Renowned bassist, bandleader, composer, artistic director, and preeminent jazz spokesperson Christian McBride has turned his childhood fascination of Black American history into a 20-year-long Civil Rights project highlighting the icons Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Muhammad Ali, as well as Barack Obama on The Movement, Revisited: A Musical Portrait of Four Icons. This stunning opus and continually evolving project combines elements of small jazz combos, gospel choir, big band, theater and dramatic, often starkly riveting and compelling spoken word through the voices of Sonia Sanchez, Wendell Pierce, Vondie Curtis-Hall, and Dion Graham.
McBride offers, “What is going on with our society right now is that we’re picking up the struggle over civil rights -human rights, really – where we left off at an earlier time in our culture, while also fighting some new battles. So, if ‘The Movement Revisited’ can propel awareness of not just today’s issues, but our history, while pleasing people musically, then it has done its job.”
In 1998, a musical commission from the Portland (Maine) Arts Society set in motion what would eventually become a major part of his life’s work. The only stipulation for the commission was that it had to include a choir. “At that time, I called it a musical portrait of the Civil Rights Movement,” Christian says. “I thought about those times and decided that rather than try to write a history of the movement, I wanted to evoke its spirit and feeling.” Written originally for just a quartet and gospel choir twenty years ago, the concept has grown to grandiose proportions. In 2008 the L.A. Philharmonic asked McBride if he would like to remake it into a much bigger version for their upcoming season, eventually becoming a sweeping four-part suite for big jazz band, small jazz group, gospel choir and four narrators.
In 2008, the new version of The Movement Revisited premiered to universal acclaim in a celebrated performance at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. A few months later, Barack Obama was elected President and McBride was asked by the Detroit Jazz Festival to perform The Movement Revisited again, this time at Detroit’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church. The Detroit Jazz Festival asked him to expand the suite to include President Obama, which led to the creation of a fifth and final section of the suite, “Apotheosis, November 4th, 2008,” in which the narrators quote Obama’s victory speech.
McBride diligently considered the casting of the four narrators to find the right mix of empathy, conviction, and humor, especially for a younger audience. For the voice of Rosa Parks, he made what some may have thought an unexpected choice by casting a non-actor – Sonia Sanchez, the great poet, author and artist. “She’s so majestic,” says McBride. “Sonia is one of our greatest voices. She was part of the Black Arts Movement in the 1960s and early 70s.” To portray Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he turned to the great character actor Wendell Pierce (The Wire, Treme), who possessed the stirring presence and ringing tones necessary for the role. Two other great actors, Vondie Curtis-Hall (Chicago Hope, Daredevil) and Dion Graham (Malcolm X, The Wire) were recruited by McBride to play Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, respectively. Both do a remarkable job of channeling the passion, fury and in Ali’s case, his razor-sharp humor.
Musically, the suite begins with stark piano chords from Geoffrey Keezer over which Wendell Piece begins, followed by the other three voices leading into a massive symphonic piece with choir and Coltrane-like sax from Ron Blake. Then we have Rosa’s spoken word in “Prologue” followed by a musical score rendered by a ten-piece orchestra laden with saxes and trumpets, with solos from Blake on soprano, Warren Wolf on vibraphone, and Keezer on piano. This pattern of prologue and musical piece repeats for each of the four icons until the fifth movement on Obama where all four are heard as they are in “Overture.”
”Brother Malcolm” again has a lead-in from Ron Blake with Wolf on tympani before we are blessed with the searing vocals of Alicia Olatuja. Two other pieces, “Rumble in the Jungle” and “A View from the Mountaintop,” feature male vocalist and choral arranger J.D. Steele who leads Voices of the Flame, a gospel choir of ten who are featured. They are prominent on “Rumble in the Jungle,” along with the full orchestra as they are again on “A View from the Mountaintop,” both pieces being supremely stirring, Dion Graham’s “Ali Speaks” has drummer Terreon Gully providing the apt rat-tat-tat to Graham’s words. Gully delivers taps-like drum for MLK’s “I Have a Dream.” The final piece, “Apotheosis” features the full orchestra and chorale following delivery of excerpts from Obama’s inauguration speech from each of all four readers heard previously.
In the 1960s, when the Civil Rights Movement achieved its greatest moments, McBride was not yet born. As a child in the 1970s, he learned the history of the movement in school, but due to a quirk of fate – his grandmother’s fortunate propensity for saving old things – he found another source of information that spoke to him on a more emotionally accessible level than history books.“ When I was a kid, I used to spend hours looking at old copies of Ebony and Jet magazines that my grandmother saved,” he says. “To read contemporaneous writings by black writers about events and people who were my history – our history – that was absolutely fascinating to me. It was the greatest gift my grandmother could have given to me.”