"Whenever I call it a jazz band I do air quotes. 'Jazz.'" said Disorganizer mandolin player Stefen Robinson, gesturing with the index and middle fingers of both hands over his head.
"Because I don't even know what that means anymore," continued Robinson. "Are you talking about Miles Davis? Are you talking about Wayne Shorter? Are you talking about Kneebody?
We're all influenced by jazz, and the other three dudes, (bass player) Ryan Nolan, (drummer) Michael Carlson and (saxophonist) Travis Thacker are influenced by jazz," said Robinson.
Robinson was self-deprecating while describing the group's serendipitous origins. He and Thacker connected at Carl's Pro Band Center in Bloomington and eventually brought in Nolan to play bass during jam sessions.
"It got to the point where very quickly I said 'I'm a terrible drummer ... do you know a drummer?'" laughed Robinson. "That's how I met Michael. They called in Michael. At first it was two drummers, I was playing drums, Michael's playing drums, and then it just became kind of stupid. So I said 'I play electric mandolin.' I'm actually way better at that than drums."
That self-awareness extends to the rest of the group. It's a trait that has them playing an April 15 fundraiser at The Bistro in Bloomington for Black Lives Matter BloNo. Robinson, who teaches social studies, sociology, and history at Normal Community High School, says the group is intentionally anti-racist.
"Not just, as I describe in my sociology class as passively anti-racist, but actively anti-racist in any context we can," said Robinson. "to try work toward a just society without the racial stratification that we see."
Black Lives Matter. The name itself repels many, especially, but not exclusively, non-blacks. When I mentioned to Robinson that a local blogger recently questioned "don't white people know that Black Lives Matter hates white people?," for once he paused. "I am intimately involved with the people working with Black Lives Matter. None of them hate white people." chuckled Robinson.
Some believe the term implies that white lives or police lives don't matter. Many respond to "Black Lives Matter" with "All Lives Matter."
"I have to have conversations with my students about this, often," said Robinson. "I wear my Black Lives Matter shift to school. Weekly. I do it so we can have these conversations. I'm not doing it to promote a specific agenda I have outside of school, but to raise conversations so students can have these dialogs."
Disorganizer is inspired by some of the free-jazz players from back in the day, including Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, and Ornette Coleman. Some of the same players composing music in reaction to or inspired by events in the 1950's and 60's that Black Lives Matter and others are shining a light on today. Robinson said he has used some of that music in his classroom, but said that today kids react more favorably to politically charged hip-hop. But he credits Coleman for the melody on "It shoots, It Hits," one of the four songs on their recently released untitled EP.
"That title comes from the 'Zen and the art of Archery,' this really famous book in the Zen world. It's this concept that this guy was studying archery and couldn't get it right. And his teacher was trying to get him to the point where he didn't think he was shooting the arrow. I wanted to compose this song where it built in a way where the tension keeps increasing. And then like this guy holding the bow, all of a sudden, the arrow just shoots. The guy doesn't ever let the arrow go, it just shoots. And that's the right moment to end the song." said Robinson.
You can hear much more of this free-style conversation with Stefen Robinson, including more songs from Disorganizer's new EP, his hip-hop history, and even how he even dances to music in his classroom, by clicking the "Listen" button below. And remember to use "air quotes" when describing Disorganizer as a "jazz band."
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