Un-Cross Talk with Jacqui Sutton, August 2017
Urban and Rural: Come Together Now
So, why have I titled my upcoming immersive concert “Un-Cross Talk”?
It came about as I was thinking about last year’s election, and how the narrative seemed to focus on a divide between rural and urban America; how each simply doesn’t understand the other. You’ve seen those talking-head news/opinion programs that seem designed to inspire “crossfire”, and crosstalk (talking over one another), instead of “to” one another. The word crosstalk also has a second connotation of anger (“crossness”), and the whole exercise seems to be not listening and being heard, but talking and plugging one’s ears.
The Washington Post put it in stark terms in a recent article entitled “Rural Divide”:
While rural and urban Americans share some economic challenges, they frequently diverge on questions of culture and values. That divide is felt more extensively in rural America than in cities.1
When I think of urban and rural America, I think of them sharing the same sonic space, which is why I created the Frontier Jazz Orchestra. We synthesize the urban and rural sounds of America: jazz and bluegrass. They are uniquely American art forms and for a very long time, they didn’t mash up or collaborate.
Over the last decade or so, I have found that musicians are more willing to blur the lines between musical “swim lanes.” The Carolina Chocolate Drops deftly blended old timey African-American Appalachian hill music with R&B and hip-hop/rap. Jazz saxophonist Kamasi Washington has injected new life into jazz by incorporating rap and turntable electronica. With so many “jazz obituaries” being written over the last few decades, these artists are boldly proclaiming that, “rumors of the demise of jazz are greatly over-stated.” I’d like to add my two cents from a Frontier Jazz perspective: Jazz and bluegrass are still alive and they meld deliciously.
There are a few mash-up examples in American musical history. Starting with Texas, there was Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. Wills created what was then called Texas Swing by adding horns to his string band and swinging like crazy. Later, there was Béla Fleck, who with his Flecktones, combined jazz and bluegrass, highlighting the jazz expressiveness of the banjo in that setting. When jazz and bluegrass are blended, I have found that it is often done as an instrumental mash-up. As a singer, I wanted to take this aesthetic further by adding a vocal dimension to the combined styles. I like to yodel on a jazz tune, and add jazz harmonies and phrasing to an Americana tune. I also like other forms, “just because”: classical, musical theater, R&B and folk. So while the sound can be a pastiche, I believe it coheres just the same, and leaves its own stamp.
I have been listening to jazz and bluegrass music simultaneously for the last 30 years. It wasn’t until I moved to Houston and found the musicians who were open-minded enough to trust my vision of blending them, that I was able to successfully create the Frontier Jazz sound. It is what music critic C. Michael Bailey describes as “where jazz meets the American frontier.” I like the sound of that!
I think that my Frontier Jazz sound exists within the spectrum of artists who are trying to breathe new life into jazz and bluegrass, to make both even stronger and more varied American art forms. And I also believe that it fits into a uniquely Houston musical narrative of mash-ups.
So, let’s come together now and let the American voices jam! We have so much more in common than we think!
Keep “Un-Cross Talk” on your calendars. We have scheduled a two-night run from March 16-17, 2018 at Match Houston.
Stay tuned for the next Un-Cross Talk blog post. And as always, all things Frontier Jazz can be found at jacquisutton.com. Feel free to join the mailing list on my home page, or invite friends to join! Until next time…
Yours in music,
This project is funded in part by the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance.
- Jose A. DelReal and Scott Clement. “Rural divide.” The Washington Post. June 17, 2017. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2017/national/rural-america/.
- Photo citation: United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Expenditures of urban and rural households in 2011. February 2013, vol. 2, Issue 5. Available at: https://www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-2/expenditures-of-urban-and-rural-households-in-2011.htm.