Canvas: Pianist Robert Glasper’s Incredible Jazz of Black Youth
by Emmanuel Adolf Alzuphar
Look at them go. Marcy, Wayne, Sinclair, come and have a look at this. I’m telling you, you have got to see this. Wearing small shorts. Wearing sports jackets. Wearing suit vests. They call them ‘bantu’. Reading alone. Where did her glasses go? Storing a (fuckin’) gun under a bed. She doesn’t know where to put herself. Talking that talk. As they always have. Generation of generation of the reproduced same: a whole host of youngsters with melanin, born in the Western Hemisphere. In this case, born in the United States. Every generation left with an archive of the last generation’s youth. The people create their own archives said Michel Foucault but the information is hardly passed down by the people; it’s reconstructed from bits and pieces of conversation and especially because of pictures of mom, dad, uncle, a favorite musician etc.. A phenomenon reproduced. Songs, dances, tribulations, and public and private triumphs that ensue. Jazz. Even the Jazz people are being young. Which Jazz am I talking about? I would say some of Robert Glasper’s Jazz.
Robert Glasper does not belong to the Black Youth bracket anymore. He did at some point, from his mid-teens until his very early 30’s. His discography is rich and therein lies his Jazz of Black Youth. The best album that he produced as a member of Black Youth is Canvas, released in 2005. It’s not as well known as his later albums but it’s treasure. Robert Glasper on piano, on the Fender Rhodes, and on the Kalimba, a thumb piano that originates from Africa, Vicente Archer on bass, Damon Reid on Drums, and special guests Mark Turner on tenor sax for two songs, and Bilal on vocals for two songs.
Canvas. It was released when he was 26. The “painting” is perhaps the most representative medium for the word art in contemporary human history. Let us define the ‘‘painting’’ as ‘‘art’’ that is painted on a literal canvas, framed or not, and exhibited as ‘‘art’’. The ‘painting’ became what it is now during the European Renaissance and during its profound questioning in the early 20th century. The modern successful painting is either catering to form and taste in a bourgeois or aristocrat led society or going against it while being expensive. It is a supposed evolution from rock art according to modern thought though sometimes it feels like a framed drawing on a cave wall. Painted canvas has been used to depict landscapes, scenes, humans, both for most of its history, the wealthy. The “painting” is a mastered art form in the United States. The list of now famous paintings is almost endless. The National Gallery of “Art’’ features mostly “paintings”. Whether expressionist or baroque, it is assumed that art made on a canvas is a “painting”. Art on a canvas, according to ‘‘us’’, is a painting. Is Glasper’s Canvas a “painting”?
Where is the literal definition of a canvas from?, to be quite honestly vernacular about it. The paradox that was Western European life led to the Enlightenment and to the Encyclopedia. The French Encyclopedia, the very first Encyclopedia, was a descendant of the English Cyclopedia. It essentially was created to offer a readership definitions or certitudes as opposed to myths, as the church often used them. It was the beginning of the popularization of science and when science would take philosophy’s place in Western European society, despite the fact that most of its leaders were also philosophers. It published definitions that were “correct”. It wrote things that were perfect (aha!). It was a far cry from coming to truths about life through epic poetry, as it was during early Greece of the antiquities. According to britannica.com, a canvas is ‘stout cloth probably named after cannabis (Latin: “hemp”)’. That is the literal definition for canvas. Glasper mixes two of his own definitions into one definition: in this case not only is a canvas a ‘stout cloth probably named after cannabis that black painters have used to make and continue to make art’ but it is also anywhere where one can present art, true to one’s heart as opposed to belonging to a canon, to a public.
While listening to this album’s songs, one might envision a Romare Bearden’s painting, such as Jammin’ at Savoy. One can also attempt to link the album’s spirituality to Faith Ringgold or Jacob Lawrence. On both Track 7 ‘‘Chant’’ and on Track 10 “Remember,’’ of Robert Glasper’s album Canvas, released on October 4, 2005, the phenomenal singer Bilal is humbly humming along to the rest of the music, as if he was just a member of a church choir or singing along to a djuba pat on a plantation. One might associate his humming to one of Bearden’s paintings of South life. It is because Glasper chooses to root his art in his heritage or their aesthetics. The title “I Remember” says it all.
Canvas has 10 songs including one named “Canvas’’. 1. “Rise and Shine’’ 2. “Canvas’’ 3. “Portrait of an Angel’’ 4. “Enoch’s Meditation’’ 5. “Centelude’’ 6. “Jelly’s Da Beener’’ 7. “Chant’’ 8. “Riot’’ (composed by Herbie Hancock) 9. “North Portland’’ 10. “Remember’’. A canvas, as track 2 shows, can also be a song. Canvas can be the past, “Romare Bearden,” as it can be the present or the future, “Kehinde Wiley.” It is what there being a song named “Remember” and a song named “Jelly’s Da Beener” on one single album means. Canvas for black art can also be “North Portland” and not necessarily Compton. Finally, a canvas can be a black cultural classic as the name “Rise and Shine” tells us.
Music wise, on Canvas, Glasper is doing his own thing. It’s much more soulful than the “soul options” that most of the world of commerce currently offers to us consumers, though it is for sale. Pardon my rappin’ but it is costs less to one’s soul than does the whole whole foods experience. It’s very quiet music, in a land being shaped by Hip Hop where all is loud to the point where one of the most important Hip Hop labels was named Loud Records. Not only is it soulfully quiet, but it gives space to every bit of musicianship. Everyone is heard being an artist and it’s not the case in a lot of the songs that we hear on the radio. In one word it’s superb. An word for the album, to go along with the essay, is postmodern.
What does Black Youth mean? African American popular conceptions, the very large basket of them, are a hodgepodge of conceptions brought from Africa, conceptions born in the US as black indigenous culture, and conceptions that were forced upon or appropriated. Somewhere in American history, black youth came to mean, in black popular culture, an age group between the beginning of High School and very hard work. A working man is a “grown man.” A working woman is a “grown woman.” Let us say that black youth is an age group that begins with objectively serious intellectual responsibility, or the beginning of high school and ends with one’s complete integration or non-integration into the capitalist mainstream and the sort of accumulated tiredness that changes one’s life style.
Black Youth has accomplished. It really has. It began and led the Haitian revolution. It began and led Reggae. It began and led the civil rights movement. It rode the freedom buses into popular culture oblivion but into respect for ages to come. It led the Haitian revolution.
Even Robert Hayden, born Asa Bundy Sheffey, considered one of the least cool of black poets ever, who became a well regarded poet at around 30, was black and young. Hayden was born in a Detroit ghetto named “Paradise Valley.” He would be haunted by inhumanity and blackness for his entire life. Hayden’s most famous poem, “The Middle Passage,” was first written to be the opening of a collection of poems, “The Black Spear,” he wrote in 1942, at 29. The following is an excerpt from the poem.
“Deep in the festering hold thy father lies,
the corpse of mercy rots with him,
rats eat love’s rotten gelid eyes.
But, oh, the living look at you
with human eyes whose suffering accuses you,
whose hatred reaches through the swill of dark
to strike you like a leper’s claw.
You cannot stare that hatred down
or chain the fear that stalks the watches
and breathes on you its fetid scorching breath;
cannot kill the deep immortal human wish,
the timeless will.”
The poem is an epic about the infamous middle passage, the route that slave ships used to bring the slaves that either were sold by African kingdoms or kidnapped in plain sight to the Americas. In the excerpt, he describes the context that gave birth to African American culture. This despite the fact that poet Melvin Tolson denounced him for not wanting to self-identify as a black poet.
Jazz was founded by the Black Youth of New Orleans, a French colonial city that had passed into American hands. When it was under French, or Kreyol to denote French culture in the Americas, rule, it was not only a poorer city but was a city of organized debauchery full of the sort of gestures that European (syphilitic) haute society, Paris being its cultural capital, was known for. When the Americans came in to manage the city sometime after the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans blacks became Niggers / Negroes. This was just after the New Orleans racial massacre of 1866 or the New Orleans race riot. Generations of black youth that came after would fight hard, bebop, m-base, to make Jazz again “their music” and would veer Jazz their way.
Canvas is no Coolie High (haute commerce). Again, Robert Glasper’s Canvas album is his own thing. We’re talking about Miles Davis dropping out of Julliard, after having had a child in High School, to play with Charlie Parker. We’re talking about Jean Michel Basquiat living at the fringes in order to be and feel young. We’re talking about natural feminine dispositions towards saying something strong because she’s a repository of things she’s felt and she’s gotta say it because she’s young. Most importantly, it’s a great album.
Emmanuel Adolf Alzuphar is a music critic. He attended the George Washington University where he studied political science. He has contributed to MIC, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other publications.