Like many Black musicians, pianist, bandleader and theologian Julian Davis Reid paid close attention to poet and essayist Amiri Baraka’s 1963 book “Blues People: Negro Music in White America.” Reid was particularly taken with, as he told me, “this idea that Black music is a place where people in this country, Black and otherwise, rest. But at the same time, the music emerges from our sense of homelessness, of not feeling welcomed.”
Baraka was a man of action as well as of ideas, and Reid, a graduate of Yale Divinity School, took his words as a call that Reid answered in words and music with “The American Dream, the American Nightmare, and Black American Music,” which he will present Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in Reinberger Chamber Hall at Severance Music Center. as part of the Cleveland Orchestra’s weeklong Mandel Opera & Humanities Festival: The American Dream.
It’s a dream that, as the grandson of Jamaican immigrants, Reid knows well. Yet, he said, “The American dream and the American nightmare are in constant tension for Black Americans, and that will not go away provided the country doesn’t contend with the extent to which one group’s dream, particularly a dream founded in whiteness, doesn’t account for the nightmare it’s made for others.
So my concert is intended to help people to reflect on the kind of dreaming that they’ve done and how that relates to the nightmare. The point is for me to play these songs in such a way that people actually feel invited and encouraged to think about the relationship both to the dream and to the nightmare.”
Reid grew up in Chicago where he studied classical piano at the Merit School of Music and jazz with Chicago piano great Willie Pickens in the Ravinia Jazz Scholars program. At the same time, he played for services at St. Mark United Methodist Church on Chicago’s South Side. The three musical currents that fed his early life came together in New Haven where Reid moved to study philosophy at Yale University and where he was later involved in ministry.
A move to Atlanta for graduate studies at Emory University’s divinity school led to the formation of his band JuJu Exchange and an opportunity to work with creators in the city’s hip-hop scene. “I’ve worked with Grammy Award-winning producers in terms of making hip-hop. I have played in gospel churches my whole life and work with Grammy-nominated gospel cats. I worked with amazing jazz creators and I grew up playing classical,” he said. “So all of those sensibilities sit together and make the Julian Davis Reid sound.”
And all of those sensibilities will come together in Reid’s program, which will begin with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and survey music by Duke Ellington (”Come Sunday”) and Billy Taylor (“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” made famous by Nina Simone) before ending with his favorite hymn, “Give Me Jesus.”
If that sounds like using music as ministry, Reid would agree. “I believe firmly that faith has been part and parcel of Black folk being able to weather the American nightmare. For me, it always remains a means of ministry, a means of pointing to the work of the Holy Spirit. A lot of these songs will not be explicitly religious, but the spirit is no respecter of genres, you know? And I love actually blending those worlds, bringing Herbie Hancock and Nina Simone together with the Negro spiritual, together with Duke Ellington, because I want to speak to the way in which this faith suffusing black life is all around, and allows us to do this tango of dream and nightmare in the ways that we’ve been able to.”
The American Dream, the American Nightmare, and Black American Music with pianist Julian Davis Reid Thursday, May 18, 7:30 p.m. at Reinberger Chamber Hall at Severance Music Center, 11001 Euclid Ave., Cleveland. Free.
There’s never a bad time to get out and commune in the same room with creative musicians. Below are four musical events of interest in the coming week that you might want to check out.
Thursday, May 18, 5 p.m.
Emerald Necklace Marina, 1500 Scenic Park, Lakewood, free
The banks of the Rocky River in the Metroparks reservation in Lakewood will never be mistaken for a balmy Caribbean beach, but it won’t be for lack of effort by the percussionist Sammy DeLeon. He kicks off the Metroparks’ season of free concerts with Afro-Caribbean rhythms delivered with his customary ebullience. The park is located just west of Detroit Ave. on Valley Parkway.
Friday, May 19, 8 p.m.
G.A.R. Hall, 1785 Main St., Peninsula (tickets)
The Voices in the Valley festival this weekend at Peninsula’s historic G.A.R. Hall bills itself as “a showcase of traditional roots music,” and that certainly applies to the music presented by Alla Boara. But where the festival hews to traditional North American forms, Anthony Taddeo’s merry band mines the folk music of Italy for inspiration. How will tarantella and pizzica sound in the venerable 1851 hall? Only one way to find out.
The Afro-Semitic Experience
Saturday, May 20, 10:30 a.m. free, donations welcome
Beth Israel – The West Temple, 14308 Triskett Rd., Cleveland, free, donations welcome
To celebrate the retirement of Rabbi Enid Lader, Beth Israel – The West Temple offers this unique Shabbat morning service. Co-founded by African-American jazz pianist Warren Byrd, and Jewish-American jazz bassist David Chevan, the experience is a jazz sextet that lives in the part of the Venn diagram where the African and Jewish diasporas meet. There’s a lot of music and soul there and celebration, too.
Bobby Watson Quintet
Saturday, May 20, 8 p.m.
Creative Arts Collaborative Center, 133 Merriman Rd., Akron (tickets)
Bobby Watson is a tweener. Coming to prominence just before the Young Lions phenomenon in the early 1980s but not quite old enough to be an anointed postbop elder. Yet his burning, blues-inflected style on alto saxophonist is as timeless now–and as energetic–as it was when he came up in Art Blakey’s finishing school for young musicians in the late 1970s. He has nothing left to prove, but history suggests that ex-Messengers deliver the goods every time they take the stand.