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Kelvin Sholar: Artistic Crossroads

By Published: April 27, 2009
Modernizing the Music

AAJ: As you've described it, some of your recent work seems to reflect this same idea of recontextualization of the past in the present—a theme often discussed in jazz writing and which we've talked about before. The idea that jazz is encumbered a little bit by its own reverence for its past.

KS: That is really true. That is one of the main reasons I left New York City. I felt stifled as an artist with a different voice to always, in a way, interpret what I am doing now directly through the lineage of the major jazz masters and the masterworks. To be asked, "Well, how does this reference Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
, Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
Charlie Parker
1920 - 1955
sax, alto
, Miles Davis, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967

Amiri Baraka has a great quote, "Jazz is a reflection of whatever the modern Negro is." That is from Blues People. When I read that 15, 20 years ago, that hit a nerve with me because jazz isn't something that is limited to the '50s. It is just an outlook. When jazz was still in its inception, the African-American culture was still interfacing with the traditional American culture. So you are getting the influence of classical music, folk songs, and they are struggling with how to interpret that but still give their own voice to satisfy their own needs.

I find a parallel right there—jazz is finding a way of interfacing with whatever is around you today. Those guys were doing that in their own time. They were taking Broadway tunes on the radio that day, songs from TV that day. We lost some of that insight. Somehow we thought it was more definitive of jazz to keep our viewpoint in the past. I don't think that is at all relevant today. In fact, that is one of the things that is killing jazz—for me. That is what is limiting it and keeping it from evolving as fast as other genres. It is defined as an art form that still plays the same tunes as the '50s and '60s.

AAJ: Listening to your music, though, I've never heard it as a deliberate rejection of the past. From some of the more classical work, to the most modern, cutting edge stuff that has a more tenuous connection to jazz, it still doesn't feel like a denial.

KS: It's so funny, from what I've said you'd think I'd be an artist only interested in modern ideas and his own way of doing new things. Actually, I am quite for being aware of the classics and being connected to the past. The difference is I don't think the past is always better. I am not a classicist. "Oh man, if we were only back in the past. Things were so much better then, easier, better defined, when it was bebop or whatever."

Kelvin Sholar

No, I think you should be aware of that because the language that we speak is rooted there, but at the same time it shouldn't be a defining point for your modern voice. I don't talk like Shakespeare to say how I feel today. I talk like Shakespeare to show that I am well versed, well read, and connected to my past. I find a value in knowing where I come from. I listen to Dr. Dre or Q-Tip, Tribe Called Quest, Wu-tang because they speak to me more about the inner cities where I come from. That takes me to the root of who I am now.

Perhaps that is a dichotomy in a way, but they are very married in the very same way our democracy is rooted in the democracy of Greece. They are not the same thing 'cause they had slaves and women were not allowed to be citizens. But you take an idea that was very strong and put it into a modern context and show its relevance.

The classics have ideas that are very strong. They are timeless. But they are incomplete if you leave them in the way they were interpreted in the past. In order to make them complete I have to show everything that has happened since then to make them relevant to today's world.

AAJ: Do you think there is any risk to that, as artists such as yourself mix genres, mix musical systems, mix cultural systems, that you start to lose the distinctions between them?

KS: All music is fusion. All music is always a fusion of other music. Even when you say classic jazz, we can take anyone as an example, but Charlie Parker listened to Stravinsky. "Hot House Flowers" is Bizet's "Carmen." Everyone borrows. All music is a fusion of the influences that the composer loves; it is never limited to just one form. Even W.C. Handy
W.C. Handy
W.C. Handy
1873 - 1958
who "invented" the blues was listening to ragtime and classical. The only danger of it being mixed beyond recognition is that the media has to use certain kinds of terms to define what we are observing. That is why rock music becomes Alternative Rock. Its still rock, but you have to add another adjective to make it relevant to people who are wondering how it is different from The The Beatles
The Beatles
The Beatles

or Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry
Chuck Berry
guitar, electric
. I think when that danger occurs, someone just invents a new term. I think there is more of a limitation on how it is described than in the actual art of mixing, because that is continuous, it is always being done.

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European Scene

AAJ: You've brought, obviously, your own jazz experience with you from New York, but there is also an ever growing European jazz tradition now. What is happening here in Europe that you see as the most potent part of the jazz scene today?

KS: The most potent part of the jazz scene today coming from Europe is the way European musicians are mixing traditional "folk" music and classical roots with the things jazz and American music have brought to the twentieth century. Improvisation, swing, certain attention to production characteristics, certain attention to compositional forms that did not originate in classical forms. Everywhere I go I encounter folk-blends. I just came back from Bulgaria and I heard blends of Bulgarian gypsy music. I am a big fan of Poposov and his gypsy music. I have never heard anything like that. Or the Bulgarian Woman's Choir songs from Thrace from 2,000 years ago, and mixing that with what I thought were traditionally American strengths—improvisation, swing feel, etc. Taking both genres in a direction that you can't predict from one or the other. You can't listen to this and say, "the next step is a mixture of jazz and gypsy." That is a challenge to me.

To quote Barak again, if jazz is the reflection of the modern Negro and I'm a modern Negro, and I can't predict its going to be a combination of jazz and Bulgarian music, then that shows me that this a fresh thing ... That is the key to the future. It's not to forget the past, but somehow find its relevance and always produce something fresh and new.

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