FunkJazz Kafé's big payback 

What does Jason Orr's iconic soul event have to do with a conspiracy against black music?

SOUL SEARCHING: Jason Orr's documentary Diary of a Decade chronicles the rise of FunkJazz Kafé amid Atlanta's alternative soul scene.

Joeff Davis

SOUL SEARCHING: Jason Orr's documentary Diary of a Decade chronicles the rise of FunkJazz Kafé amid Atlanta's alternative soul scene.

Jason Orr's mother has been complaining about him wearing the same clothes for too many days in a row. He's only staying with her temporarily before he catches a flight back to New Orleans, where he's been considering a permanent move. In the meantime, he's been living like a gypsy.

He says he needs to stop by the nearest Target to pick up some new jeans, so we roll out. Even in a big-box discount store, he seems to possess his own brand of cool. It's evident in the way he floats down the aisles with a rhythm more coastal than Southern. Though he was born in Savannah and raised in Atlanta, he's spent a lot of time in his biological father's Caribbean homeland of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. But it's also apparent in the way total strangers eye him with keen interest. Even if they don't recognize the 6-foot-tall dread-head behind the brown-tinted shades and the applejack cap, it's as if they wish they did.

After making his purchase, he eases back to the car. Although it's mid-May, and technically still spring, Atlanta's notorious humidity makes the leather seats sticky. Gas is too expensive to run the air-conditioning in Friday afternoon rush-hour traffic, so he sweats it out with the windows down. As we approach the Tower package store on Moreland Avenue, I detect a slight aroma. Jason Orr is kinda funky.

Perhaps that's to be expected from a man who considers funk "a sacred art form" and James Brown his patron saint. As it turns out, the natural mystic behind the alternative multimedia arts and music phenomenon FunkJazz Kafé is quite the mortal in more ways than one. At 40, he seems to have come to a crossroads. The man he refers to as his father, since he never really had a relationship with his biological one, recently passed away. Making matters worse, Orr's last girlfriend cheated on him, which left him feeling less than appreciated.

It's all part of why he's been flirting with a change of scenery and some new inspiration.

"I think divine spirit took me to New Orleans because of that Congo Square energy and the beginnings of our music," he says, referring to the city's Treme neighborhood park, credited as the birthplace of American music, where African slaves dating back to the 1700s were allowed to gather on Sundays to make music and dance.

click to enlarge Andre 3000 rocks a crocheted hairnet on stage in 2000. - SHANNON MCCOLLUM

Though it's been four years since he threw his last sold-out FunkJazz jam at Atlanta's Tabernacle, he still relishes his status as the Pied Piper of the city's contemporary soul scene — a scene he practically nursed from birth.

"People always [ask], 'When's it coming back?' And I'm like, 'Muhfucka, I'm not dead.' I don't think they realize they're looking at the chef of the food that they like. It's like [asking me], 'When you gonna make that sandwich again?'"

His recently completed music documentary, Diary of a Decade, could be satisfying enough to quell even his own hunger pangs. He's been piecing it together nearly twice as long as the title suggests. With an almost two-and-a-half hour run time, it's as epic as the brand he built. That's because FunkJazz Kafé serves as a mere catalyst to a contentious subplot that fingers the music industry for killing off the heart and soul of black music.

It's the kind of documentary one might expect from a conspiracy theorist like Orr. He even works 9/11 into the mix.

But in order for the film to secure the kind of broad distribution he hopes will rejuvenate the FunkJazz Kafé brand, he might have to cut the most controversial, and compelling, parts.

The enigma of Jason Orr has always been his ability to straddle two diametrically opposed worlds by securing corporate dollars to fund a countercultural movement without selling out the mission. It made him something akin to a poor righteous pimp. But now that his documentary is done, he may be forced to make a choice that could define his legacy long after the credits have rolled.

To water it down in the hopes of going mainstream or stay true to the cause and remain relegated to the underground? It's the same dilemma black music's been facing for decades.

click to enlarge HIDE AND SEEK: The face of FunkJazz Kafé, Jason Orr, in a 1996 promo photo - COURTESY OF JASON ORR

Orr was still deep in the throes of editing Diary of a Decade one year ago at his Glenwood Park condo. The contemporary décor in his living room was decidedly minimalist. In place of a TV, an electronic keyboard and computer workstation served as the focal point. In a guest room closet, crates stacked neatly to the ceiling housed nearly 17 years worth of meticulously organized FunkJazz Kafé archives, including exhibits, photos, audio recordings and Betamax tapes dating back to 1995. A mini bookshelf in the living room was filled with provocative titles, including Heal Thyself for Health and Wellness, Dictionary of African Deities, and The Third Eye, the sci-fi book by black writer Sophia Stewart, who alleged in a lawsuit that the Wachowski Brothers plagiarized her story's premise for their Matrix film series.

Orr's own film attempts to illuminate a much larger conspiracy. Diary of a Decade contends that the mainstream evaporation of soul and other meaningful expressions of black music during the '90s was due to the industry's deep-seated white supremacist ideals. It's a thought-provoking assertion, if only because few are bold enough to scream it from the rooftops.

But Orr has always been a bit of an eccentric.

"When I met Jason, I thought he was almost like a cultural elitist," says WCLK-FM's Jamal Ahmad, a FJK attendee since day one. "But it's just because I didn't know him. The thing is, being conscious and spiritually aware is totally different when you juxtapose it with being aware of the foundations of music. There are not a lot of people who can break down, like, chemtrails and still break down the importance of James Brown."

Asking Orr how FunkJazz Kafé started is like probing for the origins of the universe. The story he tells is part creation myth, part conspiracy and full of tangents that veer off in all sorts of unexpected directions — like the time he unearthed an unsigned Maxwell after digging his demo out of a Sony Music A&R's trash can in New York.

But Orr's short answer is that it was born of necessity: "FunkJazz comes from an environment that was in crisis. Black music was in a crisis."

It was the early '90s and Orr was working full-time as a Fulton County tax collector, a job he'd landed as a 19-year-old Clark Atlanta University dropout despite showing up at the interview with a stud in his ear. By night, he managed Vinnie Bernard, an unknown singer with an unprecedented style that predated both the neo-soul misnomer and future stars of the subgenre such as D'Angelo and Maxwell.

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