There is an alternate universe in which Michael Jackson is the King of Jazz. This is something of which I am quite sure. In this world, Marvin Gaye went on to produce several groundbreaking jazz albums after his critically acclaimed 1965 release A Tribute to the Great Nat King Cole. In this world, Jill Scott is widely known as our generation’s Etta James heralded for her interpretation of “All I Could Do Was Cry.” And in this world, Robert Glasper has already won his 3rd Grammy for Album of the Year. And, as I said before, in this world, Michael is king.
While I jest, the greater joke is that this commentary is rooted in a substantial reality; because Michael Jackson could have been the King of Jazz. It’s a funny afterthought to a career that was largely defined by sequin-covered military jackets and mind-blowing theatrics. His legacy would seem to be that of a man completely contradicting any moniker relating to jazz, but this, like so many other things, is only perception. Finding the reality of it all requires one to step beyond the manufactured smoke and blinding glare of stage lights. The truth is much more interesting.
What many forget is that Michael and the world of jazz did meet, if for only one night. They were introduced by Stevie Wonder and their brief encounter was recorded in song.
At its core, “I Can’t Help It” is a jazz record. An oft-overlooked composition from the Jackson songbook, the track features a chord progression undeniably rooted in something before its time. Michael’s delivery is so impeccably smooth, it’s almost forgettable. It’s shocking to think that he scats his way through practically half of a record without anyone blinking an eye. It came naturally to Michael, in the same way it came naturally to Ella, Nat, and Billie before him. This was jazz and Michael played his role to absolute perfection.
Perhaps, this is why the song has gained such a cult following amongst jazz artists in recent years. I’ve often considered standards such “Body and Soul” or “Maiden Voyage” to be prerequisites for inclusion into the expansive list of artists who claim jazz as their home. But maybe a new generation is emerging that needn’t go back that far. Maybe, they can delve into the jazz repertoire of the one we call the “King of Pop.” This is the aspect of music’s greatest legacy, I can’t help but think of on this particular day.
On what would have been the 53rd birthday of Michael Jackson, I look back at an individual whose voice moved with an unparalleled fluidity. He carried the vocal stature of a jazz singer, while providing the popular sound to a modern generation. Had he been born in a different era, we would be lauding his execution of the Cole Porter songbook as one of the finest to date. Even so, I am thankful for what he has given us in a contemporary setting, providing iconic sounds from the realm of jazz, rock, and R&B. Today, I hide away in my alternate universe remarking the genius of a man who simply had no musical limits.