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Chicago CD Release Celebration Information and Ticket Purchase
Salute to the Brave
Jerry Karp, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, February 19, 2006
impossible not to imagine that an explosion -- a big one -- is
has begun as a swinging, textured big-band rhapsody has turned
urgent, verging toward the discordant, as a pair of tenor saxophonists
stand to do battle. Propelled by a steadily accelerating rhythm
section, the two horns trade lines, growing more frenzied as they
joust, pushing toward a precipice of chaos. What we're hearing
is "Work Routine 2," the ninth section of the "Port
Chicago" suite, a 14-movement composition for 15-piece ensemble
by local musician and jazz orchestra leader Marcus Shelby.
July 17, 1944, a cataclysmic blast at the Port Chicago Naval Weapons
Base at Suisun Bay, near Martinez, killed 320 sailors and wounded
390 as they were loading munitions onto a Liberty Ship. The sailors,
almost all African Americans, were poorly trained, poorly equipped
and forced to work at breakneck speed by the white officers who
made bets on the amount of ordnance each loading crew could handle
in a day.
three weeks later, the surviving sailors were ordered to resume
their duties, with no improvement of equipment or change in the
procedures that had killed their comrades. The sailors who sat
down on the docks rather than walk back into that deathtrap were
tried and convicted of mutiny. Efforts to exonerate them continue.
is the story told musically in Shelby's "Port Chicago"
suite, commissioned in 2002 by the Equal Justice Society, a San
Francisco group of lawyers dedicated to the preservation of civil
and personal rights, to commemorate the organization's 20th anniversary.
The piece had its performance premiere in June 2004, and Shelby
took his orchestra into the studio to record the suite in June
2005. The orchestra will present "The Port Chicago Suite"
at Yoshi's on Tuesday and Wednesday to celebrate the CD's release.
Paterson, the head of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights
(now the EJS) called us into her office," Shelby says. "Me,
Karen Brown from the Oakland Ballet and a few others. Eva wanted
to commission a piece dealing with civil rights. We sat at her
conference table and tossed around ideas, but the topic is so
was Shelby's friend and frequent collaborator, writer and director
Val Hendrickson, who eventually suggested the Port Chicago incident.
"It was perfect," Shelby says. "An event that occurred
close to San Francisco and had an immediacy because of the Iraq
of the Bay Area's most visible jazz artists and busiest bassists,
Shelby is an accomplished composer and arranger for large orchestra.
His most recent works include "The Lights Suite" and
"Brown Dreams." The Marcus Shelby Orchestra, founded
in 2000, is both supple and robust, containing some of San Francisco's
talented young players. Saxophonists Rob Barics, Gabe Eaton and
Evan Francis, trumpeters Darren Johnston and Erik Jekabson and
pianist Adam Shulman are among the musicians whose solos propel
"The Port Chicago Suite."
while the suite incorporates a compelling diversity of jazz flavorings,
including bebop, post-bop, Afro-Cuban and blues, there's no mistaking
the pervasive influence of Shelby's most profound artistic inspiration,
the sophisticated big-band splendor of Duke Ellington and Billy
Strayhorn. The drama of the Port Chicago story emanates from the
explosion, the sit-down and the subsequent court-martials, but
as the piece unfolds, it's clear that Shelby has crafted the suite
within a more nuanced cultural context. After a brief introduction,
"Opening Dance" provides a big-band swing romp that
harks back to the great big bands of the '30s, evoking the spirit
of the era immediately predating the war.
to the story is the fact that, in the segregated wartime Navy,
blacks were relegated almost exclusively to low-level positions
entailing manual labor, with virtually no chance for advancement.
fact that Jim Crow existed in the armed forces was a shock to
many of these young sailors," Shelby explains. "That's
the irony. They had joined the armed forces to get away from that
reality, to feel a worth and value, really wanting to serve their
country, only to be put into another Jim Crow situation."
realities are set to music in the somber movement "Barracks
Life," as the newly conscripted sailors begin to realize
what Navy life holds in store for them, and in the quietly uplifting
"Black in Blue," which represents the sailors' pride
in their service, despite their less-than-ideal conditions. Shelby
was aided in the project by Robert Allen, author of the in-depth
study "The Port Chicago Mutiny," published in 1989,
and by Hendrickson, who created a narrative outline that provided
the foundation for the musical story.
piece was conceived with dance in mind, and the Oakland Ballet,
before its recent demise, was investigating the possibility of
creating accompanying choreography. Shelby and the lawyers' society
are looking for a new collaborative dance partner.
40, Shelby has had plenty of experience with multigenre collaborations.
He has composed frequently for theater, film and dance, beginning
in 1992, when he worked with choreographer Pat Taylor in Los Angeles
on a piece based on the paintings of Romare Bearden and the poetry
of Langston Hughes. He's collaborated with the Robert Moses Dance
Company, the Savage Dance Company and ODC/Dance, among many others.
He's also a resident composer at Intersection for the Arts, the
innovative San Francisco nonprofit arts organization.
music career started when, after completing an electrical engineering
degree at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, he accepted a scholarship
to California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles, where he studied
with jazz greats James Newton and Charlie Haden. He also spent
formative time at the World Stage, a nonprofit jazz center run
by drumming master Billy Higgins. During these years, Shelby played
with Black/Note, a five-piece post-bop ensemble that recorded
four albums and toured as an opening act for Wynton Marsalis.
to San Francisco in 1996, Shelby led the popular Marcus Shelby
Trio, with pianist Matt Clark and drummer Jaz Sawyer, from 1997
through 2000. Then, spurred by his desire to explore more intricate
compositional territory as well as his interest in multigenre
projects, Shelby formed his orchestra.
love history and politics," Shelby says. "Many of my
projects have dealt with African American history. That's empowered
me and given me a sense of purpose."
to "The Port Chicago Suite," Shelby acknowledges that
the piece will ultimately stand or fall on the quality of the
music. He has taken great effort to give his musicians plenty
of room to breathe, to improvise and, most of all, to swing. Still,
he identifies fiercely with the suite's message.
been probably the most important thing, artistically, in my life
as a composer," he says. "Once the government started
to investigate what had happened at Port Chicago, they quietly
started to desegregate the military. To me, that makes these soldiers
heroes. The sailors who refused to work were convicted of mutiny,
but their actions helped end Jim Crow in the armed forces."
Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra plays at 8 and 10 p.m. Tues. and
Wed. at Yoshi's, 510 Embarcadero W., Oakland. $10-$14. (510) 238-9200,
Karp is a freelance writer.
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