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.
TJG: What’s your process for finding, writing, building a great melody?
JB: I sing a lot into my phone, make a lot of voice memos. If it’s something I can remember, maybe it’s the start of a good melody. Once you sing it, it becomes more natural. The melody dictates itself, it shows you where it wants to go. If I have to fight and search for the next section, maybe the melody isn’t as strong as I thought it was. It felt really easy to crank out some of these tunes. “If it’s flowing this way,” I thought, “I must be on the right path.” Like you said earlier, there are two points I’m bringing to the table with this commission, but they both connect to one another. The way you act in public is a reflection of what you were taught at home. That’s how family life and public action can connect.
TJG: You were speaking about the title “My Life Matters” in relation to Black Lives Matter, as your own interpretation. When you say “Black Lives Matter,” there are protest, human rights, civil rights connotations, and it’s something you can stand behind and support. When you say “My life matters,” you’re standing up and saying, ‘It’s me, I have a name, a life of my own.’ Was it a challenge to make the music more personal?
JB: It was, man, it was really challenging. As a traveling, working musician, you’re in the public a lot. Sometimes it’s hard to tell people who you are, so to speak. I’m very shy, so it’s sometimes hard to speak out and speak up. But after a while, when certain things are so wrong, you have to force yourself out of that comfort zone, that introverted space, and not be afraid to say “Well look, my life does matter, and I need to speak about it.” Like the old saying goes, if you don’t stand for anything, you’ll fall for everything. This might be the biggest personal statement I’ve made as a professional musician. So it’s nerve-wracking in a way, but there’s no better time than now.
TJG: Joel Ross is in your band for the project too. He’s become a regular feature of The Jazz Gallery stage, and he just premiered his Jazz Gallery Commission, titled “Being A Young Black Man.” In the interview for his project, he said “You can always know what’s going on, and because of that, you can’t just stay silent.” How does seeing young people express themselves through art inspire you?
JB: When I see someone who’s so much younger than me, it’s really inspiring. If he can get out there and speak out, and he’s fifteen or twenty years younger than me, I have no excuse. I’m supposed to be the elder statesman, the one who people look up to, look upon for direction. I’m setting a good example. So when I see someone at his age willing to step out and show that much courage, it really inspires me to want to do the same.
TJG: One more question for you, Johnathan. You mentioned you took lessons at Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. A lot of musicians today make a living through music schools and early music education. What advice would you have for working musicians who teach young children, who are introducing young people to music for the first time?
JB: It’s hard nowadays. Growing up, I had music lessons in school, so it was easy and accessible. Now, there’s been a bit of a change, especially in the public schools. Music has been pushed to the background. And if you don’t get children listening, or at least appreciative, by middle school, by high school it’s almost too late. So if there are any young, inspired musicians who really want to push their music to the forefront, I would say start in the community. This music is word-of-mouth music. If people get to listen to it, they’re going to spread the news. I used to do little house parties; people started hearing about what I was doing, what other musicians my age were doing. If it’s not offered in the schools, talk to some of the parents. Write a petition. Show that you want to bring music to schools. My father was big on school education, would put on concerts in Philadelphia. Hearing music at a young age really inspires them. It also inspires kids when they see other kids their age doing it. School talent shows, for example. Kids look at their peers and say, “If he can do it, I can do it too.”
The 2016-2017 Jazz Gallery Fellowship Commission series begins this Friday, November 24th, and Saturday, November 25th, 2017 with a performance of My Life Matters by Johnathan Blake. The group features Mr. Blake on drums, Dayna Stephens on saxophone and EWI, Joel Ross on vibraphone, Fabian Almazan on piano, and Rashaan Carter on bass. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. each night. $25 general admission ($10 for members), $35 reserved cabaret seating ($20 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.
The Jazz Gallery Fellowship is made possible in part by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.