Twenty years ago, when bassist Marcus Shelby formed a 15-piece jazz orchestra, he began to think big and thematically.
“I have been on a mission for the past 20 years to compose and create music about African-American history,” he says. These pieces have included an oratorio on Harriet Tubman and a suite about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement.
On “Transitions,” released on his own MSO Records, Shelby’s lush arrangements of classic tunes by Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, and Cole Porter frame the album’s centerpiece: “Black Ball: The Negro Leagues and the Blues,” his smart, slick and soulful four-part suite inspired by the history of Negro League Baseball. Here, Shelby merges his mission with his two driving passions—jazz and baseball.
The darker blocks within the wood floor of happylucky no. 1, an art gallery and community arts space in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, spell out the name of the place in morse code, according to Liane Fredel.
Fredel, the former graphic designer who bought the space five years ago, renovated it to express, “an inviting concept, open but with an air of mystery,” she said, and she intends it to foster “more than just art, but rather a larger sense of culture.”
There is no sign outside announcing the place. There is, however a website, that offers this by way of description:
…a gray, fishscaly building…. The façade is marked by a door and a yellow neon dandelion. We are not exactly sure what happens, or what will happen, within the elongated rectangular box that is the interior of happylucky no. 1. Vaguely speaking, there will be events, exhibitions and experiments, the subjects/results of which might occasionally be edible, or medicinal.
There will be things on the walls and floors and floating through the air; sights, sounds and ideas requesting your assistance in their propagation. There will be triumphs and, as this is a human endeavor, the occasional disaster.
All of the above—the subtly encoded messages, the overarching mission and the blend of seriousness and humor—make happylucky no. 1 a fitting home for the latest iteration of The Stone— which began as a tiny but influential East Village performance space in an unmarked windowless former Chinese restaurant, founded by John Zorn in 2005 to present experimental music, and that has grown into a somewhat sprawling initiative.
In the third-floor East Village walkup apartment John Zorn has called home since 1977—“my device to enable creativity,” the alto saxophonist and composer calls the place—he reflected recently on his Masada project, now 25 years running.
“It began as my personal answer to what new Jewish music is,” he said. “And it was a musical challenge. After writing so much conceptual music, I wanted to just write a book of tunes—the way Irving Berlin had a book of tunes, the way Thelonious Monk had a book of tunes.”
That was 1993. He set about to mine the scales associated with Jewish music— a minor scale with a sharp 4th and a major scale with a flatted 2nd—and to serve the needs of modern improvisers like himself. He named the project Masada, for the ancient Judean fortress subjected to a deadly siege by troops of the Roman Empire.
That book kept growing, as did its implications for Zorn and an ever-widening community of musicians. By 1996, Zorn had written 205 Masada pieces, which gave rise to several important bands, not least his celebrated quartet with trumpeter Dave Douglas, bassist Greg Cohen and drummer Joey Baron. In the space of three months in 2004, he composed another 316 songs, to form a second Masada collection, “The Book of Angels,” this time distributing them to a wide range of musicians, and leading to more than two dozen recordings by 20 musicians and bands for his Tzadik label.
The Book Beriah, Zorn’s third installment of 92 compositions, brings Zorn’s total number of Masada compositions to 613 (the number of mitzvot, or commandments, contained in the Jewish Torah). He’s celebrated The Book Beriah with sprawling concerts at Manhattan’s Symphony Space in 2014 and earlier this year, displaying the range of expression it invites.
This time, rather than release the music in a an extended series of recordings, he’s making all the music available in one gorgeous, limited-edition 11-CD box set. Zorn is offering The Book Beriah in a variety of formats—CDs, autographed sets, bundles with T-shirts, LPs featuring highlights only—for pre-order through PledgeMusic, a crowd-funded, community-building web retailer.
I had suspicions and reservations about that greeting six years ago, when UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova and pianist Herbie Hancock (who is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador) announced the global initiative.
After the years of Ken Burns-inspired jazz nationalism and so many wrong-headed jazz boosterism programs, well, I’ve grown defensive…
But I’ve come to like and admire the International Jazz Day program, which picks one city for an all-star concert and educational programs, streamed online, and links jazz’s figurative arms around the globe through hundreds of events. This year’s main concert, from Havana, Cuba—at 9pm tonight EST, live-streamed (and archived) here—will feature stars from the U.S. including Hancock, bassist/singer Esperanza Spalding, violinist Regina Carter, bassist Marcus Miller, and from Cuba, including pianist Chucho Valdés, along with musicians from several other nations, all gathered at theGran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso.
I’m in New Orleans now at the annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, which this year hosts its own contingent of Cuban musicians, including Valdés.
Here, five years ago, International Jazz Day had its main event at Congo Square (see the picture I took, above): I suspect that this year, in Havana, hand drums will again be prominent. This is less a sign of jazz’s globalism that a return to its deepest roots.
Five years ago, I wrote in the Village Voice, Continue reading “Happy International Jazz Day!”
I’ve been thinking lately about Harry Belafonte, who will turn 90 on March 1.
In many ways, particularly in this moment, Belafonte answers questions we seem to be confused about: what it means to be an American; where that identity comes from; how culture and politics and social justice connect.
Belafonte’s autobiography (written with Michael Shnayerson), “My Song” is a required read if you’re working on those questions.
The release of “When Colors Come Together: The Legacy of Harry Belafonte“ (Legacy Recordings) has sparked some good recent coverage. The album is an essential anthology of Belafonte’s biggest hits and timeless classics, including “Day-O” (from “Banana Boat”) and other hits from Belafonte’s 1956 breakout LP, “Calypso,” which became the first album ever, by any artist of any race or gender, to sell more than a million copies. The album also includes a new recording of “When Colors Come Together (Our Island In The Sun),” performed by a children’s choir. The original recording of that song (co-written by Belafonte and Irving Burgie) served as the title music for the successful and at-the-time controversial 1957 film, “Island In The Sun,” which starred Belafonte, James Mason, Joan Fontaine, Joan Collins and Dorothy Dandridge, and has since become an oft-covered standard.
In a nice piece in The New Yorker, Amanda Petrusich aptly called Belafonte “one of America’s most vital and insurrectionary folk singers.”
In a lovely New York Times piece, John Leland profiles Belafonte today, on the cusp of 90, saying:
“When I took up with Martin, I really thought, two, at best three years, this should be over. Fifty years later, he’s dead and gone, and the Supreme Court just reversed the voting rights, and the police are shooting us down dead in the streets. And I look at this horizon of destruction, and I watch the black community by our state of being mute — we have no movement. I don’t know where to go to find the next Robeson. Maybe I don’t deserve a next one. Takes a lot of courage and a lot of power to step into the space and lead a holy war.”
With each passing day, I keep thinking of Nat Hentoff, who died two weeks ago.
I keep thinking Nat would know what to write…
Onstage the a few nights ago at Symphony Space, emceeing a “Musicians Against Fascism” concert, I invoked Nat’s legacy and felt his presence through a sense of purpose that linked ideas, action and music.
Here’s how I began my own remembrance of Nat at The Daily Beast:
The death of Nat Hentoff at 91 on Jan. 7 was, to me, one final act of defiance.
According to his son Nicholas, Hentoff left us in the company of that which he loved dearly—surrounded by family, listening to Billie Holiday recordings.
And I suppose that Hentoff, who wrote with as much passion and insight about the Constitution as he did about Holiday’s music, simply refused to stick around to see Donald Trump take the presidential oath of office.
I imagined Hentoff whispering something like: “I fought against the Vietnam War. I spoke out during the Reagan administration, against George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, and in defense of true liberalism and the Bill of Rights. This fight is yours.”
As an author, journalist, jazz critic, and civil libertarian, Hentoff’s intensity was matched by his productivity and range. He inspired me early on through his voluminous essays and books. And I was lucky. I got to know the man, who, by then, had a weathered face bordered by greying hair and beard, his piercing eyes softened only by his easy smile.
My pick hit right now comes from pianist David Virelles, who I’ve been following closely and writing about for quite some time. “Antenna” (ECM) is a 6-track, 22-minute EP released exclusively on vinyl and digital download. Drop what you’re doing and thinking and submit to this recording.
This dense swirl of sound from Virelles, who was born and raised in Santiago, Cuba and who has made Brooklyn, New York home, makes for riveting listening without any context at all. It would hard not to hear suggestions of ancient rhythms and rituals as well as urban modernism, of jazz and Afro-Cuban pedagogies as well as wild electro-acoustic dreams.
It’s all yet richer with some backstory, though… Continue reading “David Virelles: A Finely Tuned Antenna”
Buy a ticket here.
Read on, and find out why you just did.
A New York Times Magazine piece by Rachel L. Swarns in April of this year bore the headline: “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does It Owe Their Descendants?”
That university is hardly exceptional in its discovery or the issues it faces.
In the context of a consciouness that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, Ned and Constance Sublette’s long, rich and meticulously researched book, “The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry” (Chicago Review Press) tells the harrowing and necessary story of how black lives mattered to a still-formative United States of America—as not just forced labor, but also product and currency.
At a moment when presidential candidates argue about jobs, the economy, race relations, international affairs and our country’s moral direction, the Sublettes show how all those issues were rolled into the single ugly truth on which much of what some seek to “make great again” was, well, made great.
As the publisher’s description states, the book offers “a provocative vision of US history from earliest colonial times through emancipation,” centered around “the brutal story of how the slavery industry made the reproductive labor of the people it referred to as ‘breeding women’ essential to the young country’s expansion. Captive African Americans in the slave nation were not only laborers but merchandise and collateral all at once. In a land without silver, gold, or trustworthy paper money, their children and their children’s children into perpetuity were used as human savings accounts that functioned as the basis of money and credit in a market premised on the continual expansion of slavery.”
I’ve written widely about Ned Sublette’s previous books. (You can find my reviews of his excellent books on New Orleans here and here.) In those volumes, and in “Cuba and Its Music,” ideas about cultural history are expressed via music against a common backdrop of the slave trade throughout the Western hemisphere.
Somewhere around the 400th of the 673 pages of narrative in “The American Slave Coast,” the Sublettes delve into the white supremacist leanings of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics for what would become our national anthem, including the rarely heard and objectionable third verse.
Music in this book, too, as is, in a larger sense, the long song of racism that still hums through life in the United States. I’ve also written about Sublette’s own propensity toward writing songs (one of which was covered by Willie Nelson). It seems only natural to recite the elements of “The American Slave Coast” as spoken-word poetry. Why not set it to music? That’s what the Sublettes are doing—for one night only, at Manhattan’s Symphony Space on Friday, October 28:
“The American Slave Coast: Live” is a spoken word-and-music performance piece drawn from the pages of the book. Alto saxophonist and composer Donald Harrison will lead the band. Speakers will include Jonathan Demme, Nona Hendryx and Carl Hancock Rux.
Harrison, who is among the most important jazz musicians of my generation, is also uniquely qualified for this gig. Aside from leading jazz ensembles (he’ll lead a fine one at Symphony Space), he is, in his hometown of New Orleans, Big Chief of Congo Nation, which claims as its spiritual home Congo Square; enslaved Africans once drummed and danced there on Sundays, but until 2011, the city officially called the site “Beauregard Square,” in honor of a Confederate general.
Come join me on Oct. 28.
Meantime, here’s a brief interview with Ned and Constance Sublette.
When you two began working on this book, did you envision it in other forms?
Ned: We formally began work on it as a project in 2010. It took five years, plus now that it’s been out for a year we’ve been taking it around and doing events, so six years now. I hope this performance can be the beginning of a new cycle of events for it. Maybe we can even make it into a movie. Did you ever imagine the book would be so timely and resonant with daily news?
Ned: I think we did, though we didn’t know how it would play out. At the time we were more worried about getting lost in the Civil War sesquicentennial deluge of books, which is now over. I think the sesquicentennial was an interesting moment that — for the people who have been reading, paying attention, trying to understand — marked a new sophistication in our collective understanding of American history with slavery at its core.
It’s been astounding watching our book come to life in the news, in one way or another, in the last couple of years, right down to the third verse of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is in there. Every generation has different questions that they look to history to answer, and this is the history we need to know right now.
Also, between the greater availability of research material in the post-Google era and the investigations of a new generation of scholars, we’re seeing all kinds of historians do really interesting work. So I see this book as part of a movement of greater awareness of this issue.
Constance: During the course of researching this book I became more and more aware of our present situation as a war on people of color. I became aware of white privilege in a way I never had before. Why did you need to bring this from the page to the stage?
Ned: It seemed like a natural step to me. There are lots of people who are never going to read a 673-page book but who might sit down and watch a performance version.
I love the idea of discourse with music. I’ve been producing episodes of the public radio program Afropop Worldwide since 1990, and that’s what we do, juxtaposing narration and musical beds, so after 25 years of cross-fades, it seemed very natural for me to imagine our text flowing back and forth with music, kind of like a living audiobook or a radio version.
This is my fourth book, and I’ve learned that you have to go out and perform your book, one way or another, after it’s published, so from the very beginning of working on The American Slave Coast, I was thinking of how to perform it.
Constance: We had to comb out all the bits that would make no sense to an audience hearing it without the context of the whole book. Fortunately, we’ve been reading parts of the script ourselves on tour, which helped a lot and gave us a chance to workshop it a little. On our book tours, at every stop, always, the Q & A at the end of a reading was transformational of the content, with all the varieties of communities that were present at our events — brilliant, passionate, people with their own insights. Does this presentation change the meaning of The American Slave Coast?
Constance: No. But it adds the dimension of actually hearing the voices that are in our text. It’s a tapestry of voices, so we hear from slave narratives — Charles Ball, Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Louis Hughes — as well as a unique letter from 1853, written by a woman named Virginia Boyd who was being held for sale in a slave trader’s yard in Houston in 1853. And there are voices from the Fisk University and WPA oral histories. Plus everybody from Andrew Jackson to Karl Marx to contemporary scholars.
Ned: Second that. This is a really exciting group of speakers to work with. There exists an audiobook (from Tantor) of The American Slave Coast — no music, just straight narration by Robin Ray Eller — and it takes up, like, 25 CDs. So obviously we can’t cover but a small part of what’s in the book. In my mind the full musical version exists and I would happily go on staging scene after scene. Any idea what Donald Harrison will play?
Ned: I have no idea, other than that he’ll be working with a quintet that will have [guitarist/banjoist] Detroit Brooks and [pianist] Zaccai Curtis in it. I’ll hear the music the night before the show, and we’ll hear it together with the seven voices on the day of, and then we do it, and then it’s over. Blink and you miss it. We’ve talked in general terms about what he would do, but I don’t know how he will respond to those conversations or to the script. Whatever he does will by definition be right.
I remember Donald from when he used to live in Brooklyn. I’d seen him play with Eddie Palmieri a bunch of times. But I didn’t get to know him until Constance and I moved to New Orleans for a very significant year in 2004. When I saw him in action as a Big Chief on Mardi Gras day 2005, I was knocked out, and his post-Katrina 2006 procession was the setting for the finale of my book The World That Made New Orleans. I asked him if he would do this like, I don’t know, a couple of years ago, and he said yes. He was my first choice for composer, and I didn’t have a second choice. The way I see it, he brings the music, but he also brings moral authority. As do all the vocalists.