Jazz Messenger Lighting The Fusion Trumpeter Jafar Barron Bridges The Gap Between Jazz And Hip-hop

Posted: March 06, 2001

There were times when it was all so frustrating. Jafar Barron was playing jazz that pleased others, but different sounds and rhythms kept bouncing around in his head.

Finally, it wasn't that the 28-year-old Philadelphia trumpeter - who comes from a respected family of musicians and admires Wynton Marsalis and Miles Davis - stepped away from straight-ahead jazz. He surrendered to a concept that gnawed at his musical being.

It melds acoustic jazz with a hip-hop groove. It triggers positive introspection in listeners. Sometimes it makes them dance. Accessible, it challenges - but doesn't insult - a musician's skills. Barron calls it "free bop."

"It's me being myself, playing what I hear inside," Barron said during lunch recently at the Royal Gourmet, a buffet-style eatery and bar on Sansom Street in Center City. "I can't say I'm purposely combining jazz and hip-hop. . .What comes in, comes out. What I've taken in through my ears and my soul comes out."

Free bop is a label from the 1960s, when it was used to describe "free" jazz, a rebellious musical counterpoint to the bebop of the 1940s. Barron says he borrowed the phrase because it represents melodic, harmonic and rhythmic freedom of expression - and an uplifting of the spirit.

Being a musician, he says, is "a spiritual endeavor."

Barron's debut album, "Jafar Barron: The Free Bop Movement" (Alafia/Q/Atlantic), was released nationwide on Feb. 13, though it's been available in the Philadelphia area since last year.

"Free Bop Movement" is an important recording at an important time.

There has been a spike in jazz album sales, sparked by Ken Burns' "Jazz" documentary on PBS earlier this year, but most of these are reissues or compilations of music recorded as far back as 85 years ago. Most of the titles, in fact, were marketed with the Burns series. They feature such icons as Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Sidney Bechet, Miles Davis, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald.

Nostalgia is one thing, growth another. The existing jazz audience is aging, and the music needs to lure young people.

Barron's album offers another way jazz can connect with youth - and do so with its integrity intact. For his part, Barron says he wants to "bring the music to my peers," the under-30 set more familiar with Outkast than Oscar Peterson.

Strong polyrhythmic bebop pulses run through the disc's 16 compositions (all but one written or co-written by Barron) and sets a fluid foundation for Barron's lyrical trumpet and synthesized pocket trumpet, brother Farid Barron's Rhodes piano, Tim Motzer's guitar and Lamont Caldwell's saxophone.

Interspersed are spoken-word interludes by poet Oskar Castro about "the little Buddha," a nickname Barron acquired as a roly-poly kid. The disc calls to mind mid-career Miles Davis, right before he jumped into fusion.

J. Michael Harrison, host of "The Bridge" on WRTI (90.1-FM), a show that emphasizes the link between bebop and hip-hop, said Jafar's music could help young people appreciate the work of a Parker or John Coltrane while creating a new sound for a new generation of jazz lovers.

"Jafar could be one of the cats to pave the way for [listeners] to go further," Harrison said.

Others have tried to fuse hip-hop and jazz. The early "acid-jazz movement," which simply integrated song samples and DJ scratches into old Blue Note recordings, put more emphasis on the acid than the jazz.

Until Barron, perhaps trumpeter Russell Gunn ("Ethnomusicology, Vol. 1") and saxophonist Courtney Pine ("Underground") have come closest to successfully combining the two genres.

"The music to me is a true fusion of hip-hop and jazz," said veteran bassist Mike Boone, who shares, with drummer Rodney Green, the album's most important job - laying out grooves that don't grow cold and stagnant. "This isn't any sellout stuff," said Boone, known around town for his work in straight-ahead ensembles. "I feel right at home here."

Barron's home in Mount Airy was full of music during his childhood. "It was the most natural way for me to go," he recalled.

His father, George, is an accomplished saxophonist who has his own band and, in the early '70s, recorded with Lonnie Liston Smith and the Cosmic Echoes. His mother, Janet, is a respected vocalist. They still live in Philadelphia.

Jafar Barron's brother, Farid, is pianist for the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, led by Wynton Marsalis.

After graduating from Central High School and attending Howard University, Jafar Barron transferred to the University of the Arts. Still steeped in the straight-ahead jazz school - even affecting the suit-and-tie wardrobe favored by the so-called "young lions" of '80s jazz like Wynton and Branford Marsalis - he was off to clubs like Ortlieb's to jam with some of the city's best straight-ahead musicians.

But he couldn't escape the rhymes and energy of his generation, and he became attracted to places like Wilhelmina's, Silk City and the Five Spot, where hip-hop, spoken word and dance music reign.

Given Barron's involvement with Philly's hip-hop and soul music scene - which has produced King Britt, Jill Scott, Eve, The Roots and James Poyser, to name a few - it was only a matter of time before he was asked to be a sideman on some of these artists' recordings.

He seems to flow easily among the genres, guided by an instinct toward music that "keeps it positive, spiritual." That's especially important since his nearly tragic accident last September.

Barron fell three stories from a window and suffered a serious head injury that left him in a coma for two weeks, his father said. While he was in the hospital, his family and others constantly talked to him and played his music on a cassette player. One day, Barron blinked his eyes once - indicating he heard the music.

Barron doesn't remember what happened the early morning of Sept. 1, and apparently no one was around to witness it, his father said. The younger Barron does talk of being involved with "transgressions - things that would be detrimental to the body."

"I was trying to get to a high level with outside objects," he said. "I'm fortunate and blessed that I didn't fall prey to it completely. I was able to overcome."

Indeed, those who know Barron marvel at his recovery, and his family praises the staff at Moss Rehabilitation Hospital, who treated the trumpeter. Barron continues to work at strengthening his chops. But something has changed.

"I think he's in a different space," said Castro, who has known Barron for six years. "The soulfulness was ever present [in his playing], but it's really starting to be more prominent."

"We've all noticed," his father said. "He's back practicing the basics and building his tone. I hear a range of emotion and color in his playing. The real test will be how he works out with upcoming tours and promotional events."

Indeed, there are plans to tour such places as Atlanta, Chicago and maybe Miami to expose Barron to jazz and R&B audiences. And his album's mid-tempo cut, "Warm & Pretty: Pretty Warm Thing," with its catchy melody, is being pushed for radio play.

"I'm feeling very fine, feeling very blessed," Barron said. "I feel like I could take on the world."

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