've always loved DJ Premier, Pete Rock and Hi-Tek. I've been a fan of 9th Wonder since Little Brother. I actually met 9th in North Carolina with Q-Tip. We were on a tour bus, and Tip set up some DJ equipment in the back of the bus, so after the show, 9th brought all these records and DJ'd in the back of the bus. Doesn't he live out there? I'm trying to reach him. I want him to do a remix. Put it in the paper.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Live jazz."