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  • Writer's pictureRaji Writes

"Triumphant Music": the Marcus Shelby Quartet and "Black History Life!"

The Marcus Shelby Quartet performed a special concert called “Black History Life!” at the California Jazz Conservatory on Addison Street in Berkeley on February 1, 2020.

The quartet features Rafa Postel (trumpet), Luis Peralta (piano), Genius Wesley (drums), and Marcus Shelby (bass and speaker). Tommy Noble on alto saxophone was a guest performer for a few pieces. The venue, Rendon Hall at the CJC, is a small, intimate space modeled after Minton’s Playhouse, the renowned Harlem nightclub founded in 1938, and Shelby's engaging conversational style was well-suited for the space.

In a program marking the start of Black History Month, Shelby introduced the concert by speaking of the its origins. Originally started in 1926 by Carter Godwin Woodson as Black History Week, to mark the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass in the second week of the month, in the 1970s, February was designated as Black History Month. A month is not enough, Shelby noted, explaining the reason they chose Black History Life as the title for the concert.

The program included pieces from the Harriet Tubman Suite, Black Ball ,

Soul of the Movement (Civil Rights) Suite and Beyond the Blues. Shelby introduced each section, speaking of the history before the pieces were performed.

The first book he read as a child was about Harriet Tubman, sometimes called “the Moses of her people”, and he internalized it. A woman of many achievements, she led people out of slavery, and after the Civil War she dedicated her life to women’s rights, and the right to vote. Lincoln called her "General Tubman." The women’s movement among black women preceded the broader 1960s feminist movement by decades. Tubman’s grandmother was from the Ashanti tribe where women were the leaders. The second piece the quartet performed was called the Ashanti Stomp.

Speaking eloquently about black history and the civil rights movement, Shelby quoted a few times from Martin Luther King, starting with Dr. King’s words on August 23, 1964 at the Berlin Jazz festival.

“Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life's difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph. This is triumphant music.”

Dr. King went on to say “Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music.”

Shelby spoke of the origins of jazz, the cadence that kept time when people were chopping or digging. He then moved onto his favorite topic, baseball, and introduced two pieces from Black Ball. The first was Strikeout about Satchel Paige who like the great Louis Armstrong, similarly named Satchmo, learned his game in prison. (Read about it in this interview.) The next piece “Cepeda” was named after another baseball great, Orlando Cepeda.

In introducing the pieces from the Civil Rights suite, Shelby humorously recalled his first musical experience, at a black Baptist Church. His mother told him that he was either going to be an usher or in the choir. Not enthusiastic about the attire the ushers wore, he chose the choir. He spoke of his journey back to music, from studying electrical engineering to seeing Wynton Marsalis perform in 1988. It was a transformational experience for him, he told the audience. "Watching him, I thought 'That's what I want to do.'"

He reminded the audience that you never know who is observing you and what an impact you may have on a person’s life. Shelby moved to San Francisco 24 years ago, from Los Angeles, and acknowledged musician Mark Levine (who was in the audience) for giving him opportunities.

The peak of the performance for me was the bass solo piece, where Shelby started with “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” "Wade in the Water," and transitioned to “Amazing Grace.” His virtuosic rendition was evocative and soulful, and brought me to tears. Music is powerful and transportive: as the music permeated the audience, it felt as though images of years of black history in America were unfolding, and I was touched to the heart, yet again.

The final section was from the Beyond the Blues suite, a work on incarceration. After playing a clip of political activist Dr. Angela Davis speaking about the Prison Industrial Complex, the economic forces that led to an increase in incarceration from about 200,000 in the 1970s to 2.1 million today, Shelby spoke of restorative justice, and the need to address racism. Most of those incarcerated are brown and black people, mostly men, testified Shelby from his visits to prisons and juvenile hall in the Bay Area.

The final piece, a ballad called "Work Song" by Nat Adderley, was lovely and lilting, with Rafa Postel carrying the melody on flugelhorn, and pianist Luis Peralta and drummer Genius Wesley, 18 and 16 years of age, respectively, captivating the audience with their extraordinary musicianship.

It was an exceptional musical experience, an inspiring evening, and a call to action on the ongoing journey for racial justice.

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