FunkJazz Kafe's big payback

What does Jason Orr's iconic soul event have to do with a conspiracy against black music?

Jason Orr's mother has been complaining about him wearing the same clothes for too many days in a row. He's only staying with her temporarily before he catches a flight back to New Orleans, where he's been considering a permanent move. In the meantime, he's been living like a gypsy.

He says he needs to stop by the nearest Target to pick up some new jeans, so we roll out. Even in a big-box discount store, he seems to possess his own brand of cool. It's evident in the way he floats down the aisles with a rhythm more coastal than Southern. Though he was born in Savannah and raised in Atlanta, he's spent a lot of time in his biological father's Caribbean homeland of St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. But it's also apparent in the way total strangers eye him with keen interest. Even if they don't recognize the 6-foot-tall dread-head behind the brown-tinted shades and the applejack cap, it's as if they wish they did.

After making his purchase, he eases back to the car. Although it's mid-May, and technically still spring, Atlanta's notorious humidity makes the leather seats sticky. Gas is too expensive to run the air-conditioning in Friday afternoon rush-hour traffic, so he sweats it out with the windows down. As we approach the Tower package store on Moreland Avenue, I detect a slight aroma. Jason Orr is kinda funky.

Perhaps that's to be expected from a man who considers funk "a sacred art form" and James Brown his patron saint. As it turns out, the natural mystic behind the alternative multimedia arts and music phenomenon FunkJazz Kafé is quite the mortal in more ways than one. At 40, he seems to have come to a crossroads. The man he refers to as his father, since he never really had a relationship with his biological one, recently passed away. Making matters worse, Orr's last girlfriend cheated on him, which left him feeling less than appreciated.

It's all part of why he's been flirting with a change of scenery and some new inspiration.

"I think divine spirit took me to New Orleans because of that Congo Square energy and the beginnings of our music," he says, referring to the city's Treme neighborhood park, credited as the birthplace of American music, where African slaves dating back to the 1700s were allowed to gather on Sundays to make music and dance.

Though it's been four years since he threw his last sold-out FunkJazz jam at Atlanta's Tabernacle, he still relishes his status as the Pied Piper of the city's contemporary soul scene — a scene he practically nursed from birth.

"People always ask, 'When's it coming back?' And I'm like, 'Muhfucka, I'm not dead.' I don't think they realize they're looking at the chef of the food that they like. It's like asking me, 'When you gonna make that sandwich again?'"

His recently completed music documentary, Diary of a Decade, could be satisfying enough to quell even his own hunger pangs. He's been piecing it together nearly twice as long as the title suggests. With an almost two-and-a-half hour run time, it's as epic as the brand he built. That's because FunkJazz Kafé serves as a mere catalyst to a contentious subplot that fingers the music industry for killing off the heart and soul of black music.

It's the kind of documentary one might expect from a conspiracy theorist like Orr. He even works 9/11 into the mix.

But in order for the film to secure the kind of broad distribution he hopes will rejuvenate the FunkJazz Kafé brand, he might have to cut the most controversial, and compelling, parts.

The enigma of Jason Orr has always been his ability to straddle two diametrically opposed worlds by securing corporate dollars to fund a countercultural movement without selling out the mission. It made him something akin to a poor righteous pimp. But now that his documentary is done, he may be forced to make a choice that could define his legacy long after the credits have rolled.

To water it down in the hopes of going mainstream or stay true to the cause and remain relegated to the underground? It's the same dilemma black music's been facing for decades.

Orr was still deep in the throes of editing Diary of a Decade one year ago at his Glenwood Park condo. The contemporary décor in his living room was decidedly minimalist. In place of a TV, an electronic keyboard and computer workstation served as the focal point. In a guest room closet, crates stacked neatly to the ceiling housed nearly 17 years worth of meticulously organized FunkJazz Kafé archives, including exhibits, photos, audio recordings and Betamax tapes dating back to 1995. A mini bookshelf in the living room was filled with provocative titles, including Heal Thyself for Health and Wellness, Dictionary of African Deities, and The Third Eye, the sci-fi book by black writer Sophia Stewart, who alleged in a lawsuit that the Wachowski Brothers plagiarized her story's premise for their Matrix film series.

Orr's own film attempts to illuminate a much larger conspiracy. Diary of a Decade contends that the mainstream evaporation of soul and other meaningful expressions of black music during the '90s was due to the industry's deep-seated white supremacist ideals. It's a thought-provoking assertion, if only because few are bold enough to scream it from the rooftops.

But Orr has always been a bit of an eccentric.

"When I met Jason, I thought he was almost like a cultural elitist," says WCLK-FM's Jamal Ahmad, a FJK attendee since day one. "But it's just because I didn't know him. The thing is, being conscious and spiritually aware is totally different when you juxtapose it with being aware of the foundations of music. There are not a lot of people who can break down, like, chemtrails and still break down the importance of James Brown."

Asking Orr how FunkJazz Kafé started is like probing for the origins of the universe. The story he tells is part creation myth, part conspiracy and full of tangents that veer off in all sorts of unexpected directions — like the time he unearthed an unsigned Maxwell after digging his demo out of a Sony Music A&R's trash can in New York.

But Orr's short answer is that it was born of necessity: "FunkJazz comes from an environment that was in crisis. Black music was in a crisis."

It was the early '90s and Orr was working full-time as a Fulton County tax collector, a job he'd landed as a 19-year-old Clark Atlanta University dropout despite showing up at the interview with a stud in his ear. By night, he managed Vinnie Bernard, an unknown singer with an unprecedented style that predated both the neo-soul misnomer and future stars of the subgenre such as D'Angelo and Maxwell.

Only a few years had passed since the release of Billboard music critic Nelson George's seminal book, The Death of Rhythm and Blues, which laid out the destructive factors at work in the music industry's systematic plan to assimilate or "cross over" soul music to a mainstream audience. In the book, George cites 1972's infamous Harvard Report ("A Study of the Soul Music Environment Prepared for Columbia Records Group"), conducted by the Harvard University Business School, as the source of the industry's switch from indifference to predatory mode where black music was concerned. In the decade that followed, major labels found inventive ways to challenge or co-opt the kung-fu grip black-owned labels Motown, Stax and Philadelphia International held on the market. By 1980, CBS's roster of black artists had jumped from two to 125, according to George. But the strategy also led to a watered-down sound throughout the '80s as the industry pushed for soul's integration into pop.

Without a poppy, radio-friendly single, Bernard and his band Original Man were out of the loop. So Orr decided "to put an idea around it" by creating an event with appeal that would extend beyond the headlining act in order to organically build Bernard's fan base.

When the idea for the FunkJazz Kafé logo hit him at 4 one morning, he "sat up like Frankenstein, grabbed a pen and drew" the image that would become synonymous with his quarterly festival: a grand piano with FunkJazz Kafé handwritten in a groovy font.

In August 1994, the first FunkJazz Kafé took place, fittingly enough, at Auburn Avenue's post-Chitlin Circuit palace, the Royal Peacock. Vinnie Bernard and Original Man performed, along with recent Grammy-winning group Arrested Development. But none of the acts was featured on the flier designed by Orr, an approach that would only add to the festival's intrigue over time.

FunkJazz's rise in the mid-'90s coincided with a new creative energy in Atlanta. The scene also centered around Midtown music venue Yin Yang Café, where FunkJazz Kafé's house band, the Chronicle, led by drummer Little John Roberts, played on Thursday nights. An improv-based band with Arrested Development's DJ Kemit on the turntables, the Chronicle was "the first band that many people saw really combining jazz and hip-hop," says Ahmad.

"FunkJazz was there at the right time, when this whole kind of urban alternative, for lack of a better term, started coming up," Ahmad says. "But you also had kind of a festival vibe. You would walk in and see people on stilts and fire-eaters and African dancers, and then you would be introduced to vegetarian cuisine. It was really a lifestyle event, and it attacked every single sense that you possess as a human being."

It was like "walking into our 'People Everyday' video," Arrested Development leader Speech recalls. "It was a counterculture movement that I believe got a lot of its strength because people were looking for a way to express themselves other than what was sort of being forced down our throats by mainstream media. I think that's why it was such a celebration and such a fantastic outlet for people."

Some of the FunkJazz footage featured in Diary of a Decade was filmed as far back as 1995. Though there was no film in the works at the time, Orr realized he was on to something big. "I looked at all my footage and we started editing stuff and we were like, 'Man this is a film.' But people weren't thinking film back then. Don't forget, reality television was still 'Cops.' It wasn't loose yet."

And no one could have predicted the soul revolution that was about to occur. The main thing that Orr and the 40-plus independent and major-label artists who serve as talking heads in the film have gained over time is perspective. As radical as Diary of a Decade's premise may sound to those outside the culture, it's a viewpoint shared by many within it.

Speech became something of a mainstream anomaly when Arrested Development's 1992 debut, 3 Years, 5 Months and 2 Days in the Life Of, received an "alternative hip-hop" tag from critics while earning Chrysalis Records $5 million in worldwide sales. But in the decades since, neither Arrested Development nor Speech's solo releases have received the same kind of domestic commercial embrace.

Whether or not it's "a literal conspiracy," says Speech, he agrees that left-of-center black artists are often stifled within the industry because of the executive decisions made by culturally detached label heads.

"Some things fit into their worldview and other things don't," he says. "So I have a feeling that when Afrocentric themes or themes of natural hair, themes of pride in African culture, maybe even themes of African religion to some extent — when these things start popping up in music, I do think that executives are programmed to not feel comfortable."

Similar thoughts are echoed throughout Diary by the likes of public intellectual Dr. Cornel West, activist Dick Gregory, and musicians ranging from legendary funkateer George Clinton to Atlantan Cee Lo Green. But the documentary is also a celebration of the alternative spirit that rose up organically as a result of the mainstream void.

"There was this big push for the ignorant side of hip-hop, the very materialistic side, and that's where the soul singers came in," says Ahmad. "They said, 'You know what, we need to go back to a purer time. And not just a purer time, but when things were real.'"

One of the secrets to FJK's success was showcasing unconventional artists as if they were already bona fide. "Fuck the stars. Fuck 'em," says Orr. "I'm telling them Janelle Monáe's gonna be a star in the future. Cee Lo's gonna be a star in the future. India.Arie's gonna be a star in the future."

Meanwhile, Orr's own star was rising.

By 1995, FunkJazz Kafé was making enough noise in the city for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to take notice. When Orr came to work one Tuesday morning to discover a copy of the article on his desk, along with a reprimand from his boss for taking too many Fridays and Mondays as preapproved time off, he turned in his resignation.

As the late '90s approached, Orr's quarterly carnivals garnered a following big enough to outgrow multiple venues in Atlanta, including a Krog Street warehouse, King Plow Arts Center, the World Bar, and the old Nike Pavilion on Marietta Street. By the time Orr began leasing downtown's 3,000-capacity Tabernacle in 1998, he estimates 25 percent of FunkJazz Kafé's audience consisted of out-of-towners.

Word was traveling. So Orr decided to travel, too. But a seven-city tour in 1999 got chopped down to five when one-third of his sponsorship budget was cut. Perhaps it was an omen of things to come.

"When we did a show in Detroit, the tour bus threw a rod and I had to buy 23 plane tickets last minute," Orr recalls. But he was still racking up more wins than losses. So much so that corporate copycats, some of whom had been FunkJazz Kafé sponsors, began taking his blueprint and creating their own cross-country urban alternative events to cater to the untapped demographic he'd hipped them to.

Heineken Red Star Soul, Tanqueray Soul Suite, Levi's Self-Engineered Tour — all were direct descendants of the house that Orr built.

"I know it's a direct bite because people at the organization say, 'Yeah, we used your shit to figure out the model,'" he says. "That's flattering. But at the same time, you're not giving me the money. This is the wheel that's already invented. Why reinvent it?"

In Diary of a Decade, Orr blames the end of FunkJazz Kafé on a sharp decline in sponsorship dollars resulting from the post-9/11 economy that shook up the entire entertainment industry. But in conversation, he paints a more vivid picture.

"You ever had sex in the same position for two hours?" he says when asked why FunkJazz Kafé seemingly drew to a close after a 10-year run. "You have to switch it up."

It's a funny metaphor, especially coming from an event producer whose pre-event ritual included seven days of salt baths and organic cleansing in order to tap into his spiritual center. For Orr, the success of the event hinged on his ability to create a holistic experience.

But as FunkJazz grew in popularity near the end, an increasingly mainstream demographic brought mainstream expectations. Despite his honorable attempt to make the overall experience the main focus, newcomers were more attracted at the possibility of seeing a Jill Scott or an Erykah Badu in concert.

"But also, there was this acceptance of this kind of leftist black culture that you started seeing in the mainstream. So you saw a lot of mainstream entities kind of seeping into the FunkJazz Kafé, and people who were just curious to know what it was," says Ahmad. "I'm not trying to diss anyone, but there were a lot of people who were coming there, almost acting like cultural vampires. They were taking and taking and taking and not giving to FunkJazz."

The final straw fell in October 2004, 10 years after the first FunkJazz. The night's surprise musical acts included longtime scene staple India.Arie and Van Hunt, then an Atlanta-based songwriter and a member of FunkJazz Kafé's second house band, who had just released his self-titled debut LP on Capitol Records.

"Jason came out on stage and the reception wasn't that good, and I just remember him kind of storming off stage and going into the hallway, like, 'I'm just kind of done,'" says Ahmad. "It was like, wow, you do all this work and people just want to see somebody famous and major on stage. They don't want to vibe, they just want to be entertained by someone that they know as opposed to being introduced to someone that they don't know — because that's what FunkJazz was about."

It was a helluva note to end on, and it took a toll on Orr. He contemplated giving FJK up for good.

"I might've thought that for a minute, and that's why I took a break in '05 and '06," he says, "because I was thinking, 'OK, how do I want to go forward with the brand?'"

Inevitably, random people would remind Orr of his impact. "That's when I would run into, 'I met my baby's father at FunkJazz!'" says Orr. Followed by the all-too-familiar refrain: When is it coming back? The resulting mix of pride and purpose motivated him to partner back up with former co-sponsor, the National Black Arts Festival, in 2007, to throw the last official FunkJazz Kafé event since. "Which to me was one of the best ones," he says, recalling performances from Vinx, N'Dambi, Bilal, Bonecrusher, Dead Prez, Angie Stone and Janelle Monáe.

The inspiration from that event gave Orr his groove back.

"It's almost like that chick you say you don't like anymore. But ooh, let's see if the fire's still there. You end up having sex or whatever and you be like, 'You know what, I like her. I do like her. She's cool. I'm over here trippin', and we get along good. Our bodies flow well together.'"

When Diary of a Decade screens during the National Black Arts Festival on July 13 at the Rialto Center for the Arts, it could be the first and last time the public gets to see the full-length version. Orr, who's betting on the film's potential to reinvigorate FunkJazz Kafé, is already in talks with BET's Centric cable network and an online distributor to push it to a larger audience.

But during a recent seven-hour meeting with a local black filmmaker whose résumé includes directing a major Hollywood studio film, Orr says he received disheartening advice: Subtract the conspiracy stuff. Add Soulja Boy and some other hot names. Dumb it down and lighten it up.

Orr's reaction: Hell to the naw.

"Why can't I truthfully chronicle what happened?" he says. "Why can't Dick Gregory say, 'It's white supremacy. You're in a white country.' What's wrong with that? Did he lie?"

Of course, the answer to that question may not be as significant as the number of people Orr could potentially expose to FunkJazz Kafé through a widespread airing. For now, he's still doing the math.

"It might face some challenges. And I might shape some of it up to have a smile for the mainstream — but that's what makes me want to show this film almost in its entirety," Orr says. "Because the only way FunkJazz got so big and didn't have to announce the talent and became a real phenom is because the music business and entertainment business was biased against black folk and our music."

Of course, the irony here is that Orr's sense of internal conflict about how best to serve his culture is the same dilemma all alternative artists face when given the opportunity to gain widespread exposure.

When record labels ask artists to compromise their artistic choices for the promise of mainstream success, there are plenty who jump at the opportunity, says Ahmad. But then there are those who stick to their guns.

"It may hurt them right then, but 20, 30, 40 years down the line, people look back and they applaud them because they had character. And I think Jason is that same way. Think about it, who else is going to talk about conspiracies in soul music?"

Since spending a little time in New Orleans, Orr has kind of soured on the thought of relocating there.

"New Orleans don't have no vegetarian food or restaurants. I was like, 'Oh shit, I can't live here.' That's a definite. I'll never meet a woman that wants to live well. Where are the people who want to live well?"

During a recent layover in Atlanta, he found what he'd left Atlanta to look for.

"I was like, 'They're here!' That was the inspiration I needed. Let me tell you something right now. Atlanta is plentiful on everything. And then I didn't see any black people in New Orleans. That's Class-A gentrification going on down there. It don't get no better than that, the way they got it going on — no vegetarian restaurants and no black people."

What he may or may not realize is that Atlanta's tastefully cultured black alternative class wouldn't be as prevalent, either, were it not for the 17 years of work he's put in.

When I talk to Orr by phone a week later, he's back in New Orleans for another short visit before returning home to Atlanta. As it turns out, he's finally found the black people there, he tells me.

"Oh yeah, where?" I ask.