Performance review by John Pietaro:
An Evening with Friends: A Celebration of the Legacy of Paul Robeson--A concert featuring: David Amram, Roy Haynes, Randy Weston, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Kenneth Anderson, Ty Jones, the Ray Blue Ensemble, and special guests.
September 4th 2009, Paramount Center for the Arts, Peekskill NY
The avenues of downtown Peekskill rang out with the spirit of Paul Robeson, sixty years to the day of the infamous concert which devolved into an all-out assault on performer and audience alike. The specter of Peekskill-1949 hung over the city’s historic Paramount Theatre throughout the proceedings, but couldn’t thwart the powerful feelings of celebration within. While many unionists, activists and at least a few Communists were in the nearly filled house, none felt the need to form a protective line around the stage area--as their counterparts did sixty years ago.
An Evening with Friends was not just a concert featuring gifted artists, nor simply a remembrance of the tenacity of the Left during a dark time, but a salute to one of the greatest Americans. The event’s organizers, Arne Paglia and David Rocco, said that they wanted to focus not on the neo-fascist assault of ‘49, but on the feelings of unity and solidarity which created the movement itself. Talking to the performers backstage, this message was clear. Here was a swath of faces and colors, accents and auras ranging in age from octogenarian to teen.
"I am very excited to be a part of this important occasion", said Kenneth Anderson, the 80-something bass-baritone whose voice bears an uncanny resemblance to Robeson's. "Paul was a giant. He was a renaissance man. An artist, a statesman. He spoke truth to power. He was unafraid".
When asked about Robeson's greater cause of social change he immediately spoke of the People's World newspaper. "I am SO very glad that you are covering the concert for such a great paper. I am so happy that the People's World is here”. Mr. Anderson has been performing his own tribute to Paul Robeson for years, often in the company of Pete Seeger (Anderson’s work has been captured on YouTube , with nearly 4000 viewings). He added that Paul Robeson’s is the music of human rights and progressive activism and must be recalled as such.
Noted multi-instrumentalist David Amram, whose resume includes gigs with Jack Kerouac, Thelonious Monk, Leonard Bernstein and Langston Hughes, as well as the composition of noted film scores, was adamant about Robeson’s role in society. He noted that, “Robeson was able to bring the genius of European classical culture to the genius of African-American culture. He was a quintessential American. People say he was ahead of his time but really he was right on time. He could move a generation”. Guitarist John Basile, of Ray Blue’s band, nodded in agreement, stating “I am fascinated by the scope of his influence. He was like superhuman in his vision”.
Commenting on the variety of sounds scheduled for this show he added, “It mirrors the breadth of Paul Robeson”. Bassist Ratzo Harris, also with Blue’s band, echoed the guitarist’s thoughts and happily said, “I am so glad to be here tonight. Peekskill is the place to be right now”.
Tao Rodriguez-Seeger spoke with the enthusiasm one might expect from Pete Seeger’s grandson. “Robeson was an American hero. During a time of witch-hunts, he showed us what could be done. He put his career on the line, regardless of the fear of repercussion. It’s one thing to be brave when you say the right things, but it’s another to be brave when you DO the right things. We need such examples of human pride right now”.
As the house lights dimmed there was plenty of pride in evidence, producing stirring performances to recall over the next sixty years: Rodriguez-Seeger, David Amram and Ray Blue’s rhythm section, playing the Jim Garland classic “I Don’t Want Your Millions, Mister”. Amram’s solo on the tune—playing two tin whistles simultaneously—added a Celtic touch to Tao’s countrified arrangement, even as it recalled Rahsaan Roland Kirk’s innovative technique. This kind of surprise marked the entire evening. Other standout performances included Kenneth Anderson’s set, accompanied by the masterful pianist Doug Smith, where the sound of Robeson was momentarily resurrected for all of us too young to have gone to the original concert. Like Paul did sixty years ago, Ken sang a telling “Let My People Go” and then presented a series of African-American spirituals, filling the old theatre with sounds at once traditional and vibrantly alive.
The evening included spoken word performance as well. Ty Jones of the Classical Theatre of Harlem dramatically read an excerpt from his play “Emancipation: Chronicles of the Nat Turner Rebellion”. He was joined onstage by soprano Angela Polite who sang a lilting “Wade in the Water” behind—no, alongside—Jones’ spectacular presentation. Earlier in the evening Jones spoke about the legacy of Turner living within Robeson: “Nat Turner led the first great slave rebellion in 1831; one hundred years later Robeson was fighting the same institution”. He added that African-American artists continue to struggle with the limitations imposed, but, “Robeson fought for us to become contributing citizens”, he added. Ms. Polite said that she’d visited the Paul Robeson Museum in the former East Berlin and was deeply moved by that nation’s respect for this Black American figure, but also the prospect for progressive change internationally.
Danny Glover, not initially scheduled to be on the bill, spoke of Robeson, too: “He is an inspiration to working people and all people in the midst of struggle. There’s no one like Paul. All artists walk in his shadow”.
The youngest performer of the evening was sixteen year-old Marcus Franklin, who performed tap-dance which resonated with the pulse of Bill Robinson and Gregory Hines. Franklin offered syncopated steps which more than hinted at the sound of a swing-era drum solo. But the good vibrations of Jazz were prominent in the Be-Bop heart of legendary drummer Roy Haynes who has performed with practically every groundbreaking musician from Charlie Parker and John Coltrane to Sarah Vaughn and Louis Armstrong. When pressed to think of career highlights, he smiled and said, “I played with Billie Holiday for her very last club date---that was 1958. Yeah.”. His performance at the Robeson celebration consisted of a solo drumkit piece, “Shades of Senegal”, which rocked the house with polyrhythms and lightening chops.
The Jazz tapestry was shaped by the evening’s Artistic Director, Earl Powell, son of the late Jazz giant Bud Powell. In addition to Haynes he brought forth the Ray Blue Ensemble (featuring Blue’s Latinesque compositions, the searing bass work of Ratzo Harris and brilliant musicianship all around) and noted veteran pianist Randy Weston who performed an impressionistic, expansive improvisation inspired by his memories of Robeson.
Guest speaker Connie Hogarth, a celebrated activist in New York progressive circles, reminded us of the crimes of the Right-wing in Robeson’s day---and how dangerous a model this is for the country at present. Hogarth, who’d lived through the spectacle of the Red Scare (her husband was called before McCarthy’s Senate Sub-Committee on Investigations), told of, “the good people who’d represented the American ideals of civil liberties and social justice and became targeted by the real un-Americans. This corrupted the American atmosphere”.
“Ol’ Man River” closed this show, as it did for Robeson sixty years ago. Ken Anderson’s voice resounded through the theatre as he sang Robeson’s poignant re-writing of key lines, replacing Oscar Hammerstein’s affected southern Black vernacular with a tenacious, prideful rebellion. Peekskill has grown wise with the passage of time and the memory of one who stared down the powers that be, yet with the recent clamors of the radical Right nationwide, the words “I’ll keep on fighting until I’m dying” carry a weight far beyond the reach of this city at any time.
-John Pietaro is a cultural worker and Labor organizer from New York. His website is www.flamesofdiscontent.org
PUBLISHED IN THE PEOPLES WORLD NEWSPAPER, SEPTEMBER 5, 2009