Black Artists Matter: The Resurrection of the Harlem Arts Festival, 1969


One of the undeniable positive effects of the Black Lives Matter movement is exemplified in this amazing release. The Harlem Arts Festival, which ran from June 29 to August 24, 1969 (on Sundays at 3 PM) featured some profoundly important musicians (only one of whom went on to play at the fabled “Woodstock Festival” which ran from August 15-18, 1969 in Bethel, New York). This festival which was held on six Sundays in the summer of 1969 was documented in about 40 hours of footage which then languished in a basement for some 50 years.

Questlove

Along comes Ahmir Khalib Thompson, known professionally as Questlove, an American musician, songwriter, disc jockey, author, music journalist, and film director. Along with restoring the original footage, Questlove, as director of this auspicious release intercuts contemporary interviews (mostly with people who attended the festival) with carefully chosen performance footage which contextualizes the concert series effectively making this release into a sociological as well as historical document which emphasizes the significance of the festival leaving the viewing audience to contemplate why such important footage had been left to languish in a basement for 50 years.

In fact there had been efforts to capitalize on the popularity of pop concert footage evidenced by Michael Wadleigh’s well documented Woodstock Festival which quickly became a defining document of the era. The fact that production funding was easily obtained for that film (for which the young Martin Scorsese and his frequent collaborator, Thelma Schoonmaker contributed their editing skills)is a matter of record. But the efforts failed and the concert footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival would not be seen until 2021.

A quick look at the lineup for the Harlem Festival (original poster on right) demonstrates the obvious blackness of the performers in direct counterpoint to the equally obvious whiteness of the Woodstock Festival (Quill, Country Joe McDonald, Santana, John Sebastian, Keef Hartley Band, The Incredible String Band, Ravi Shankar, Canned Heat, Mountain, Grateful Dead, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band, Sly and the Family Stone, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, Nicky Hopkins, Joe Cocker and The Grease Band, Country Joe and the Fish, Ten Years After, The Band, Johnny Winter, Edgar Winter, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Sha Na Na, Jimi Hendrix / Gypsy Sun & Rainbows). The only black musicians (ironically in a concert of predominantly blues based rock) at Woodstock were Sly and the Family Stone and Jimi Hendrix. And the audience at each of these festivals pretty much reflected the racial demographic onstage.

Questlove’s effort won “Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)” both the Grand Jury Prize and an Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival in 2021. It was released January 28, 2021 (Sundance) and June 25, 2021 (United States) and is currently streaming on Hulu.

Why am I featuring this pop music documentary on this modern classical blog? Well it is a contemporary release of music which has been and continues to be influential in our modern culture. A quick look at some of my previous blogs will reveal reviews of concerts and CDs featuring electric guitars, Hammond Organs, etc. And the repetitive figures and simpler harmonic structures endemic to “rock” have infiltrated the classical realm via minimalism.

Mavis Staples (l) with Mahalia Jackson

We live in an age where the last two Pulitzer Prizes in music went to (very deserving) black composers, Anthony Davis (2020) and Tania Léon (2021). Maestro Davis once shared with me that he seeks inspiration studying the music of James Brown and doubtless there are many more such instances of “pop music” influencing “classical music” which I shall leave for musicologists to explore. But the bottom line is that this film brings to light the fact that there are some 40 hours of amazing concert footage that remains largely unseen and which contains marvelous and significant historical events (the final cut of the film reportedly only uses about 35% of the original film). The moment in which Mahalia Jackson hands the microphone back to Mavis Staples alone is a metaphorical “passing of the torch” from one generation to the next, a truly beautiful moment regardless of one’s race.

It is probably worth noting that the attempt to recreate the success of Woodstock with the December 6, 1969  “Altamont Speedway Free Festival” which was sullied by the tragic death of a concertgoer at the hands of the Hell’s Angels who had been hired to provide security for the event. By contrast, when the New York City Police Department refused to provide security for the Sly and the Family Stone segment of the Harlem Cultural Festival, the Black Panthers were engaged (rather more successfully) to provide security for that event. Read what you will into those facts.

One hopes that the release of Summer of Soul will result in the subsequent release of more of that concert footage from a more innocent (or naive?) time so we may see these fine young musicians near the beginnings of their wonderful careers (well, one could argue that Stevie Wonder was more mid-career at this point). Questlove’s directorial efforts backed by producers David Dinerstein, Robert Fyvolen, and Joseph Patel have brought to light this important cultural event placing it in its proper historical perspective in the development and performance of new music. Festival producer and filmmaker Hal Tulchin documented the six-week festival in 1969 and called the project “Black Woodstock” in hopes of helping the film sell to studios. After everyone turned him down, 40 hours of unseen footage sat in his basement for half a century. Sadly, Tulchin died in 2017.

I haven’t looked to see how many different cuts exist of the Woodstock Film but the 1994 director’s cut clocks in at 224 minutes and the latest CD release contains no fewer than 4 discs. Would that something similar will happen with the yet unseen film of these fine performers. The sort of “cancel culture” that helped keep this film in a basement for 50 years may be seeing its influence wane. Meanwhile there remains joy in both this film and in the anticipation of seeing more of this historic event, a vital part of music history and American history. Bravo Questlove!

Dark Queen Mantra, Celebrating Terry Riley at 80



Terry Riley (1935- ) turned 80 on June 24, 2015 and happily we are still celebrating this treasure of American music.  His iconic work “In C” (1964) is one of the defining works of the minimalist movement and Riley’s trippy album, “Rainbow in Curved Air” (1969) has also endured well.  But these works typify his early style and his work has evolved though his primary influences continue to be jazz and Hindustani music for the most part to a very personal style.

His discography boasts at least 30 albums and his compositions range from various chamber music pieces, solo and duo piano music, orchestral music, concertos and even music drama.  His influence on musicians is wide ranging and even includes that familiar intro to Baba O’Riley by the The Who (the title is actually an homage to Meher Baba and Terry Riley and that intro derives from Riley’s first Keyboard Study).  In recent years he has achieved much deserved success in collaboration with his son Gyan Riley who is a composer in his own right and an extraordinary guitarist.  Their collaborations have been a true highlight in both musicians’ careers.

This disc is a production from the truly wonderful Sono Luminus label whose recordings continue to set a high bar for production and excellence in sound as well as in intelligent programming.

Three works are presented here.  The first is Dark Queen Mantra (2015) for electric guitar and string quartet.  It is obviously the centerpiece and it is a fine work commissioned in honor of Riley’s 80th and written for the forces who perform it here. The amazing and versatile Del Sol Quartet and Gyan Riley seem a natural pairing.  These California based musicians seem to pour the whole of their artistic hearts and souls into this performance and Gyan Riley, a fine musician in his own right, always seems to be at his very best in his collaborations with his dad.  (Indeed anyone who had the pleasure of seeing their live sets can testify as to their beautiful musical intimacy.)

So it is we have a definitive recording of yet another fine piece from this beloved composer.  The choice to follow it with Mas Lugares (2003) by the late Stefano Scodanibbio (1956-2012) is an inspired and very appropriate choice (Riley was fond of this composer and helped promote his work).  Scodanibbio collaborated with Riley and recorded two albums with him (Lazy Afternoon Among the Crocodiles, 1997 and Diamond Fiddle Language, 2005).  This work for string quartet is dedicated to Luciano Berio and is a sort of deconstruction via the lens of the composer’s vision of madrigals by the early baroque master Claudio Monteverdi.  It is truly a joy to hear more of this composer’s music and this serves as a loving homage by the Del Sol and, by association, with Riley.

The concluding music is again by Terry Riley and it comes from the rich period of his collaboration with another set of fine California based musicians, the Kronos Quartet. They Wheel and the Mythic Birds Waltz (1983) first appeared on a Gramavision disc and this is a welcome reprise.  It is via his writing for the Kronos that Riley produced most of his string quartet writing and it is a fine repository for his compositional talents.

For its sound and its compositional and performance content this is one of the finest discs to come across this reviewer’s desk and it is a beautiful homage to Riley (father and son), the Del Sol Quartet, the Kronos Quartet and to the late Stefano Scodanibbio.  This is a gorgeous and deeply satisfying album.  Kudos to all.