Jazz skeptics may have never heard Alice Coltrane and Pharaoh Sanders trade trippy harp and saxophone licks on “Journey in Satchidananda,” but they probably conjure something akin to the song’s avant-garde experimentation when imagining jazz. To those unfamiliar with swing or boogie woogie or Latin jazz, the whole genre has been dismissed as esoteric and inaccessible.
“Jazz was party music at a certain time,” singer, songwriter and flutist Melanie Charles said. “People were dancing to this music. It was the people’s music. With time, it became so institutionalized. It became sit-down music. There’s a space for that, and I honor that space, but I have always been interested in going back to a time when jazz was for the young people.”
Charles isn’t a revivalist. She champions the music’s history — on Friday, March 26, she teams with Jazz at Lincoln Center and fellow-guest artists Shenel Johns and Ashley Pezzotti for the virtual concert Voices of Freedom: Betty Carter, Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, and Nina Simone. But Charles also riffs on standards in her compositions in a voice that nods to these pioneers and pulls from hip hop, trip hop, acid jazz, neo soul and so much more.
“I fell in love with the beat culture and the sampling culture because I found a lot of people in this lo fi beat world were reworking jazz songs,” she said. “That’s where taking old traditional jazz tunes and reworking them with modern sounds began for me. I came up with this concept, ‘Make jazz trill again,’ which basically says, make jazz for us again, make it fun again.”
Despite her talent for reinvention, Charles feels comfortable working across the spectrum of jazz. That means collaborating with Jazz at Lincoln Center, the preeminent institution preserving the genre’s early traditions, doesn’t hold her back. Frankly, it’s an absolute thrill for the musician with a degree from the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York.
“This gig is the dream gig for me,” Charles said. “I was raised watching [Jazz at Lincoln Center managing and artistic director] Wynton Marsalis’ educational videos in junior high school. This is full circle for me.”
“I have arrived!,” she added with some flourish and a laugh.
For Charles, this performance reminds the world that, in their heydays, these artists were the vanguard. They made radical art that resonated with generations and helped change the world — the impact of Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” and Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” can’t be understated.
“The women represented [at the upcoming concert] were all innovators very committed to presenting themselves honestly,” Charles said. “As a young woman raised in Brooklyn, in this time period, it makes sense that you hear them in how I express myself.”
Charles released a “single” in 2019, “Trill Suite, No 1. (Daydreaming/Skylark),” which explores her expansive view of popular music. She promises more soon, promises a “very exciting project that’s going to be huge.” Until then, you’ll have to go back and dig into her 2017 LP, “The Girl with the Green Shoes,” and uncover her brilliant connect-the-dots approach that runs from Holiday and Simone to Tribe Called Quest and Madlib.
Discover more at melaniejbcharles.com and jazz.org.