Jon Hassell: Native Memphian, musical visionary

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The name Jon Hassell might not ring bells for a lot of Memphians, but the trumpeter/composer/multimedia artist is arguably one of the most influential musicians to come out of Memphis in the past 50 years, and that's saying something. He was one of the first artists to use sampling in a live context, he created the template for what came to be known as "world music," and he has worked over the years with everyone from Terry Riley to Brian Eno to Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. As Bill Ellis wrote in a 2005 profile in The Commercial Appeal (article is not online):

His impact, albeit largely underground, can be felt today in myriad genres from New Age, art rock and world music to techno, trip hop and acid jazz to the sample-obsessed virtual reality much popular music finds itself in.

Hassell, who just released a new CD, Last Night The Moon Came Dropping Its Clothes In The Street, on ECM, is the subject of the cover story in the latest issue of Electronic Musician. The interview gets very technical at times (the magazine is geared toward studio technology heads, after all), but it does give a good bit of context on Hassell's influence:


(Hassell's 1980 album Fourth World Volume 1: Possible Musics) changed the future direction of progressive pop music, influencing everything from Peter Gabriel's Security to David Byrne and Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which, in turn, influenced everyone from Paul Simon to Hank Shocklee, Public Enemy's producer. Years later, TV Guide named Hassell's sample-laden theme for the television series The Practice one of the "50 All-Time Favorite TV Themes."

Hassell hasn't lived in Memphis for most of his career, (he has called Los Angeles home for the past several decades). but as he told Ellis in the 2005 interview, the city's "collision of cultures" laid the groundwork for his melting-pot approach to music:

"Johnny Cash's beat-up car parked on the street, passing a black church, WDIA on the radio, hearing Phineas Newborn rehearse. ... In retrospect, I like having come from there. I see it's not exactly a neutral place like Duluth. It's a hot place musically."

On a personal note, I met Hassell a few times as a boy when he came back to Memphis to visit. He and my father, James Richens, were close friends growing up in East Memphis, and they both attended Christian Brothers High School and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. My dad, a longtime Electronic Musician reader and subscriber, sent this article my way.

For the service of my readers, I will reprint in its entirety Bill Ellis' profile of Hassell from 2005. Unfortunately, our stories from before 2007-ish aren't readily linkable on the Web (though archived articles are available for purchase).


In a world of increasing borders, Memphis-born trumpeter Jon Hassell makes some of the most border-less music around.

The avant-garde musician, who studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen, collaborated with Brian Eno and played on seminal records by Talking Heads and Peter Gabriel, has built one of the most impressive (and influential) resumés around.

That would include new album Maarifa Street: Magic Realism 2 (released in May on his own Nyen label), which works on one level as a whorled composite of tribal beats, ethnic vocal wails and fluid trumpet lines, and on another level as commentary on the war in Iraq - its Arabic title, a real Iraqi road, translates to "street of knowledge."

"By understanding other cultures, you can settle problems through arenas other than violence," says Hassell from his home in Los Angeles, where he has lived for years. "Why isn't the real street of wisdom the yes-to-life vision of (13th Century poet and Persian mystic) Rumi versus the no-to-life vision of fundamentalist East and West?"

Hassell, after all, is the man who coined the term "Fourth World" in the 1970s to describe a holistic meeting ground between the primitive and the modern, a prescient dialog of First and Third world musical expression that accurately zoomed ahead to our current global village.

His impact, albeit largely underground, can be felt today in myriad genres from New Age, art rock and world music to techno, trip hop and acid jazz to the sample-obsessed virtual reality much popular music finds itself in.

"Jon Hassell is more than a superb musician, and more even than a gifted composer," Brian Eno has said. "He is an inventor of new forms of music."

Writes All Music Guide, "Peter Gabriel in particular owes a fair chunk of his royalty checks from Security onward to Jon Hassell."

In fact, one could argue that Hassell has been nearly as important a trumpeter as Miles Davis, albeit by refusing to be a "mini-Miles," as he puts it.

Now in his late 60s , Hassell has lived long enough to see time catch up with his notion of "Fourth World," which he describes as a guideline for finding balance between knowledge and the conditions created by new technologies.

"If you look at it in that way, there's hardly anything that isn't Fourth World now," says the musician, who has been writing a book, "The North and South of You," that applies Fourth World to the larger cultural sphere.

Hassell's expeditionary path is about the last thing you might expect from someone who came out of the same local environs that produced mainstream jazz figures Hank Crawford, George Coleman, Charles Lloyd and late trumpeter Booker Little. But Hassell, who went to high school at Christian Brothers, didn't really hang with his jazz peers. He was into classical music, a pursuit that took him to Eastman School of Music (Chuck Mangione was a classmate).

Yet Hassell wouldn't be who he is without Memphis, he says. Laying the groundwork for his own melting pot of music was the Bluff City variety, a "collision of culture" as he calls it. Today, childhood images still race through his mind, of "Johnny Cash's beat-up car parked on the street, passing a black church, WDIA on the radio, hearing Phineas Newborn rehearse. ... In retrospect, I like having come from there. I see it's not exactly a neutral place like Duluth. It's a hot place musically."

Hassell had more hot spots in mind, however. At Eastman, he got into 12-tone music which led to studies in Germany in the mid-'60s with electronic music giant Stockhausen. From there, he delved into Minimalism with such key figures as La Monte Young and Terry Riley (Hassell is one of the performers on Riley's monumental first recording of "In C"). Indian classical music came next under the guidance of vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, at which point the threads of Hassell's emerging Fourth World philosophy were laid.

By the early 1980s, he was in New York working with Brian Eno, a fan of his first solo recording, 1977's Vernal Equinox . Among their numerous collaborations, the two made the groundbreaking 1980 album Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics . The '80s also saw Hassell work with Talking Heads (notably their seminal album Remain in Light ), Peter Gabriel (including his soundtrack to "The Last Temptation of Christ," Passion , and a hailed appearance at the first World of Music, Arts & Dance festival), Daniel Lanois, David Sylvian and a score of others. The Kronos Quartet even recorded Hassell's composition "Pano de Costa" on their classic 1987 album White Man Sleeps .

In addition, he has guested on more commercial fair by the likes of k.d. lang, Ani DiFranco and Jackson Browne. Hassell has also made several recent records with Ry Cooder - the Waterlily Acoustics releases Fascinoma and Hollow Bamboo - and appears on Cooder's brilliant new song cycle, Chávez Ravine .

One album does haunt him, however. The 1981 Brian Eno-David Byrne landmark My Life in the Bush of Ghosts , which impacted a number of bands, Public Enemy included, and which happened to have been inspired by conversations Eno had with Hassell. The problem? No Hassell, whose ideas ended up getting sampled, so to speak, instead of him.

"We were supposed to do a record together which became their record," he says. "Which caused a good deal of friction between us because it was taking a one-square-inch segment of a painting that I worked on and not acknowledging where it came from . . . I haven't really had much to do with David Byrne since then."

Hassell said it was particularly difficult seeing the resultant fame.

"When I was starving to death in downtown New York and had to watch guys who were making lots of money and were national stars, you know, I definitely wasn't comfortable with that. But the blessings of time passed."

For starters, that means a renewed relationship with Eno. He's the godfather to Eno's daughters and the two still conspire musically (Eno will do some remixes for Hassell's new album).

"We have a very close personal relationship," he says. "I view it as you have a brother you love dearly but who stole your girlfriend in the 10th grade."




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