The legendary Set Free Richardson once said that basketball “is the sound of a drum.” These words, spoken by the creative visionary who once led marketing campaigns for AND1, reflect how undeniably beautiful gaming is as an art form: it’s not just a sport or moving poetry, it’s t is a composition of music – and there on hardwood or tarmac, each player uniquely orchestrates their own symphony or mixes and loops their own beats and samples. While Set Free specifically referred to the rhythm of hip-hop, the game has often also been linked to another genre: jazz music.
Here’s a history lesson for you: Long before the NBA was founded in 1946, there was a period known as the “Black Fives Era” that marked a time when basketball leagues and teams blacks were forming all over New York and Chicago, from the Alpha Big Five to the Savoy Big Five (later to become the Globetrotters, then renamed the Harlem Globetrotters). Because many players of color were “banned” from competing in whites-only clubs and gyms, they hopped into church basements and even ballrooms, often with jazz music and dancing before and after games. Don’t sleep though, the Globetrotters were buckets and certified artists all rolled into one: two years before professional basketball was desegregated, they beat the Minneapolis Lakers on a buzzer in 1948. A year later, in 1949, their iconic theme song “Sweet Georgia Brown” by Brother Bones (originally released in 1925) became a top 10 radio hit.
Throughout this time, jazz continued to intermingle in all aspects of the game as we know it today: the Utah Jazz, which were founded in New Orleans in 1974, chose Jazz as their mascot because of the city’s deep connection to the art form. Then there is its influence on the players themselves. 1995, his debut album reached #4 on Billboard’s jazz music charts.
So yeah, if you didn’t know then, then you should definitely know by now that jazz is for culture. Remember that Nike commercial from 2017, where Kyrie Irving literally performs to the beat of the drums, played by Questlove? That’s it, the two worlds collide.
The connection between the two art forms has inspired visionaries like Melanie Charles, a Brooklyn-born singer, songwriter, dancer, and songwriter who experiments with jazz, soul, and music of Haitian descent. “The fact that it wasn’t a black man who created basketball is so interesting. I feel like we’ve taken the sport back and made it our own,” Charles says on Zoom. “And the same thing with jazz – I’m not saying anyone invented jazz because it’s a fusion of so many things, but it’s definitely people of color who have always changed it and evolved the sound. It is because of our soul. He’s got that extra thing we have that makes him [where] when we’re going to play blues, it’s going to sound like that. And we play ball, I mean the Greek Freak is the Greek Freak but he’s still a brother.
Charles, whose mother is a Haitian immigrant and loved Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald, attended LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts in New York City as a flute major and later attended the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Her work is not only compelling, but honors the jazz legends that came before her, while blending her own unique sound to reflect the black experience. On his first album, The girl in the green shoes, Charles reinvented Nancy Wilson’s “How Glad I Am” by adding a more soulful R&B “groove”, and while working on his next project, You don’t (really) care about black women, which was released last November, Charles was encouraged by his label, Verve Records, to continue putting his own spin on the records in their catalog. The result is a body of work that includes songs like “Beginning to See the Light (Reimagined)” “God Bless the Child”, and especially “Jazz (Ain’t Nothing But Soul) [Reimagined]“- a funky, soulful bop that an older crowd can play with, as well as a beat drop that the younger generation will definitely rock.
“I wanted, like, a Prince energy and I’ve never heard a version of ‘God Bless the Child’ like that. There’s also a bit of a shock element to it too, like, what’s the different way we can experimenting with this song? That’s always been my intention and in the history of jazz music a lot of the songs were pop songs of the era that people would take and do jazz or musical theater versions. So that’s always is part of the jazz experience and that’s all my jazz trill again something – it’s like, how can we maintain this idea that there’s so much material that’s so amazing, but how can we experience them differently? Like, that’s always been the vibe and that’s definitely the approach with me to reinventing the songs. But there are others like “The Women of the Ghetto”, it’s a downright choppy situation. Chop, chop, chop. And even “Jazz (Ain’t Nothin But Soul)”, the end of like, (vocals). Maybe we can actually hear that in the club.
Charles says that when she started working on the project, she originally planned to record with her band inside the studio. But when the lockdown started, she suddenly had to figure out how to record an entire album remotely: she created her own home studio, bought her own equipment and even learned how to use Logic music software. All the while, she’s found herself delving into the catalog and connecting not only to records and classics, but also to the experiences reflected through them.
“I realized that the universe was still connecting me to explore in depth what my jazz ancestors were doing,” Charles says. “Louis Armstrong was probably, if you think about it, one of the first musicians to have his home studio because bruh had tapes, on tapes, on tapes, on tapes of home recordings, him in a hotel talking about the band It was about this life So with You don’t really care about black women, I really wanted to honor the things that all of these women have always said – women like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday.
During the confinement, Charles also discovered a new passion for basketball after his childhood friend Vanessa asked him if she wanted to play. Although she had never hooped before, Charles found that when she started playing with other female jazz musicians in Brooklyn, who call themselves the Bushwick Globetrotters, she not only found herself discovering her love for the game, but discovered that the game connected her within her own community.
“I think the ball is so much a part of the fabric of our culture, whether you play or not. Like, I’ll go to the park and I’ll shoot and these young kids who, I might have been like, Oh these children, they come to me and they tell me, Hey, wanna shoot? It allows me to connect with the reality of my neighborhood and my community. I think the ball for culture, like rolling in Brooklyn, you see all the different types of tournaments, all the pickup games going on, it’s everywhere. It’s like a rotating unit on each block. [It’s] really important for me to connect with that because I feel like as we evolve we lose sight of the importance of culture. Not in a glorified way, but in an honest, everyday way.
One of the women Charles plays with is a conservative, and she invited him to put on an outdoor show. Charles knew she wanted to not only incorporate her music and sound into the performance, but also mix basketball.
“I was like, okay, this is gonna be like a jam session. Like, Space Jam but a jam session that [connects] the tradition of improvised music with the ball game,” explains Charles. “I invited my friend Kayla Faris, she was an amazing dancer…and the dancers were kind of recreating a basketball experience, from the drills to the warm-up to the ball. They were dressed in a uniform, and the group, we were kind of like in costume, kind of like the management of the basketball team. I like how the structure of a group and the structure of the team are the same [and] you are only as strong as each member of your team. Everyone must kill. And, [just like how] some musicians can play many instruments, some ballers can play many positions and they can fill in the raw, [whereas] some people, they have their specialty and you know what they’re going to bring to the table. And, if you don’t use it, you will lose it [type of] idea. In jazz, you have to throw yourself [and] do your long tones, your scales and if you don’t you’re going to sound crazy.
“I constantly see the correlation and it kind of takes the pressure off, even in the way I make music because I’m like, it’s like playing ball.”
Although the performance was unfortunately cancelled, the vision was there. In the words of SLAM video producer Ciara Ingram, who played basketball with Charles, Charles is a real leader— whether on stage or on the court, she is a facilitator and a collaborator who likes to involve everyone. On the album, tracks like “Pay Black Woman (Interlude)” reflect this: the song contains excerpts from a short documentary she is currently working on, titled, A love letter to jazz girls, and Charles included a conversation with a few creatives and close friends, including Rena Anakwe, KeyiaA and Salenta Baison, about how black women are underpaid.
The song, and really every track on You don’t (really) care about black women, is not only honest and real, but undeniably important.
“I love bringing people together and spotting where they shine and finding ways for us to shine together. That’s my love language. I’m about to get emotional,” Charles says. does it matter – how can we be drugged together? I have friends who came to America from Cuba and they’re like, Mélanie, you gave me my first concert. And it’s like, Bro, because you kill him. Come on, let’s play some music. Even when you play ball, you play music, we all play. And if we vibrate, we vibrate. I guess I’m a leader in my life and on stage. Let’s get together, let’s do some shit.
You can broadcast You don’t (really) care about black women here.
Photo via Getty Images and Melanie Charles MGMT.