2016-2017 Jazz Gallery Fellowship commissionee Johnathan Blake is both a bandleader and tireless sideman, and has been featured on albums by artists including Q-Tip, Jaleel Shaw, Tom Harrell, Donny McCaslin, and the Mingus Big Band. His acclaimed 2014 album Gone, But Not Forgotten featured Chris Potter, Mark Turner, and Ben Street, and was dedicated to both legendary musicians and victims of tragedy. As the young child of a traveling musician in Philadelphia, Blake found himself immersed in the tradition from a young age. In one story he recounted for JazzTimes, Blake’s father introduced him to the legendary Elvin Jones. Shortly thereafter, Blake found himself sitting on stage with Jones, watching his idol perform from only a few feet away.
Blake’s upcoming show at The Jazz Gallery will present the culmination of his 2016-2017 Fellowship, entitled “My Life Matters.” The work is a suite of songs that serves as a dual treatise on the importance of family values and the social imperative to stand up in the face of injustice. With Blake on drums, his compositions will be performed by a cast of Jazz Gallery regulars: Dayna Stephens on saxophones / EWI, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Fabian Almazan on piano, and Rashaan Carter on bass. We spoke with Blake about his new suite of work, the realm of family responsibility, and the imperative to speak out against injustice in the world today.
The Jazz Gallery: Talk to us a little bit about your new Jazz Gallery Fellowship Commission, “My Life Matters.”
Johnathan Blake: Around the time I started composing one of the pieces, a lot of brutality was happening to young African-American men and women. As a person of color, I thought, ‘Man, maybe I’m not speaking out enough, as my parents stressed for me to do.’ I started thinking about the ones who came before me, who spoke through their music. Max Roach with his “Freedom Now” suite, John Coltrane with “Alabama.” I asked myself, ‘How can I speak out through my music?’ That’s where the title comes about, “My Life Matters.” It’s not just about Black Lives Matter, it’s about us as a whole. We have to learn how to coexist. We spend so much time worrying about ourselves that we can forget to care about others, notice our differences and similarities. We all were created here to live in harmony with one another. These pieces will hopefully serve as a jumping point for open discussion on that.
So, it’s a series of tunes I composed dealing with family, my upbringing in Philadelphia, and speaking up in the face of injustice, which is something my parents always stressed to me and my sisters. When my father passed away in 2014, we were all in the hospital with him. He was looking at me, my wife, my kids, giving us some strong advice. I think he knew his time was coming to an end. I have to continue to keep the torch lit, to live up to what he taught us, to continue his legacy.
TJG: Do you mind if I ask what his advice for you was?
JB: For me, it was basically “Always be taking care of your family.” He really stressed it. To my kids, he said “Look, things might get hard in life, and you’ll have to persevere. Giving up is the easiest thing to do.” That really resonated with me too. Don’t let anyone try to persuade you, to put you down. Really work at what you’re serious about. And again, if you’re a bystander, don’t ignore injustice, or you’re adding to the problem. All these things were going through my head as I was writing the music, so it started taking on a life of its own. I wanted to make it a tribute to my father, because he instilled such great values in me. He was a traveling musician, but he was a family man. Any chance he got to take us with him on the road, he took that opportunity. Now, I travel a lot, but when I’m home, I try to be home. I don’t take a lot of gigs around town.
TJG: You mentioned this importance of melody in keeping the audience engaged (“Give them something to hang on to!”) in a JazzTimes interview, specifically citing Tom Harrell’s music as a great example.
JB: Exactly. I wanted to create melodies that people will walk away singing, and in doing so, really think about them. I have a tune called “I Can’t Breathe,” related to the death of Eric Garner. It starts with a vibes melody. I’m big on memorable melodies, melodies you can walk away with. Once you have it in your head, if you can walk away singing it, it sticks with you. It will transcend into your daily life. I think this is a way it can start to open up discussions about these injustices.