Robert Glasper Talks Blue Note Residency, What ‘La La Land’ Got Right About Jazz and Meeting Taylor Hawkins

Robert Glasper is all over the place.

But not in a disorganized and chaotic way. Glasper is quite the opposite. Fresh off the release of “Black Radio III” and a summer tour that took him across Europe and North America, the Grammy-winning multi-hyphenate is scoring two shows — Starz’s “Run the World” and Peacock’s “The Best Man” reboot — and preparing for his monthlong takeover of New York City’s Blue Note jazz club. 

From Oct. 4-Nov. 5, Glasper will play 48 shows across 24 nights, starting with a Herbie Hancock tribute series and ending with a couple sets with Yasiin Bey. In between, he’ll welcome a starry lineup of jazz A-listers and surprise guests — some of whom will be a surprise to him, too.

Speaking with Variety ahead of the residency, Glasper mused about keeping his sets loose, meeting the late Taylor Hawkins and the good and the bad that come with jazz movies like “La La Land” and “Soul.”

Your residency adapts throughout its run. You have a Herbie Hancock tribute, “Dinner Party” shows, acoustic sets, special guests like Lalah Hathaway…How did you curate these different shows?

It’s kind of what my life is crushed into a month. Throughout my career, I’ve done acoustic piano trios, jazz combos, my electric group… and I’ve collaborated with so many hip-hop artists throughout the years. When I first started doing Blue Note, I’d do one night. Then one week, then two weeks. And then they came to me and said, “Wanna try a month?” I think that was 2018, so this year is the fourth year. It’s basically like I get to have a playground for a month and pick out the different artists that I’ve loved working with throughout my career.

Will there be additional special guests you haven’t announced?

Oh, absolutely. There are two tiers of surprise guests: There are people I know are going to come that are pop-up guests, who I’ve already had conversations with. And then once October starts and I’m already in there, there are people who will come through that I didn’t even know were coming. Sometimes I get a text right before I’m going onstage — or while I’m onstage. People see me on my phone sometimes during a bass solo and get mad… but it’s like, you don’t know who I’m about to bring onstage. I’m coordinating this thing. I’ve had Kanye West pop up and surprise people at the Blue Note. The Foo Fighters came. That’s the last time I saw Taylor Hawkins before he passed. Dave Chappelle brought him out to my show during my residency last year. Dave texted me right before my last song and he was like, “Keep playing! I’m coming and I’m bringing the Foo Fighters.” They brought like 30 people from the Garden, so we ended up playing longer and making a jam out of it.

How tight can you make these shows? Do you make setlists, or do they have to be loose given that any of your famous friends could pop up at any moment?

Every gig I ever do is loose, especially at the Blue Note. A wildcard could always be thrown. My sets depend on the crowd a lot. I have so many genres that I deal with, which means I have lot of different audiences that I deal with as well. You can tell when a crowd is more of a hip-hop crowd, or an R&B crowd or a jazz crowd. Once I play the first song or two, I gauge and then go from there.

Is there a balance between pleasing the crowd and playing what you want to play, regardless of what they’re familiar with?

There’s definitely a balance, but they paid money to see something. I want them leaving having a good time. That’s the problem a lot of times with jazz musicians — we tend to want to please ourselves. The crowd having a good time tends to take a backseat. But that’s what happens when you are kind of one-dimensional. It’s rare you get somebody who can go, “Oh, you don’t like jazz? Here’s some hardcore hip-hop shit.” I’m throwing out things that are in my arsenal. It’s not like I’m selling out like, “Let me play a Beyoncé song so they’ll like me.” I have R&B songs that people love, I have jazz songs that people love, I have hip-hop songs that people love. It’s all me, which is what I’m happy about.

Do you think we’re beyond the panic of “jazz is dying”?

I think it’s still there. There’s still the jazz police, but it’s getting looser. People are embracing that jazz is evolving, whether they like it or not. You have to respect the fact that jazz is changing because that’s what things that are alive do. If it’s not changing, it’s dead.

Do portrayals of jazz in popular movies, like “Whiplash” or “La La Land” or Pixar’s “Soul,” benefit the genre? Or does it bother you to see misrepresentations of jazz in mainstream media?

Both. Jazz is misrepresented in general. It used to be that whenever someone talked about jazz it was the guy with the saxophone playing to the moon. It always used to be in black-and-white, like we were looking back on something. Like it was dead. The fact that “La La Land’ shows modern jazz musicians, and “Soul” gave you that vibe as well…at least it’s being mentioned and part of the conversation. You have to take the good and the bad because normally it’s completely ignored. “Whiplash,” too… all three of those movies were huge. And what you heard were actually jazz musicians of now. I know all the jazz musicians that played in “Soul.” It’s great in that respect — they got their shine. It was cool.

I played jazz in high school, and my teacher could not stand “La La Land.” But it’s funny because, for a lot of kids, their first real exposure to jazz music is in movies.

Absolutely! Sometimes cheesiness attracts. We have to realize as jazz musicians that some things attract people to jazz that we think are corny. But for them, it’s not corny. It’s surface enough that it attracts them. When it’s too deep, only the people who are already in it understand what’s going on. Sometimes you gotta make things look shiny so people can see it. That’s what “La La Land” did. But at the same time, “La La Land” featured real conversations that jazz musicians have — when the cat [Ryan Gosling] was talking to John Legend in the movie about modern music versus older music, and about how jazz has to progress. They’re actually having real conversations that we have now. So there were parts of “La La Land” that were super true. And it brought people onboard to want to play jazz and learn more about it.

You said in a recent interview, “You can go from jazz to other things. The other genres are nicer. You can’t go from other genres into jazz.” What do you mean by that?

No one in the history of music has ever been a high-level musician in any other genre — like a high-level R&B or hip-hop or classical musician — and been able to go into the jazz world and make some noise and get respect. That doesn’t happen. To play jazz, you have to master your instrument just to play the music, even in a mediocre sense. It takes such a high level of understanding and awareness to play in a jazz band that you can’t come from another genre and just jump in. Classical and jazz are the only two genres that you have to play at breakneck speed and have perfect technique. Other than that, it’s more about the feeling.

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