Keeping the Flame Burning
Musician scholars revisit Coltrane’s Africa/Brass in a celebration of the legacy of African American music
By Cheryl D. FieldsAMHERST, MASS. — French horns wail against crooning saxophones and blaring trumpets, while enigmatic euphoniums puff along to the sighs of a groaning bass, a lilting harp, and a soulful gospel choir. It is music that evokes images of the Motherland, the horrors of the Middle Passage, and the wretchedness of slavery. It also celebrates the triumphs of the African spirit in an often rude and inhospitable New World. As rapt listeners follow the Reggie Workman Ensemble through this aural odyssey, built around John Coltrane’s Africa/Brass, they weep, shout, and rise up in jubilant applause.Such was the scene last month when Workman and his band took their African American Legacy project on the road to perform at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and the First Unitarian Church in Philadelphia.“John Coltrane was a spiritual soul and so was his music,” says Workman, an internationally renowned jazz bassist and associate professor at Manhattan’s New School University. “I’m trying to combine the two things.”Workman was among the musicians who sat with Coltrane for the original all-night recording sessions of the Africa/Brass project, which were taped at the Van Gelder studio in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., on May 23 and June 4, 1961 — only six years before the composer’s death. Others sitting in on those historic sessions include: McCoy Tyner (piano), Elvin Jones (drums), Freddie Hubbard (trumpet), Cal Massey (composer), Eric Dolphy (alto saxophone, flute, and bass clarinet), Kiana Zawadi (euphonium), and Julian Priester (trombone).“[The Africa/Brass project] was a great creation, and we’re trying to revisit it and take it to the next level,” Workman says.The idea to resurrect Africa/Brass was germinated a couple of years ago when Workman was searching for projects to take on as part of his African American Legacy project. He soon discovered that copies of the original sheet music for Africa/Brass no longer existed. The last known copy had disappeared from the Eric Dolphy Museum during the civil unrest in Los Angeles a few years earlier. Undaunted, Workman turned to his musical colleague and fellow New School faculty member Charles Tolliver for help. Within a few weeks, Tolliver — a Howard University alumnus who is a composer, trumpet player, and bandleader — was able to transcribe the score by listening intently to the original recording sessions and consulting with those who played at the ’61 sessions. The result has breathed new life into a groundbreaking score some feared had been lost forever.In addition to the Africa/Brass compositions, the African American Legacy project features Workman’s Martyr’s Hymn, and Tolliver’s On the Nile. By combining Coltrane’s piece with these new works, and involving young as well as seasoned musicians, he says the true legacy of jazz is not only celebrated but advanced.“I have been in a number of different great groups,” Workman says. “But most people don’t associate me with projects of this magnitude. What I’m concerned about now, aside from learning from and developing younger musicians, is to establish myself as someone who wants to be a part of creating the music…. It is about developing toward the next project.”The Amherst performance launched the 10th anniversary of the university’s Magic Triangle jazz series. “[The concert] presented a rare opportunity to get some historical, multi-generational perspective on the music,” says Bob Antil, director of programming and residencies for the residential arts program of the University of Massachusetts Fine Arts Center. “Kudos to Reggie and Charles for their ability to assemble 21 musicians and the choir…. The multi-generational concept was particularly sweet. Our younger listeners left with a sense of awe. This may sound cliché, but it really was spiritually uplifting,” he says. The African American Legacy project made its world debut last fall at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond. It also has been performed in Washington, D.C. The Philadelphia performance included appearances by Coltrane’s widow Alice, a renowned pianist and harpist in her own right, and the couple’s sons Ravi and Oran, both of whom play saxophone.In keeping with the educational mission of the African American Legacy project, each performance also includes a tutorial component. Workman and Tolliver hold workshops for students of all ages, complete with curriculum materials which teachers can use to support the lectures. The ensemble also offers an open rehearsal, giving spectators a chance to observe the musicians as they prepare for each performance. And during the show, the musicians take time to discuss Coltrane’s legacy, the history of jazz, and the magic of the improvisational process.“[This] is the legacy that has been left to us by great composers, improvisers, and musicians who’ve come before and given us not just the music, but the art form itself, of which we are the keepers of the flame,” Workman says.nLeroy Henderson contributed to this story.
For more information about the African American Legacy project contact Reggie Marshall at: Mars Jazz Inc., 1376 Settlers Road, Charlottesville, Va. 22902; (phone) 804-979-6374;(fax) 804-970-2270; e-mail:<MarsJazz@rlc.net>; Web site <www.geocities.com/BourbonStreet/Delta/4719/main.html>.
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