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Radio Music Society At 10: Can We Reconcile Americana And Jazz?

Sandrine Lee
Esperanza Spalding released her classic 'Radio Music Society' just over ten years ago. It has been issued on vinyl for the first time.

Out of the blue, a chance came up to speak with singer, bass player and composer Esperanza Spalding. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of Spalding’s landmark album Radio Music Society, which won the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album in early 2013. Craft Recordings has released it on vinyl for the first time. This left me with a conundrum. As distinguished as she is, and as much as I admire her, Spalding is not part of our playlist or my beat at WMOT. She is said to be a “jazz” musician, and our format is “Americana.” But it’s Esperanza Spalding, and the only choice was to say yes and then figure out what to do later. So after scheduling the interview, I thought maybe this encounter could be a chance to investigate how genres divide and unite us and how they influence the ongoing business of developing careers and connecting audiences with great music.

Radio Music Society and questions of genre have particular resonance for WMOT, because for decades before our station was reinvented as Roots Radio with an Americana format in 2016, it was a full-time jazz station. With her mix of sophistication and populist appeal, Spalding was one of WMOT’s most played artists in the early 2010s but not anymore. When a radio station changes format, it has to put some basic parameters around its identity and musical mission. As wide and encompassing as Americana and jazz both are, they’re not a natural overlap on the air for audiences, and certainly not for any professional radio consultant. Yet in my life, and in my music room, Americana and jazz live in harmony, making up more than 90% of my listening diet. Americana (comprised of country, folk, bluegrass, blues and other American roots genres) is the realm that inspired me to study music professionally and my regular news beat. Jazz, since I was about 15 years old, has been my personal home for pure sonic art, my deepest connection to musicality and my culture. I see many vital and exciting connections between jazz and Americana, while the general public and media mostly do not. They are niche genres, followed by mostly mutually exclusive fan bases. At the same time, both jazz and Americana are seen as artistically elevated, prestige fields, and at places like the Berklee College of Music they’re taught side by side. Not only do I think better bridges can and should be built between these musical realms, I think some of them are already there, hiding in plain sight.

“I don't think about music in genres,” says Esperanza Spalding when I ask her if she nurtures personal and artistic ties to folk and roots music. “I don't feel music that way. I can notice elemental similarities for music that is organized in the same genre. But my experience with music is so direct and visceral. Like, I'll hear something and I feel it, or I don't.” Now I could take this as a sign that I’ve asked a dumb or unproductive question, but I do not, because this is what I’d expect an artist to say. Musicians can step back and be intellectually aware that they work in a genre field, be it bluegrass or jazz or rockabilly, if they like. But that’s not necessarily a productive influence on their creative process. I however am an observer and historian of music, so my point of view and my role is appropriately different. I don’t find it persuasive when other music analysts reject the concept of genre as artificial or confining, i.e. “putting artists into boxes.” There are good reasons for categorizing and organizing things, and genre is one valuable tool of many brought to bear on analyzing music and the music business. So let’s put it this way. A bird has no idea that it’s a bird and not a reptile, but a botanist who says they can dispense with taxonomy is not to be trusted. Esperanza is a bird. I’m a botanist. You, dear listener, get to be a little bit of both.

Radio Music Society was categorized as a jazz album by the Grammys, possibly music’s most influential and controversial musical box builders, because the organization thrives on category-based awards. That’s okay and they’re usually not wrong. Radio Music Society is indisputably a jazz album, if you believe in the term at all. But it’s also a singer-songwriter album, albeit one with more chords and more layers of instrumentation than your typical Americana recording. It evokes the jazz/rock fusion of Spalding’s hero (and mine) Herbie Hancock, the early 70s progressive soul albums of Stevie Wonder, and the latter half of Joni Mitchell’s career, as Mitchell developed her advanced harmonic language and collaborated with jazz musicians. Only a gifted, precocious and widely schooled artist could have made an album like Radio Music Society, and that certainly describes Esperanza Spalding.

She was raised by a single mom in a disadvantaged part of Portland, OR. Esperanza - Spanish for ‘hope’ - picked up musical cues from all over when very young, including her mother’s interest in jazz guitar and Yo Yo Ma playing cello on Sesame Street. Her first instrument, the violin, revealed her extravagant natural ability, and by age 15, she was a veteran of and the concertmaster for the Chamber Music Society of Oregon. She picked up the bass while on scholarship at a performing arts high school and adopted it as her muse. While playing gigs in many genres, Spalding cultivated her voice as well, becoming a rare singing upright bass player. She enrolled young on a scholarship at Portland State University, but she really found her footing after transferring to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she earned the attention and support of jazz greats like vibes player Gary Burton and guitarist Pat Metheny. Not only did she graduate, but at age 20 - in 2005 - she became the youngest faculty member in Berklee’s history.

Spalding’s virtuosity and ambition are apparent on her recording debut Junjo from 2005, a mostly instrumental effort that features the leader singing (mostly wordlessly) and playing spectacular acoustic bass. The feel is contemporary with Latin influences. She covers Chick Corea among others but contributes about a third of the tunes herself. Next came Esperanza, the breakout album that set her on the path toward her Grammy Award for Best New Artist. The wider world couldn’t help but notice her composing, her style, and her bright and lilting voice, singing more lyric-based material in English, Spanish and Portuguese. The album spent almost two years on the Billboard jazz chart, landed Spalding on many TV appearances, and inspired then President Barack Obama to invite her to perform at his Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo in 2009.

So by the late 2000s, Spalding had strong label backing and freedom to try whatever she wanted, and that became a pair of loose companion albums - the string-focused Chamber Music Society in 2010 and the grooving Radio Music Society in 2012. She told me she composed the music for both during the same stretch of time. “I was trying to figure out what to do with all this music,” she said. “It was a time when I was curious about arranging for strings. And I was curious about this more, I don't know, funky kind of patterned grooves or rhythmic environment. And so first, I proposed it as a double record.”

That felt unwieldy upon reflection, so they came out sequentially. The first Society album drew on Spalding’s classical background with strings behind her voice. It’s a formal set that maybe is more for art music connoisseurs. Radio Music Society however hooks us, moving us as much below the neck as above it. Critic Thom Jurek describes it in his review for AllMusic.com as “polished production, sophisticated, busy charts, and classy songwriting -- that consciously juxtaposes neo-soul and adult-oriented jazz-tinged pop.” As I said, music writers dig genres, and I can’t fault the analysis. At the same time, it’s just as fair to see it as elevated folk and blues music, adjacent to if not definitively Americana as we use it in the industry. I’d also place RMS in a category I made up called “ambitious” music, which implies doing a lot of musical stuff at once - complex harmonies, big orchestration, composed passages, solo improvisation within song structures, and expert musicianship in every chair. That said, if Spalding’s epic take on “Endangered Species” (composed by Wayne Shorter), with its odd angles and orchestral drama, is challenging to novice ears, not all of it’s like that. I love the folky “Cinnamon Tree,” with an enchanting lyric and melody that one could imagine on an Allison Russell album. Spalding produced the sessions with the assistance of Q-Tip from hip-hop pioneers A Tribe Called Quest on several tracks. The album’s renowned guest players include saxophonist Joe Lovano, an early Spalding believer and employer, and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, the drummer and composer who’s in the spotlight today for her efforts to diversify the ranks of jazz musicians. In our conversation, Spalding said, “I don't even know what I would say Radio Music Society is, but I know it had a lot to do with songs - kind of like songs that I thought could be radio friendly, in my imagination, that integrated this particular type of playership. You know what I mean - musicianship.”

Here we get at one core distinction or divergence between Americana and jazz. Americana privileges the song and the singer - the story and the mood - while jazz foregrounds musical ideas that involve melody, chords, rhythm and instrumental style. Jazz is seen as an intellectually advanced realm where technique and facility are the keys that unlock expression and emotion. While country music, the songwriting heart of Americana, tends to keep things simple and direct. So if country music is “three chords and the truth” as Harlan Howard pithily put it, then maybe jazz is “a dozen chords and the truth”? Yes and no, because much great jazz improvises over only two or three chords. And yes, while colorful harmonies and selective dissonance are a major (and minor) part of jazz, my favorite concise description of the genre comes from the title of a great 1961 album by saxophonist Oliver Nelson called The Blues And The Abstract Truth. I would encourage everyone to think about jazz that way - as the blues (its origin) and the abstract truth (its aim). Where folk and roots music tends toward simpler music and direct, even literal expression of feelings through sung language, jazz asks something different of us. Can we hear a musician’s truth in a phrase, or a solo, or a conversation with the rest of the band, or a composition that employs a fuller range of harmonic possibilities? Another significant difference between Americana and jazz is that in jazz, the drummer and bass player have much more aggressive and equal roles in the band and the overall sound, making more dynamic and aggressive statements than the simpler support roles they play in Americana. Can we hear a story in that?

Sometimes pop or country fans react to jazz with disorientation, not knowing where to focus the ear or getting lost when the melodic material gets too dense. Fortunately, a lifeline or a map is also there in the Oliver Nelson title, because it’s at the bedrock of Americana music as well. And that is the blues. No roots musician and no jazz musician gets far in their journey without studying, playing, breathing and honoring the blues. It’s the lingua franca that lets strangers jam together without a plan whether at a jazz jam or a bluegrass party. The blues is also the lineage connecting Hank Williams to Miles Davis and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to Esperanza Spalding. Reminders of this golden braid are everywhere if you listen.

See my companion Jazz/Americana listener's guide and a Spotify playlist here.

Consider, for example, Americana, Vol. 2 from saxophonist and composer JD Allen. He’s a 49-year-old, New York-based Detroit native and self-identified jazz artist who’s played with eminent figures like Dave Douglas and Ron Carter. His new record follows on his 2016 release Americana: Musings on Jazz and Blues. While most of the pieces on both volumes are Allen originals, they hew to the mission statement. Volume one is a down-home instrumental reverie on the African American experience in the South and the exodus that was the Great Migration of the mid 20th century. Vol. 2 is more groove oriented, featuring the eclectic guitarist Charlie Hunter along with Allen’s regular rhythm section of Gregg August on bass and Rudy Royston on drums. The tunes are mostly built on riffs or phrases from blues and gospel, lifted and looped. These hypnotic and patiently funky improvs are never difficult for the untrained ear to follow, with fewer chords in some cases than most country songs. And indeed, for the album’s ballad, they turn to country music itself and the great Cindy Walker hit “You Don’t Know Me,” which was recorded successfully by Eddy Arnold, Ray Charles and others. The album doesn’t feel uptown or effete but rather grounded in work and sweat and soil. While it has no lyrics, the musicians leave no doubt about their emotional intent in pieces like “The Werk Song,” “Hammer And Hoe,” and “This World Is A Mean World.” By inference, they also make the contemporary (white) folk singer or western swinger’s claim on the term Americana more complicated.

In the liner notes to Americana, Vol. 2, JD Allen reminds us that industrialists like Henry Ford, fervent advocate of fiddling contests and old-time music in the 1920s, were agents in the segregation of “race records” a century ago, creating a cultural apartheid that’s still being unwound. I happen to know the author of those liner notes - bass player, writer, and DJ Greg Bryant, a Nashville native who’s journeyed from the jazz format WMOT as a student to staff positions at WRTI in Philadelphia and the Real Jazz channel on SiriusXM. I asked him if the JD Allen album suggests there’s a stronger connection to be made between jazz and so-called Americana. His answer was: not without work and understanding. “The reason why JD Allen's album is so impactful to me and the reason why (guitarist) Charlie Hunter is so important to me is because they've clearly put the spotlight on what the root of American popular music is. And that is Black Music. And I feel in general, that oftentimes in Americana, this whole language and code of ‘country’ is meaning to strip away what the common root of popular American music is. It's Black Music.” He noted that historic literacy about the blues and soul originators of American music is not strong, not as strong anyway as homage to Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, and Johnny Cash for example, and that leaves everyone more benighted. “That's problematic for me. And I feel like when we start to accept and acknowledge what the music is, where it comes from, what the true roots are, we can come together. But I don't really see us doing that until we acknowledge that.”

Meanwhile, New Orleans Trumpet player and composer Nicholas Payton is the latest in a string of artists (including as I understand it John Coltrane and Max Roach) who reject the term “jazz” altogether as a colonizing construct and a false frame. Payton advocates for Black American Music (#BAM) instead. And he’s written that “It’s impossible to build a tradition upon something that was never designed to be a true expression of a community. The very existence of jazz is predicated upon a lie, just like racism.” Now there’s a lot to unpack there, and even as I understand some of his argument, I think the genre of jazz is too enshrined in the culture and in musicology to be displaced any time soon. Every genre is imperfectly named anyway (don’t get me started on ‘classical’ music). Yet there is an important implication here for the future of Americana music. The Americana community and Americana Music Association are at least five years into a reparative set of conversations and actions aimed at giving Black music and the blues real and equitable representation in the format and its network. We’ve seen gratifying if belated elevation of Black string band music, gospel, blues, R&B and soul on the radio, at festivals and at the Americana Honors & Awards. But how can we think of that journey as complete when jazz - the most diverse and refined expression of Black musical genius and an indispensable influence on world culture - is seen as something other?

That’s why I have this sense, as I listen to the extraordinary experience of Radio Music Society on vinyl, that Esperanza Spalding is building a bridge, offering us a way in. It’s jazz that may speak to the Americana fan who relates to the self-produced auteur model of contemporary folk. Especially if we put it in context of its time. The album’s optimistic title feels like an invocation of togetherness, offered at the historic moment (2012) when communal popular music was fast giving way to the fractured, ultra-personalized listening experience of today. On its cover, Spalding sits on a giant boombox, evoking the 1980s when people’s music was often shared on the street corner or in a park. Above her, the album’s pixelated title suggests the digital future that she seems to know is imminent. Even so, it was hard to foresee the algorithmic siloing of musical taste in the streaming era, the invisible software that suggests to us more from the schools of music we already listen to rather than the surprise encounters we have out in social spaces. Genres have recently been less boxes for artists and more boxes imposed around listeners by machines. Curious, motivated music fans can easily find what they want, but our culture and our computers feed us streams of stuff we already like. We have to work a little harder in this age of convenience when it comes to widening our musical aperture.

Fortunately, the same streaming services that silo listeners by genre are also incredible tools for exploring and discovering the new. There’s little reason in 2023 that fans of Rhiannon Giddens, Billy Strings and Jason Isbell can’t become a fan of drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, pianist Aaron Diehl, vibraphonistJoel Ross - not to mention an icon like saxophone player Sonny Rollins. It’s also true that there are many acoustic improvising bluegrass musicians who write and produce enthralling, excellent instrumental music with a jazz ethos and often jazz training. I’ve written here about bassist Jeff Picker, banjo player Wes Corbett, and mandolinist Andrew Marlin for example. I’m excited about innovative new albums coming in the new year from guitarists Ben Garnett and Grant Gordy. This music is abundant. But it takes time and mindfulness to put it on or to go see something new rather than live in our established ruts year after year.

Jazz and Americana are different, for good and necessary reasons. They are both mega-genres with distinct histories and musical points of view. But as a friend of mine proposed in a nice metaphor, they’re like two oceans meeting, making a few waves but not mixing. I can’t quite understand this apposition, but I think as Americans we have a cultural obligation to participate by developing shared literacy about things - including the historical, the political, the social and the musical. Black Music is all that. Every chapter of Black history, notably the Civil Rights story, has a distinct, inextricable soundtrack. And while Americana fans know and love the Staple Singers singing “I’ll Take You There” or Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?,” Charles Mingus is no less pointed and effective when leading his band in “Fables of Faubus.” As fans of Americana, we’re already well on our way toward this rapprochement, because of the blues. The music is a reward in itself, but it also imparts a sense of belonging, of respect and of society.

Spalding spoke with me about the alienating implications of music without the society she references in her album title. “Things get emaciated when they're decontextualized,” she says. “And I think, in a kind of meta way, music itself is decontextualized from community and culture. And, you know, musics (she emphasizes the plural), whether they're complicated harmony, or simple folk songs, taken out of the social context, can feel inaccessible.”

I agree, and one reason I have long embraced the Americana frame and format is that it respects and encourages context, be it social, historical or political. Artists tend to be explicit about their influences, forebears and causes. The music respects and preserves regionalism and sense of place. These have been jazz things forever. Spalding says that among the wisdom she conveys to young jazz artists is to “involve your elders” (as she did making RMS), because “it brings forth other refined dimensions of your own musicianship.” This is something I see in Americana, country and bluegrass all the time, a central virtue. And as we wrapped our 30 minutes on Zoom and she was rushing off to another rehearsal, Spalding offered this: “I love this other definition of ‘original,’ which doesn't mean novel, it means showing the origin of something - to be able to see, oh, this is original, because the origins are legible. And I can see what a person is doing with those origins. So just inviting musicians to explore that version of originality, like letting your origins show and include them in your innovations.”

To quote Nashville wise man Jim Lauderdale, now that’s Americana.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org