As part of our fall 2014 Men’s Shop Catalog, we profiled 4 real men of style and substance. Here, Blue Note recording artist Robert Glasper.
Whenever we interview a world-class chef, a pro BMX rider—or, in this case, a Grammy-winning jazz composer who works alongside the best musicians in the business—our goal is not to offer you life hacks to follow in their exact career path. Instead, we aim to inspire you with a glimpse inside the mind of a guy who’s at the top of his game—and to discover and share wisdom of a more universal nature.
In chatting with multifaceted jazz man Robert Glasper, we found out a thing or two about conquering writer’s block, learning from your dislikes, and documenting ideas even at inopportune moments. Keep reading for the full Q&A, and to hear our favorite examples of Glasper in action.
MEN’S SHOP DAILY: Who first inspired you to get into music?
ROBERT GLASPER: “Growing up, there was a lot of random music being played in the house because my mother—I call her a musical mutt [laughs]—because on any given day, she would be doing a different gig. She was a singer, so she would sing at a jazz club one day, a funk/R&B club another day, at a country club the next day. And then on Sunday, she would be the music director at church. We always had a piano in the house; she would show me little things, and then I would pick up stuff off the radio really easily.”
What effect do you think your mom’s eclectic taste had on you?
“Because I had all those influences in my household, I gravitated naturally to so many different styles of music. I think that’s kind of what started my whole musical palate—not having just one genre shoved down my throat. It was just a love of music in general, and that kind of got my engine going.”
[Glasper is known to put his own spin on songs by Nirvana, Stevie Wonder, and in this case, Radiohead.]
How would you describe your musical style today?
“I’m a jazz pianist, but to me, when you say you’re a jazz musician, that means you have the tools to play any kind of music. Just to play jazz in general—I would say, even to play bad jazz—you have to be better than most musicians [laughs]. Because you have to have a certain technical aspect together, just in order to play the music correctly. So I’m a jazz piano player, but I’m influenced by a lot of music.”
Who are some of your favorite artists, jazz or otherwise?
“Um…I would definitely say Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Keith Jarrett and McCoy Tyner. Wayne Shorter is probably my favorite jazz composer. Stevie Wonder. The Isley Brothers for sure. Radiohead. I love Radiohead. Also Bruce Hornsby and Billy Joel—I love their piano playing. So those are some of my favorite pianists outside of just the jazz realm.”
Besides the inherent, extremely tight collaboration of your band, the Robert Glasper Experiment, you tend to collaborate very frequently with great vocalists on a song-by-song basis. What do you enjoy about that process?
“When two artists have a mutual respect for each other, that produces the best music for me, because that person is giving themselves to you, and you’re giving yourself to them. And that’s what creates the magic. But people that I’ve worked with like Erykah Badu and Mos Def—they’re amazing people first, and they’re artists second.”
For your most recent album (having just won a Grammy), you were able to set up some of the collaborations via Twitter! How else do they come about?
“I’m from Houston, Texas, and when I moved to New York for college in ’97, that’s how I met a lot of people. Like, I was teaching Common piano lessons—the rapper Common, before I really knew he was Common. To me, he was just a friend of a friend that I knew [laughs]. But in Brooklyn, yeah, he lived down the street from me, Erykah [Badu] lived down the street from me. It was kind of just like family and friends. Once I got to New York, it really opened my mind and my eyes and my whole life just changed.”
[Glasper and his bandmates made up this song on the spot—and on the air—for NPR. Stick around for the final song, if you appreciate insane bass playing as much as we do.]
How important is listening to music—in a general sense of exposing yourself to ideas?
“I tell people all the time: Listen to everything. You don’t have to like everything. But listen to it, and if you don’t like it, you don’t like it. But at least you know you don’t like it, and you know why you don’t like it. Because what you like makes you who you are, and what you don’t like also makes you who you are. So check out everything, you know.”
Do you have a similar philosophy on what a person wears?
“Oh yeah, the same exact thing. It’s individuality—from the way you dress, to the way you play, to the way you talk, everything. You’re individuals. So it’s hard when people try to take that away from you. Sometimes people want you to fit into a certain format, but our greatest minds never fit into those categories—which is why we have categories to begin with, because those great minds are the ones who made the categories! If it wasn’t for those great minds, we’d still probably have just three categories of music. It takes people thinking outside the box, and then everybody else follows it. It takes a person like Prince or Michael Jackson or D’Angelo to be like, ‘You’re all doing that. That’s cool. But this is who I am.'”
Do you think that’s how a term like “jazz fusion” comes about?
“I think the fusion is just influence. I think it’s acknowledging the influence, so I’m not mad at all when people say it’s ‘jazz-infused’—at least they’re saying ‘jazz.’ Because so much music came out of jazz. So much music came out of the blues, you know. The jazz came out of the blues. And the hip-hop came out of jazz. So really, most of America’s pop culture music comes from the blues. So at least there’s a point of reference.”
What’s your songwriting process like?
“I wrote a song today, sitting here at the piano while I was looking out into Seattle! [Laughs] That scenery really helps me create. Anything—I mean, I could hear something or see something or talk to somebody, and they might influence me in some way. Really, any of the senses can influence a song at any time. I don’t get this kind of scenery all the time, so just looking out and playing, I literally just came out with something, and that’s just how it works for me. Sometimes I have to leave—I live in New York, but I can’t write in my apartment because I’m not influenced in my apartment—so I have to go out and watch people, or go to a park. Or when I’m traveling, I write a lot of songs because it gets my wheels turning, because now I’m seeing something that I don’t see all the time. I need something that’s different for me to spark an idea.”
[This electronic press kit for Glasper’s prior album, Black Radio—which won a Grammy for best R&B record—highlights his penchant for featuring great vocalists alongside his band’s signature instrumentals.]
We didn’t see you write anything down, though—how do you keep track of the ideas you come up with?
“No, I didn’t have a piece of paper [laughs]. I just remember it. A lot of times, what I’ll do—I’ll be walking down the street, something will influence an idea, and I’ll take out my phone and record it on my voice notes. I’ve been doing that since my very first record. I owe my phone for 90 percent of all my albums.
“The reality is, when you want to write a song, the magic doesn’t come to you when you decide it’s supposed to come to you. When you say, ‘I’m gonna write a song now. I’m gonna sit down at the piano, and the magic is gonna hit me, and that’s when the song is gonna come’—that never happens to me. So I have to make sure I have a recording device, so when I leave the house and all these things are happening around me, I can be ready. People laugh at me all the time. I’ve literally been in [a public bathroom], and I’ve had to pull out my phone and start singing into it while I’m peeing, because that’s just when an idea came. And if I don’t do it right there, I’m gonna forget it. And the guy next to me is looking at me a little strange because I just took out my phone and started humming something random [laughs].”
What do you enjoy about being signed to Blue Note Records?
“I mean, Blue Note is the best jazz label there’s ever been. And it’s a label that’s always allowed their artists to be who they are—to make their own stamp and to be individuals. All the great jazz artists have been on Blue Note. And Blue Note has always been about the future. It’s never been about staying in a certain box, you know. It’s boxless. It’s boundaryless. And that’s the whole mindset behind Blue Note.”
The label has been around a long time—celebrating 75 years this year.
“The great thing about the 75th anniversary is that you have people like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Lou Donaldson—people like that, who were around in a certain time period of Blue Note, the ’50s and ’60s. And then you have people like me, who are new—but we’re all on the same label. And we all share the same direction, which is to be yourself—pay homage, but be yourself—and always think forward. So it’s been great. We did a thing not too long ago at the Kennedy Center, where we’re all on one stage in one night. It was myself, and you had Norah Jones, and you had Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Bobby Hutchinson—all these great jazz artists, but it was just a great mixture of today’s musicians, the newer musicians, and the people who paved the way. So it’s amazing to be a part of the whole thing.”
[After winning a Grammy for R&B, Glasper focused the efforts of his latest album, Black Radio 2, more intently on working with renowned vocalists to write radio-ready songs, rather than long-form improvisation. The resulting record includes tracks in collaboration with Common, Norah Jones and tons more.]
What do you want people to think about when they hear your music?
“I want them to think about me. Some artists, you look at them, and you see other people. You don’t really see who they are. You just see them doing a really good interpretation of someone else who’s actually better. I’d rather see a horrible interpretation of somebody being themselves, than them doing a really good job at pretending to be someone else. Because if you’re an original, you can’t beat that. There’s always going to be someone who can be someone else better than you. If I was a Michael Jackson impersonator, there are a million of them. I could be the best one, but guess what? There’s already a Michael Jackson. But there’s never gonna be another Robert Glasper. I can be the worst Robert Glasper I can be, or the best Robert Glasper I can be. But the point is, there’s only one.”