Melanie Charles: The Advocate as Remixer as Jazz Artist

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Melanie Charles brings the value, art and love of Black women to the forefront.

(Photo: Meredith Traux)

As a singer, flutist, beat-maker, remixer and conceptualist, Melanie Charles saturates Ya’ll Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women (Verve) — her first major-label album — with immense Black Girl Magic. And, in turn, the album transmutes and diffuses that magic spectacularly as she reimagines classic songs by Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln, Betty Carter, Ella Fitzgerald and others with a personal, sometimes phantasmagoric spin.

Charles, however, doesn’t conflate Black creative magic with Black creative labor. She’s a strong advocate for Black women in the creative ecosystem to be financially compensated for their work fairly. She provides a manifesto for that advocacy with the biting “Pay Black Women Interlude.” Underneath a surging hard-bop loop and choppy beats, a group of Black women talk amongst themselves about the struggles of being committed to their pay rate in the face of exploiters.

“I chopped up conversations that I had with three female artists for a short film that’s actually in the works,” Charles explained. “We talk about the cost of reaching our dreams and sharing our talents with the world and how we have to make sacrifices in the world just to get exposed. We finally landed at a point where it has to be a collective decision to not continue in the participation of getting exploited. If we collectively say, ‘Nah! This is my worth. This is what I need to make this work,’ then maybe we can start to see a change.”

Another moment where Charles addresses Black lives and financial wealth is her poignant makeover of Lady Day’s “God Bless The Child,” which opens the album. Charles underscores the classic with a suspenseful cinematic sweep that texturally and rhythmically references contemporary R&B while also upholding jazz’s “sound of surprise” and improvisational pliancy mandates.

“When Billie Holiday sings ‘Them that got shall get/ Them that’s not shall lose’ — that story and experience are the same that Black women like myself and my friends are still going through,” Charles said. “We all hear about that interview with Nina Simone in which she speaks about the club promoter who refused to pay her. So, she had to bring a shotgun to force him to pay. It seems like I have to continue the conversation and shed light on the fact that Black women have always been undervalued, not protected, and not cared for.”

Charles was working on the album in March 2020, when Breonna Taylor died at the hands of police in her Louisville, Kentucky, home. That killing was yet another rude awakening about how fragile and seemingly unappreciated the lives of Black women are in the U.S. She said that Verve was initially taken aback about the provocative title. “[The label] felt like it was a harsh title — that it was not very warm and welcoming,” she recalled. “But I told them, ‘This is the truth. This is the reality.’ Luckily they finally got onboard and backed the title.”

The album also addresses affairs of the heart with such intriguing readings of Fitzgerald’s “Perdido,” Sarah Vaughan’s “Detour Ahead” and Marlena Shaw’s “Go Away Little Boy.” “I think a big aspect of my experiences as a Black woman and other Black women is struggling with romantic love,” Charles said before explaining why she was so drawn to Shaw’s “Go Away Little Boy.”

“That song was a huge study for me for many reasons,” she explained. “One, the finesse and class that Marlena Shaw carried; to me, she’s the epitome of refinement, class and education. She’s just so divine. But she’s also so real and soulful. The song is talking about essentially a brother who is not pulling his own weight in a relationship. That is something that many women of color are struggling with when it comes to finding love. So, the song felt really relevant.”

Many of the songs on the album Charles heard as a child growing up in Brooklyn. Her mother, a Haitian immigrant, listened to jazz routinely in the house during Charles’ childhood. After graduating from La Guardia High School for the Performing Arts as a flute major, she attended the New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in vocal jazz performance. There, she studied under Janet Lawson, who encouraged Charles to study and imitate various iconic jazz singers to help her find her own voice.

“At the time, I didn’t understand: ‘How is imitating going to help me find my voice?’” Charles said. “Now, in hindsight, I understand the benefits of exploring everything so that you can gather language and can create your own story. Once I graduated from the New School, I started wanting to unlearn everything that I learned and go the opposite direction.”

That opposite direction led her to exploring beat making. She connected with the Brooklyn-based cassette-only label Dirty Tapes, which often had chopped up sounds of McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane filtered through hip-hop lens. “These beat heads were taking the sounds that I had been studying and transcribing for years and playing them at basement parties in Bushwick,” Charles recalled.

Charles was already a fan of contemporary jazz like Roy Hargrove’s RH Factor, which was sublimely merging jazz with 21st century soul and hip-hop. Beat making, however, opened even more possibilities for her. “When I got into the beat world, it was a space where I could sonically create what I was hearing without having a six-piece band,” she explained. “I could really carve out a style and sound on my own using a SP 202 sampler. The SP 202 changed my life and the way I felt about sound.”

The combination of Charles’ embrace of technology, deep reverence of the expansive jazz canon and her unique creative impulses as composer and live performer plays into her artistic concept, “Make Jazz Trill Again.” For Charles, she wants jazz to not be merely listened to, but experienced. And part of that experience, she hopes, is for the music to rekindle its relationship to dance and body movement.

“For me, there are so many musicians that are making what I call ‘trill jazz’ — my contemporaries like Kassa Overall, Theo Croker and Kamasi Washington,” Charles said. “For me, ‘trill jazz’ is rooted in the sound of ‘by the people, for the people.’ But it’s also where the elders and the youth can connect. It’s beautiful that I can do a song like ‘Skylark’ that my mom loves, but I can do it in a way using samples that young people will also connect with it. It’s a pushing forward, while also acknowledging the past.”

Some of jazz’s more joyous sentiments reverberate on Ya’ll Don’t (Really) Care About Black Women, too. There’s Charles’ incredible retooling of Betty Carter’s “Jazz (Ain’t Nothing But Soul),” which evolves through various rhythmic changes, and her sensational remix of Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington’s “Beginning To See The Light.”

“I had to keep it light in some places,” Charles said. “With the album being so heavy at times, it felt really good for the album to end with ‘Beginning To See The Light.’ With all the political and stuff happening right now, I still wanted to find a way in which we could celebrate, dance and move our bodies. [More importantly, though], with this album, I hope to challenge people to think about how they are engaging and protecting Black women on an everyday basis. Not just because you like Beyonce’s music and videos. But how are you engaging and protecting Black women in your community and neighborhoods? I hope it also encourages Black women to figure out ways to ask for help, to articulate our needs, and to engage in radical self care.” DB



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