Dialogues on Race: Gregg August Speaks

Gregg August

Photo by John Marolakos, courtesy of the artist.

The release of Gregg August’s Dialogues on Race feels darkly relevant: The unsightly realities of how Covid-19 is disproportionately damaging black and brown communities is yet another reminder that America’s institutional inequities have daily and deadly consequences. Using the platform of his 2009 Jazz Gallery commission, bassist and composer Gregg August grapples with hard realities through Dialogues on Race, an album and series of beautiful videos using source material from Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Marilyn Nelson, and Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till. Though the album release show at The Jazz Gallery was postponed due to Covid-19, we spoke with August via phone to discuss the new reality.

The Jazz Gallery: Hey Gregg. Are you still in New York City?

Gregg August: I live in Brooklyn, but I’m actually at a second place that my lady and I bought a few years ago up in Massachusetts. We’ve been safely out of New York for about a month now. My place in New York is tight. I have four basses, a piano and drums, and couldn’t think about moving within New York, because of the real estate market. It’s impossible to afford a new place to rent, forget about buying anything. So, we bought this old Victorian house in the Berkshires in a city called North Adams. There’s a great museum here, MASSMoCA, where I do a residency every summer with Bang On A Can. I’ve grown fond of the area, so we bought a place. Right now, it’s saving us.

TJG: Is it big enough for you to at least not feel claustrophobic?

GA: Oh yeah, it’s an old Victorian duplex. We usually rent the units, but nobody’s renting right now. So we’re here, just figuring everything out. I’m just beginning to get my studio functional, trying to organize things. It’s not easy. I’m sure we’ll talk about… reality [laughs].

TJG: Are you in a headspace to jump in and talk reality?

GA:  I’ll do my best, but things feel distant. The record isn’t where my head is right now.

TJG: Let’s start simple. Can you give me a run down of what you would have been doing during this time?

GA: Well, we had the record release for Dialogues on Race planned for May 29th. We had a gig that revolved around this release at The Jazz Gallery, scheduled for April 10th, which obviously was cancelled. The Jazz Gallery commissioned this piece ten years ago. When the recording was finally finished, Rio was nice enough to suggest that we do the release at the Gallery. Of course it’s all been postponed indefinitely. The CDs were in the process of being manufactured when the plant closed down. The LP’s are finished and on a boat coming from the Czech Republic. But my publicist Matt Merewitz needs CDs in-hand to get to journalists. Everything was going smoothly, but… the process has stopped. It’s disappointing, but certainly not life-or-death.

TJG: The videos are really nice. I’ve worked with Four/Ten before, they’re great.

GA: Oh man, they are so great. They just did another video for me, “Stand Up With Me,” which I published a few days ago. This was actually a separate project from Dialogues. I have a friend/colleague from The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra who is a bassoonist, but also sings! Her name is Gina Cuffari, and she commissioned the piece from me last year.

The videos associated with Dialogues On Race are “Your Only Child” and “Sherbet.” We did those last year in an amazing space in Brooklyn Heights, at a school called The Packer Collegiate Institute. Their chapel has 19th century stained-glass windows made by Tiffany. After first working with Evan and Kevin at Four/Ten on a video of my Trio for Violin, Piano and Bass, then discovering the beautiful chapel, it occurred to me that I needed to make videos of Dialogues on Race, in that space, with those guys. Making those videos helped incentivize getting the record done. With a lot of musicians, it’s expensive. Plus I’m balancing rehearsals, sessions, scheduling commitments, etc. Having those videos gave me a clear pathway to thinking, “Okay, now I have to get the record done.”

Publicity-wise, everything was going great and moving forward towards the release. To be clear, it’s not a big deal whether or not the record comes out right now. But the subject matter–race relations in the US–is a big deal. A big problem. Now, inequality is built into this Covid situation. We keep hearing about how African-Americans and Hispanics are more prone to getting and dying from the disease in the US. If I it understand correctly, it’s because many of these folks are “essential workers.” They have to go to work because they need to eat. Racism in the United States is once again rearing its ugly head, even in a pandemic… My record doesn’t matter, but the subject matter obviously does.

TJG: Institutional poverty, systems saving some and failing others… By extension, your record does matter, and your music matters.

GA: I know. The conversation is important, but the album’s release just isn’t that important right now. Truth be told, none of us knows what’s happening. With anything. We’re all in a state of suspension. We’re trying to stay creative. The silver lining is that normally I don’t often have a lot of down time to work consistently on projects. I practice, I move between things. But this has been a chance to really delve into some things I’ve wanted to get to, in terms of practicing, developing, even thinking. That’s been a good thing, in a way. But it’s a battle.

We’re dealing with our friends being sick. I just got off the phone with a Cuban guy whom I’ve worked with for years, my mentor for Cuban music, and one of the best musicians I’ve ever played with. He’s an older guy, in his seventies, and he spent 15 days in the hospital. I wasn’t expecting him to pull through, knowing what we know about this disease. But he made it out! I’ve been texting him over the last few days, and he actually just called me! He couldn’t talk for long because he was winded. But man, he’s alive.

TJG: What an unexpected gift. Who is this, if I may ask?

GA: It was a gift. I’m trying to process it all. His name is Pablo Moya. That cat, he’s from Guantanamo, Cuba. He was in a famous band called Los Karachi, where he was the bass player and arranger back in the 70s. He moved from Cuba to Ecuador, ended up in the states, played saxophone, did all these different things. I met him playing tres and singing on some restaurant gigs. He knew all the tunes. And I didn’t know the music that well at the time. But he took me by the hand and just let me play. He never told me anything was right or wrong, he would just start playing. It was real on-the-job training, completely organic, all by ear. But I did have to know the rhythms. At times I even sang coros, or backup vocals, in Spanish. He was always there, man, supporting me. I’m on a few records with him, and I’m so glad he’s still around, because obviously he’s got more to do. It’s a heavy hour.

TJG: So, let’s talk about the commission a little more. I found it interesting that you filmed these videos at Packer, an elite prep school in Brooklyn. It’s striking to see the black and brown faces of all these amazing musicians playing in front of the Tiffany stained-glass window backdrop at this prep school. By framing it like that, you created a provocative juxtaposition, given the subject at hand in your musical dialogues.

GA: I discovered Packer through my neighbor in Brooklyn, who had been a teacher there for decades. Her name was Jane Rinden. She had retired long ago, and passed away in July 2018. Her memorial service was held there and I was asked to organize some music for it. I got together about 15 string player friends and arranged an aria from the final scene of Wagner’s Die Walküre. Jane and her husband Thor were immense opera fans, and we’d spoken a lot about “Wotan’s Farewell,” a deep scene in the opera. You know in Ritt der Walküren, “The Ride of the Valkyries,” where Valkyrie Brünnhilde’s father is Wotan, king of the gods… It’s very moving music, some of the most beautiful music I know. Not many of my friends or family know it, but she did. Jane was simply my neighbor, but we had this beautiful connection.

Once I was in that chapel, I realized it was an incredible environment. Packer is not a religious school. And though the gorgeous Tiffany windows seem to have religious references, I later learned that they do not. Instead the images are derived from Renaissance iconography. Regardless, the space feels reverential, and I felt it would provide the perfect setting for filming parts of Dialogues on Race, particularly Marilyn Nelson’s “Your Only Child.”

TJG: So interesting.

GA: Yeah. In her poem, Marilyn Nelson is paying tribute to Emmett Till’s mother, whom she compares her to Jesus’s mother, about the suffering of her only child who is killed. The sound in the chapel is amazing-very resonant and comfortable to play in. Getting access wasn’t easy, but it was worth it. I’m glad you noticed it and enjoyed it.

TJG: As an aside, have you been to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC?

GA: I haven’t been yet, but it’s interesting you mention it, because a friend of mine’s daughter worked on that very exhibit–you’re about to mention Emmett Till’s casket, right?

TJG: Yes, exactly.

GA: She worked on that as they were preparing everything. She was telling me about the intensity of the experience of preparing that exhibit. They were bringing in cops and all different types of people to educate them about race dynamics in our country. They would bring, basically, white people to that exhibit to show them the power of it. It would quickly get them in touch with some of the things we’ve been dealing with in society for the last four hundred years. She was a spectator to it, a witness in a way. She said it was powerful.

Regarding the commission, Rio and Dale, God rest his soul, commission five or six musicians every year. With the commission in 2009, I didn’t know what I would write. But I arrived at the subject of race relations, and it struck me as something I wanted to approach. Then, I saw a documentary called The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till by Keith Beauchamp, and that triggered it all. I also included some poems by Maya Angelou and others because I wanted to create a broader discussion of race.

I reached out to Keith last year, and asked if I could use some of the footage from the film, specifically sections where Mamie Till speaks about Emmett. Incredibly, he gave me the whole film. I incorporated the text of Mother Mamie describing her son while he was a baby, and was growing up, and then of course what she saw at the funeral home. We improvise to the text–me, Marcus Rojas on tuba and Ken Thomson on bass clarinet. The track is called Mother Mamie’s Reflections. Though I’ve never met Keith in person, we’ve become close over phone calls and emails. I know he was planning to attend the April 10th Jazz Gallery gig.

TJG: You’ve performed at The Jazz Gallery many times, right?

GA: Oh yeah, with J. D. Allen, Michele Rosewoman, and with my project quite a bit. I used to have a working sextet and we’d play there regularly and workshop new material.

TJG: The Gallery is about to celebrate its 25th Anniversary. Can you take me back to some of those earlier memories, and tell me what The Gallery has meant to you over the course of your career?

GA: [Laughs] It’s funny, I don’t think J.D. Allen remembers this, but the first time I met him was there, at the Gallery. I was subbing for another bass player, it was a late-night thing. It was no big deal, a late night jam session kind of thing. But it’s funny to think back on it now, after working together for so many years. In addition to playing with his trio since 2006, he’s also on some of my records, including this one. J.D. is an important part of my musical life. But that gig at the old Gallery on Hudson Street was the first time we ever played together. Whenever I mention that gig, he doesn’t remember it. [Laughs]

Then I started playing there with my group regularly, which was great. The Gallery provides that environment where people can sit, listen, pay attention. It’s almost like a classical concert environment, rather than a jazz room with a lot of noise, people talking and drinking, not paying attention. At the Gallery, you can hold an audience. It’s special for that reason. It puts the music at another level of validation.

I remember hearing Miguel Zenón’s band at the record release show for Esta Plena, which was the result of a Guggenheim grant, if I remember correctly. I was standing next to the writer Ned Sublette, so I introduced myself. Ned writes a lot about race relations, about music in New Orleans, about Cuban music, about the slave trade. He has an amazing book on Cuban music (Cuba and Its Music) where I think he spends about 150 pages on Africa and another 150 on Spain before he even gets to the Caribbean. He’s an incredible source for Latin music. So, we were hanging and listening to Miguel’s killing music on Hudson Street. That’s another memory that jumps out.

TJG: Hopefully things will be back up and running in semi-short order.

GA: I hope so, man. I was just there in February to check out John Ellis’s piece, The Ice Siren, which was commissioned the same year as Dialogues on Race. We actually had a lot of the same musicians on our premiers, Miles Griffith and Marcus Rojas. John is great. And he’s playing soprano on Dialogues on Race.

TJG: You mentioned that you’re tucked up north in Massachusetts, and are coming around to new ways of practicing and thinking. How have you been passing the time?

GA: I’ve been finishing some stalled recording/video projects. First was Stand Up By Me, the video project we talked about. That was shot in September, and I was finally able to put that together. I have another piece that was filmed in December, a bass trio where all three double basses are in different tunings. It’s called Scordatura Harmonica Per Tre. Scordatura is a string-player term meaning re-tuning. We only play open strings and harmonics, hence the title. I need to finish editing the audio, and will then pass it along to Four/Ten Media. I’m thinking about changing the title actually. Not because of the italian thing, but I think there’s a deeper meaning in the music somewhere. Who knows…

I’m also practicing in a different way. I’m trying to connect with myself on a deeper level, simply as a result of not having anyone else to play with. People have been making these multi-screen videos, but we’re really all on our own right now. It’s surreal. Not knowing what’s coming, in terms of being able to ever play with other musicians again. And that’s what we all thrive on. It’s one thing to listen to people’s stuff online. I’m listening deeper, checking out what’s happening more. But what’s lacking is actual live playing. It’s taking a toll on my psyche, because we don’t know when it’ll return. Then, of course, there’s the economic reality of not being able to play gigs. But it’s really about the spiritual thing, with not having brethren to inspire us. We don’t appreciate it until we haven’t got it.

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