Compact Disc Cover by Jan Brown Checco Photography by Mark Schlachter
Afro-American Fragments
after Langston Hughes
Live In the Underworld
Ode to a Giant More than Miles

Afro-American Fragments

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Notes by John Chenault

Frank Proto's newest composition and collaboration, Afro-American Fragments, (which derives its name from a Langston Hughes poem written in 1930), and the three other pieces complied on this CD, celebrate four of the most prolific, iconoclastic, controversial, and influential artists of this century: writer Langston Hughes, and musicians Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, and Miles Davis.

These artists happen to be African-Americans with aesthetic sensibilities deeply rooted in African tradition. Yet each man in his own way achieved a presence on the world stage that transcended racial, ethnic, and national boundaries. How did these men-born in an era of American apartheid-establish and inspire audiences around the world? Langston Hughes probably best addresses this question in his poem: "In Explanation of Our Times" (the piece that inspired this composition). In a chilling indictment of racism, colonialism and neo-colonialism, Hughes asserts the exigency and dignity of the struggle for human rights. According to Hughes it was time for the people to rise up and resist.

These great men answered the call. Miles and Dizzy entered the struggle armed with their trumpets. Mingus had a bow and a double bass. Langston had his pen. They were shock troops, part of the vanguard in a global movement that included Mahatma Ghandi, Malcolm X, and Che Guevara. They were men of their times who expressed and celebrated the highest universal values and aspirations. They were artists and African-Americans who embodied and exemplified a humanistic virtue that spoke to the masses in the language of equality, freedom, and democracy. The masses listened. They listen now.

. . . In the beginning there was the word. And the word was music and the music was the idea for a new composition for double bass, cello, and bass clarinet. It was the summer of 1995, a few months after the successful premiere of Ghost In Machine, the orchestral piece Frank and I created in celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Inspired by the solo performances on "Ghost" of two of his long-time friends and colleagues, cellist Norman Johns and clarinetist Ron Aufmann, Frank decided to compose a chamber music piece that would allow the three of them to perform together in extended solo and trio arrangements. He then chose the Cincinnati Chamber Music Series as the venue to premiere this new work.

As often happens in the creative process, Frank's vision suddenly took a slightly different turn. One day in July, he found himself browsing in the public library and came across a slim volume of poetry: Selected Poems of Langston Hughes. After reading a few blues poems in the collection, he happened upon the poem "In Explanation Of Our Times." Although written in 1955, its message still seemed fresh and contemporary. Frank realized he had a theme and a text for his chamber music piece and rushed home and began to work.

Always the provocateur and innovator, Frank consistently finds new ways to challenge his audiences. His intriguing choices of subjects, themes, and instrumentation often demonstrate a deep knowledge and appreciation of diversity in art and life. Brooklyn born and raised, he experienced the American melange first hand and realized that what some pundits have characterized as a melting pot and others as a tapestry is more like great jazz improvisation: forever fluid, in transition, and fertile with possibilities. Guided by his own remarkable instincts, and with perhaps a little assistance from the spirit of Langston Hughes, he selected nine Hughes poems for his composition. From the poignantly sentimental "Montage of a Dream Deferred," to the comic "Madam and the Phone Bill," to the incendiary prophetic insight of "In Explanation of Our Times," each poem is a perfect jewel in a perfect setting. Together they provide a representative sample of some of the diverse styles and subjects of Hughes' work, and capture the essence of his poetic genius.

Frank's next task was to combine the poetry and music so the audience could get the text without knowing it in advance or reading it. To accomplish this he treated the text almost as a fourth line of music, not to be sung, but to be spoken, sometimes with and sometimes apart from the other lines.

The final decision was whom to get to perform the text. After a little cajoling, he convinced Charles Holmond, an institution in the Cincinnati theater community and the director of "Ghost In Machine," to lend his considerable talents to the project. It was the theatrically correct choice. Holmond's understated recitation of the text mines nuance and subtext to reveal the deeper veins of imagery that lie below the surface of the obvious. What is obvious is not necessarily what is meant. What is meant is not necessarily what is said.

Between the lines we have the stellar performances of world-class musicians: double bassist Frank Proto, cellist Norman Johns and bass clarinetist Ron Aufmann. In a musical trialogue that scores and underscores each moment with reverence and authority, these performers enact a ritual of elegance and majesty in a perfect wedding ceremony of words and music. Langston Hughes was a jazz poet, a blues poet, a man to whom music was both a muse and a mistress. One can only imagine how he would revel in hearing this ensemble's lush interpretation of a few of his best known works.

"Ode to a Giant" (the first of our three collaborations on this CD) began in 1992 with an invitation to Frank from the International Society of Bassists. The ISB asked him to write a short piece that would serve as the required work for their solo bass competition in 1993. The death of John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie on January 6, 1993, influenced Frank's plans for this piece. He decided that Dizzy would inspire his composition, and that it would also serve as a platform from which to comment on contemporary American music.

Frank's bass is his soap box. He has often used it and his skills as a composer to protest the artificial barriers in schools and conservatories that divide and separate musical forms. The separation of so-called jazz and classical styles reflects the segregation in society itself, just as modern music terminology-as used in educational institutions and the recording industry-marginalizes or ghettoizes some forms of music. For example, what is so-called "serious" music? Were musicians and composers only "serious" in the 18th or 19th century? Why aren't students encouraged to learn the entire spectrum of musical technique? And why is American music, the most popular music in the world today, afforded only second-class citizenship in most scholarly and academic circles?

These questions influenced Frank to create a piece that would force the ISB contestants to go far beyond the notes printed on the page. Fortunately, three of the contestants were able to translate Frank's vision and invoke the improvisatory spirit that informed the work. And, one of them, Rick Vizachero, won the first prize.

My contribution to "Ode to a Giant" came later. During the summer of 1993, Frank asked me to write a text to accompany the piece. Inspired by his work I sat down and tried to capture some of the energy of the spirit called Dizzy. The resultant collaboration, a challenge for any soloist and narrator, is performed here by Frank Proto and Charles Holmond with extraordinary energy and enthusiasm.

Given our satisfaction with our "Dizzy" tribute we decided to pay homage to the memories of two other legendary musicians: Miles Davis and Charles Mingus. As architects of the post-modernist movement in American music, these artists helped to transform and evolve disparate streams of musical tradition into the World Music that is taking shape today. Within the American context, this revolution involved the fusion of European harmonic nuances with the African polyphonic and polyrhythmic styles that inform the Blues. The collaborations between Miles and Gil Evans and Bill Evans, Mingus' orchestral works, and Dizzy's Latin-Jazz inspirations are perfect examples of this phenomenon. They were the overtures, the first movements of an organic neo-American symphony that continues to thrive and evolve today.

My task was to try to invoke some of the creative spirit of these great artists. I also wanted to express my own feelings about their roles in history and myth. A poet's duty is to speculate, experiment, mythologize, and even to mystify. A poet also has the responsibility to uncover, discover, and recover the distinction between what a word connotes and what it denotes. In this case the word is "American." Buried under this rubric, hidden behind the hyphens sticking out of its chest, lurking far beneath the layers of ethnocentricities that obscure its essence, the poet finds a humanity whose true identity is far greater than the sum of its parts. It is the humanity of these men-their genuine "American" character-that I chose to annunciate and appreciate.

Don't get me wrong. I celebrate human differences-skin color, eye color, hair texture-for what they are: the spices of life. But I don't confuse spice with food. Salt and pepper add flavor to any recipe. Yet you can't live off of flavor. Conversely, food without flavor may feed the body but it doesn't nourish the soul. This is my convoluted way of saying that the artists venerated here gave us food for the body and spice for the soul. They cooked. And the recipes, the ingredients, the dishes they served were inclusive of all the richness the world has to offer. That's why people around world continue to dine at their tables. And that's why it is our duty-in the great tradition of ancestor worship-to offer them regular libations in honor and thanks for their divine gifts.

I humbly offer my three poems in furtherance of the tradition.

Musically, "Ode to a Giant" combines written composition with improvisation. "Mingus in the Underworld" is completely written. And "More than Miles" is totally improvised. All are performed with astonishing virtuosity. All incorporate an incredible array of technical challenges-fast playing, expressive playing, double stops, harmonics, et cetera. All are overlaid with the exultant tones and explicit voicings of Charles Holmond. And, all end in minor chords in dynamic elegiac progressions as formal and elegant as state funeral processions. Yet, in listening to these compositions, one thing is clear, we have not come to bury these men but to celebrate their apotheosis.

On "More than Miles" the dynamic duo of Proto and Holmond is joined by violin virtuoso John Blake. This is the first time Frank and John have played together. What is recorded here-the haunting lyricism, blusey cries, exalted voices that swoop and soar-is pure improvisatory spirit.

Cello, double bass, bass clarinet, violin, human voice-are the ritualistic instruments we used to summon our neo-ancestors. Word, tone, rhythm, harmony-are the food and drink we placed on their altars. As we call out their names-Langston Hughes, John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis-we keep their spirits alive . . . Forever.

John Chenault 1998
For additional information on the first performance of Afro-American Fragments
For additional program notes and information on Ode to a Giant
For additional information on Langston Hughes
Members of Ensemble Sans Frontière appearing on this disc.

Ronald Aufmann, Bass Clarinet
John Blake, Violin
Charles Holmond, Narrator
Norman Johns, Cello
Frank Proto, Double Bass