Is That Jazz?
by Robin Kidson
Jazz is notoriously difficult to describe in words. A workable definition would have to gather in a huge diversity of music, from Louis Armstrong to John Zorn, Kenny Ball to Miles Davis, Billie Holiday to John Coltrane. The task is virtually impossible so it’s little wonder that, when asked for a definition, the temptation is to opt for a joke or aphorism – as with Louis Armstrong: “man, if you gotta ask you’ll never know”, which doesn’t get us very far. In the end, jazz is defined by the ear, not the tongue. We listen to a piece of music and decide that it’s jazz or not jazz not by reference to an academic definition but by some other complex, almost unknowable process.
Inevitably, that involves an element of subjectivity: one person’s jazz is another’s tin pan alley trash – or unlistenable cacophony. If jazz is in the ear of the beholder then, when I hear the music of Gil Scott-Heron, I hear jazz. This may not be universally agreed. To many, Gil Scott-Heron belongs to other genres: R&B, rock, pop, rap… but not jazz. You won’t find his name in The Rough Guide to Jazz, for instance, but he does get an entry in The Rough Guide to Rock. Yet when I listen to his music, I hear a jazz sensibility at work. The rhythms are jazz; the chord changes and harmonies are jazz; the instrumentation, subject matter and spirit are all jazz, jazz, jazz.
Try the video of Gil playing Three MIles Down here.
Gil Scott-Heron didn’t set out to be a musician. He was born in Chicago in 1949 to Gilbert (Gil) Heron, a professional footballer from Jamaica and Bobbie Scott, an opera singer and teacher. His parents separated shortly after the birth when his father was offered a contract by the Celtic fotball club in Scotland. He was their first black player and also played for Third Lanark and Kidderminster Harriers before moving back to North America. Meanwhile, Gil Scott-Heron went to live in Jackson, Tennessee with his maternal grandmother. He learned to play the piano but his real love was writing, not music.
In the early 1960s, he was one of only three black children to attend an all-white school in Jackson as part of Tennessee’s early attempts at school desegregation. In 1962, however, he left Jackson to live with his mother in New York City. His writing talent was recognised by teachers there and he won a scholarship to Fieldston, a prestigious private independent school. He went on to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, then studied Creative Writing at Johns Hopkins University before becoming a full time lecturer in literature at a college in Washington D.C. He also found time to write two novels. So, he was well on the way to a career as a professional writer and academic, albeit one of a rebellious disposition.
But from school onwards, Gil Scott-Heron had also been developing an interest in music, particularly jazz and the blues. He began writing songs and performing them, playing piano. At Lincoln, he met music student, Brian Jackson, and the two of them formed a band called Black and Blues.
In 1970, Gil attracted the attention of record producer, Bob Thiele, who had worked with some of the jazz greats, notably John Coltrane. Thiele produced Scott-Heron’s first album, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox and released it on his own label, Flying Dutchman Records. The album has Scott-Heron reciting his poetry against a percussion background. The poems include The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, perhaps Gil Scott-Heron’s most famous work:
“…There will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock news
And no pictures of hairy armed women liberationists
And Jackie Onassis blowing her nose
The theme song will not be written by Jim Webb or Francis Scott Keys
Nor sung by Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash,
Engelbert Humperdinck, or The Rare Earth
The revolution will not be televised…”
The album’s militant take on the Afro-American experience marked Gil Scott-Heron as one of the black radicals of the time, a man of the anti-establishment Left. However, he is not a run-of-the-mill agitpropper with a mouthful of clichés and meaningless slogans; he is much, much more interesting than that with an originality and wit and a fearless concern with the truth even if that means exposing the hypocrisies of his fellow radicals. The sardonic wit is on show in another famous track on that first album called Whitey on the Moon in which Scott-Heron wonders why so many Afro-Americans live in poverty whilst millions can be spent putting “Whitey on the moon”.
Small Talk at 125th and Lenox has been seen as an important precursor of rap music but, at heart, it’s a jazz album made by jazz people for a jazz audience. The beat of Scott-Heron’s poetry and of the improvised percussion backing is the beat of jazz.
The album also showed Gil Scott-Heron as a confident and charismatic performer, something which came even more to the fore on his next album, Pieces of a Man, released on the Flying Dutchman label in 1971. By this time, he had established a strong working partnership with Brian Jackson. Pieces of a Man moves away from the spoken word of Small Talk at 125th and Lenox to a more conventional album of songs written by Scott-Heron either alone or with Jackson. The story goes that Bob Thiele asked Scott-Heron and Jackson who they wanted as backing musicians on the album. Could they have Ron Carter on bass and Hubert Laws on flute, they replied, never expecting that this would be in any way possible. Carter was the premier jazz bassist of the time, a fixture of the Miles Davies Quintet throughout much of the 1960s. Though not so well known, Laws had a considerable reputation amongst fellow jazz musicians. Of course, Thiele, with his connections was able to secure the services of both Carter and Laws. Together with Brian Jackson on piano, Bernard (“Pretty”) Purdie on drums and Burt Jones on guitar, they made an impressive jazz outfit.
Scott-Heron’s singing voice on Pieces of a Man is strong and melodic. It is perhaps not a great voice but it is distinctive and expressive. In its intonations and its bending and stretching of the note, it is also a jazz voice. However, the highlight of the album, a reworking of The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, has Scott-Heron back into spoken word mode. Listen here. . Both Carter’s bass and the improvising flute of Hubert Laws are well to the fore.
Pieces of a Man also includes Lady Day and John Coltrane, a wonderful hymn to the healing powers of jazz:
“…Could you call on Lady Day?
Could you call on John Coltrane?
Now ‘cause they’ll, they’ll wash your troubles,
Your troubles, your troubles, your troubles away…”
The song not only shows off Scott-Heron’s singing voice but also his compositional originality. Listen to it here.
Gil Scott-Heron’s final album for Bob Thiele’s Flying Dutchman label was Free Will in 1972. This was a mix of spoken word and song, with Jackson once again on piano, Pretty Purdie on drums and Hubert Laws on flute. Gerald Jemmott took over the bass part and Ron Spinozza featured on guitar. Some of the spoken word pieces featured Jackson on flute, who also co-wrote many of the album’s songs. The two stand out tracks of the album were a brilliant solo from Laws on the title track, and a glorious piece of Chicago electric blues on The Get Out Of The Ghetto Blues on which Scott-Heron showed off a splendid Buddy Guy blues shouting voice with both Jackson and Spinozza also in fine bluesy form. Listen to The Get Out Of The Ghetto Blues here:
Scott-Heron parted company with Bob Thiele and his next album, Winter in America, was released on the jazz label, Strata East in 1974. The record was presented as a joint effort between Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson and, as well as the imaginatively written title track, featured The Bottle, a song about alcohol abuse which was released as a single and became an underground hit.
In 1975, Scott-Heron and Jackson signed with Arista Records, a newly formed but large mainstream label. It was around this time that Scott-Heron left his teaching job and committed to a full time career as a musician/poet. His first Arista album (again, a joint effort with Jackson) was The First Minute of a New Day in 1975. Also released in 1975 was From South Africa to South Carolina. This included the anti-apartheid song, Johannesburg, which was released as a single with some commercial success. Here is a live performance of Johannesburg on the Old Grey Whistle Test in 1976, with Gil Scott-Heron at the height of his performing powers.
After recording four more albums with Arista, the partnership between Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson ended in 1980. Arista dropped Scott-Heron in 1985 and he more or less stopped recording for almost a decade. He still toured, however, and built a solid international following with his mix of spoken word and song to a jazz-funk backing. In 1994, he returned to the recording studio and released Spirits on the TVT label. The title track is a version of John Coltrane’s Equinox and features long term associates, Robert Gordon, on bass and hard-bop saxophonist, Ron Holloway. He was also reunited with Brian Jackson who played piano on the album.
Unfortunately, Gil Scott-Heron eventually succumbed to the jazz musician’s occupational disease, addiction. In his case, it was addiction to crack cocaine and from 2001 to 2007, he had several spells in jail for possession and for breaking agreements to spend time in rehab. His career, however, had a triumphant late flowering with the album, I’m New Here, released in 2010 on the British XL label. It is largely the creation of English record producer, Richard Russell – Scott-Heron is on record as saying “This is Richard’s CD”. It includes some of Scott-Heron’s trademark spoken monologues but the backing is very twenty first century trip hop electronica rather than the jazz funk of old. Other tracks are sung and include a searing version of the old Robert Johnson blues, Me And The Devil. The title track, here, is a mix of spoken and sung words to an acoustic guitar backing. The performance is a poignant one, made even more so by the knowledge that Gil Scott-Heron had only a few more months to live, dying in New York City in May 2011. He was only 62 but looked much older.
This piece began by asking the perennial question: What is Jazz? It’s a question which Gil Scott-Heron also addressed in a track on his Reflections album of 1981 called Is That Jazz?
“…Bird was the word back when tenors were heard
From Kansas right up to the Prez, Lester Young
And Billie was really the Queen of a scene
That keeps echoing in my head…
…We over analyse we let others define
A thousand precious feelings from our past
When we express love and tenderness
Is that Jazz? Is that Jazz? Is that Jazz?”
Here is the track played live. It’s a stonking performance – a reminder of Gil Scott-Heron in his pomp - and if it’s not jazz, I don’t know what is.