Tag: Native American jazz musicians

Hannibal Lokumbe: Always Go With the Feeling

A BIPOC man with dreads, a dark shirt, and dark cap

For the past three years, composer/trumpeter/raconteur/poet/community activist/force of nature Hannibal Lokumbe has served as a composer-in-residence with the Philadelphia Orchestra under the auspices of Music Alive, a program which New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. The culmination of this residency is Hannibal’s massive oratorio Healing Tones, which at the end of March received its world premiere performances featuring the Philadelphia Orchestra joined by two choruses and three additional vocal soloists.

Hannibal has had a long history with New Music USA and, before that, with Meet The Composer (which later merged with the American Music Center to become New Music USA). MTC supported the 1990 commission of African Portraits, Hannibal’s first large-scale work involving a symphony orchestra. African Portraits, a sprawling sonic adventure requiring blues and gospel vocal soloists, three choruses, a West African kora player, and a jazz quartet in addition to a large orchestra, has now received over 200 performances all over the country, a rare accomplishment for any contemporary American work let alone one that costs $4000 a minute to rehearse. So we have long wanted to have an opportunity to record a conversation with him about his musical career, his compositional process, and his sources of inspiration.

Our recent talk with Hannibal in Philadelphia was a 45-minute roller coaster ride that was part testimonial, part reminiscence, part philosophical manifesto, and part performance art, but all pure emotion. Many questions were left unanswered and others just led to other questions for us, some of which we probably will never be able to answer.

There was a lot to process in a very short amount of time. There were his extraordinary thoughts about Pangaea—“the spiritual land mass of humanity is music”—as well as his optimistic outlook on the future: “What our world and what our nation’s going through now is giving birth.  Birth requires some bleeding and some suffering.  But in the base of our brain is a certain knowledge, and that knowledge says that from this pain will come this treasure.” There were also tantalizing fragments of anecdotes from his storied life in music, such as taking Jimi Hendrix’s place after Hendrix died for a recording session with Gil Evans (“Gil … always saw things in a person that they might not see in themselves”) or giving advice to a young Whitney Houston (“Sister, whatever you do, follow the music.  Don’t follow the people. People will confuse you.”) Perhaps what was most poignant to me was a comment he made about why he creates such personal and idiosyncratic music:

“It would be a disgrace to my ancestors to try to tell someone else’s story, which I could not do.  I could emulate it. I could emulate Bach. I could emulate Brahms. I have the technical skill to do that, but it would be dishonest.”

Hannibal Lokumbe in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia
March 13, 2019—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

JAM Session

JAM Logo
Tuesday was International Jazz Day (IJD) and marked the end of Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), a title that April has held since JAM was launched by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in 2002. The news of JAM had been heralded in July of the previous year with the help of the cross-musical boundaries composer-producer Quincy Jones, a man who epitomizes last year’s JAM theme, “Jazz Crossing Borders and Cultures.” As if to underscore this, Jones, who began his career as a big-band arranger, has composed music for film (In Cold Blood, The Pawnbroker, The Heat of the Night), television (The Bill Cosby Show, Ironside, Sanford and Son), and produced albums for Aretha Franklin (Hey Now Hey) and Michael Jackson (Thriller), was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier this month. But IJD hasn’t been around as long as JAM, nor is it under the auspices of the Smithsonian. April 30 was designated as IJD by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in November of 2011, making last Tuesday the first anniversary of IJD.

The logo of JAM includes the motto: “Spontaneous. Never Ordinary. Completely Genuine.” Of course, I immediately found something fairy tale-ish about this, but the motto continues, “Made in America. Enjoyed Worldwide.” which struck me as integral to the genre, as well as the day (discounting that Tuesday was also the second day of Colorado’s Air Quality Awareness Week 2013).

After all, jazz did start somewhere in America and rather quickly became popular in Europe and, by the end of World War II, was played by local musicians on every continent. The early dissemination of the music in Europe was through records exported from America. In 1919, the year after James Reese Europe brought his Harlem Hellfighters, a military marching band that played syncopated music, the Original Dixieland Jass Band arrived in London. The group opened their tour at the Hippodrome in April, performing and recording in the foggy town until they returned to America in July of 1920. By the end of World War I, jazz had taken root in virtually every major city in Europe, eventually becoming a symbol of the decadence of Germany’s Weimar nightlife and banned in Hitler’s Third Reich. During this period of Nazi oppression jazz musicians like Django Reinhardt would compose and perform original music that might be considered “unjazzlike” until 1946, when jazz musicians were no longer under the threat of persecution. It was at this same time that a teenage pianist in Japan named Toshiko Akiyoshi began playing piano professionally in venues that catered to American servicemen, sending her ground-breaking career into motion. So, by the time jazz became known to high-brow America at the end of WWI, it had also become known abroad, and by the time it was accepted in America as a musical art form after WWII, it was being played all over the world. In a sense, jazz was a vital component of the 20th-century thrust towards globalization that currently defines humanity in the second decade of its 21st. Jazz, which originated somewhere, and somehow, in America, is now a globally relevant cultural commodity, so it is only fitting that the last day of JAM is celebrated with IJD.

The IJD website tells the history of the event and offers videos of this year’s opening concert in Istanbul (which served as the official host of this year’s IJD UNESCO sponsored events) and two opening concerts from the first IJD hosted in Paris and New Orleans, the city credited as jazz’s birthplace. The hosted events are conducted in the style of a music convention with workshops, symposia, and lectures about various aspects of jazz theory, scholarship, and performance as well as supporting concerts in local venues. Their website also has a page dedicated to ideas for teaching children about jazz in public schools on IJD that I found very interesting, being that I learned to play jazz in the traditional way (which wasn’t in a public school). But nowhere in the lesson plans and other materials listed to explain the origins and history of jazz were Native Americans or other indigenous New World cultures mentioned. The music is only described as being “rooted in the African-American experience,” so the lack of any discussion of Native Americans as part of a jazz timeline makes the idea that “jazz has contributed to and been a reflection of American culture … widely considered to be the only truly original American art form” somewhat disingenuous, if not oppressive; especially when so many of jazz’s proponents have been of Native American descent (Charlie Parker, Max Roach, Dave Brubeck, Don Cherry, Jack Teagarden, and so forth). This is echoed, albeit with a twist, on the JAM website, which describes this year’s theme as “The Spirit and Rhythms of Jazz.” It has long been my contention that the Charleston rhythm, named after the James P. Johnson composition, “The Charleston,” as well as the clave of so-called Latin music, are actually Native American influences.
In a similar vein, the JAM website’s FAQ page includes the question, “Why is [JAM] needed?” The answer includes the idea that “JAM will encourage people to take jazz more seriously as a vital part of America’s cultural patrimony.” It is well known to anyone who has interviewed Ornette Coleman, one of the most influential jazz artists of all time, that he makes it a point, often in the face of laughter from his audience, to discuss the importance of one’s mother as a messenger of culture, knowledge, and life. He takes this on from many vernacular angles, sometimes using language that would offend “polite” company, but the deep question he repeatedly asks is, “Where would we be without [our mothers]?” It’s not a question that many like to pursue for long, but it’s one worth pondering, especially when considering the absence of discussing Native American matriarchal social institutions and philosophy. If Herbie Hancock tells us to “Speak Like A Child,” then who would we be speaking to? But this is part of the current paradox and dilemma that jazz represents. How does a music designed to overcome the white male-dominated socio-economic marginalization of subaltern communities continue being relevant when that design is viewed as artifact and no longer essential as a musicological consideration?

I was very happy and honored to play with Cynthia Hilts’s group, Lyric Fury, for IJD. Her group this time included Lily White on alto and tenor saxophones, Lisa Parrott on baritone and soprano saxophones, Jack Walrath on trumpet, Matt Haviland on trombone, Nioka Workman on cello, and Scott Neumann on drums. Cynthia, who plays piano and sings in her group, writes music that displays an appreciation for the work of Frank Zappa, Stephen Sondheim, and James Brown, but requires the trans-stylistic temperament of jazz musicians to execute. Her songs include a piece she calls “Previously a Thing” that juxtaposes her band’s improvisational skills against a reggae groove, a shuffling excursion into breathlessness called “Blues for the Bronchs,” and other humorously titled works. More somber works, like “Please, Mercy,” a lament for those impacted by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the lovely homage to the idea of “Teacher,” feature ostinatos that often pivot around two tonal centers or long anthem-like progressions. Some of her pieces are joyous, like the buoyant Afro-Cuban “Peace Now” and the self-referential “Celebration.” The two dirges in her program include the aptly titled “Persistance,” that plows through a never-quite-repeating 5/4 ostinato, and her recently penned prayer for the victims of Hurricane Sandy (many of whom ran out of time on their temporary hotel accommodations on April 30), “Floodtide’s Gone.”

Now that IJD is over and JAM is done for the year, I’ll be going back to Monterrey, Mexico, to perform in the XI Encuentro Internationale de Jazz y Musica Viva organized by guitarist Omar Tamez. The lineup this year is Karl Berger on vibraphone and piano, and his wife, Ingrid Sertso, on vocals. Together with Ornette Coleman, they founded the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York. Flute virtuoso Wilfrido Terrazas, electric bassist Pablo González, and drummer Emilo Tamez (Omar’s older brother) will round out this year’s contingency from Mexico, which is the largest I’ve encountered at Encuentro. Guitarist Marc Ducret will be representing France and drummer Harvey Sorgen will be representing the United States along with me. Sadly, because this was a last-minute call, I’ll have to bow out of a very special event, Calling All Forces, organized by vocalist Katie Bull, a mother of two who takes Air Quality Awareness Week very seriously, that will occur Saturday, May 11. The event, to foster awareness of the environmental impacts of hydrolic fracturing and raise money for 350°.org, is presented under the banner of “Climate Force” and will include vocalist Fay Victor, guitarist Anders Nilsson, percussionists Andrew Drury and Deric Dickens, bassist Joe Fonda, pianist Landon Knoblock, and saxophonists Jeff Lederer and Ras Moshe, as well as dancers Amanda Hunt and Alex Romania, and visual artists Fran Bull, Robert Black, and Aileen Gural. Even if it weren’t for a great cause, the idea of helping to realize Bull’s multi-disciplinary vision is something I’ll miss sorely. I hope that those readers who might be in the New York area that day don’t miss it.