From the hallowed sanctuary of the historic Bethel A.M.E. Church a chorus of voices – among the best in Detroit – sang out, paying homage to African-American classical music and backed by the revered Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
The sophisticated affair marked the first Classical Roots concert in 1978. Since then, this celebration of African-American classical music and artists has blossomed into a multi-faceted and essential element of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s annual offerings.
It educates people about African-Americans in classical music, supports and encourages African-Americans pursuing careers in classical music with annual year-long fellowships with the DSO and honors and encourages artists at an annual fundraising gala and concert.
From a church hall to Orchestra Hall– Classical Roots has become one of the metro Detroit’s annual must-see events!
The 2017 honorees are two internationally-acclaimed musicians: Detroit native, violinist Regina Carter and trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard. His leadership of the DSO’s jazz programming has made him so much a part of the city’s jazz scene, he might as well call Detroit home, second only to his native New Orleans.
Classical Roots takes it up yet another notch this year. The DSO commissioned Blanchard to create a musical piece to mark the 50th anniversary of Detroit’s 1967 civil unrest. The world premiere of the highly-anticipated composition “Detroit 67” will be performed at the March 3 concert.
The composition is among several ways the city of Detroit is “Looking Back to Move Forward”, the theme of a varied, year-long initiative to examine and grow from that tumultuous year in the city’s history.
“Terence Blanchard’s piece demonstrates the role music can play in making history relevant and bringing art to life,” says Marlowe Stoudamire, project director of Detroit 67, which is also the name of the collaborative initiative between the Detroit Historical Society, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and numerous other cultural and civic groups and individuals. “A lot of storytelling will be integrated into it. A story this big takes all of us to tell it, and different ways to tell it. And music unites everybody.”
Blanchard is certainly no stranger to making music that is part of the fabric of political and artistic discourse. He has composed all the music for filmmaker Spike Lee’s popular works, including “Malcolm X” and the documentary, “When the Levees Broke”, about Hurricane Katrina.
Blanchard studied videos, written material and listened to interviews about the rebellion to compose “Detroit 67”. It took about two months to write.
It’s written in two movements. The first centers on the immediate aftermath: the hurt, the anger, the despair. The second movement focuses on moving forward, just as Detroit has done and is doing, he says.
“It’s all about remembering where Detroit came from, but not dwelling on the past,” he says. “It’s about opening hearts and minds and celebrating our differences and coming together as a diverse community.”
Regina Carter will play a separate piece that pays tribute to legendary female vocalists, such as Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
“Music and art gives us, musicians, a voice; to encourage, to uplift,” Carter says.
She recalls armored tanks rolling down the streets of her west side Detroit home in 1967. She was about 5. She remembers her mother gathering her and her siblings to watch the news on the television.
“She wanted to explain what was going on so we could be informed and not frightened,” Carter recalls.
Both Carter and Blanchard see parallels between ’67 and the political unrest today. Music, then as now, helps people release emotions.
“I hope, with everything going on, people will be uplifted and motivated, and I hope the music brings hope and joy,” she says.
Blanchard and Carter are excited to be honored at the Classical Roots celebration.
“I feel very blessed and excited and honored to be a part of the whole night,” Carter says. “I love my city. I still call Detroit home, even though I haven’t lived there since ’91. It’s nice to know your home city loves you as much as you love your home.’’
Blanchard says he’s humbled to be honored by a city which such deep musical roots.
“Detroit has its own rich, musical and artistic history that goes back decades, so to be recognized here and to be asked to write a piece for such an event is a huge honor,” he says.
The Brazeal Dennard Chorale has been a staple of the Classical Roots series since the chorale performed at that first concert in 1978.
Alice McAllister Tillman, artistic director of the Brazeal Dennard Chorale, says it’s fitting that music be among the ways the city marks the 50th year since the ’67 rebellion.
“Music has always been a unifying factor, and it can unify people even around something as ugly as the ’67 rebellion,” who’s also a soloist and soprano in the chorale. “Look at all the different people coming together for this. The musicians will be diverse. The audience is very diverse. This music will help people appreciate what has taken place and where we can go from here.”
Wayne Brown, president and CEO of the Michigan Opera Theater, was among the early organizers of the first Classical Roots concert and took the concept to other cities where he has worked. He remains a strong supporter in his new role at the MOT.
He’s especially pleased that Blanchard and Carter, musicians both known for their jazz work, will be honored. It shows how the boundaries between classical and jazz aren’t as sharp as in the past, he says. And it represents a kind of coming together that art is all about, he added.
“When you think of ’67 or 9-11 or tragedies on foreign surfaces, it’s been music that has provided comfort and peace,” Brown says. “Music allows us to reflect on the importance of growing as a community, especially in moments of uncertainty.”
Blanchard will not direct the world premiere of his composition in March.
That honor goes to Maestro Kazem Abdullah, an African-American musician who has become one of the most watched young conductors on the orchestral stage internationally.
Abdullah says he’s especially pleased to be able to conduct Blanchard’s composition.
“I feel very honored to have the chance to conduct a piece written by Terrance Blanchard I have been a big fan of his, as he is one of the great jazz musicians of his generation, and also a wonderful composer,” Abdullah said in an email interview from his home in Germany. “I think I was first introduced to his compositions through his film scores. For me he is like a modern day Duke Ellington in the fact that he is a both a performer, teacher, and composer.’’
Music has always had transformative power, Abdullah said.
“I will give you a completely different era and time to demonstrate how music can speak of a period of rebellion,” he says. “The German composer Kurt Weill wrote a very rebellious piece just before the Second World War called the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ in which he uses text from Bertolt Brecht. He uses the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ to demonstrate how society can turn its back on doing what is right in order to avoid financial ruin.
“Music is an art form that always reflects the time period it is composed in or created. This brings to mind Duke Ellington’s “Three Black Kings” or “Black, Brown, and Beige”.
“I think the same frustrations that caused the LA riots in ‘92 and the riots in Detroit in the ‘60s ring true for movements like “Black Lives Matter”. Equality is something that, unfortunately, still has to be fought for in the modern world.”
Music helps heal, he says.
“I hope people will be touched by the music,” he says. “It is very much an original work that expresses the anxiety and the hope of getting through a tumultuous time, followed by healing.”