Story and Photos by James Walker
n commermoration of former South Africia's President Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday, trumpeter, composer, co-founder, and artistic director of CJP, Orbert Davis undertook the mamonth responsibility of composing a piece of music that weaves jazz, classical, and South Africian melodies . Davis wanted to merge the classicial style of Igor Stravinisky to the be-bop style of Chicago's South Side. To assist in this endeavor, Davis elicited support from a group of exceptional performers.
Renounded journalist Bill Kurtis served as host while actress T' Keyah Crystal Keymah delivered a stirring narration of the "Hope In Action" suite. Featured performers included Chicago's first lady of Jazz, vocalist Dee Alexander, award winning flautist Nicole Mitchell, master saxophonist Ari Brown, and South African saxophoinst Zim Ngqawana. In addition, Walt Whitman and the Soul Children of Chicago's choir were featured during the final movement.
Before introducing the Suite, Davis featured vocalist Dee Alexander on "Relax Max" and South Africa's Miriam Makeba's "Little Boy". As usual, Dee was stunning and brought the audience to its feet during "Little Boy" as she and Orbert engaged in friendly bantering with Dee duplicating Orbert's trumpet sounds with her vocals. What a talent!!!!!!
It was also during this segment that Bill Kurtis set the stage for the Suite with an overview of Mandela's life, struggles, and imprisonment. Actress T'Keyah Cryatal Keymah, beautifully attired in African garb , painted a vivid picture of Mandela as she so eloquently narrated during the playing of the Suite with warmth and emotion that tugged at the hearts of those present.
Orbert, recognizing the difference between classical music and jazz, quipiped about "violating" classical "rules" of conduct by talking to both the orchestra and audience throughout each movement. This direction may have offended the classical purists, it certainly met with the approval of most of the 7000 patrons present on this lovely summer evening under the stars at Millennium Park.
During the first movement, ("Rolihlahla"), Alexander was featured on "Liwa Wechi", a South African folk song which she sung in a native dialect. No matter what the challenge may be, Dee always is up to the task. She sang this song as if it was her native language. This selection was followed by one of the night's highlights, as Zim Ngqawana displayed his many talents on the harmonica, soprano saxophone, and vocals on his own "Amagoduka".In addition, he engaged in "call and response" with Orbert , demonstrating lightening fast action on the soprano sax. This brought a rousing ovation from the audience.
Ari Brown and pianist Ryan Cohen were featured during the 2nd Movement on Davis"s "Relentless" and the South Africian Protest Song, "Sobashiya Abazali Ekhaya". Both displayed their many skills throughout the evening with Brown and Ngqawana often making sweet music together.
This glorious evening was brought to a climatic conclusion when the Soul Children of Chicago marched onto the back of the stage singing a rousing redintion of the South African hymn "Siyahamba: We Are Marching" as they rocked and swayed in unision. One could see a glee of pride on Zim's face as the audience spontaneously rose to its feet out of respect of this symbolic hymn. Mr. Mandela would have been very proud of this moment and this evening.
Congratulations Orbert Davis and CJP Co-founder Mark Ingram for their foresight and steadfastness in producing such an important piece of music in commemoration of Mr. Nelson Mandela's 90th. birthday. Let's only hope they continue similiar endeavors in the future.