A few years ago on the Adult Swim show Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Tim and Eric spoofed amateur jazz musicians. Wearing metallic shirts, fedoras and granny sunglasses indoors, they stiffly bang out cheesy elevator jazz music, “skat” and get off on their crappy improvised riffs.
“I manage a lot of children, we go on camping retreats. At night, when they’re asleep, I’ll put on a little jazz, a little boogie woogie,” Eric says. “When they wake up, they are irritable and they did not have a pleasant night’s sleep because kids do not like jazz.”
“Nor should they!” Tim replies, tooting his horn.
In 2016, however, kids do like jazz, and why wouldn’t they? After a long period of dormancy in which the only people who enjoyed jazz were your parents or dorks like the ones Tim and Eric poked fun at, jazz is suddenly cool again—largely because for the first time in a long time, it’s actually being made for and by people under 40. Jazz musicians Robert Glasper and Kamasi Washington collaborate with Erykah Badu and Kendrick Lamar; The Internet, which spun off from Odd Future, is a live band that incorporates jazz elements into their music; the label Brainfeeder, purveyor of underground cool, releases jazz-tinged records from Thundercat and label boss Flying Lotus; Kendrick Lamar and Ty Dolla $ign hire buddies like saxophonist Terrace Martin, a longtime fixture in L.A.’s jazz clubs, to create new jazz classics. The band BADBADNOTGOOD, a Canadian quartet who met through their college jazz program, are on the cusp of releasing their fourth solo studio album, IV, which is comprised of all new original jazz material.
Popular opinion has long said jazz is, at best, inaccessible unless you’re a musician. At worst, it’s a dead art form. But now, thanks to albums like Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Washington’s The Epic, the genre is damn near experiencing a renaissance.
“I think jazz is kind of highbrow and that’s sometimes a bad thing because I think all music should be accessible to anyone,” says the British singer Nao, who studied jazz at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and will drop her upcoming studio debut For All We Know later this month. “But what Kendrick did was amazing. It wasn’t a jazz record but had huge jazz influences. He did motifs as well, coming back to certain phrases all the time, which is really interesting. Fly Lo and Thundercat always used it. [But] someone as huge as Kendrick? Maybe it’s coming back.”
“Obviously jazz has always been happening since its birth, but you never hear it because [its musicians are] just locally based,” says BBNG’s Leland Whitty. “[But] it’s becoming more accessible. Kendrick doing it is huge because it reached such a huge audience. That it inspires people to listen to other music is amazing in itself.”
The revival in the 21 and younger crowd seems to have started in April 2011 when BBNG sort of tricked them into listening to jazz. Instead of force feeding them straightforward songs, they recorded jazz covers of Gucci Mane’s “Lemonade” and Odd Future songs. Stoked, Tyler the Creator, tweeted the link, saying, “I Love Jazz, This Is Fucking Sick! Dave Brubek Trio Swag.” BBNG’s strategy was smart: They graduated their fans to solid food slowly, first releasing an album of covers. For their second record, they scattered new material in with covers. Their fourth album, Sour Soul, was a collaboration with Ghostface Killah. Now, IV will consist solely of original material.
“We have a unique cultural movement. It definitely revolves a lot around hip-hop. Kids looking up samples on WhoSampled [or making] Kanye sample playlists on Spotify,” Alex Sowinski of BBNG says. “People find out that Ron Carter played on A Tribe Called Quest, Robert Glasper played on this Adrian Young Bilal project. Knowing the lineup of all the bands and musicians is something you’ve gottta be up on.”
Indeed, rap fans’ obsessive need-to-know mirrors jazz fans’. It’s always been a point of pride and proof of a rap fan’s credibility to know every lyric and producer and sample—just as jazz fans spend hours digging up, say, Brazilian music from the ‘50s and ‘60s. Tapping into hip-hop heads’ hunting instinct is wise.
Of course, jazz and rap have always had a cozy relationship. A similar resurgence happened in the early ‘90s with A Tribe Called Quest, Gang Starr and Digible Planets. What’s different this time around is that classic jazz records aren’t just being sampled—new jazz songs are being written. But why is there so much renewed interest in a genre thought to be past its prime, and so much interest from kids?
“It’s one of the most expressive types of music. [It has] spontaneous, organic aspects, [whereas] nowadays a lot of music is so controlled, computer-based music where every little factor is programmed in and meticulously thought about,” says Whitty. “But jazz has always been this really raw, freeform expression, which is important to have in music.”
In the end, maybe it comes back to the same reason Miles Davis and John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk made jazz. Put simply, it’s about freedom of expression. As our lives are ever more regimented and scheduled and policed, musicians want space to relax their minds and allow them to run wild.
“Why we love it so much is because being limitless and free and hearing improvised solos just allows for unconscious expression,” Sowinski continues. “When you’re listening to pop and rock, parts are really laid out and planned and you don’t get that step back, floating, in-the-moment-emotion kind of music. I feel like that’s becoming a more sought after feeling right now.”
True. As we increasingly communicate electronically and not face-to-face, we crave the experience of going out and not only feeling a saxophone blast our faces and bass raise the hair on our arms and live instruments warm our bodies, but feeling all those things collectively, with other human beings. It’s a lot of weight to bear, but jazz seems to be important because it’s bringing us together.
“We listen to ‘All Right,’ and I’m pretty sure the sax soprano noodling is not written out. I think he’s just soloing and they chopped up that take,” Sowinski says. “To hear that kind of feeling and emotion in a huge rap song that’s an anthem is so cool.”