Prince wasn’t a jazz musician per se, but he loved jazz and incorporated a lot of it into his music.
In a way this was destined, since Prince’s father was a jazz pianist and named Prince after his own stage name, Prince Rogers. Prince’s father taught him piano at one point and Prince recalled him as being a demanding teacher. He undoubtedly saw a lot of talent in his son!
Even though Prince initially gravitated to the worlds of rock, pop, and R&B, he seems to have seen jazz as a way to express himself in a broader way than he could through more commercial styles alone. Certainly the harmonic possibilities of jazz gave him a broad palette to work with, even over a 4-to-the-floor dance drumbeat!
Initially, Prince relied on two accomplished jazz musicians to bring this element into his music; Eric Leeds and Clare Fischer. Leeds, a saxophonist, wrote wonderfully angular horn charts for many of Prince’s mid-80’s songs. Check out albums like Sign O’ The Times and The Black Album for some of his arranging work.
You can read a good interview with Eric Leeds HERE.
Prince also enjoyed a highly productive and unique musical relationship with Clare Fischer. Fischer was a jazz pianist and arranger who had developed an extraordinary “linear” style of playing and composing. He was influenced in this regard by Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and 20th century classical composers such as Shostokovich and Stravinsky. Prince would record a rhythm track with vocals and send it to Fischer’s home in California. Fischer would then add brass or strings to it in his inimitable style. The wonderful thing is that Prince gave him no instructions or limits. Clare could do whatever he wanted and Prince apparently never changed a note. He loved what Fischer came up with and didn’t even want to “jinx” the relationship by meeting the guy! (And this went on for years!!!)
Prince also played some live dates and made a few recordings with jazz trumpet legend Miles Davis. Miles considered Prince to have the potential to become another Duke Ellington and even modeled his own 1980’s music partly on Prince’s style. The album Tutu is an example of this.
Check out this clip of Miles and Prince performing together.
Prince was an astute learner, and later in his career could produce music himself that has Leed’s and Fischer’s influence in it. Jazzy voicings with rich inner-voice motion and sometimes angular contours permeate some of his songs. There’s not a lot of Prince’s music available on the internet, but I did find this song, “Shoe,” where you can hear the jazz influence:
We can all be inspired by Prince example in that as talented and famous as he was, he never stopped learning. We can keep learning too.