As an African-American, vibraphonist Joel Ross has come of age in a complicated and tumultuous time. He has witnessed the election of the first black president, as well as countless instances of racially-motivated police violence and the activism of the Black Lives Matter movement. This weekend at The Jazz Gallery, Ross distills his varied experiences into a musical form through his new project, “Being A Young Black Man,” commissioned by the Gallery.
Over the course of two different sets of music, Ross and his bandmates will explore the conflicting emotions of his life experience—beauty, pain, passion, fear, renewal. We caught up with Ross by phone to hear about his project’s scope and inspirations, both personal and political.
The Jazz Gallery: The title of your work is “Being a Young Black Man.” What are you trying to express about your life experience and why do you think music is the best way to do it?
Joel Ross: What I’m trying to express is literally how I feel and how I respond to instances in my life or situations that I’ve witnessed. If something powerful or difficult happened to me, or if I saw something like that, I would write down what I was feeling or thinking in a musical way. It comes out in the form of this music because I’ve been playing for so long, it’s just my natural response.
TJG: In addition to the musical elements, you’re working with texts and the spoken word artist Harold Green. How does the text relate to and interact with the music in your piece?
JR: Harold is someone I know from Chicago. The text is a collaboration. For certain pieces, I’m telling Harold what the music is about and how I feel about the situation I’m trying to describe and leave it to him to express that in his own words. I don’t want him to read off anything—it’s improvised. The music is telling the story and the words are just some extra guidelines.
TJG: Are the texts between the different pieces? Are you accompanying the spoken word elements with music?
JR: It’s more that the text is accompanying the music. The music will be at the forefront, and at different specific points in the music, Harold will have space to talk. I didn’t want to be background music for the text, because the music came first.
TJG: It’s as if the spoken text is another instrument, a part of the overall musical fabric.
TJG: How have you structured the pieces for each set? Is there a single narrative through-line? How do different sections work together?
JR: I envision it as a story, almost. The two sets of music are completely different. The first set is based on a theme of family, and the second set focuses more on my faith and my religion. The sets are made up of tunes, many of which were written at different times. Some of these pieces have been around for a while now. I wrote the first piece about four years ago and never performed it because I never found the right time for it. It’s a collection of tunes about what I feel as being a black man and now I have the chance to bring them all together.
TJG: In that way, it feels less like a linear story, and more like a novel told in short stories, where each chapter has a different perspective from the same collection of characters.
JR: Uh-huh. Definitely.
TJG: Why did you want to use older tunes in this project? Does it help articulate how your feelings and experiences have changed over the past several years?
JR: There are only a couple of tunes that were written before the commission, but I wanted to include them because they were the start of my musical expression of being a young black man. When Rio [Sakairi] came to me with the commission, I already knew that this was what I was going to do because I had already started it. The commission just gave me a chance to finish it.
TJG: Because the project was conceived as individual tunes rather than something really through-composed, how did you decide on the ordering of each set? How does each tune lead to the next?
TJG: The first tune of the first set is one of the older tunes I wrote. It’s called “The Beauty of Being a Young Black Man.” I wanted to set the tone that my life hasn’t been hum-drum or terrible. There has been good and bad, but I wanted to start out on the good foot. That tune sets the vibe, and then the ensuing tunes express passion and love and fear and sadness.
In the second set, I haven’t written every tune. We’re opening with an old church hymn because I couldn’t find anything that I wrote that would set the vibe in the right way. Another song in that set is by Immanuel, but it really resonates with me. Not everything is by me, but the music I chose definitely expresses the point that I’m trying to get across.
TJG: Are any of these tunes tied to a specific event in your life, or something you’ve witnessed?
JR: Most of them are more general and come from a collection of experiences that fit together, like feeling overwhelmed or scared or something else. But the song that we’re playing at the end of the first set—called “The Reality of Being a Young Black Man”—I wrote that about five days before I played the Gallery last July. About a week before that, two black men were wrongfully shot by the police [Philando Castile and Alton Sterling]. I remember waking up and scrolling through Facebook and seeing that, and then I went and wrote “The Reality.” That’s the one I can specifically remember being related to a certain event.
TJG: I’m really struck by the transformation in the first set from “The Beauty of Being a Young Black Man” to “The Reality.” It feels as if the first set documents the challenges you face, while the second set shows a way forward through your faith.
JR: Exactly. That’s why I’m not always depressed about everything. My faith is what keeps me afloat. That’s what the second set is supposed to represent.
TJG: In this second set, are you dealing with the gospel music tradition in your tunes?
JR: Definitely. That’s in my expression, that’s how I was born and raised. It’s where I started playing music and it’s where everything comes together for me. But I’m also really interested in how the band expresses themselves in that style. So I’d say that the writing is gospel, but the contemporary perspectives of the musicians will make it something different.
TJG: There are certainly a lot of jazz players who come from the gospel tradition, whether guys like Jason Moran or Eric Harland. But it’s interesting to me that the guys in your rhythm section aren’t known for having those same roots. Why did you want to work with these particular players?
JR: Harish and Sam are some of my favorite musicians and Tyshawn is a genius, so the way they express and interact with my background is a big part of what defines the music.
My choices in the rhythm section came a lot through talking with Immanuel. We have really similar backgrounds—we grew up playing in church and we came to this contemporary form of jazz after that. What we want to do is combine those two things. Like Gerald Clayton’s newest album is definitely doing that, and it’s been a big influence since it came out. With this rhythm section, they’re our favorite musicians and we know that they have the capacity to be themselves within the music. They have such strong musical personalities that when they play within a certain style, they make it sound like their own. That was the goal. Even when we play the opening hymn, we’re going to sound like us.
TJG: Last month, Adam O’Farrill kicked off our 2017 Residency Commissions with another socially, politically-minded project. Do you see a lot of your peers creating music right now that reflects the current socio-political situation?
JR: Yeah. Since I moved to New York about three years ago, I noticed that all of my peers are very cognizant and very vocal about what’s going on, but with music and outside of it. On social media, I feel we’re all really vocal about what’s going on. I think that’s a great thing.
Jazz has always been a political music, it’s always been a protest music. It’s not surprising to me then that so many jazz musicians are so vocal right now. I feel with people my age, in particular, we’re in an age of information, 24/7. You can always know what’s going on. Because of that, at some point, you can’t just stay silent. And we have a platform for it.
TJG: Why do you personally feel that it’s important to express these ideas through music? Do you think your music is there to effect greater change in some way?
JR: I don’t have some ulterior motive beyond expressing what I feel musically. Whatever change it may bring or not bring, it is what it is. I think it really comes back to the fact that I have a voice and I’m using it in this way. It’s just expression and communication, which is what I think this music boils down to.
The 2017 Jazz Gallery Residency Commissions Series continues with Joel Ross’s Being A Young Black Man on Friday, May 26th, and Saturday, May 27th, 2017. The group features Mr. Ross on vibraphone, Immanuel Wilkins on saxophone, Sam Harris on piano, Harish Raghavan on bass, Tyshawn Sorey on drums, and Harold Green on spoken word. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $22 general admission (FREE for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.