Video interview: WBGO Afternoon Jazz host, Keanna Faircloth

“Grown folks music.” It’s a phrase proudly used more and more these days to describe styles of music that are otherwise deemed commercially irrelevant if not embraced by the hotbed demographic of 18 – 34 year olds. Thankfully, there is life after thirty-four and that moniker proclaims, “Hey, we’re here too and you young’ uns can have ‘your’ music, we’ve got our own.”   But is there really such a thing as “grown folks music” or for that matter, “young people’s music?” Can’t what you like be more about exposure and simply what moves you both literally and figuratively regardless of age? 

Jazz is certainly one of those genres that, for the most part, lives within the arena of “grown folks music,” but no one told a young Keanna Faircloth that when she fell in love with the music. “I was introduced to jazz probably when I was eleven years old,” says Faircloth. The recently tapped Afternoon Jazz host at fabled jazz radio station WBGO, grew up playing classical piano, but admired the sounds of jazz she heard early on. It’s something her parents astutely recognized and gladly fostered. “I was kind of a weird kid. I would just want to sit around and listen to jazz. The first album I remember I fell in love with was Miles Davis’, Kind Of Blue. I remember being in middle school, just sitting and studying that record,” she recalls as the album cover hangs prominently on the wall behind her. “My parents really did just nurture my love of jazz and I think I loved jazz even more than they did. And they would take me to clubs. I was the only kid in Blues Alley in DC where I grew up.” She even remembers having the chance to play for legendary jazz pianist Dave Brubeck when she was 12. “I got to play (acclaimed track) “Take Five” or at least my attempt at playing “Take Five” for Dave,” she jokes. “I really love all types of music. I find beauty in almost every genre of music, but jazz is near and dear to my heart.” 

Music: “I Wish I Didn’t Know” by Jaleel Shaw from the album The Soundtrack Of Things To Come

Keanna Faircloth doesn’t necessarily represent a changing of the guard at WBGO, but more the inclusion or the embracing of a new perspective. Equipped with ideas and skills successfully honed during her long tenure at jazz station WPFW in DC, Faircloth, who has also written for NPR Music and worked for Radio One, brings a knowledge of tradition while also an excitement for the emerging players on the scene whose sound harnesses an eclectic blend of present day influences. 

Recent articles about WBGO suggest that, like the very music they champion, things had been changing, shifting, challenging. And what it is or should be seems to have varied in opinion from those both outside and in. That seems common for most long established and cherished institutions that are tasked with moving forward without abandoning what and who made them what they are. But what has likely been established as a shared desire or need actually, is for the leading jazz station in the nation to continue to be, thrive and engage new listeners while honoring its history.  Faircloth clearly believed she could help them check all those boxes and she was right, however it took a couple of knocks at the door before they ultimately opened for her at the station. As she had already experienced at the beginning of her career, timing is everything. “I had come up from DC probably about three times to audition,” recalls Faircloth. Those visits started in 2017 when BGO had taken notice of the rising talent while at WPFW. “After those three or four visits they decided to go in a different direction. I guess at that time they weren’t ready for a new energy, we’ll say. I think a part of that is a lot of people in jazz, in particular, have a tendency to feel that you might not have enough under your belt in order to be able really know and express a love for this music. So I think at that time they weren’t necessarily ready for me.” Needless to say, that feeling changed in 2019 and after making contact with those at the station again, as she says, “the timing was right,”and with it acknowledgment that bringing her into the fold would be a good stone to place on their path forward. 

You can say Faircloth’s entry into radio was both a result of her love of jazz and happenstance.  She actually got her first taste of it while in high school acting as part of a soap opera on a local hip hop station. Fast forward to entering into college at the prestigious, historically black, Howard University, or as she proudly reps, “HU!” where she majored in music history including jazz and minored in classical piano. She had already become a fan of her local jazz station, WPFW, and one day decided to take a long trek there in hopes of talking to someone about internships. As it happened, her timing (there’s that word again) was perfect because not only was there one, but as she recalls, “the music director at the time actually said, you can start now if you want to.” She started with a small segment called Jazznotes, talking about jazz artists and doing public service announcements until an unforeseen circumstance provided, a surprise opportunity. “Somebody didn’t show up on a Tuesday I was there,” says Faircloth. “The host of midday jazz wasn’t able to make it for some strange reason so I literally got thrown in! So that’s how it all got started!” And she adds what was even more strange, but perhaps destiny, “For some reason the host of that show never came back so it became my show!” That happenstance became a successful sixteen year stay with the station while building a solid rep on the jazz scene. It was a rep that eventually caught the attention of where she now host in Newark, NJ, on WBGO.

“I never took BGO off my mind. It never stopped being a goal of mine.” Faircloth asserts. “For me, I looked at BGO and I still look at BGO like a beacon. It’s the mecca! It is jazz radio at its finest. I’m so honored to be on the air at BGO because I really am living my dream and I’m so glad that I did not give up or put BGO out of my mind. I said, you know what, this is for me. It may not be today. It may not be tomorrow. But I know it’s for me. I’m just glad I didn’t give up.” 

Now for great insight from Keanna Faircloth about being at WBGO, engaging new listeners, and what jazz is, be sure to check out the accompanying video above! 

Bert Caldwell

Check out Keanna Faircloth introducing and moderating a discussion with talented young jazz artists on the rise as part of this year’s virtual JAZZFEST put on by ArtsWestchester. Click HERE to view it in its entirety on their Facebook page

A LOOK BACK @ THE LEGENDARY CRUSADERS

One of the great joys of writing for I SPY SOUL throughout the years has been the opportunity to meet and interview some very talented musicians and artists — all of which, I have great respect and admiration for, but there are some I hold in even higher regard because they were major influences on me as a young, aspiring musician and artist. One of those artists was the legendary pianist, composer and producer, Joe Sample, who sadly passed in 2014 at the age of 75. Another was also the renowned saxophonist and bassist Wilton Felder who passed almost exactly a year later at the same age of 75. As founding members, along with drummer, “Stix” Hooper, and trombonist, Wayne Henderson of famed jazz/soul group first known as The Jazz Crusaders and then just The Crusaders, their music was part of a soundtrack for me as a kid that included the likes of Herbie Hancock, Al Jarreau, Weather Report, David Sanborn, Miles Davis, George Benson and others that I listened to over and over again and that undoubtedly shaped my musical palette. I had the great opportunity to interview Sample, Felder and “Stix “ Hooper upon the release of their then new reunion project, Rural Renewal.

They were engaging – Humble yet proud of what they had accomplished in their long and illustrious careers. They were also seemingly hurt and moved with the frustration of an aspiring artist less than half their age or accomplishment at what the music industry had become. But still they were excited about making their brand of music and confident others were too. The profile that appears below was the result and was one of the most viewed and acknowledged pieces the site had enjoyed. At the end are also audio snippets from that interview with Joe Sample and Wilton Felder.

From the original ISPYSOUL monthly feature IN FOCUS 2003

“We all had agreed, in previous conversations”, says Sample, “that what had been missing in music was a sense of spirituality, soulfulness and rhythm & groove.”

CRUSADERS
REUNITED AND IT FEELS SO GOOD

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As we all get older, reminiscing on our younger years and times past becomes a common practice. The catalyst – varying from person to person – could be seeing an old friend or perhaps rummaging through old pictures. Something also that’s real good for triggering a nostalgic noggin ride is music. The combination of melody or lyric, beat and arrangement infused with a spectrum of emotions are perfect for whipping up thoughts of good times. Simpler times. First, last, and perhaps, even better times. That is, in essence, what happened for legendary musicians and artists Joe Sample, Wilton Felder and Stix Hooper. It was the fondness of the terrific sounds they started creating in Houston, Texas over 50 years ago as the Swingsters, the Modern Jazz Sextet, the Night Hawks, the Jazz Crusaders and finally, as many have come to know and love them as, The Crusaders, that halted a 20 year pause and reunited them to release the down-home, soulful hipness that is their latest, Rural Renewal. But fondness for their musical history, a history that boasts such notable albums as Southern Comfort, Scratch, Those Southern Knights or their huge hit, Street Life, was not the only reason for the coming together again.

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After a stalled attempt at a reunion tour back in 1991, a common strand of urgency fueled talks with keyboardist Joe Sample and drummer, Stix Hooper. “As the 90s went on I had numerous conversations with Stix,” says Sample, “I began to realize that of course, he was very proud of what [the Crusaders] had done, but we also noticed that there was a lack of wonderful music that was being recorded anymore. Wonderful jazz, wonderful soul music, wonderful R&B. Things that would get me or Stix excited. Eventually, I found out that Wilton [Felder, saxophonist/bassist] was feeling the same way. So we then started planning. I guess that the real catalyst was that we really missed involving ourselves in the music we had previously made.” Talking with Sample and Felder, both of whom still continued to record during the group’s long hiatus, it was clear, once the decision had been made to embark upon a new “crusade”, that it would indeed become the focus for them all. “I had been working on a solo project,” says Felder. “I’d actually finished it and had it in the can, but I hadn’t placed it yet. But when news came about that we would actually do this album, it took priority because I really wanted to do it.”

The commitment to reviving the trademark Crusader magic shows all through Rural Renewal, an instant classic that places “scions”, “blues”, “jazz”, “soul” and “R&B,” in the rightful company of their Spiritual forefather. It’s the sound that even twenty years of dormancy couldn’t diminish. It’s what they themselves had been thirsting to hear for so many years. When asked if picking up where they let off was as effortless as it sounds, Sample begins this way: “As soon as we hit the studio there was no doubt. As soon as we kicked off the first song we knew right away that, boy, nothing had vanished.” “In fact, it may be better than ever!” Felder adds, “All of us just longed for the music that only we can make.”

Hearing them speak so passionately about this project makes one wonder why they ever stopped recording as a crew to begin with. As Sample explains, “There were a number of reasons and a lot of personal things that were going on in everyone’s life.” But he lays the greatest fault perhaps, on the evolution of the music industry – An industry that had become more concerned with the business than with the music itself. Sample tells of a time in the early eighties, that now still ignites exasperation in his voice, when he was told by record label honchos that, “This was a brand new world” and that the Crusaders brand of groove-laden, eclectic smoothness, “had no importance anymore.” Hard to believe. Especially when you consider the many R&B, hip-hop and rap artists who, years later, continue to employ slices of their classic gems for the full-flavored bounce The Crusaders are known for or the scores of worldwide fans elated at their return. A return, in the form of Rural Renewal, which represents what Felder, Sample and Hooper felt, was missing in music. “We all had agreed, in previous conversations”, says Sample, “that what had been missing in music was a sense of spirituality, soulfulness and rhythm & groove.” The Crusaders have indeed done as the saying goes, lead by example, bringing in gospel luminaries, Donnie McClurkin and Sounds of Blackness for the ultimate righteous boost on, “A Healing Coming On” and “Sing The Song.” Brilliant and renowned guitarist Eric Clapton does his thing for the cause with his blues flavored wizardry on the ultra -cool, “Creepin.” And Joe, Wilton, and Stix? Well, with a stellar cast of side-cats, they bring their tried and true artistry to the new millennium with timeless results on tracks like “Heartland”, “Shotgun House Groove”, and the title cut, Rural Renewal. The Crusaders are indeed back again, doing it just like you remembered. Like music used to be. Just like it ought to be. And ah yes, it feels so good.

Bert Caldwell 
Photo Credit:William Claxton

Below are audio snippets from that interview with Joe Sample and Wilton Felder:

This has been a look back @ the soul seen

Marlon Saunders sees things clearly on “Dark Day”

The belief or even assertion by many artists that their job is to speak to the times in which they live is being vehemently backed up and on display these days. Needless to say, there is much to say, challenge and chronicle in the face of the grand adversity 2020 has unearthed or unmasked, as is the case with the habitual racial injustice and heinous killings experienced by people of color in America. What artists have produced has taken on many forms – rage, sorrow, frustration, confusion and more. When accomplished vocalist and songwriter Marlon Saunders was last interviewed here in 2016, his track, “The People Are Ready To Dance Again,” in true artist form, was a much needed lift of spirits and hope in response to the abundance of “hate, anger and fear” that he then maintained lives amongst us.  It was also an astute suggestion to get your good times in especially since the track dropped Nov. 10th 2016, the day after the presidential election. Let that marinate for a moment.

Saunders has returned again, reflecting times that unfortunately haven’t changed much for the better or for many at all, with the haunting track, “Dark Day.” Far from the jubilant groove of “The People Are Ready To Dance Again,” “Dark Day” is a true, soul-stirring, and stark rendering of what’s happening to black lives at the hands of racial hatred and discrimination, helmed by Saunders with an assembly of voices capable of evoking church-like fervor.

So grave a place our society is in by Saunders account that he poignantly submits in the track, “Wonder if Jesus sang the blues.” As he explains in the release for the track, “The idea of Jesus singing the blues, for me is a very powerful image. It allows the mind to imagine Jesus having a dark hue that is not European. The senseless killings of black bodies, hoping conversations could be shared with the idea of honoring life…all black lives.”

In the wake of recent tragedies – those that serve as reminders of the change that is overdue – the protests, outcry and conversations suggests awareness is heightened and change will begin. We’ll see. However, It’s good to know those like Marlon Saunders are on the job continuing to shine light on the need. B.C.

promotional video provided by Ense

Learn more about Marlon Saunders at http://www.marlonsaunders.com/