ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WROC) — Eastman School of Music capped their centennial jazz series Monday night, with a jam-packed concert from the Eastman Jazz Ensemble.
The performance featured two world premieres; one from retiring head of the jazz department Bill Dobbins — a tune aptly called “Legacy” — and a piece from world-renowned bassist, composer, and arranger, John Clayton, called “Keys are Black, Blacks are Key.” The performance also featured frequent Rochester guest artist, trumpet player Byron Stripling.
In the true spirit of show — with one eye looking forward and the other looking back — Clayton’s piece featured a wide range of themes, and a local collaborator Reenah Golden.
“Keys are Black, Blacks are Key,” centers around the black keys of the piano. It was a piece commissioned just for the centennial. When played in sequence, they create a musical sound called the pentatonic scale.
“This piece has sounds of Africa in it,” Clayton said before the show’s dress rehearsal. “(These sounds were) transferred here to the United States, to the homes that slaves were in. If they had access to a piano, they (would) discover that playing the black keys… It would be reminiscent of their homeland sounds.”
But that sound also has a more personal connection to Clayton. His father was not musical — unlike Clayton and his brother, as well his son — but learned a tune or two on the piano, playing just the black keys. The music also explores musical ideas of his brother and son.
Clayton says it’s both an examination of Black artists contributing to jazz, as well a celebration, through the lens of Negro spirituals, which often use just the pentatonic scale.
But through it all, is a healthy helping of Rochester. But to that happened, he turned to a local source to put words to the music.
Golden is the founder of the Avenue Blackbox Theater — a community theater and space where Golden works with original artists and mentors youth in Rochester — but is also a writer and poet. Through a beaming smile, she said Clayton made it easy.
“Oh my God, it’s John Clayton,” she said, saying she was trying to enjoy the moment, and not overthink it. “Working directly with him, and having your work be a permanent part of a premiere…. Is amazing.”
Her approach not looked back at the history of Rochester and Eastman, but like Clayton, looked to family.
“So I was going back and saying 1921, and what was going on at this institution, what would racial equity look like that, or lack thereof at time like that, and bring that forward to a time like this,” she said. “I also looked to my daughter, who is also a writer… There were a couple lines (from her) I borrowed, just John did with his family.”
“She knocked it out of the park, I’m so happy with everything she did,” Clayton said. “Now that we’ve collaborated, and creating what we created, I can’t imagine doing this without her.”