The story of A Touch of Jazz studios has always been one we’ve been extremely fascinated by. What DJ Jazzy Jeff was able to create out of the studio he founded was truly remarkable. We felt compelled to help share the story of how it all went down because quite frankly it does not get discussed enough.
For those need a quick refresher, DJ Jazzy Jeff opened his own production studio in downtown Philly and called it A Touch of Jazz (located at 444 North 3rd Street). A Touch of Jazz was also the name of Jeff’s production company and the studio was founded in the mid to late 90’s following Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince fame. The run at the studio last well into the early 00’s.
He was then able to recruit producers, songwriters, musicians and of course artists to come through and create. Some of the biggest artists to have emerged from the studios include Jill Scott, Musiq Soulchild, Floetry (Marsha Ambrosius & The Floacist) and Glenn Lewis. Producers and songwriters there during the time include Carvin Haggins, Ivan Barias, Andre Harris, Vidal Davis, Keith Pelzer, and Darren Henson.
One of the earliest projects to be created almost entirely there was Kenny Lattimore’s 1998 album “From the Soul of Man”. There have been many releases since and you can read the entire history of those here.
Whereas Lattimore was already an established artist, the truly special element to come out of A Touch of Jazz was how these artists and producers came together to create organically without label constraints. In the process of doing so, this crew all went from unknown talent, to in demand producer/songwriters and global superstars.
We’ve spoken with much of the talent who spent time at A Touch of Jazz and got quotes to help share the story. By the end of this article, we hope to have shed light on the fact there has never been anything like a Touch of Jazz and might never be again. Our goal is to have given you a sense of what it was like in the moment, the culture that was created, the musical freedom, and the lasting impact.
In The Words of the Man Himself
DJ Jazzy Jeff
The architect and genius behind the whole operation. Jazzy Jeff shared with us his initial mission behind starting A Touch of Jazz:
What I realized is one of the main things I’ve always been a huge advocate is when things don’t make sense to me, it bothers me. It was just certain things about the music industry that just did not make sense. I systematically tried to break a lot of that stuff down. The first thing that I really tried to break down is the creative freedom. Let me save my money up and get a building and put a studio in it that we could go in and basically make music without someone telling us what we should make. I mean, we were able to break through with Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott, Floetry. It was extremely satisfying because it made me feel like the music we were doing without someone telling us, people really liked it. It made me feel like I was on the right path. The side we couldn’t crack through is we still weren’t able to put out our own music. We were able to develop it, but I still had to take it somebody for somebody to say yes or no. That was another thing that bothered me because I don’t think that anyone should be the gatekeeper of the world hearing your music. I don’t think that there’s anybody on this earth that has that much musical knowledge to tell you that someone should not hear something. – DJ Jazzy Jeff (Click Here for Full Interview)
When Musiq Soulchild burst onto the scene he brought us a feeling that was reminiscent of something we’ve heard before but also unlike anything we’d experienced. A kid from Philly who just wanted to sing (hence his debut album “Aijuswanaseing”) and was literally homeless at times before he found a home at A Touch of Jazz. What he’d go on to create there would help land him a deal at Def Jam and become the material included on his debut album. Some of those songs were “Just Friends (Sunny)”, “Love”, and “Girl Next Door”.
The interesting thing is I wasn’t planning on making an album, I was just recording songs. I had access to a studio and I just wanted to make songs; that’s it. I did “Just Friends” because I just wanted to make a song, I wanted to make it as hot as I could make it. I did “Girl Next Door”, I just thought it was a cool idea and I just wanted to do it. All of those ideas, that’s just what I wanted to do, I wasn’t thinking about songs that were going to be on an album. I wasn’t even really thinking about people listening to them. That was the first time I had access to a studio, so I was learning myself through the studio. – Musiq Soulchild (Click Here for Full Interview)
At the time, at A Touch of Jazz, you had all of these producers and musicians and people who were super creative and went on to have great careers. We were all there in that basement on 444 North 3rd Street. Most of the time we’d stay there. We’d work during the day, we’d also throw parties as part of our job, and then after the parties, we’d get over there at like 2 in the morning and they’d be in the middle of working. It was a lot of conversations that were being had. Carvin and Musiq would absorb those conversations and they’d turn into records. We knew there were a lot of magical songs being made. – Michael McArthur (Musiq’s original manager)
It’s easy to look at Jill Scott for the global superstar she is now and forget about her humble beginnings. A schoolteacher and performer who had made a name for herself through poetry in Philly, her real break came after landing at A Touch of Jazz. Although Jill was not available for an interview, we spoke to some of her peers about their memories of her beginnings and emergence.
This is how it started with Jill. We had this spot and we used to play there every Tuesday night. It was open mic so there was a whole bunch of musicians. Jill used to come and do poetry and we used to do music, but she’d just do poetry over the music, we never heard her sing. Long story short, Jazzy Jeff was telling us about this girl he wanted us to meet, she could sing and do poetry. We didn’t know it was Jill, and a couple of months went by and we had been playing with Jill in this club. He brings her to the studio, she looks at us, we look at her and it’s like “Wow!” That right there was a great point, we already had a connection just with the music and maybe a month after that, we still didn’t get into the studio. Jill called a meeting and said “If you’re not going to work with me, tell me now!” She was very forward with what she wanted to do. From that point on, it was just one of those things. – Vidal Davis (Click Here for Full Interview)
Jill was hanging out down in the studio with her friend. She is somebody that is already special before we met her. She was already doing her thing, she was big time in my eyes. But she was hanging around, but we were overlooking her as an artist. It was one of those things I wish I knew then what I know now. I think if I got my story right, I think Vidal Davis was the first one to cut a record. I think he did “A Long Walk” with her. The way we were with the 6 guys, if you came down to the studio and you sang, one of us would take a chance and cut a song. If we got it right, then everybody is trying to cut with you. Then we start going. Once the ice was broken on Jill, I think Jeff told us we better work with her. Before that we kept telling him we’d get to it, everything else was priority. Once we heard that first thing pop off, we were ready. Then we just started making songs. – Keith Pelzer (Click Here for Full Interview)
All of them had stories. You don’t realize what you’re creating when you’re creating it. I think one of the best things was those first 8 or 9 songs that we recorded with Jill Scott. She wasn’t signed to a label. Someone didn’t tell me to do it. Jill was dope, she came into the studio and we made songs. What I did that was different than what was different than what most people used to do, I bought a CD burner and I pressed up maybe 150 copies of the first 9 songs. I basically gave it to everybody who I felt loved music. That’s what got the word out. It was like check this out. I had a friend over at Sony Music, who told me everybody in Sony was playing Jill’s demo because they thought she was signed to Sony! I think to me that was a very great memory because that started the whole concept of music is supposed to be shared and passed around to people. – DJ Jazzy Jeff (Click Here for Full Interview)
The one thing I love about her is, it was always a conversation. Every dope song came from some kind of conversation. One thing I remember about Jill, you couldn’t just play her tracks. If you weren’t having a conversation with her, it was not gonna work. She wasn’t just picking tracks. It was like we were talking and laughing, and then you hit something on the keys, and she’d like it. Then you build on it and it grows. Then you go into the booth. Then you have the song. That whole album, that’s why it’s called “Words & Sounds”. She would just pull out her poetry notebook and go in and do something she wrote long ago. Next thing you know she’s singing something dope. – Keith Pelzer (Click Here for Full Interview)
Floetry (Marsha Ambrosius & Natalie Stewart – The Floacist)
This duo from The UK landed in Philly and delivered us a sound quite unlike any other we’d heard before. Marsha Ambrosius and Natalie Stewart have since made their marks as solo artists over the past decade, but the impact they had while creating at A Touch of Jazz is undeniable. The pair have given us timeless hits like “Say Yes”, “Floetic”, and “”Wanna B Where U R” which remain in rotation to this day. Here is the experience they shared as well as what it was like introducing them:
To get to A Touch of Jazz when I did was to witness the shaping of what ended up being Jill Scott’s first album, Musiq Soulchild’s first album, Bilal, getting to meet Glenn Lewis. Getting to work on his album “World Outside My Window” and getting to do background vocals for Jill Scott at one point. To see all of these things happen. I landed on a wave that these producers…leftovers happened to be “Floetic”!! That magic was still happening. We walked in from London and had “Floetic”. Ultimately, we were in a wave with like 20 year olds with no Twitter or Facebook to tell what was supposed to be correct or anything. We just wanted to be great! From that comes “Hey Andre [Harris], I have this song called “Butterflies”, want to hear it?” Then there is Michael Jackson calling weeks later asking to do that song. I commend the guys at A Touch of Jazz, not only the musicians and producers they are, even still, but they put in 100% into whatever it was going to be. We didn’t know what it was going to be. Years later we can call those things classics. I’m allowed to say that “Say Yes” is a classic. – Marsha Ambrosius (Click Here for Full Interview)
Inviting Marsha Ambrosius down to the open mic poetry spot to go forward. Also, the creation of Floetry the genre which is an exploration of the spoken word and the melodic vocal. Moving onto bringing Floetry into America where so much gets added to the story at this point. Actually going into the music industry and meeting and building with artists all the way from Jill Scott who very much kicked the door down in a sense for poetry. Floetry’s first album being made in the same studio as Jill’s. The formulation of the Floetry brand growing underneath the neo-soul banner. Before long you have Grammy nominations and Lady of Soul awards and being called on by Michael Jackson. We were also saying Floetry is more than a name, it’s a genre, it’s a style, it won’t die as long as long as we remember. – The Floacist (Click Here for Full Interview)
The funny thing about these girls. Shout out to James Poyser and Vikter Duplaix at their studio at the time. The best I remember is, they had these two girls. They didn’t know what to do with these two girls from London. Jeff said to send them over to the studio. Jazzy Jeff had his room around the hall. He introduced us to these two girls. The four of us were sitting there. It was these two nice looking London chicks but they had that tom boy thing going on. It wasn’t like the Philly girl look. They were basketball players, they were wearing shell top Adidas! So we asked them what they did! Natalie said she is the Floacist, and Marsha said she’s the Songstress. So we figured out one rapped and one sang. So we tried to figure out what type of song to cut with them. We wanted to make a song to tell people who the hell they are! That’s something Darren and I were going to do. Before we go anywhere, we had to find out what they do and how do we explain it to everybody. We took the time and that’s what we did. – Keith Pelzer (Click Here for Full Interview)
Glenn was initially around the A Touch of Jazz scene before breaking off with producers Dre & Vidal who helped create his entire debut album “World Outside My Window”. That was a project that also featured writing from Marsha Ambrosius. The singer initially gained a reputation as a vocal powerhouse reminiscent of a young Stevie Wonder. However, he never forgot his origins with Jeff.
DJ Jazzy Jeff has been a constant in my life since before even getting my deal at Epic. He’s been a solid character in the scene. Somebody that understands that there are people attached to this. Many people in the industry view artists and what they do as expendable, he’s always had a compassion, care and concern for the people that he works with. I could relate because it’s the whole idea of relationships being your greatest resource. It’s not about what they can necessarily do for you, but just how special the people that we cross paths with in life are. Jeff’s always been exemplary of that. – Glenn Lewis (Click Here for Full Interview)
Well, it is amazing seeing them with the success that they’ve had is no surprise. Working with them at the time, it’s just crazy because just moment to moment it brought the best out. Being around Marsha, as vicious of a vocalist and songwriter that she is, she loves the creative process. The lights in her eyes are just on all of the time. It’s always something hot. That always pushed me and motivated me as well. She had the hunger, I had the hunger, Dre and Vidal had the hunger and we came together. The energy was always at a high level. It was just funny because I’m a little bit meticulous, I’m a little picky, so they would tell me “Glenn, the take you just did was fine!” and I’d be like “No, no I could do it better.” I remember them always trying to reel me in. There was always just the dynamic between our personalities. It was just memorable how from the outside looking in what it must have looked like. – Glenn Lewis (Click here for Full Interview)
That was a turning point in our careers. That actually was the first project of Dre and Vidal productions, that was our leaving Touch of Jazz and going out and starting our own thing. After hearing his vocals, we knew it was going to be a winner. We had help from Marsha Ambrosius, Carvin helped us out on it, but he solely wrote that album mostly himself. We just helped him really bring it to light. Glenn’s talent is amazing. – Vidal Davis (Click Here for Full Interview)
The producer is most known for his work as part of the duo Dre & Vidal. The pair originally linked up at A Touch of Jazz but originally worked solo there at first. Vidal was able to help create songs like “Gettin In the Way” for Jill Scott, “Just Friends (Sunny)” for Musiq Soulchild, and many more. Eventually Dre & Vidal would take Glenn Lewis under their wing and produce his entire debut album. Here is what his experience was like.
I remember just actually having a studio to go into. We had DJ Jazzy Jeff who made it so that we could go and work and do what we had to do and not worry about time constraints and all types of stuff like that. Out of that, look what came out of it; we have Jill Scott, we have Musiq Soulchild, we have Floetry, we have Glenn Lewis. It was just so many things that came out of that situation. Just the people who were down there together; myself, Andre Harris, Carvin Haggins, Ivan Barias. That’s what made it a dope situation because it was like a friendly competition amongst all of us to make the projects. That’s what made us step it up as well to make it real crazy and everybody wanting to get on the project at the same time. – Vidal Davis (Click Here for Full Interview)
The producer is probably most known for his work as part of the duo Dre & Vidal and together they’ve significantly impacted the sound of music over the past couple of decades. The producer honed his skills at A Touch of Jazz and quickly began racking up hits like “Love” for Musiq Soulchild, “The Way” for Jill Scott, “Butterflies” for Michael Jackson, and “Don’t You Forget It” for Glenn Lewis. He remains one of the most in demand producers for Hip Hop and R&B music today. Andre Harris was not available for an interview for this story.
Ivan “Orthodox” Barias
Before linking up with his songwriting partner Carvin Haggins and becoming Carvin & Ivan, Barias was a solo producer working to hone his craft at A Touch of Jazz. The Atlantic City native has certainly made a lasting impact in the music industry. He was directly involved in the creation of the debut albums of Musiq, Jill, and Floetry, and reached even greater heights once leaving. Ivan still has fond memories of where it all started.
It was one of those things that is really hard to quantify into words. At that time when you’re living through it, you have no concept of what you’re doing in terms of shifting the narrative and changing the way records are being made. As far as camps and how we worked, no one taught us that way, it was different. A lot of it came from being competitive and us being family oriented and collaborative. I could be working on a track and Vidal or Dre or Keith Pelzer will walk in. They were the musicians at the time before I actually developed skills and started being able to play. If I had a beat playing, and Keith would walk in, he’d say it’s crazy. So I’d ask him to do a bass line on it. I could be walking into another room and Andre Harris might be working on a track. He’s got some chords, and next thing you know I’m doing drums on it. It was a really penalty free way of making records. You’re not really aligning yourself with the music industry ethos. It really wasn’t a thing with us. We weren’t thinking of the economic aspect of doing it. It was more so let’s help each other. It was a good measuring stick for all of us. If someone did something dope and got a placement, we’d all cheer for them, and celebrate, and know we had to level up. It was a great environment where we boost each other and lean other each other and learn. It was unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. – Ivan Barias (Click Here for Full Interview)
There was a communal aspect to that those records being made in that era that influenced the way A Touch of Jazz operated. It was a different type of energy. Jeff never came at us in a way that was tyrannical. It was in a way that he gave us all the opportunity. He gave us the keys to the studio and the equipment, he wasn’t going to tell us what to do, but he’d tell us what hours we could work in the studio! We all had access to the studio and equipment. I sure as hell blew a lot a lot of tweeters and woofers! I never knew how much they cost and where the money to repair them came from. I was fortunate to have access to what he provided us with. I’m still forever grateful, it was a great opportunity. – Ivan Barias (Click Here for Full Interview)
Carvin “Ransum” Haggins
Carvin was among the first to believe in Musiq Soulchild and their mutual songwriting partnership helped launch both their careers. He truly began to shine once he linked up with production partner Ivan Barias to form Carvin & Ivan, landing placements on many of the elite artists in R&B.
You never know you are making history when you are making history. I think what we knew was that we were on the doorstep of greatness. We knew what we were doing was different. The whole mindset and idea of a Musiq Soulchild was again, it was something that was not there at the time Musiq came. There was the R&B talking about stars and quasars and fantasy type life. My goal with the Musiq Soulchild project was to make it more real. Let’s talk about what we look at everyday and what we see. The creation of the idea of Musiq Soulchild was the intelligent hoodlum. – Carvin Haggins (Click Here for Full Interview)
One of the more unsung contributors at A Touch of Jazz but certainly not for lack of talent. A musician with a true ear for good music which shone through on his contributions to the early work of Musiq, Jill and Floetry. Here’s what he remembers about the experience.
When I say it was the best. To me, it was the best experience. You can’t remake that and you can’t trade it. You take the good, the bad, the ugly, the regret and the blessing, and say it was what it was. It was really one of those things I call a cool competition. We weren’t like thieves to each other. Somebody had something the other guy didn’t have and we brushed off each other and did what we felt. Shout out to Jill Scott, her album is “Words and Sounds”, we were great with our sounds, she was great with her words. We had sounds. Whether it was knocking on the door, recording somebody screaming, brushing something making a beat, we made music out of it. People started to take notice. – Keith Pelzer (Click Here for Full Interview)
Another of the unsung producers of A Touch of Jazz who doesn’t get the credit they deserved. Darren Henson eventually linked up with Keith Pelzer to form a production team but he is certainly skilled in his own right. The pair created Floetry’s biggest hit “Floetic” at the studio and Darren would go on to produce one of Lil’ Kim’s biggest hits “No Matter What”. Darren Henson was not available for an interview for this article.
Singer/Songwriter Ryan Toby is perhaps best known for his run as part of the group City High. Many don’t realize that he had three placements on Will Smith’s most successful album “Big Willie Style” while working at A Touch of Jazz. Here is what he remembers about the experience.
That was late 90’s on 444 North 3rd Street, studio 444. That was college. I actually dropped out of college to come and work with Jeff. I had graduated high school and went down to Grambling to try to go to college, because that’s what you’re supposed to do! After one semester, I quickly found out it wasn’t for me. Dre & Vidal were sending me beats and tracks. They told me I should be up there with them. The funny thing is, I was in Grambling, and my major was in business, they didn’t have any music business courses. So I decided to just go and be in the music business. I packed my stuff and moved back to Jersey. I was at Jeff’s studio every day for the next 2 or 3 years. Just learning so much about recording and developing your sound and writing with Carvin & Ivan. A young Jill Scott was in and out. A young Musiq Soulchild was in and out, same with Glenn Lewis & Floetry. We were all kids at that time, and Jeff opened his doors and allowed us to hone our craft. – Ryan Toby (Click Here for Full Interview)
We are constantly in astonishment the more we hear about the organic environment that existed at A Touch of Jazz studios. DJ Jazzy Jeff truly cultivated a creative environment and collaborative spirit that everyone there truly took to. Here is a quote that best sums it up.
I think we had a really interesting culture at A Touch of Jazz, very family oriented, we always joke and hung out together. Whether we were going to South Street or L.A. or anywhere else. We always had this clique, very insular culture. Jill was super cool, she was one of the best things that happened to A Touch of Jazz, because up until that time, a lot of the artists that would come through that major labels would send down, we really couldn’t control the sound. We’d work on a bunch of records and then they’d just take one record. We felt like we were doing amazing music on all of these artists and at the end of the day you can’t control it. When Jill came in, she contributed immensely to that sound. Without her, I don’t think we have that sound that became so associated with not only A Touch of Jazz but Philly. I think what she did for a lot of us that were working at A Touch of Jazz was give us the platform to create those songs. It was a mutual labor that allowed those songs to be special. She definitely had a unique approach because she was also a poet and actress. Her energy was not so consolidated into this R&B thing. That’s the funny thing about it, all three of the artists, Jill, Musiq, and Floetry, were not R&B artists! They definitely had soul influence, but Jill was a poet at first. Musiq was a beatboxing, rapping, singer. Floetry you had Marsha who is dope as a singer, then The Floacist who was a poet and a rapper, who also liked hip hop beats, and they were from London. They were inflicted by a lot of Jamaican music. All of these different things to add to the dynamic that really showed you that R&B was not the root of A Touch of Jazz. That’s what makes it unique. You look at the name A Touch of Jazz, which was a play on Jazzy Jeff’s name, Jazz is everything. It’s the root and the seed for a lot of the indigenous art forms that came out in America. All of the music you heard was really a part of the DNA of jazz music as it evolved over the years in our culture. That’s what made those artists so unique and so special. They really fit in, they fit in with the culture, and they gave it as much as they received as far as the jokes and all of that. It was really a family atmosphere. Nothing too out of the ordinary other than to say they never really had that separation between artists and producers, and never made us feel like they were better. We were all building something together and it became something special towards the end. – Ivan Barias (Click Here for Full Interview)
The legacy of A Touch of Jazz is extremely impactful especially when you consider how artists like Musiq Soulchild, Jill Scott and Floetry influenced the entire generation of soul artists following them. DJ Jazzy Jeff should be celebrated for the impact he was able to make in giving artists, musicians, songwriters and producers a pressure free environment to build up their skills. Although the mainstream never seemed to fully acknowledge these accomplishments, we hope that their story will be shared on a major level one day. Until then, we hope to have given you a snapshot into the magic that was A Touch of Jazz.
Photo Credit: Dexter Cohen