Two New Styles of Jazz: Gwoka and Voodoo Jazz

with Jacques Schwarz-Bart

How did you get started in your career as a jazz musician?

I have been a jazz fan all my life since I was four, but I only started playing the horn when I was 24. Two years later I was a Senator’s assistant in Paris. I was playing along with my records when I had some time. One day I went to listen to a Berklee professor in a small club. He saw my horn at my feet and he invited me to sit in at the end of his set. When he learned that I had just started on my own, he suggested that I join Berklee. Six months later, I quit my career to go to Boston. I was lucky to get a full scholarship for my second semester. I started playing locally by going to all the jam sessions. And then Billy Pierce sent me as a replacement in a rehearsal with the great Giovanni Hidalgo. I ended up keeping the gig. From there, I started playing with Bob Moses and Danilo Perez. After graduating from Berklee, I went to New York. Shortly after, I found myself on stage with Roy Hargrove and Chucho Valdes on pure guts: they each thought I was a friend of the other and let me play. The next day I got a call to join Roy Hargrove’s Cristol band.

What inspired you to blend your cultural background into your jazz style; thus, creating two new styles of jazz (Gwoka and Voodoo)?

My first instrument was the Gwoka drums. My parents took me to ceremonies where Gwoka players, singers, and dancers got together in the darkness of the tropical night, with just candles and the moon as sources of light. It was a mystical experience that stayed with me and never stopped inspiring me. When I got to Berklee years later, I joined Phil Wilson’s small ensemble. He asked the students to bring songs of their own. I wrote my first Gwoka/jazz piece. Phil told me this was truly original and that I might be able to create my own style. I worked on it for over a decade until I presented my work to universal and got my first recording contract.

Voodoo jazz was a different story. My mother used to sing voodoo hymns all the time, and she has an amazing collection of voodoo masters records. As I began getting known for my work with my native Gwoka music and jazz, my Haitian friends started suggesting that I work on voodoo jazz too. I was a little hesitant, not being Haitian myself, then I realized the common voodoo root throughout all Afro-Caribbean musical genres. I started working on it while consulting with two voodoo priests who are longtime friends. I recorded “Jazz Racine Haiti” in 2013 and since then I’ve created two new projects involving voodoo music.

What was your approach to taking Gwoka and Voodoo elements and blending them into jazz music?

My approach to gwoka jazz has consisted in finding and exploring the areas where jazz and gwoka music could meet, break them apart, and finally mold them to my liking. Gwoka is based on a constant dialogue between powerful voices and a variety of ancestral rhythms played on drums called Ka. Jazz is an interactive music that balances rhythms, composition and improvisation. I tried to deconstruct each element of both styles, to reassemble them into one material, just like you break glasses of different colors to make a mosaic fresque. I used all 7 fundamental Gwoka rhythms and scales from traditional songs, and broke them into melodies espousing a complex harmonic language based on modern jazz and impressionist music. I also created a polyrhythmic dialogue by assigning a different grid to each instrument. For instance, the bass lines never outline the same accents as the drums… They just meet and key points of the clave. They are like different pieces of a puzzle. Finally, I always established a balance between complex and simple in order to maintain a multi-dimensional depth of perception throughout the story.

Voodoo Jazz was a different process altogether. Instead of deconstructing to build, I just enhanced both styles. Voodoo chants are very complex both in their wide use of scales, asymmetrical structures and motive variations, developments and modulations. So, I stayed very close to the original ceremonial religious chants, and added a rich harmonic language, and structures that open spaces for jazz improvisation.  The last enhancing aspect consisted in writing many new parts that help introduce or/and prolong a chant. 

All the gwoka jazz songs are originals, whereas half of the voodoo jazz songs are make use of traditional religious chants mixed with parts that I composed. And in the originals from the voodoo jazz projects follow the style of melodies that can be found in religious chants, as well as their spiritual intent.

Transcribing develops hearing; there is nothing more important to play jazz or compose. - Jacques Schwarz-Bart

You taught yourself guitar by listening to jazz records; how did learning how to transcribe at an early age help you create new jazz styles?

Transcribing develops hearing; there is nothing more important to play jazz or compose. More importantly it teaches you to deeply understand the intent behind what you are transcribing. And with time and experience, you can understand how to transform your intent in music, based on analyzing and deconstructing how others have done it before you. What also helped is playing along original minds such as Roy, D’Angelo, Me’Shell Ndegéocello; artists who have honed their own voices with great vision and integrity. 

Do you have any artist suggestions, interesting transcriptions, or tips for readers who want to learn multiple jazz styles?

I usually tailor any advice to the individual in front of me, but my first piece of advice is to make it an endeavor of passion. Choose solos that you truly love, and do it by increments. 

Second; don’t just transcribe the notes, but also the phrasing, inflections, dynamics, and intent - the last piece of advice is rather intangible, but absolutely essential. It will come into view the more you do it! 

Third; transcribe other instruments. Learning often consists in being uncomfortable; surprise yourself and question your routine by choosing the path of greatest resistance once in a while!

Any future project plans in the works?

I have 7 new projects; 3 of which have been recorded and will come out over the next year:

The first to come out is called “Hazzan.” It is about jazz and Jewish liturgical chants, as a tribute to my father, Andre Schwarz-Bart. Those ancient chants are strikingly lyrical and charged…mixed with jazz and infused with Afro-Caribbean mystical rhythms; I think I created a very emotional and uplifting musical texture. It will come out on Enja in the fall of this year.

The second project is call “Shijin.” It is a collaboration with three of the best musicians in Europe; Stephane Galland, Laurent David, and Malcom Braff. We created music that none of us could have on our own. The whole is bigger than the sum of the parts and the final result is an inspiration to each of us. It is an improbable balance between complex and simple; abstract and lyrical; impressionist and figurative. I think this band will inspire a lot of young musicians searching for a new way. This is also set to come out in the fall.

The third will come later, around spring of 2019. It is untitled “Calls from beyond.” It is a Voodoo Jazz Trio. The instrumentation is unusual; voodoo voice, voodoo drums, and sax. This is a very powerful project. We have moved crowds of 10 thousand people with just the three of us. We interpret voodoo hymns in a constant dialogue between the naked timbers of the voices, and the ancient sounds of African drums. There is plenty of dynamics and we constantly oscillate between cosmic silence and telluric thunder.

The other four projects I will describe more succinctly since they haven’t been recorded yet.

The Harlem Suite: songs I wrote from living in Harlem for 14 years. “Sone kala II” – my latest Gwoka jazz project where my vision can reflect my musical and spiritual maturation since the first release, and the “Jazz with an Attitude” (instrumental neo soul). It is a pretty explosive project that incorporates the rhythmic and phrasing innovation of Neo-Soul into a contemporary jazz lava flow. Last, but not least, there is “Creole Spirits,” a collaboration with the great Cuban pianists, Omar Sosa, based around sacred music from Cuba and Haiti. 

WAVE Signup

Like what you read? Signup for our WAVE e-newsletter where saxophone and clarinetists can get 4 weekly articles. 

View More

Join the conversation