Considering the Charlottesville, Virginia August 11-12 incidents with the tragic loss of one woman’s life and the president’s press conference of Tuesday, August 15, these days of August have been tumultuous and divisive. Indeed, taking a stand to uphold human rights and decry hate groups that seek mainstream political power appears to be more vital than ever, as protest marches last weekend indicate. Symbolic action, whether through demonstrations or concerts, is a reminder to all that love trumps hate, and a great majority of Americans are committed to upholding the sanctity of every life, regardless of race or religion.
Serendipitously, the final summer concert series at the New York Botanical Garden on Friday, August 18 was a majestic reminder of this citizen commitment. Despite the threatening thunderstorm and intermittent periods of rain throughout the day, the turnout to embrace Jazz and Chihuly, Songs of Protest and Reconciliation was overwhelming.
The tent was packed with a diverse crowd there to enjoy the musical group led by award-winning pianist and vocalist Damien Sneed, guest trumpeter Keyon Harrold, and the other prodigiously talented musicians and vocal artists. Together the musicians presented a poignant and joyful evening of entertainment.
And after joining with them in celebrating some of the best songs composed by jazz, soul, gospel, and contemporary music greats (including two by Sneed), the audience was sent out into the night sans rain to appreciate the luminous Chihuly sculptures presented throughout the grounds and in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.
The final concert in the summer series was co-produced by the Catskill Jazz Factory and Absolutely Live Entertainment. The Catskill Jazz Factory encompasses a dynamic jazz program. Its mission is to aid some of the finest young jazz artists with year-round workshops, concerts, residencies, and world-class performances in the Hudson Valley.
Absolutely Live Entertainment is a festival, tour, and concert production company spearheaded by Danny Melnick. Melnick is the producer of the Newport Jazz Festival and the artistic director of Carnegie Hall’s The Shape of Jazz series.
Sneed is a master of practically every musical genre and a 2014 recipient of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence honor which is presented annually to emerging black and Latino leaders in classical music. His facility with jazz, gospel, pop, R&B, opera, and musical theater and his work with Aretha Franklin, Wynton Marsalis, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross have served him in excellent stead.
Sneed facilely shepherded the ensemble of vocalists Chenee Campbell, Anitra McKinney, Djore Nance, Tiffany Stevenson, Matia Washington and musicians Stacy Dillard (saxophone), Corey Wilcox (trombone), Julius Rodriguez (Hammond B3 organ), John Matthew Clark (bass guitar), and Mark Clark, Jr. (drums). The songs of protest included “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” (Nina Simone), “Oh Freedom” (African-American spiritual), “Follow the Drinking Gourd (Underground Railroad)” and “Freedom (excerpt)” (Duke Ellington).
Each of those songs emphasized every individual’s yearning for freedom and what freedom means collectively and personally. They were a fitting tribute to the principles of our Constitution and Declaration of Independence which we must hold politicians accountable to or lose the very foundation of what makes our democracy and its inclusiveness great.
During the first half of the evening, an audience member brought up a t-shirt and draped it on a music stand. The shirt had the logo, “Black Lives Matter.” The act was spontaneous and unstaged.
Interspersed with the songs of protest were songs of reconciliation: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Simon and Garfunkel), “God Bless the Child” (Billie Holiday and Arthur Herzog, Jr.), “Proud Mary” (John Fogerty), “Is My Living in Vain” (Twinkie Clark and The Clark Sisters), and more. Each number featured a powerful solo by one of the vocalists. The audience showed its appreciation with standing ovations.
During the second portion of the evening, Keyon Harrold performed a song he had composed. “When Will the Killing Stop?” was a dedication to Michael Brown and all the young black men who have been killed for “no good reason.” His playing was at once soulful and poignant, his talent incredible. It is no wonder he has been featured on nearly 100 albums with a wide music range – jazz and R&B, pop and gospel, blues and hip-hop.
By the conclusion of the evening, the storm and rain had stopped and the audience had been refreshed and uplifted by the program’s embodiment of the evolution of freedom into forgiveness, reconciliation, and love.
On this night that evolution was inspired through exceptional musical artistry that united and uplifted a community of jazz, garden, and Dale Chihuly enthusiasts. For audience members it was a clarification of the last few weeks and exemplification of all that is best in human hearts, further illustrated by the fantastic, illuminated Chihuly sculptures.