Lincoln Center's Student Advisory Council is a group of undergraduate and graduate students from across New York City who are committed to the art world being a more inclusive and accessible space. We serve as ambassadors on our campuses and our communities. We also have the opportunity to help scout new music to present at an annual SAC-curated show at the David Rubenstein Atrium. The musicians for this year's concert are jazz saxophonist Braxton Cook and Taylor Simone and Jett Carter of R&B/soul duo Jazze Belle. In advance of the show on April 7, my fellow SAC member Safet Bektesevic and I sat down with these three New York City–based musicians to talk to them about creating music that is reflective of worlds they have lived in and hope to live in.
Dania Lewis: Toni Morrison has said that creating new music is a way of owning one's body, one's existence, and she uses jazz as an example of that. Would you say that your music embodies that?
Braxton Cook: I guess I could just speak to the honesty that I try and convey in my music and convey in my artistry. And I try to speak to the fact that I don't necessarily have all the answers yet. I'm not claiming that I have arrived at this new synthesis of these art forms and these styles and idioms. I'm on a quest for something, for truth and for honesty, that I think a lot of our predecessors in the jazz world and in the music world have been about. People like John Coltrane and Duke Ellington were searching for that truth and that honesty of expression. And I think it's no different. I'm trying to get at that. And in doing so I'm just trying to be more cognizant of what's happening in other musics and styles that I do like, being honest with that.
Taylor Simone: As far as owning existence, owning one's body—in writing the lyrics for "Go to Bed Standing Up," I realized that. . . I think it was kind of spiritual, like the things that I wanted to know, I was trying to claim. We asked ourselves, "What happens when you become your dream? What are the steps and what is it? What do you feel like?" I was thinking about Kendrick Lamar when To Pimp a Butterfly came out, because I love that project, and I was wondering how he felt after that was done. And how do you get there? So that was the jumping off point for this. And I didn't realize that in trying to come up with that I had to solve a lot of things within myself. I had to believe in myself. There was a lot of inner work and calling into existence the dream. You know, I can't be writing these songs for people about dreaming if there's any doubt in my mind that it's possible for me. So in trying to answer that question I'm trying to speak to myself and encourage myself.
Jett Carter: We all have dreams, but a lot of times when we grow up we forget those dreams. It's like, we have to get a "real job." So the dreams that I wanted to do I can't do anymore, because I have a nine to five. I can't learn how to do this because I have bills to pay. My take is always go for your dream no matter what it is, no matter how hard it is, always try to achieve what you want to achieve.
DL: And how does this connect to your latest projects?
TS: "Go to Bed Standing Up" is a command, but it's also like, you can either be sleeping standing up because you're so wired and you're so not present, or your dreams are so vivid and they're so real that it's like you're standing up. Stuff is hard. Life is hard. And I think that's the only way that genuine positivity can come through is acknowledging the validity of things being hard.
BC: "Somewhere in Between" is the title track, and it's kind of that mantra to remind myself and others to just follow and trust in themselves. The title applies to a lot of different things, and it keeps evolving. When I wrote it, it was as simple as "I like R&B soul music and I like jazz music." And as I started delving into the lyrics—"Somewhere between, somewhere in the middle, crack the code, solve the riddle, trying to find the real me"—that part became more about who I am and my temperament, my upbringing, and then sonically mixing the styles of my first two projects. So it is literally sonically in between. It's about existing in between these made-up lines of genre, or race, or ethnicity, or race or whatever.
Just thinking about the lineage of jazz, of black people in general, we've always had to dream. We've always had to dream radically. Stuff that we probably wouldn't live to see.
DL: It's really affirming to hear that you see both dreaming and "being in between" as solid spaces.
TS: I think dreaming is so important, especially now. I remember writing a lot of these lyrics—there's a song we have, "Everyday's Tomorrow," and it's about having anxiety and not knowing if you can dream because you're so wired and anxious about the present. But I was like, "Are people going to get where I'm coming from?" And then Darth Cheeto became president and then everything just shifted. Things that people didn't really feel like they needed, now are like, "We really want to hear some new things."
Just thinking about the lineage of jazz, of black people in general, we've always had to dream. We've always had to dream radically. Stuff that we probably wouldn't live to see. And that's the only reason that I'm out here doing this stuff, because somebody—my great-great whatever—was like, we're going to dream of freedom. We're going to dream that we won't get hung anymore. Dreaming is so necessary.
DL: And in terms of community, how important is it for you to be in New York City at this time in your careers?
BC: New York is amazing. I think everyone knows that New York has an energy that's unmatched anywhere. I'm from the D.C. area. It's got a vibe and swag to it, which I love, but New York is just something else. There's way more musicians, way more producers, way more studios, way more everything, just on top of each other. And there's a lot of access to a lot of things. This city, it pushes you. It can crush you, I guess, some people say, but I think it built me up. It made me a lot stronger and made me go after things. You find community in the jazz scene. I found a lot of community with artists that are like-minded, just a little bit more open-minded. I kind of latched on to that. When you find open minds and spirits that are open to creating, you just latch onto them and you just build.
JC: The community's big but small at the same time. Most of our homies are all musicians. We try to support each other musically but also stop thinking about music and go to a bar or watch the game or something like that. You have to do everything to not be stressful all the time.
I would love for jazz to be fun and sexy and soulful again, you know what I mean?
DL: Who would you say your audience is? Who do you want to hear your music? Who are you writing to?
BC: For me, I'm writing to myself, people like me, first and foremost. There's different songs that speak to different people. I wrote a song for Trayvon Martin that I play at every show and I think everyone needs to hear it, but I have love songs, too, and I'm like, I would like there to be more women in the audience! I'm singing to a bunch of saxophonists! I would love for jazz to be fun and sexy and soulful again, you know what I mean? I would love for it to be like the same audience that The Internet gets, like cool kind of alternative people, or like people who go to see Solange. That world. Instrumental but groovy, vibey. And they're here. There's 8 million people in this city. They're here.
JC: I think the same thing. A lot of our songs are kind of for different audience—I mean, "Jagged Edge" is not the same as "Everyday's Tomorrow."
TS: I think our audience are people that don't really think about genres as a thing, or are really cool with that in-between genre thing. And they don't view listening to different stuff as a challenge. So that's always the people we've had in mind. I think it's cool to think about different iterations of what black music is. Because it's so expansive and there's so many possibilities.
DL: Would you say that freedom, music, and love have things in common? When you create your music how do those things collide?
TS: I think it's all love. I know that sounds super cliché. Cornel West has this quote: "Justice is what love looks like in public." And when I think about freedom and liberation, I think about that: "love in public." I always think about the relationships we have when we play live. It's such an open, expansive love. I want to model the way I feel when I work with people musically in every relationship. There's no jealousy—everybody can play with everybody, it's so free. We love what everybody's doing. You don't even have to know deep things about a person to know that person, when they play. It's really like love.
BC: Yeah, that's exactly it. It's love. Even with songs about activism, about Black Lives Matter, even songs that are bringing light to horrible things, my approach is I think we should love each other. And I think people can feel that from the stage, I think it comes through totally.
JC: If you're not free, how can you love, right?
About the Artists
Jazze Belle is a Harlem-based group headed by producer/instrumentalist Jett Carter and singer/songwriter Taylor Simone. With influences ranging from Flying Lotus to Jill Scott, and, of course, Outkast, the two share a sound infused by jazzy vocals, honest lyrics, and edgy, hip-hop production. In the words of No Smoking Media, their work is "...a cool sort of future- funk/neo-soul/I'm-sick-of-making-up-genres category that is all of them and none of them at once." They released their debut project Go To Bed Standing Up on February 25.
Braxton Cook is one of this generation's emerging voices on the alto saxophone. He is also a talented vocalist and songwriter whose sound blends soul, R&B, and jazz. A graduate of Juilliard, Cook has toured with trumpet player/Grammy Award nominee Christian Scott, The New Century Jazz Quintet, and Tomohiro Miro Quartet, among others. His 2014 EP Sketch and 2015 album Braxton Cook Meets Butcher Brown brought him to festivals and venues across the country, and his newly formed band The N.E.W. will be touring this year to support the release of his album Somewhere in Between, which will be released April 7.