Frederick Douglass was a powerful orator and a gifted writer. So it is an apt tribute to the great abolitionist and longtime Rochester resident that the new jazz CD A Sky with More Stars — Suite for Frederick Douglass should celebrate both the authority of his words and the precision of their form.
Along with the "seamless logic" of Douglass's arguments, which played a key role in the abolition of slavery, there is an "inherent musicality" to his writing that this new album captures, says Jeffrey Tucker, director of the University of Rochester's Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies and associate professor of English, who wrote the CD's liner notes. "A Sky with More Stars is a fitting showcase of his artistry."
The album weaves together Douglass's words, delivered by University Vice President Paul Burgett, with interpretive jazz by composers Tyrone Brown and John Blake of Philadelphia. The result, enthuses an early reviewer, is "an eloquent album filled with music as stirring as the words they augment."
To evoke the feel of Douglass's era, Brown, a bassist, and Blake, a violinist, drew from their research into the history of jazz, a subject they share with students in the Philadelphia school system through lectures and demonstration concerts. "Jazz grew out of the slave experience, plantation songs, and the blues," says Brown. "After the long day's work, slaves gathered in front of a shack in good weather to entertain themselves with music. They did not have modern instruments, at best a violin," he says, adding that Douglass himself played the violin, as did his wife and grandson. So the violin earned a commanding role on most tracks. In one piece, the composers also incorporated a washboard, a typical slave rhythm instrument, and in another they included the sounds of tap dancing, performed by Germaine Ingram, to convey the jubilation of a newly freed slave.
As much as the music is reminiscent of the 19th century, it is also fully grounded in contemporary jazz styles, says Brown. "We want the music to appeal to younger generations as well as to mature listeners," he explains. "We want it to overlap all demographics, to reach those who are informed, as well as those who are not familiar with the impact Douglass had on American history."
For Burgett, the bridging of musical eras reflects perfectly the enduring truth in Douglass's work. "His themes are as relevant today as when he composed them well over a hundred years ago," says Burgett, who in addition to lending his mellifluous voice to the narration is also a scholar of African-American music and an adjunct professor of music at the University.
Included on the 50-minute CD are Douglass's hard-earned insights into "the self-made man," a critique of the meaning of the 4th of July for enslaved peoples, and a condemnation of religion that refuses to denounce slavery. In Burgett's favorite selection, Douglass recalls with modesty and charm how Abraham Lincoln pressed Douglass, his friend, for a response to his second inaugural speech. "Mr. Lincoln, it was a sacred effort," Douglass tells the President, then adds the bittersweet coda: "That was the last time I heard the voice and saw the face and form of honest Abraham Lincoln. A few weeks later he fell before the bullet of the assassin."
In another poignant passage, Ingram reads an Underground Railroad "pass" — a hand written note from Douglass asking the recipient to "shelter this sister from the house of bondage till five O'Clock this afternoon – She will then be sent on to the land of freedom." The pass and all of the texts used in the CD are available as part of the University's Frederick Douglass Online Project at www.library.rochester.edu/douglass.
Produced and edited by Richard Peek, director of Rare Books and Special Collections, the Douglass suite is the library's third jazz-and-narrative recording celebrating African Americans whose papers are preserved at the University. The Magic Within, A Collection of Compositions by Tyrone Brown Inspired by the Paintings of Herbert Gentry was released in 2005, followed by Suite for John A. Williams in 2008, also with Brown as composer. The recordings were intended to reach a new audience beyond the traditional researcher, and they have done just that, says Peek. "Both were favorably reviewed and music fans who bought the CDs frequently contacted the library to inquire about the collections and to ask for more information about Williams and Gentry."
In addition to attracting attention to the library's Douglass collection, Burgett sees the new CD as an important part of the University's growing effort to recognize the contributions of Douglass, who made Rochester his home for 25 years and published his anti-slavery paper the North Star in the city. Along with being the home of the Frederick Douglass Institute and the Douglass papers, the University in 2008 established the Frederick Douglass Medal to recognize distinguished scholars and civic leaders who, through outstanding achievement, represent the ideals for which Douglass stood and who have contributed to the educational life at the University or in the community, state, or nation. To date, the medal has been awarded to four recipients: Lani Guinier, professor of law at Harvard University; Gerald Torres, professor of law at the University of Texas at Austin; David Kearns, retired CEO of Xerox Corp.; and Walter Cooper, retired research scientist at Eastman Kodak Co.
The Douglass suite is preformed by the Tyrone Brown Ensemble, which includes, along with Brown, Blake, and Ingram, Bill Meek, piano; Craig McIver, drums; Melissa Locati, violin; Beth Dzwil, viola; and Ron Lipscomb, cello. The CD's executive producer was Hal Schuler, a longtime supporter of the library, and the cover was designed by Melissa Mead, librarian. All three CDs are available online at Amazon.com and Dreamboxmedia.com and in Rochester at The Bop Shop in Village Gate Square.