Giant Step 
Inspired by Gilles Peterson, Giant Step set out to bring some modern dancefloor jazz to its homeland
“It was purely selfish. It was just music that we liked.”
Back when Maurice Bernstein and Jonathan Rudnick started putting on concerts, their motivation was simple: they wanted to hear the musicians they loved. Hungry for the sounds of Black America—for the pump-action melodies of jazz, funk and soul—they created The Groove Academy, with its Clintonesque slogan “Dedicated to the Preservation of Funk.” From the same impetus came their weekly New York club night: Giant Step, which was quickly a vital force in joining the older forms of jazz and funk with the emerging excitement of hip-hop. Pretty soon the duo realized they were onto something big.
While The Groove Academy staged concerts by such luminaries as Maceo Parker, Isaac Hayes, The Ohio Players and George Clinton, Giant Step’s dancefloor evolved in parallel, offering a stage where jazz musicians (both youngbloods and old hands) rubbed shoulders with rappers and street poets over the constant groove of DJ-driven funk. Before long Giant Step had become a worldwide phenomenon, as they took it on tour around the States, Europe and Japan. The empire grew further to encompass artist management and merchandising, and now, on the eve of their sixth anniversary, even greater success is around the corner as the new Giant Step record label picks up some serious steam.
This is a story powered by fan-dom. When they arrived in New York—Maurice from England, and Jonathan from South Africa—they were astonished to find that if they wanted to hear people like Isaac Hayes or The JBs, they had better organize the shows themselves. Both had grown up thinking of America as the fertile home of jazz, funk and soul, so they were more than dismayed to discover that these days the heroes who made up their record collections were more or less musically unemployed. As Jonathan recalls: “There was much more of a chance of seeing them over in England or Europe than over here.” Where the jazz clubs did exist, they were expensive, restrained and middle aged. A well-told tale has Maurice visiting these places with the London model of a jazz spot in his mind. “Where’s the dancefloor and when does the DJ start?” he asked.
However, with a strong-headed belief that such music could appeal to a fresh new audience (as it was emphatically doing in London), they set about the task of putting on some shows. Undaunted by the prospect of failure, and driven by the excitement of working with their heroes, they simply started calling up the artists they’d like to see perform live, and organizing work for those who wanted it.
“The first Groove Academy shows were put on by literally looking up artists in the telephone book,” remembers Maurice. “None of them had agents then, we’d just call them up at home and say ‘are you interested in doing a show with us?’”
At the same time, the two dreamed of a club. It was a place where people came to dance, but it could accommodate live showcases of the kind of instrumentalists they wanted to resurrect. Eventually, the place would be home to DJs, musicians, singers, rappers and poets. Even painters and graffiti writers would find a home in the cross-cultural mix. The club was called Giant Step.
“Our influence was obviously the dance jazz clubs in England,” admits Maurice, mentioning seminal London club-nights like Talking Loud. “But we didnt want it to be just a copy of that.” They recognised that the New York scene called for something very different. For one, there were all these talented musicians lying around: the old stars they were busily digging up, as well as a great many jazz-scholar youngsters. Secondly there was the huge and omnipresent influence of hip-hop.
So while in London the “Rare Groove” phenomenon had crystallized into a record-based scene (which eventually gave birth to the much-abused term “acid jazz” as the technology of sampling reconstituted the old grooves), in New York it would always have much closer links to live performers.
If you visit Giant Step on a night when the vibe is working, you’ll find a young multicolored crowd dancing to killer DJ grooves. And then, over the top there’s a sax player, drums, timbales, a rapper, a singer. Hip-hop leads into some Latin jazz leads into some salsa house leads into some drum-and-bass. The barriers are down, and the recipe is simply anything funky.
“The club is an open-ended playground,” says Jonathan. “Its strength is that it shows how things work or don’t work on a dancefloor.”
Over the years this unique forum has evolved continually. When danceable jazz was the focus, the club’s DJs—Jazzy Nice, Smash and Chillfreez were honing their skills and throwing down vinyl for the ever-changing house band to jam over. When hip-hop was in the driving seat, the club was home to long lines of hopeful rappers waiting to get on the mic. Guru tried out his Jazzmatazz collaborations here, and groups like The Digable Planets were being born from the audience. When spoken word made its resurgence, Dana Bryant was onstage conjuring comparisons with Gil Scott-Heron. And now that trip-hop and drum-and-bass are making their presence felt, Giant Step’s DJs are ensuring their acceptance within the pantheon of groove musics.
The club (and its Groove Academy concert arm) must take a lot of the credit for re-exposing classic American music to a younger audience. It certainly achieved its aim of presenting the originators of much of the music sampled and appropriated by hip-hop, and of showing that they were far from being nostalgia acts. Pointing out the vast difference between the crowd at a recent Maceo Parker gig, and the people who showed up to see him at one of their first shows six years ago, Maurice acknowledges the change they’ve made. “It’s gone out of the confines of your funk fanatics to a broader audience,” he smiles. “It’s very promising.”
Six years is a long time for a weekly club night to last, but Giant Step is far from slowing its pace. In fact, with the new label gathering momentum, Maurice is talking about what he says is the most exciting project they’ve ever worked on. This is The “Nuyorican Soul” album from Masters At Work, a record which should considerably up the ante as far as dance music is concerned. Building on the dancefloor success the label enjoyed with The Groove Collective releases (an ensemble which is more or less the collected Giant Step players), “Nuyorican Soul” should put Giant Step Records firmly on the map.
“It’s a lot of classics that they’ve done in a very classic way; a very traditional Latin jazz record,” describes Maurice. “People are constantly looking for classics these days, and Kenny and Louie are going to give them a whole album full.” And with contributions from Roy Ayers, Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, George Benson, India, Jocelyn Brown (not to mention the entire Salsoul Orchestra), the project is indeed of epic proportions.
While this won’t surface until early ’97 (the George Benson track, “You Can Do It” is out in October), there are plenty of other projects in the pipeline. The latest Groove Collective single, “Lift Off” will hit the streets shortly, following the storm created by “She’s So Heavy.” There’s a reissue of a classic Roy Ayers-related project, “Ramp,” as well as the signing of “A young artist from New York who’s been around a long time and deserves to put a record out.” In addition Dana Bryant’s peerless spoken word album, “Wishing From The Top,” will shortly be released on Warners, exposing the Giant Step poetess to the wide audience she deserves.
So as Giant Step moves into this busy new phase in its existence, Maurice and Jonathan and the many people in their corner are readying themselves for some hard work. Many battles have been won in their quest to erode people’s musical preconceptions, but there is plenty more still to be done. “It’s a lot easier now for someone to have a jazz album, a funk album, a Tricky album, a Bjork album, a Goldie album,” enthuses Jonathan. “People are a lot more open about music.” As an indicator of this perhaps, their company is getting ever larger. However, its driving force remains the evangelical love of groove music which they both started with. And so as they go from strength to strength, there is one hope: “That things get stronger, and that the borders and the boundaries continue to drop away.”
© Frank Broughton, 1996
Originally published in Update USA
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