Shaolin Jazz: Remixing Hip-Hop + Jazz with a Kick
April 1, 2022 @ 9:00am
The 2008 Thai martial arts film “Chocolate” strikes out with an unusual premise: an autistic teenage girl learns the art of Muay Thai by watching old films. The movie was recently shown at Songbyrd at Union Market for the monthly “Can I Kick It?” film series, an experience where DJ 2-Tone Jones of Shaolin Jazz live mixes a movie soundtrack scene-by-scene for action flicks.
On this night, the live-music soundtrack overplaying the film is killer, emphasizing the emotional scenes and punctuating the fight sequences. Janet Jackson, Joni Mitchell and Q-Tip mournfully sing together on “Got ’Til It’s Gone” during a sad flashback scene, J Dilla’s “Ice” blasting as the protagonist defeats the baddies in an ice plant and even the loser’s horn from the game show “The Price is Right” during a pratfall.
With a title that nods to both A Tribe Called Quest and the footwork of kung fu, “Can I Kick It?” is a postmodern pastiche of jazz, hip-hop, visual arts and martial arts that Shaolin Jazz has been hosting in the District for more than a decade. Jones and his partner-in-creativity Gerald Watson, however, have served as cultural ambassadors, enterprising events coordinators and creative producers of immersive events since 2003.
Rock With You
In 2003, DJ 2-Tone Jones was suggested as a last-minute replacement for the usual DJ for an event organized by Gerald Watson, while he was working for the Atlanta-based magazine FRANK151. Jones was pretty fresh to DJing, but his professionalism and his set — De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Wu-Tang Clan, MF Doom and more — impressed Watson, who contacted him shortly after for another event.
“He and I have been rocking ever since,” Watson shares.
Their infamous collabs include Artz & Craftz (2004-2009), a monthly pop-up first started at Penang Malaysian Cuisine before moving to Common Share where Watson invited different artists to exhibit and Jones played vinyl during a happy hour vibe. Or AM Radio (2007-2012), an event where visual artists selected by Watson created works in real time inspired by and inspiring Jones’ DJ set.
Watson then came up with a new idea: “The Classics: An Album Cover Art Exploration” (2010), held at Lounge of Three on U Street, celebrating the artwork of iconic vinyl record covers. Each night was focused on a different genre with records from Jones’ extensive collection of over 3,600 records displayed like art with Jones or guest DJs spinning that night’s genre of music. Watson, a graphic designer, also created a fully immersive edutainment package for each event including videos and posters he designed, a history lesson on the genre, themed cocktails, a pre-released mixtape and interviews with music producers, label owners and artists who designed album covers.
The intended last genre for “The Classics” was dedicated to jazz in November 2010 and they interviewed the graphic artist Logan Mills Walter who redesigned Wu-Tang album covers in the distinctive style of vintage jazz records for The Wu-Note Project. They also discussed “Enter the Magical Mystery Chambers,” a Wu-Tang Clan and Beatles mashup created by a U.K. school teacher.
“That was the lightbulb moment,” Watson notes. “That was when Shaolin Jazz came to be.”
Enter Shaolin Jazz
Watson conceived a Wu-Tang/jazz mashup and asked Walters to design a jazzy album cover and Jones to conceptualize and materialize the tracks.
After eight years of creating art and musical events together, Jones and Watson became Shaolin Jazz, named after the 1983 martial arts film “Shaolin and Wu Tang” that inspired the name of the legendary hip-hop collective. Shaolin is also the Chinese monastery: home of both Chan Buddhism and Shaolin kung fu philosophy and fighting, the mind and the fist, contemplation and action. But they added “jazz,” another layer of sophistication, dynamism, innovation and collaborative artmaking to their mix.
“I went into the lab, did some brainstorming,” Jones shares. “I played Gerald one track: Wu-Tang’s ‘C.R.E.A.M.’ with a blend with this brother Jneiro Jarel who flipped Pharoah Sander’s track called ‘Astral Traveling.’”
On the first listen, Watson knew this wasn’t just another pop-culture remix but something new and transformative.
“This was real art,” he realized. ‘We had something special.”
For the next five months, Jones continued production on the record and Shaolin Jazz released “The 37th Chamber,” titled after Wu-Tang Clan’s iconic debut “Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)” in March 2011. There’s something so seamless about the intermingling of the cadence of jazz horns, the flow of lyrics, the clash of symbols punctuating emphasized verbs as Shaolin Jazz ascends into artistry.
Shortly after several listening parties around the District, NPR’s jazz editor Patrick Jarenwattananon took notice and wrote about the mixtape, asking if there was ever a jazz collective comparable to Wu-Tang.
“And then I guess the comparison question made us start comparing jazz and hip-hop on a bigger scale,” Jones says. “My first response is there is no jazz equivalent to the Wu-Tang Clan, no group of nine jazz musicians who were all just as strong whether in a collective or in their solo careers.”
But Watson and Jones also noticed the parallels. The way MCs flow — their rhythms and rhymes — are not unlike certain rhythmic devices used in jazz. Both Black American musical forms are also known for improvisation, from freestyle rapping over a set beat to the new melodies constructed over a repeating refrain in jazz.
A professor at Temple University who heard the NPR story called Watson and invited Shaolin Jazz to speak about the mixtape. With a whole class session to fill, they developed a presentation about the historical interweavings and cultural connections between jazz and hip-hop. Over the next few years, Jones and Watson continued “The Shaolin Jazz Lecture Series,” comparing 1920s jazz and 1980s breakdancing styles — as well as 1930s and 1990s media depictions decrying jazz or gangsta rap as creating a generation of criminals and thugs.
10 Years Later
Shaolin Jazz branched out into multiple ventures in 2011 and a decade later they are busier and more popular than ever.
In 2011, Shaolin Jazz L!ve started as a Thursday night weekly jam session with Jones leading and spinning along with Sound of the City Band at Bohemian Caverns, and they were soon invited as the first DJ-led headliner for the storied Blues Alley Jazz and Supper Club in Georgetown. They’ve since performed at the REACH at the Kennedy Center, B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Times Square and in 2015, became the the first grantees of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities’ Sister Cities International Arts Grant for an international musical and cultural exchange between Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and Washington, D.C. creating musical workshops and performances — including opening the U.S. Embassy’s new technology center.
“That has to go down as one of our top [achievements],” Jones says.
Shaolin Jazz recently celebrated its 100th “Can I Kick It?” film screening this February. The connections between martial arts films and 20th-century Black culture has a long history, from Jim Kelly co-starring in the undisputed greatest film of the genre “Enter the Dragon” (1973) to the disco song “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas the next year. By the time Wu-Tang Clan self-mythologized as a collective with kung fu-inspired lyrics and monikers, the ideals and philosophies seen in so many martial arts films — honor, reputation, self-determination, discipline, rising up from humble beginning to vanquish oppressors, defiance against corrupt powers and fraternal loyalty — were deeply embedded in popular Black culture.
“Those of us who grew up watching kung fu theatre on Channel five or Channel 20, we understand those references,” Watson, ever the cultural historian, explains. “There’s a lineage that comes into play, from superheroes to kung fu films to rap artists and what inspired them.”
With DowntownDC BID, Shaolin Jazz started showing the “Can I Kick It?” series on the National Building Museum’s great lawn during the summer month. “CIKI?” is now also hosted at Songbyrd as well as other spots, including the National Museum of Asian Art, Creative Alliance in Baltimore, New York City, Denver and an upcoming visit to Jones’ hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina for the classic “Enter the Dragon.”
“We do what we do, highlighting these intersections between jazz, hip-hop and martial arts through different mediums,” Watson shares on how Shaolin Jazz successfully stays on-brand while creating can’t-miss events. “We have our voice and we know who we are and what we do.”
Revisiting “The 37th Chamber”
In celebration of the last decade of Shaolin Jazz, they released “The 37th Chamber” on vinyl with a record release on Friday, January 14 at Byrdland Records. They only pressed 300 copies: 100 for the store and 200 for online sales. After announcing, the duo received such an enthusiastic response Jones jokes they know they’d be sorting through thier back catalog for future releases.
They plan to release the vinyl for their album “Byrd Over Staten,” a mixtape created in 2015 that blended jazz fusion trumpeter Donald Byrd with Wu-Tang’s lyrics.
There are upcoming collaborations with local artists — currently hush hush — and future tours for Shaolin Jazz L!ve and “Can I Kick It?”
“We have so much more we’re looking forward to doing for the folks that have been rocking with us all this time,” Jones says. “More of what we’ve already been doing — but more to come, too.”
Learn more about Shaolin Jazz at shaolinjazz.com and follow them on Instagram @shaolinjazz.
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