Roots: music and ancestors in “black odyssey”

In the months and weeks leading up to rehearsal, I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on a few rehearsals for black odyssey. It’s going to be filled with fantastic music: powerful percussion by J. Alphonse Nicholson, who plays Ulysses, and blues, jazz, traditional songs and spirituals sung a capella by the cast and guided by Vocal Composers Linda Tillery (Music Director) and Molly Holm (Vocal Ensemble Director). At the very beginning of the rehearsal process about a month ago, I had the pleasure of sitting with director Eric Ting and vocal composers Molly Holm and Linda Tillery for a Q&A discussion. The transcript below has been edited for clarity.

black odyssey plays through September 3.
More info and tickets here.

Want to hear some of the songs from black odyssey? Listen to our Spotify Playlist, here!

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Eric Ting: Can you talk about where you are in the process right now and what this journey has been like so far? This is not your first time working with Marcus, right?

Molly Holm: It’s my third.

Linda Tillery: This is my first collaboration with Marcus, but I have seen a couple of his productions. I was reminded today that it was Jesus Moonwalks the Mississippi that really piqued my interest in Marcus’ work, because I loved the integration of the music and the acting.

Eric: Can you speak more about what you see in Marcus’ work that draws you to it?

MH: I just want to remind Linda that we brought her in as a consultant on This World in a Woman’s Hands [at Shotgun Players in 2009] because—

LT: —What she said

MH: —because he was asking for some roots music and I wanted to make sure it was—

Eric: This is the Richmond project, right?

MH: Right, so Linda came in and did workshops with the singers and we went through a bunch of different songs, and then we picked

LT: —”Ain’t No More Cane”,

MH: —gospel, spiritual songs.

LT: One of the things that I feel from Marcus’ work is that I connect with him as a child of “immigrants.” And when I say immigrants, I mean Black parents that make their way from the South to the West Coast. So there’s certain ways that he expresses himself that seem very familiar to me. And the fact that his father is a minister, and he himself seems to have a really close relationship with this music. He’s not a visitor, he’s very at home with this traditional stuff. I like that. So there’s an old soul that lives within him as well as this very avant-garde contemporary writer. He has a great sense of humor: renaming Poseidon as Paw Sidin: I love that about him.

Eric: So when Marcus sits down and says “Who I really want to work with on this play is Linda Tillery and Molly Holm because there’s this nut in this work that we haven’t cracked yet, and it’s got to do with the music, with the role that this music plays in this play.” How do you see music living in this piece, in black odyssey?

MH: I just think it’s just there, you know? To me it was just a perfect place for you, Linda, to really bring forth everything you know. All your musical knowledge and repertoire. It’s like someone just made the nicest garden plot with tons of compost and all the watering, it’s just the perfect planting ground.

LT: Yeah, it is, but I also think that I see both of us contributing in our own ways tremendously to this production. Because we know each other it’s so much easier to get to where we wanna go. We’re not fighting each other. We have conversations and discourse about what something is, and maybe we have a difference of opinion, but we’re not fighting, we’re not working against each other, which is really great. It’s a breath of fresh air.

ET: For me, the music in this piece is really an expression of the spirit. There’s something about how when I read this play and I think about it unfolding, the role of music is as much a thing that unites all of these people together across time and across space. That’s just sort of in my head, how the language of the music becomes representative of these ancestors that Ulysses is calling forth at the very beginning. There’s something about music that is that, especially the roots music that you’ve been introducing in this. There’s something about that that’s a call to community. Can you talk a bit about that?

LT: If you look at the music over time, we’re calling forth people from cotton fields, calling forth people who may have bought their first car, how they got that car, because for me, I’m using my parents, their experience in this country is kind of a catalyst for how I move the song—”ok, now my mother told me that when she lived in Texas, things were this way”—and so I think some of the music reflects that. If you ask a person who is, say, in their 70s or 80s, did you have an “Uncle Bubba” who had to go to jail because “Mr. Charley” did such and such? “Pretty Black Woman” reflects that: bunch of guys who are in prison, they’re trying to pass the time of day. They create these songs, often in this music, this prison music, the subject matter revolves around a woman and her body: that seems to be what gets these men working. Then we get the spirituals, that’s the most enduring music, the spirituals in this play. Those are the songs that are going to evoke the most emotion out of the audience. The Motown medley will be fun, but the deep reflection is going to come from “Didn’t it Rain” and “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize.”

ET: The music that came to us in the first draft is virtually unrecognizable now. The song selection that Marcus originally introduced through the script, we’ve kind of just let go of. So the process of selecting and curating the music for this: has there been some touchstone you’ve been using, or has it been about responding to the what Marcus is describing as the moment so that at some level the genre becomes part of that dialogue?

Marcus Gardley, Molly Holm, and Linda Tillery at musical workshops for “black odyssey” in March. Photo by Eric Ting.

LT: Marcus is the catalyst. I just throw it out there, the couple of times he’s been here, I throw it out there and wait for his response. I think some things hit him harder than others. I kind of watch his reactions. Sometimes he’ll be very vocal about what he wants, which is nice. But the problem is we have enough music for 2 or 3 plays! And it’s all good music. It’s hard to stop! It’s really hard to stop. Because for me, I’m having certain visceral responses as we move through this process, so there’s the objective me, then there’s the me that knows how important this music is in my life, in my day-to-day existence and the day-to-day existence of many people. It makes me want to be here.

ET: Can you talk about the importance of music in your life?

…LT: [speechless for a bit, then she makes a face]

…AC: I’m putting that in italics, “deep eye roll” [laughter]

LT: It’s just a thing that has helped me make my way through 68 years of life on the Planet Earth. Most of the time joyfully, but you know, there’s been some pain. But I can’t see living without music. Not only my own creativity, but I enjoy the creativity of other people. I’m a good audience. If I’m sitting and I’m listening to somebody and they’re doing something well, I get so joyful. It’s like, wow! Look at that! Listen to that! It’s my soul food.

ET: The act of making music, just in the time I’ve been in the room with you and the actors, it’s become so central to my understanding and experience of this play. Even though this idea that the making of the music is somehow the journey. How does one build a chorus of singers, an ensemble of makers in this sense?

MH: I think it’s this idea of real time. Being in the room, with the people, with the singers, with the personalities, with the actors—we haven’t even seen them act except their audition tapes and I already know how good they’re going to be. But just from the feeling in the room of who they bring, just arriving to rehearse with them. Once we open our mouths together, no matter what we’re singing, really, there’s a musical persona that comes through. It comes through everybody individually, but you put people together, and they’re singing together, and there’s this other thing kind of like the sum is bigger than the parts. What I’ve learned over the years, in the times I’ve been around Marcus or the times I’ve worked on his material, is there’s this freedom inside of what he’s doing. He’s so poetic so there’s this fluidity; he’s not rigid about stuff. He’s laying down some pretty heavy stuff but I just feel like every part he puts down, he’s leaving room for it to flower in whatever direction it takes itself, so he leaves that space. Just when we have a phone conversation, any time we leave with him, he’s always like “I LOVE it!” And I believe him!

LT: HE’s a good audience!

MH: I believe him! But part of that is a spirit that allows for an evolution of something. And we must’ve driven you crazy saying “No, we gotta have everybody here, we gotta have everyone.” Because it’s the life of each person and the life that they bring that makes the whole. And Linda and I know that, either from working together in groups or working separately in our own ensembles, that there is a life that comes from an ensemble of singers. I feel so touched to be here. The first time I worked with Marcus was Love is a Dreamhouse…circle singing and some chants…for This World in a Woman’s Hands. I don’t know how, but Marcus understood how I worked for the music that I like to do. It comes out of a jazz tradition, it comes out of working with Bobby McFerrin in Voicestra, the circle singing, it comes out of this whole spirit of improvisation, you know, creating things on the spot, and so we had a year and a half of workshops with the singers and Marcus coming in and saying what he wanted. And he hadn’t even written it—he was writing the piece as we went. So that was a marvelous thing, and I think what’s happened here, I think he liked all that, right? And I liked it…

ET: And he asked you to do it in a month and a half!

MH: …but he got introduced to Linda, too, and I just feel super privileged to be here, to work with Linda, you, the company, the actors. I just want to remind people I’m not black and… [everyone laughs]

ET: Neither am I!

MH: Linda knows I say this a lot! But you know, I love the music. And we have crossover in the music through jazz. I just so happen as a jazz vocalist to have a deep love of roots music. I don’t have the knowledge that Linda has but I have the love of it. Talking about roots music, by the grace of God I got to learn North Indian Raga singing, I mean, I got to study it; I can’t say I learned it, but that has deep roots, we don’t even know how much that connection is between Africa and India, right?

LT: Right.

MH: John Santos was talking about that at SF Jazz, that’s a whole ethnomusicology study in itself, but the music itself has roots that come from different places. I think that improvisation opens up those cross-cultural connections even more. And then you add into that if someone has the spirit to embrace that or to allow it. Like the spirit you [Linda] had to be like, “Marcus wanted to do this, ok, let’s just dive in and go for it.” That’s a beautiful thing.

ET: Marcus has such a deep love for this community, for the Bay Area; I think that’s one of the things he was most excited about, on top of working with the two of you, it was about being able to bring this play here, and to really set it in the milieu of the Oakland and the Oakland Hills and the East Bay. What does it mean to be a Bay Area artist for you?

LT: Let me jump in there right away because I had an experience recently that was very eye-opening for me. This past Sunday I performed at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, and the stage was set up on Steiner Street. I grew up in that area in the Western Addition. And I hadn’t performed in SF in a long while and I just kind of looked around and was like, “oh my god,” it was almost like the heavens opened up or something, it was a familiarity with place, and there were people there who came up to say hello, whom I’d known for 45 years, you can’t beat that. Now, my experience as an East Bay musician is that I found the Funk over here. I learned the Blues in San Francisco, because of my parents and my aunts and uncles, they came from Texas, they listened to the Blues, they loved the Blues, and so I love the Blues too! You had to, you couldn’t live at my house if you didn’t love the Blues! So then I moved over here, and that’s where I learned Funk and Jazz, and my first ten years in the East Bay was spent hanging out with the best East Bay jazz musicians there were, because I wanted to learn. One of the things I wanted to learn was how to listen to that music. I never could figure it out. I remember listening to Earl Garner, Concerts by the Sea, it’s a very famous recording, and when it got to the improvisation I’m like, “what is he doing? He’s just going [she scats a few lines]…” So I wanted to understand, oh, there’s form, and no, he’s playing over the form, he’s just not playing the melody, he’s expressing himself. So this has been the place where for me, the greater amount of development happened here in the East Bay. And also politically, I really grew into activism living here in the East Bay. All kinds of stuff started here and flourished, and grew. In the early days of the Panthers I used to play at rallies, things for librarians and gay rights, I mean, I never knew any of that, I never experienced activism when I was growing up in San Francisco, because I didn’t come from a politically active household. Not in the way that we would understand it now, but I think back on things that my mother said to me: she had a sense of activism, she just didn’t know that she did. But, for me, now, the music and how I live my life, and what I project in the world are inseparable, we’re a package. We all come together. So that’s what it means to me.

MH: For me, I’ve always lived in the East Bay once I moved down here. But I grew up in Oregon, and it was a little more conservative up there. But it just so happened that my mom loved jazz. So my whole growing up in the living room, being played all the time, was Duke Ellington and Count Basey, and Ella Fitzgerald and Johnny Hodges, and Goodbye Porkpie Hat, Lester Young, Joe Williams, Wes Montgomery, Charles Mingus, that was just part of the living room set. So here I was in this fairly white community but I had the black music coming in, filling all of our ears in my family. And then when I moved down here to go to school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do; I was out at Mills for a year and then I quit, and then I went down to Laney College. I went to Alameda Community College and Laney College. And that turned me around. That’s when I decided, ok, I’m not going to be a doctor. [laughs] I wasn’t doing well in chemistry. And down there, Ed Kelly was teaching. And I’d go by myself out to East Oakland and I go hear Ed Kelly and Mr. Majors.

LT: Mr. Majors, yes.

MH: They bring guest artists to Laney, Mary Lou Williams, piano, Earl Father Hines, it was amazing. One of the first times I went to Keystone Korner, I considered East Bay and San Francisco tied together by the music, and Keystone Korner at that time they would book a group from Tuesday through Sunday. So you could go over many nights if you loved the group. I heard Art Ensemble Chicago when I was 18, and that just did me in. I was gone. I didn’t even know there was music like that. My mom was listening to more straight ahead jazz but when I heard Art Ensemble Chicago, I just couldn’t believe it. And then I spent the next 30 years trying to figure out how could I do that vocally. I’m still trying to figure it out!

ET: One last question: we talk a lot about Roots music in the work that you’re doing, and Marcus talks a lot about the journey of Ulysses in this play as a journey through his blood and through his ancestry, his roots. What does the idea of roots mean to you?

LT: Roots to me, right now, is Africa. If you’re asking me what are the roots of all the music I listen to, I would start in Africa with those roots going deep in the ground, and then there’s branches and there’s leaves, and then there’s seeds that drop down and new trees start to grow, but you know roots: fundamental. Essential. And unfortunately we don’t in this country, acknowledge often enough what the roots of our western music is, what it is, where it comes from, what it’s about. It’s really quite simple. All the academics know this, and people talk about it, pay it lip service, but because of money for music, things get kind of convoluted. For example you’ll have Joe Cocker. All he did was copy Ray Charles. That’s exactly what he did but for a certain group of people that was safe. That was safety for him, it was safer for THEM, safer than acknowledging that Ray Charles inspired Joe Cocker and essentially made it possible for him to earn a living. And it happens all the time. It’s important not to get consumed with anger about it, but to just move forward and keep telling your truth, keep trying to represent the music with authenticity, and hope that there are some people out there who will appreciate it. That’s roots to me.

MH: I concur. What I might add to it is when I think of roots I also think of history. And Linda and I have had many conversations about this, that acknowledging the history—you don’t have to be a historian but you certainly have to pay respect to where the music is coming from. My experience has been, because getting a degree in music was so heavily western European classical music. And there’s some great music there. But when people are telling you that’s the only music…it’s hard. That was happening not long after I heard Art Ensemble Chicago. Don’t try to shove something down my throat and tell me that this is the only thing because that’s where people with money, where a certain elitism is happening. And don’t even disrespect that music, by elevating it so high, as if it weren’t open to the other music. Rosco Mitchell, who teaches at Mills, he talks a lot about this. What do you call jazz, you call it free jazz, you call it avant garde—he says, “I call it music.” He’s not gonna break it down. It’s music. But politically, and economically, it has been broken down, and it’s broken, and we’re trying to repair it. The money has not followed the right people. Pay respect. Give credit where credit is due.

LT: Yeah, because no one group of people owns the music: once you release it into the air, it’s there. But if you’re gonna sing Hound Dog, don’t give the credit to Elvis Presley, let’s talk about Willie Mae Thornton, because that’s her tune.

MH: This can get very contentious, even as a jazz vocalist, I have had people say in front of me, they’ll refer to classical music as “legitimate” singing. It’s like, I’m not illegitimate, ok. I know my business. It’s a big thing that has to be interrupted, the issues have to be raised and talked about, and when someone makes a comment like that, you have to interrupt it.

LT: I always say, you really wish you could sing soulfully! That’s one of the reasons you wanna put this music down: you can’t do it. However, I will say that Renee Fleming is breaking the barriers these days! She’s put out a pop album and she sounds like a pop singer. She’s retired from opera and she’s focusing on pop music. And she listens to Kurt Elling, I heard her say that. Now whether you like him or not, for a classical singer to say that she listens to a jazz singer, I’m like, wow. My respect for you has grown exponentially. And conversely, I’ve had people who consider themselves to be jazz aficionados really dump on R&B, “Oh that’s just R&B.” No there’s no “just” anything—it’s either good or bad. Duke Ellington knew that, he said it, “What’s wrong with the rest of these eggheads.” You do what you do, and you do what you do, thing is, do your best, that’s all I say.

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Linda Tillery is a prominent figure in the world of music. As a vocalist, percussionist, producer and workshop leader she has performed and recorded with leading musicians across several musical genres. A San Francisco native, she began her singing career in the 1960s with the psychedelic/soul band Loading Zone. During the 1970’s Tillery became a staff musician and producer at Olivia Records, an all woman-owned and -operated label. Her self-titled 1977 recording garnered a Bay Area Music Award for Best Independently Produced Album, and to honor its 40th anniversary, she has reassembled the original band members and will be touring in the United States. Tillery has won two Bay Area Jazz Awards for Outstanding Female Vocalist and her classic children’s recording, “Shakin’ A Tailfeather,” was nominated for a Grammy. 

Linda has recorded and performed with Santana, Boz Scaggs, Ray Obiedo, Sheila E., Huey Lewis and The News, Taj Mahal, Eric Bibb and Bobby McFerrin. In 1992, she formed the Cultural Heritage Choir in order to pursue the research and performance of Sacred and Secular music of enslaved Africans and their descendants. Today the Choir includes Tillery and fellow Bay Area vocalists Rhonda Benin, Tammi Brown, Bryan Dyer, Zoe Ellis and Javier Navarrette.She has taught workshops at Stanford, Williams College, MIT, University of Cincinnati, and University of Indiana Bloomington.

Molly Holm is an unconventional singer and composer, and a director for multi-cultural vocal ensembles. For over 35 years she has explored the musical boundaries of vocal jazz improvisation through original compositions, jazz repertoire, North Indian Raga, modal tonalities and experimental, free-form pieces. Receiving her M.A. in Composition from Mills College— where she currently teaches—Molly studied with master Indian vocalist Pandit Pran Nath, and composers Terry Riley and Lou Harrison. As a performer, she was a founding member of Bobby McFerrin’s original Voicestra; the featured vocalist with Terry Riley’s group, Khayal; and a singer in tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain’s SF JAZZ piece, Rapt, No Strings. Other projects have included performances with choreographer June Watanabe (E.O. 9066), George Coates Performance Works (Actual Shо̄), and collaborations in multiple ensembles with African-American Roots Music vocalist Linda Tillery. Molly’s compositions for Marcus Gardley’s multi-racial plays, Love is a Dream House in Lorin and This World in a Woman’s Hands garnered outstanding reviews; and her 2013 CD, Permission, was described as “Edgy and defiant.”

 

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