If you’ve ever heard the smooth, mellifluous sound of jazz music, then you know how it can make a person feel. A couple of riffs and suddenly it’s as if you’ve been transported to another place, another time and —if you’re listening to Jacques Schwarz-Bart, a widely acclaimed lyricist and composer who’s played with John Legend — another culture. Jacques Schwarz-Bart created Gwoka Jazz, combining jazz with Haitian voodoo music and, in his latest album “Hazzan,” with Hebrew liturgical music. Jacques Schwarz-Bart will be giving a free concert at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts on Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 7:30 p.m. This concert is the headliner for the Daniel Pearl World Music Days concert, dedicated to Daniel Pearl, a slain Wall Street journalist and talented violinist who believed that music could unite people of all faiths and backgrounds. You can reserve tickets by emailing the Bennett Center for Judaic Studies at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m glad I had the opportunity to ask Schwarz-Bart a few questions about his music and his family before his upcoming concert.
How would you describe the sound of “Hazzan” ?
“In a nutshell, ‘Hazzan’ is a Jazz creation embracing liturgical Jewish chants, improvisational sequences and infectious rhythms – many of them from the African diaspora.”
What is the music of the African diaspora?
“The kind that I received as a child is Haitian voodoo music. It is characterized by a very sophisticated range of melodies, rhythms and compositions. It has inspired many modern styles, and notably, it is at the essence of the first form of jazz music: Dixieland! That is why I said that my voodoo jazz project reunited the root and its flower!”
When did you decide to intertwine jazz music and voodoo? What is Voodoo music?
“I thought of integrating roots Caribbean music (voodoo, Gwoka) with jazz before becoming a jazz musician, when I was still a child. I started playing the Gwoka drums at four. At age six, I became a jazz aficionado and picked up the guitar. I thought then that those two genres matched naturally, both rhythmically and melodically. I thought that one day, maybe, I could make a musical statement out of those two genres. Voodoo is one of the most ancient African religions. It spread throughout west Africa before it was conquered by Arabs and then Europeans. Along with black people and black culture, black spirituality was vilified and demonized by both Muslims and Christians. In reality, Voodoo, like many spiritualities, promotes peace, harmony with others and with nature. Like any great religion, Voodoo has inspired an entire culture through poetry, painting, sculpture and of course music. There are many kinds of voodoo music, found both in Africa, but also in the African diaspora (Caribbeans, Americas, Gnaouas from North Africa).”
How did your father, a Holocaust survivor, impact your view of life? How did his narratives about the Holocaust shape your view of religion and the importance of music and storytelling through music?
“As a second generation holocaust survivor, I have trust issues regarding humans, gods and anything else. My father was wounded for life, and never stopped grieving. He felt betrayed by God, and became an atheist at first. But he remained a great mystic… He was fascinated by Jewish mystical books such as the Zoar and the Kabbalah. Many of his characters are great mystics. And I believe that towards the end of his life, he became more of an agnostic, while dreaming about all that the eye can’t see! I myself fully embrace mysticism. I love and apply many aspect of religious teachings from Judaism, Voodoo and Buddhism in my daily life.”
Do you think that after the passing of your father, you began to be more interested in Jewish liturgical music as a way to honor him, and to honor his legacy?
“I have always loved the chants from Shabbat, Hanukkah, Rosh Hashanah, both for their melodies and their meaning. They convey a sober but overwhelming mystical charge. When my father passed, I felt the need to pay tribute to his life and say my own Kaddish (prayer). And when I thought of prayers, all these great liturgical chants surfaced immediately, and I started the project soon after. I had the privilege to perform one of my arrangements in front of the Foundation for French Judaism. At the end, one very respected Rabbi came to tell me, ‘You played your horn as if you were praying. You sounded like a Hazzan on the saxophone.’ which in Hebrew, means Cantor. That encouragement led me to finish my work. And I named it ‘Hazzan’…”
Your new album, “Hazzan,” is a “jazz- neo soul- klezmer fusion” album. How would you describe this sound? Will all of your songs at the concert at on Oct. 2 be from Hazzan?
“In ‘Hazzan,’ I selected exclusively liturgical Jewish chants: I opted for the sacred over the profane. In a nutshell, ‘Hazzan’ is a Jazz creation embracing liturgical Jewish chants, improvisational sequences and infectious rhythms – many of them from the African diaspora. And yes: on Oct. 2, the entire performance will be dedicated to the original repertoire from the recording!”
This interview has been edited and condensed. To see the full article, please visit www.fairfieldmirror.com.
“How did African mysticism influence your music? What is Gwoka Jazz and Voodoo jazz?”
“Mysticism is the greatest source of inspiration in music. Any music that doesn’t have a mystical connotation seems empty to my ears and my heart. That doesn’t mean that it has to be based on a religion, or specific beliefs. But I feel that all my favorite musicians viewed their art as vessels for an energy greater than themselves. As a child I was exposed to African mystical rhythms and chants through Voodoo and Gwoka music (which is the avatar of voodoo music in my native island of Guadeloupe). When I entered Berklee College of Music as a young adult, I had two goals: fully master the language and the essence of jazz music, and on the other hand, find my own voice – in other words, find a message that I was uniquely predisposed to deliver. The way forward came to me early Phil Wilson’s Ensemble. Students were invited to bring their original compositions. I brought my first Gwoka jazz piece. Phil Wilson immediately told me that he had never heard this style, and that I should embrace it! And the rest is, as they say, history.”
Growing up, who would you say were your biggest musical influences? How do those influences have echoes in your work today?
“John Coltrane and Charles Mingus and Wayne Shorter are my biggest influences. Those are three artists that represent the highest degree of individual expression, while having from various forms of roots music (african music, blues, gospel). I see myself as heading in the same direction, except that I come from roots music and I adopted American jazz, while they started from the other end of the equation.”
Did you have a mentor who took you under his/her wing? If so, how did your mentor help you develop your lyrical, composition and performance style?
“I had several mentors: Bob Moses, Danilo Perez and Roy Hargrove. Each of them is absolutely unique. They taught the most just by being themselves and making no excuses for it. I took from Moses a love for melodies and vocal expression, especially as a horn player. From Danilo I took a passion for clave and the ability to break down any music through concepts. And from Hargrove I took the quest to express beauty through phrasing and sheer tone quality.”
Your parents were both successful novelists. How would you describe your parents’ influence in your development of craft and narrative in your music?
“Many aspects of being an artist apply across artistic disciplines, in terms of developing a vision; seeing the whole while working on the part; building your story draft after draft in order to filter in only the gold and leave the trash; staying disciplined, patient and focused. Also, I never forget that I’m telling a story both as a sax player and a composer.”