In a fusion of visionary imaginations separated by a century, the work of two great African-American artists, one from the Deep South and one from the Midwest, will be showcased in a single program during the 2016 Savannah Music Festival (SMF) when Waynesboro, Georgia native Wycliffe Gordon conducts a 19-piece jazz orchestra performing his original score for Within Our Gates, the 1920 silent film written and directed by Oscar Micheaux, a pioneer of American cinema and the other celebrity who once called Metropolis, Illinois, home. The SMF performance on Friday, April 1 marks the third time this program has been presented and the first time outside of New York City.
“The first time I saw the movie, my reaction was, ‘No way can I do this,’” admits Gordon, a composer and multi-instrumentalist best known for his mastery of the trombone. “But then I watched it again, and on the third viewing, I said, ‘I have to do this.’”
Generally recognized as the earliest surviving feature film produced and directed by an African-American, Within Our Gates is set within a contemporaneous milieu of racial strife. The narrative point of view from within a black community is resonant with the emancipated spirit of the Harlem Renaissance yet plagued by Jim Crow laws, systemic racism and resurgent white supremacist activity in the South. The 79-minute long movie was highly controversial in its day and still throws a stinging punch almost a hundred years after its segregated premiere, which, lest one forget, transpired a mere 55 years after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House. Gordon’s score, which was commissioned in 2011 by Jazzmobile, expertly complements the on-screen action by attaching musical themes to characters and enriching with rhythmic grace and melodic poignancy what at times is an unsettling cinematic experience.
“Even though the film was released in 1920, some of the issues have carried over to today,” notes Gordon. “That’s what makes the film relevant, not just in terms of black-and-white relations, but black-and-black, too.”
Within Our Gates tells the story of Sylvia Landy (played by Evelyn Preer), a 30-ish African-American woman who travels to Boston to raise money for the rural southern school where she teaches. The school is facing closure due to inadequate funding during a period of rapidly increasing enrollment (“The state only pays $1.49 a year for each Negro child,” the viewer learns from the intertitles). In her quest for financial support, Landy meets and falls in love with Dr. V. Vivian (Charles Lucas), an eminent community figure who is “passionately engaged in social questions.”
The couple’s romantic entanglement eventually leads to revelations about Landy’s past, which include her mixed-race heritage and the lynching of her foster parents. The narrative, which unfolds with unflinching candor (and occasionally elusive plotlines), includes many unsavory characters (hustlers, gamblers, cruel businessmen) on both sides of the racial divide. The action includes violence—murder and attempted rape—but the depiction is relatively pedestrian compared with the vividly gruesome effects prevalent in mainstream movies and television programming today.
“When we did the film in 2011, a couple of people walked out, which seems kind of ridiculous when you have films like Star Wars with heads and body parts coming off,” Gordon remarks.
The impetus to score Within Our Gates originally stemmed from a similar project. In 2000, SMF Executive and Artistic Director Rob Gibson presented Gordon with the idea of composing and performing a soundtrack to Micheaux’s 1925 silent film Body & Soul, which is distinguished by the screen debut of the legendary singer and stage performer Paul Robeson. Echoing the reception given to Within Our Gates, Body and Soul engendered discomfort and calls for censorship within the African-American community primarily due to Robeson’s depiction of a carousing predatory ex-convict-turned-minister.
The premiere of Gordon’s score in accompaniment to Body & Soul took place in 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall as part of a tribute to Paul Robeson during the 38th annual New York Film Festival. A year later, a performance at the Lucas Theatre in Savannah was recorded and released on DVD. In 2010, Gordon led a 16-piece big band in a presentation of Body & Soul at the Rialto Center for the Arts in Atlanta as the kickoff event of the National Black Arts Festival.
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Gordon was born on May 29, 1967 into the proverbial musical family. His father, Lucius Gordon, was a classical pianist and teacher, church organist, singer and lover of the blues. Gordon’s jazz roots can be traced to a record collection inherited from an aunt. Among the collection were albums by Louis Armstrong with the Hot Five and Hot Seven, which exerted a profound impact on the budding your musician. Gordon’s mother instilled in her son an abiding spiritual orientation, which continues to influence his life and art (see, for example, the albums The Gospel Truth and In the Cross).
“My mother was born in 1941 on a farm,” Gordon says. “She grew up with the racism that was in Georgia and throughout the South. When I was in high school, a few friends came over. We were all in the band together. There were girls, and they were white. We were outside, me and my buddy and the girls, doing what we always did at band practice, just horseplaying around.”
Gordon recalls his mother stepped outside and ushered him into the house. “She said, ‘Son, don’t bring those white girls over here.’ For the first time, I saw through her eyes something that she knew someone could get in serious trouble for.”
By the time Gordon was a teenager, he could play clarinet, bassoon, bass, drums, tuba and trombone, which became his primary instrument (he’s picked up a few more along the way including the Australian aboriginal didjeridoo). The family had moved from Waynesboro to Augusta where, at Sego Junior High School, Gordon’s band director was trombonist Don Milford. Gordon got his first taste of the professional jazz scene in New York when he performed as a member of the McDonald’s High School All-American Band. He studied music education at Florida A&M where an encounter with guest lecturer Wynton Marsalis led to an extended association with the celebrated trumpeter’s various projects including an especially fruitful stint with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra.
Since 1999 Gordon has released more than two dozen albums as a leader and performed with many of the world’s finest jazz musicians including legendary figures such as Dizzy Gillespie, Lionel Hampton, Tommy Flanagan, Shirley Horn and Joe Henderson. His prodigious technical prowess and vast inventory of stylistic cues put him at home in almost any setting from small straight ahead groups to sophisticated chamber ensembles to swinging big band orchestras.
These days, Gordon is in the process of getting all of his music published including works for concert band, gospel arrangements and compositions for various jazz configurations. “That’s where you can make the big splash,” he says. “A performance only lasts one night. I’m also setting up a studio in my house so I don’t have to schedule time in the studio or (in case) I wake up at three o’clock in the morning and want to try something out.”
An accomplished educator, Gordon is an Artist in Residence at Augusta University and plays a major role with the Swing Central Jazz program, which is an educational component of the annual Savannah Music Festival. In his book, Sing It First (compiled and edited by trombonist Alan Raph), Gordon explains his unique approach to trombone playing, which can be adopted by both classical and jazz musicians.
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Gordon’s score for Within Our Gates (which may soon be available on CD) reflects the composer’s imaginative and multi-faceted approach to interpretation.
“The social issues in Within Our Gates aren’t tied to a particular era and you couldn’t capture everything in the film using only jazz,” Gordon explains. “Some of the score sounds like gospel, some of it’s grooving like a boogaloo, and some of it feels like hip-hop. For one scene I wrote a solo for jazz piano and a more classical-sounding piano; even though the two come together, you can still here the juxtaposition. There’s a scene where Sylvie goes up north to the big city (Boston) so the music is tied to the city, which is about as modern as it gets—really fast, up-tempo, relatively modern sounding jazz.”
Gordon has conducted two previous performances of Within Our Gates both times with mostly the same band members. The upcoming performance in Savannah will feature an almost entirely new orchestral lineup, which presents a special set of challenges. The band will have three days of rehearsal and one dress rehearsal before the prime time concert.
“Anytime you bring in a new musician they have to learn the music, but in this case they also have to learn the film,” Gordon explains. “It’s not a bunch of chord changes you can play with your eyes closed. There are times when you have to be watching the film to know what’s happening, and those passages can last up to seven or eight minutes. You can’t just count and come in. You have to be able to pick up where somebody left off or introduce something new, musically, based on what’s happening dynamically on the screen, rather than just riff on something already there.”
Composing the score was the easiest part of the process, Gordon says. The hard work came with figuring out how to fit the pieces of the puzzle together – coaching the musicians, which include two vocalists (the composer lends a third voice while group singing and hamboning are also in the mix); synchronizing the music with the film and building a click-track; refining the through-composed score during rehearsals. Looming above everything else, at all turns of the reel, was Micheaux’s audacious, imperfect, century-old cinematic vision trained on a fundamentally flawed, deeply complex, unspeakably unjust world.
“Within Our Gates deals with things we sweep under the rug, which we still do today,” Gordon says.
In a small but not insignificant way, this 21st century melding of minds from the realms of music and film succeeds in preventing those “things” from being swept into oblivion.
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The Savannah Music Festival opens March 24 and runs through April 9, 2016. The Within Our Gates showing with original score composed and conducted by Wycliffe Gordon takes place April 1 at 7 p.m. at the Lucas Theatre. Tickets are available at https://tickets.savannahboxoffice.com/ordertickets.asp?p=1746.