"Hope in Action"
Nelson Mandela's 90th Birthday Celebration
Orbert Davis & the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic

Millenium Park, Chicago,IL
July 21, 2008

Story by Mary Lou Wade
Photos by James Walker

If assembly encourages community, then the Monday, July 21st concert at Millennium Park honoring the ninetieth birthday of Nelson Mandela, was hugely successful. The immense audience, both in the seats and on the Great Lawn, as well as the large orchestra, consisted of people of all ages, races and backgrounds, gathered together to celebrate an extraordinary inspirational life.

A longtime fan of Orbert Davis, I recall when he played in 2002 at the Funeral Mass of William Russo, Director of the Chicago Jazz Ensemble. I learned then what to anticipate when (and if!) I get to heaven and hear Angel Gabriel. And as Russo was, Davis is a composer, conductor, teacher, director, and trumpeter extraordinaire.

The concert began at 6:30 PM with Davis’ composition, “Fanfare for Cloud Gate”, written in tribute to the park’s architectural attraction. Chicagoans Nicole Mitchell and Ari Brown, joined Davis, who played his pocket trumpet and directed the orchestra simultaneously. He recounted that there were many reasons this was not a standard symphony orchestra. He instructs the musicians to really feel the music and make it funky!

“An Afternoon With Mr. Bowie” featuring Ari Brown on tenor sax was both sorrowful and lush. Davis cautioned us to listen to strains of “The Firebird Suite” and suggested we imagine that Russian Igor Stravinsky had lived on Chicago’s South Side.

Deserving the self-imposed title of Empress, Dee Alexander, reminded listeners of Sarah Vaughn in an upbeat Latin sounding, “Relax Max” and her voice was never richer or her range wider. The duet she scatted at the podium with Davis and his trumpet in “Little Boy’ by Mirian Makeba was sublime.

The highlight of the evening was the tribute to Nelson Mandela in four parts, titled “Hope in Action”, which former newscaster Bill Kurtis introduced. T”Keyah Crystal Keymah narrated the work with words from Mandela’s autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom.”

It was unfortunate that the work wasn’t played through entirely, though the “commercial break”, as Davis referred to it, was most entertaining. Zim Ngqawana, a multi-talented musician from Africa, confused the audience with his nonchalant attitude sitting on stage and then he wildly thrilled us with his virtuosity at the sax, harmonica and on a soprano sax.

The Soul Children of Chicago dramatically took possession of the space above the orchestra. Inspired, the audience rose for their singing of “Nkosi Sikelel iAfrika” the South African National Anthem. Shortly following, the thirty-six choir members and their leader chanted, zapped, clapped and rapped in “Siyahamba: We Are Marching”, bringing the crowd to a roaring ovation.

All the musicians of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic are talented and accolades go to the string, brass, woodwinds, and percussion sections and to Ryan Cohan on piano, Stewart Miller on bass and Ernie Adams on drums.

The realization that geniocide is currently taking place in areas of Africa gives us pause and reason to honor and pay tribute to Mandela’s life of perseverance and leadership. Certainly a great way to celebrate was at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium Park in Chicago, Illinois. Happy Birthday, Nelson!

Check out more photos and James Walker's review of this concert here!

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