15 min read

Starting the Dialogue

Gregg August talks about his ambitious, timely new album, how he prepared for its arrival and reception, and what it was like to play live with other musicians for an audience at MASS MoCA last month.
Starting the Dialogue


John Kolodij
Photograph: High aura’d Facebook

This week’s interview with Gregg August was a long time in the making, and both he and I put a great deal of special effort into preparing the conversation for publication. That being the case, I’ve little to report right now beyond the main event.

But, just as a reminder, this Friday, Sept. 4, is the latest in a series of “Bandcamp Friday” sales, when the music-sales platform Bandcamp waives its fees to provide more income for artists and labels, or in many cases for causes they champion. So if you’ve got any shopping planned, save it for Friday—and be sure to check out the beguiling new tape by John Kolodij (a.k.a. High aura’d), with guest performances by Anna RG and Sarah Hennies, that Astral Editions will post for pre-order Friday. (A split LP by Kolodij and Ezra Feinberg, released last week on Whited Sepulchre, also comes highly recommended.)

News headlines and streaming picks will return next week…

Starting the Dialogue: An Interview with Gregg August

Gregg August
Photograph: John Manolakos

Most New York-based freelance musicians are versatile by necessity, but Gregg August really gets around. A bassist, bandleader, educator, and composer, August has worked his way through chamber-orchestra and symphonic repertoire in estimable ensembles like the American Composers Orchestra, Orpheus, the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the late, lamented Brooklyn Philharmonic. Since 2003, he has served on the faculty of the Bang on a Can Summer Music Institute at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). As an improviser, August long provided a center of gravity to the hard-hitting trio of saxophonist J.D. Allen, as well as the award-winning Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra led by Arturo O’Farrill.

August also leads his own bands, some of which he has documented on the record label he runs, Iacuessa. Late last month, the label issued a recording of what clearly represents August’s magnum opus to date: Dialogues on Race, Volume One. The project, which resulted from a commission granted by New York City’s Jazz Gallery more than a decade ago, focuses on the challenging and timely subject of race relations in the United States. The band includes August’s colleagues from the classical, new-music, and jazz communities, including J.D. Allen, Bang on a Can All-Star Ken Thomson on bass clarinet, pianist Luis Perdomo, and a string section.

Living up to its title, Dialogues on Race makes potent use of words, including poetry by Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, Marilyn Nelson, and other literary figures, delivered by three vocalists and a narrator. Also featured is the recorded voice of Mamie Till-Mobley, the mother of Emmett Till, whose lynching in Mississippi in 1955, when he was just 14, would make him an iconic figure in the ongoing struggle for racial justice in this country.

In approaching his chosen subject and materials, August thought long and hard about how and why a white musician might approach this crucial yet incendiary subject. Reached by telephone in Western Massachusetts, August talked about the project’s long gestation, the doubts and encouragement he felt along the way, and how he prepared himself for a wide variety of responses.

First, though, we talked about August’s recent return to live performance, alongside violinist Todd Reynolds and pianist Vicky Chow, for a strictly limited and distanced audience at MASS MoCA. (The interview was edited for length and clarity.)

STEVE SMITH: Before we dive into your new recording, I have to ask: how did it feel to dive back into playing live, with other musicians, in front of an actual on-site audience during the Bang on a Can concerts at MASS MoCA?

GREGG AUGUST: That actually was not the first time. Just a few weeks before that, I played live with Todd and Kathryn Lockwood, a violist I met in Orpheus a bunch of years ago. She and her husband run a concert series on the northern part of Long Island, at Sands Point Preserve.

Oh, I’ve heard of that, actually.

It’s a beautiful spot. They did a virtual streaming concert. So we played together in July, and that was interesting… it was great, actually.

But that wasn’t for a live audience, then?

There was no audience… well, there were four musicians and four people in the audience, the anonymous donors.

We’ve all had gigs like that, I imagine.

Oh, yeah. [Laughs] It actually was a very special circumstance. This was the first time that we’d played together, and the audience members were very appreciative. The intimacy of it was palpable, I have to say. There were a lot of themes brought into the concert about social justice, because this was during the time when the protests were heating up. Kathryn asked if I could arrange one of the tunes from the record, “Your Only Child,” because the poem that I use is about Emmett Till’s mother. So I came up with a string trio version – violin, viola, and bass – and I read the poem beforehand.

But last week was really powerful, too. We’re normally up here at this time of the year. And just to see everybody – even just for the few seconds that we saw each other in the wings, so to speak – and to feel the MASS MoCA loveliness: it was powerful.

They have this amazing space where they’re allowing people to play. The audience is allowed to assemble in the parking lot – they can fit 100 of them, and they’ve mapped out all these little squares – and the stage is on the second floor. Years ago they had to create a huge opening in one of the outer walls for an exhibit. It’s now sealed with what I think is a garage-door kind of thing. So they simply opened up the door, and there’s the stage, all these windows on the left and the right, and you can see the art.

It’s a stunning space. It was a little surreal, because we were so far from the audience. It was definitely a first-time, got to get used to it kind of thing, with minimal soundcheck. But it was great.

I have to imagine it was cathartic simply to hear applause.

Oh, yeah. Especially when you get two curtain calls. And then Robert [Black] was there the next night; they did two different programs. So to see the whole cast the second night was amazing, even if we’ve all got our masks up. I mean, we’ve all been alone for so long—and then to see your friends, and you’re not able to even shake their hands or hug them…

Jeremy Eichler, the Boston Globe critic who covered the event, mentioned seeing a friend in an adjacent audience square, yet they still had to chat via text messages. It’s a very moving review.

I want to jump right in and talk about your new recording, but Dialogues on Race can be a bit daunting to approach, given the weightiness of its subject matter and the context of the times in which it arrives. So I’d like to go back to the beginning: This is a piece you created originally for a commission awarded by the Jazz Gallery, nearly a decade ago.

That’s exactly right. Every year, the Jazz Gallery commissions composers to write large-scale works, and 2008 was the year they asked me. I had always wanted to write a piece along those lines. And because I get to play with a lot of different types of musicians, I’ve seen many of them writing big pieces. For example, Julia Wolfe, the way she was able to construct those three large pieces about the labor movement: every summer it seemed we were workshopping those, so I could see the process. I thought, maybe I could do something like that.

I had to find subject matter that really meant something to me, and I had thought about race relations constantly. I had lived overseas and was looking at America from afar, and was not liking everything that I saw. It started just by seeing that as Americans we live in our own lanes, culturally speaking, and then by revisiting history—or learning it for the first time, in some cases.

It’s all based on frustrations with knowing and playing with all kinds of musicians – Black, Asian, white – and race never really being a comfortable topic. In 2008, everybody was talking… or at least the media was talking about race: Obama giving that speech in Philadelphia, when he had to speak to the Jeremiah Wright thing. And he gave an incredible overview of history, things we all knew—or, speaking again of myself, things I had known, but didn’t know entirely.

It started my wheels turning, and I decided on that subject. I wanted to discuss race, and I was doing all this research. I came across this documentary called The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, and saw a scene in there where Mamie Till-Mobley describes her experience at the funeral home, seeing her son Emmett for the first time. And I thought that would be something to put to music. At the premiere I just took the clip – it already had a soundtrack to it – and played it through the sound system. Then we played the piece associated with it directly afterward.

The overall piece is meant to be about race relations in general, but I knew the Emmett Till part was going to be central to it. And that poem by Marilyn Nelson, “Your Only Child,” is so beautiful. It’s an incredible thing, she has a whole book of poems about this called A Wreath for Emmett Till—beautiful drawings and beautiful poems about something so brutal and ugly.

So I had my structure, and I picked some famous poems by Maya Angelou and others, like “Sweet Words on Race” by Langston Hughes and “I Sang in the Sun” by Carolyn Kizer, to incorporate into the music.

Along with all of the texts, did you have some underlying compositional structure in mind that bound it all together?

I sought to associate each member of the band with a particular poem. So John Bailey, the trumpet player, is featured on “I Rise.” The poem is Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” but I twisted up the title a little bit. And the tune “Sweet Words on Race,” based on Langston Hughes—that I initially had just called “Drums.” I knew I wanted the rhythm and the energy coming from that part of the band, and I featured drummer Donald Edwards and conga player Mauricio Herrera.

It was going along in that direction, but I’m not sure that I fulfilled it, because of course there was the time element: I was the first one up. They gave us the commissions in January or December, and I had to have mine done by February—which in a way is a blessing, because there’s no time to dilly dally.

And less opportunity to second-guess yourself?

Right. Then we did the premiere, and I felt like there were a lot of musical things I needed to work on, generally speaking, as a composer. I was thinking if I ever record this thing, I’m going to take it to the next level. I’m going to have to do some serious work on myself, musically, to be able to put it out there, because I knew it was going to be a heavy thing.

And then, of course, was the real thing, which is subject matter. I’m a white guy writing about Emmett Till; I’m going to need to do some serious digging and figure out some things that would help to explain why I did it. And maybe I didn’t know what they were at the time, but I know, now. I’m fully comfortable being a white guy and writing about this.

Let’s address that head-on, then. There’s no question that you’ve run in some unusually diversified circles, playing in orchestras like Orpheus and the American Composers Orchestra, working with Bang on a Can, and gigging with J.D. Allen and Arturo O’Farrill, among others. Even so, there absolutely remains a question about whether this subject is appropriate for you to address—and any response will play out in the wake of what happened when a controversial portrait of Emmett Till by Dana Schutz changed the course of the 2017 Whitney Biennial.

Last year, when the recording was done but I had this idea still in my head of using Mamie Till-Mobley’s voice, I contacted the director of the documentary The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till, Keith Beauchamp. This is last August, exactly a year ago. I messaged him on Facebook, and I sent him a video we had done of “Your Only Child,” where [composer and saxophonist] Shelley Washington sings it, just to show him that I was in the middle of working on something and had something concrete to show him.

I said, I would like to have just this one clip from your film, without the soundtrack. We spoke, and he gave me the entire film. And the thing to know about the film was that that documentary made the FBI reopen the case, because of the things he had discovered.

Furthermore, the footage of Mamie Till-Mobley: those were his personal interviews. He completely trusted me. He jumped through all sorts of technological hoops, and gave me the entire film. That was the first thing that made me think, okay, this guy’s got my back; he knows I’m a white guy. It was very encouraging.

We’ve gone on to become pretty good friends. And our friendship led to him recently connecting me to the Emmett Till family, the cousins that have a foundation in his name, the Emmett Till Legacy Foundation. They had a birthday celebration for him on July 25, and they asked me to play a virtual performance. So that, to me, again was encouragement. That was just a few weeks ago.

But I’ve done a lot of thinking, and the Dana Schutz thing was the example I had right in front of my face. Finally, I sat down with a legal pad and a bunch of different pens, and I was like: I have to write something. I kept asking friends to help me, saying, “Would you guys possibly be able to put something into words?” And they said, “You need to write it.”

And I finally did it: I sat down, and I wrote a few drafts, and I included the Dana Schutz thing, because I knew it was something I could also face. I was actually talking to [composer, writer, and new-music advocate] Frank Oteri last year, during this time when I was talking with everybody, no matter what they looked like, just getting feedback. Frank said, you have to remember that Mamie opened the casket so that everybody could see him. I almost broke down, it was so clear and liberating. One could even argue that she made them open the casket specifically for white people to see him, because Black people already knew what was happening: they’d been living that horror for decades.

There’s another person on the record who helped me; his name is Wayne Smith. He narrates the second tune, called “Letter to America.” Wayne is a cousin of mine, and a few years ago at a family function I was telling him about the project, about the record on race relations, and the tribute to Mamie Till. And he said, “Oh, I knew Mamie; I worked with her on trying to abolish the death penalty.”

That’s incredible.

It was unbelievable. So I got him on the record, narrating a poem that’s not directly related to Emmett Till. But he’s been one of my go-to’s, one of the people I’ll call and talk, just like I’m talking to you, pouring my heart out and having my inner debate. I speak to him, to Keith, to J.D., to everybody. Black guys, white guys, it doesn’t matter; I’m just trying to work my way through it, you know? And that’s what the record really is… I’m a musician, so everything I do is processed through music.

You’ve also stated your case clearly: you were given a commission and encouraged to write about something that mattered to you, and this is what you chose. You didn’t claim any special privilege, expertise, or right; you responded in a way that any sympathetic person might.

Of course. The issue in the United States, this discomfort with talking about race, only leads to further misunderstanding. So how else can we get past it, other than by talking about it? And if you only talk about it with other white people, that doesn’t make sense. You have to have that conversation. Robin DiAngelo, who wrote the book that everybody’s talking about now [White Fragility], says it in the beginning of her TED Talk: her book is basically about white people not being able to talk about race.

As you mentioned, you prepared a few videos in advance of releasing your record. Are they promotional vehicles, or are they meant to be integrated into performances somehow?

We live in a video culture. We’re all on our phones, looking at videos; it may be only for 30 seconds, but we keep on looking. I had made this video with Todd [Reynolds] and Vicky [Chow], the trio piece we played last week, with Four/Ten Media. I was pretty skeptical about seeing myself on screen, but in the end I thought we got a really good performance, and people seemed to react to the video.

So at that point I thought: Dialogues on Race—we’re going to go forward with it, and I’m going to make two videos, because it will help. It’s more of a Dialogues on Race project: there’s the record, there are these videos, and there’s going to be all these other things associated with it.

I attended a dear friend’s memorial service at the Packer Collegiate Institute on Joralemon Street, and I was blown away by the space. I thought, okay, I have to make a video in this space of “Your Only Child.” I got the space, and decided to do two of the tunes from the record. We did “Your Only Child” with Shelley Washington—that version came out of my playing up here at MASS MoCA in the summer of 2017.

“Your Only Child” is played three times on the record. The first one Frank Lacy sings; it’s like the jazz version. That was the only one, originally. But in 2017, again at MASS MoCA, I was in the installation by Nick Cave called Until, and that was in the massive, football field-size gallery. It was beautiful, it was gorgeous, things hanging from the ceiling, but what you didn’t realize right away was it was about racism and gun violence.

I decided to do my recital in there, and to play “My Only Child” because of its dedication to Mamie Till. I didn’t have many jazz musicians around me, because it was the Bang on a Can thing. So I chose some string players and Ken Thomson. I needed a singer, and found out Shelley could sing it; I just needed to transpose it by a tritone. So then I had this other version, and that’s the one we did for the video. That launched the idea that the record was moving forward, because I could send it out to people. And then we did another tune called “Sherbet,” which opens the record.

Since then, I’ve made another video, which I just finished today. This is the track where I took the [audio] of Mamie Till talking about her son; it’s called “Mother Mamie’s Reflections.” At the record date, I grabbed Ken Thomson and [tuba player] Marcus Rojas, because I wanted low sounds; I played them the recording and said, we’re going to improvise to the text.

We did three improvisations, I chose one, and then I took the footage from Keith Beauchamp’s movie and created this pastiche. You hear Mamie coming out of both sides, panned left and right, and kind of speaking over herself at times. In recent weeks I had a friend come up with a video: it’s all text, floating across the screen. And it’s heavy, of course it’s heavy—but not everyone knows what happened to Emmett Till. That’s something I’ve become aware of through my relationship with Keith. This guy has been dealing with this since 1999, when he first met Mamie, and the case is still unsettled. No one went to jail.

What I was trying to do, without dumbing things down, was really put it in people’s faces, people who don’t know it. And it’s painful. It’s not really a jazz piece at all; it’s a really dark field recording. I saw art by Jenny Holzer all the time up here at MASS MoCA, and Michael [Gordon] and Julia [Wolfe] are always doing this kind of thing. I was truly inspired by that sensibility. And it’s the cut the writers keep talking about, I’ve noticed, because it’s so strong, just her talking.

Bringing this all full circle, the title of your new album is Dialogues on Race, Volume One. Does that automatically presuppose that further dialogues will follow? Do you have specific ideas in mind?

Yes and no. Like I said before, a few weeks ago at Sands Point I came up with that new arrangement of “Your Only Child,” because we only had a string trio and I thought, I can make this work. So there are musical things I can continue to do with these themes. But the real reason it’s “Volume One” is because the subject matter isn’t going away any time soon. I’ve been able to learn so much about America because I jumped in the deep end here and have been trying to figure things out.

As a musician, I process things most effectively through music. So, yeah, a whole bunch of things are coming to mind, all kinds of things I can see happening creatively that will help me understand the issue more completely—and not let it go away and be like, okay, I’m aware now because I made a record on race, and now I’m going to move on. It’s not going away, and it’s drawn a lot of emotion out of me, for better or for worse. The creative things that are spilling out of me… I have to follow them.

Dialogues on Race, Volume One is available now on Gregg August’s label, Iacuessa Music; greggaugust.bandcamp.com. August will participate in an online premiere, including two new videos, on JazzCorner, Sept. 2 at 7pm EDT; facebook.com/JazzCorner.