“History keeps repeating itself and we have to change our perspective on how we look at things if we want things to change. Somehow we look at what’s happened in the past as being unrelated to what’s happening now and it’s not.” – Kamasi Washington
In 1931, fifty-seven years before the release of N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police,” Louis Armstrong and his Orchestra were touring the South, playing to enthusiastic but segregated audiences. In October, he did a show at the Peabody Hotel in Memphis, his all-black band playing for a white crowd, including several Memphis cops.
In his book Louis Armstrong: Master of Modernism, Thomas Brothers describes the scene: “Armstrong announces he would like to dedicate the next song to the Memphis Police Department. Turning to the band, he sets the tempo and they are off with their arrangement of ‘I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead You Rascal You.’”
“The relationship of Armstrong’s band to the Memphis police was already loaded with tension, “ Brothers continues. “The night before the Peabody Hotel gig they had all been thrown in jail. Their crime: Armstrong was discovered sitting next to his white manager’s white wife on the chartered bus, the two of them talking over business. ‘Why didn’t you shoot him in the leg?’ one officer demanded from his colleague.”
Such problems continued, and not just in the South. In the 1940s and 1950s, Central Avenue in Los Angeles was a place to hear and hang out with many of the brightest lights in jazz. The clubs and hotels attracted a diverse crowd and, as night follows day, the attention of the police. “They closed up Central Avenue downtown because of the mixture of the races,” bandleader Horace Tapscott told author Brian Cross in a 1993 interview.
But the police couldn’t kill off Central Avenue’s flow of music. “Generation to generation, black jazz musicians kept studying with other black jazz musicians who had been a part of the Central Avenue scene,” says Carvell Holloway, jazz trumpeter and head of music education at Davis Middle School in Compton. “Musicians took that legacy and kept passing it down. I know that’s what I’m a result of.”
One of the most important figures in that process
That group of teenagers stuck together, morphed into a band called the West Coast Get Down, and in 2011 went into a studio for a month and worked on several different albums. The first to be released, tenor saxophonist Kamasi Washington’s three CD The Epic, came out in May. Washington says “I want my music to change the world” and he showed how serious he is about that on July 25 at one of the weekly Grand Performances concerts in downtown LA, this one entitled 65-92: The Rhythm Changes But the Struggle Remains. It was a celebration of what many call riots but which on this evening were pointedly described as the Watts Rebellion and the LA Uprising (“It was more than a riot” was an ongoing refrain). The format was a combination of jazz and hip-hop, with a version of the West Coast Get Down playing the jazz and a number of guest rappers supplying the hip-hop. “I want to destroy some of the barriers in our music,” Washington said, “and in a grander scheme I want to destroy some of the barriers in our mind.”
The evening began as actor Roger Guenveur Smith (Do the Right Thing, American Gangster) burst onto the stage to portray Rodney King. Twenty-three years later, King’s brief, awkward monologue still makes people uncomfortable. We instinctively want to respond to that plea but we also know that Rodney King was a traumatized police victim who was unwittingly used to spread confusion. “People, I just want to say, you know, can we all get along? Can we get along? Can we stop making it, making it horrible for the older people and the kids? … It’s just not right. It’s not right. It’s not, it’s not going to change anything. We’ll, we’ll get our justice … Please, we can get along here. We all can get along. I mean, we’re all stuck here for a while. Let’s try to work it out. Let’s try to beat it. Let’s try to work it out.”
When Smith finished, the crowd was engaged but the energy was mixed, at odds with itself. The music which followed swept that away. It was the jazz of 1965, intense and beautiful, mixed with the hip-hop of 1992, which more than held its own. The lines blurred by Smith’s portrayal of Rodney King began to come into sharper focus.
- Charles Mingus’ “Fables of Faubus” segued into Snoop Dogg’s “Serial Killer”
- Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch” (with Kamasi’s music teacher father, Ricky Washington, as Dolphy) with the Alkoholiks
- Eddie Harris’s “Freedom Jazz Dance” with Ice Cube’s “Today Was a Good Day”
- Gerald Wilson’s “Viva Tirado” with Pharcyde’s “Passin’ Me By”
- Ornette Coleman’s “Broken Shadows” with Freestyle Fellowship’s “Park Bench People”
The choice of the Latin-styled “Viva Tirado” reflects the fact that unlike the Watts Rebellion which was almost entirely black, 53% of the arrests in 1992 were of Latinos.
It’s no coincidence that the LA band El Chicano had a Top 30 hit with a cover of “Viva Tirado” in 1970, the same year in which the huge Chicano Moratorium anti-war march took place in Los Angeles. During the march, journalist Ruben Salazar was killed by the police.
Throughout the show West Coast Get Down vocalist Patrice Quinn would periodically step to the mic, but not to sing. “My name is Time, T-I-M-E, and I have something to teach,” she began. “Ella Fitzgerald, sitting in a Houston jail cell for throwing dice with the band in her dressing room…The police straight jacked their money but you know what it was really about that should interest you in 2015? It was her, Illinois Jacquet, Dizzy Gillespie, they got in trouble for integrating their audience that night.”
Music certainly hasn’t lost its power to bring people together. The audience on July 25, the largest at a Grand Performances concert this year, was all colors, all ages, and economically diverse because admission was free.
Patrice Quinn put what happened in the streets in 1965 and 1992 into deeper context, giving history lessons on slavery, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, Iran/Contra, and more. She brought it all forcefully into the present by pointing to the crimes of homelessness and police brutality in 2015, including the murderous conditions on Skid Row, a stone’s throw from where she stood on stage.
The musical synergy between jazz and hip-hop that night is just the tip of a very large iceberg. As Brian Cross notes, “There is something in terms of the scale of the imagination that has happened for this generation of people.” The scale of that imagination takes in music of many styles and many eras, sees no barriers between them and no reason not to mix them together.
The roots of this revolution began with the rise of hip-hop, when artists used new techniques and emerging technology to sample the music they wanted to use without any regard to how old or new it was or what genre it came from.
Widespread sampling was only a temporary defeat for the Legal Industrial Complex which claims to own everything. The lawyers eventually regained control of the music, which brought the DJ into greater prominence, since his or her use of music evaporates into the night, outside the reach of the copyright police. LA conductor/composer Geoff Gallegos credits “The openness of the DJ, the modern day music historian. He listens to the most records, his instrument is the turntable.” The DJs and other artists influence the audience. In turn, the audience supports their alchemy.
“My students don’t really see the difference between the Beatles, Slipknot, and Kendrick Lamar,” says Carvell Holloway. “They’re just “Oh, I like that.’ They know so much about all the stuff and they’re only twelve years old. When I was their age, I only listened to one radio station.”
“Technology,” adds composer/string player Miguel Atwood-Ferguson, “brings us closer together and gives us more access to a lot of things, including music. It’s pretty natural that things start to blend.”
It happens naturally, but not without a lot of help. In Los Angeles, visionary crews such as Art Don’t Sleep and Mochilla have been master blenders in making connections and staging events which feature great diversity.
Perhaps most surprising is the way the palette of classical sounds has found a home in new neighborhoods over the past decade.
An early example was the hip-hop/classical orchestra daKAH, helmed by Geoff Gallegos, which, beginning in Los Angeles in the late 1990s, crammed as many as seventy musicians on a stage.
In 2009 Miguel Atwood-Ferguson was the conductor at a now-legendary concert, Suite For Ma Dukes, where an orchestra played the arrangements he had created for the music of the late Detroit hip-hop pioneer J Dilla. Karma went in both directions that night–Dilla was the son of an opera singer and a jazz bassist and his first instrument was the cello.
Kamasi Washington’s West Coast Get Down core band has two drummers, two bassists, two keyboard players, percussion, vocalists and horns. That’s a lot of people making music, musicians who’ve honed their chops on jazz, hip-hop, rock, R&B, and heavy metal tours. When Brian Cross heard the initial results they’d gotten in the studio, he was blown away.
“But Kamasi wasn’t done,” he told me. “He had this great three story house but he wanted it to be eight stories high.” So the band was joined on the album by a 32-piece string orchestra and a 20-voice chorus, which made the jazz even fuller while at times evoking the majesty of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
The CD release show at LA’s Regent Theater on May 4, where 1200 people paid forty bucks each to get in on a Monday night, took things further. DJs filled in between sets and took star turns in the band. The spirit of the evening could be seen in the way the musicians were dressed. Some of the string players were in traditional classical garb, but others looked like they’d just gotten off their nine to five—a cellist wore a baseball cap and the conductor wore a hoodie. Other attire ranged from 60s Black Power to 80s MTV to the non-style styles of today. It was all part of the palpable joy of performing together, echoing Walt Whitman’s declaration that “I am large, I contain multitudes.”
Expanding their musical framework even further, several members of the West Coast Get Down either played, produced tracks, or arranged strings and horns on rapper Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 hip-hop/jazz/soul masterpiece, To Pimp A Butterfly,
Although Los Angeles is one focal point for mixture, the phenomenon is nationwide. For example, Black Violin, a violin/viola duo out of Florida, tours with a drummer and a DJ and plays a blend of classical and hip-hop. Violist Will Baptiste says “We’re two big black guys playing the violin. We’re breaking stereotypes every time we step on stage.”
It’s not just classical elements finding new homes, but the classical world itself is becoming a destination for other sounds.
daKAH conductor Gallegos has been commissioned to write the score for a new work for the LA Opera, set to debut in 2016. It takes place in a traffic jam. Another version of the opera is already taking shape in his mind. “I can’t wait to give it to the DJs,” he says, “so they can chop it up into something else.”
That type of blend is already being chopped up around the world. In Poland, 28-year-old composer/conductor Radzimir Debski (aka JIMEK) has been ending symphonic concerts with an encore that’s an orchestral history of hip-hop, a medley of thirty rap tracks featuring the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Missy Elliot, and the Beastie Boys. Recently JIMEK released his own debut as a rapper on video. “I recorded myself playing separate instruments like keys, drums, percussion, guitar, bass, and even violin to sound like a sampled band and then cut the shit out of it, like a good beatmaker would.”
“Classical musicians live in the same world as everyone else, hear the same music, like it, want it to be part of their musical lives,” says Greg Sandow, who teaches at Julliard and is a consultant specializing in the future of classical music. “This is especially true of younger classical musicians. Like so many younger people they may not make much distinction between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. They take it all as it comes.”
Sandow cites a few of what he says could be countless examples:
- Christopher O’Riley, concert pianist with a Sony record contract, also plays Radiohead transcriptions and created versions of Arcade Fire songs for cello and piano.
- Mason Bates–composer who’s also a dance DJ and puts a lot of EDM into his symphonic pieces. Now a composer in residence at the Kennedy Center in DC.
- Young orchestra musicians in a summer program a few years ago were scheduled to present a concert finale. Michael Jackson died the day of the show, so they whipped up a “Billie Jean” arrangement and played it.
- Opera singer Renee Fleming has recorded jazz and did an album of indie rock covers.
The distinction between high and low art has often been used as a weapon to minimize voices seeking to be heard through the medium of unruly post-war sounds. At one point, the governor of Georgia directed that every newborn in the state be given a classical CD in order to protect them from heavy metal and hip-hop. While on the surface this may reflect the division of society into haves and have-nots, all the music is a gift to the world. More and more, musicians and their audiences are finding each other, as barriers which once seemed permanent begin to crumble.
While the form of the music is mutating in new directions, the long-standing role of music as the conscience of the world is clearly still in the mix.
Kamasi Washington’s The Epic shows that the July 25 concert didn’t emerge out of thin air. One of the highlights of the album is a version of Terence Blanchard’s “Malcolm’s Theme,” which swirls around a recasting of Ossie Davis’s funeral eulogy for Malcolm X. Singer Patrice Quinn’s mom used to babysit the children of Malcolm X, who was assassinated only a few months before the Watts Rebellion.
To Pimp A Butterfly’s conclusion is an extended dialogue between Kendrick Lamar and Tupac in which Tupac says:
“The ground is the symbol for the poor people, the poor people is gonna open up this whole world and swallow up the rich people.”
For many musicians, their music, their lives, and the world they live in keeps returning to an unchanging fact of life—the violence of the police. Louis Armstrong. Central Avenue. Miles Davis beaten up by cops outside a New York nightclub where he was performing. The Watts Rebellion sparked by the beating of an innocent motorist. The murder of Ruben Salazar. J Dilla, whose home was invaded and trashed by cops, which caused him to write his own scathing song entitled, perhaps inevitably, “Fuck Tha Police.” The LA uprising of 1992, set off by the LAPD’s brutalizing of Rodney King. The epic 65/92 concert in the city of Los Angeles, where police shootings are rising by fifty per cent a year.
A tipping point came back in 1988 in the small corner of LA known as Compton. At the beginning of that year, Compton was an afterthought in Southern California and unknown elsewhere. But that was about to change. Five young men in Compton had come together to work on some music. “We were in the middle of gangs, police brutality, Reaganomics, and there was nowhere to escape,” Ice Cube told Rolling Stone. Ernest Hemingway once advised artists to “Write hard and clear about what hurts.” That’s precisely what Ice Cube’s group, N.W.A., did.
By the end of 1988, Compton had become a worldwide symbol of poverty in the post-industrial age. The catalyst was N.W.A.’s debut album, Straight Outta Compton, and its anthem “Fuck Tha Police.” The record took sides and it was well thought out. This was confirmed for me in 1993 when I went to Locke High School, where much of the music that is setting the pace today had its genesis, to hear Ice Cube speak to the student body. He began by saying that the principal had limited attendance at the assembly to those students with good grades. “I’m not with that,” Ice Cube said. “I’m here for everyone who’s skipping school today.” He knew that most Locke students, in school or out, faced the prospect of a lifetime of police and poverty. Ice Cube disdainfully held up a copy of Black Enterprise magazine, the cover of which praised the black church as a money-making business. He told the students they should ask their pastors why they weren’t serving the community instead.
N.W.A. was one of a teenaged Kamasi Washington’s first musical influences and its spirit hovered over his July 25 concert as did the solo albums of N.W.A. members Dr. Dre (The Chronic) and Ice Cube (The Predator). These CDs came out not long after the L.A. rebellion of 1992 and took the side of the people and opposed the police with a fiery intelligence. Classical consultant Greg Sandow, than on staff at the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, was the first of many writers to champion Straight Outta Compton.
The high profile of N.W.A. and Compton hasn’t faded. In fact, it’s more pervasive than ever. In the summer of 2015, Dr. Dre, a key figure in Kendrick Lamar’s musical direction, put out a new solo album, simply entitled Compton, which arrived on the album sales charts at number two. It was followed a week later by the re-release of N.W.A.’s debut Straight Outta Compton, back in the top five twenty-seven years after it first burst upon the world. The film about N.W.A., Straight Outta Compton, was released in August and may be the first Hollywood movie ever made in which there are no good cops, no made-up extenuating circumstances for the boys in blue, nothing but justified hatred for continuous brutality. In its first week, Straight Outta Compton set a box office record for a music biopic. Meanwhile, in 2015 Kendrick Lamar became the most popular hip-hop artist in the world. If you had to sum up his music in one word, it would be “Compton,” his hometown.
The reason N.W.A. and Compton remain such evocative markers is because the music and the history collectively speak so clearly to the escalating wave of police violence around the world. “Fuck Tha Police” was a scream of protest in 1988 but it has become a prophecy fulfilled. Public opinion, trending strongly multi-racial, is turning rapidly in the direction of N.W.A.’s defiant shout.
What’s next? It’s impossible to predict other than to say that the walls that have come down will not go back up. This is not just a mix of genres or styles or songs or sounds or notes or even musicians. Underneath it all is the relentless downward pressure all of us outside the one per cent feel in our lives. We have to try to stand and when we do we reach for any hand that’s outstretched toward us.
This process has a soundtrack. For instance, Kendrick Lamar, expanding his range of sound once again, recorded a duet with pop superstar Taylor Swift entitled “Bad Blood.” The YouTube video for the track has several hundred million views. Since these are mostly Taylor Swift fans, it means that there are now potentially over half a billion new connections to Kendrick’s scathing indictments of the police and poverty and to his powerful calls for unity, both of which define To Pimp A Butterfly, to say nothing of the musical innovations which amplify it all.
Nothing is guaranteed, of course, but more and more it feels like anything is possible.
“The universe is a vast, vast place. There’s room for everything.”—Kamasi Washington
Published by permission of the author, Lee Ballinger.
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