“Are the great principles of political freedom and of natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us? Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, but not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you has brought strife and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn. What to the American slave is your Fourth of July?” – Frederick Douglass
Those stirring words and others from the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass come to life in a new recording by bassist Tyrone Brown and his Ensemble: A Sky With More Stars. A sideman of considerable note, Brown has performed and recorded with Grover Washington, Jr., Max Roach and Odean Pope. He’s also released several albums as a leader and has performed with his own string ensemble at venues and festivals all over the world.
This project integrates spoken word passages of Douglass’s writings and speeches with music composed by Brown and violinist John Blake and performed by an ensemble that also includes Bill Meek (piano), Craig McIver (drums), Melissa Locati, Beth Dzwil, Ron Lipscomb and Germaine Ingram. The narration of Douglass’s words is handled by Paul Burgett.
Although the release times nicely with Black History Month, the work has a power and gravitas that should go beyond those 28 days. Among the powerful passages from Douglass are: A protest piece Douglass wrote for an Independence Day event; the text of an Underground Railroad “pass”; and an eloquent speech from 1890 about “The Race Problem.” Sadly, the latter sounds as though it could have been written in this century.
Brown said that he first got involved with the project as a result of his work with two previous projects, one on the writings of John A. Williams (Suite for John A. Williams) and another on the paintings of Herbert Gentry(The Magic Within). He had been contacted by Richard Peek, director of special collections and rare books at the University of Rochester to compose music to complement the work of these unheralded African-American artists. “It was really a departure for me,” explained Brown. “All of my other projects were inspired by my own personal experiences or nature. I really did my homework on these. I read the books and learned as much as I could about the subjects to do this right.”
Peek recommended Brown to Hal Schuler, the eventual executive producer of the Douglass CD, to compose and record music to accompany text from his writings and speeches. Schuler was familiar with Brown’s work with his string ensemble on the Williams and Gentry CD’s, but still wanted to hear a demo of his concept for the Douglass CD. “Once again, I had to do my homework. Fortunately, he approved and offered me the commission.”
Brown was somewhat familiar with Douglass’s work, in the general sort of way that most of us might remember the noted abolitionist, so there was plenty to learn. For Brown, the greatest revelation was about the challenges that Douglass faced in his time. “The main thing I came away with was that he survived despite being so outspoken about slavery. That he spoke in front of white audiences and that he had the courage to speak his mind then during that era. So many people lost their lives since his time, saying the same things.”
Brown also was deeply affected by how Douglass handled himself in his time. “He was always so elegant in the way that he presented himself and his ideas. It was never a ‘down with America’ thing with him. He was telling people that this [slavery] was an evil that must be changed for this country to be greater. That it was not something that the founding fathers supported.”
Presenting the legacy of a 19th century figure using 20th century music would certainly seem to present a challenge. “Actually, when I first learning about Douglass, I immediately thought of [violinist] John Blake and our school appearances in which we’d talk about how jazz sprang from the plantations. John was a co-writer on the project and helped me to do music that complements the speeches.”
In addition to Blake’s knowledge of African-American history, the nature of his instrument helped to give the project a truly 19th century flavor. “We have one song with violin, bass and washboard, so it’s not necessarily all modern music here. We tried to cover a broad spectrum.”
The “pass” that Douglass gave to a woman who was making her way through the Underground Railroad had a profound effect on Brown. “I thought about how that person must have felt to receive something like this. We wrote ‘Freedom Dance’ about that woman and this piece of paper that changed her life.”
Brown and his musical collaborators had a mandate to make the music accessible to a wide audience. “They really want to reach young people with this, but we tried to make it appealing across all demographic categories.”
Brown hopes that one outcome of this project is that people will see the direct connection between men like Douglass and American history. “You know that so much of African-American history was omitted in the writing of the books. I want people to understand his legacy. Even people my age!” Brown is also hoping to perform material from the Douglass project for audiences across the country. “You wouldn’t believe the list of people who are getting copies of the CD-Oprah, President Clinton, President Obama, Tavis Smiley-so I’m hoping we can get some support for shows to share this great material.”