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Let Me Play The Answers: 8 Jazz Artists Honoring Black Geniuses
8 Jazz Artists Honoring Black Geniuses

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Let Me Play The Answers: 8 Jazz Artists Honoring Black Geniuses

By revering their forebears on record, Bruce Harris, James Brandon Lewis, Dara Tucker, The Baylor Project, Allan Harris, Samara Joy, Charnett Moffett and the late Ralph Peterson, Jr. show that Black music is a self-sustaining universe.

GRAMMYs/Jul 1, 2021 - 01:12 am

Many nights, when the trumpeter Bruce Harris performs live, the audience's ears prick up at an unfamiliar melody—one that should be far more known.

"People are always like, 'I love the tunes you pick!' and it'd be 'Miss Hazel' by Tina Brooks or 'Take Twelve' by Elmo Hope," Harris tells GRAMMY.com. He and his colleagues may revere these compositions, but outside of insular jazz circles, few discuss them much at all. While they’re simply engaging tunes to many strangers, to Harris, they’re bona fide standards.

Unlike some of the writers of more well-known fare, those two composers are Black. "It's amazing how sometimes the standards are not the standards written by the Black composers," Harris continues. "Standards have become the entry: If you want to play this music, you've got to play 'Cherokee.' There are so many great artists who haven't gotten their flowers, as they say."

To this end, Harris tries to tip the scales by covering architects of Black music. These days, he's far from the only jazz artist doing it—and the revered figures aren't limited to musicians. Seven other musicians—saxophonist James Brandon Lewis; vocalists Dara Tucker, Allan Harris and Samara Joy; drummer and singer Marcus and Jean Baylor; and the late drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr.—have recently made records singing the praises of Black geniuses throughout history, from Art Blakey to George Washington Carver.

Together, they reinforce not only that there's room for the American Songbook to grow—but that Black American artists throughout history have formed an ever-nourishing, self-sustaining universe where anyone can step inside. 

Here are the stories of how these eight artists' inspirations have thrilled, inspired and galvanized them.

A Tributary To Rough-And-Tumble New York Royalty: Bruce Harris

Bruce Harris. Photo courtesy of Cellar Music Group.

Beyond the color of their skin, why did Bruce Harris draw from the wells of Gigi Gryce, Hank Mobley and Duke Ellington for his new album?

 "They're all East Coast city people!" Harris replies with a chuckle. "That's who I am. When I lived in Harlem, I lived a block away from where Bud Powell used to live, in the same neighborhood as Jackie McLean, Walter Davis and Arthur Taylor—obviously not at the same time. I didn't realize this until recently, but I'm just listening to the music of my community, culture and where I'm from."

That new offering, Soundview, which arrived June 4, is catnip for fans of straight-ahead jazz. Therein, he constellates tunes by his influences—Mobley's "Hank's Pranks," Barry Harris' "The Bird of Red and Gold," and a suite of Duke Ellington compositions—while asserting himself as a fresh voice on the New York scene.

"It's not about replacement; it's about bringing things to the forefront," Harris says about his decision to emphasize Black composers. "All of it is valid because all of these people played standards. They acknowledged that music, so we should acknowledge their music. It should be a give-and-take."

A Multifarious Saxophonist Wading Deep Into Science: James Brandon Lewis

James Brandon Lewis. Photo: Diane Alford

James Brandon Lewis recently made waves in the press for Jesup Wagon, his 2021 album paying tribute to agricultural scientist and inventor George Washington Carver. Seeing as we're dealing with instrumental music, how did he evoke the man beyond mere song titles?

"I could easily come up with a song and call it 'The Peanut'; I don't know if that would be that interesting," he told GRAMMY.com in 2021. "I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying my best to evoke a deeper thing." With the help of Thelonious Monk biographer Robin D. G. Kelley, he used the titles as goalposts for what he wanted to say.

As for how Carver's thoughts, feelings and ambitions translated into abstract sound? Lewis doesn't see that as any different from what music has done for millennia. "It's no different than if I was writing a piece and I wanted to evoke, maybe, what love feels like," he continued. "That's just knowing the characteristics of how to paint emotion with particular sounds."

Lewis is one of the most compelling voices in modern jazz, and he's not resting at Jesup Wagon nor its PR-ready subject matter. He's already finished his next album, Code of Being, which releases in October 2021. But, no matter where his muse goes, Lewis is not only a vessel for his forebears but an impactful voice all his own.

A Fighter For Social Justice Wielding Music As A Balm: Dara Tucker

 Dara Tucker. Photo: Green Hill Music

When global protests ignited in response to George Floyd's murder, Dara Tucker observed the fallout with anything but impassivity. "I'm Black, so it's not a news story to me," she tells GRAMMY.com. "It's very personal, the upheaval that's going on around race and this new understanding and reckoning that mainstream America is having with the issue of police brutality."

Tucker plays her role in this fight through her social-justice-oriented TikTok account, which commands more than 300,000 followers. But, through music, she also understands that people may be more receptive to perspective-altering concepts through lyrics and melodies.

On her latest album, Dreams of Waking: Music For a Better World, which arrived May 28, Tucker embraces the urgent, topical works of songwriters both Black and white—from Donny Hathaway and Stevie Wonder to Paul Simon and James Taylor—as vessels for instruction and healing. "Music can provide a salve for those difficult conversations we have to have," she explains.

As for the former two songwriting luminaries, "[They're] part of the bedrock of my musical foundation," she explains. "You can't really talk about R&B or modern soul music without talking about Stevie and Donny and Marvin Gaye—that trifecta. It's an incredible group of songs that I'm just honored to have been given the opportunity to interpret."

Two Storytellers Illumining The Enormity Of Black Expression: The Baylor Project

Marcus and Jean Baylor. Photo: Deneka Peniston

Singer Jean and drummer Marcus Baylor are in a lofty position to promote Black music: From within the GRAMMYs themselves. Not only has the couple been nominated for three GRAMMYs, but they're both part of the Philadelphia chapter, where Marcus serves as a trustee and Jean as a governor.

For the Baylor Project's recent album, Generations, which was released June 18, the concept preceded the material. While at their then-manager's house for breakfast with another couple, "There were a couple of other generations in this group," Jean recalls to GRAMMY.com. "They were telling great stories about things we never experienced growing up in the '70s and '80s that they experienced in decades before."

Such was the germ of the Generations idea. Still, it didn't take flower until the Baylors thought of the word through the lens of the Black experience. "After that, songs and ideas came," Jean says of the original compositions on the album, like "Strivin'," "Becoming" and "Walk On By." (Covers of the R&B hit "Love Makes Me Sing" and Wayne Shorter's "Infant Eyes" round out the program.)

Generations was timed to release during Black Music Month and in anticipation of Juneteenth. The magnetic center of the album is "2020," which they actually wrote in 2019 but foreshadows that traumatic year's racial upheaval. "I [initially] titled it 'Trauma,'" Jean says. "Marcus was like, 'You can't title a song 'Trauma!' And I was like, 'But we are kind of traumatized.'"

A Commuter Between Cleaved Halves Of History: Allan Harris

Allan Harris. Photo: Hollis King

In Allan Harris's new song, "I Grew Up," the singer describes a train route he typically took from Brooklyn to Harlem as a boy. So what did he see and experience while headed north on the rails, as the 1960s bled into the '70s and classic rock bled into soul, blues, funk and R&B?

"A lot of love, a lot of confusion, being a little boy of color at the time," Harris tells GRAMMY.com over Zoom in an impressive button-down festooned with guitars. "Civil rights just came underway. The Black Panther Party was just down the street. Motown was happening. It was really a wonderful time to go to the Apollo because I was immersed in all the radical thinking of folks."

In "I Grew Up," Harris shouts out everyone from Aretha Franklin to Marvin Gaye to Smokey Robinson, citing them as formative to his personality and value system. And on the rest of the album it belongs to, Kate's Soulfood—which dropped last January—Harris paints a picture of that specific time and place, which fostered a veritable cornucopia of Black culture.

"I hope people feel that it's part of Americana," Harris says of the historical world-building he does on Kate's Soulfood. "It's not just the rantings and soul-searching of a young boy of color growing up in Harlem. This is a story about a slice of America that is a residue of the Harlem Renaissance."

A Gifted Young Vocalist On The Shoulders Of Giants: Samara Joy 

Samara Joy. Photo: Shervin Lainez

Samara Joy may have only been a jazz singer for four years, starting when she enrolled at Purchase College. But by the sound of her debut self-titled album, which is due out July 7, she's more than gotten her bearings, having carved out her own space as a swinging traditionalist.

Joy's beyond-her-years approach to standards like "Everything Happen to Me," "Let's Dream in the Moonlight" and "Lover Man" was inspired by her favorite singers: Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan. "This music is my foundation for sure," she tells GRAMMY.com. "When I want to learn a song and learn how to tell a story, they're who I go to for perspective."

During her time at Purchase, Joy picked up the music naturally "through repertoire class, through my friends listening to music, calling in jam sessions and calling songs I didn't know." Almost immediately, she was hooked.

"The emotion Sarah expressed was like nothing I'd ever heard," Joy says. "Ella, too, in the way that she sings and scats. Obviously, they're different people, so they have different stories to tell through their music, but both affect how I am and how I sing."

With her debut album on the way, is it intimidating to tackle material these two brilliant vocalists made their calling cards? "I couldn't think about it like that," she replies. "I couldn't think about living up to their standard because I can't. But it's important to do what you love."

An Undiscriminating Bassist In The Service Of Freedom: Charnett Moffett

Charnett Moffett. Photo: Rebecca Meek

Charnett Moffett is so spiritually tied to Ornette Coleman that the composer hero is literally in his name. "My dad and Ornette were friends," he tells GRAMMY.com, citing his drummer father, Charles. "On the day I was born, my dad was working with Ornette, so he named me Charnett!"

The innovative bassist's latest release, New Love, which dropped on June 11, counts several people as its chief inspirations—including his romantic partner, Jana Herzen, whose label Motéma Music released the album. However, the elder Moffett, who played with everyone from Archie Shepp to Eric Dolphy to Pharoah Sanders, is the North Star of his work.

"Growing up with my dad, it was the freedom to play, but with discipline," Moffett recalls. "My dad brought a bass home one day and said, 'These are the low notes, and these are the high notes. Find out all the different ways you can make music.' So you're totally painting with sound. You're not thinking about a chord or a key or whatever."

And as far as his father's famous friend and collaborator? "One thing I learned from Ornette Coleman is not to discriminate against someone else's sound," Moffett says. "To discriminate against a sound because it may be from the East or West or North or South—really, it's about the vibration. The energy and sound and quality of the music that makes it beautiful."

A Mighty Man Of The Trumpet & Drums With An Effervescent Soul: Ralph Peterson, Jr. 

 Ralph Peterson, Jr. Photo: Dave Green

Back in 2020, the drummer, trumpeter and composer Ralph Peterson, Jr. appeared over Zoom to discuss Hank Mobley's mellow 1960 masterpiece Soul Station with GRAMMY.com. Boisterous, colorful and full of metaphors, he didn't disappoint.

"On [Soul Station], he's in the blue part of the flame," Peterson said of his old mentor, Art Blakey, who laid down some of his subtlest playing on the Mobley album. "The thing is: if you know anything about fire, the blue part of the flame might be the lowest part of the flame, but it's also the hottest part of the flame. Art was a master of those kinds of subtleties."

Peterson joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers as the second drummer in 1983, working under the brilliant, hot-headed Buhaina's tutelage. From then on, he made a slew of brilliant solo records, like 2001's The Art of War. Tragically, not long after the GRAMMY.com interview, he succumbed to a years-long battle with cancer and died on March 1, 2021.

Is it possible to crystallize just what Blakey meant to Peterson? GRAMMY.com gave Brian Lynch, the final trumpeter in the Messengers, a ring to ask just that question.

"He very much felt Art passed the baton to him," he replied. "Ralph channeled Buhaina completely, and also, he was, in a way, the least imitative of Art. It's almost like he took Art's thing and wasn't afraid to put his own stamp on it because he had such authority and understanding down to the spiritual root of it all."

Peterson's final album, Raise Up Off Me, which came out May 21, is not a direct tribute to Blakey. But in another sense, everything he made was an offering to his mentor. Alongside pianist and bassist Zaccai and Luques Curtis, he shows that the Messengers' education lineage is infinite.

One time, one of Lynch's students took a lesson with Peterson, who offered him a slice of wisdom. "You sound good, but you're playing both the questions and the answers!" Lynch remembers him roaring. "Let me play the answers!" That's what these musicians mastered: Hearing the messages of those who came before and confidently responding.

Virtuosos, Voyagers & Visionaries: 5 Artists Pushing Jazz Into The Future

John Lennon, Sting, Alicia Keys: 7 Songs For Starting Over In 2018

John Lennon

Photo: Ron Howard/Redferns

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John Lennon, Sting, Alicia Keys: 7 Songs For Starting Over In 2018

With hits from Leonard Cohen, the Byrds, Nina Simone, and more, find the motivation for a brand-new you this New Year

GRAMMYs/Jan 4, 2018 - 11:12 pm

Each New Year offers the opportunity for a fresh new start, whether you're looking to wash away the sins of the previous year or reinvent a better future that follows your ultimate dreams. Starting over isn't an easy task, but we have one recommendation that will help motivate you: music.

Don't be a fuddy duddy. Kick-start 2018 with this playlist of seven songs all about starting over, including hits from John Lennon, the Byrds, Sting, and Alicia Keys, among others.

1. The Byrds, "Turn! Turn! Turn!"

Starting with its lyrics, "To everything (turn, turn, turn)/There is a season," this GRAMMY Hall Of Fame classic is a great reminder that everything is always changing anyway, so now is as good a time as any to give something new a chance. The composition was written by Pete Seeger in the late 1950s, but the lyrics come almost verbatim from the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible. The song didn't hit it big until the Byrds got their turn at it in 1965. Reportedly, it took Roger McGuinn & Co. 78 takes to perfect their folk-rock arrangement.

2. Leonard Cohen, "Anthem"

GRAMMY winner Leonard Cohen had a knack for poetry powerful enough to move mountains, and his "Anthem" is one such gem. This 1992 tune about embracing imperfection and marching forward in the face of adversity contains one of Cohen's most-quoted lines: "Ring the bells that still can ring/Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in." And we'll leave you with one final line from the master that encapsulates starting over: "The birds they sing, at the break of day/Start again, I heard them say/Don't dwell on what has passed away/Or what is yet to be."

3. Gil Scott-Heron, "I'm New Here"

Taken from his 2010 album of the same name, "I'm New Here" came near the end of Gil Scott-Heron's storied life. The album saw Scott-Heron, according to Drowned In Sound's Robert Ferguson, "pick over the bones of his life, acknowledging the hard times and his own mistakes, but standing proud of all they have led him to become." Embodying this sentiment accompanied only by an acoustic guitar, Scott-Heron's bluesy, semi-spoken "I'm New Here" brings out the poignancy of change. Its key lyric, "No matter how far wrong you've gone/You can always turn around," is something to keep in mind year-round, let alone January.

4. Alicia Keys, "Brand New Me"

Alicia Keys went full bore on the empowering messages of her 2012 album, Girl On Fire —  the Best R&B Album winner at the 56th GRAMMY Awards — including the track, "Brand New Me." Co-written with singer/songwriter Emeli Sandé, the soft pop/R&B ballad describes growing as a person and becoming a brand-new version of yourself. "Brand new me is about the journey it takes to get to a place where you are proud to be a new you," Keys wrote on her website at the time of the song's release.

5. John Lennon, "(Just Like) Starting Over"

A quintessential start-anew song, former Beatle John Lennon included "(Just Like) Starting Over" on his GRAMMY-winning 1980 album, Double Fantasy. "(Just Like) Starting Over" was the album's first single because Lennon felt it best represented his return following a five-year hiatus from music. It's also a love song, but the theme of starting over has a universal resonance "It's time to spread our wings and fly/Don't let another day go by my love/It'll be just like starting over." It became Lennon's second chart-topping single in the U.S., reaching No. 1 after his death on Dec. 8, 1980.

6. Nina Simone, "Feeling Good"

"It's a new dawn/It's a new day/It's a new life for me/I'm feelin' good." Could you ask for better lyrics for embarking on a new journey? Nina Simone recorded her version of "Feeling Good," which was originally written for the musical "The Roar Of The Greasepaint — The Smell Of The Crowd," on her 1965 album I Put A Spell On You. While artists such as Michael Bublé, John Coltrane, George Michael, and Muse subsequently covered it, no alternative is quite as powerful — or soulful — as Simone's.

7. Sting, "Brand New Day"

Sting's "Brand New Day" has a lesson for inspiring motivation to start the New Year with fresh eyes: "Turn the clock to zero, buddy/Don't wanna be no fuddy-duddy/We started up a brand new day." The bright, catchy pop tune and its namesake 1999 album resonated with fans, landing it at No. 9 on the Billboard 200. The track (and album) earned Sting GRAMMYs — Best Male Pop Vocal Performance and Best Pop Album — at the 42nd GRAMMY Awards.

What's Your New Year's Music Resolution?

Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Janet Jackson

Photo: Christopher Polk/Getty Images

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Recordings By Janet Jackson, Louis Armstrong, Odetta & More Inducted Into The National Recording Registry

Selections by Albert King, Labelle, Connie Smith, Nas, Jackson Browne, Pat Metheny, Kermit the Frog and others have also been marked for federal preservation

GRAMMYs/Mar 25, 2021 - 02:37 am

The Librarian of Congress Carla Haden has named 25 new inductees into the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. They include Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814,” Louis Armstrong’s “When the Saints Go Marching In,” Labelle’s “Lady Marmalade,” Nas’ “Illmatic,” Kool & the Gang’s “Celebration,” Kermit the Frog’s “The Rainbow Connection” and more.

“The National Recording Registry will preserve our history through these vibrant recordings of music and voices that have reflected our humanity and shaped our culture from the past 143 years,” Hayden said in a statement. “We received about 900 public nominations this year for recordings to add to the registry, and we welcome the public’s input as the Library of Congress and its partners preserve the diverse sounds of history and culture.”

The National Recording Preservation Board is an advisory board consisting of professional organizations and experts who aim to preserve important recorded sounds. The Recording Academy is involved on a voting level. The 25 new entries bring the number of musical titles on the registry to 575; the entire sound collection includes nearly 3 million titles. Check out the full list of new inductees below:

National Recording Registry Selections for 2020

  1. Edison’s “St. Louis tinfoil” recording (1878)

  2. “Nikolina” — Hjalmar Peterson (1917) (single)

  3. “Smyrneikos Balos” — Marika Papagika (1928) (single)

  4. “When the Saints Go Marching In” — Louis Armstrong & his Orchestra (1938) (single)

  5. Christmas Eve Broadcast--Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill (December 24, 1941)

  6. “The Guiding Light” — Nov. 22, 1945

  7. “Odetta Sings Ballads and Blues” — Odetta (1957) (album)

  8. “Lord, Keep Me Day by Day” — Albertina Walker and the Caravans (1959) (single)  

  9. Roger Maris hits his 61st homerun (October 1, 1961)

  10. “Aida” — Leontyne Price, et.al. (1962) (album)

  11. “Once a Day” — Connie Smith (1964) (single)

  12. “Born Under a Bad Sign” — Albert King (1967) (album)

  13. “Free to Be…You & Me” — Marlo Thomas and Friends (1972) (album)

  14. “The Harder They Come” — Jimmy Cliff (1972) (album)

  15. “Lady Marmalade” — Labelle (1974) (single)

  16. “Late for the Sky” — Jackson Browne (1974) (album)

  17. “Bright Size Life” — Pat Metheny (1976) (album)

  18. “The Rainbow Connection” — Kermit the Frog (1979) (single)

  19. “Celebration” — Kool & the Gang (1980) (single)

  20. “Richard Strauss: Four Last Songs” — Jessye Norman (1983) (album)

  21. “Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814” — Janet Jackson (1989) (album)

  22. “Partners” — Flaco Jiménez (1992) (album)

  23. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”/”What A Wonderful World” — Israel Kamakawiwo’ole (1993) (single)

  24. “Illmatic” — Nas (1994) (album)

  25. “This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money” (May 9, 2008)

Learn To Make Beats With Library Of Congress' New Digital DJ Tool

Press Play At Home: Watch Dodie Perform A Morning-After Version Of "Four Tequilas Down"

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Press Play At Home: Watch Dodie Perform A Morning-After Version Of "Four Tequilas Down"

In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, singer/songwriter dodie conjures a bleary last call in a hushed performance of "Four Tequilas Down"

GRAMMYs/Jun 24, 2021 - 07:38 pm

"Four Tequilas Down" is as much a song as it is a memory—a half-remembered one. "Did you make your eyes blur?/So that in the dark, I'd look like her?" dodie, the song's writer and performer, asks. To almost anyone who's engaged in a buzzed rebound, that detail alone should elicit a wince of recognition.

Such is dodie's beyond-her-years mastery of her craft: Over a simple, spare chord progression, she can use an economy of words to twist the knife. "So just hold me like you mean it," dodie sings at the song's end. "We'll pretend because we need it."

In the latest episode of Press Play At Home, watch dodie stretch her songwriting muscles while conjuring a chemically altered Saturday night—and the Sunday morning full of regrets, too.

Check out dodie's hushed-yet-intense performance of "Four Tequilas Down" above and click here to enjoy more episodes of Press Play At Home.

Press Play At Home: Watch Yola Perform A Rock-Solid Rendition Of "Stand For Myself"

Apple Music Exclusive: Watch Classic GRAMMY Performances

Whitney Houston, 29th GRAMMY Awards

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Apple Music Exclusive: Watch Classic GRAMMY Performances

The Recording Academy teams with Apple Music to offer historical GRAMMY performances by Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Whitney Houston, Shania Twain, Kendrick Lamar, and more

GRAMMYs/Nov 24, 2017 - 07:00 pm

To celebrate the GRAMMY Awards' 60th anniversary and the show's return to New York for the first time in 15 years, the Recording Academy and Apple Music are bringing fans a special video collection of exclusive GRAMMY performances and playlists that represent the illustrious history of Music's Biggest Night.

Available exclusively via Apple Music in a dedicated GRAMMYs section, the celebratory collection features 60-plus memorable performances specifically curated across six genres: pop, rap, country, rock, R&B, and jazz. 

The artist performances featured in the collection include Marvin Gaye, "Sexual Healing" (25th GRAMMY Awards, 1983); Whitney Houston, "Greatest Love Of All" (29th GRAMMY Awards, 1987); Run DMC, "Tougher Than Leather" (30th GRAMMY Awards, 1988); Miles Davis, "Hannibal" (32nd GRAMMY Awards, 1990); Shania Twain, "Man, I Feel Like A Woman" (41st GRAMMY Awards, 1999); Dixie Chicks, "Landslide" (45th GRAMMY Awards, 2003); Bruno Mars and Sting, "Locked Out Of Heaven" and "Walking On The Moon" (55th GRAMMY Awards, 2013); and Kendrick Lamar, "The Blacker The Berry" (58th GRAMMY Awards, 2016).

The 60th GRAMMY Awards will take place at New York City's Madison Square Garden on Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018. The telecast will be broadcast live on CBS at 7:30–11 p.m. ET/4:30–8 p.m. PT. 

Carrie Underwood, John Legend To Host "GRAMMYs Greatest Stories"