RJA board member Eric Neel recently talked with Marcus Shelby to sound him out about music, history, politics, and Harriet Tubman:
Your orchestra will be performing your original oratorio, “Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman” when you come to Arcata next month. How did you come to be interested in Harriet Tubman?
I’m 42 years old. My mom gave me a book when I was 8 years old. This book was called Harriet Tubman: Moses of Her People. It was one of the first books written about her life. It’s written by Sarah Bradford, some twenty years after the civil war. There were many things in that book that were new to me. All this history I was learning for the first time. This woman who was an escaped slave who had done all these amazing things, and this connection to a woman who represented the greatness of the African American race. It made a strong impression me from the start.
Fast-forward to when I was about 40 years old, and somehow her story came back to me, came back into my consciousness. I don’t know if I came across her name or what it was. At this point I had been working with history in a lot of my music, and it felt like an exploration I wanted to take. I went out and bought a new book on Tubman, by Kate Clifford Larson, and in that book I saw a lot of references to music.
There was an inchoate, blues-inflected form Harriet Tubman used to communicate and to express herself. She worked in the fields, and she sang spirituals all the time. And it occurred to me she was working in the beginnings of what we might call the blues statement, a stated phrase, just the way a saxophone player might express a blues line. This was how communication evolved in the fields.
She had a fascinating, three-level life. She worked the underground railroad, she was involved in battles during the civil war, and then after the war, she became very involved in the women’s suffrage movement. And all of this, all of these lives she led, she led in and around and through music it seemed. The spirituals, the field hollers, the blues cries, these were her DNA, and they were also, of course, the DNA of American music. And that convergence, the way in which she seemed to be at the heart of so many things I found significant and inspiring, made me want to take up her story, and write music, within the jazz idiom, to bring it to light, to emphasize and explore it in some concrete, and present-tense way, to live with the history, with her story, here and now.
We tend to think of the convergence between jazz music and politics in terms of the late-60s free jazz movement, in terms of a parallel between something “out” and something liberatory. You explore the relationship between music and politics in a different way. Can you explain how you see the musical and the political working in concert for you?
I don’t think there’s one way. My reality is a little bit different than the musicians of the 60s, of say Albert Ayler, or John Coltrane, or any of those pioneers who created something we might call free jazz. For me, my influences include Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Wynton Marsalis, and so the forms they have championed are the directions I have turned. I think the most effective thing for me has been through the form Ellington left. It’s one I’ve identified with, and been able to articulate through my own politics.
I’m also concerned with the illumination of history, such as with Tubman, or with my composition “Port Chicago,” which deals with the unrighteous treatment of African American citizens accused of mutiny, and I’ve also written a piece called “Brown Dreams,” in response to the Iraq War and how immigrants are recruited to fight that war. These pieces are illuminations of history for me. I’m interested in the combination of what we might call music or jazz in an abstract sense with something more literal, like the language and work of Harriet Tubman, like the details of any of these histories.
Tubman was not a passive person. She was quite forceful. She led some serious movements against confederate targets. She was contemplative and spiritual but she was a woman of action, too. I’m drawn to that tension, I think. She presents such diverse opportunities for us musically. We can explore something highly charged and frenetic, and we can settle into something more sublime, mellow, and subtle. I think any composer would be excited to explore the balance, the dynamic, there. I feel like her politics come from both those energies. I feel like she speaks to us through a complex personality and subtle character, and I’m trying, the way Ellington once did, to bring to life those many things in concert.
In conjunction with your interest in history and your attention to where we have come from, and where the music has come from, how important is it to you to conjure the new?
With jazz we’re hoping there’s always going to be another dimension to it, another illumination, some new approach or perspective. The musician is going to read what they have in front of them, and they’re going to put it in context with what is happening in that moment and in that ensemble, and they’re going to build on what they’ve done before, as musicians and as citizens. I think my musicians are performing readings when we play, readings in the sense that they have something in front of them, but every time we play this piece it becomes looser, more relaxed, more oriented toward discovery.
Yes, I’m constantly studying Ellington, Basie, their arrangers -- that’s the music that speaks to me, traditionally, and historically – but I don’t want to stay in that realm with this orchestra. That music lived when it did. I don’t want to be a repertory band. As in the case of classical symphonies, I feel there is a place for revisiting the history, the repertoire of the music and the tradition, but I don’t think it should stop there. Fifty percent of my music is original compositions. I like that balance.
You mention the great big band leaders, and symphonies. What draws you to working with larger ensembles?
I felt there was something soulful and spiritual in a big band that you couldn’t’ really capture in a smaller band. I was interested in capturing that, in tapping into it somehow. It’s turned out to be the direction and love in my heart. With a fifteen-piece jazz orchestra you’re dealing with fifteen different personalities, and the joy for me is to have all those resources to write for, from the bass clarinet to the flute. The instruments themselves are like people. I like to pretend I’m a painter, having all these different colors at my disposal as I create an expression. That’s a thrill as a composer, to have a diverse range of resources to work from. There is in it that challenge that comes from bringing the parts and the people together. I’m not saying a smaller combo can’t capture a narrative, as we try to do with our work on Harriet Tubman, but I think it’s much more difficult to distinguish the multi-layer narrative of a life the way we can with the big band.
As you tell that story of Tubman’s life, what do you hope people will take from it?
I hope they think of her and what she represents, certainly, but that’s a very open-minded thing. People take very different things from each performance and each composition. Yes, I create this project as an expression of history, and a literal one in a sense, with songs and lyrics that are very specific to Harriet Tubman. I want to be clear about the message, my thoughts, and the history, and I want to be intellectually engaging in that regard. But I also like the idea of people being inspired and somehow being motivated in ways that have nothing to do with the music or lyrics or history of this project. I like the idea of their finding something in the music I cannot script or predict.
I was surrounded by musicians growing up; my family and friends were always involved with music in one way or another. But my love for music, and what inspired me to take it up in almost a religious way, came years later when I saw Wynton Marsalis play in 1988. There was something about this young black man. He looked like me, I thought. And he looked good. He had on a suit. And the music he played, . . . it was awesome. I had no idea what he was playing. No clue about it musically or technically, but it was powerful for me. It moved me. I knew in the listening, even when I knew nothing else, that I wanted to do play music. I knew I wanted to be part of what that music seemed to make possible.
I don’t know what people will hear in this latest rendition of our Harriet Tubman piece – every night is somewhat different, for all of us. But I sincerely hope people will come to it with open hearts, ready to listen and to be moved by it if it touches them. Maybe, like me that first time, they won’t understand it, but maybe, we hope, they’ll be inspired by a certain commitment in what we’re doing, and a love of what we’re doing, and maybe it will connect with them.
That’s what Coltrane had, that’s what Monk had. There was something so powerful coming out of their of their expression that it was food for the elders and food for the children. That’s what we aspire to.
The Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra featuring Faye Carol performs "Bound for the Promised Land: Harriet Tubman" on Friday, March 7 at 7:00 p.m. in Van Duzer Theatre on the HSU campus as part of the 2008 Social Justice Summit. Shelby will also conduct a free public workshop entitled "Harriet Tubman and Jazz" the next morning, Saturday, March 8, at 11:00 in the Studio Theater (Theater Arts 115). More information here.
Photo of Marcus Shelby courtesy of BayTaper.com