Jaspects: Rebirth of the cool 

Pied pipers of Morehouse are on a mission to make jazz hip again

Spelman College senior Jamye Anna Royster weaves her way through the capacity crowd at Apache Café with a clipboard and a pen collecting e-mail addresses for her favorite jazz group's mailing list. While Jaspects celebrates its four-year anniversary onstage, Royster works the room as part of the band's mostly female street marketing team -- it's just one of the tactics the sextet lifted from the rap world and has employed to great effect.

Despite being a music major and Jaspects volunteer for two years, 21-year-old Royster is hardly an avid jazz enthusiast. Beyond Jaspects, she owns no jazz CDs. But the band has piqued her interest in the genre. And she loves the fact that Jaspects is doing something different by infusing radio-friendly hip-hop, random bits of funk and rock into its contemporary strain of straight-ahead jazz. "It's not the typical jazz," she says. "They bend it."

Royster is indicative of the collegiate fan base Jaspects has garnered in four years with two independently released CDs, In "House" Sessions (2005) and Broadcasting the Definition (2006). And on the eve of its third release, Double Consciousness, the band – founded at Morehouse College four years ago – seems eager to reverse jazz's near-comatose status by reintroducing the rooted tradition to the fruit of its womb: generation hip-hop. With one foot firmly planted in each genre, the group straddles the fence without compromising either art form.

And progressive-jazz DJ Jamal Ahmad, for one, is impressed. "What struck me immediately was the fact that not only were they well-versed in the tradition of jazz – you could hear that whole '50s imagery coming through their music – but you could also tell they were young cats who were part of the hip-hop generation," says Ahmad, who came into contact with Jaspects during his tenure at jazz station 91.9 WCLK-FM. "They kinda held true to both aspects at the same time, which is kinda rare."

And in an age when the majority of popular music produced by young black males promotes the proliferation of bankable stereotypes, Jaspects sticks out like a sore thumb. But that doesn't mean the group hasn't taken its share of criticism from those who think its style is too trendy. Occasionally, old jazz heads approach them directly to express their disagreement with the notion that jazz should veer from the straight and narrow. The group's first two CDs highlight a slow evolution from traditional to contemporary. Onstage, however, the band attempts to live up to its tagline, "redefining all aspects of jazz." In the same set, the sextet swings from Duke Ellington's "In a Sentimental Mood" to OutKast's "SpottieOttieDopalicious," even throwing in an interpolation of Curtis Mayfield's "Freddie's Dead" for good measure.

Jazz and rap alike have always evolved through such stylistic fusion. In the late '80s, when producers began expanding rap's sonic palette beyond James Brown loops to include jazzy samples from Roy Ayers or Ron Carter, classic albums such as A Tribe Called Quest's Low End Theory resulted, sparking an era of cool, down-tempo hip-hop. On the other hand, most attempts to spice up jazz with hip-hop flavoring have been patronizing at best, and desperate at worst.

But the six members of Jaspects, who range in age from 21 to 23, don't have to fake hip-hop. They live it.

Around '02, when a few Morehouse brothers (including Alabama native Jaye Price, alto sax; and Connecticut native James King, trumpet) tossed around the idea of starting a jazz band, they set two criteria in place. Those chosen would have to be extremely proficient in their designated instrument, and as Price likes to put it, "You had to be cool. That was the thing," he stresses. "You had to be cool, man. Cats had to be cool."

Eventually, the band grew to include Henry Conerway III of Detroit (drums), Terrence Brown of Memphis (keys), Dwayne Dugger of New York (tenor sax) and Jon-Christopher Sowells of Dallas (bass). Whether or not the sextet meets the "cool" criteria depends on how you define the word. On the surface, they're clean-cut and polished, synonymous with the prototypical "Morehouse man" image. They wear bow ties and blazers as their signature look. They end their practice sessions (which often go to 4 a.m.) by holding hands for group prayer. And even in relaxed, shit-talking mode, they make sure the only reporter in the room knows to keep some stuff off-the-record – a tactic their rap counterparts could benefit from.

Yet these cats are also hip-hop hustlers driven to convert the masses. "People say jazz is a museum piece and it's not a living art form. But it is," says drummer Conerway. "It's a living, live, in-the-moment art form. And that's what we're trying to help people to see – that jazz isn't dead." The members call themselves the "gateway drug" that will inevitably lead to a deeper appreciation for traditional jazz. "We're a jazz-awareness group," keyboardist Brown chimes in.

To enliven its movement, Jaspects employs the same kind of strategic marketing rappers have utilized for more than a decade to broaden their fan base. Broadcasting featured singers Janelle Monae and Scar – both of whom are signed to Big Boi's Purple Ribbon label and were heard on OutKast's recent Idlewild CD. "We pulled in their crowds and then people began to spread the word like, 'Wow, this ain't your typical dinner-music, snap-your-finger jazz. These guys rock,'" Brown says. (Jaspects also shares the same management team as Janelle Monae and Scar.) The group even independently releases its own CDs under the guise Jaspects Music Group, LLC.

Jaspects' inherent dichotomy is reflected in the title of the new album, Double Consciousness, which its members hope will enable them to bridge the gap between hip-hop and jazz that has separated their often eclectic live show from their more buttoned-down recorded material. "Be-Hop," the second song on the new disc, borrows the bassline from the crunk hit "Wait," by Atlanta rappers the Ying Yang Twins, as the group members take turns rapping over the riding rhythm.

"It took us out of our comfort zone," Price admits, regarding the making of the CD. But Jaspects isn't worried about how well it will be received.

"One thing about it, when people hear our music, they love it," Sowells says. "And they tell somebody about it. So once we get to the point where we get mass exposure, the sky's going to be the limit."

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