I try to live by the Seven Generations principle: meaning, to live one’s life with the next seven generations ahead in mind, while paying tribute to the lives and traditions of the seven generations that have come before. The most obvious application of this principle is in ecological practice: the reduction of one’s carbon footprint, elimination of waste, conscientious buying, and the like. As composers, we are immortalized in that our music is a tangible and teachable entity that can be passed down in the written and oral traditions for generations after we are gone. This concept is presented to us from the moment we learn what a composer is: part of the greatness of Beethoven and Bach is that their work has transcended not just years but centuries, and still remains important. As I grow as a musician and as a person, and (yikes!) my 30th birthday is less than a year away, I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a hand in bringing up the next generation of musicians.
In a rather quick turn of events, I’ve gone from being the devoted disciple to the one looked to for leadership. My circumstances were specific, given that my mentor Fred Ho was dying and knew it, but I feel a responsibility to eventually do the same as he did before his death: to ensure the growth of my artistic tradition well past my lifetime and into the changing times.
Fred’s last project, The Eco-Music Big Band, is multigenerational, with our musicians’ ages ranging from 20 to 70. This happened somewhat by chance when the band was formed last year: those who had worked with Fred Ho and wanted to continue playing his music after his death joined my band, which was already filling up with some of the best young blood in the city. It has led to a dynamic that I wouldn’t trade for the world: the avant-garde fused with the foundational traditions. It means that leading, in this case, still means learning.
One of our first few concerts was at the University of Vermont; before the concert, we gave a masterclass with the University of Vermont (UVM) Big Band. The UVM Big Band had been working on Soul Science Stomp, one of Fred Ho’s more famous charts, and some of our band sat in to work with them on it. I was guest conducting, and when one of the veterans in my band, who had been in the recording session for Soul Science Stomp, heard UVM’s rendition of it, he cried. When I spoke to him after, this is what he told me: “They really did their homework. They listened to the recording, listened for our phrasings, and matched them. It was really great.”
For the encore of the final performance of “The Red, Black and Green Revolutionary EcoMusic Tour” at the National Black Theatre on February 23, 2014, we performed Iron Man Meets the Black Dog Meets David Taylor written by me with Fred (my first big band arrangement!) for the bass trombonist David Taylor. (He’s also doing vocals on this one…)
What I learned from this experience is that making sure our music survives is about a lot more than just writing it down. It has to do with teaching our harmonic language and melodic style to those who learn from us. It has to do with nuance, experience, storytelling, and subtlety. It has to do with knowing, for instance, that Fred loved blaxploitation films and that the pitch bends in his melody lines are best done on the first beat and a half of every measure. It means that we should be able to pass on the same implicit understanding to those that we teach our music to. If we can do that, maybe ours will generate a momentum that lasts past our lifetimes.
One of my favorite things to do is sit and listen to the stories the members of my band have of playing with the likes of Charles Mingus, Miles Davis, and Duke Ellington. Their stories are of a different time, when things were simpler in some ways and more difficult in others. The time that they speak of is a time that I could never even begin to understand (let alone experience—opportunities for a female jazz composer/bandleader back then were virtually nonexistent), but I feel that their stories in some way later inform the musical decisions that I make and the music I write. Furthermore, these experiences, both the ones they tell me about and the ones they don’t, inform the musical decisions that they make when playing my work. Their deep and firsthand understanding of the traditions of Mingus and Ellington allow them a poignant frame of reference when approaching my more avant-garde ideas. When I bring my hip-hop collaborators to the band, it is these same older musicians who have the most surprising contributions. (Have you ever heard a trombone participate in a rap call-and-response?)
spiritchild joins the Eco-Music Big Band in a performance of Cal Massey’s “Hey Goddamnit, Things Have Got To Change”
To take the traditional and add something new is to understand where the traditions came from. We must respect the past but not put it in a museum; there are enough big bands playing standards out there. Understanding where Cal Massey was coming from when he wrote the Black Liberation Movement Suite allows me to help my hip-hop collaborators make informed contributions to his music. Similarly, understanding the traditions of Sun Ra informs my own compositions, even though my work doesn’t sound much like Sun Ra.
I am working with the poet and writer Quincy Troupe to finish an opera about Sun Ra coming back to life to save the planet from the apocalypse, brought on by global warming and large-scale oppression. It begs the question: What would Sun Ra be writing if he were alive right now? How can my experience living in the 21st century amid the effects of climate change and police brutality inform a fictional world of my own creation in which Sun Ra can come back and save us with his interplanetary music? Quincy has his own ideas—having known Sun Ra informs his creative process differently than mine. One of my favorite things about working with him is hearing the firsthand stories: running into Sun Ra in Switzerland; having the Arkestra visit the college campus where he worked. His stories inform my work in a way that I never could have anticipated. These stories couldn’t have been found in my research about Sun Ra’s life. They are only available firsthand.
I want to pass on not only my own stories but the stories that I am told about the likes of Duke, Miles, Sun Ra, and Mingus to those that I teach my music to. I want them to understand why the tradition is important to the continuation of our craft, even after we’ve embarked on our path to create something hopefully no one’s ever heard before. We must learn our scales before we can improvise; likewise, we must know where our traditions came from so we can create our own.
Albert Marquès wows the audience at the Blue Note with his piano solo on “Hey Goddamnit, Things Have Got To Change!”