North Adams, MA -Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts hosts a performance of God’s Trombones, Craig Harris’ jazz opera based on the book by James Weldon Johnson, Sunday, December 6 at 3 p.m. at the Church Street Center.
This event, which is part of the MCLA Presents! concert series, is a fundraiser for the Margaret A. Hart ’35 Scholarship at MCLA. Margaret A. Hart was the first person of color to graduate from MCLA, and she was the first African-American to teach in the local public schools.
God’s Trombones is co-presented by the Williams College Dance Department, MCLA’s African, Latino, Asian, and Native American (ALANA) Student Clubs and Organizations, and MCLA’s Center for Multicultural Education and Student Affairs office.
Originally work-shopped at MASS MoCA in 2005, God’s Trombones had its first staged performance at Williams College in 2006. It has since gone on to Harlem Stages and the Apollo Theater, where it was directed by actor/director Avery Brooks.
Harris’ inspiration for God’s Trombones comes from the trombone “shout bands” he heard growing up in Harlem and James Weldon Johnson’s book, God's Trombones: Sermons in Verse, a classic collection of poems that refigure inspirational sermons by itinerant preachers.
Although deeply rooted in the work of Christian preachers, Harris’ vision for God's Trombones looks beyond the sectarian roots of the poetic sermons to the spirit that underlies and moves all religious experience.
“I’m a trombone player and James Weldon Johnson is an icon in America,” he said in a recent interview. “I often deal with icons. I read his sermons and it just fit. The title was God’s Trombones and it was simple. It’s a beautiful title. We just try to deliver a sonic sermon. It becomes everybody’s story as opposed to one person’s.”
As a child Harris would pass the United House of Prayer and hear the sounds of the trombone shout band inside.
“He was drawn in by the unique and wonderfully full sound of horns playing with horns” said Jonathan Secor, director of Special Programs at MCLA. “I remember talking with Craig when we were presenting Brown Butterfly at MASS MoCA and he was saying he would sneak up to the balcony of the church where Rev. McCullough and the Sons of Thunder were rehearsing. He was not ready to join the choir, but he couldn’t resist the sounds.”
This unique musical form stems from a late nineteenth-century African-American religious revival that renounced the staid and stoic forms of traditional Protestant denominations in favor of a charismatic and emotional style of worship. The shout form incorporates an up-tempo “wall of sound” that sets it apart from the European tradition of brass performance.
Harris began playing trombone at age 10 and continued his studies at SUNY-Old Westbury.
He has performed on Broadway with Lena Horne and was a featured performer in the American Music Theater production of Mystery of Love. Harris has led ensembles including Tailgater's Tales, Cold Sweat, and Nation of Imagination and is a founding member of Slide Ride.
He has also played around the world with legends like Sun Ra, Henry Threadgill, Sam Rivers, Lester Bowie, The Four Tops, The Manhattans, Odetta and Hugh Masekala.
Harris was the musical director for the New York State tour of Songs of the Spirit produced by Jonathan Secor and Brian Young, and was last heard at MCLA when he brought a group of musicians to Gospel Fest in 2006.
“Sound is an extension of spiritual experience,” said Harris. “It draws people to a simpler spirituality. Just the sound of the spirit draws people in. I always hope that when we perform that there’s a spiritual experience between the audience and ourselves.”
Tickets for God’s Trombones December 6 are $20 general admission, $5 for MCLA faculty and staff and non-MCLA students, and free for MCLA and Williams students and members.
Call the box office at (413) 662-5204 for reservations. For information on the MCLA Presents! performance series visit www.mcla.edu/presents or call (413) 664-8718.
MCLA Presents! is a project of MCLA’s Berkshire Cultural Resource Center.