And so this caravan of troubadours journey to a final jubilee in Boston’s historic Symphony Hall
And so this caravan of troubadours journey to a final jubilee in Boston’s historic Symphony Hall. We left New York at 9:15am on Sunday having scorched the stage of Rose Theater Saturday night with the intention of calling out and upon the Holy Spirit. And that Spirit was evoked with an openhearted urgency by the Reverend Dr. Calvin O. Butts, III who summoned his mastery of meaning and impeccable sense of timing to illuminate the purpose of our Mass.
The heavy hitters were in the House over this past Thursday through Saturday during our performances in Frederick P. Rose Hall. Jimmy and Mona Heath celebrated his 87th birthday with us, Jessye Norman, Laurence Fishburne, Cicely Tyson, Kimberly Steward and so many JALC board members and staff, our dedicated subscribers, Abyssinian Church members and young aspiring jazz musicians and singers as well as grizzled veterans, spouses, children, significant others, mommas and daddies, siblings, uncles and cousins. It was Old Home Week in the truest sense, and the great Joe Temperley came out and blessed us with his presence. And Christian McBride’s Trio held forth in Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with their excellent brand of a good time.
The House of Swing was in full effect, and it felt like community, because it was. Doug Hosney and his team had the facility in tip-top shape and it was humming. Our YouTube team was filming interviews to produce impactful segments for our channel, and we were webcasting these concerts all over the world. Knowing that family AND people from any and everywhere could gather to check us out, we really, really wanted to sound better than our best. And at 8pm each night, we set about the business of doing just that.
There was a whole lot of feeling in that Saturday night performance, giving way to the exuberant fatigue that follows two and a half intense hours of concentration. I suspect it prevented many of us from sleeping until well into the morning. I received several affirming messages from orchestra members saying “Yeah man. That was the one. The choir was bringing it.”
Too soon, we were on buses en route to the home of the Red Sox who that very night would be locked in game 4 of the World Series with the Cardinals, and would prevail before night’s end, tying the Series 2-2.
At 2pm we reached one of our country’s greatest venues, and searched the neighborhood for lunch before the customary 4 o’clock sound check. Backstage, a few of the cats’ computers were struggling to keep us connected to football games, invariably freezing right before the most crucial plays. While above the epithets and choice exclamations, someone gives a radio play by play.
The fourth night in-a-row of performing this piece is tough because the parts are very demanding. The night before, Ryan Kisor had taken a couple of Excedrin on the bandstand to bring the swelling in his lips down. Marcus, Kenny and I empathize with our section leader. Even playing much easier parts, our chops are barking. The great young violinist Eli Bishop attends our sound check and sits with the trumpet section.
After sound check it starts to sink in: this is it. But any contemplation of a letdown was answered by the informal joy of the choir during sound check. We played through the same two movements we always do, except today, we enjoyed just being with each other. There was a natural spark and joy in the playing around informally with phrases that have been rehearsed and formally performed so many times. It was easy and glowing with the light of unforced enjoyment.
We begin taking pictures with each other and exchanging salutations and embraces during and after dinner. We sense that this may be the last moments we have to say our goodbyes. It’s time to take the stage and Symphony Hall is packed with listeners and a warm reception.
As usual, the choir is full of spirit, and Damien is handling his business. The orchestra is enjoying being enveloped in the feeling of the Chorale and laughing at Damien’s challenging improvised interpretations. And then it’s over.
There are too many high points to recall.
Out we go into the brisk New England autumn night to three buses bound for the Big Apple. 6 or 7 of us from the orchestra go to each of the two choir buses and we thank everyone for how they handled the pressures of this tour and how they treated us. They cheer each guy that introduces himself and quote things from the Mass associated with that person. We all feel a deep, deep empathy that has been forged in the intense fire of finding and expressing innermost emotions and cementing mutual objectives under the pressure of public performance. Each orchestra member has a different observation on what we learned and loved about working with the Chorale and Damien. Our comments end with a joint exclamation: let’s stay a part of each other’s lives, let’s do something together again.
Damien has been a revelation to us. He is inspired and dedicated to excellence. We loved his improvisatory spirit and his absolute authority with the music. I could not be more proud of him and the choir. My brothers? What can I say? They are absolutely for real…..all the time.
I return to the hall and greet our great guests, from a 9-year old trumpeter named Emmanuel, to the former principal trumpeter in the Boston Symphony, Charlie Schleuter and his wife Martha. Glenn Close and David Shaw add aesthetic charisma to the evening, and our Harvard family, Drew Faust and her husband Charles Rosenberg, and Lori Gross and Rohit Deshpande all make me feel as if I am returning home. Akili Jamal Haynes, who was a high school student in a band I directed that included Christian McBride, Walter Blanding, Lil’ John Roberts and Farid Baron when they were kids in 1987, is also there and so is one of America’s most soulful citizens, Lutye Willis.
Who comes in but the legendary Gunther Schuller. Gunther auditioned me for Tanglewood in 1979, when I was 17. Even though I was a year under the requisite age, he accepted me into the Fellowship program. This experience changed my life. How could I possibly thank him? And now here we are, me 52, him 88, and he starts telling me all of what he heard in the Mass. Then he starts talking about music from Abyssinia, then long form pieces and harmony. He commends the high quality of the orchestra, talks about the merits of individual players and speaks on Ryan’s latest records he has heard adding, “A soloist that great playing lead? You’re quite fortunate.” He goes on to recommend a favorite disc jockey he’s listening to and we discuss him writing a piece for the orchestra. He’s 88!!! And it’s almost 11:15pm and he had listened intently to a 2 1/2 hour concert that started at 7pm and is now recalling, in detail, specific moments in several of the 17 movements.
I look at him and Akili Jamal Haynes and laugh. It’s a big cycle. Gunther asks me about my father’s health. I say “yeah” and reflect on my old man’s love of music and of musicians. I reflect on young bass player Daniel Winshall, a high school junior. He came tonight and I could see him watching Carlos playing a great solo on Meditation. Another bassist, Jonathan Kelly, who copied all the music of this Mass in three weeks, sent me a text message, “Look out for Daniel tonight. He’s the truth.”
From 16 year old Daniel to 88 year old Gunther and all of us in between, Lutye, this music brings us in intimate and meaningful contact with each other. It’s deeper than the notes. It’s how we feel about life and being alive, and about being alive with each other.
At our last rehearsal before going on tour, Rev. Butts prayed for our safe travels. Well, close to 100 people traveled across the country with no major problems and very few glitches. Besides being a testament to our office and road team, it was truly a blessing….. And we give thanks. From our sponsors the Steward Family Foundation, to our Concerts and Touring Department, Derek Kwan and his entire team including Raymond “Boss” Murphy, Jean Lee, Jason Olaine, Christi English, Kay Niewood, Eric Wright, Alex Knowlton, Jay Sgroi, Frank Stewart, Ernie Gregory, and Charles Bratton to the one and only celebrity sound man David Robinson, people worked their tails off to make this tour happen. Actually, the whole of JALC, from Executive Director Greg Scholl, to everyone in our extended family, we all came together to touch and elevate people through a difficult period in our nation’s understanding of itself. One of our choir members asked me, “Do you have any idea of how many people’s lives we have changed for the better out here?”
I have no idea.
When Chris Crenshaw started to sing the Benediction tonight, the choir began co-signing him, “Come On Deacon, Preach brother! Make it plain.” He sang these words with a powerful depth and clarity:
“Lord, from you all things. Though we are many in life and death, we are truly one. Just the calling of your Holy name releases us to perceive the oneness in all, of all. You have given us, through your word, the divine thought. And the divine thought IS the divine manifestation IS holy action.”
For me, that is the power of prayer in whatever religion, or none at all.
It is now 2:37am. Frank and I have been on the road for almost 3 hours. The radio is repeating today’s sports scores ad nauseam with theme music just loud enough for the announcer to appear to be shouting over it. Normally, I try to keep him up with forced conversation. But tonight, I’m writing this.
“How you think the tour was Frank?”
“What are you talking about man, it was glorious…….We almost home. We have about 20 minutes to go.”
(But it’s really more like an hour.)