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Relevant to His Time: An Interview with Robert Glasper

Jon Wertheim
Staff Writer
jon.wertheim@gmail.com / @rtbjazz

Some conversations bore me. Some don’t. But few are interesting enough that I’ll sit hunched over a cell phone for fifteen minutes, holding a microphone up to the earpiece, and then spend half an hour trying to decipher the grainy voice on the tape for just a few pages of type. This one was.

We could have just written a review of Robert Glasper’s new album, Black Radio, recorded for Blue Note with his Experiment (and a series of distinguished guests including Erykah Badu, Musiq [Soulchild], Ledisi, Lupe Fiasco, Yasiin Bey [ Mos Def], and others). But Glasper has a strong voice, and not just on the piano, so we decided to let him speak for himself about the thoughts that occupy the mind behind the record.

Nextbop: Thank you very much for doing this. I know you must have a busy schedule.

Robert Glasper: No problem.

NB: Well, let's just get into it. First question is, what was your mission making Black Radio? What did you want the music community to know when they saw this record in the music store and listened to it for the first time?

RG: That I'm a man of many dimensions, and many sides. Now I'm just exploring my more hip-hop/soul side, but still jazz-infused. So really this is like a good collaboration album of hip-hop, soul, jazz... You know. I think I'm the first one to actually do it right.

NB: It's definitely very good, for sure. People always talk about Herbie Hancock and J Dilla when they talk the influences on Robert Glasper, and I know you've talked a lot about those influences in the past, but what's an influence that people never ask about, or that you never see written up in the articles?

RG: Mulgrew Miller. He's one of my favorite pianists living right now. But he just never really got his props. He's literally the one guy that if he's playing I'm going to run to try to see him play. Definitely an influence. He gave me one lesson in eleventh grade, and he completely changed my playing. So yeah, I would say he's one of those guys.

NB: In a video interview last year, you said of the, I guess I'll call it the "fusion" of hip-hop and jazz, you said, "The state of jazz right now is mixing some hip-hop with jazz." Black Radio is an amazing example of that mix. Do you think that the music you're making right now is representative of the jazz scene today?

RG: I think it will be. I don't think that there's a million people doing this right now, so it's not a representation of the jazz scene, like what's happening. It is representational of what's probably going to start happening more. I want it change, because I got bored with the jazz scene. The jazz scene is a certain way, but it's not this. But I think now, there's a lot of young cats coming up that are starting to be honest with themselves. And it doesn't have to be hip-hop. But just infusing things that are relevant to today's culture into jazz. We've got to make jazz a relevant music of today's culture. People listen to it and automatically think of the sixties, or the fifties, you know what I mean? But people playing the sixties weren't thinking about the twenties, you know what I mean? (Laughs) Trane wasn't always thinking about Coleman Hawkins. He was always progressing and changing and moving and trying to push the envelope. That's what the purpose of the music is. So I'm really just doing what the purpose of the music is: staying relevant and grabbing things from around me.

NB: And what's relevant to you might be different from what's relevant to someone else, but as long as it's personally relevant, that's what's important.

RG: Exactly. That's exactly it.

NB: Do you think there's a danger of people starting to take what's relevant to you and playing that as if it was relevant to themselves?

RG: That's happening already! (Laughs) It's very, very hilarious. You have to be honest with yourself, what do you like? You know what I mean, whatever you really like. And then do that. And it's obvious they're trying to do something that someone else thinks is relevant.

NB: So. You've been using the word "jazz" in this, and you've used the word in the past, and I've just go to ask you...

RG: (Laughs)

NB: Do you agree with Nicholas Payton and the Black American Music, and this whole "BAM" thing that's been happening. You use the word "jazz," but you don't really fit into a specific genre yourself. What are your opinions on that whole thing?

RG: I agree with the reasons for it, I understand the reasoning for it. I don't agree with the name. I don't agree, actually, with the way he's going about trying to change the name right now. I don't agree with the name because it's too wide-ranged. Too many genres fit under Black American Music. Too many genres that don't have a problem fit under that name. R&B... Shit! Pop, rock, blues... (Laughs) You know, hip-hop... They all fit under Black American Music, but now if you just call it that, it doesn't even have a name under that umbrella, so it makes it more ambiguous, like "Where is it? What is it? Huh?" We're having a hard enough time with a name. And trying to change the name now, I personally don't think is going to make anybody like the music any better. I think we should just change the music. Maybe change the music and then change the name of your music. If you're coming up with something kind of new, maybe call it something - you know, call that something else. But I just don't think BAM is going to work. But again, I agree with the reasoning for it.

NB: In the past, in interviews - I know you spoke about this one in an interview with The Revivalist - you've said that it's really important for musicians to start writing their own material. You've definitely developed a pretty extensive songbook over your own albums. Black Radio includes "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and "Afro Blue," tunes from very disparate backgrounds. Do you think that jazz needs to retain the old standards from the fifties and sixties and incorporate them into now, or do you think we need to start making our own standards? What do you think about that concept of a standard songbook for jazz?

RG: I think people concentrate too much on standards. Now, when you go to a college, you have to know, like, 100 standards, fifty standards in your songbook. And everybody's about standards when you go to jazz clubs, like "How many standards do you know? How many standards?" It's like, "Have you ever written a song?" (Laughs) Standards ain't nothing but songs that other people wrote, so write your own songs! You know, shit! That's how they became who they are. That's how I you get your sound, through compositions. It's hard to have a sound playing other people's music. Now, that's a fine line. People go too much with the standards, and "You gotta know these, and you gotta know all your history, before you can become yourself you must know all about jazz history." And that's not true. I mean, we have 100 years of jazz history; that's not fair! (Laughs) You know, we can't learn all that and become ourselves! Really, you know? People have to start thinking and coming up with stuff and becoming individuals. Charlie Parker didn't have 100 years of jazz history to look back on. He just said, "Hey." God blessed him with some talent, and he took some shit from the blues, some classical music, some other things, and, you know, boom. There he goes. Made up some shit, and it was killin'. It's not that hard. As a concept, I mean. When you think about, he wasn't thinking that hard. He wasn't sitting there racking his brain, "Oh my God..."

NB: "I need to come up with the next big thing!"

But when people want to teach they need something to teach. So they must keep you in school for four years, and they need a plethora of things to teach. So, "Okay, we'll do a hundred years of music!" (Laughs) "That'll take up enough time!" But there's a fine line. I believe you must study. I studied. But at the same time, study with the intention of coming up with your own thing. I think it's very important to write. I don't think they stress composition enough in schools. I think they stress learning standards too much. I think schools are making jazz a museum. You know what I mean? You're paying homage. It's a history! You know? I feel like when you're going into a jazz class, everything's jazz history. There's a jazz history course, but there's now "Jazz Now" course, or "Jazz Relevance" course. Everything just seems like jazz history. You almost don't need the word “history” with it, people automatically assume... (Laughs) Everybody assumes it's history off the top.

NB: So, it seems like every time there's a new musician on the scene, whether it's you or The Bad Plus or Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, someone doing something creative and innovative, they're met with suspicion by the jazz community. "Oh, that's not jazz. That's not real." Why do you think the jazz community reacts this way?

RG: I think most of the people who talk like that aren't really invested anyway. They want that time period back, where they actually fit in. They're scared of change, like, "Oh, you changed it. I can't get into that, so I'll talk shit about you, tell you it's supposed to be like this." But it's like, hey, I'm sorry you can't change with the times, but you're stuck in a certain time period and that sucks for you. You know? What person said "It stops here?" Because it doesn't stop where it starts. It definitely progressed. So hey, if you like Miles, or if you like whoever, Trane, then you're contradicting yourself from the door. Because you're saying it's okay to change. But only to a certain point now, or...? (Laughs) Who makes that point? So I don't really care. People say this is not jazz or whatever, that just goes with history. They're supposed to say that! (Laughs) I'm doing something new. You're not. You're just saying what people used to say.

NB: Well, we've come to the end. This is the last question. At the site where this interview will appear, Nextbop.com, we talk a lot about a "new generation" of jazz musicians, a generation of young jazz musicians that includes you, Aaron Parks, Gretchen Parlato, Dayna Stephens, Gerald Clayton... Do you think that concept, this new generation of jazz musicians, is accurate?

RG: Totally. Yup. I think so. I think everybody you mentioned are people like that. They have a vision; they're not stuck in anybody else's lifetime. They're living in their lifetime and creating in their lifetime, so I totally think that's true. And you know, when I go to colleges and do clinics and stuff, I see a lot of young cats with that same kind of thinking. It's really cool.

NB: Well, that's it. Thank you very much.,

RG: Thank you.

Check out Glasper’s new album, Black Radio, streaming at NPR Music this week before its release on February 28.

Jon Wertheim, a jazz drummer and (somewhat) acclaimed jazz writer, can be found at his jazz blog, Rehearsing The Blues, and on Twitter. He has released one album, Returning.