downbeat magazine: jazz is dead

DJ culture is proving to be an unheralded hero of jazz education.

Sometimes, it’s DJs and producers digging for rare breaks and samples that help develop a broader sense of jazz history—some of which has yet to be celebrated or just willfully redacted. Through DJ culture, we’re better able to connect the seemingly incongruent links among jazz, disco and dance music in the recorded legacies of Roy Ayers, Brian Jackson and Marcos Valle.

Those three artists—and a handful of others—appear on Jazz Is Dead 001, a head-nodding compilation produced by Adrian Younge and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

“Hip-hop serves as a conduit to the past,” Younge said. “If it wasn’t for hip-hop, there would be a lot of music that I wouldn’t know. If it wasn’t for hip-hop, I wonder if I would have even known who Roy Ayers is. A lot of times in black culture, when we are done with something, we don’t go back. Hip-hop kinda changed that. Hip-hop is vinyl culture taken to the next level.”

Younge and Muhammad are both iconic DJs and producers with serious credentials: Multi-instrumentalist Younge has worked with hip-hop heavyweights like Wu-Tang Clan, Souls of Mischief and Jay-Z; Muhammad was a member of the foundational hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, as well as the short-lived neo-soul outfit Lucy Pearl.

During a 2013 tour, Younge met Muhammad and asked him to work on Souls of Mischief’s There Is Only Now. From there, they formally joined forces as The Midnight Hour and produced a 2018 eponymous LP that blended Muhammad’s penchant for jazz-laden hip-hop beats and Younge’s fondness for hazy, Blaxploitation-era psychedelic funk and soul.

After partnering with concert promoter Andrew Lojero and music-industry vet Adam Block, Younge and Muhammad helped launch a jazz concert series with a provocative name: Jazz Is Dead. An alarming moniker, it was designed to celebrate jazz culture, recontextualize it for a younger generation and eschew moldy misconceptions about the art form.

“They should have put Jazz Is Dead in quotations,” said keyboardist Doug Carn, who appears on the compilation’s wistful ballad “Down Deep.” “Jazz, as many of us remembered it, has probably been dead for a long time, because it’s too broad of a field to be narrowly focused. [Jazz Is Dead] is like wearing a T-shirt with Einstein’s picture and saying, ‘I know nothing.’ We all know that it’s far from the truth.”

Within a larger context, Jazz Is Dead resides in a global ecosystem the seeks to recombine groove-based dance musics, hip-hop and jazzier fare that goes back to the late 1980s when the influential UK magazine Straight No Chaser was founded—or when the New York dance party Groove Academy started. Since then, robust transatlantic initiatives like London’s jazz re:freshed and the State’s Revive Music have extended the relationships.

Out of the Jazz Is Dead concert series came the idea for Younge and Muhammad to start a label with the same name. “We want to make the illest jazz label around. We want to make something that’s very raw and very forward-thinking,” Younge said.

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