I had the good fortune last night of hearing the Kennedy Center debut of pianist/composer Ramsey Lewis’ Symphonic Poem, A Proclamation of Hope. The piece premiered at the Ravinia Music Festival summer 2009 in a casual outdoor setting. In this venue, the opulent Eisenhower concert hall on the Kennedy Center’s campus, the feeling of the piece generated a somewhat different response. Still jet lagged from the Jazz and Race Conference in the UK, I hopped the Amtrak south to DC’s orange line, and then taxied to the grand entrance of the Center. Rushing across the very plush (okay I was running late—had to stop and let the brothers in the DC train station put a quick spit shine on my kicks—Chi-town thing, you understand), Chinese red carpet and squeezing past the well-heeled, well-dressed crowd to an orchestra seat, the diversity of the crowd was the first striking observation.
Cutting across demographic stereotypes of “the” jazz audience, Ramsey seems to have an appeal that defies category. Interestingly, one of the papers at the conference last week presented preliminary findings on the make-up of jazz audiences in London. This particular thing was on my mind as I sat in the theater among youngsters, high school students, and all kinds of adults.
One reviewer commented at the premiere last year that the work could use a little editing down. Scott Hall, the piece’s arranger, conductor, and master of the orchestration, took the bait and did a great job of it. This version of Proclamation of Hope is leaner and meaner. Hall cut the fat from the original without sacrificing power or intent. Ramsey was cutting up as usual—fluid runs, bluesy figures, and lightening speed double octaves to spare. The collaboration of Hall and Ramsey recalls the teamwork of Miles Davis and Gil Evans. The latter’s lyrical and lush touch framed Davis’ singular voice in a number of milestone recordings. Hall did the same here by brushing brilliant timbres, dynamic rhythms, and straightforward harmonies around the pianist, who presided over the proceedings like a stately prince.
It’s fascinating to read the script I wrote for the Proclamation this far into Obama’s presidency. At that time, Mr. Obama had not long been installed as the first black president of the United States. For many, it was a time of hopeful optimism for the country despite our economic challenges, involvement in two costly military conflicts, and waning stature in the world. In the face of the divisiveness, discord, and dissin’ in general that characterized our democratic process in the recent midterm elections, last night, Mr. Lewis’ piece felt like he was standing his ground, guarding the dream, sticking to his story, and pointing us toward a higher plane of discourse. My hope is that the audience could hear what the man was saying in this important piece without lyrics.
A lighter note from Ramsey from lighter times: