Coltrane concert celebrates African heritage

By Erica Rael

The lights dimmed and spirits were high as Northeastern celebrated “An African Legacy: The 29th Annual John Coltrane Memorial Concert” on Saturday.

The show marked the 20th year the university was hosting the event. First performed in 1977, this year marked an impressive 29 years of commemorating the late musician John Coltrane’s work and was held on his 80th birthday.

The concert featured a 15-piece ensemble of renowned musicians, including co-founding percussionist Syd Smart who sponsored the first concert at his Friends of Great Black Music Loft, and for the first time, five members from the Art of Black Dance and Music (ABDM), whose participation greatly impacted the emotional climate and the audience’s ability to interpret the music.

Dr. Leonard Brown and Dr. Emmett Price both worked as co-producers on the show. Dr. Brown, co-founder and producer of the concert, is the chair of the African American Studies Department as well as the Head Advisor for the Music Department at Northeastern.

The evening opened with a dance number rooted in African culture and allowed the performers an entry way to focus on Coltrane’s legacy during the first set.

Coltrane’s more well-known works, such as “My Favorite Things” and “Soul Eyes” were featured in the second set, accompanied by members of the ABDM who explored interpratations of the music through dance in songs like “Acknowledgement.”

One notable difference from previous concerts was the incorporation of dance. For years, many of the musicians who had been involved with the concert thought about the idea but never discussed it enough to make it happen, Brown said.

Having worked with De Ama Battle, founder and director of the ABDM, in a number of different contexts in the past, Brown invited her to perform in this year’s event. In fact, it was De Ama Battle who came up with the theme, “An African Legacy” and encouraged the performers to display the Diaspora with an American approach. Brown explained that integrating this theme into the concert wasn’t difficult to do since Coltrane’s music very clearly reflects African roots.

The ensemble viewed the challenge as an opportunity to illustrate the traditions not often written about and to show the audience that Coltrane was indeed “very much aware of black culture and tradition, not only in the US but also going back to the homeland.”

Though each concert is unique to itself, this year in particular reflected one of the ensemble’s core values in performance: creativity. All the dances the ABDM featured were “created, composed, and choreographed just for this event,” Brown said.

Brown and Price conveyed their passion for the concert, explaining the importance of holding this memorial annually lies in the legacy Coltrane left behind; his work affected American culture so profoundly that his music would not only shape the way people came to view jazz, but spirituality as well.

“[Coltrane’s] musical heritage continues to live on [as an] example of the love, strength, and spirituality that exists within African-American culture and all humanity,” Brown said. “The magnitude of [his] contribution not only to the US, but to the world is probably considered the most powerful culture contribution ever made.”

As far as next year is concerned, Brown and his fellow musicians are already working towards a mega celebration for their 30th anniversary.

“One of the things that has allowed the concert to continue over the years is that [they] believe in the integrity and sincerity that [they] bring to the performance,” Brown said referring to the performers.

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