The legendary Set Free Richardson once said that basketball “is the sound of a drum.” Those words, spoken by the creative visionary who once spearheaded marketing campaigns for AND1, reflect just how undeniably beautiful of an art form the game truly is: it’s not just a sport, or poetry in motion, it’s a composition of music—and out there on the hardwood, or the blacktop, every player is uniquely orchestrating their own symphony or mixing and looping in their own beats and samples. While Set Free was referring to the beat in hip-hop, specifically, the game has often been connected to another genre as well: jazz music.
Here’s a history lesson for you: Long before the NBA was established in 1946, there was a period known as the “Black Fives Era” that marked a time in which Black basketball leagues and teams were being formed all across New York and Chicago, from the Alpha Big Five to the Savoy Big Five (who would later become the Globetrotters, and then renamed the Harlem Globetrotters). Because many players of color were “barred” from competing in white-only clubs and gymnasiums, they hooped in church basements and even ballrooms instead, oftentimes with jazz music and dances taking place before and after games. Don’t sleep though, the Globetrotters were certified buckets and entertainers all in one: two years before professional basketball became desegregated, they beat the Minneapolis Lakers off a buzzer beater in 1948. A year later, in 1949, their iconic theme song “Sweet Georgia Brown” by the Brother Bones (originally released in 1925) became a top-10 hit on the radio.
All the while, jazz has continued to become intertwined in every aspect of the game as we know it today: the Utah Jazz, who were originally founded in New Orleans in 1974, decided on the Jazz as its mascot because of the city’s deep connection to the art form. Then there’s its influence on the players themselves—the late-Wayman Tisdale, who was a standout at Oklahoma and has the USBWA’s National Freshman of the Year award named after him, even pursued a music career after playing 12 years of pro ball, and in 1995 his debut album reached No. 4 on Billboard’s jazz music charts.
So yeah, if you didn’t know then, then you certainly should know now that jazz is for the culture. Remember that Nike commercial from 2017, where Kyrie Irving is literally performing to the tempo of the drums, played by Questlove? There it is, the two worlds colliding.
The connection between the two art forms has inspired visionaries like Melanie Charles, a Brooklyn-born singer, songwriter, dancer and composer that experiments with jazz, soul and Haitian-rooted music. “The fact that it wasn’t a Black man that created basketball is so interesting. I feel like we took over the sport and made it our own,” Charles says on Zoom. “And that same thing with jazz—I’m not saying anyone invented jazz because it’s a fusion of so many things, but it is definitely the people of color who have always shifted it and evolved the sound. It’s because of our soul. It has that extra thing that we have that makes it [where] when we’re going to play the blues, it’s going to sound this way. And we play ball, I mean the Greek Freak is the Greek Freak but he’s still a brother.”
Charles, whose mother is a Hatian 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 went on to attend The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music. Her work is not only compelling, but honors the jazz legends that came before her, all while intertwining her own unique sound to reflect the Black experience. On her first album, The Girl With the Green Shoes, Charles reimagined Nancy Wilson’s “How Glad I Am” by adding a more soulful R&B “groove” to it, and while working on her next project, Y’all Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women, which came out this past November, Charles was encouraged by her record label, Verve Records, to continue putting her own twist on records from 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 bops that an older crowd can mess with, along with a beat drop that younger generation will certainly vibe out to.
“I wanted, like, a Prince energy and I’ve never heard a version of “God Bless the Child” like that. There’s also an element of shock factor a little bit too, like, what is a different way that we can experience this song? That’s always my intention and in the history of jazz music is that a lot of the songs were pop songs of the time that people took and made jazz versions or musical theater. So, that’s always been part of the jazz experience and that’s my whole make jazz trill again thing— is like, how can we sustain that idea of there’s so much material that is so amazing, but how can we experience them differently? Like, that’s always been the vibe and that is definitely the approach with me reimagining the songs. But then there are other ones like, “Women of the Ghetto,” that’s a straight chop-up situation. Chop, chop, chop. And even “Jazz (Ain’t Nothin But Soul),” the ending of like, (singing). Maybe we can actually hear this in the club.”
Charles says that when she first started working on the project, she initially planned on recording with her band inside the studio. But when the lockdown started, she suddenly was left having to figure out how to record an entire album remotely: she set up her own in-home studio, bought her own gear and even learned how to use the Logic music software. All the while, she found herself diving into the catalog and connecting with not only the records and classics, but the experiences that are reflected through them.
“I realized that the universe is always 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 cassettes, on cassettes, on cassettes, on cassettes of house recordings, him in a hotel talking about the band. He was about that life. So, with Y’all Don’t Really Care About Black Women, I really wanted to honor the things that all of those women have always been saying—women like Nina Simone, Billie Holiday.”
During lockdown, Charles also discovered a newfound passion for basketball after her childhood friend Vanessa asked her if she wanted to play. Although she’d never hooped before, Charles found that when she started playing with other female jazz musicians in Brooklyn, who call themselves the Bushwick Globetrotters, she found herself not only discovering her love for the game, but has found that the game has connected her within her own community.
“I think that ball is such a part of the fabric of our culture, whether you play or you don’t. Like, I’ll go to the park and shoot around and these young kids that, I might have been like, Oh these kids, they come up to me and they’re like, Hey, you want to shoot? It’s allowing me to connect with the real of my neighborhood and my community. I think ball for the culture, like riding around in Brooklyn, you see all the different types of tournaments, all the pickup games that are happening, it’s everywhere. It’s like a revolving unit on every block. [It’s] really important to me to connect with that because I feel like as we evolve, we lose sight of the importance of the culture. Not in a glorified way, but in the honest, everyday way.”
One of the women Charles plays with is a curator, and she invited her to put together an Open Air show. Charles knew that she wanted to incorporate not only her music and sound into the performance, but to intertwine basketball as well.
“I was like, Okay, it’s gonna be like a jam session. Like, Space Jam but a jam session that [connects] the tradition of improvised music with the game of ball,” Charles explains. “I invited my friend Kayla Faris, she was an incredible dancer…and the dancers were sort of reenacting a basketball experience, from drills to warming up to passing the ball around. They were dressed in uniform gear, and the band, we were sort of like in suits, sort of like the management of the basketball team. I love how the structure of a band and the structure of the team is the same [and] you’re only as strong as every member in your team. Everyone has to be killing. 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 got their specialty and you know what they’re going to bring to the table. And, if you don’t use it, you’ll lose it [type of] idea. In jazz, you got to shed you [and] do your long tones, your scales and if you don’t do that you’re going to sound crazy.”
“I’m constantly seeing the correlation and it kind of takes off the pressure, even in the way I make music because I’m like, it’s just like playing ball.”
Although the performance was unfortunately cancelled, the vision was all there. In the words of SLAM’s video producer Ciara Ingram, who has played pickup basketball with Charles, Charles is a true point guard—whether it’s on the stage or the court, she’s a facilitator and a collaborator who loves to get everyone involved. On the album, tracks like, “Pay Black Woman (Interlude)” are a reflection of just that: the song features excerpts from a short documentary she’s 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 truly every track on Y’all 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. “That’s all I care about—how can we be dope together? I have friends who came to America from Cuba and they’re like, Melanie, you gave me my first gig. And it’s like, Bro, because you kill it. Let’s go, let’s play music. Even when you play ball, you play music, we’re all playing. And if we vibe, we vibin’. I guess I am a point guard in my life and on the stage. Let’s be together, let’s do some sh*t.”
You can stream Y’all Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women here.
Photo via Getty Images and Melanie Charles MGMT.