What does integrity do in the face of adversity / oppression? What does honesty do in the face of lies / deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force? These four questions posed by the great African American civil rights activist and author W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk are expounded upon in a speech given by Dr. Cornel West based on his book, Black Prophetic Fire, given October 9, 2014 at Town Hall in Seattle. That speech turned my life around and Dr. West has become a giant figure in my thinking.
Without a doubt, he is a controversial figure and many within his own intelligentsia community have attacked him for a variety of reasons. I have learned from firsthand experience that if you are under attack (especially by your own) it could be because standing strong for what you believe will threaten others in their complacency. Regardless of your stance on Dr. West, he holds our feet to the fire and demands that we deal with the social and political horrors of our day. Say what you will, he is a modern-day prophet and prophets throughout the ages are attacked for calling it like it is.
Watching Dr. West speak is one of the sublime musical experiences of my life. His oratory has the weight of a John Coltrane solo. His rhythmic delivery has the tumbao of Mongo Santamaria. The humor with which he injects his very serious messages floats like Charlie Parker in flight and, oh, most sacred of all, when he gets deliberate, each word has the authenticity and Afrocentricity of Thelonious Monk’s right hand.
Upon seeing him in a debate at Riverside Church in New York, I knew I must write a concerto for his delivery of W. E. B. Du Bois’ questions, and I pursued this goal relentlessly. Dr. West is a giant of a human being and graciously agreed to be the subject of what has become an extensive project. The importance of his words, the impact of his observations and the exposition and defense by Cornel filled my soul with notes, rhythms, chords and structures. Rarely have I been so inspired to compose with precision and purpose. The Apollo Theater, the peoples’ performing arts center set in the center of Harlem, commissioned this work which I began while in residency as a MacDowell Fellow.
These are some of the ugliest times in American history. In my wildest imagination I could not have foreseen a time when a president would unabashedly divide the nation across racial lines for his own advance and aggrandizement. These days are marked by governance shaped by dishonesty and manipulation and will be a stain in our history for generations to come. More than ever the brilliance of Du Bois’ introspections, West’s interpretations and the pure jazz fire with which they are delivered are a salve for those who are hurt by this daily assault and an irritant to those who would use ideology to promote hatred and violence.
Baby Jack was commissioned in 2012 by my dear friend, Mary McCormick, on the birth of her grandson Jack. I love how babies can laugh with the brilliance of pure joy, instantly howl with pain the next, and then burst back through with radiance in the blink of an eye. They do not dwell, they experience the highest highs and the lowest lows quickly and efficiently. This inspired the piece, and the idea of accessing our emotions fearlessly, without shame and baggage is intriguing to me. It seems liberating from a personal standpoint. However, it must be pointed out that it should not be the determinant guide for decision making or governance.
The Jazz Twins are my friends Arnold and Donald Stanley from Los Angeles, and they are the best example of friends to the jazz community that I can think of. I noticed them at concerts often when performing throughout the United States and couldn’t make the connection. Being politically outspoken, I thought they might be part of a government agency. Having committed no crime and being a citizen, it dawned on me that they were more likely friends. They rapidly jumped from friend level to family, visiting my mother and even traveling to Cuba with me. The bond between them is very moving and I see glimpses of it in the friendship and love my sons, Zack and Adam, have for each other and in the love I have for my sister, Georgina. It will weather many storms, and I hope my piece captures that.
Four Questions was premiered as the Cornel West Concerto at the Apollo theater on May 21, 2016 by the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra with Dr. Cornel West as guest soloist, conductor and percussionist. The gravity of the 2016 presidential election and its potential for doom was in the air. Dr. West and I were in conversation about Jazz and its inability to address social and political issues. We decided that many of its contemporary leaders had abdicated this responsibility as set forth by revolutionaries like Charles Mingus, Billy Holiday and even Louis Armstrong. Dr. West is a historian of jazz and knows more about its history than many scholars and journalists. We are devotees of the music but wondered where its bite had gone. It seems to be used more for selling nationalism, socio-economic status, soft drinks and luxury cars than to remind us of the history of the African Diaspora. At the end of the piece Dr. West references the ultimate sacrifice that many of our civil rights leaders have made in the continuing struggle. I looked out across my bandstand to see many of my musicians struggling to hold back tears. To look into the face of reality and examine one’s own life in context, is the highest realization of this divine gift called music. Also, during my MacDowell residency, I composed a piece called Clump/Unclump. The piece is about the relentless law of gathering and scattering, the coming together and the falling asunder. It occurred to me that this law has a scientific, philosophical, and relational corollary. Some call it, Ying and Yang but it’s far different. It’s not about cycles or balance, but about elements coming together and then coming apart. When I wrote the piece, I was in the process of dealing with the fact that my oldest child was leaving the parental home and my remaining parent was terminally ill. All of the elements of my life which I thought were rock solid were pulling apart with centrifugal force. In physics, the idea of particles, strings, and atoms acting in this manner is understood but it seemed to me that this was a micro- lesson that’s constantly revealed on a macro scale. It became an anthem for the period that we live in that has hatred and mediocrity as its guiding spirit, this too shall pass.
A Still, Small, Voice is a response to the great financial crisis of 2008 in which some financial institutions took part in unscrupulous practices that caused serious harm to middle class Americans and people around the world. The piece was inspired by the idea that there is a common thread to all religions and philosophies. It is the idea that we all have an inner voice, some call it conscience, others call it divine guidance, that tells us the difference between right and wrong. Human beings who cling to avarice must listen to that voice within, one that doesn’t spread ugliness. The words are borrowed from Hindu, Christian, and Shinto texts that speak to this inner reminder of the eternal truth that if one suffers, we all suffer.
This documentation represents many firsts for me. I’ve never released an entire recording of my compositions. I’ve never been more outspoken on the role of art and artists to be journalists and journey-ists. We have a sacred obligation to observe the horrors of this moment in America and to take those listeners who have ears to hear on a journey of hope and action in the midst of such darkness. The effect this stance has had on my career has been both calamitous and miraculous. There are jazz institutions that have closed their doors to me and those that have opened their doors to me in their stead. I have been the target of threats and praise. None of which matters to me as I don’t do what I do in order to garner either. I simply enjoy the moment of creating from deep within my soul and conscience. Being communicative about my convictions seems to give my muse flight.
During the horrific Michael Cohen hearings, the Honorable late Representative Elijah Cummings quoted our great American voice of conscience, Dr. Martin Luther King. He says “Faith is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase. There comes a time when silence becomes betrayal. Our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that truly matter. In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
Arturo O’Farrill, NYC 2020
Four Questions is the sixth production on which Arturo and I collaborated, over almost a decade. It’s been amazing to see Arturo’s journey as an artist and intellect. He makes music that is both contemporary and timeless, provoking questions among listeners to observe their surroundings. That this project is grounded in the philosophy of one great American writer, W.E.B. Du Bois, it’s fitting to cite another. The influential African American jazz critic and novelist Albert Murray believed that cultural diversity was a hallmark to America’s strength, and I know that Arturo believes this, too. Moreover, like Murray, Arturo believes that the powers that be should be called out for intolerance and bigotry. It’s been an honor to produce this project with Doug Davis and for Arturo, who I consider a dear mentor and friend. When he embarks upon a project, he bares is heart and soul. There is indeed something courageous in sharing yourself. And the world is better for Arturo sharing his artistry with all of us.
Kabir Sehgal, New York City, 2020
Recorded 2016 – 2019. Recorded at Avatar Studios, New York, NY. Producers: Kabir Sehgal, Arturo O’Farrill, Doug Davis. Assistant Producer: Julian Weller. Recording Engineer: Tom Lazarus. Mix Engineer: Peter Karl. Mastering: Alan Silverman. Liner Notes: Arturo O’Farrill, Kabir Sehgal. Associate producer for “A Still, Small Voice”: Eric Oberstein. Engineer and Editor for “A Still Small Voice”: Kathryn Miller. Choir Preparation: Jana Ballard. Soprano Soloists for “A Still, Small Voice”: Edda Fransdottir, Aubrey Johnson. CD cover photography: David Garten. All other photography: Melanie Futorian. Package Design: Al Gold. Executive Producers: Kabir Sehgal, Fred Miller, Joachim “Jochen” Becker.
Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra: Four Questions
Release Date: April 10, 2020
UPC Code: 88095620200224
Selection #: ZM 202002
1. Baby Jack 7:21
2. Jazz Twins 9:31
3. Four Questions 16:13
4. Clump, Unclump 7:16
A Still, Small Voice:
5. Elijah – 1 Kings 19:-13 8:05
6. Amidst The Fire and Whirlwind 1:14
7. Cacophonus 4:25
8. A Still, Small Voice 8:02
All compositions written and arranged by Arturo O’Farrill. Copyright 2020 by Madacaz Music (BMI), except The Four Questions, written by Arturo O’Farrill and Cornel West. Publishing Madacaz (BMI), Mindvine (ASCAP).
Arturo O’Farrill – piano, conductor The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra
Dr Cornel West – narrator (# 3)
“The Four Questions”, “Baby Jack”, “Jazz Twins”, and “Clump, Unclump”:
Saxophones: Bobby Porcelli, Ivan Renta (tenor sax solo #2, 3 &4), Jeremy Powell, Larry Bustamante, David DeJesus (alto solo #1)
Trumpets: Bryan Davis, Seneca Black (solo #3 , trumpet solo and voice #4), Adam O’Farrill, John Bailey, David Smith (solo #2)
Trombones and Tuba: Rafi Malkiel, Kajiwara Tokunori, Frank Cohen, Earl McIntyre
Ricardo Rodriguez – bass
Tony Rosa – congas
Carly Maldonado – bongos & percussion
Vince Cherico – drums, solo on #4
“A Still, Small Voice”:
Saxophones: Ivan Renta (soprano sax solo #7), Peter Brainin (tenor sax solo), Bobby Porcelli, David DeJesus, Jason Marshall (baritone sax solo #4)
Trumpets: Seneca Black, Jim Seeley, John Bailey (trumpet solo), Jonathan Powell
Trombones: Tokunori Kajiwara, Rafi Malkiel, Frank Cohen, Earl McIntyre
Gregg August – bass
Vince Cherico – drums
Roland Guerrero – congas
Joe Gonzalez – bongos
Alison Deane – piano
Guests: The “A Still, Small Voice” Singers – Jana Ballard, choral preparation, Aubrey Johnson & Edda Fransdottir – soprano solos, Sharon Moe – French horn, solo #5, DJ Logic – turntables
*Source: ZOHO Music