Louisvillian Jonathan Hay has bucked tradition and overcome personal trauma to co-create a chart-topping jazz album with partner Mike Smith, under the name “Smith and Hay.” The album, simply titled “Jazz,” hit the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s jazz charts the week of Jan. 20, 2018.
In an interview with Insider, Hay opened up about being held captive during a home invasion last April, the pushback his work has gotten from jazz traditionalists, and how he got into the industry.
Like many recording artists, Hay grew up around music.
“Even when I was younger, my mother, she played piano, so I was always around music, I was always around piano,” he says. “We were in St. Matthews, but it was still, like, a smaller home, so when you have a piano, you hear it all through the house, you feel the vibrations.”
Hay’s instruments of choice are the synthesizer and drum machine, and he started recording as a sophomore in high school. But when he started working professionally, it was in a different part of the business.
“I got into publicity, and I’ve done real well on that side,” he says. “So I’d always be in the studio, but I’d never be, like, ‘I’m producing music,’ until four or five years ago.”
Hay used sometimes-controversial PR methods to get his clients exposure, like leaking an alleged affair while trying to promote Rihanna’s “Pon de Replay,” one of her first hits.
It was another PR connection that led to Hay’s current partnership with Smith.
“He actually hired me to be his publicist, and then he was, like, we should just produce music. We should get some rap features, and we should build our name — and that’s what we did,” says Hay.
The two worked separately. Hay would work in his basement, laying down the basis for tracks with drum machines, synthesizers and other electronic music tools. Meanwhile, Smith would be working on music in Charlotte.
“And we got together in Nashville in November,” he adds. “He brought his tracks, and I brought all mine, and we exchanged everything, and I came back to Louisville and put it all together.”
Not only did Hay and Smith collaborate long distance, but many of the other musicians on the album worked in different cities.
“So my horn player, my sax player, he’s in New York. I’d email him the sessions and tell him kind of what I wanted, maybe send him a keyboard line, and he’d play it on his horn,” says Hay.
This method isn’t embraced by everyone in the jazz world.
“We kind of ran into some issues with the jazz purists, some, ‘This isn’t jazz.’ But you can’t just call it a jazz album and chart on Billboard. Billboard is the authority,” says Hay. “We’ll use keyboard and drum sequences, but then will combine it with the real music. When you listen to it, it’s real flutes, real sax, and we do live drums on top of the drum track.”
Despite pushback from purists, charting in the jazz genre makes Hay feel like his music has been legitimized in some people’s eyes.
“Jazz has a lot of integrity, and it’s known for being musical, whereas hip-hop, still, especially around my family, is like, ‘Oh, it’s not real music.’ People always say that about hip-hop. It drives me crazy,” he says.
The album’s success is a boost to Smith and Hay professionally, but it has a deeper emotional meaning for Hay.
In April of 2017, Hay and his daughter Iliana Eve were held at gunpoint in a home invasion.
“We were coming back to my place, and when we were coming up to the door, we were attacked from behind,” he recalls. “We didn’t even see him coming. And next thing you know, we’re thrown into my house, duct taped, he had a mask on … it was traumatic. We had guns all over us, the whole time we thought we were gonna die.”
That experience is reflected in the music on “Jazz.”
“All the songs come from that place,” Hay explains. “You’ll see songs like ‘Betrayal,’ ‘Paralyzed’ and all these different things. It comes from that home invasion, because I went to a real traumatic place, and I just got lost in the music.”
After turning that trauma into “Jazz,” Hay hasn’t slowed down, producing songs for Riff Raff and Twista.
You can listen to “Jazz” on music-streaming platforms or purchase it on iTunes.