Joel Ross On Black American Music, Politics and Good Vibes

Joel Ross plays the vibraphone. But that isn’t the most interesting thing about him.

Joel is a 25-year-old musical prodigy. A young man born and raised in Chicago – the son of two police officers – who dares to move Black American Music into uncharted new territory. He does it with the gleeful joy of a mathematical savant, the determination of an athlete, and a millennial humility.

His music doesn’t hide behind a curtain of coded language – nor does it make any populist concessions.

Please consider this conversation a key to a door into the creative world of Joel Ross.

Joel Ross’s new album Who Are You? is out now via Blue Note Records


JAZZ

Is “jazz” a useful word to you?

I guess. I know there are people who feel that the word jazz isn’t the best description. I accepted it as what I grew up with – what I was taught. And the more I’ve been playing, and talking, and learning from people, the more I understand how jazz music is more flexible than the name implies.

Joel Ross
Joel Ross – Photo by Lauren Desberg

As for the word “jazz” itself, I use it to introduce people into the space that we’re in. And then once I get them in the door, I want to show them how big that space really is. But we can use the word to start the conversation.

Jazz music falls under a term that I agree more with – Black American Music.

That’s encouraging, because I was hoping to use the word “jazz” throughout this interview. Like with anything in language, if everyone knows what you’re talking about, then the word holds value. And it sounds like we have a shared understanding of what the word “jazz” means.

So speaking of jazz, there’s this idea that jazz is an inaccessible music for a lot of people. That jazz is intimidating. Do you agree that this is the case? And where do you think this idea comes from?

I think it’s true. But things can be done on both sides to address that problem.

I think some musicians make music for musicians. Some contemporary jazz music can be a bit heady, with a lot of metric modulations, and things like that. I like all those aspects of modern jazz – but it is my goal to use those ideas and make the music as accessible as I can, while still staying true to whatever I need to put out as an artist. Because it is art music.

Jazz used to be the popular music of the day, but it has evolved. It is something that needs to be studied, that you need to understand the history of. It’s the same as any other artform, the same as any dance or visual art.

It’s something that is not purely for the audience’s entertainment. It’s the artist’s self-expression. 

You don’t tell a painter what to paint. They create the art that they want to create, and as the audience you get to come and appreciate it. The audience has to want to understand what the artist is putting out.

But on the other hand, if you want people to feel invited to the music, then it is your job as an artist to achieve that.


RECORDING

Recording is an interesting medium for jazz music. Because jazz is an artform so much about creating in-the-moment every gig is going to be different, every instance of a set is something fresh. But on recording, you’re setting down a single performance forever.

How do you feel about the role of recording in jazz and in representing your own work?

The way that I approached thinking about recording actually changed during and after we recorded Who Are You?. I am now of the mindset that you are recording a moment in time in the stream of our journey. 

Joel Ross - Who Are You? Vinyl Album
Joel Ross – Who Are You? is available now via Blue Note Records

So for this album, I really wanted to only ever do just one take. As long as we can get from the beginning to the end – as cohesively as we can – then I want to do one take. I don’t care what else happens. I don’t really care about mistakes.

I want to capture this moment in time. It’s going to be different next week.


COLLECTIVE IMPROVISATION

The distinction between the “head” (in jazz, the main melody of a piece) and the “solo” (when the musician is improvising) doesn’t really feel very important in your music. Each track on your album feels like it exists as a single entity – a single experience, or a moment in time. How do you feel about the convention of “soloing”?

“Soloing” implies that it’s something that you’re doing by yourself. But in reality – unless you’re actually playing a solo show – you’re constantly in conversation with other band members.

I want us to constantly be listening to and communicating with each other. The guy who is soloing is leading the conversation right now, but everybody has input into the collective improvisation.


BLACK AMERICAN MUSIC

You said earlier that jazz is one of a number of styles that fall into the broader category of Black American Music. What is your understanding of Black American Music?

Jazz without a doubt comes from Black American Music. A lot of the music that is popular today comes from Black American music. RnB, Rock & Roll, Motown – all of it comes from the black experience. From the church, from blues, from slave songs, work songs, prison songs, and originally from Africa.

Joel Ross – Photo by Lauren Desberg

The experience that Black Americans have been through has influenced all of these forms of music. And as time has gone on, the music has evolved into these different branches.

I like this idea a lot, because it properly credits, by name, the immense contribution that Black Americans past and present have made to our global culture.

And today the influence of Black American Music is present across all genres and on all continents. American country music artists, English punk bands, K-Pop groups, and European rap artists are all drawing from the blueprints laid down by Black American artists.

Do you see a distinction between the adoption of Black American musical influences and outright appropriation of Black American culture?

It’s more than just the sound. It’s about understanding the spirit of the music, and how it has evolved to where it is now. Like any other science, you need to understand the history of it – what it is about, why it is the way that it is.

But honestly, the ultimate question is: are you contributing to the message of the music, and do you understand your role in it?


POLITICAL MUSIC

You have said that “jazz has always been a political music”. As America heads into its next presidential election in November, what do you feel is at stake right now in your home country?

I think the election is important in having a voice. In saying who we want our leaders to be. Because as we can see, not everything the government does is going to be in the people’s best interests.

But the people in charge don’t always affect my day-to-day. It’s on us as people – as citizens – to do our part. Sharing, talking, fighting, protesting, writing, silence, whatever the situation may need.

So I put less stock in who the president is, and more in the work being done on the ground by people in their communities

What do you hope Americans will be thinking about when they head out to cast their vote?

Other people. Just think about others.


Follow Joel Ross at iplayvibes.com

For information on how, where, and when to Vote in the 2020 U.S. elections visit usa.gov/how-to-vote