We hopped on the phone with the entire band to talk about the challenge of making message-driven instrumental music and how has jazz lost its political ties.
Photo by TARONA
For a genre that's largely instrumental, jazz has a history that's deeply rooted in protest and politics. Its early days featured segregated clubs that allowed African Americans in as performers, but not patrons, and as a result, civil rights was an issue that jazz confronted long before the more publicized boom of political folk, rock, and R&B music of the mid to late 1960s. From Charles Mingus calling out racist Arkansas governor Orval Faubus by name in the title of his furious track "Fables of Faubus," to Charlie Haden's explicitly political Liberation Music Orchestra, to Sun Ra's radical Afrofuturism, jazz musicians helped make advocating for social justice an important aspect of musical expression in America, and they often did it without words.
Five-piece electric jazz outfit Kneebody have largely steered clear of political messages in their music over their 16 years together, but like many people, they find current political climate inescapable and vital to discuss. Their upcoming ninth album, Anti-Hero (out March 3 on Motéma Music), includes several politically-inspired tracks, one of which the band is premiering on VICE today. "For the Fallen" was composed by trumpeter Shane Endsley, and is dedicated to victims of war and police violence. We hopped on the phone with the entire band to talk about the album's motivations, the challenge of making message-driven instrumental tunes, and jazz having less of a political reputation than it used to.
VICE: What was on your mind when you were writing "For the Fallen"?
Shane Endsley: "For the Fallen" is a tribute to victims of war in a very general sense, but while writing it, I was definitely thinking about the conflicts in Syria, Somalia, and Nigeria, places that have recently been ravaged by war. It's also for victims of police violence—I've been watching that closely for the past few years.
How do you go about conveying a political message like this in instrumental music?
Endsley: With such a sad subject, I was looking for an atmosphere or a melody that would conjure a mood of peaceful remembrance. Especially because it's instrumental, it was really about trying to find some sort of harmony that, for me, brought out that feeling.
Adam Benjamin: One of the great things about instrumental music is that it can mean so many different things to so many different people, and I wouldn't want to force a single meaning onto any one of these songs. I think it's better when it's more flexible and can be some sort of strange mix between the political and the personal. It's not so much a message or an advocacy for something, but more of a reflection on the complexity of the situation. "Uprising," another one of the political pieces on the album, is a reflection of the power of crowds and popular movement, which is both a general and a complex meaning that could be taken a lot of different ways.
Ben Wendel: How and if you want to express your politics through art is a really complicated and ancient dilemma. Personally, I'm not even sure yet, but the one thing I am clear on is that music is a powerful art form for just showing people actually collaborating for a positive outcome. So I do think that the art form just inherently has a positive message in terms of what we can do as humans within our society.
Instrumental jazz has a rich history of protest songs and radical political thought, but that doesn't seem like something that most people associate with the genre today.
Benjamin: I think that's an effect of how jazz has changed. We've had massive demographic shifts in terms of race and class, where the music is played, and how it's played. I'm the director of a jazz studies program [at the University of Nevada, Reno], and I try to remind my students of the history of jazz being a music of radical uplift, often with very intense political messages, although always representing a lot of different points in the spectrum of attitudes towards politics. That has changed. The music has gotten very abstract and taken more after contemporary classical music over the last couple of decades, and has moved away from being a music of politics and class conflict.
Kaveh Rastegar: I think that regardless of your feelings about the music that was in La La Land [in which Rastegar played the bassist of John Legend's character's band], I really enjoyed the questions that came up in the film, especially during the conversation between Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone's characters about her perception of what she always thought jazz was ["relaxing" elevator music]. As a jazz musician, just seeing that play out onscreen, it was a nice moment. A lot of those conversations are ones that we've all had with people who aren't as personally invested in the music.
Have you attempted political-themed music as a band before, or is it mostly a response to the current political climate?
Benjamin: There have been pieces that we've done before that had implicit or personal meanings with political elements, but we've never really been explicit about it as a band before. It just feels like in this moment in history, there's not really much of a choice to stay quiet.
What a few years ago might have just been a personal motivation for a song, is now something that we're talking about a little more. We're trying to make the message of our album and our shows not something that hits you over the head, but something that does address the real world and doesn't shy away from it.
Rastegar: I feel like the stakes in general have become higher. At one point or another, most artists move into a time in their lives when they become more conscious of the world around them and how their art interacts with that world. For some artists, it's right off the bat, but I feel like we're really just arriving at that now.
Check out Kneebody's Spring tour dates and pre-order 'Anti-Hero' on their website .
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