By Thaddeus Tukes
[A version of the story was co-published on Blavity.]
Jazz is the essence of black culture, yet for years, black musicians have felt it being taken away by the rapaciousness of commerce and profit.
The newest emerging voice in reclaiming jazz hails from the South Side of Chicago, which gave birth and meaning to international trumpet phenomenon Marquis Hill.
“Chicago made me into the man I am today. Chicago made me into the musician I am today,” said the 29-year-old Chatham native. “I’m really excited to be a part of this big Chicago movement that’s happening.”
Hill, fresh off of a tour with legendary bassist Marcus Miller, is back on the road with his band, the Blacktet, performing music from their latest album, “The Way We Play.” With an album cover of the famous Chicago skyline, and a unique approach to composition and improvisation, Hill has one message.
“When you trace the history of everything, it’s all the same. I’m a hip-hop lover, I love blues, I love jazz, I love soul, I love rock. Those forms fall under the umbrella of black music. Now, those were just genre names, but if you want to think about it, it’s really just a melting pot of black music.”
Cultural authenticity in jazz music has been a long-debated point of contention in the music community. During the Cold War, trumpeter Louis Armstrong was sent on a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour of Europe, in a diplomatic effort to showcase American culture, earning him the name “Ambassador Satchmo.” In more recent years, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was appointed United Nations Messenger of Peace by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, under the Bush administration.
In 2014, New Orleans trumpeter Nicholas Peyton introduced Black American Music, or BAM, to combat the divisive conversations around the word “jazz,” which he says “prevents an authentic analysis of the art.”
“In Black music there are no fields, per se, there are territories and lineages. It’s very clear who is a master drummer in the tribe and who is not. There is also a rhythmic lilt to how you phrase that is encoded in your DNA that gives a sign as to where you are from,” said Peyton in an article on his website.
Before that, renowned jazz critic Stanley Crouch was fired from the magazine JazzTimes, after backlash from his article, “Putting the White Man in Charge,” which discussed the commercial push of white jazz musicians over black musicians.
Crouch wrote: “This time white musicians who can play are too frequently elevated far beyond their abilities in order to allow white writers to make themselves feel more comfortable about being in the role of evaluating an art from which they feel substantially alienated… . Now certain kinds of white men can focus their rebellion on the Negro.”
Hill has his own ideas.
“The first known recording of ‘jazz’ was an all-white band, I believe the original Dixieland jazz band. They were making a mockery of this black music that was being created by people like Louis Armstrong and all of those cats in Chicago. So it’s just a word that was given to this music from day one, and it just stuck through the generations.”
Since winning the 2014 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition, Hill has been on an international stage. He was a featured artist with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Youth Orchestra, and NPR did a special on him, called “The Making of the Marquis Hill Blacktet,” which reflected on his journey as a musician, from the Chicago area to international tours. With these experiences in mind, Hill believes that black music connects with audiences everywhere.
“People in Europe and Africa and Asia and people in different continents around the world – they love the music. Funny enough, it’s just here in the U.S. that jazz doesn’t get as much love as it really needs, which takes us back to that word. I believe [Americans] hear the word ‘jazz’ and it turns them off, but internationally, people love and respect the music.
“It’s been really, really eye-opening to me,” Hill says. “They treat us like royalty.”
Hill is making sure that his music stays accessible, releasing physical and digital copies in an age when almost everything is streamed.
“It’s very clear the direction we’re going in, in terms of streaming music and downloading. CDs won’t be necessary pretty soon. But I think we’re at the end of that period. There’s still some people that come to live shows and want to leave with a physical record.”
“The Way We Play” is Hill’s first commercial release with a major label (Concord Jazz). While he previously released four projects independently, he says he enjoyed his experience with the label.
“There are certain protocols that have to happen when you want to make a move,” Hill says. “When you want to do something, when you want to make a decision, you have to ask them, to a certain extent. When I was producing these records myself, I was my own boss. I didn’t have to ask anyone. If I wanted to do this, OK, let’s make this happen. But other than that, it was amazing.”
With co-signs from contemporary greats, such as Wynton Marsalis, Hill aims to develop his own voice in the music industry.
“The music has always been a reflection of what’s happening in society. It’s been the black voice for a very long time. I think there was a moment where we lost that, but you see artists nowadays bringing that back. And I think that should be one of the major roles of jazz, or black music.”