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A Juneteenth album captures the rhythm of life

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 12: Wynton Marsalis performs during "Live from Here" at The Town Hall on October 12, 2019 in New York City.
Taylor Hill
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NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 12: Wynton Marsalis performs during "Live from Here" at The Town Hall on October 12, 2019 in New York City.

Just in time for Juneteenth, Jazz at Lincoln Center has released an album called Freedom, Justice and Hope.

The album is a collaboration between Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, fronted by Wynton Marsalis. Stevenson provides some introductions and historical context. While the album features music from jazz legends like Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, as well as arrangements of spirituals, it also offers new compositions by Josh Evans and Endea Owens.

Setting music to the story of Elaine, Arkansas

Evans, a jazz trumpeter, has written a piece called “Elaine,” which musically illustrates the events of the Elaine, Ark., massacre of 1919.

“A lot of time when I compose, I like to write about historical events or people that I admire the most,” Evans explained. “The story of the Elaine massacre is a complicated one. But simply, after World War I, cotton prices rose substantially. It was not uncommon for sharecroppers to owe money to the plantation owners after a month's work. In 1919, a man named Robert Hill started the union. He started the union to get sharecroppers fair compensation.

 Album cover, "Freedom, Justice and Hope". The Juneteenth album was released on Friday.
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Album cover, "Freedom, Justice and Hope". The Juneteenth album was released on Friday.

“On Sept. 29, 1919, two white men disrupted a union meeting at a church. One was killed and the other man was wounded. The next day, the story was all in the news and soon posses were sent out. The posses soon began killing people indiscriminately. Even federal troops were sent to the area, but they only added to the killing. The exact number of men and women and children killed is not known, but it's somewhere between 50 and 250. When I set out to write this composition, I wanted to tell the story of the Island massacre through music, almost like a soundtrack.”

Evans wrote the 14-minute piece in several sections, illustrating the story of Elaine.

“The intro is supposed to be slow but grandiose,” Evans said. “The second section is a swing section, which I wrote for Robert Hill and is titled 'Robert Hill's Union.' The song then dissipates into something that is almost like the calm before the storm.

“And then, suddenly, the march begins. It’s supposed to symbolize the union meeting being disrupted. And once again, there's a sudden change and there's a free section of all the trumpet players. It is supposed to represent the first violence. The following section reflects on the next few days, where most of the violence occurred. With the syncopated rhythms and drum hits, I try to demonstrate and have the listener feel the turmoil and unrest of those days. This time, the whole band plays free and without chord changes. This is the height of the violence. After that, Dan Nimmer plays a piano solo by himself, and it’s supposed to be slow and sad. After the solo, the whole band comes in, which is supposed to be the healing, and a look to the future.”

“It was an absolute pleasure working with Wynton Marsalis,” Evans said, “someone who's been one of my favorite trumpet players since I was a little kid. This band is absolutely incredible. And they are the most technically proficient band I've ever heard. I knew that I could write anything and they would play it properly. So, thank you to Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz Orchestra.”

A serenade for Ida B. Wells

Endea Owens, who many know as the bass player on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, wrote “Ida’s Crusade” about journalist, suffragist and activist Ida B. Wells.

“Ida B. Wells is someone who I found extremely inspirational to my life once I read her autobiography, Crusade for Justice,” Owens explained. “I was so inspired, and in jazz, and in society in general, women's stories are often untold. She's one of our unsung heroes. She is one of the founders of the NAACP. She was one of the leading journalists for writing pamphlets and newsletters and articles concerning lynchings concerning everything happening in the Black community. She was also a very important part in the suffrage movement.”

Owens added, “So I had to write a piece about her. Somebody had to do it.”

“Jason Olaine, from Jazz at Lincoln Center, as well as Wynton Marsalis contacted me to write a piece,” she recalled. “They said, ‘Have you ever written for a big band or large orchestras?’ And I said, ‘Yes, but it's been some years. But I can do it, of course.’ And this was my first original big band orchestra piece, so it was a task to get it done, but it was something that I knew I could do and knew I should do, especially as a female composer. It was such an honor as a Black woman, as well, to honor another Black woman in history.”

After the Jazz at Lincoln Center premiere, “Ida’s Crusade” has subsequently been performed at Carnegie Hall and in Chicago.

“Ida’s Crusade” is written in four parts, or suites, as Owens calls them.

“The first suite starts with an open bass solo, and that signifies Ida B. Wells’ voice — it is kind of a call for justice, a call to fight for freedom,” Owens said. “And the orchestra responds with the line, and that signifies people saying ‘Amen’ in agreement. That's actually a common thing to do in church — 'Amen,' you know — so I really wanted to make that the first thing that people hear.”

“The second suite is more somber; just talking about her beginning, like, the struggles that she had to go through, the discrimination, just seeing people lynched over and over,” Owens explained. “The third suite is actually her call for justice, because there was an event that happened at a grocery store where one of her friends was one of the three that had gotten lynched by an angry mob.”

And Owens said the fourth suite — her favorite — is “her homecoming, because I feel like all of our civil rights activists and all of our heroes around the community in general — our parents, people who have really uplifted us even though they're not here — should receive a homecoming and a grand homecoming.”

Like Evans, Owens was blown away by the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, saying she was honored to have them play her piece, and, she added: “Wynton brought it even within the short solo. His music is so profound. His thoughts are so profound and it doesn't always need to be long. You can make a statement in a short amount of time — just like Ida B. Wells. Did you know she was only in her 60s when she passed?”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Corrected: June 19, 2024 at 12:03 PM CDT
Jason Olaine's name was corrected.
Jeff Lunden is a freelance arts reporter and producer whose stories have been heard on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on other public radio programs.