Guru's Jazzmatazz, Vol. 1

Doo-wop, bebop, and hip-hop have more than an alliterative sound commonality: Each is an indigenous music with roots and extensions inseparably connected to the African American blues continuum. While each possesses unique and distinct standalone elements, they all evolved from an expressive center, a fulcrum where innovation, improvisation, and spontaneity thrive. Parsing bebop and hip-hop essentially means examining how jazz and rap blend, something that Guru and Donald Byrd merged in 1993 with “Jazzmatazz,” a pioneering, genre-bending album.

Even before Guru advanced his creativity, intimations of jazz and the spoken word were evident in scatting or vocalese, most notably in the recordings of Eddie Jefferson; King Pleasure; Babs Gonzales; and Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross.

Scatting came into existence almost accidentally, when Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong was forced to utter some nonsense words, a kind of onomatopoeia sounds that approximated the actual words after his songsheet fell from the stand, and singer Ella Fitzgerald perfected this invention. As for vocalese, Jefferson penned the lyrics to James Moody’s solo on “I’m in the Mood for Love,” but Pleasure made it famous.

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Review of Guru’s groundbreaking album “Jazzmatazz Volume 1 (An Experimental Fusion of Hip-Hop and Jazz)” Credit: AmNews Archives

Here is the first stanza which was requisite for anyone claiming to be a jazz aficionado:

“There I go, there I go/There I go/Pretty baby, you are the soul who snaps my control

Such a funny thing but every time you’re near me, I never can behave

You give me a smile and then I’m wrapped up in your magic/

There’s music all around me, crazy music

Music that keeps calling me so very close to you

Turns me your slave…”

To some extent, the commentaries the Ink Spots and the Mills Brothers interpolated into their performances and recordings are part of this evolutionary trend. In the ’60s and ’70s, the Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron took the concept to another plateau, fusing the music with didactic political messages.

In the late ’80s, when Gang Starr sampled Dizzy Gillespie's famous song “A Night In Tunisia,” a harbinger of something new was on the horizon. The rapper followed up this pathbreaking hit with his debut LP, “No More Nice Guy,” and “Jazz Thing,” which, as part of the soundtrack of “Mo Better Blues,” gave the fusion of jazz and rap a popular and commercial buzz.

The vernacular blend was given additional clout with Eric B & Rakim’s “Don’t Sweat the Technique,” where an acoustic bass embellishes the rap.

Here is a taste of Eric B & Rakim’s “Paid in Full,” from 1987:

“It’s been a long time, I shouldn’t have left you

Without a strong rhyme to step to

Think of how many weak shows you slept through

Time’s up, I’m sorry I kept you...

Even if it’s jazz or the quiet storm

I hook a beat up, convert it into hip-hop form

Write a rhyme in graffiti in every show you see me in

Deep concentration ’cause I’m no comedian....”

It was almost inevitable that rap would fit comfortably in the militant rhetoric of Black power activists, a development that author Marcus Reeves fully explored in his book Somebody Scream! Rap Music’s Rise to Prominence in the Aftershock of Black Power (2008).

Reeves posits that rap music and Black Power were linked for many years. He explains how his thesis evolved, taking its genesis from the creations of Rakim, Public Enemy, Tupac Shakur, and DMX, and tucking it neatly into an understanding he gathered from the late Amiri Baraka and his book Blues People. “Each phase of the Negro’s music [is] issued directly from the dictates of his social and psychological environment,” Baraka wrote.

In effect, a crucial entanglement of sociocultural factors is at play with each new iteration of Black music, and it’s still quite fascinating to experience the recent developments and techno commands in the airwaves, concerts, and body movements. At the end of his book, Reeves is not sure where rap or hip-hop or its various offshoots will go: “Whether it lives or gradually fades from the larger commercial space remains to be seen, but rap has most definitely established itself as one of the most important art forms leading to the twenty-first century, anchoring itself as the heartbeat of an American story that continues to turbulently keep the break of dawn.”

And as Guru rapped, “Peace to the pioneers, but I gotta try and clear my throat, check out what I wrote, you can’t tap into this unless you know the roots…”

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