Let’s Talk About Jazz (For Once) In 2020

Elements of Jazz

As the days without live music stack higher than I’d care to count…

we’ve been tasked (well, forced) to find another means of satisfying that vacant feeling. It does feel odd to begin this love affair with Jazz, a genre meant to be performed live, at a time when there isn’t much of that going on. Better late than never I guess.

I know Jazz, initially, may not be the most appealing for some, but to those who aren’t a fan, I would argue there’s at least a bit of Jazz influence residing in your favorite artists’ own work. Tyler The Creator? Kendrick? Electronic trendsetter Aphex Twin, and even indie groups like King Krule or Mild High Club have all shown Jazz influence in their work.

Some beloved Jazz crate diggers – Jamie XX, Floating Points, Four Tet, & Caribou/Daphni

Here’s an example, one of my favorite artists of late have been Kiwi selectors Chaos in the CBD, who’ve made their presence felt in the underground and festivals alike with their smokey jazz-flavored house.

The point is, Jazz is alive and well, albeit not as straightforward and popular as it were during the 50s when dominated by legends like Coltrane and Miles…

John Coltrane

Miles Davis

Glimpses of the genre still happen due to crate diggers like Floating points (check his Jazzy output for yourself) and Four Tet working standards into sets, or the occasional quote in musician’s solos, but Jazz has never been completely gone–it just took a break from the spotlight. Born in the African American communities in New Orleans under the name ‘Jass’, the music is a medley of different influences making it in a way undefinable, but nonetheless beautiful and good for the soul, like jambalaya or a nice gumbo.

The New Giants of Jazz

In my lifetime, innovative players from every part of the world have continued breathing new life into the genre, like the electronic-fused Jazz trio The Comet is Coming, led by the UK Jazz bandleader Shabaka Hutchings. They’re a sight to see live, which of course isn’t easy to do given our circumstance–but fear not, the internet exists, so pop on their NPR performance or this Glasto 2019 excerpt and witness. 

Among these lesser-known stars of the scene are ones that have found popularity through technical ability, songwriting, and a little bit of luck among other circumstances. Thundercat immediately comes to mind when someone thinks of modern Jazz superheroes. A virtuosic player and arranger in his own right, he cut his teeth early on records by Erykah Badu and Flying Lotus (a descendant of Alice Coltrane) before coming into his own with multiple releases under his own name, constantly outdoing himself. When Kendrick’s “To Pimp a Butterfly” was released, many publications claimed Thundercat as “the creative epicenter” of the record, which remains one of the most culturally important records of the last 20 years.

Seattle Spectator

He’s among the more popular Jazz-associated acts active at the moment, along with artists like hip hop quartet BadBadNotGood, sax matriarch Kamasi Washington, wunderkind duo Domi Keys and JD Beck, and pianist Robert Glasper. These artists are signs that the future of Jazz stateside is in good hands.

Tom Misch is another great example of the continuous boundary-pushing that’s become a trademark for the genre. His brand of cool Jazz-pop has helped put the spotlight back on the scene and, as evident from his recent LP with drummer Yussef Dayes this year, he’s shown no signs of stopping. Along with Moses Boyd, Jorja Smith collaborators Ezra Collective, and fellow guitar slinger Oscar Jerome, Misch is part of a Jazz rebirth within the notoriously club-loving youth in the UK.

The internet’s ability to connect people globally has led to the discovery of some genuinely special bands, like Australia’s Hiatus Kaiyote. Nai Palm and Co.’s jazzy future soul project has captured your favorite artist’s attention, counting AnCo, Prince, and Q-Tip of Tribe among their fans. Atypical to classic female Jazz singers, Palm isn’t just handling vocals, she’s also simultaneously shredding a flying V, and in doing so, inspiring waves of her listeners to pick up a guitar.

Just a couple of years ago there were signals that the streaming revolution would hinder Jazz and other genres in favor of generic pop, mumble rap, etc. but to DJ Gilles Peterson it’s been quite the opposite; “I was performing in Brixton and played a few Jazz tracks – and they all went nuts…”, (Why now is the perfect time to get into Jazz) and if Jazz is getting approval on a UK dance-floor, then it’s safe to say it’s passed the ‘cool’ test. The genre’s torchbearers also communicate well with their fans, changing the narrative of a genre that’s known for being self-indulgent and exclusive to now seeming more accessible.

A surprising amount of artists today have been influenced by Jazz, both in the charts and underground scenes. With all this time on our hands, it’s definitely worth checking out despite the availability of live shows. Youtube still allows us the visual aspect and streaming gives you an ocean of music to get lost in, from classics to new favorites. Read a book on one of the greats, watch that sweet Miles Teller flick “Whiplash”, in quarantine one luxury we’re afforded is time. And chances are, your favorite artists are inspired by the genre, your favorite DJ plays out tunes with Jazz drum breaks, or your favorite rapper has added Jazzy changes to his songs.

(*cough* Tyler *cough*).