Jacques Schwarz-Bart: Harlem Freedom Suite


“It felt like my people were right there in Harlem,” Jacques Schwarz-Bart said of the muse for his latest recording.

(Photo: Steven Sussman)

Five years ago, Jacques Schwarz-Bart moved away from Harlem, where he had come into his own as a tenor saxophonist, composer and bandleader. On his absorbing new album, The Harlem Suite (Ropeadope), he tips his hat to that iconic Upper Manhattan neighborhood that has been an incubator for Black culture for more than a century.

For Schwarz-Bart, Harlem represents a place of freedom. “I’ve never felt compelled to behave or look a certain way while living there,” he said from his current home in Boston, where he teaches at Berklee College of Music. “People in Harlem will just come up and talk to you. They will express whatever is on their minds without wondering about the consequences.”

After living in Brooklyn for two years, Schwarz-Bart moved to Harlem — 116th Street, between 5th Avenue and Malcolm X Boulevard.

It was an ideal setting for someone who grew up in Guadeloupe, speaking French and Guadeloupean Creole. Even though Harlem didn’t contain a sizeable Guadeloupean community, he lived several blocks from Le Petit Senegal, where immigrants from Senegal, Côte d’Ivoire, Guinea, Mali, Gambia and Burkina Faso had established restaurants and businesses. And a couple blocks east from his residence lay the heart of Spanish Harlem.

“I just felt at home in Harlem,” he reflected. “I also speak Haitian Creole. So it felt like my people were right there in Harlem.”

Harlem Arrival

Schwarz-Bart moved to New York in 1996 during a fecund creative period in jazz. Post-modern bebop was still booming. But some of the young torchbearers were also integrating that vocabulary into the then-emerging neo-soul and post-Golden Age hip-hop scenes, which coalesced into the influential Soulaquarian movement. Others blended modern jazz with various Afro-Latin, Middle Eastern, Afro-Caribbean and West African genres as well as deep house and drum-n-bass.

Fresh from earning his bachelor’s of music degree in performance from Berklee College of Music, Schwarz-Bart recalled hanging out with fellow saxophonist Bruce Flowers at Bradley’s in Greenwich Village two weeks after moving to the Big Apple. On stage, they saw Roy Hargrove playing with Chucho Valdés. Moved by the entrancing set, Schwarz-Bart began assembling his tenor saxophone with hopes of joining them on stage.

Flowers quickly pulled the whippersnapper’s coattails, warning him that his uninvited guest appearance could result in major backlash. “Bruce told me, ‘Please do not do this. You cannot bogart your way on a gig with those major players. You will get blacklisted immediately,’” Schwarz-Bart remembered.

An ambitious Schwarz-Bart balked at Flower’s advice, however. Hargrove was playing the last chorus on a song, Schwarz-Bart remembered, when the trumpeter gave him a nod to solo. Because of Schwarz-Bart’s looks, which included donning a huge afro at the time, Hargrove thought that he was a friend of Valdés’. In turn, the pianist thought Schwarz-Bart was a friend of Hargrove’s. Nevertheless, the bodacious move paid off.

After the gig, Hargrove requested Schwarz-Bart’s phone number. Two weeks later, Schwarz-Bart was on the road with him. Soon after, the saxophonist landed solid sideman gigs with other New York-based musicians, including pianists James Hurt and Jason Lindner, drummer Ari Hoenig, guitarist David Gilmore and bassist and singer Meshell Ndegeocello. Schwarz-Bart even joined Hargrove in the Soultronics, the supporting band for soul singer D’Angelo’s worldwide 2000 Voodoo tour.

Like Hargrove, Schwarz-Bart found equal footing in the nascent neo-soul scene, on which he also collaborated with singers Erykah Badu and Eric Benét. The saxophonist joined forces with Hargrove again for the trumpeter’s equally influential RH Factor recording sessions.

“I went to Harlem to seek out my jazz truth. Becoming a jazz musician was a childhood dream of mine, even though I didn’t start playing the saxophone until I was 24-year-old,” said Schwarz-Bart, before noting that he was a senator’s assistant in Paris after graduating from the Paris Institute of Political Studies.

Lofty Cosmopolitan Childhood

Schwarz-Bart says that he heard little jazz while growing up in Guadeloupe. When his family moved to Pully, Switzerland, he recalls his parents having five jazz albums. One of them was Charles Mingus’ 1959 classic Mingus Ah Um. That particular record planted the seeds of jazz in a 5-year-old Schwarz-Bart, who would nevertheless grow up to study economics and law.

Still, the jazz seeds flowered. He recalled visiting a family friend in Guadeloupe who used to collect various musical instruments. He saw a saxophone and asked if he could play it. He remembered blowing out inchoate bebop phrases that he heard from his parent’s jazz collection.

Another Moment of Truth

Schwarz-Bart’s debut album, Immersion (Fresh Sound), came out in 1999, a year after he moved to Harlem. But it was while he was in Ndegeocello’s group that his bandleading skills truly emerged. It happened serendipitously. According to the saxophonist, Ndegeocello had invited a friend, who played trumpet, to join the horn section. Schwarz-Bart remembers his playing was not up to muster, so he called Ndegeocello out regarding her recruitment.

“I couldn’t deal with an amateur getting in the way of my playing on the bandstand,” Schwarz-Bart recalled. “Meshell told me, ‘If you feel like you’re this bad motherfucker, start your own band.’”

The saxophonist interpreted Ndebgeocello’s statement in two ways. One, it was something to put him in place. The other was for him to rise to the occasion. He chose the latter.

Schwarz-Bart quit all his sideman gigs and concentrated on a demo of original material that evolved into his 2006 sophomore album, Soné Ka-La (EmArcy). The album marked a watershed moment because Schwarz-Bart superbly merged indigenous Guadeloupean Gwo ka grooves and textures with modern jazz and neo-soul.

That album also served as a stylistic boilerplate on which he would expand his distinctive cosmopolitan artistic voice.

The Harlem Suite

Even though Schwarz-Bart released seven more intriguing albums since Soné Ka-La — many found him exploring various Antillean idioms — he said that the material on The Harlem Suite reflects compositions that he’d been working on for nearly the past two decades.

When he initially thought about the compositions, he said they seemed scattered and unrelated. “But 18 years into this body of work, I looked at these tunes on paper, and I realized that there was a coherent story,” he recalled. “I realized that there was a concept.”

In comparison to his previous works, The Harlem Suite is Schwarz-Bart’s most straight-ahead jazz album yet, even though he still incorporates subtle shades of 21st century soul. Recorded in mid-October 2021, he assembled a mighty cadre of musicians consisting of pianists Sullivan Fortner, Grégory Privat and Victor Gould; drummers Terri Lyne Carrington, Marcus Gilmore, Arnaud Doleman; bassists Reggie Washington and Matt Penman; and singers Stephanie McKay and Malika Tirolien.

Schwarz-Bart recalled first calling on Fortner, bassist Or Bareket and drummer Jonathan Barber to run through the charts a few years before going into the studio. Once he heard them play the music and saw their reactions, he knew he had something special.

Fortner said that Schwarz-Bart’s compositions are “self-explanatory.” “The music kind of plays itself,” Fortner said. “Jacques’ compositions aren’t necessarily easy to play, but I don’t remember having to practice long hours to get through them. He writes good vehicles for improvisations.”

Carrington remembered the music sounding “soulful and timeless.” “His melodies tell a story and his writing is very cinematic, capturing the beauty and emotion of the themes and narratives he is working with,” she said.

The Harlem Suite opens with “Sun Salutation,” a modern bop burner on which Schwarz-Bart’s spiraling melodic improvisations pirouettes atop Gilmore and Penman’s fast-paced shuffle with the graceful athleticism of Muhammad Ali in the boxing ring.

Other highlights include “From Gorée To Harlem,” a stunning ballad on which Schwarz-Bart depicts the horrendous transatlantic slave trade of Africans departing Gorée, Senegal, to the Americas. The song also pays tribute to the artists associated with the Harlem Renaissance regarding their ability to tap into their own creative reserves to map out their own identities in the aftermath of U.S. slavery, the Reconstruction period and the Great Migration. Fortner’s languid piano accompaniment atop Carrington and Penman’s pensive rhythm buoys Schwarz-Bart’s passionate wails and melancholy melodic improvisations, giving the composition a picturesque sensibility.

On the prancing “Time Travel,” Schwarz-Bart sublimely connects Haitian Voodoo Kontredans rhythms with a Cuban tumbao bass line without sacrificing the lithe rhythmic propulsion associated with modern jazz. His saxophone passages writhe and soar gorgeously across the shifting rhythmic bed created by Penman and Gilmore.

Schwarz-Bart’s wife, Stephanie McKay, lights up the sanguine “Look No Further,” an older composition he wrote to celebrate his first tour with Hargrove, and the billowing tribute to an imprisoned friend, “Dreaming Of Freedom,” with her agile and poignant vocals.

The album also includes “Equivox,” Schwarz-Bart’s sly harmonization of John Coltrane’s “Equinox” on which the saxophonist articulates the epochal melody inside a serrated groove, and a gleaming rendition of Herbie Hancock’s “Butterfly,” featuring Tirolien’s sterling lead vocals.

Schwarz-Bart explained that the inclusion of “Butterfly” in The Harlem Suite addresses the mixed emotions many people living in Harlem endure as some summon optimism while facing harsh realities. The composition also pays tribute to his homeland, because Guadeloupe is made up of the strips of land that look like the wings of a butterfly.

Instead of trying to recapture the glamour and grit of the Harlem Renaissance or glory years of the Apollo Theatre, Schwarz-Bart offers an engrossing, highly personalized homage to Harlem with The Harlem Suite. Because of its ingenious originals and surprising covers, it bursts with artistic freshness and emotional conviction.

Changing Times

Like most metropolitan cities and communities across the U.S., Harlem has been experiencing gentrification, which has displaced many longtime people-of-color residents. During Schwarz-Bart’s 18-year stay in the neighborhood, he witnessed the Black community no longer holding the majority in greater Harlem. By 2008, the Black population declined to four in 10 residents. That same year, 22 percent of white households moved to Harlem houses in comparison to 7 percent of Black residents.

The 2020 U.S. Census showed that between 2010 and 2020, the Black population in east, central and west Harlem declined by 10,805 people; the number of Hispanic people dropped by 2,015. In turn, the white residents increased by 18,754.

Schwarz-Bart said that he started noticing the shifting demographics around 2011, with the appearances of boutique organic grocery stores and restaurants. “You started seeing more white people walking around, and looking very comfortable,” he recalled, “which was very much not the case if you weren’t at least brown or Black back in the day.

“When I would walk through Harlem with some white musicians, when I first moved there, I could sense that they were wondering if something was going to go down,” he continued. “But in 2011, I saw more and more white people walk through Harlem without a care in the world. I thought, ‘Oh, we’re officially more into a gentrification territory.’”

Schwarz-Bart saw many friends who lived between 110th and 120th streets get pushed out because of unaffordable housing. When communities undergo such gradual demographic shifts, it impacts cultural imprints. Long-established cultural hubs — from bookstores and record stores to music venues, clothing boutiques and local ethnic restaurants — are frequently replaced by homogenized strips of seemingly interchangeable retail outlets and condos.

Nevertheless, Black and Latino cultures still persevere in Harlem. Clubs such as the Bill’s Place, Minton’s Playhouse, Patrick’s Place and the Red Rooster still attract major talent and sizable audiences, continuing Harlem’s rich jazz legacy.

“Black culture has remained being represented mostly by Black people in Harlem,” Schwarz-Bart said. “I don’t know how long this will be the case. But I still feel like we have a strong hold on the culture within those Harlem neighborhoods. There is still pride and resistance within the Black people in Harlem.” DB

  • 0c3c86_2fd4930d4a61477c8516238ae334ebb5~mv2_d_2000_1335_s_2_copy.jpeg

    Jim Rotondi was acclaimed for his wide, round trumpet tone, remarkable virtuosity and assured swing.

  • DB24_Charles_Lloyd_by_Douglas_Mason_at_New_Orleans_Jazz_Fest.jpg

    Charles Lloyd, seen here at the 2024 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, makes DownBeat Poll history!

  • DonWas_A1100547_byMyriamSantos_copy.jpg

    “Being president of Blue Note has been one of the coolest things that ever happened to me,” Was said. “It’s a gas to serve as one of the caretakers of that legacy.”

  • Cecile_McLorin_Salvant_Ashley_Kahn_bu_David_Morresi_copy.jpg

    ​“She reminds me of my childhood and makes we want to cry,” Cécile McLorin Salvant, pictured here with writer Ashley Kahn, said of Dianne Reeves.

  • 2019_Spread_Maria_Schneider_Data_Lords_by_Briene_Lermitte.jpg

    Maria Schneider said of Decades, her new compilation release: ​“I just wanted to create something, put it in a beautiful box and say, ‘Look at what we did.‘”

On Sale Now
August 2024
72nd Annual Critics Poll
Look Inside
Print | Digital | iPad