Theo Croker: It's Just Black Music

Keith Henry Brown By

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AAJ: Yes...

TC: The jazz agenda is very clearly defined to make certain people comfortable with this "straight ahead" concept, you know? But it's only straight ahead when it's convenient. Because Wynton, Branford,—all those artists who are anti anything that's not straight ahead have done plenty of non straight ahead music and frankly not very well.

AAJ: And honestly, you can't win because if you played everything straightforwardly and just did what you thought people wanted, you'd probably be accused of not being original or not being as good as the way Miles Davis played it or Clifford Brown or somebody, so either you imitate—and I mean this respectfully—a lot of dead musicians or you can attempt to do something fresh that comes organically out of your personal experience.

One of my favorite cuts of yours is a cover of the Stevie Wonder tune "Visions" on the Afro Physicist album, which you cut with the vibraphonist Stefon Harris. It's definitely a striking interpretation of the song, but I can't decide if you would necessarily call it "jazz..." It's just good music.

TC: Yes, Stevie Wonder is "pop" because he sold a lot of records, but his music has so much harmonic and rhythmic content. It works well within a group format. Even without vocals. There's so much separation within the jazz community on what constitutes "jazz"—it's stifling.

AAJ: Does it matter to you? What jazz critics think?

TC: No.

AAJ: So you don't read your reviews?

TC: It can mess with your head if you read reviews too much. And then, if I do read a review, within a few sentences I can tell what their opinions about jazz are in general by how they write. They either call in comparisons; like how much I sound like Freddie Hubbard and that he's an influence. Now I love Freddie Hubbard, but he's not someone I ever tried to sound like.

AAJ: I guess a tool of jazz criticism, or any type of criticism, is to draw comparisons. For example, I've read that Brad Mehldau would sometimes get annoyed because he felt his sound was constantly being compared to Bill Evans. But many jazz critics are not necessarily musicians, so I think it's a shorthand way to describe a sound for musical novices.

TC: I welcome informed criticisms of art. When you write about my music, you don't have to mention any other music or any other musical concepts. You can write about how it reflects life, how it inspires you or how it doesn't. How it makes you feel. I don't see a lot of that, which is why I don't read a lot of it.

AAJ: It's how some folks absorb music, especially jazz, the need to isolate specific performances and compare them to other artists or recordings. Not so much the overall experience or feeling. "That drumming sounds a bit like Billy Cobham." "That saxophone solo reminds me of a Sonny Stitt solo I once heard on a Japanese live reissue."—that sort of thing.

Let's talk about the new album, Star People Nation. I understand it was inspired at least in part by Elvin Jones. What's the story behind that?

AAJ: Oh, just one of the songs, "The Messenger."

If you really think about every member of that quartet (John Coltrane Classic Quartet), they were so punk rock. I mean Trane's wearing flannel shirts, Elvin's wearing mesh tank tops 'cause he's sweating like crazy. They're not always wearing suits and ties. They're playing these long forms, there's a lot of rhythmic development going on— over basic changes a lot of the time. They were taking small amounts of material and working the hell out of them. To me, that's so tribal. In a way, Elvin, in my opinion, helped pioneer modern rock drumming. He was an innovator. That's why we can't continue to have this narrative in jazz that it has be played a certain way because that's never been true historically. We have to continue to push. Now that doesn't mean you can't turn around and play anything old school.

AAJ: What are the general themes and thoughts behind Star People Nation— even what the title means?

TC: It's about a sense of community. A platform for artists of different disciplines. There was a visual artist involved. There was a photographer involved. They're all super-creative people. The artwork all has messages in it; things that are represented that anyone can relate to: parenthood, upbringing. An everyday ritual of blackness is kind of a theme. So the music itself reflects all that. It's meant to evoke a conversation and my expression of that specific topic. On the other hand, Star People Nation—star people are people who came down from a serious beat galaxy, commuted from the stars and retreated back into the ocean. This group who came here and elevated our awareness.

AAJ: Changing the subject a bit—on the current music scene, what do you think of the musicianship we're hearing these days in pop music? There seem to be less and less actual musicians who play instruments on a professional level. Folks seem to be mostly making beats and working with loops and samples.

TC: I do find it interesting that people are selling millions of downloads that have little to no musical ability. I don't know if that's a new thing— doesn't seem like it. I mean, my generation didn't create that. Somewhere along the line, it became more about image and the actions of an artist rather than their actual artistry. That to me is confusing, but it's my subjective opinion because I've been a committed, serious musician all my life. I hear music in a certain way.

AAJ: Do you think in a way this is how it's always been? There was plenty of bad music in the '70s, '60s '50s, '40s, '30s.

TC: It's not just musicianship. We all know about The Beatles and what shitty musicians they were. But they still made some beautiful music. They did the work. I don't know how much these folks out here are doing the work. Like I don't know if Drake does the work. How much are these icons contributing to the musical culture that's giving them their fame? Music has just become a platform to become famous. People don't even pick their own music anymore. They select play lists and these songs that are designed to get in your ear. It's really a reflection of our society. When I travel to other countries, Europe and Asia, they just listen to the music. They have their pop music, but it's not this dominant force that tells them what to drink & eat, how to dress. I've been to places in Germany and France and the whole town comes just to see you play—not just perform the latest pop song. They come to hear music.

AAJ: These days pop is just another piece of media that entertains you for a few minutes. Nothing to think deeply about.

TC: With my band—and I'm really enjoying what we're doing right now —it's all so organic. It's bliss when folks are really listening. We just did a gig at the Jazz Standard And the audiences were really great. People were listening, and enjoying the show. Sometimes they even put down their phones!

Painting by Keith Henry Brown
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