A Time Like This: Music for Change at Carnegie Hall

On March 11 young artist Noga Cabo performed her piece, “Stephen Said!” about scientist Stephen Hawking, who died three days later, on March 14. Here is a feature about Noga with excerpts of the song. — B.P.

From time to time I’ve attended celebrations in Carnegie Hall’s education wing, where the young participants including at risk youth in the Weill Music Institute songwriting program present their new material. Every student sings an original song with a back-up band. I can feel how the faculty has effectively nudged key phrases, word dumps and free verse into songs with beginnings, middles and ends. Creativity takes shape. The performances can be passionate.

A Time Like This onstage at Carnegie Hall .. (c) 2018 Richard Termine

Yesterday, March 11, the project scaled up – way up – with a concert featuring student and professional vocalists, the magnificent  Wadleigh High School Choir and Songs of Solomon inspirational ensemble, the A Time Like This Band, Future Music Project Ensemble, Free Verse Poets and more. Images, patterns and colors played on the walls. Hats off to conductor Kenny Seymour at the keyboard. He arranged and orchestrated every piece. To watch him is to know what’s going on.

The program introduced 13 new original songs along with four from the ‘60s – “For What It’s Worth,” “Inner City Blues,” “Think” and “Bold as Love.” (Throughout the winter Carnegie Hall has been celebrating “The ‘60s: The Years that Changed America.”) Those antiwar, pro-woman songs have become anthems over 50 years.

Emma Thompson-Haye singing “Afro Americana”  .. © 2018 Richard Termine

Coming out of intermission, the lights shone on Eleanor Roosevelt High School student Emma Thompson-Haye, downstage center with her guitar. Self-confident but understated, she delivered her song alone. “Afro Americana” opens with “first grade teacher says everyone is equal,” moves on to high school when “issues of chromosomes and melanin become intertwined”  then circles back to the centuries of slavery and forward to the present – “you know he’s not safe in that black hoodie.” Her recurrent lines are

don’t say you’re blind to the colors you see
you know we are different you and me
the world is your oyster and life is your drug but
when I say that mine matters you just shrug

A professional singer with power and range, Carrie Compere delivered Aretha Franklin’s 1968 release, “Think [about what you’re tryin’ to do to me] …” and the refrain “Freedom! Freedom! Freedom! Freedom!” The generations started to talk to each other.

Tosh Reagon sings “What Are We Fighting For” by Kenyatta Hughes .. © 2018 Richard Termine

The Carnegie Hall faculty also teaches  songwriting at Sing Sing Correctional Institution. Images of incarcerated composer Kenyatta Hughes were projected on the wall behind the orchestra as Toshi Reagon sang Hughes’s “What Are We Fighting For,” powered by a back beat and soulful piano solo. The title became the refrain, swelled to fill the hall and finally Reagon brought the words down, ending unaccompanied. Then with an assist from rapper Young Paris, students Aynsley Powell and Orson Benjamin from the Future Music Project at Belmont Academy, Brooklyn, rapped and danced to their original, “Let ‘Em Say [what they wanna say]”. The audience cheered, including student performers from earlier in the concert, now seated in the auditorium.

Young Paris raps “Let ‘Em Say” ..  © 2018 Richard Termine

Noga Cabo from Beacon, NY, is 16 and attends LaGuardia High School of Music & Art in Manhattan. She played guitar and sang

Stephen said the sky is fallin’
But we just go about our days
100 years from now
we’ll be gone or dead
but oblivious we stay
and it’ll stay this way

with more words from physicist Stephen Hawking projected on the wall behind her. Visually and musically, the message of “Stephen Said!” was dire. We are killing our planet. And young people will have to change that.

“Stephen Said!” by Noga Cabo with Stephen Hawking’s words on wall  .. © 2018 Richard Termine .. See a feature about Noga with excerpts of this song here

Timeless Portraits : Saturday at Harvard, honoring Geri Allen

After a long Friday night concert (the SATURDAY night concert is here don’t miss it), people came for second day of the panels, beginning with Geri Allen as Scholar and Educator. Ingrid Monson moderated.

Monson, Michael Heller, Aaron Johnson, Mount Allen, Yoko Suzuki .. Heller, Johnson and Suzuki were Allen’s colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh .. Mount Allen is Geri’s brother .. Melissa Blackall Photography, thanks to Hutchins Center at Harvard University

Mount Allen III is Director of Operations at SFJAZZ in San Francisco. He described “Geri and Mount Allen’s Scheme for World Domination through Global Literacy” – strategizing to synch up performers in distant studios and deliver a concert to audiences at minority-serving institutions. He calls it “the new underground railroad.” Geri was on board; she always wanted to bring opportunity to African-American students. High tech/low tech: she also loved working with tap dancers. As Michael Heller, her colleague at the University of Pittsburgh,  said “Geri could track so many things at once.” Together Allen and Heller acquired and processed the Erroll Garner Collection for U Pitt. Heller and colleague Aaron Johnson described Geri as a motivator. “She roped people in to doing things,” said Johnson. “She would make you speak your intentions,” said Heller, and then publicly restate them on your behalf. Saxophonist Yoko Suzuki was a fellow teacher and close colleague who described Allen as “inclusive, accessible . . . . She broke down music into parts.” Johnson chimed in “No graduate student left behind.”

Allen also created the summer jazz camp for girls at Montclair State University in New Jersey; it continues at NJPAC in Newark.

Bandmates Esperanza Spalding (moderator), Terri Lyne Carrington, Kenny Davis, Carmen Lundy, Kassa Overall discuss Allen’s Music and Vision

The Working with Geri Allen panel sat in a sunbeam! I think this photo shows bassist Kenny Davis telling us how he gave Geri a Zoom recorder to replace an ancient cassette device. It was as though “… I bought her a Porsche!” Carmen Lundy played a personal video compiled from phone-captured “footage” of Carmen, Geri and others traveling in Europe. For a moment we heard Geri speak, standing at the foot of Montmartre, commenting on Paris. Beautiful seat-of-the-pants production, Carmen! Citing “Drummer’s Song” (Open on All Sides in the Middle from 1987, Twenty-One from 1994), Terri Lyne Carrington noted Allen’s “layering of phrases so you don’t get tired” — “we became a band that’s real stretchy” in drummer Kassa Overall’s words — and described her music as having “the beauty of a rose and the aggression of a tornado.”

Monson, Vijay Iyer, Don Byron, Dwight Andrews

As a panelist for Geri Allen’s Place in History, Don Byron’s description of Tower Records on lower Broadway in the mid 1980s was accurate. The low-ceilinged jazz department, the politics of how LPs were sorted and filed, the knowledgeable salespeople, the stress when they put your album in the wrong bin. That’s the era in which Allen and Byron made their New York entrances. (Both eventually moved elsewhere.) The two are on the soundtrack to the 1996 film Kansas City and, coincidentally, share a 2004 NYT review of Byron’s Ivey-Divey (Blue Note) and Allen’s The Life of a Song (Telarc). Allen recorded on the Blue Note, Verve, Telarc and Motéma labels.

In 2013 and 2016, Allen musically directed two stage productions, “Celebrating the Great Jazz Women of the Apollo” and “A Conversation with Mary Lou Williams.” She asked actress S. Epatha Merkerson of Law and Order to direct the shows and Farah Jasmine Griffin to write. On the closing panel, Merkerson spoke of how the three brainstormed to develop scripts and staging, how Geri loved to incorporate new performers – an organist, a dancer – at the last minute, how working with Allen diversified Merkerson’s career. Allen’s long-time manager Ora Harris, saxophonist Tia Fuller, Carrington and Lundy completed this discussion. After dinner came the Geri Allen Tribute concert. The panelists became performers, and there’s a video on the WGBH Facebook page, here. Go see it! Below is the set list; neither songs nor performers are named from the stage. The music speaks.

Stage manager’s marked-up set list, photo by BP

Geri Allen was born and raised in Detroit. She graduated from Howard University and earned her Master’s in Ethnomusicology from the University of Pittsburgh. She wrote her thesis about Eric Dolphy, and her composition “Dolphy’s Dance” is on the above  list. She composed from life. Allen had three children who are ever-present in her music. She led or played on at least 50 albums with several generations of artists. She performed internationally on esteemed stages. She actively sought  to play for children, older people, people at church. I wish we had more documentation of her in these community situations.

But I don’t want to wish, I want to pivot the narrative now and in the future. As Farah Jasmine Griffin challenged us in her keynote speech, it’s possible to “Imagine a story of jazz in which Geri is central from now on.” We should, we can and I hope we will.