Why Curtis Nowosad feels it’s his duty to make politically pointed jazz

Heather Bambrick is a musician and the host of The Heather Bambrick Show and Jazzology on JAZZ.FM91

Drummer, composer, educator and bandleader Curtis Nowosad has had stints playing with some of the finest musicians in the business, including Jimmy Owens, Kenny Barron, David Liebman and others.

While he was born and raised in Winnipeg, he’s called New York City home for several years. More specifically, Harlem is the area where he’s hung his hat for the last half-decade or so.

In that time, he’s released critically acclaimed recordings and has established himself as not only one of the leading voices of today’s young jazz movement, but also as a musician with a particular perspective and conscience.

Currently touring in support of his new self-titled recording, Nowosad joined us to talk about how he brought political activism into his music, and how moving from Canada to the U.S. opened his eyes to the reality of being black in America

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There’s a lot of social activism in what you do. How did that start?

It’s something that’s been very important to me for a long time, but I didn’t figure out how to express it in my own music until the last few years. It was so important to me that I almost didn’t know how to get that message across. Instead of music for the sake of music, the music I’ve been interested in has always had a deeper message of some kind, so I wanted to try to do that myself.

You address certain individuals. How did you go about choosing the individuals about whom you were going to be writing?

Just sort of whatever grabbed my attention. In the case of Never Forget What They Did to Fred Hampton, that was written on the 47th anniversary of his assassination. It’s something I’ve read about frequently, and every year on the anniversary, someone shares something and I end up reading it. That particular time, it went into even greater detail, and I was just so outraged. I sat down and wrote that tune, and it all just came out right on the spot. In terms of Song 4 Marielle Franco, that was something I had been reading about, and then I spoke to a good friend of mine Flavio Silva, who’s a Brazilian guitarist from São Paulo, and I was asking him for an insider perspective — is this what I’m hearing about? And he’s like no, it’s actually much worse. I wanted to put focus on individuals who had really sacrificed to try to make things better for everyone else.

How much of an obligation do you think artists have to do that?

Personally, I feel like we all do. It is a personal thing. If it’s not genuine, I don’t think you should be doing it. Jazz is black music, so you have to know that history and know the circumstances under which it was created and under which it’s evolved over the years. That’s absolutely something we have to be aware of. From there, it’s not a big jump to be learning about more and more stuff. I feel a big responsibility, especially as somebody in a position of privilege like myself. Music has a way of disarming people. Someone hears something and they like it, and then when they find out what it’s about, they might be more likely to go read about it or be more receptive if someone tells them about something they’re dealing with in their day-to-day life.

I read a comment about how since moving to New York, instead of being on the outside looking in you’re on the inside looking out. What did you mean by that?

In the case of learning about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow and all of that, certainly being from Winnipeg, I’m learning about that from an outsider’s perspective. Canada has absolutely got its own issues and its own history, but when I was learning about something that’s specific to the United States, I was on the outside looking in. And then moving to the U.S., moving to Harlem, there were a lot of things in the first year or so that were things I heard about but never saw. The cops showing up and telling a group of black folks to disperse for no reason whatsoever, while ignoring me, standing on the sidewalk right in the same place. Things like that. It’s relatively benign in the grand scheme of things, but having experienced and seen those things firsthand on a day-to-day basis when I leave the house, it just became something that I’m then able to tell people about.

In light of the conditions that we’re in right now, as someone crossing the border back and forth quite a bit, do you worry about that at all with the tone of the world — particularly between that border we need to cross as musicians?

I don’t worry so much for myself. I guess I do, in some sense; my wife is on a NAFTA visa, so that’s something that has created a lot of anxiety whenever it’s time for her to get a new one. My wife is a nurse, and there are nurses that since the inception of NAFTA have lived in Windsor and worked in Detroit. One day a rogue border guard just decided to let none of them in. Trump’s getting rid of NAFTA, so no one could come in. And immediately they were like, “You can’t do that.” I called my lawyer and he said don’t worry about it. But things like that come up. Of course it affects me a little, but I’m much more concerned with how it’s affecting everyone else. The situation with ICE separating families, the camps, it’s insane — totally insane. I’m trying to be optimistic. I really hope they can do something about it. And just electing Democrats isn’t necessarily going to fix everything, either. But where we’re at right now, it’s a good first step. I’ve never really believed that if we just get the other side in, everything will be fixed and it’ll be cool. No, the system is still the system. There are so many things that we need to dismantle.