Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Osby, Greg (Gregory Thomas)

Alto saxophonist Greg Osby's career is one of reverse osmosis. As a member of the M-Base collective in the eighties and early nineties, Osby was a relentless tinkerer, working on a blend of hip-hop and jazz. He then embraced a more traditional, acoustic sound, steeped in the traditions of bebop and Duke Ellington. While he tends to favor the upper register of his horn, his phrasing varies and can be both rapid and drawn out, depending on the musical context.

                        Greg Osby, by Jos L. Knaepen

Gregory Thomas Osby was born on August 3rd, 1960 in St. Louis Missouri. Osby didn’t come from a musical family and he was the first in his immediate family to pursue professional music. Osby started off on the clarinet when he was twelve but switched to the alto saxophone and the flute soon thereafter. By the time he was in high school, Osby was playing with local rhythm 'n' blues bands around St. Louis. He told Evan Tate in an interview that, “I learned to play in the soul bands, and to play and blend in a section. It was really good. It was important and critical to my development.” Following high school, Osby received a scholarship to study at Howard University in Washington D.C.

Osby was dissatisfied with the music curriculum at Howard. “I was very resistant to what was being taught at first," he has recalled. "The fundamentals that were being presented to us were primarily Western European theory, choral writing, counterpoint and things like that. I was resistant because I didn't see the value and purposefulness in that. I couldn't see how that information could be applicable to any kind of contemporary situation. By "contemporary" I really meant ‘moneymaking.’”

Osby transferred to the Berklee College of Music in Boston after his second year at Howard. While at Berklee, Osby soaked up the sounds of the various ensembles. Just before he was set to graduate, he left Berklee to tour with trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Jon Faddis.

Osby moved to New York in 1985, where he became associated with M-Base, a New York-based musicians' collective led by alto saxophonist Steve Coleman. At the time, M-Base discouraged its members from the neoconservative view that jazz could only sound a certain way, with elements drawn from a strict canon of tradition.

He also began playing with drummer Jack DeJohnette during this time, and toured with the drummer through 1991. Osby also toured with pianists Andrew Hill and Herbie Hancock, both in 1988. He performed on Hill’s 1989 album Eternal Spirit and is heard on the song “Golden Sunset."

Osby’s 1991 album Man Talk for Moderns Volume X escapes easy categorization, in light of its experiments with elements of rhythm 'n' blues and hip-hop. During this period, Osby participated in the New York City events known as Giant Step, where deejays and emcees were openly collaborating with jazz musicians.

Songs from this album like “Cad’Lack Back” featured hip-hop style New Jack Swing drumming by Teddy Riley, which was a typical sound in rhythm 'n' blues and hip-hop during this time, over a funk bass line. Other songs from the album like “Low-Fi” feature Osby soloing in the upper register over similar funk-pop drum beats.

On his 1993 album 3D-Lifestyles, Osby continued to build on his hip-hop-funk-jazz sound. On “God-Man Cometh,” Osby invokes the spirits of Charlie Parker and other bebop altoists over a boom bap, hip-hop track with a droning two note bass pattern. And on “Street Jazz” Osby employs turntables over a track that sounds like it came straight out of Public Enemy’s studio. Osby’s alto remains the most jazzy element of his early 1990s albums. Though the background music and Osby’s attitude toward music turned many people off, especially fellow musicians and critics, he managed to blend the elements of hip-hop and jazz rather successfully.

Osby appeared on vibraphonist Stefon Harris’s 1997 debut album A Cloud of Red Dust and he can be heard on the songs “Sacred Forest" and “One String Blues."

Also in 1997, Osby released Art Forum, which marked his departure from the hip-hop and funk sounds of his previous releases. On the song, “2nd Born to Freedom,” Osby plays a wonderfully written line over a country and western style guitar, only the guitar sounds just a little out of tune giving it a needed sense of edginess. On “Half Moon Step,” Osby switches gears on this slow, swinging contemporary piece.

Osby released a trio of albums before the turn of the century including 1998's Zero and Banned in New York and 1999's Friendly Fire, recorded with saxophonist Joe Lovano. Featured on Banned in New York is the Sonny Rollins composition “Pent-Up House."

2003 saw the release of Osby’s St. Louis Shoes, which featured the Duke Ellington song “The Single Petal of a Rose.” Osby really comes alive on this song, playing with deep understanding, a warm tone, and an uncommon sense of over assurance. Osby also covers the Ellington favorite “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo."

In 2005, Osby released Channel Three. Songs of note from this album include “Fine Tuning,” a deceptively swinging song and “Viewer Discretion,” a song that sounds more inspired from Osby’s early days, with the straight ahead hip-hop beat and jolting upright bass line.

Osby has toured outside of the jazz world as well in the new millennium. Osby toured with the Dead, a revamped version of the Grateful Dead and he has also made appearances on guitarist Jimmy Herring’s albums. Osby is heard on the songs “Gray Day" and “Splash" from Herring’s 2008 album Lifeboat.

Greg Osby has shown during his career career to date that a musician can move through styles like chess pieces. Osby’s early experimentations with jazz and hip-hop, even though they proved to be controversial at the time, paved the way for further explorations by future musicians. He has also shown his adaptability, moving from experimental jazz into a variety of traditional forms, and perhaps one day, back again.

Select Discography

as Greg Osby

Man Talk for Moderns Volume X (Blue Note, 1991)

3D-Lifestyles (Blue Note, 1993)

Black Book (Blue Note, 1995)

Further Ado (Blue Note, 1997)

Friendly Fire with Joe Lovano (Blue Note, 1999)

St. Louis Shoes (Blue Note, 2003)

Public (Blue Note, 2004)

Channel Three (Blue Note, 2005)

Contributor: Jared Pauley