“America’s true classical music is jazz,” said drummer and St. Louis native Emanuel Harrold. “It perfectly expresses what we have gone through as a people in this country.”
Harrold is a part of the hip-hop generation. He’s even produced for hip-hop artists like De La Soul. But he is among a growing core group of talented musicians who are intent on bringing the flavor of their culture to genre – and, in a sense, returning jazz to its originators – as he stands on the shoulders of fellow St. Louis-area jazz greats like Miles Davis and Clark Terry.
Harrold currently travels the world with fellow St. Louisan Jahmal Nichols as the rhythm section for Grammy Award-winning singer Gregory Porter.
An original member of the band whose musical backdrop helped catapult Porter into the international jazz scene’s stratosphere, Harrold had a hand in defining and constructing the singer’s now signature sound.
They were among the last class of jazz musicians to make their bones at Harlem’s famed St. Nick’s Pub.
“After about the third or fourth year of playing together a couple of times a week, I was like ‘man, this could really be something,’” Harrold said. “The way it used to hit people, the room was like shaking – literally. The energy was so electric, and the vibe was just crazy.”
Porter packed out the Touhill last month, but 10 years ago they were playing until 4 a.m. at St. Nick’s, the historic dive where the most of the jazz masters came to unwind – including Miles Davis.
“James Carter, Wynton Marsalis, my brother (Keyon Harrold) … they would all come through,” Harrold said. “There would be so many great musicians in the room together in the same time vibing. It was almost like church.”
They took their show on the road in with their first stop as a touring group in Kazakhstan.
“Man, that was a trip,” Harrold said.
He would go on to record with Porter on the Grammy-nominated “Water,” “Be Good” and “Liquid Spirit,” which earned Porter a Grammy award for Best “Vocal Jazz Album of the Year.”
As the heartbeat of the band, Harrold was over the moon about Nichols joining him as a bassist nearly two years ago.
“We’ve been playing together for over 20 years,” Harrold said of Nichols. “Trying to describe our sound is it’s like trying to explain a St. Paul Sandwich or Imo’s pizza.”
Delicious and “so St. Louis” pretty much sums them up as well.
‘Straight outta Ferguson’
For him, his brother Keyon – who often plays with Porter on a regular basis and is a member of R&B star Maxwell’s horn section – the musical training of the 16 Harrold siblings began in sanctuaries across the region.
“Man, we were on call,” Harrold said. “You had to be ready at any moment to perform an A and a B selection.”
Rooted in Kinloch, but “straight outta Ferguson,” Harrold’s skills were further honed as a part of his grandfather Frank Harrold Sr.’s drum and bugle corps.
“I’ve played for as long as I can remember – even before I could remember,” Harrold said.
His professional drumming career began at the age of 17. He performed with local jazz legends like Ptah Williams and Willie Akins before he left St. Louis to attend The New School in New York City, where he received his BFA.
It was in New York where he found his rhythm in jazz because of its complexities and infinite room for improvisation.
“With church, you have format,” Harrold said. “At some point, you still have your ad libs and your own interpretation or improvisation of that tune. And you have the liberty to play it a different pace than the day before.”
But jazz is diving into the deep end.
“With church, it’s almost like you’re painting the same picture, but adding different strokes of color each time,” Harrold said. “Jazz, it’s more like an abstract piece of art – it’s like a ‘knowing the rules in order to break them’ kind of thing. But you have to know the rules.”
By sprinkling his own influences and musical experiences, he’s on a mission to deliver jazz back to hip-hop.
“We are taking elements of what we’ve gone through and are expressing it through the music,” Harrold said. “Like Miles said, there is only good music and bad music – so let’s make music good.”
Harrold hopes to have a hand in helping jazz continue into his generation and beyond, and sees the music as a vehicle to help young people tune into those who paved the way for them to saturate popular American culture via hip-hop.
“It’s the ambition. It’s the drive. It’s the passion of a people through a sound,” Harrold said of jazz. “It is where it begins for us – this music is our contribution to the world.”
For more information about Emanuel Harrold, visit www.emanuelharrold.com.