Harley White Jr. breaks it down
When I was a kid, my dad gave me a John Coltrane record for Christmas. I couldn’t make sense of the jagged structure and the instruments’ nervous interplay. It sounded like a group of intellectuals arguing in a foreign language.
The music I listened to—hip-hop and punk rock, mostly—was so immediate: a simple hurricane of power chords or a four-bar intro and you were there in the moment. I put the Coltrane record down until later, when I realized that you learn the language of jazz by listening patiently.
So when I first heard the Harley White Jr. Orchestra, it at once appealed to my immediate sense of musical language and to my complex sense of musical language that had to be learned over time. Bassist and band leader White Jr. is just as likely to draw influence from Duke Ellington as he is from Operation Ivy or KRS-One. He insists on letting his wide influence determine the diction of his musical manifesto, which ultimately bridges the gap between traditional and contemporary music.
So here, in White Jr.’s language, are some word associations: complex, interesting, energetic and immediate—just like his music.
“This is how I would draw the line between traditional and nontraditional musicians: the ability to accept mentoring and the ability to turn around and give mentoring. There’s an apprenticeship involved. If you want to play an instrument, realize that you’re part of a continuum. There are no new notes under the sun. You didn’t invent anything. Take that apprenticeship and pass it on—then you’re an artisan.”
“I don’t even call myself a musician anymore. I’m a bluesician. I just wrote my first bluesical. I play bluesicology. … Duke Ellington would say, ‘Blues can take you from the penthouse to the outhouse, and all the places in between.’ And that’s kind of what I do. I hear the blues in reggae. I hear it in hip-hop. I hear it in rock. I hear it in jazz. Ellington put the blues on everything. Everything. That’s not a bad thing to do. … It’s like Bruce Lee: Which style did he not study? In the end it was Jeet Kune Do, which was the summation of everything he did. I’ve been trying to do the same thing with music. You call it Jeet Kune Do, I call it musicology.”
“In the ’30s, they didn’t care about children unless they were the bomb. You had to be Judy Garland. You had to be Shirley Temple. No one cared about kids. There would be no Jonas Brothers, really. There was the Nicholas Brothers, but they could really dance as well as anybody. The Jonas Brothers aren’t nowhere near the best guitar players on the planet. This fascination with kids is what has kind of changed things.”
“The disco era was the last era where people danced together—you have to ask a girl to dance. These motherfuckers don’t know shit about that. You go to a club and you’re all standing [around]. The question ‘Would you dance with me?’—no one asks that anymore. They go [to the club] to be bored. I don’t mind when people come around and start getting down. That’s what I’m here for.”
“Time trumps all the bullshit. If you hang onto integrity, you’ll be able to sleep at night. That’s why the best emcees will understand why we won’t listen to Puffy in 10 years. Why Mos Def is still blowing up. Why Duke Ellington’s music will be here five years from now … because integrity is a motherfucker. You can’t get around it.”