The following article about spoken word poet Rob Dz is written by Jonathan Gramling, Editor and Publisher of the Capital City Hues newspaper. It will appear in this week’s issue as a preview to Rob’s “Jazz on a Sunday” performance on 12/2 at The Brink Lounge with the New Breed. The Hues is one of the media supporters of the new Greater Madison Jazz Consortium.
One of the most memorable performances that ever occurred at Madison’s Juneteenth festival happened about eight years ago. On the stage were local hip hop spoken word artist Rob Dz and Hanah Jon Taylor, an internationally renowned saxophonist and flutist. As Taylor improvised on his saxophone, Dz kept saying and singing the word freedom. While the word was simple, Dz and Taylor performed a call and response that seemed to spiritually take us all back to that time in 1863 when the last slaves learned they were free and back to the present again with that same zest for freedom. It was simply powerful.
Since 1998, when he arrived in Madison, Dz has been honing and evolving his art as he has taken a bartending gig here and a job working with kids there to support himself. While he was initially known as a hip hop artist and formed his own group The Rob Dz Experience, as he matured chronologically, his performance art matured as well.
“It almost seemed like a subliminal necessity,” Dz said about his evolution into a jazz artist. “This strain of what has become of the Madison hip hop scene with all of the negativity going on and things of that nature led me into jazz along with my maturing process. I kind of grew up as an artist. It was a good thing that allowed me to open up into a broader spectrum of an audience. There are people who probably wouldn’t listen to hip hop, but are fascinated by a spoken word vocalist doing jazz. It’s crazy because it is still music. It’s all music, but it’s just presented in a different way. It just kind of happened. And it expanded the portfolio to what it is now.”
While hip hop is a freestyle art form, Dz felt that the expectations around it were too confining. “I got to the point where I didn’t want to dumb it down,” Dz explained. “Sometimes for commercial success, you may have to dumb it down, just so you won’t speak over the crowd. I’m not saying that as a knock or a slight to hip hop listeners. It was just that I didn’t want to compromise what it was that I was speaking about. And I think in the jazz realm, I could say exactly what was on my mind. And I think the respect and the internalization level for that audience, they could respect and also be able to appreciate it in its entirety.”
Due to how the recording industry has evolved, Dz has been taking his creative impulse in a number of directions. He currently performs with the 13-piece jazz band Chicago Yestet. He is a collaborator on the hip hop-oriented magazine MAD and has performed in several locally-produced movies.
And on December 2, Dz will be performing with the jazz band The New Breed at The Brink Lounge. For the past 7-8 years, Dz would sit in with The New Breed and jam with them.
“I would go into their sessions when they played at The Concourse, places like that,” Dz said. “They would welcome me because I would play with musicians and their band and whatever band I was playing with. I played with the Experience or Universal Soul and stuff like that. They would allow me to come in. And then it kind of became that they really had a respect for what I did and would let me come up even more. This is nothing that is brand new. It’s been in development for a while. And like I said, I’ve kind of matured as a musician, I would like to think. I’ve already had a jazzy kind of feel with hip hop and I figure that it is just more of a kind of a natural progression to go into it.”
While many people may feel that hip hop and jazz are two entirely different alien art forms, Dz feels there are many similarities including the free flow of musical and creative ideas. In their own ways, they both are improvisation. And on some levels, Dz feels that his voice is just another piece of the jazz orchestra.
“Jazz allows more room for composition and I’m just an instrument within a composition,” Dz said. “And that is just what it is. It’s just like a soloist taking a solo. If the keyboardist or sax player takes their solo, I have a solo as a vocalist. That’s just it. Some of the material is all improv. There are certain pieces that have been written where I have a specific measure count. And there is stuff that we might just totally do on the spot and throw it against the wall and see what happens. It’s how the spirit moves us.”
And if Dz is feeling the freedom, the spirit should flow just fine.