Marcus Shelby: Putting a Movement into Song

New album from jazz bassist celebrates legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement

Bay Area bassist and bandleader Marcus Shelby knows exactly what he’ll be doing on Martin Luther King Day this year. “We’ll be playing our suite ‘Soul of the Movement’ for the San Francisco MLK Day Celebration at the Yerba Buena Gardens Theater,” he says. “For the last several years I was part of the San Mateo MLK Day Parade Committee. They were the first ones who actually supported me in terms of dollars and commissioned the work.” That work he’s referring to is an ambitious suite inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s: Soul of the Movement on Porto Franco Records.

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Marcus Shelby
By Peter Varshavsky
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Marcus Shelby
By Peter Varshavsky

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The album features a 15-piece jazz orchestra working through Shelby’s arrangements of spirituals, originals and protest songs. The music is both complex and accessible, due in large part to a foundation of spirituals and blues underlying all the improvisation and composition.

Shelby says that the reason he chose that subject was simple: He just wanted to learn more about the past—his and this country’s. “I wanted to know more than just the general information we get every year about Dr. King because of his birthday,” he explains. “On top of that I wanted to know how the music played an important part of the movement.”

This isn’t the first time he’s ventured into the past for inspiration. An earlier project focused on the legacy of Harriet Tubman and the research for that album sowed the seeds of creation for this new one. “I found music to be a very important part of how she communicated,” Shelby says. “So I knew that Dr. King had pointed to how abolitionists and runaway slaves like Tubman, Sojourner Truth and others used slave songs and blues hollers as a form of communication to get messages and also to inform those around them of their plight and basically just to empower folk.”

That was just the beginning of Shelby’s self-education. “I felt like I needed to know more about the music that happened in the civil rights movement—not only the spirituals or the freedom songs but also songs written by jazz musicians like Charles Mingus or Nina Simone or John Coltrane or Duke Ellington or those who spoke out against segregation like Louis Armstrong and Harry Belafonte. So how jazz musicians used their music to speak about and to also be a part of movement of change, for social change was really inspiring to me. It’s something I really wanted to tap into and something I really wanted for the type of music that I was writing and orchestrating as well.”

Shelby also had a very personal connection to the Civil Rights movement, because his own family was involved with the “I’m a Man” sanitation workers strike in Memphis, during which Dr. King’s life was ended in 1968. “I had gone to Memphis many times in the past but it had never occurred to me to ask members of my family certain questions—questions about history, questions about the Civil Rights Movement in particular.” In fact, the demonstrators in Memphis included Shelby’s relatives. "I have two aunts (Katie Mae Greer and Lucille Greer) that were nurses at the time and participated in the Sanitation Workers Strike and when I interviewed them, they vividly remember (although being women) carrying the well known signs that read 'I Am a Man' in solidarity with the men."

His family’s hometown of Memphis was not the only place he traveled to for research. Shelby also visited Mississippi, Alabama (Selma and Birmingham) and Arkansas (Little Rock). He also spent a summer in Chicago doing research. “I needed to go back and kind of learn and discover in a much more personal way and detail what my forefathers had done. I’m not an historian with a PhD. I wasn’t necessarily trying to tell the story of the Civil Rights Movement but I was trying to find how the movement could inspire a movement within me today—as a teacher, as a creator, as a musician, as a father, as someone very close and active in my community. Because I’m a musician I felt I could be a voice and a part of what’s happening today.”

Ramsey Lewis, who recently composed a large-scale work on the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, talked about how he had to dig deeper into history in order to go beyond the superficial details, such as that Lincoln freed the slaves and was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth. For his part, Shelby says that he thought he knew about the famous March on Washington, but found there was plenty more to learn. “I learned that it was not the first one. A. Philip Randolph had done the same thing in the ‘40s. The same thing with the Freedom Rides in the early part of the ‘60s—that wasn’t the first one. The first Freedom Rides were done in 1947 and they were called the Journey of Reconciliation and masterminded by A. Philip Randolph. Also Bayard Rustin was the orchestrator of the March of Washington but he’s always forgotten in the history books because he was gay, at a time when it wasn’t accepted. Although he had friends in all circles, he was part of that intellectual underground New York scene in the ‘30s where anyone involved was perceived as a communist.”

Shelby says that he himself learned plenty from the research he did for this album. “You hear a lot about the successes—you know, that Rosa Parks doesn’t give up her seat and then the buses are integrated. But you don’t learn it took a whole year…it took a lot of setbacks. It even took them making some bad decisions and along the way, King having a major breakdown. You learn about his humanity in a way that you might not get usually. You discover he’s like you…that he makes mistakes just like you. He may have done great things but I think we all have the capacity to do great things. So I learned a lot about how he persevered through those struggles. We can look back and see all the success and the advance but for them, they didn’t know if they were going to be successful and in many cases they didn’t even know if they were going to be killed.”

Naturally, Dr. King was a focal point of Shelby’s research and final work. “I visited his house when I went to Montgomery. They showed me where the bomb was thrown into his house early on during his career. He was just 25 years old when this happened. He had just graduated from Boston with his PhD and he had an opportunity to serve as a minister in any church he basically wanted in the North. He chose to go down into the belly of the South because he really wanted to change the plight of African Americans there and that’s something that’s not really told as well. He had a Phd, he came from a prominent family in Atlanta and yet he chose to go to Montgomery, which was very poor, very segregated, very racist—and he took over Dexter Baptist Church. And a lot of what he learned was from Vernon Johns—a gentleman who preceeded him as the minister at Dexter Baptist Church.”

Did Shelby come away with a real sense of why did King, of all the people involved in the Movement, become the acknowledged leader way above all the rest? “He was like a lot of us but he was able to reach deep down,” Shelby says. “Obviously he had some gifts that many of us don’t have, like his oratorical gifts and his masterful intelligence. He was open-minded but he was also a human. You learn about his humanity.”

Shelby also came away impressed by other people less known to the general public, operating behind the scenes away from the media spotlight. “I didn’t know as much about Bayard Rustin until I studied King and then I became friends with Dr. Adam Green, whose father Ernest Green was one of the Little Rock Nine. I got a chance to visit that school and I spent a summer and with Dr. Adam Green because he was one of my professors at the University of Chicago.”

However, Shelby points out that not all of the Civil Rights movement was based on people and events in the South. In particular, he came to see that Chicago had an important role in the Civil Rights Movement. “Look at Emmett Till’s story. He came from Chicago and he was killed in Money, Mississippi. It sort of brought the South and the North together because of this horrible lynching. It was publicized in the Chicago Defender [the large African-American newspaper]. So that was enriching to learn about all of those stories that weren’t just King’s stories.”

Even King was aware that his larger role often masked the many people who made contributions to social change. Shelby wanted to be sure to make them a part of his story and the music. “King always referred to everyone in the movement as the foot soldiers who don’t get any credit,” explains Shelby. “I wanted to learn about these foot soldiers. All of these impressions don’t always turn into music so much but they become part of the story when I teach it. But at the same time, some of it does turn into music. When I visited Memphis, when I visited Birmingham, when I visited Montgomery, when I spent time in Chicago – some of these moments do turn into music. Or I might find a song there or I might be inspired by a song that’s associated with a location and I think, ‘Oh, I want to re-orchestrate that.’ So that’s how some of that comes to life.”

Of course, the movement had a soundtrack of its own, mostly spirituals, thanks in part to the central role of the church, where large numbers of African-Americans would gather before, during and after big events. Often a crowd would sit in the church for hours before the formal organizational meeting, singing and praying and congregating. Shelby says that the reason they did that wasn’t just the fellowship. “You’ve got to ask yourself why. The answer is because that is the only place they can do that. Any time you saw a large assembly of black folk at that time in the segregated south, they were told to disperse. Let alone speak publicly about their injustices so church was on the one safe haven.”

Although the Soul of the Movement album includes a version of “Fables of Faubus” by Charles Mingus, much of the music Shelby re-arranged were spirituals. “For me, I had to find songs that were personal to me. The spirituals were songs I had sung in church or they were songs I found that were close to King like, ‘There’s a Balm in Gilead.’ That was a spiritual that he quoted from often when he spoke and specifically he sings it at the end of his ‘Knock at Midnight’ speech. While I was there with my family, we listened to that speech in Montgomery, visiting his parsonage at Dexter Church and we played that speech over and over and always at the end he would sing, ‘There’s a Balm in Gilead’ and so it just became part of that experience that I wanted to document musically. And ‘Amen’ was a spiritual I sang in church, so I wanted to rearrange that in 7/4 and sort of put it against different harmonic backgrounds.”

Indeed, Shelby connects many of the songs to people and places in his own life. “‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ is my mom’s favorite spiritual and it’s also a musical experience me and my family had when we were in Selma because it was one of the songs they sang as they crossed over the Edmund Pettus Bridge during the voting rights marches. So that experience I wanted to capture, because we kept crossing over that bridge as well, trying to imagine them met by dogs and policemen and being brutally and savagely beat the first time they tried to march from Selma to Montgomery.”

One of the secular songs on the album is a Curtis Mayfield tune, “We’re a Winner,” which Shelby rediscovered during his residency and research in Chicago. “I learned about him as a musician and an artist and how he used his music to be a voice of unity and courage and strength. He repeated this over and over and it reminded me of how King would constantly try to get black people to have self-respect, from cleanliness to education and just the way they interacted with other. This song is a musical testimony to what King was always trying to get our community to embody. Even the lyrics of ‘We’re a Winner’ were important so I wanted to include that. I had heard that song before years ago, but it didn’t really mean that much to me then. But I began to learn more about Curtis Mayfield and other Chicago groups around that time, including Andrew Tibbs, who composed a piece called, ‘Bilbo is Dead’ probably one of the first records that was banned because it spoke out against the Governor of Mississippi. I learned about this succession of musicians and how they all came up from the Mississippi Delta and how Chicago was one of the early places where they recorded. And, of course, Louis Armstrong went to Chicago for the same reason everybody else did—to escape the South and for money.”

The album ends with a solemn version of Thomas Dorsey’s “Precious Lord, Take My Hand,” which had particular meaning for King and therefore Shelby. “That’s the song King requested the night he was killed. He asked Ben Branch, his piano player, to play that song and he asked him to play it pretty. Ben Branch was an NAACP piano player who lived in and around the Memphis area. So I wanted to end our whole album with this piece, not necessarily as King requested it, but in the sense that it was the selection that he wanted to have performed.”

Shelby’s work with earlier projects of a large scale—Harriet Tubman and Port Chicago—gave him confidence to tackle a massive topic like the Civil Rights Movement. It starts with inspiration followed by research. His first one was about Port Chicago, about the miscarriage of justice that occurred after a catastrophic explosion at a shipyard in 1944. “I went to the memorial for several years and met a gentleman who wrote the book and so all those resources where there. That was 10 years ago. I was developing how to approach this as an orchestrator and also as whatever kind of historian you want to call me, as someone very much interested and who wanted to capture that in music.”

After that came a suite inspired by Harriet Tubman, the legendary abolitionist and Underground Railroad activist. “I had a little bit more resources so I was able to travel to where she was born and where she died and to New York City where she had spent some time and met descendants of abolitionists and I was able to have that experience and then I spent six months at Stanford University doing research and teaching classes and developing the music.”

With Soul of the Movement Shelby had three years to work on the project. He traveled, did a residency in Chicago, and spent time at Stanford University at the Martin Luther King Papers Project. “With each project I’ve tried to build on the capacity and the research and also try to grow the craft. I try to explore and absorb as much of the music as possible that is resonating and try to learn from that and try to keep it going forward. Not so much re-creating the past musically—although I love that music and it’s very much a foundation—but also trying to capture what’s happening today. I’m influenced and inspired by artists that are around me today—from those that live right here in San Francisco to those that are doing great things in New York and all across the land. So I’m trying to stay as open-minded and try to learn as much and share what’s happening today. So that the music is moving forward.”

Truly a man with a sense of community and place, Shelby isn’t alone with these projects dealing with bigger social issues. Shelby worked with Howard Wiley III on his Angola Project, about inmates in the infamous Louisiana prison. Wiley in turn has been on Shelby’s albums. And one of Wiley’s key contributors on the Angola Project was vocalist Faye Carroll, whom Shelby also used and whom Shelby credits for much musical inspiration in this largely instrumental suite. “For me, a voice is one of the instruments and hers is central,” says Shelby. “I’ve known Faye for over a decade. I had the real great opportunity of recording with her and Billy Higgins and her daughter, right before Billy Higgins passed away. So Faye and I have been friends for a long time. She’s a mentor of mine. She’s a mentor of all of ours. All of the young musicians who are around her, even though she’s on their projects in some cases—we all look up to her as a spiritual and musical mentor. She’s very important to me – we talk all the time about concept, about history, about music. Harriett Tubman was the first project that we extensively worked on. I immediately thought of her because of what she can do with her voice—anything from yodeling to scat singing to basically just singing a lyric just as it is to the blues to singing bebop, singing funk, R&B, spirituals. There’s nothing that she can’t really do. And she has this amazing voice—timbre and color—that I imagine the type of voice that Harriett Tubman would have. For that project I found all these connections that were inspiring and I just started there and everything else kind of grew out of her voice because I wanted her to be very central. She’s really inspiring. She can’t tell you what note you’re playing or what rhythm you’re playing, but she can tell you the right note or the just the right rhythm. She’s an incredible arranger—one of the best I know. She’s just intuitive. I feel real blessed to be around her.”

Shelby also worked with another vocalist from the Bay area—Kenny Washington. “He’s an amazing vocalist as well and he does things like what a horn can do,” says Shelby. “I wanted to involve him equally as much on this project as well.”

Although the recording features a large ensemble, Shelby has managed to perform the suite live off and on over the three years as the piece came together. “I spent time building it along the way. We did a premiere last year in May at the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival and then we did San Francisco Jazz Festival and Yoshi’s. In some cases, I’ve also cut one or two songs because I talk in between the sections, to put it into context. I talk a little bit about what the pieces are inspired by or noteworthy to add and then we perform it. In some cases we might not do the whole suite.”

With all the traveling, research and musicians involved in a project like this, you have to wonder how he pulls it off during a time when most bandleaders are just hoping to get a few gigs. Shelby confirms that he did receive support from some non-profits and foundations. “Yes, I got a couple of large grants from foundations, including: the Center for Cultural Innovation, a California grant fund; the SF Arts Commission; and great support from the Yerba Buena Gardens Foundation. You try to work with what you can, but it really helped to piece this together. I would have liked to spend some time in Atlanta which I didn’t get to do, but I’m very grateful for what we did get and the San Francisco Arts Commission, as well as the Creative Work Fund, the Gerbode Fund, the Hewlett Fund, have been investing in the artists here as much as they can when the economy has been totally broken. Whenever I can get a grant, I want to be as ambitious as I can because I want to grow and I want to learn.”

Shelby has been so immersed in what King did do that it’s hard for him to consider what King could have done had he lived. “I haven’t really thought about it. You know, he was at an all-time low in popularity when he was killed. He had very few friends and he had spoken out against the Vietnam War so the government had totally turned against him. You know how some people, even progressive supporters, are heavily criticizing President Obama for not being aggressive enough? The same thing was happening to King within the black community. He had turned his focus to the Poor People’s Campaign and he was becoming tired. So I have no idea. He wasn’t interested in politics, so it’s not like he would have gotten into politics.”

Naturally, a musician as curious and ambitious as Shelby has his eyes and mind on future projects. “I’m working on two different ideas. I’ve been studying the history of women in this country from the colonial period to today. Not only their contributions to American life—say from the early Quakers such as Lucretia Mott who was an avid abolitionist, anti-slavery and strong proponent for women’s rights but also all the way up through to women who have made contributions in jazz music. People like Mary Lou Williams, Clora Bryant, Dorothy Donegan. Or if you take apart the Sweethearts of Rhythm or even if you just look at that band as a whole, you see that it was a breakthrough band because they integrated at a time when bands weren’t integrated. Nonetheless, they were an all women band, they were good and they had the best arrangers. As someone who has two daughters, I want them to be inspired not only by singers but also by the Cindy Blackmans or Melba Listons of the world. I go to schools and one of the first things I ask them to do is, ‘Name famous male jazz musicians’ and right away they name people like Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane. Then I ask them to name a famous female who played an instrument, not a singer. And they can’t. So that’s something I’ve been working on for the last year. 'Women and Jazz' is a
musical presentation for young people that honors the history of women in America from the colonial period to the present. I was inspired by a book I read by New York Times opinion writer Anne Collins called America's Women: Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines. 'Women and Jazz' is a combination of music, poetry, speeches and perspectives on the history of social progress of women in America. We also celebrate leading women in the history of jazz music through performing select compositions written by female composers or our own original compositions that honors them."

The other idea Shelby has been considering involves green economics and sustainability. “There are a lot of musical relationships there,” says Shelby. “I’m just starting to read and discover stuff that’s inspiring. But that’s more down the road. There are a lot of other artists I know that are interested in this topic and I’d like to work with some kind of multi-artistic creation to kind of dig deeper into what that means. San Francisco is a prime place because that consciousness is here.”

Undaunted by the work required to pull off these big works, Shelby seems set on continuing the approach, with each one building on the one before. “Every year I’ll find something. And I know it’ll mean more for me than in the past, because of this project.”

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