The Independent Ear

Pianist Jon Jang’s latest justice project

Pianist-composer-bandleader Jon Jang is no newcomer to social justice issues, he’s taken up the mantle of human rights through his music, personal outlook & attitude, and in action for many seasons. Jon’s latest recording is certainly in the moment, exploring the historic interconnections and the current burning need for alliances between the African American and Asian American communities, titled The Pledge of Black/Asian Allegiance. Clearly some questions were in order for this deeply thoughtful, Bay Area-based artist.

What is your sense of the “Black Asian Allegiance” here in the 21st Century?
Thank you for having me Willard. As Malcolm X once said, “If you were born black, you were born in jail.” Black people in America have been enslaved 250 years and longer than they have been free. Black people built this country and it’s all in the poem, Why is We Americans? by Amiri Baraka.

Black people in America have been at the forefront in the struggle against systemic racism. From Frederick Douglass fighting against Chinese exclusion and fighting for Chinese immigrant rights to become US citizens to the Congressional Black Caucus standing first in line to support redress and reparations for Japanese Americans, black leaders have given strong ally-ship to Asian Americans.

How can Asian Americans become real allies to African Americans? First, we have to open up conversations and share each of our stories and histories.

Because Asian immigrant families have moved into black communities, there are tensions in the communities because both communities lack an understanding of each other’s history. There is also the problem of erasure. When I spoke at an African American art course at a university on the East Coast a few years ago, none of the black students knew anything about Nat Turner. I had a Chinese American Stanford University student who was born in the Philippines and didn’t know about the history of the Chinese workers who built the first transcontinental railroad hired by Stanford nor about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first legislation to ban Chinese immigrants solely on the basis of race.

During the 1970s, Asian Americans primarily Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Pilipino Americans and Korean Americans, developed a political consciousness inspired by the struggles of the Black Liberation Movement and the Civil Rights Movement which led to the birth of the Asian American Movement in solidarity with black, brown and red peoples.

Since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the United States has become more complicated because there is a more diverse population. Added to the Asian American four groups that I mentioned earlier, now we have Southeast Asians and South Asians and within those groupings there are sub groupings such as Vietnamese, Cambodian, Burmese. There are also class differences among and within these groups

Now that I am considered an elder OG (Original Gangsta) by Generation Y and Z Asian American activists, the younger generations face different circumstances and challenges. Their grandparents and parents may be immigrants who live in the same space. Their parents were taught, if taught at all, the American history from a white perspective and buy into the American Dream myth of equal opportunity. Young activist peers may also buy into that as well. There are Asian Americans who buy into the Model Minority myth created by White America to invalidate systemic racism of black and Latinx peoples.

About twenty years ago, Professor Claire Jean Kim developed the racial triangulation theory, which is based on the idea that race is a multidimensional field of positions that merges relative value and civic inclusion. The first example of racial triangulation occurred when Chinese were imported to avoid hiring newly freed blacks in the Reconstruction era. White Supremacist America applied the Model Minority trick when they praised Chinese immigrants for their supposed work ethic in contrast to white America’s stereotyping black people as lazy. I don’t remember a children’s song about the Chinese building the railroad, but I certainly remember John Henry.

In this moment, it is imperative that Asian Americans support H.R. 40 The Commission to Study and Develop Reparations Proposals for African American Act. Asian Americans must also support defunding the police to re-allocate funding and resources into providing free healthcare to black people, especially in the research and treatment of diabetes. Remember Eric Dolphy!

One of the lessons I learned from my mentors Wendell Logan and Bernice Johnson Reagon is that building Black Asian solidarity or any kind of solidarity between two or more distinctly different races of people takes time, patience, trust, troubled love and the ability to withstand discomfort. Solidarity doesn’t magically happen like in that song that I detest called We Are the World

You open the album with the piece “Yuri Kochiyama, Malcolm X!” Talk about the correlation of those two figures.
Yuri Kochiyama, a few years older than Malcolm X, invited Malcolm to her family apartment located in Harlem in October 1963. Yuri admired Malcolm from afar and was excited that he consented to her invitation. Yuri, her husband Bill and their six children had planned a gathering of Hibakusha women, survivors of the Atomic bomb in Hiroshima-Nagasaki who were writing about stories about their struggle and survival. Malcolm was a black revolutionary nationalist who was evolving into a black revolutionary internationalist. He spoke eloquently about Chinese American transnational history. Yuri, an integrationist, later evolved into a revolutionary internationalist and joined Malcolm’s Organization of Afro-American Unity as one of the few Asian American activists. Yuri Kochiyama made history. This diminutive Nisei (second generation Japanese American) woman was the nail that sticks up! To place that moment in its proper context, this came at a time before the birth of the term Asian American by UC Berkeley Asian American student activists and before the birth of the Asian American Movement in 1969. For the most part, Asian Americans were categorized as “Other” and often derisively called Orientals by white America.

After Malcolm X was assassinated in February 1965, I think Malcolm planted the seeds and transmitted his legacy to Yuri, as well as others. In my opinion as an artist/activist during the 1980s, Yuri Kochiyama carried Malcolm’s legacy through the lens of black revolutionary internationalism. It wasn’t so much of an identity thing for Yuri. She wasn’t trying to be black. Yuri was carrying part of the work envisioned by Malcolm X. In the composition, the 9 pitch melody performed by the saxophone and trombone is based on the 9 syllables of Yuri and Malcolm’s names.

Please illuminate your thinking as you wrote the 8 thematic originals you contributed to this recording.
The recording opens with two excerpts from my newly commissioned work, The Pledge of Black Asian Allegiance, Yuri Kochiyama, Malcolm X is a hybrid of Soran Bushi, the Japanese fishermen’s song from Hokkaido, and Bob Marley and Peter Tosh’s Get Up! Stand Up! I was inspired by Billy Harper’s unique rendering of Soran Bushi, on The Awakening the live recording of the Billy Harper Quintet in Paris in 1979, as well as Hitomi Oba’s unique rendition. 1973 was the pivotal year that I made the crucial decision to pursue music at the late age of 19 through Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Bruce Lee, McCoy Tyner and Bob Marley.

The second excerpt, The Nail That Sticks Up!, is dedicated to Yuri. It is inspired by Max Roach’s The Dream where Max performs a two part invention with the pre-recorded, I Have a Dream speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington in August 1963. I took a pre-recorded speech by Yuri Kochiyama about the history of black leaders supporting Asian Americans

Yank Sing Work Song is dedicated to the Yank Sing Restaurant workers, victims of wage theft and management abuse who won a 4 million dollar settlement. Min Xiao Fen, the virtuoso pipa (Chinese lute) performer, opens with a Cantonese (southern Chinese) melody while the double bass is playing a figure which is a hybrid of slow black funk and Cantonese. Inspired by Miles Davis Bitches Brew recording, the rhythm section shifts to a faster tempo.

Jasmine Among the Magnolias is based on Beautiful Jasmine Flowers (Mo Li Hu), the first Chinese folk song brought over to the United States in 1800. Our unique treatment is a hybrid of this popular Chinese song within a contemporary black gospel ballad context. The work pays tribute to Frederick Douglass and Senator Blanche Kelson Bruce who fought for Chinese immigrant rights to become US citizens.

Flower Drum Song (Fengyang Hua Gu) has been considered among the most well-known Chinese traditional songs. Flower Drum Song originated from the Anhui Province, an area in east-central China known for its long history of suffering of poverty and famine during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 A.D.). The Flower Drum Song featured a husband and wife duo that “begged” and earned money by performing the Flower Drum Song and dance. The wife performed also on a small “flower” drum and the husband on gong. Similar to the black tradition of the “dozens,” the second part of the song featured a playful exchange of insults. Here is an example of the dozens in the Flower Drum Song, “My wife is ugly because she has big feet.” Here is an example of the dozens in the black tradition, “Your mama’s feet so big, she needs to wear a license plate.”

The next three works are part of a suite that I composed entitled, Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter! commissioned by the San Francisco Arts Commission. The work is a collaboration with poet performer Dr. Amanda Kemp. The first piece, Hands Up! Don’t Shoot! pays homage to Michael Brown. The opening 14 note phrased is based on the 14 syllable phrase, “Hands up! Don’t shoot! I want to live! Hands up! Don’t shoot!

The second piece, More Motherless Children, pays homage to the nine black victims at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. I selected the black spiritual, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, because six of the victims were mothers and grandmothers. Max Roach and Wendell Logan, who were two of my mentors, passed on this tradition to me. Max Roach recorded Motherless Child dedicated to Marcus Garvey on Max Roach’s recording, Lift Every Voice and Sing. When White American musicologist George Pullen Jackson stated that black spirituals were based on white hymns, Dr. Logan argued with the response, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child could not and did not come from a white hymn.

The third and final piece of Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter! is entitled Why Did They Have to Shoot Him So Many Times? This work pays homage to Mario Woods, the 26 year black man who was shot twenty times and killed execution style by four San Francisco police officers. None of them were punished. During the process of composing Can’t Stop Cryin’ for America: Black Lives Matter!, there were more parts and the music sounded different. There was a part about Eric Garner and Laquan McDonald. But something happened. Poet performer Dr. Amanda Kemp, who has two black sons in their twenties, and I became depressed as we developed the work. Why Did They Have to Shoot Him So Many Times? changed from a piece about Mario Woods to a roll call and meditation of black victims legally lynched by the police.

Tell us about the musicians you chose to record this work.
First, multiple percussionist Deszon Claiborne and double bassist Gary Brown have performed in my ensembles for over a decade. I always search first for a rhythm section. In the book, Notes and Tones: Musician to Musician Interviews by drummer Art Taylor, Miles Davis was asked the question, “How do you go about picking a drummer for your band?” Miles replied, “First I look at my ding!” Miles explained the importance of a drummer’s reaction skill with what’s going on with the phrasing similar to the metaphor of a boxer. When Deszon and Gary perform the music, they performed with an attitude.

Saxophonist/composer Hitomi Oba and trombonist/composer Nick DePinna represent the latest group of musicians who have studied with my dear friend and collaborator James Newton. With James and me, it has been an unbroken thread where musicians who have studied with him such as Lenon Honor, Marcus Shelby, Hitomi and Nick have collaborated with me.

Jon & frequent collaborator flutist-composer James Newton

I saw a YouTube clip of Hitomi performing when she was in high school. Damn, she had a unique sound. She didn’t sound like what a jazz saxophonist should sound like. But she did. Maxine Hong Kingston taught me, “Learn to make your mind large, as large as the universe so there is room for paradox.”

I love performing with David Murray because he has such an original, honest sound. But that doesn’t mean he is not schooled in the tradition. I saw him give a lecture at the San Francisco Art Institute and he listed on the blackboard thirty important saxophonists such as Ben Webster, Coleman Hawkins, Sidney Bechet and Paul Gonsalves. David lectured and demonstrated their sonic contributions on his saxophone.

Now back to Hitomi, as well as Nick DePinna. Both of them have a very broad vision and their musicianship is on a very high level. Most important they have an attitude to advance the music driven by whatever it takes. I heard a work composed by Nick that was technically difficult. But it wasn’t technically difficult for the sake of being technically difficult. Like in many of James Newton’s works, it is about making an honest and truthful musical statement. “What can replace Opus?”

What was your sense of closing this album with “Butterfly Lovers Song” followed by the familiar theme “You’ll Never Walk Alone?”

During the 1980s, my unique rendering of the Butterfly Lovers Song was the outcome of my artist activist connections with various mass movement work such as the Jesse Jackson Presidential Campaign and the Rainbow Coalition, as well as the mass movement work in the Chinese Progressive Association (CPA). As a result, the Butterfly Lovers Song became a hybrid and merger of two different music traditions: black music and Chinese music.

Jesse Jackson was the first Presidential candidate to speak in San Francisco Chinatown. Jesse Jackson spoke on many occasions at Portsmouth Square. Jesse Jackson also addressed Asian American issues such as the Justice for Vincent Chin campaign and the anti-immigrant Simpson-Mazzoli Act. Whenever there was a space with a piano, Francis Wong and I would perform Country Preacher, which was the anthem for Reverend Jackson that was recorded live by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet in 1969 at an Operation Breadbasket event in Chicago hosted by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

In the Fall of 1988, the Chinese Progressive Association was planning to celebrate our 16th anniversary at the New Asia Restaurant in San Francisco Chinatown. Chinese Progressive Association director Mabel Teng requested that I learn to perform the Butterfly Lovers Song for the Chinese immigrant audience. Because I never heard of the song, I asked Mabel if she could give a recording of it. She didn’t have a recording

I was forced to haphazardly comb the merchant stores on Grant Avenue, the main street in San Francisco Chinatown in search of a cassette tape recording of the Butterfly Lovers Song. Because I did not speak Cantonese, the merchants could not understand what I was looking for. I tried flapping my arms like Morris Day and The Time performing The Bird to illustrate the butterfly flutter. Unfortunately, my bird flapping was too good as the merchant showed me a tape cassette recording cover of birds flying. A day before the banquet, a CPA member had a vinyl recording of the Butterfly Lovers Song to lend to me. By listening to the recording, I learned the song overnight.

After I performed the Butterfly Lovers Song at the New Asia Restaurant, I could hear the waiters singing the melody. I also wrote an arrangement of the Butterfly Lovers Song for all of my ensembles that merges the Butterfly Lovers Song with Jesse Jackson’s anthem, Country Preacher.

In both the legend about the Butterfly Lovers Song, there is a strong narrative about Chinese women whose acts of resistance defy Chinese patriarchal feudalism. In the legend part which dates back to the Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 AD -420 AD), a young woman disguises herself as a man as an act of resistance to the patriarchal feudal practice that only men could study in schools. The young woman disguised as a man meets a young man and he quickly learns that she is a woman and they both fall in love. However, because of the arranged marriage custom, they were forced to separate. The young man dies of a broken heart. As an act of resistance of the feudal practice of the arranged marriage custom, the woman goes to the grave site and leaps in where they reincarnate as butterflies. This is not only an act of symbolic transformation but also freedom. It was appropriate to feature Hitomi Oba, an Asian American woman saxophonist who display her creativity informed by the nuanced “pipa” gestures she heard performing with pipa virtuoso Min Xiao Fen.

I chose to close with the Butterfly Lovers Song for two reasons: 1) The song expresses the symbolic transformation of the tensions of Black American communities and Asian American communities into solidarity. 2) I wanted my new works to be heard first particular to my loyal listeners who have heard the seven different recorded versions by different ensembles! (Laughter)

I also ended with You’ll Never Walk Alone for two reasons: 1) Because it was a solo piano performance, I wanted to separate from the Jon Jangtet repertory. 2) Because my mon passed away three years ago, I performed her favorite piece at her Celebration of Life. This was my musical farewell/send off to her, my dad, my grandparents and my ancestors

What is your sense of alliance building between African Americans and Asian Americans -and what positive alliances are you seeing and experiencing – in these troubled times?

It has existed and is well documented in the Asian Improv Nation family during the past four decades. I have performed and recorded with James Newton, David Murray and Max Roach. Francis Wong recorded with John Tchicai and recently with Bobby Bradford, William Roper and Ari Brown. In Chicago, Francis and Tatsu Aoki share a long history of collaboration with Mwata Bowden, Ed Wilkerson and other black and Asian American artists. Continuing with the Black Asian Chicago California collaboration, the late Los Angeles based pianist/shamisen performer/ composer Glenn Horiuchi (1955-2000) recorded with Joseph Jarman and performed with Wadada Leo Smith.

The next generation of Asian American composer-improvisors made an impact when they moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to New York. I attended a concert where Vijay Iyer, whose first two recordings were on Asian Improv Records, performed a work to pay tribute to Eric Garner. Vijay has also collaborated with the most important black artists of our time such as George Lewis, Wadada Leo Smith, and Steve Coleman. One of the strongest interpretations of Thelonious Monk’s music was recorded by Miya Masaoka in collaboration with Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille. Jen Shyu recently performed an homage to Breonna Taylor

As far as positive alliances today in these troubled times in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Chinese Progressive Association, a grass roots multigenerational organization based in Chinatown which was founded in 1972, has been a longtime ally of black struggles from the Jesse Jackson Presidential Campaigns during the 1980s to Black Lives Matter the past few years. Advancing Justice -Asian Law Caucus is an important mainstream organization where Audee Holman Kochiyama, one of Yuri-Kochiyam’s daughters, is on the staff. #Asians4BlackLives, a Pan Asian organization, represents one of the important young voices in the moment and for the future.

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Pat Metheny interview

On the occasion of his 66th birthday (August 12, 2020), here’s a reprise of our June 2017 interview with NEA Jazz Master Pat Metheny.

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Jazz TV in pandemic times

Back in the 90s I enjoyed ten years with the former 24-hour jazz television service known as BET Jazz. After a few years participating in and hosting several video-performance powered jazz shows, including the Jazz Discovery talent show, BET Jazz head Paxton Baker asked me to develop a jazz education-based program which became JazzEdTV. The original footage for that show came from the then-annual Thelonious Monk Institute’s partnership with the Jazz Aspen Snowmass festival organization, to produce The JAS Thelonious Monk Institute Jazz Colony program.

That program, which produced an impressive number of today’s important jazz contributors, selected gifted young jazz studies students from across the globe to come to Aspen and Snowmass, CO for a 2-week intensive of small and large ensemble rehearsals, master classes with artists such as Herbie Hancock, Ray Barretto, Joe Lovano, Nathan Davis, Christian McBride, Lewis Nash, Nicholas Payton and others, and evening concerts by those masters and the students, sometimes in collaboration. My assignment was to conduct interviews with students and masters, and work with the video crew capturing the performances. Once back in DC I worked with BET Jazz’s editing staff to assemble my weekly, 60-minute JazzEd programs engaging the Jazz Colony footage.

To give you an example of the caliber of students invited to participate in this education camp, in ’99 the class included bassist Vicente Archer, pianist Martin Berjerano, drummers Otis Brown lll and Damion Reid, trombonist Vincent Chandler, trumpeters Avishai Cohen and Charlie Porter, saxophonists Patrick Cornelius and Walter Smith lll, trombonist Andre Hayward, vocalist Lisa Henry, guitarist Randy Napoleon among the student aspirants. Also in that class was a slender, unassuming alto saxophonist from Montreal named Joseph Omicil, who professionally would go by Jowee Omicil.

In 2016 I caught Jowee’s band several times at the jazz festival in Bari, Italy, a port city on the Adriatic Sea. Fast forward to our pandemic world and what for many of us in our first few weeks of shutdown/quarantine were times of peek television binge watching. Netflix was a welcome streaming oasis with it’s variety of series and documentaries. One evening we came upon a new Netflix series called The Eddy whose descriptions suggested that jazz music was a major component and whose director was the notable Damien Chazille. So we checked it out and saw immediately that a Paris jazz club was the setting, the musicians performing there clearly were not miming their playing, and the music was original and compelling. To top it off, I immediately became excited because occupying the frontline on saxophones was the same Jowee Omicil! After binge-watching The Eddy over several evenings, I reached out to Jowee with some questions.

The Eddy DESCRIPTION: The owner of a Paris jazz club gets tangled up with dangerous criminals as he fights to protect his business, his band and his teenage daughter.

Jowee, give us the story of The Eddy in a nutshell.
The Eddy is a story of a club owner – Eliat – and his collaborator, Taha Rahim. They had a dream when they were younger to open up a jazz club in Paris, and they did so. The Eddy is the group that is in residence at the club called The Eddy. The music is written by Glen Ballard and Randy Kerber, and The Eddy is Lada Obradovic on drums [editor’s note: she becomes part of The Eddy storyline – particularly from an interesting musical perspective – when she splits from the band, in a dispute with the clubowner, then returns], Damian Nueva on bass, Ludovic Louis on trumpet, Randy Kerber on piano, Joanna Kulig on vocals, Jowee Omicil on sax.

What would you tell our readers about the basic plot of The Eddy? I read a newspaper article that described The Eddy as a “jazz story.” My sense is that while jazz is a central force, this is not exactly a jazz story.
The plot: I would tell them they need to watch it to see the plot. To me it’s a good plot. I read a newspaper description of the show and described it as a “jazz show.” Exactly, it’s a jazz show because the idiom, the vehicle is jazz music – in different styles, but jazz. The story is not necessarily a jazz story, I don’t want to spoil the suspense… but it’s a story with jazz in it.

How did you come to be one of the band members cast in The Eddy?
I was referred by different people and also I did a casting and when I did a casting I got all the objectives, the qualifications they needed for the character, and that was a blessing.

I understand all of the band members on the show are professional musicians; talk about how you all came together as a band. Had you played with any of these musicians previously?
Yes, the musicians are all professionals. Yes, I had played with some of them previously, I played with Ludevic Louis on a TV show a couple of months before we joined the band, and I jammed with Damian Nueva, but I never played with Randy. But Randy and I did a jam prior to the band rehearsal, and I played a little bit with Lada, but we never played together before the show. Joanna was welcome!

Did you get the sense that the producers of The Eddy were striving for jazz authenticity in the show?
Yes, they strived for jazz authenticity, that’s why they brought in musicians who can play jazz. That’s something I honor because we got to play live, we were not overdubbing or miming, we were actually playing live; only the solos were improvised. But the arrangements we had to learn them by heart and we did so. I commend the directors for doing that, the authenticity of jazz.

What has playing and acting in The Eddy meant to your overall career pursuits?
For me it’s a great honor to have been able to act at this time in my life and career, because it’s an honor, and not only is it an honor, it’s a privilege and I learned so much. I learned to develop different emotions from the inside, not necessarily from the outside, because pretty much we think that acting comes from the outside – ‘the person is acting, the movement of their body…’ – but that’s not what it’s all about. Your emotion can come just from your facial expression, without you even moving. We must not forget I’m a big fan of movies with no sounds – with sounds, but no voice, like Charlie Chapman’s movies, only with music – the characters were only gesticular. That’s a part of acting that I really like, and I learned so much, more than I can describe in one answer.

Has The Eddy been renewed for a second season?
Not that I know of, but there are so many articles being written [asking] if Season Two is coming. So I will use the hashtag #SeasonTwoOfTheEddyComingSoon because the people are really asking. But you know with the Corona pandemic, we got hurt in terms of planning, recording, and so forth. But we’ve been blessed, we recorded the first season, and we are expecting a Season Two, but the people are asking [for a second season]… So what do we say? ‘Give the people what they want’ [laughs]. I’m blessed and grateful to answer your questions!


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Regina Carter’s message to the Swing States

After a bit of an absence from the recording studios, the perennial poll-winning violinist, MacArthur Foundation “genius” award recipient, and one of the finest people in contemporary music, the incandescent violinist Regina Carter has a brand new release. In keeping with these roiling times, thematically Regina’s new release “Swing States” takes her social justice message to the election booth. With a unique cast of musicians that includes trumpeter John Daversa, pianist Jon Batiste, Alexis Cuadrado and Kabir Sehgal on bass, and the great Harvey Mason on drums, Regina stresses the extreme importance of what some have termed the most important election in our lifetimes, the 2020 Presidential election.

Fresh off a splendid duo performance with her spouse, drummer Alvester Garnett, as part of DC JazzFest’s recently concluded virtual series Live From Our Living Rooms, comes “Swing States.” Clearly some questions were in order for Regina Carter, a true virtuoso musician and someone whose career arc this writer has had the pleasure of observing since her early days in the Detroit-centric all-woman ensemble known as Straight Ahead.

It’s been about three years since your previous release, your tribute to Ella Fitzgerald “Ella, Accentuate the Positive.” What have you been doing in the interim in terms of planning your next release?
The most difficult part for me in making a record is deciding on the message or subject, as most of my projects are theme based, highlighting matters that are significant to me. I had been
researching music and materials for a couple of ideas but the “Swing States” project was a priority.

Talk about your motivation behind this new release, “Swing States” and the social justice implications of this project, and how you chose the repertoire to perform on this date.
A friend and I were discussing how dark and divided the country has become and the topic came up about voting and those who choose not to vote.

When my brothers and I were children, my parents instilled in us the importance of voting and made sure we comprehended the fact that many people were beaten, killed and hosed while marching for the right for Black people to vote. Before each election, I remember my parents researching and discussing the candidates running and the issues. Voting was not an option in our household.

That conversation sparked the idea for this project, “Swing States”.

How did you go about assembling your Freedom Band to make this new recording?
I had a little help from my friends (smile). I collaborated with a few of the musicians on other projects and also thought it would be interesting to team up with some other swing state artists.

“Swing States” seems like quite the timely project, given all that is going on in this country in the wake of the George Floyd police killing. But clearly this is a record you’ve been planning and working toward well before our current social justice reckoning. What are the implications for this project with all that is going on here in summer 2020?

Voter suppression, especially in African American communities, racism and Black people being disproportionately killed by police are not new injustices in this country and the racist rhetoric spewed by the current occupant of the White House has played a role in encouraging violence. It is extremely important for ALL of us to be vigilant, educate ourselves about issues and exercise our right to vote, especially now; not knowing or caring about our core freedoms is the fastest way to lose them.

Forced to stay home for months during the pandemic and being glued to the news, everyone witnessed a huge dose of the ugliness and inequities of this country in full display.

Ultimately what do you hope your listeners will take away from experiencing this “Swing States” project?
I hope people will enjoy the music but I also hope it will inspire people to vote.

We recorded arrangements of several state songs from places that will ultimately determine the 2020 election; (Georgia) “Georgia On My Mind”, (Florida) “Swanee River” and “Dancing in the Street”, (Michigan) that became an anthem for the civil rights movement.

In light of the pandemic it may be a minute before you’re able to tour this work. However based on your high class duo presentation with Alvester Garnett during the recent DC Jazz Festival/Live From Our Living Rooms series, you seem quite comfortable performing online in the virtual realm. Do you get a sense that we’ll be in this virtual performance mode for some time to come, and if so how do you plan on working in this mode going forward?
Thank you, we had a great time performing at the festival! I’m thankful the online platforms exist so artists, venues, etc. can earn some income during this period. It is an odd experience though, performing in front of a computer, not seeing anyone or feeling the audience’s energy. That exchange that happens between performer and audience is crucial, but for the time being, performing virtually is our reality and I think it’s going to be this way for some time, unfortunately. Because the virtual platform is a world stage, we can’t present the same project every appearance as if on tour, artists have to be creative in what we present each time and that’s an exciting challenge.

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For the love of big band

With the release of her latest recording, For the Love of Big Band, vocalist-producer-educator Lenora Zenzalai Helm not only provides a sturdy signpost of her current artistic outlook, she has also successfully incorporated significant elements of her full-time jazz education work in the mix. Clearly this recording represents a bit of a milestone in Lenora’s career, so with those elements in mind some questions were obviously in order.

What compelled you to go the big band route for your latest recording?
I was compelled to go the big band route on this recording for a lot of reasons. I am a planner and after reflection about a recording project surmised this was an obvious next step. I’ve been thinking about the field and my obligation as a jazz educator, and I am focusing more on my unexplored areas of training. A nine-year recording hiatus is a long time to be away from the scene. I was thinking quite intently on what was unexpressed and unexplored in my discography. I didn’t want to do much of what I had in the previous six recordings. I felt compelled to go the route of a big band recording because It was the only ensemble configuration for which I had not yet released a project. I have sung with big bands as a guest artist in the past and the experience whet my appetite for being an integral component of a big band. In my current role as a professor in the Jazz Studies program at NCCU, the big band, (NCCU Jazz Ensemble) is a central component of the program. I’m the director of the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and we often tour with the big band. My awareness and love for the big-band sound and repertoire grew from working in that setting since 2005.

I’ve had a lot of time to hear the repertoire, and my burning question was and is, where are the women vocalist big-band leaders? There are many women instrumentalists or women instrumentalists who may sing and who lead or led big bands, (Carla Bley, Toshiko Akioshi, Melba Liston, Bertha Hope, Carline Ray are a few names that come to mind). It is not generally thought of a woman vocalist as a big-band leader. This was troubling for me. The deeper I dug, the more curious I became.

We know of Ella Fitzgerald’s history as the leader of the Chick Webb Orchestra after he passed away. We know of Billy Eckstine’s Orchestra as vocalist/bandleader. The typical scenario is of a women vocalist working as a guest of a big band, but the documentation about women vocalist big-band leaders is scant. It doesn’t mean that none existed, just not well documented.

Working in jazz education has formed many questions of the field. I really am laying a foundation for the work I want my next decade to be about. When I graduated Berklee in ’82, my degree in hand, I looked for women in jazz to model or hold in mind as mentors. I had a conversation with Betty Carter around that time, backstage after her concert at Berklee Performance Center. I told her I wanted to sing Jazz. She looked me up and down and stared at me for what seemed an eternity (lol) and said, “it is hard . . really hard.” I shook my head yes, in understanding.

I held onto her words and vowed to do what it takes. She was the closest example I had at that time of a woman musician and bandleader that I had a chance to meet and ask questions. Though her advice was minimal, It was something to put in my hat. You can’t underestimate how important it is that up-and-coming musicians have examples of what is possible for them. I’ve just learned I earned promotion and tenure in my role at North Carolina Central University. I will start this fall 2020 as an Associate Professor, Jazz Studies. A seven year, all up-hill journey. Man! I expect to defend my dissertation also by this fall semester to complete my DMA. If I am successful, I will finally be “Dr. Hammonds.” It is a demarcation of sorts for me. I’ve been asking myself, “what else do you want to accomplish?” I like challenges.

The Tribe Jazz Orchestra is a new frontier. Twice now I’ve directed the band while another singer, Nina Simone’s daughter Lisa Simone, performed. It was great working with Lisa. She’s a consummate professional. Conducting the band for another singer was also very interesting. I was able to focus on just the conducting role and hear the band without having to concentrate on singing. I loved it!! I certainly welcome another opportunity for another singer to hire my orchestra to perform and I conduct/arrange/compose.

Being new to the sound as a sculptor of the energy and power a big band holds, I’ve a lot to learn and develop in my musical sensibility and expression. I’m ready to do more arranging and composing. That is my intent going forward. Not many people know that my first degree is in film scoring (Bachelor of Music from Berklee College of Music in film scoring/voice). I have unheard compositions and arrangements for ensembles of all size – including orchestral music. I have not really delved a lot into my background as an arranger and composer. It’s time. I’m “easing my toe in” so to speak with this recording, but it doesn’t include any of my own big-band arrangements, just lyrics. In fact, I sent the record to my musical “little brother” Orrin Evans, who called me after listening and said, “where is your music!” I had to laugh out loud. I love when my folk keep me honest. (shout out to Orrin!). This is very much a project I thought deeply about and journaled about though, and as the clarity came about for the repertoire, the cats to call, I felt more confident that this was my next phase. I actually started putting it together about 2 years ago when I was on a Fulbright in Denmark. Shortly after returning I did a “test” run at a jazz spot in Durham. I fell in love with the sound and energy of big band. So, yeah. Full speed ahead. Solidified the players, the live recording space and engineer (the most important selection for a live recording!), did a successful crowd-funding campaign and here we are. Grateful!

Am I correct in assuming that the personnel on this record is a mix of students and professionals? How did that come together as you planned this date?
Well, there is kind of a little story behind that choice, to have students and professionals together on this project. Dr. Billy Taylor was my out-the-gate example of a jazz musician who is also an educator. When I first began working at NCCU, I remember cornering Dr. Taylor at an IAJE event, sharing with him what I was working on with the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble (VJE). After I exhausted my list of songs and exercises hoping he would say, “well done,” instead he asked, “but are you teaching them the history? With each song, make sure they know the history!” As I thought about the opportunity to teach through the music in this record, I chose to include the students in every aspect of the process. I discussed my song choices, invited my classes to rehearsals, and for the singers from NCCU VJE, had them learn some of my charts to rehearse with the big band.I believe in helping young musicians thrive.

It is really about “walking the talk” and facilitating how they learn the real-world experience for which we propose our classroom work prepares them. For the Love of Big Band provided the perfect opportunity because my vision was to feature a multigenerational, diverse lineup with regard to gender, race and experience. That’s what a tribe is. Not everyone in the village is the same, but the sum makes the whole rich. Because I’m a jazz educator, I am ensconced in the village where student musicians are amidst the professionals. They come to our gigs; we go to theirs. I think it provides a sense of being part of a continuum. So, Tribe Jazz Orchestra, to be true to its name, would need to include the entire strata of folk. Having students working alongside professionals on this record was also part of the intention for the project.

I think all professional musicians should have at least one student on their recordings or tours. Can you imagine the difference in the outcome of the coming generations if they don’t all have to learn everything by trial and error? There is a very valuable experience to be gleaned from being a fly on the wall or sitting alongside a pro or elder on the bandstand and in the recording booth. Invaluable! The student’s level of performance changes, up-leveled far beyond what the classroom or private studio lessons can do for them. It is the basic, “each one, teach one” axiom. Betty Carter is an example of jazz education from the bandstand. I thought this record date could be multi-generational, and that could only be achieved by finding outstanding students who deserved a chance to sit alongside professionals. What better way to learn how to put a record together unless
someone walks you through the process, whether as a fly on the wall, or intentional conversations?

As you planned this record date, what was your sense of combining a jazz orchestra and a modern chamber ensemble?
Well the modern chamber ensemble is for me an arrangers’ ideal “sandbox” of textures and colors. It requires the musicians to listen differently and respond differently because you have fewer bandmates (less than 10). The big band arrangements on For the Love of Big Band have sections that are paired down to just some of the members. This unit-within-a-unit approach provides various landscapes of rhythm and color to play with, so the vocals can weave around, up and down, and the listener has a bit of a break to the wall of sound when the whole band is playing. Two of the selections are recorded as singles, Stella By Starlight and A Conversation with God with the Tribe Jazz Orchestra Septet, the latter also appearing on the record as a big band version.

I learned this idea from Andrew Hill, and also from the writing of Duke Ellington. I was on the JazzPar tour with Andrew Hill and had a chance to listen to him maneuver his compositions with an octet (I was the +1 on the Andrew Hill Jazz Par Octet +1 album). Just fascinated with what he achieved with that ensemble instrumentation. I’m sure I will do a lot more of this kind of writing — modern chamber ensemble with jazz orchestra. In a modern chamber ensemble, it is understood that strings may be included or other non-traditional instrumentation. For instance, I love the sound of bass clarinet, cello and flute. Our cellist on the two septet pieces is Tim Holley who plays with a subtle beauty that in many moments is like a whisper. Yes, very much intrigued by what is in front of me, but again so grateful for what we achieved on For the Love of Big Band.

Considering this large ensemble context, how did you go about selecting the songs?
I selected every song! I guess you could say I cherry-picked the selections from my “I’ve always wanted to sing ________” list. On For the Love of Big Band I wanted the blues to be front and center, no matter what style we were playing. I chose songs that would allow the big band to be as phat in sound, and fun in feel as possible. Love that swagger of the blues with all that power of the horns! I’ve managed to program a Duke Ellington composition on every record, on this one we have two, I Didn’t Know About You, and Everything But You. I included the former even though it appears on my I Love Myself When I’m Laughing recording to see what it would afford itself with a big band arrangement. I spent a weekend with several women musicians from North Carolina to honor Nina Simone in spring of 2018 when I was invited to perform for a fundraiser to save her childhood home in Tryon, NC.

It was a big event with several organizations coming together to make it happen. The occasion caused me to travel deep into her discography and I pulled out Blues for Mama and Mississippi Goddam (arranged by pianist Lydia Salett Dudley who also participated in that event). I’ve been intrigued by Ms. Simone my entire career. I recorded her version of I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl on my Chronicles of a Butterfly release and No Images on my Voice Paintings release, but the thought of Nina Simone songs with big band gave me goosebumps just thinking about it. They are two of my favorite pieces on For the Love of Big Band. I wanted to focus only on singing for this project, and managing the entire production of 40 people, so I hired some of my favorite big band arrangers.

Saxophonist/composer/arranger Brian Horton, our guest conductor, has five arrangements on For the Love of Big Band; Soul Eyes, Blues for Mama, I Didn’t Know About You and No More Blues for the big band, and with the septet, Stella by Starlight. I have always loved the writing of trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater. I think his writing is so intuitive and always swinging. His arrangements on For the Love of Big Band are Bebop by Dizzy Gillespie (with vocalist Deborah Brown’s lyrics), It Could Happen To You and Sandu. He did another arrangement for me of a Betty Carter tune that I’m saving for the next record. Lastly, anyone who knows me knows I am a huge John Coltrane fan and usually include a Coltrane piece on my recordings. I had a former student who is now a colleague, vocalist/arranger Maurice Myers, to arrange a vocalese for the NCCU Vocal Jazz Ensemble, as well as join me to sing the duet on Coltrane’s Dear Lord, which with my lyric is titled A Conversation with God. We were going for the sound of jazz orchestra and jazz choir. The piece was a logistical challenge and I’m most grateful for the tenacity of our engineer Rob Hunter. He is just brilliant – on loan to me for this project from Branford Marsalis. Most grateful (shout out to Bran!). One of my mentors whom I had the privilege of recording with on my release Precipice, is pianist/composer Stanley Cowell. He re-imagined Gershwin’s But Not For Me on For the Love of Big Band, (which he recorded with me on my previous trio release Precipice. When I called and asked him about doing the big band arrangement he didn’t hesitate. Love me some Stanley! Just a beautiful cat and a brilliant musician.

How do you see this record as a departure from your earlier records?
One departure on this record from earlier records is not having any of my own compositions or arrangements. I regret that I had none of my original compositions on the record as in past recordings, though I do have my original lyrics to John Coltrane’s composition Dear Lord. I stayed focused on my singing and bandleader role. It was a new hat and a lot of responsibility. I wanted to enjoy the opportunity to immerse myself in the sound of such a large ensemble to express my love for swing and the blues. I focused on bringing a new experience for my listeners of my voice with a large ensemble. I tried to really dig into the interpretation of songs I love and how my vocal sound engaged with the energy of the horns. Another departure is the way you use and engage with your rhythm section. A rhythm section drives a big band (I’m learning it is the secret sauce) and those players have a particular intention in each arrangement. I was very focused on all of that. In previous records I thought more about each composition from the story, then the sound. With a big band, I thought about the sound AND the story as hand-in-glove. I
am excited to explore that relationship in future recordings. This will be the unit I work with over these next few years and subsequent records. I feel like a kid in a candy store.

What role did your jazz education career play in producing this record?
I am very much the kind of person who will bloom where I’m planted. I’m the kind of educator who enjoys the process and environment. I enjoy the privilege – and it is indeed a privilege to assist someone on a creative journey — of guiding new and
emerging jazz musicians to hear and see themselves in the continuum. The Tribe Jazz Orchestra project could only happen at this time in my career, because of my jazz education experiences. My musical awareness and interest were aroused differently from my previous years in NYC as a working and touring musician. There were no big-band leaders my age, really, especially vocalists. I didn’t think about having or leading a big band – only as a passing fancy to sing with one. Mentors also guided my decision for this project. Some directly, others indirectly. Jazz education and my jazz education career played a huge part in producing this
record, as I’m thinking about the response to this question. Of course, Dr. Ira Wiggins’ invitation to accept a position to build the vocal component at NCCU is pivotal. Wiggins (or Doc as we all affectionately call him), has carved out a sound that is legendary amongst HBCU big bands. (We were proud to be one of the ten inaugural big bands at the 2020 Jack Rudin Collegiate Big Band Championship at Jazz at Lincoln Center this year.)

I watched Andrew Hill, Dr. Billy Taylor, Stanley Cowell and Mr. Jimmy Heath carve a sound through their compositions for big bands, chamber ensembles, smaller groups. They all mesmerized and intrigued me because my question was always, “how can I get some of that?” LOL! Stellar musicianship, great writers, leadership in their roles in academia, musicians’ musicians. I aspire to be like them as a woman big band leader, musician, composer, arranger, academe.

In thinking about this answer Willard, here we are at the same conundrum. Again, where are the women? Jazz education has a terrible track record, lacking representation in women jazz educators. Plenty of women vocal jazz educators. Not many lead big bands, teach theory or arranging for instance, or have leadership roles in the Jazz Studies departments or programs. I know pianist Geri Allen was a director of Jazz Studies, pianist Dee Spencer, and Jeri Brown I think was the only woman vocalist that led a jazz program, now flutist Nicole Mitchell heads a Jazz Studies unit (University of Pittsburgh) as a woman director. And, I have a ton of respect for Roxanne Stevenson, (who directs the big band at Chicago State). We have to do better about clearing the way to equity of women represented in Jazz period.

The musicians on this record are all from your home area in the Raleigh-Durham area. Some folks sleep that part of the country as far as jazz and its jazz musicians, but what would you tell those folks about jazz talent in that area?
I believe that jazz has to have tradition, of swing and the blues. In North Carolina, there is a deep and rich tapestry of musicians who come out of the church tradition, and the blues tradition. A lot of what you hear from musicians in our area, especially younger musicians, is a result of the many universities that teach jazz. Dr. Ira Wiggins, Director of Jazz Studies at NCCU has influenced several generations of musicians in the Durham area for instance, and for a long time UNCC was the only place to earn a Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies, and the first to have a Master of Music in Jazz Studies, not only at an HBCU, but in the state. You hear that legacy on my record, as many of the musicians (faculty and alums) are in my band. I came to North Carolina from New York kicking and screaming, but I’m happy I did. I thought I would lose whatever I assumed you get only in NYC to be a “real jazz musician.” Happily, what I did was assimilate into what felt very familiar to my Chicago, (South-Side) roots.

There is a true sound here in North Carolina. Think about the musicians from here: John Coltrane, Jimmy Heath, Roberta Flack, Thelonious Monk, Max Roach. The sound expressed itself on the record was organic. It wasn’t something we discussed beforehand and declared to any of the musicians to try and achieve. I attribute it to those deep church roots. The jazz musicians who choose to pay homage to the blues in their playing perform with a soulfulness that is palatable.

Dr. Wiggins and Brian Horton are both from Kinston, NC and there is a legacy of music from that region (think of James Brown’s saxophonist Maceo Parker). Reedman Brian Miller has a big, fat beautiful tenor sound, which you can also in his alto playing. Ameen Saleem (longtime bassist with Roy Hargrove) has that consistent phat sound, as does Lynn Grissett on trumpet – searing and soulful, he puts his stamp on his solos, and you instantly know to which tradition he pays homage. I could go through each chair in the band, all having ties to North Carolina, and concurrent threads through playing in church, maybe paying dues in NYC, and having experience in pop, soul and R&B. Lynn Grissett played in the horn section with Prince, trombonist Robert Trowers toured with Randy Weston and in the big bands of Lionel Hampton and Count Basie.

With so much history and experience amidst the personnel, I only had to make the right choices of repertoire, hire supportive staff, great arrangers, and a great conductor so I could focus on doing my thing. The record was crowd-funded and galvanized over 100 people who love Jazz, and recorded in front of a live audience in an historic church near downtown Durham. I felt like I had the wind at my back and a pocket full of all the gold in Africa. The entire process has been a blast! I hope listeners find it enjoyable.

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