400 Years Suite
As a master storyteller The Griot served West African communities in a unique way. The stories, poetry, songs, and instrumental music of the Griot celebrated, preserved, and stimulated the consciousness of the communities he/she served. This hereditary caste of musicians/historians were not so different from troubadours or singing poets that traversed Europe during the Middle Ages. Both used music and poetry as a means contextualizing the human experience. However, the troubadour and his later counterpart the trouvère limited their stories and songs to the regional experiences and dialects of the areas in which they traversed. So as people migrated and dialects changed, the songs and poems of the troubadors and trouvères no longer served the needs of the people. The traditions and practices of West African Griot, however, avoided this type of cultural extinction largely because of their employment of a diverse repertory of musical or dialectical devices that defied both time and societal changes. The Griot’s ability to link the ancestral past with the present, and speak to that which was yet to come translated through time and frames the work of many modern day black writers, dancers, instrumentalists, singers, and composers.
Black cultural expression has never been monolithic in its function and purpose. It has never solely entertained the listener, reader or observer, but challenged one to consider the people, social environments, and experiences that surround them. Regardless of medium, black expressive culture works through three ideological spheres: remembrance, preservation, and advancement. For centuries the Griot--realized in the form of creative beings outside of the context of the African continent--has constructed succinct historical and cultural narratives that are diverse in form and mode of expression. The multi-lingual abilities of the Griot prove to each of us that there’s more than one way to tell a good story. The literary Griot provides a strong example of this notion of being multi-lingual as they often employ different mediums to tell the story. There are epics, proverbs, novels, novellas, poetry and short stories. Each not only having a specific function and goal, but also speaking to a different audience.
The story told through this album begins in 1619 when 20 Africans arrived at the extreme tip of the Virginia peninsula at a place called Point Comfort. These Africans were eventually taken to Jamestown, the first stable English settlement in the American colonies. Their experiences in colonial America serve as the underlying foundation of a vast and evolving narrative whose themes include exploitation, brutality, survival, transcendence, and perseverance. Their story has been told in many different ways and consists of chapters, stanzas, quatrains, or sections that have been written over the course of the last 400 years.
This recording project represents Mark Lomax’s retelling of what writer/activist Amiri Baraka called in his book Blues People the “transmutation” of the African into the American. Like the Master Griot, Lomax has developed has explored this story in multiple ways over the past few years. The first was a 12-album compendium he entitled 400: An Afrikan Epic. Released in early 2019, this landmark project surveyed this vast history by invoking the ancestral past of Pre-Slavery/Pre-colonial Africa, examining the holocaust of the Middle Passage, Slave and Post Slave experiences, and celebrating the yet to come. What Lomax deems as the return of the African to his/her full consciousness. But a story of this size cannot effectively be translated into a concert setting. So in late 2018 Lomax began writing the 400 Years Suite, which drew on the narrative scope, melodic themes and rhythms detailed in the Afrikan Epic. As with West African Griot, Lomax’s setting of this story in the structural form of the Suite is emblematic of his proficiency in storytelling. The 400 Years Suite should not be viewed as a shortened version of the larger epic, but as the musical equivalent of the literary short story.
The short story is often not as celebrated as the larger epic or novel, but it is important nevertheless. Unlike its larger counterpart, the short story can generally be read in one setting. Its plot is more defined; focusing on a self-contained incident or a series of incidents that are relational. Much shorter than the novel or epic poem, the short story focuses on a few characters. Sometimes the goal of the short story is not symmetry or linearity of plot, but to establish a mood. It has been said that authors view the short story as a personal expression; a literary form that is employed as a method to resist categorization or fixed structures. In many ways the genre of the Suite has operated in a similar fashion.
Within the pantheon of musical genres, the Suite is often overlooked or undervalued in comparison to larger forms such as symphony, sonata or concerto. Once viewed as one of the hallmarks of instrumental music, the Suite was one of the earliest genres to advance multiple aesthetics--solo, chamber, and orchestral. It’s importance, however, was adversely impacted by the advancement of the symphony orchestra in Germany during the eighteenth century. The growing popularity of this aggregate of instruments significantly shifted the focal point of the compositional and performative history of Western European music. The Suite diminished in popularity and importance in during the height of the classical period and the beginning of the Romantic age (1750-1850), but reemerged in the late 19th century, as an important genre in the advancement of the romantic aesthetic and musical nationalism throughout Europe. Where the earliest iteration of the suite centered on a collection of dances that reflected the ethnic/cultural background of the composer, the 19th century suite was a multi-movement work that drew on eclectic musical sources that were connected either by theme, key relationship, or narrative. The shifting of the musical template of the Suite from Eurocentric dance practices to diverse musical sources provided composers with the ability to circumvent the structural limitations of the symphony or concerto and advance larger musical ideas and stories. Much like the literary short story, it also provided the composer the means to privilege personal expression over convention and structure.
The Suite as the Conduit for Creative Freedom
In America’s concert halls the Suite served as the musical canvas that composers used to advance specific cultural narratives. This is evident in the works of the first school of American nationalistic composers that emerged during the 1890s. For John Knowles Paine, Edward McDowell, Amy Beach, Arthur Foote and other Boston-area composers the promotion of an American sound centered on specific themes: America’s topography, the culture and identity of its indigenous people—the Native American, the cultural/ethnic diversity that extended out of its colonial/ethnic past and role in the Atlantic Slave trade.
The generation of black composers that emerged between 1890 and 1940 also modeled these approaches. Many mined the historical narratives and cultural forms that developed out of the American slave experience. But some composers like Afro-British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor advanced a Pan-African/Diasporic perspective that included traditional African musical practices, the hybrid forms that emerged out of the Afro-Caribbean experiences, and the folk practices of American slaves. With no access to major orchestras, these composers used the piano suite as a means of projecting black identity, black historical narratives and the lived black experience within the larger conversation surrounding American musical nationalism. Representative examples from this period include Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s African Suite(1899), the Magnolia Suite (1912) by R. Nathaniel Dett, and William Grant Still’s Three Visions (1936).
Within the quickly shifting political and social climate of the early 20th century, black music transitioned from the insular spaces of the larger community into the consciousness of white America. In the years immediately following World War I, the commercialization of jazz and the blues was precipitated through race records, the film industry, and radio, which linked these genres to modernity and freedom in America and Europe. However, as jazz became more profitable, its black creators and purveyors were pushed to the margins or restricted to recording and promoting repertory that reflected the race-based categorizations. The marketing strategy of race records considerably limited the creativity of the jazz musician and composer and stifled the progression of jazz for almost a decade. But the development of the jazz suite provided a means for jazz composers and musicians to escape such categorizations.
Duke Ellington (1899-1974) was one of a few black bandleaders that escaped the trapping of the commercial jazz industry through the jazz suite. Although Ellington was prolific in his formation of a performing repertory, he never catered to the popular music machine or the cultural trends of his time. His musical aspirations extended beyond the typical jazz arrangement and it was not until his band was hired at the famed Harlem nightclub The Cotton Club in 1927 that Ellington began to develop the musical language and techniques that led to the development of the jazz Suite. Nightly Ellington’s band provided incidental music that correlated with the grand floor shows. His music centered on motivic development and execution of specific sounds that mirrored the storylines or narratives outlined through these shows. Markers of what would become Ellington’s orchestral style were emblematic in early works such as Black and Tan Fantasy and East St. Louis Toodle-oo. Ellington left the Cotton Club in 1931 with a clear sense of his identity as a jazz composer. Shortly there afterwards he began experimentating with the Suite as a structural and musical framework. This is evident in the 1931 composition Creole Rhapsody. Over the next four decades Ellington continued to advance the jazz Suite as an important medium of personal expression. He and collaborator Billy Strayhorn used the genre as the mechanism for promoting modern interpretations of black life and black culture. It was also through these works that Ellington emerged as the progenitor of black nationalist ideology in jazz. Notable examples of which can be found in his compositions Black, Brown, and Beige (1942), Harlem (1951), and Three Black Kings (1974).
But Ellington and Strayhorn were not the only jazz composers to experiment with the Suite as a musical genre. Pianist, arranger, and composer Mary Lou Williams (1910-1981) also furthered this aesthetic. Shunning the creative limitations of commercialized jazz, after almost a decade long-stint arranging for the big bands of Andy Kirk, Benny Goodman, Jimmie Lunceford and others, Williams In the early 1940s began searching for other ways in which to stretch musically. While working at the famed nightclub Café Society, she began composing a collection of pieces based on her interest in astrology. Each movement was based on the personality traits of selected jazz musicians born under specific zodiac signs. For the period of several weeks Williams showcased these works during her nightly sets and on her weekly radio show on WNEW. The work was branded The Zodiac Suite and reconceived in multiple settings. It was first conceived of as piano solos, then in the format of the piano trio. Most relevant to this discussion is the orchestral setting she performed with chamber orchestra and jazz quartet in 1944 and 1945. Even though Williams did not revisit the structural form heard in The Zodiac Suite, the work did serve as the compositional foundation from which she developed her large scale religious works during the 1960s and 1970s. One of the important aspects of this history of the jazz Suite is the performance and reception of Ellington and Williams’ suites during the 1940s and 1950s. They were representative of how the relationship between jazz, the jazz composer, and the American concert hall shifted in the years following World War II and how they challenged the conventional thinking about jazz.
The Jazz Suite as a Post-Modern Construct
In addition to the widening soundscape advanced through the American concert hall, the Post-War years also marked the beginning of the fragmentation of jazz into multiple schools of composition/performance. The homogeneity of the swing era gave way to a wave of musical experimentation that extended throughout the remainder of the 20th century. In the 1950s, this fragmentation correlated with the shifting consciousness of the post-war jazz musician, the progression of the black civil rights struggle, and an advancing strategy to distance jazz from its African roots and rebrand it as American music. More and more jazz musicians moved beyond the three-minute format of the conventional jazz record and looked to larger scale compositional forms to advance their political, cultural, and musical perspectives. The jazz suite factored heavily into this type of experimentation. It is impossible to provide in this space a complete historiography of the evolution of the modern jazz suite, but there are a few notable examples that require some discussion.
Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite! (1960) provided an important early example the modern jazz suite. The work was viewed as transgressive and radical not only because of its narrative content, but for its shift away from the conventions standardized through other jazz suites. Unlike his peers, Roach used both traditional African and African American music. He also expressed overt political statements that aligned him with the radical wave of activism that attempted to dismantle segregation in the South during the early 1960s. Lastly, unlike most jazz suites, the Freedom Now Suite was meant to be performed as a whole. It was not conceived of as a loose collective of individual movements, but as ordered performances that constructive a succinct narrative that centered the black struggle for freedom in a global context that extended from America to the black Atlantic to Africa. The various movements were joined through time signatures, key relationships, and melodic content based on the cultural context it reflected. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme (1964) furthered widened the harmonic and narrative scope of the jazz suite even more so. It extended beyond conventional political ideologies, jazz tonality, and musical forms. The album displayed Coltrane’s evolving spiritual and musical consciousness and remains one of the most influential works from this period. Other notable examples of the modern jazz Suite include Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady and the colossal 4,235 measure long Epitaph. The Suite remains one of the many musical frameworks that jazz composers use as to advance the music beyond the conventional. Mark Lomax II’s 400 Years Suite offers a representative example of this.
400 Year Suite
As with the larger project referenced earlier in this essay, the 400 Years Suite offers the listener an intricate and complete story line that is linked by various overlapping stories, motives, and rhythms. The historical narrative of the Suite is anchored by three major thematic ideas: 1) Historicizing pre-slavery/pre-colonized Africa as the ancestral home; 2) Surveying the trauma of slavery and its aftermath; 3)Exploration of the future restoration of the essence of the African, Africa, and humanity. The individual performances housed under each of these sections promotes specific metanarratives that emphasize this thematic arc. One can hear the influence of Lomax’s predecessors Duke Ellington, Mary Lou Williams, and Max Roach in the execution of overlapping musical motives and rhythms and the unique instrumentation employed throughout this work. The use of the double quartet draws back to Roach specifically. During the 1980s and 1990s legendary drummer Max Roach toured and recorded with a double quartet that consisted of the Uptown String Quartet and his quartet which included trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater, bassist Tyrone Brown and tenor saxophonist Odean Pope. Lomax replicates this model by combining two of the main entities that form his musical collective—The MLQ (Mark Lomax Quartet) and the Urban Art Ensemble, a string quartet. The Urban Art Ensemble is a paired down version of Lomax’s larger Afro-Chamber Ensemble. The combination of the musical counterpoint of two groups is expertly anchored by the arsenal of hypnotic rhythms executed by Lomax.
The different sections of the Suite are linked by the reiteration of the opening drum motive and the Ancestral walk theme throughout. It should be noted that much of the thematic material used in the Suite has been extracted from different aspects of the Afrikan Epic, but those ideas have been presented in a varied form.
The Historical Now: The Story of Us
The first section of the Suite, The Historical Now: The Story of Us, encompasses four movements that explore the complex web of cultural, spiritual, and ritualistic practices that defined the everyday lives of African people on the continent prior to slavery and colonization. It begins with the “Ancestral Drum Call,” which signifies the importance of the drum in framing the identity of traditional African practices. This drum solo is interrupted by a strong dissonant chord played by the piano. The cacophony of the drum and piano fade into prolonged silence that is interrupted by the piano introducing an arpeggiated motive played in the upper register. The introduction of this motive signifies the shift to the second movement “Dogon’s Descent from Po Tolo.” The Dogon inhabit the cliffs and terrain of southern Mali. They developed a complex spiritual belief system that centered on astrological knowledge that they believe was given to them by a species of extraterrestrial beings they call the Nommo. They believe these beings came to earth from Siruis, or the Dog Star and serve as their spiritual guardians. A Second star identified by the Dogon as Po Tolo also shapes an important part of this belief system. In this selection, the motivic interplay between the piano and string quartet invoke vastness of space and the celestial beauty of the planets and stars. The third movement of the Suite, “Ancestral Walk Part 1,” shifts the rhythmic context. Rooted in more of a modern jazz aesthetic, the groove maintained by drum and bass provides the perfect foundation for saxophonist Edward Baynard’s searing solo. Although the strings present the “Ancestral Walk” theme, the focus on this movement is the jazz quartet and this collective push’s the performance to the limit. This is indeed one of the hallmarks of the suite. The final movement of this section is entitled “Village Celebration,” it draws thematically on the transcendence theme featured prominently on the album Tales of the Black Experience from the Afrikan Epic. This performance begins with Lomax replicating the tonality, timbre, and dexterity of the talking drum. After a few minutes Lomax transfers this musical conversation to the drum kit. This rhythmic dialogue soon evolves into a pattern that will serve as the overall groove. The upper strings enter with the main motive, as the bass, cello, join the drums in emphasizing the syncopated groove. All of this gives way to piano expanding the dialogue with the groove. On a whole the performance invokes the regality, grace, and vibrancy of African life.
The Present Now: Remembering to Forget and Forgetting to Remember
This section of the Suite is marked by the return of the “Ancestral Walk” theme. It no longer resembles the vibrant and noble theme heard in the previous section. It has been transformed into a lament that is mournful and melancholy in nature. This variation of the theme no doubt correlates with the sorrow that is the slave trade generated throughout Western and Central Africa. It is disrupted by the cachophony of drums and sax that no doubt represents the chaos that ensued during the capture of young men and women by the slave traders. The theme of the violence and chaos that the Atlantic Slave trade precipitated continues in second movement titled “The Middle Passage.” This movement shifts musically through different motives that are articulated by different instrument combinations. This section of the Suite begins with motivic and rhythmic interplay between the drums and acoustic bass. Lomax maintains an understated but ever present rhythmic pattern that is defined by antiphony between the hi-hat and tom-tom. The agitated, intermittent pizzicato of the bass, which is featured prominently here, invokes the type of acoustical reverberation that one imagines the slaves heard in the hull of the ships that transported them across the Atlantic Ocean. The emotion of this movement heightens when the strings enter playing dissonant chords that replicates the rhythmic pattern of the drums. The haunting melancholy of the combination intensifies as the sax enters with a piercing, shrill cry. The polyphony of these instruments grows even more so before the movement abruptly ends giving way to prolonged silence. The last movement of this section of the Suite commemorates the transcendent spirit of African American music. Pianist William Menefield expertly crafts a solo that reminds us of the seamless relationship between the sacred and secular black expressive culture and how central the piano has been in mediating the tension between these spheres of consciousness. In less than five minutes, he fluidly and effortlessly traverses a century of black piano music that includes the blues, stride, and gospel with some moments that point to the virtuosity of Art Tatum and Bud Powell. It is a fitting punctuation mark to the end of the second section of the Suite.
The final section of the suite, “The Future Now: Return to Uhuru,” reflects the narrative trope that the future will be marked by the African’s return to the state of freedom, wholeness, and health that reflected his/her ancestral past. This state of consciousness is marked musically by the reappearance musically of the “Ancestral Walk Theme” and the “Ancestral Drum Call.” Thus, the work ends as it began with the voice of the drum—the one who gives voice to the consciousness of the African.
The Epilogue: “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
In the literary tradition a book or play will sometimes end with an epilogue. The epilogue serves as the final summary of or commentary on what occurred in the story or plot. In keeping with the practices of the Griot, Lomax offers the listener an epilogue to the 400 Year Suite in the form of an arrangement of James Weldon Johnson’s iconic Lift Every Voice and Sing. Commonly referred to as the “Black National Anthem,” the song began as a poem that was first performed in 1900 in commemoration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Johnson’s brother John Rosamond later set the poetry music. In 1919 the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP)--during one of the most significant periods when the violence directed at blacks intensified--adopted Lift Every Voice and Sing as its official song. Much like Lomax’s 400 Year Suite the song explores Black America’s past, present, and future. This rendition, performed by MLQ, begins with another song linked with the long history of the black civil rights struggle in America—We Shall Overcome. The slow and deliberate tempo employed during the rendering of We Shall Overcome shifts rhythmically as the piano plays the opening lines of Lift Every Voice and Sing. After a full statement of the song’s verse and refrain the band launches into a series of swinging and engaging solos. This rendition of the iconic song is perhaps the most fitting end to the musical narrative advanced through the 400 Year Suite.
“I know the world is bruised and bleeding, and though it is important not to ignore its pain, it is also critical to refuse to succumb to its malevolence. Like failure, chaos contains information that can lead to knowledge—even wisdom. Like art.”—Toni Morrison
Dr. Tammy L. Kernodle
“A Night at the Cotton Club: Music of Duke Ellington, Harold Arlen & Cab Calloway”
Alisa White, "We Insist! Freedom Now": Max Roach's Transatlantic Civil Rights Imperative,”
Jazz Education Journal; Oct 2007; 40, 2-3
Tammy L. Kernodle, Soul on Soul: The Life and Music of Mary Lou Williams (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2004).
Toni Morrison, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” The Nation, https://www.thenation.com/article/no-place-self-pity-no-room-fear/