Welcome to the New Life of Jazz

Esperanza Spalding
Esperanza Spalding

Since 2008, Jazz music has received notable high-profile recognition from the Recording Academy with Grammy Awards in a number of the General Fields. The Recording Industry Association of America’s (RIAA) latest consumer purchasing data shows that sales of the once mainstream genre have dwindled to just over 1% of all sales (2008). Quietly, however, artists have been giving a behind the scenes boost to the genre which is known for its improvisation with high profile collaborations with vocalists bringing critical acclaim and a boost to the bottom line. 2012 will become known as the birth of “The New Jazz” with fresh genre bending collections from Robert Glasper, Esperanza Spalding, Gregory Porter and “Mr. Trombone” Jeff Bradshaw.

It was February of 2008 when an animated Herbie Hancock took the stage at the 50th Annual Grammy Awards to accept the statue for Album of the Year (River: The Joni Letters), framing the accomplishment with the little known fact that it was the first time in 43 years that a Jazz album had won Album of the Year. Hancock’s award came at the expense of Kanye West, Vince Gill, and the late Amy Winehouse who’s Back In Black was considered a shoe-in.

Three years later in 2011 at the 53rd Grammy Awards, an Afro’d upright bass playing young Jazz vocalist named Esperanza Spalding captured the coveted Best New Artist award sending the jaws dropping of the Pop culture pundits. Bieber fans and some tastemakers claimed that the Recording Academy was out of touch with industry trends claiming that consumers had voted with their dollars for other top-selling nominees Drake and Justin Bieber, going as far as running a full page ad in the New York Times to complain of the gaffe.

By the time the awards were held in early 2011, it was clear that something very special was happening in the music industry when high-profile accolades were beginning to be bestowed upon Jazz artists.

Gregory Porter

On February 14, 2012, Be Good, Jazz/Soul vocalist Gregory Porter’s follow up to his 2010 debut, Water, was met with a spate of critical and commercial success. The track “Real Good Hands” was selected by iTunes as its Single of the Week for the week of the CD’s release, propelling the track to the #1 position on iTunes Jazz chart for two weeks, and #6 overall on the Billboard Jazz chart.

On February 28, 2012, Blue Note artist Robert Glasper, a noted jazz keyboardist known in Soul music circles for his road work with Bilal, shocked the industry with the release of Black Radio. The highly-anticipated, critically acclaimed collection contains high-profile collaborations with Neo-Soul stalwarts Erykah Badu, Lalah Hathaway, Chrisette Michelle and Bilal. With mainstream press awareness and savvy marketing to his ground level fanbase gained from four prior albums, Robert Glasper’s Black Radio debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Current Jazz chart, #4 on the R&B Chart and #15 on the Billboard Top 200. Equally stunning was the entry of Black Radio at #3 on the overall iTunes Chart reflecting a whopping 83% digital share of Glasper’s first week take of nearly 21,000 albums.

Robert Glasper

One month later on March 26, Esperanza Spalding achieved a career best with the release of Radio Music Society. Fueled in Hip-Hop circles by word that Q-Tip (ATCQ) produced two songs for the album, the Los Angeles Times summed it up by saying, “It manages to aim for those who might not ordinarily listen to Jazz while keeping the music firmly in its bones.” Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society bowed at #1 on both the Billboard Contemporary and Current Jazz charts, as well as at #10 on the Top 200. Selling a robust 25,300 albums, Radio Music Society also performed exceptionally well in the digital realm with a 47% share, far beyond the typical level for Jazz.

On April 24, trombonist Jeff Bradshaw will join the crop of “New Jazz” artists with the release of Bone Appétit. Bradshaw, who rose to prominence in Soul music circles as part of Jill Scott’s band Fatback Taffy, released his debut in 2003 and quietly sold over 20,000 units. The self taught trombone virtuoso returns to his playbook of assembling an album spotlighting his collaborations within his circle of high profile R&B and Soul singer friends. A decidedly more overtly R&B and Soul drenched outing, Bone Appétit spotlights 2x Grammy nominees Raheem DeVaughn and Marsha Ambrosius, Kindred the Family Soul, Coko (of SWV), The Floacist, and PJ Morton (of Maroon 5). Bradshaw’s accomplishments with the trombone were rewarded with the presentation of eight Grammy certificates during a performance at The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in January 2012.

With all the guest artists and genre blending happening in the “New Jazz” – some are wondering if it’s really Jazz at all. Bradshaw offers “Whether with marching bands, or in the realm of Funk, R&B and Jazz, the trombone is a staple in music. God blessed me with something different, something special, which is why I’ve been able to walk through to the forefront with this instrument.” When challenged on the topic, Robert Glasper offers “There’s a disconnect in generations and some people just aren’t going to feel that music. But there is a modern take on certain things you can do; that, to me, is still Jazz.”

Jeff Bradshaw

In the final analysis, if sales are the barometer, Los Angeles Independent Retailer Sam Fuston of Midnight Music shares, “Robert Glasper is incredible. People are starving for Jazz music. What’s happening now with Jazz is good. It could do even better with more marketing. If it were more accessible people will buy it. The artists (doing this) are winning because it’s good music!” Sam Fuston, Welcome to the New Jazz!

By Tobias Rhue