Uptown Conversation: The New Jazz Studies

By Robert G. O'Meally; Brent Hayes Edwards et al. | Go to book overview

ROBIN D. G. KELLEY


Beneath the Underground:
Exploring New Currents in "Jazz"

About thirty years ago a California radio host asked the legendary jazz pianist/composer Thelonious Monk what he thought about the violin in jazz. "Well, I like all instruments, played right." Yeah, it was a dumb question. But what if we could ask Monk what he thought about turntables and digital samplers in jazz? The question is a bit more complicated since recording and playback devices are rarely thought of as "instruments." In fact, virtually every movement to "electrify" jazz has had to face massive resistance, beginning with the jazz purists who dismissed Miles Davis's experiments in the 1970s (i.e., Bitches Brew and On the Corner) to the current neobop renaissance whose defense of acoustic instruments borders on reverence. It is hard to imagine, for example, Jazz at Lincoln Center hiring a DJ as a sideman.1

But times might be changing. Trumpeter Russell Gunn not only incorporates hip hop samples on his recent release Ethnomusicology Vol. 1, but employs DJ Apollo as a member of his eclectic, funk-inspired jazz band. Even high-brow jazz composers are hiring turntablists and programmers as accompanists. Just last year the Uri Caine Ensemble released a two-CD tribute to Gustav Mahler that included DJ Olive on turntables and live electronics. And these examples represent merely the tip of a giant iceberg, and not even the most innovative tip at that. Anyone with their ear to the underground will discover a world where instrumentalists and turntablists, programmers, and poets have begun to revolutionize improvisational music. Artists such as Graham Haynes, Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris, Melvin Gibbs, Craig Taborn, Steve Coleman, performance poet Tracie Morris, and a gang of DJs, to name but a few, are pushing technology to new limits and crushing all distinctions between genres. They are not simply adding "electronic flavor" to fa-

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