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Hip-Hoppers Come 'Round to Jazz : Bird lives, and so do the sounds of Monk and Miles. Of course they do, but their jazz is new to a very different generation. The hip-hop crowd is discovering their parents' music and making it their own.

August 14, 1994|Denise Hamilton | Denise Hamilton is a staff writer for The Times' San Gabriel Valley section

Jazz was always slinking around the house where Al Jackson grew up.

Dad was a musician so there was no escaping be-bop and acid jazz, even if Jackson, a typical Angeleno youth, was more partial to hip-hop. He wanted to rebel against whatever his parents stood for and rap was the language of the streets, the beat that spoke to him.

But his dad just sat there calmly and said, "You will come around."

Jackson, now 27, recounts this story late one summer night outside the Hollywood club Cosmos, as the jazz strains of the Umoja Quintet waft through the brick walls into the nighttime air.

Inside, five guys under 23 are jamming Coltrane, mixing classic bop with improvisational licks that define the '90s free-form style. Youngest is Ardom Belton, 19, who studies classical music at USC by day but is now working that stand-up bass till the sweat flows down his face, which is raised in ecstasy.

Outside, Jackson is conceding that his father was right: He and many others have come around.

"Everything originates from jazz," Jackson muses. "It's a black art form. But I was young. I didn't understand that. Now my grandfather and my father and I have common ground. We're on the same wavelength."

To spread the gospel, Jackson started "The Soul Children," a loose coalition of people who are curious about jazz and how the music has influenced their roots. At monthly "brown rice and BBQ" gatherings, Jackson shows other young people "where the hip-hop artists got their original music from."

He is part of a small but steadily growing stream of people who are rediscovering the legacy and importance of jazz as a foundation for music, lifestyle and cultural pride.

Some, like Jackson, need only flip through their parents' record collections to get in tune with the tracks of their childhood. Others find their curiosity whetted by the many hip-hop artists sampling jazz riffs today, including Me'Shell NdegeOcello, Digable Planets, Guru, KRS-One and A Tribe Called Quest.

While purists from both camps may have looked upon each other warily at first, the field broke wide open in late 1993, when the DJ project Us3 sampled boulder-size chunks from Blue Note Records' classic jazz catalogue on its album "Hand on the Torch."

Us3's irrepressible single "Cantaloop (Flip Fantasia)"--which is popping up on Top 40 and black music stations, but not jazz ones--generously samples Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island." Other tunes dip into Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Donald Byrd and Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.

To everyone's surprise, Us3 gave Blue Note its biggest hit in half a century of jazz records: more than 1.5 million copies sold worldwide, according to Tom Evered, Blue Note's vice president of marketing.

The source music isn't doing too bad either. New York's Blue Note says sales are up 30% to 40% for jazz artists whose works are sampled by hip-hoppers. The growing interest has also led the label to re-release old records that have long been scarce.

On the West Coast, a spokesman for Tower Records on the Sunset Strip says that jazz sales are at an all-time high--up by one-third over the last 18 months--with standard recordings by Monk, Miles and Coltrane outpacing everything else and acid jazz such as Gil Scott Heron and Lonnie Liston Smith, moving a close second.

Live jazz is hot too. At clubs and coffeehouses from Umoja and Brass in Hollywood to Nick's Cafe in Claremont and 5th Street Dick's and World Stage in the Crenshaw district, intense young musicians are forging '90s versions of both classic and acid jazz and bringing the music back to its roots, to the smoky dives and back-alley clubs where it originated so many years ago.

In the process, they are exposing the sophisticated and yet elemental music to a young audience that probably wouldn't shell out big bucks for a chic jazz supper club or feel at home as they do in a hip-hop venue.

Many say they're tapping into an affinity that always existed.

"Old jazz was rebellious music, so it's a natural place for rap to go," says Ron Carter, manager of publicity for Warner Bros. Records. "People are getting tired of gangsta rap . . . and they're going back and listening to jazz beats. Everyone's catching the flavor. The producers, the deejays, the trendsetters, are reaching back and capturing some of that magic, and whatever they do, the kids are going to follow."

Consider Dani Couch, 22, who studies sociology at UCLA. She used to listen mainly to rap. And funk, especially Prince. But in the last six months, she has branched into Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. They speak to her, these female jazz vocalists from several generations ago.

"A lot of my friends are getting into it," says Couch, who is in Hollywood this night to catch the Umoja Quintet. "They like the sound, they like the beat. There's a definite following."

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