I remember the first time I listened to Charles Mingus, a connoisseur of jazz in the mid to late ‘50s. I was ignorant to the world of jazz, but I will never forget the way he made me feel in his tune “Moanin’.”

I didn’t know music could be like this – notes so beautiful I thought my heart would stop, repeating verses that promised to get better and better, sharp bouts of emotion that I felt and struggled through. It was soul for the ears – scattered, unhinged.

My funk-filled, “balled-up” journey wasn’t easy. From the Atlantic slave trade and the pure cross-rhythms of Congo Square, to John Coltrane and Thelonious Monk, jazz has seen many faces. An act of political warfare, a means of hope in desperate times, a spectacle of the spirit. Jazz was and is an escape to a world we always knew but never quite experienced.

In the last few years, the jazz and hip-hop scene in the downtown core has grown significantly. Its origins and relationships to Hamilton’s social and political atmosphere are complex, but one thing is true – it’s bumpin’. Thursdays and weekends bring locals over to locations like This Ain’t Hollywood, Homegrown Hamilton and The Brain for beers, laughs and tunes to get lost in.

Haolin Munk, a jazz/hip-hop band of four, has played shows and opened for big names at venues in the city for over a year and a half, and they’re all McMaster students or recent grads.

Chris Ferguson and Connor Bennett play saxophone, Joshua Wiener plays bass guitar, and Aaron Hutchinson plays the drums. After a series of random jazz combos, reconnections and a cocktail birthday party, the band finally formed in August 2011.

They used to be called Hysteria Siberiana. They threw some names around at a bus stop one day and came up with Haolin Munk.

“The content of our chat went from the Kung-fu Shaolin Monks to Howlin’ Wolf to Thelonious Monk. We randomly combined them and messed around with the letters. It just stuck,” said Ferguson.

They’ve all been playing their instruments for a long time. Bennett discussed the sax’s sound, versatility and expressive qualities. He said he loves the shape and mechanisms that bring out the sound of a saxophone. Some of them have even developed some ticks or quirks while playing.

“I move my shoulders and kick my feet a bit from time to time,” Bennett said. Ferguson said he does a little jig during practice and sometimes on stage.

The band’s musical and artistic influences are pretty refreshing. They obviously play lots of jazz, but their growth as artists drew on a variety of sounds. Big names like the Red Hot Chili Peppers were thrown around. Hutchinson’s biggest influence is Sufjan Stevens, Ferguson’s is Miles Davis, Wiener’s is The Roots and Bennett’s is Ken Vandermark.

“Ken Vandermark is arguably one of the best modern jazz musicians out there now,” said Bennett.

Their involvement with the Hamilton arts and music scene is significant. Haolin Munk has played at nearly every major venue downtown. It was of interest to me how they fit into this community.

The response was positive. Ferguson said it’s been nothing but good vibes. “The arts community is open and supportive of new and aspiring artists. It’s a great environment for growth. No one looks at it competitively; people just love collaborating and making music. That’s what it’s about.”

Haolin has played shows and recorded with local hip-hop group Canadian Winter. Rapper Lee Reed and other local artists are excited to get involved and collaborate with Haolin, and other Hamilton musicians, whether they’re of the jazz variety or just plain hip-hop.

What exactly would these artists be doing if the pressures of school, future careers, current jobs and more were of no concern to them? Wiener said his love for listening to and playing music is significant, but he’d pursue exactly what he’s in school for right now – health sciences. “I love music, but it’s not everything. It’s a big part of my life though and will always be,” he said. Hutchinson also agreed that he’d pursue a lot of artistic and creative forms, and stressed the importance of passion for aspiring artists.

Jazz’s evolution is rooted in cultural and historical contexts. Where it stands today isn’t easy to interpret. I believed for a long time (at least within the western hemisphere) that it’s dying or not as well received in comparison to other mainstream genres. Ferguson begged to differ.

“You just have to know where to look,” he said. “Some people think we’re past the golden age, but that’s bullshit,” Wiener added.

Whether it be the funky beats of Herbie Hancock or the rambunctious clashing of instruments in Jazz Against the Machine, the jazz phenomena has and will thrive. Haolin continues to play shows for the community. They integrate jazz and hip-hop into standards that are unique and exemplary of the collaborative, inclusive music scene that Hamilton is beloved for.


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