Jazz is no longer cool.
Once the dominant soundtrack for nightclubs and bars, jazz is now relegated to elevators and radio stations at the lower end of the FM dial. Compared to newer genres like rap, jazz is an antiquated musical style, one that’s better suited for older crowds than younger Snapchat-obsessed audiences. You won’t hear it at house parties or while shopping at H&M. In fact, chances are, you won’t hear it at all.
But pianist Robert Glasper is trying to change that.
“The jazz genre hasn’t progressed in a long time,” says the 37-year-old musician. “And young people are not interested in it.”
About five years ago, he realized that to save the genre, it needed to become more palatable to the modern ear. By interweaving other musical styles within the framework of jazz and finding big name artists to collaborate with, Glasper, who once claimed he had “musical A.D.D.,” landed on a solution.
In February 2012, he unveiled it in the form of the album Black Radio. In addition to the instrumentals, created by his quartet, The Robert Glasper Experiment, the album featured vocals from decidedly non-jazz artists like Erykah Badu, Lupe Fiasco, Bilal, Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), and Musiq Souldchild. The result, a delicately crafted fusion of jazz, R&B, neo-soul, and hip-hop, was unlike any other project released that year and, as a result, won a Grammy for Best R&B Album.
Glasper’s next album, Black Radio 2, took off where the original ended, incorporating an even broader array of established musicians, including Brandy, Jill Scott, Snoop Dogg, Norah Jones, and Fall Out Boy singer/guitarist Patrick Stump. The album hit No. 1 on Billboard‘s Top Jazz Albums chart and No. 16 on the Top 200.
“This movement of the Black Radio stuff helped spark a renewed interest in jazz,” Glasper says. “People are more open-minded about groups that aren’t doing straight jazz or straight R&B, and it’s showing that the music climate is changing.” Take a glance at this year’s Grammy nominees, which includes stylistically eclectic groups like Hiatus Kaiyote, The Internet, and Snarky Puppy, and you’ll see Glasper is right.
“I’m opening doors,” Glasper says. “Now, so many younger musicians can benefit from it and see that it’s OK to incorporate multiple influences in your music.”
Glasper was raised in Houston, Texas, on a steady diet of gospel and R&B music. His mother was a professional jazz and blues singer who encouraged him to play piano at a young age. By the time he was 13, he had become the choir director and pianist for his church. He attended a performing arts high school, where he continued to study jazz piano, and then attended The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York City. The first friend he made there was the neo-soul singer Bilal, with whom he later recorded and toured. In fact, it was through touring with Bilal that Glasper met many of the artists he would collaborate with years later on Black Radio.
He recorded his first album, Mood, at age 24, and churned out a new album every two years until 2009. When the idea for Black Radio came to him, Glasper originally planned to have only four or five guest singers. But, based on the wealth of responses he got from a mass text he sent to artists (“I was like, ‘I’m doing an album. Would you be down to jump on it?'”), the album ballooned into having at least one guest singer per track.
For Black Radio 2, Glasper decided to take the project one step further and reached out to substantially more famous artists he didn’t yet know. Thanks in large part to Black Radio, everyone Glasper asked agreed to be a part of the follow-up. “That Grammy validated my shit, so it kind of became this high-level project that singers wanted to be a part of,” he says. “It was like, if you’re part of it, you’re dope.”
Glasper has plans to include lesser-known artists in future Black Radio albums and says he had to feature big-name musicians up front out of necessity. “The reality is, I had to use people that were already established and had their name out there, to establish myself,” he explains.
With both Black Radio albums, Glasper feels he has “blazed a trail” for future generations of jazz artists who want to explore new sounds. (In fact, Nike recently commissioned him to create a composition commemorating Kobe Bryant’s 20-year NBA career.)
But being the first has its drawbacks, as well.
“A lot of times, jazz people will be like, ‘Robert, you should come back to your roots and play jazz,'” he says. “But who says that once you start in jazz you have to end in jazz? Like, who does that?”