“The transitions of our forefathers were forced upon us,” mused Questlove last November. “All my jazz music and nerdy stuff, all of the things that I will admit enlighten me now, was punishment when I was 13. My parents tried exorcising the Prince outta me with John Coltrane, you know?”
Speaking to ShortList, the Roots maestro – releasing a book on his creative process – recalled a summer spent listening to the alto sax of a legend in 1983. It was his dad’s way of saying that he wouldn’t even know cool if it flipped him the bird in the street. But there it is: Questlove came around to the idea. Good for us. The Roots did as much as anyone to bring rap and jazz into orbit. For two genres that, on the surface, seem like their own distant gas giants, it’s been fabulous to see how they’ve become pretty tight partners.
When they clash, it’s awful. But when they swan in and out of each other – hip hop’s solidity above the smoky syncopation of brass and piano – there’s a lot to love. My brain can barely take it sometimes. Rap takes the human voice to its rhythmic nadir; jazz is the same, but for objects we plink, blow and pluck. They are cousins of chaos. Fire and disarrayed expectations are their shared blood type.
Chet Baker, after all, had as much classical training as a ham sandwich. He blew his way to the top until heroin and a nasty fight took him out of the charts, and dentures and disco tried to revive him in the 70s. Look at Public Enemy, Snoop et al. Gangster rap didn’t want anybody telling it what to do either. Just improvise, baby. Miles Davis went on to define jazz in the middle of the 20th century, then to refashion it with Bitches Brew. Jay-Z might’ve found a soulmate when he took hip hop to its diamond-caned bling glow, several years before he’d be the first rapper to play MTV Unplugged and, in time, preside over Def Jam. Transitions – any idols can ride them out, twice or thrice in a career.
Live instrumentation? Pfffff. It wasn’t done very often, until Guru and other experimentalists beat the door open. Pete Rock took a while to carry the message, choosing to tour his Mecca & The Soul Brother material with a band from the mid-2010s. Between the birth of jazz-rap and today, we’ve had Amy Winehouse and Nas, Robert Glasper, Awon, Chance The Rapper, Sidewalk Chalk, the flagpole of To Pimp A Butterfly all in homage to off-kilter soul. Boundaries are a past concern. Female jazz players are dabbling with electronics – listen to ‘Heaven’ by Allen Andrea Wang and try not to choke a little. There’s so much to be thankful for as jazz enlivens rap, which gives it a melodic bed to dance upon.
The final note goes to Coltrane, to bring us around a little sadly. Listen and pour a whiskey. Give your date something to schmooze to. But above all, remember that possibilities are there to be magnified, that the future should never leave its forefathers in the dust and, quite happily, it isn’t. There are new stars to unfold.