The jazz cornetist Olu Dara has been playing music professionally for nearly four decades, but chances are you know him from the 2004 Nas single “Bridging the Gap,” in which he turns in a cheery vocal performance alongside his son. Yep, aside from being a prominent member of New York’s avant-garde seventies jazz scene, Dara’s best-known achievement is siring one of hip-hop’s greatest. Dara, who plays Harlem’s Creole Restaurant tonight and tomorrow, spoke with Vulture about free jazz and little Nas.
How’d you end up in New York?
I got stranded in New York City. Well, I ran out of money. I wanted to go back to some of the places I had seen traveling in the Navy, and I stayed in New York a little bit too long…a few days too long…and I ran out of money. And here I am. That was 1964.
Eventually, you developed a reputation as a free-jazz musician.
I played in a lot of African bands, jazz bands, rhythm and blues bands, and when I decided to come across the river to Manhattan [from Brooklyn], that’s the first time I heard that kind of music.
You just happened to be really good at it?
Oh, I was very good at it. In those days, if you just had a horn, and hung around the music scene, you could get on a record and become famous! When I came to Manhattan to explore, I discovered how much respect a jazz musician could get.
How did you take the name Olu Dara?
A man who was an African priest, he had been reading his coconut shells through his deity. My name, in another world, in another life, was Olu Dara. That’s how I got that name, and I kept it.
Was Nas creative from a young age?
I had a lot of faith in him as an artist, since he was a child. He drew his own comic book, illustration and story, at a very young age. And I know he enjoyed the books I read — I had a lot of Eastern history and philosophy, and he read a lot about that. I remember always telling him, ‘read these books, read these books, read these books…’
He raps about that on “Bridging the Gap.”
He did? Okay. I should listen to the things he says. (laughs) So when he got a little older, things got rougher. The school system was bad and the community was getting real shaky, and so that was a hard period in his life. And so I decided to try and get him out of the system, and I told him, go make some money or whatever. Go west, young man! I knew he had enough talent to do what he wanted to do.
When you played on Illmatic’s “Life’s a Bitch,” did you have any sense of what kind of reception the album would get?
I had no idea. He called and said, ‘come on down’ — they turned the mikes on and they asked me to rap. And I said no, I’m not gonna be known as the oldest rapper on Earth. And he said, ‘well just play the horn on something,’ and that’s how that happened. As a matter of fact, we rode the subway there, and he left his lyrics on the train. He said, ‘I left my lyrics, damn, I left my lyrics.’ I knew that was his life’s work right there. I think he just got in there and just improvised. I had no idea it would be an iconic disc.
He also raps about you, most notably on “Poppa Was a Player.”
Oh, I heard that in the street one day. Years ago, I was walking down the street, and I heard his voice, and I asked the guys on the stoop, who is that? They said, that’s Nas! Looking at me like an old man, ‘you don’t know about this shit.’ They said, ‘he’s talking about his father Olu.’ And they kept listening. I said, ‘I’m Olu.’ And they looked at me like, ‘get the hell out of here.’