It is hard to find a musician today who has a clear view of the world around them. Especially in jazz, a world shackled by its history. A world filled with musicians who, having spent years practicing within that tradition, can find it difficult to acknowledge the need to move forward.
Leron Thomas, cutting his teeth as a jazz trumpeter in New York in the early 2000s, recognised these faults and reacted.
Be honest about your artistic experience or else you're just going to be another jaded New Yorker
“I got tired of the institutional aspect,” says Thomas. “Jazz started feeling like an institution and less like the free thing that I had read it was. Books by Miles [Davis], and the stories you hear from the elders, it's nothing like that.”
Working with jazz masters Billy Harper and Charles Tolliver, and close friends Robert Glasper and Bilal Oliver, Thomas awoke to the fact that to be a true artist, you have to be honest if you are going to produce work that provides genuine creative satisfaction.
Since this realisation, Thomas has released eight albums that blend his skills as a jazz trumpeter, vocalist, composer and producer. His latest album Cliquish (2015) is a tour de force.
An album straight from the artist's heart, Cliquish shows the importance of retaining an individuality amidst an often stagnant music scene and conformist society. It is Thomas's crowning achievement in an age of uniformity.
Why did you move away from the jazz community?
Around that time [early 2000s], work was drying up. I think mainly because the elders started dying. There was this whole institution that broke.
I noticed that people weren't really playing in New York. All of a sudden, they were pushed out and then I'm cutting it in New York, playing music to a bunch of peers being tough on each other, trying to not sound like they're an entity from the past. Then there are the elders telling you what else you need to work on.
It seemed like what was being asked from me was to be more honest about what time period I lived in. Was Miles Davis playing Tiger Rag?
I had to admit it to myself. Like, look man, as much as you love this music and can play this music, take that with you and use it the best you can. But be honest about your artistic experience or else you're just going to be another jaded New Yorker.
He said: to make it in jazz all you have to be is young, black and talentless
For jazz, they want you to play more appropriately. Play in a time period. It's more of a tourist attraction now. I'm not saying there's no cutting edge cats in New York, but many a time they have to play whatever the clubs or their employers want them to play.
To get out of that you have to break all the moulds, be a true artist and have fun. Don't let them age you.
Do you think jazz musicians have always faced these problems?
If you study black music, you'll see musicians being progressive to move with the times. We have to keep going you know. We don't get the luxury of just staying in one place.
That's what's going on with jazz musicians. We just want to change with the times. It is social music – Miles said that.
It seems that the most creative people always move with the times.
There's moving with the times but there's also the constant looking back. I'm always playing standards in my apartment – trying to get better. I'll go to an occasional jam session and play, just so I can still have that feeling. That's the only way I can come up with new stuff.
You need both. But as far as what your expression is, mine is to move forward.
Why did you start experimenting, away from jazz?
It happened naturally. I was working with Bilal. He was hipping me to David Bowie and Frank Zappa. We were going to the New School in Manhattan; it was like me, Bilal and Robert Glasper.
It seems that if you stay true to what you love, things seems to work out
Rob had a great sense of composition and melody – real strong and romantic melodies. That's something I really copped from him in a way. I was really into it.
With Bilal, it was just his off-the-wall taste. He would be listening to the craziest stuff. You'd just be like, what is this? And some classical that I liked to check out like [Paul] Hindemith and [Alexander] Scriabin, [Gustav] Mahler.
When me, Rob and Bilal were all on tour, I felt a sense of liberation that I didn't feel being in those jazz clubs, dealing with cats, elders or club owners vibing you. I felt my age; not like a 40-year-old, you know.
Was that the early 2000s?
Yeah. My sound really started to change around the end of 2003. I just realised that nobody was going to give me that record deal.
I said, well, might as well just be yourself now. You've been trying to put on the suit and tie and be the right kind of person. You tried to be the next Young Lion [1980s jazz traditionalist] but that shit didn't work out.
It was kind of awesome but scary too, because during that time you’re going through a lot. There's just no guarantee. You've got girlfriends giving you hell; you've got eviction notices coming.
But, it seems that if you stay true to what you love, things work out.
There was a jazz club you all played at wasn't there?
Yeah the Up Over Jazz Café in Brooklyn. It was a good club. This guy Bob Myers used to run it.
I hate to say it man, but it's hard for young black jazz musicians to get gigs in Manhattan because there are a lot of club owners who affiliate black jazz musicians with progressive music and they don't want that.
There's also this hatred that black jazz musicians get record deals. I remember this white jazz musician coming up to me. He was all jaded. I was in the back of Smalls [Smalls Paradise, a Harlem jazz club] practicing and he says to me, I don't know why you're practicing; to make it in jazz all you have to be is young, black and talentless.
9/11: there were people committing suicide, jumping from dorms, just thinking the world was over
A lot of us had to bounce out to Brooklyn to work at Up Over Jazz Café to kind of have a steady place to develop. Billy Harper was out there, that's how I got in his band. Plus, he taught at the New School.
I was in Billy's band for a bit, but then 9/11 hit. And he wanted me to go to Israel and it was the car bombing times and man, I was too damn scared. I chickened out on that one.
Where were you on 9/11?
I was asleep in my dorm and was on 8th Street, downtown, so I was down there near it. The night before I was hanging with Michael Stipe from REM. I had just got through doing a session thing for a movie he was making. We were at the Zinc bar. The next day the whole world changed, at least in my life.
This Resident Advisor person knocked on the door; I wake up and am like, what's wrong? She asked me to turn on my TV and see what was happening. Then the smell of the smoke started to come through. I can't talk about it too much because it was crazy.
But it scared a lot of us man. There were people committing suicide, jumping from dorms, just thinking the world was over. It was pretty out.
Then I just dodged another thing in Paris. The café that was shot up, I was there every night until the night of the shooting. I had a show out of town.
You ask yourself, are you going to be OK? Is everything that you're doing worth it? Because, you’re out here and almost getting your head shot off.
What you heard was black children trying to connect with the father they never had
With society, I try not to get myself down about it. I always try and stay optimistic. I think that mankind is just trying to make peace with its condition.
In one of your songs, you speak about the neo-soul movement as "a fatherless generation of music that tried to please the father it never had".
It draws into what I was saying about black people having to keep moving because of their social condition. When affirmative action hit, at first they were hiring black males but then they started hiring black females. So black males couldn't get jobs. This broke up the family.
There's a whole generation that grew up that way. What you heard [in neo-soul] was black children trying to connect with the father they never had. This was a fatherless generation. These were my cousins. I saw why everybody listened to this music, but it wasn’t progressive. It's honest in a naive sense. It's not aware of itself; it's a by-product of something unfortunate but in a very transparent way.
They were trying to fit Bilal into that neo-soul thing. We all just went with it, man. I just made sure that I put a footnote for myself on record.
In your music, you act as an observer. When I listen to it, I gain a perspective on many areas of life.
You've got to observe. It's important to step outside of yourself and whatever cliques you're in and just look around. See what you can do to help. Am I saying everything that's on my mind? Am I getting it all off? If I'm not, then that's a problem. That means I'm lying.
I don't want to be one of those people that lies in my art. That's a waste of time man. I know a lot of people who did that. First, you're looking good, but then people catch on and you're old news.
I want to go out on top. Like Beethoven and them. They write their baddest shit before they die.