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Uri Caine Celebrates the Legacy of Octavius Catto

Keyboardist composes large work in memory of the 19th-century activist from Philadelphia

Uri Caine
Pianist Uri Caine guests with Poland’s Lutoslawski Quartet (photo: Natalia Kabanow)

Uri Caine is not afraid of challenges. Whether it’s playing improvisational Jewish music with John Zorn, jamming jazz-funk with Christian McBride and Questlove in the Philadelphia Experiment, or interpreting the works of classical composers like Wagner, Mozart, and Bach, Caine is game. He’s a gifted pianist who’s equally comfortable with the Rhodes, synthesizer, or even organ, and he brings a broad artistic and compositional sensibility to a wide range of projects.

Born and raised in Philadelphia, Caine was mentored by an unusual combination of older African-American jazz players and white classical composers. So perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that his latest project explores the legacy of Octavius Catto, a 19th-century African-American activist who was brutally murdered during the 1871 Election Day violence in Philadelphia. Commissioned by the Mann Music Center (summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra) to celebrate the unveiling of a Catto statue in that city, The Passion of Octavius Catto features 10 sections performed by chamber orchestra, choir, gospel singer (Barbara Walker), and jazz trio (featuring Caine, Mike Boone, and Clarence Penn). Conducted by André Raphel, the piece premiered in Philadelphia and New York City last year and was scheduled to be presented by the Boston Symphony in March until the coronavirus pandemic shut down public performances. The New York City performance of this dynamic work was recorded and released late last year on CD by 816 Music.

The 63-year-old keyboardist talked with JazzTimes’ Lee Mergner about this ambitious project, and how Philadelphia shaped both his musical approach and his awareness of social and racial issues.


JazzTimes: You were accepted at a young age by African-American musicians in Philadelphia. What people may not understand is just how segregated a city Philadelphia was when you were coming up in the ’60s and ’70s. South Philly still was South Philly and West Philly was West Philly, and there were clear lines to the neighborhoods.

Uri Caine: Depending on what type of music you were playing or who you were playing for, as a musician I noticed that very much. We would be in certain places where we had to dress in a way and act in a way and play in a way. But in terms of the larger enveloping feeling of love that was happening, the musicians who we looked up to were people like Philly Joe Jones, Mickey Roker, Bootsie Barnes, Hank Mobley. We were their students. There were also enough places that you could play in Philadelphia where you could actually sit in at the end of the night. There was this thing of looking forward to it. That was definitely part of growing up in Philly. Also, I think I was really lucky with the teachers that I had. One of [them] was a pianist named Bernard Peiffer [1922-1976; born and raised in France, a member of the Resistance during World War II, he was a respected jazz player on both sides of the Atlantic whose close friends and collaborators included Django Reinhardt]. He taught a lot of the people in Philly but he was a tough guy. I started studying with him when I was around 12. That really turned my head around, to start practicing and realizing that you could actually work towards something—the whole thing of being a musician.

Peiffer was a classically trained jazz pianist, somewhat like a modernist George Shearing. Did he teach you basic classical piano technique or did he teach you jazz composition and improvisation?

Everything. He was one of these guys who would be like, “Okay, you have to keep on playing classical music.” I was acting like I was bored with it, and he would say: “Man, analyze it. Look at the chords. Think of it as technical exercises. It will help you get to where you want to get to as a player.” Especially because there’s such a deep literature for it, I started to see it in a different way—as something that you could actually study.

He also talked a lot about harmony. I would bring in pieces and at one point he turned me on to another guy in Philadelphia named George Rochberg [1918-2005], who was a classical composer [and chairman of the music department at the University of Pennsylvania]. When I started working with him, that’s when I would work more on composition stuff. With Bernard it was more conceptual stuff, but he was a very open-minded teacher. He would emphasize a lot of things—learning the history of the music, learning different styles, and not discounting anything, really studying it. He was tough. He always asked a lot of questions about what you were trying to do, and then when he saw that you were working in a certain direction, especially in terms of getting it reinforced by actually going out and playing, then he would talk about how people listened and how people play together and how to arrange for a group.

I started to get a lot of opportunities to play different types of music that I wouldn’t have necessarily thought—playing for dancers, playing for dance classes, even playing in mental institutions and prisons, playing really improvisatory music with people. Most of the music in the Philadelphia clubs, at least when I was growing up, was straight-ahead jazz bebop. I was obsessed with Coltrane because he lived in Philly, and also of course with Miles and all the pianists that he had.

Didn’t you also study with the composer George Crumb?

I went to Penn there in Philly and he was teaching there. That was sort of a later phase, but I learned a lot from being in that environment, and in a positive and negative way, like what I wanted to do in my own mind after a certain point of being in school. I just thought, “I’d rather go out there and try to play and see what happens.”

Sometimes the learning experience involves learning not only what you like, but what you don’t like.


What was the impact of all those great African-American jazz players in Philly who accepted and mentored you?

First of all, they were very encouraging just as mentors—each of them, individually in their own way. Some of them were tougher and you had to earn their respect. The way, for me, was really just trying to immerse myself in what they were playing, learn the music, and if I sensed that it was not working out, just keep on practicing. Seeing Philadelphia as it was in that day, especially as I got older and started to see it through a prism of politics, there’s a lot of things that I witnessed. Especially the racism, how the police force dealt with things; they would come into clubs and they would have their hands out for bribes. Also, in that age, there was a lot of politics that was included with the music.

It was a uniquely politicized and polarized time. The Black Power and Black Nationalism movement was strong in Philly, so it’s interesting that you were accepted as a white jazz player there.

I lived on the same block that Samir Ali Sadiq [influential local jazz radio host] did when I was living in West Philly, and he was actually one of those cats who said, “Man, just keep on playing. Do your thing.” Really, what can you tell a young person other than that? Show the respect for where it’s coming from and defend it at all costs in your own way.

I do look back on that period and think, “Wow, I was lucky.” I’m sure many musicians have this experience of older people who take an interest in you, to the point where you really start to believe that you can do your thing. It’s not the only way to do it—a lot of people are self-taught or grow up in really isolated environments and come up with music in the same way. But for me with Philly, there’s a certain warmth, a certain community feeling, a feeling that people can really enjoy themselves listening to music together and playing music for other people and working on music and arguing about music and it’s okay because there are so many different styles and so many different musicians. I just enjoyed everything about it. I love thinking about it, I love playing it. And I also learned that there were certain times when you had to be on your own in your mind and just try to analyze what you needed to do personally to improve. Like, “Okay, this is not the same situation as the other situation.”

Right, the West Philly bar versus the North Philly bar versus the Center City place—they’re all very different. Different places, different people, different music.

Absolutely. Playing in a big band, playing behind the singer downtown. There’s all these different things. Playing in the rhythm section. The range of everything—from more funky music and more Grover [Washington]-type music to even theatrical music. I think all those things helped. I can’t analyze it more than that except to say that I am really a product of all those things that were happening in the city then.

Did you have early exposure to Octavius Catto’s story and legacy?

I do remember when I was younger that I learned that Catto had this lodge named after him in Philadelphia where folks would congregate. They would wear hats. I did a gig with Bootsie Barnes at a social center. These guys showed up and did their program and then we played, and it was like, “What is that about?” So I heard the story in a very roundabout way, and just put it in that file of other crazy things that I was learning about Philadelphia, especially its racial and social history. I got reacquainted with it much more when I started studying it, especially by reading this book that went into it pretty deeply.

When most of us think of Philadelphia or any of the Northern cities, we think of the Great Migration—African-Americans coming north for work opportunities, starting after the broken hinge of Reconstruction in the South and continuing through the first half of the 20th century. So many of Philadelphia’s African-Americans came from North Carolina or South Carolina during that time. But the Catto story goes way before that, to something I wasn’t that familiar with. I’ll admit that I didn’t really have any sense of African-American life in Philadelphia before the Great Migration.

I remember this picture of Philly Joe [Jones], who was the first African-American driver of the trolleys, looking really young. He integrated the people who drove the public transportation around 1949. I was getting a lot of this filtered through my father, who was the head of the ACLU in Philadelphia. He was constantly involved in political trials and stuff against the war, and people against the police—all that. So I was aware of it. But you’re right that I wasn’t as aware of Catto until I started reading about Reconstruction, the Civil War, and all that, going backwards into American history.

We may know about the battles for civil rights that were fought in the South, even going back to the 19th century, but less so about the North in that earlier time. We knew about the draft riots in New York during the Civil War, but things like that obviously happened in other cities in one form or another.

In researching Catto’s life, I learned about when they burned down Abolition Hall. It was a building that was built so abolitionists could come and meet and speak against slavery. I think that was in 1849. People came there and then they were immediately surrounded by a mob that burned down the building. They never blamed the people that came to burn it down. Imagine what that was like. That’s where it’s rooted in. Catto’s father moved him from the South and so he grew up in Philadelphia.

He was a free man in Philadelphia.

A free man, and also very lucky to have been educated at the ICY [Institute for Colored Youth], which later became Cheyney University—where reading, arithmetic, Greek, Latin were all taught. These kids grew up learning about that and then in turn became teachers in the community. As he got older, he got involved with the various civil-rights issues—they had a strike, sort of a Rosa Parks-type moment, in Philadelphia because they wouldn’t let African-Americans ride inside the horse-drawn carriages. His fiancée was actually the one who was refused entry, and had to stand on the side as the horses were passing. I think they were actually even visiting Civil War veterans. It started a boycott [and] in the end, these companies had to change the rules.

Octavius Catto, 19th-century civil rights activist

I think the most important thing he did was [advocating for] the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, because that had to be ratified in every state. That was a big struggle that took up a lot of his time. He also had fame as a baseball player, although his team wasn’t allowed to compete with the white teams. He was somebody who was trying to, through education and through protest, change the country.

Despite his role as a leader, he wasn’t an elected official, right?

He wasn’t. When the North decided that they could hire African-American soldiers to fight for the North, he was given a regimental position, but they were never in the end allowed to fight.

The Union Army tended to use the African-American soldiers as laborers doing the dirty work behind the lines. Some were allowed to fight, but most weren’t.

That’s right. His unit never went anywhere, but when he was buried, he was buried as a soldier. But yes, he was never elected. I believe he was elected to the Civil Rights League, or whatever the equivalent of an organization like that was, and he was a powerful speaker. I tried to use a lot of the words he spoke because he was very poetic in exhorting the country to change its ways.

You started with only a little information about him and had to research his life and legacy. Did the idea of doing something musically lead you to do this research, or did the research lead you to do something musically?

Here’s what happened. I

I got a call from the Mann Music Center in Philadelphia because the City of Philadelphia had put up a statue for Octavius Catto outside City Hall. They wanted to have a program. They had these summer programs for the Philadelphia Orchestra, but this one was going to be free, a gospel night with Marvin Sapp as the main star. They asked me if I could write a piece, and they also wanted to include community gospel singers.

We had this process of negotiating between all these different [groups]—the Mann Music Center, the Philadelphia Orchestra, etc. How long would it be, how many people, who was going to do this? When it was all settled, I just started writing the music. Meanwhile I was also studying and thinking, “My God, how do I do this?” I wanted the piece to go through the history but also to write it in different styles. Like the burning down of the Abolition Hall, or his murder, it’s much more tumultuous music, but because there were gospel choirs I wanted to give his words that uplift.

Uri Caine and André Raphel

15,000 people showed up for this concert and the response was intense. It was sort of overwhelming. Especially among the musicians, which is not always the case. André Raphel, who was the conductor that night and who used to be assistant conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, kept bugging me and saying, “Man, we have to do this somewhere else.” And I was like, “I know, but how can we do it?”

We asked the Philadelphia Orchestra if they could give us the tape but they can’t, because we would have to pay 120 musicians and that’s hundreds of thousands of dollars. The project sort of laid dormant, and then You-Know-Who got elected. I was hanging out with André later and was like, “Okay, we’ve got to do this now. How are we going to do this?” We knew we were going to have to start raising money, which is something I’ve not really done—we did a Kickstarter campaign and we actually got people to contribute to it. We made a video that included tapes that the orchestra let us use and people responded to it. It turned out everybody was really into it.

Where did you perform and record it in New York?

We did it at the DiMenna Center for Classical Music, one of the only big rooms that fits an orchestra, because most of that work has left New York. The only people recording these big orchestras in New York are Broadway shows that want to do the cast album. Everybody said, “You have to go to one of two places in New York,” and DiMenna worked out with the schedule. It’s a chamber orchestra, maybe about 40 or 50 people, and then the choir was made up of some of the members who did it in Philly, and also a choir with Nedra Neal. I knew her before also, so it was really a combination of friends, people doing you a favor, and then just coming together. It was a lot of work from other points of view, but it’s gratifying. I think a lot of the musicians were happy with it too. I hope!

Cover of The Passion of Octavius Catto album

What did you learn from researching this piece that surprised you?

I would be shocked when I would read about the racial treatment and the total degradation and the mobs and all of that. And I would think, “Well, maybe it’s not like that today,” but it’s the same strain. I think it’s good to know the specifics. Right now, there’s a really good thing that The New York Times is doing: The 1619 Project, about the origins of slavery, how it affects so many aspects of American life. Even how corporations work, how they keep track of people—it started with slavery. Or the addiction to sugar—that was slavery. It’s so built into the DNA of the country. And even people that, say, were immigrants and came long after that are still living in that thing. It’s something that people are either in denial of or they see it clearly. It also affects how music works and all these things.

But to counteract that, the actual ability of people that got together to change these things … on some level, things change when people get together and make their mind up to change it. It’s painful. A book like that might describe how it’s like two steps forward, three steps backwards, two steps forward, three steps back once again. You’re constantly working on it. But somebody like Catto, who was such an activist and such an inspiring speaker and beautiful sportsman and loved education and reading, just deliver[ed] all these positive messages that I think really apply today. In other words, things have to change but there’s a way of doing it that can be effective, even if it seems like things are not really changing that much on some level. To me it seems that Philadelphia is in that same situation—it’s changed a lot and it hasn’t changed that much. There’s still fundamental economic inequality and lack of access to education. That’s part of what’s happening in the United States, for sure.

Slavery was a matter of centuries, much longer than the civil-rights movement and the end of slavery. Segregation ended after we were born.

Right, it’s not that long [ago]. And slavery still existed longer than freedom in the history of the country. It’s a long legacy. One of the things that’s interesting about The 1619 Project is one of the articles was “How Do You Teach Slavery in the United States?” And that whole denial of it, as if the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, instead it was about states’ rights. That is one of the main keys, because if you can’t really talk about it from that point of view, it’s not even a political thing.

White people don’t like to talk about it, though.

No, they don’t. Then there’s what happens after that—on some level there has to be an acknowledgement and then, “Okay, so now what happens?” It’s definitely complicated. A Jewish person dealing with the Holocaust, you’re going to Europe and talking to people, they’re obviously pained by it. And it’s like, you know what? I think about it and I don’t think about it. So it’s a very complicated story.

One of the things that must have struck you is that just by changing a few names and places, you could be describing Alabama or Mississippi in the 1950s and 1960s. The mob violence, the charismatic leader preaching peace and social change, an organization set up in the community, the importance of the transportation system.

Part of the story is that when the guy that shot Catto ran—he did this in front of hundreds of people and hid behind this trolley car—he ran into an Irish bar. People that were friends of his basically hid him for five years and he ended up in Chicago. They knew where he was and they finally decided to go and get him, and they brought him back. Then they had this incredible trial where—I mean, this is where you really see it’s the same as today—some lawyer gets up there and says, “So that was five years ago, what was he wearing—red or blue?” Somebody would say something like, “I don’t remember.” “Well, how can you not remember?” Well, okay, everybody saw him get shot. And then in the end, the guy got off. They said that during the long train ride home from Chicago, the cops compromised themselves. All this technical mumbo-jumbo—it was just a really bad thing. And that could happen today.

It definitely happened in the South during the civil rights movement.

Exactly. They would have a jury trial and they were innocent, then 20 years later they find DNA or this and that. But even still, it’s such a lift to get to tell the truth about what happened.

The 1800s haven’t gotten that attention, likely because of the lack of documentation.

That’s an interesting thing, because they said that there were newspaper accounts of Catto speaking and they had to believe them, in the sense that they could have been making stuff up because nobody had a tape recorder. But you’re right, there’s only one or two pictures, drawings of him, it just wasn’t documented. The thing that jumps out at you, though, when they’re writing the stories, they’re talking about Fifth and South, or that then he ran to Sixth and Bainbridge and over to Second and Chestnut—you get the feeling of what Philadelphia was like, and how it was much smaller. And a lot of people in certain groups are jumping in with each other. A very complicated place.

You had done a lot of work in the past with Winter + Winter interpreting great classical work. How did that inform what you were doing with this project? Was that an experience you drew upon?

Not necessarily. In those projects it’s taking something that at least is much more known as a form. I did try to, in some of the movements maybe, create habit by having certain types of music, or this Victorian gentility when it begins, like “Once upon a time”—that sort of style. But in the end, I just did it by instinct. I wanted to use his words, so I started with that first. And then I thought I needed to add more spicy stuff, especially because—not that this is a thing, but I know that the Philadelphia Orchestra is like, “Okay, man, give them something they can play that gets into it, even if it’s short.” And that was their main concern. They didn’t want it to be that long. So, in a way, that was good too. Every movement is about three minutes and it’s about a half-hour piece, which is longer than they wanted. A lot of times when they ask you, they want a 20-minute piece. But once they saw how it was going, it was like, look, why not? In a way, that’s a good thing to have that type of limitation.

You used the vocalist Barbara Walker, with whom you’ve worked for many years.

Barbara’s been on a lot of the different projects that I’ve done, including the Bedrock Project [Caine’s band that blends jazz and electronic dance music]. I was really hearing her voice for this because I knew it would be a gospel-influenced thing. Also with Barbara, it’s really easy to work together, so I described it to her and she was like, “Wow. Okay, let’s go for it.” And it turned out. It’s nice to have these long associations with people.

Is this a cantata or an oratorio? Is there one word to describe it?

It could be an oratorio. This is why I called it a Passion project, because I thought of it [like] some of Bach’s Passions, like the story of Jesus. But the thing that distinguishes it musically is that every movement has a different group. One piece might have two singers, then three, an accompaniment, then the whole orchestra plays, then the choir plays with just the orchestra, then just the orchestra. So I just thought of a way of saying that every movement is going to be a little bit different in terms of who’s presenting it. I think oratorio would be an okay way to describe it, because it implies a choral thing and also a story. We’re sort of telling the story through the text.

The way I work is: Just tell me, who are the players? How many players? And then they have to decide. Especially with the orchestra, they say, “You’re going to have this many horn players, if you want more we can do that,” but you say, “No, two is enough for that, three is enough for that. Bass clarinet? Sure, okay.” And then you start to work with that. A lot of stuff that I do is like that. Because you have to start putting it to paper on some level.

I have to ask why they reached out to you to do this piece.

It was definitely lucky. It made me feel at home. I did ask those guys, “How did you pick me to do it?” They said, “Don’t worry about that, just write it.” We had this meeting with people from the Philadelphia Orchestra, and from the Mann Music Center—the artistic advisor Evans Mirageas and the director Catherine Cahill. Ms. Cahill asked me about what I had done and I was talking a little bit. But then Evans said, “Wait a minute,” and he put on this Mahler record that Barbara was on [Caine’s Gustav Mahler: Dark Flame, released in 2003, consisting of Caine originals based on Mahler compositions], a two-minute piece [“Only Love Beauty”] that she sang beautifully over. They all sat there and said, “Well, okay.” I asked Evans, “How did you even know about that?” He said, “Man, I know about that.” Maybe the people in the room didn’t, but he did. He now runs the Cincinnati Opera and his thing was inclusion: “If we’re going to include the Philadelphia Orchestra, it’s not going to be about them playing whole notes while people sing gospel arrangements.”

It seems that your upbringing in Philadelphia brought you full circle to collaborate with the great classical musicians and institutions of that very same area.

As you get older and you look back on your life, you realize, “Wow, I was there while that was happening, and that seemed normal.” But it wasn’t normal at all. It’s very specific to the time and to the ideals of the people, whether or not that stuff today seems like it went anywhere or maybe it was a dream. But that idea that people, if they choose to do so and if they work together and support each other and basically speak the truth about what’s happening … that will work.