It’s taken me a few weeks, but I wanted to finally share with you a bit about my trip to New York at the beginning of January. I was there, as I am almost annually, to meet with agents and check out Winter Jazzfest. And, as is often the case, I came back to Toronto with my head spinning, wanting to book everything I saw and slightly envious of so many New York things. (The subway system really is great. Except the L line. I came to dislike the L line.)
I particularly enjoyed the trip this year. I was staying in a hotel in the East Village, so I ended up doing a lot of walking – the hotel was only a 20-minute walk from most of the Winter Jazziest venues, and about 15 minutes from the Lower East Side. I met with agents with rosters big and small, and saw some outstanding music. Plus there were a few unexpected items which enhanced the trip: the rubber stamp shop around the corner from the hotel (Casey’s Rubber Stamps); an unplanned lunch with colleagues; and a very cool initiative called the Lowline.
As part of Winter Jazzfest, I caught most or all of performances by Amina Claudine Myers, the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, the Melissa Aldana Sextet, Marcus Strickland’s Twi-Life, Chris Dave & the Drumhedz, the Bill Frisell/Thomas Morgan Duo, Florian Weber CrissCross, Brandee Younger, Becca Stevens, Shabaka and the Ancestors and Pharoah Sanders. It was a during a performance by the Kendrick Scott Oracle that I had a particularly intense experience – one I’m still processing (thus the title of this post).
About midway through their set, the band walked off stage, leaving only Kendrick seated at the drums. A pre-recorded track started playing. It took me a minute, but I soon realized I was hearing the voice of Barack Obama. I can’t be sure, but I think it was a recording of these remarks, which he gave after the police shootings of Philander Castile and Alton Sterling.
While Obama spoke, Kendrick played, highlighting words with strikes to various parts of his kit. And as the subject matter intensified, so did Kendrick’s playing (and so did the music on the pre-recorded track). Suddenly we heard another voice on the recording – it was the voice of Diamond Reynolds, taken from a recording she made while sitting in the passenger seat of the car in which her partner, Philander Castile, had just been shot. And as the recording rolled on, and Diamond slowly starts to lose her composure, Kendrick’s playing became more and more intense, picking up key words, replicating gunshots on the snare drum, frenetically moving around the kit. I’m not even sure how long it took, but, eventually, Diamond faded out and Obama faded back in, the music and the pre-recorded track faded, and the piece ended.
I cannot adequately describe how this piece made me feel. I’m often moved emotionally while attending concerts. But to hear the despair in Diamond’s voice, the frustration in Obama’s, the intensity in Kendrick’s playing, and to know that this is a thing that actually happened – a man was shot, a woman lost her partner, a President reacted – was actually hard. This was real life being played out on stage in a way I’m not used to experiencing.
Winter Jazzfest chose this year to explore the concept of social justice. From their program book: “The 2017 NYC Winter Jazzfest explicitly supports social and racial justice by presenting socially engaged artists who have urgent and beautiful musical message to share.” Kendrick’s was the one performance over the three nights I attended which most clearly, for me, took on the issue. I was reminded that I cannot imagine – literally – what it is like to walk through a day knowing that, because of the colour of my skin, I am more likely to face racism, oppression, violence, injustice. And that I have work to do on my own attitudes and daily routines to help ensure that equality for all becomes a reality.
I have the good fortune of being co-Artistic Director for a project called the Big Band Tap Revue, which features my band (the 18-piece Toronto Jazz Orchestra) and a collective of tap dancers assembled by (the other co-Artistic Director) Allison Toffan. Our first public presentation of this particular collaboration was in December, 2014 at Lula Lounge. It was a fantastic night – new arrangements, new choreography, pieces for the full ensembles and solo features. One of the night’s solo features was for Travis Knights, who chose to dance to my arrangement of “No Surprises” by Radiohead.
For the Lula Lounge show, the band was on stage, and the dancers on the floor. I therefore had my back to Travis while he danced. I stole a glimpse every once in a while to see what he was up to (inevitably something amazing), but didn’t really see the full arc of his performance. But at the end of the piece, the energy in the room and changed. Something had happened. An intensity was present. I wouldn’t really understand what it was until I saw the footage:
This was after Trayvon Martin, after Michael Brown, after Ferguson.
I often hear debate about whether artists should be making political or social statements with their art. And it’s true that I’m not always looking to be engaged socially or politically when I go to see a concert or a play or an art exhibit. But having experienced Kendrick Scott’s performance, and with Travis’ dance always in the back of my mind, I wonder – when it comes to engaging with issues of such importance, if not in concert, or on stage, or in the gallery, or on the printed page, then where?