Nico Segal, 24, can’t get to everything in all the lives he’s living. It may not appear that way: trumpeter, producer, and songwriter running from the bloodline of Chicago jazz and cut from the new cloth of Chicago’s rap renaissance. As a key member in the Social Experiment, Segal’s spent several years in the project alongside Chance the Rapper and company, lending his genre-defying expertise to stage and studio. Under his now-abandoned Donnie Trumpet moniker (for the obvious reason of not just playing trumpet) he went on to curate Surf: a sprawling free album with a mile-long cast of collaborators hidden within its margins for listeners to discover on their own accord.
But Segal’s longed for his jazz roots even as he’s seen the world from his letterman. The JuJu Exchange is his answer: the lovechild of his passion for the great American genre. Comprised of Julian Reid, Everett Reid and Lane Beckstrom, the members all reconvened from their glory days at the Merit School of Music. Created on the cusp of the ‘80s in response to Chicago Public School’s divestment in arts education, Merit curated the finest Chicago’s teenage talent from the city to the suburbs, hosting a thriving ecosystem of fantastic instructors and unending opportunities for interdisciplinary collaboration. It’s where Kids These Days was born, and where the JuJu rose from the ashes as a collective of old homies collaborating to achieve something bigger than themselves.
“All the time, I’m still blown away by random tweets or videos I get of people jamming to the tunes,” Segal says. “A big part of what we’re doing is trying to be a part of something greater - not like ‘We’re the ones, bringing young people into jazz!’ - we want to be a part of this whole movement of instrumentalists and [different bands] that are making this whole crossover thing happen and making it make more sense for younger people. On the same token, [we’re] bringing the jazz heads into this music and having them understand the merit - (chuckles) if you will - of the music itself.”
Is it a jazz quartet playing the standards? Is it a rap group masquerading as “high art,” infiltrating the highbrow playground to burn it down to the quarter-note? While you’d find Juju in the jazz section of Spotify, resting their efforts on such an open-ended label feels inadequate at minimum. Segal maintains a heavy disinterest in rehashing the classics for sport, electing to fuse the loftier skillfulness of his jazz background with elements of hip-hop, pop, and classical to engage today’s discourse.
“We want to take away some of the exclusivity [or the] mystery that jazz musicians [have], and bring it more to ‘Hey, this is for you guys, too. This is for everybody,” Segal says. “This isn’t just for people that study chord changes or know a bunch of theory; this can just be for young people to jump around and listen to and have fun, and also have to really think and ask some big questions.”
Exchange is the JuJu’s debut album, and it’s self-fulfilling prophecy: an open-source celebration of the “special moments” in life and what can happen when folks collaborate to improve upon them. Segal didn’t want to be the focal point, soloing himself into oblivion, nor did he want to do Surf again. Where perfectionism and excess once reigned supreme, the Exchange collaborative process happened organically from improvisational sessions, recorded from room mics to cell phones, with every member playing from each other until something special presents itself. Once they compile every special moment, they chop, replay, and resample until everything’s in its right place and everyone has their hand in molding the sound from scratch.
Where intentionality and passion intersect, the JuJu credit their efforts to an unflinching spirituality to center positivity in negative times while demystifying the processes of jazz to bridge the generational gap for all to enjoy. They’re untethered to the strict formalities of the canon, free to create and remix their energies for the world to follow. While the Reid brothers come from church - their mother a pastor, their father a theologist - and Segal and Beckstrom find spirituality in different ways, their process became a practice all its own.
“Jazz music is a very spiritual music: it comes from the blues, it comes from struggle, it comes from oppression,” Segal says. “[It’s] been around for a very long time and has seen a lot of different change[s].... and I’d like to think that we’re a part of that change. We’re a multiracial, multiethnic, multi-background band: we all can have these different interpretations or actual meanings of what God is, but we can all be spiritual together because we believe in the spiritual connectivity of music. Specifically, in this case, jazz music and how [it] brings all these people together of all these different backgrounds; [we’re] trying to stand for something bigger, something more important than one soloist.”
Segal’s vision for the JuJu: a four-piece instrumentalist group of different personalities for the world to latch onto even without the vocals present. In their world, the kids pine for a Nico trumpet solo the way they scream for Lane’s bass or the Reid brothers trading off. Rather than trapping oneself in the oft-misguided image of jazz as an inaccessible endeavor, Segal wants to free the imagination by leaving nothing to it. The JuJu released their sheet music via Genius: a move to demystify the perceived complexities of the music by not only showcasing its simplicity, but encouraging the listeners to read music the way they read lyrics and be bold enough to try the songs for themselves. It’s what lends Exchange a timeless potential: it’s moving and emotive as the instruments speak for themselves, and it’s a reclamation of the form that’s sure to reinvigorate a push for a new, inclusive standard.
For jazz to remain, it must evolve; conformity to the classic is a certain death.
“We wanted to take away the mystery - this exclusive country-club feel of jazz music - and bring it back to what it really is: it’s music for the people,” Segal says. “It’s music for young people, for old people, it’s the American classical music. It’s our music - and when I say our music, I really mean Black music - but this is the music that America contributed to the universe, and we want people to feel connected to it.”
Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a former VMP staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.