SAN FRANCISCO - For some years now, bassist, composer, band leader and educator Marcus Shelby has been bringing to musical life some of the most dramatic and significant episodes in American freedom and civil rights struggles.
He and the Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra previewed parts of his latest project, a tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, at the Fillmore Jazz Festival July 3. The work, which features both original compositions and arrangements of freedom songs, spirituals, blues and jazz from the Civil Rights era, has just been recorded; the CD is not yet available.
The sampling presented at the festival, which included "Bobo," dedicated to the memory of young lynching victim Emmett Till; "Trouble on the Bus," dedicated to the 1960s Freedom Riders; and Shelby's arrangement of Charles Mingus' "Fables of Faubus," made clear the release of the CD will be eagerly awaited.
Performances by leading Bay Area jazz vocalist Faye Carol, including the spiritual, "Amen," and her rendition of Billie Holiday's "God Bless the Child," were a highlight of the afternoon.
Among Shelby's earlier historical works is the instrumental suite, Port Chicago, which dramatizes in music the horrific World War II munitions explosion at the northern California naval base that killed over 320 mostly African American sailors and injured 400 more.
The work stoppage that followed in protest over the racism and perilous working conditions, the ensuing court martial and unjust convictions, and the long campaign to exonerate the sailors, are vividly portrayed by Shelby and the MSJO.
Another example is the oratorio, Harriet Tubman, which recounts Tubman's heroic actions before, during and after the Civil War, against a background of family love and devotion in the face of huge obstacles. The work also pays tribute to the outstanding role of African American Union soldiers in the war. Here, the MSJO instrumentalists are joined by a fine quartet of vocalists, headed by Faye Carol as Harriet Tubman.
The Fillmore Jazz Festival, now in its 26th year, is the area's largest free jazz festival. It celebrates a once-predominantly African American neighborhood that was a Mecca for jazz musicians, and is now an important venue showcasing the Bay Area's vibrant jazz scene.
This year nearly 30 groups performed on the three principal stages, not to mention informal performances in smaller settings and on the street.
Up to 100,000 people were expected to throng the festival's eight-block area, enjoying an array of foods and crafts along with the music.
Shelby, who emphasizes that he is an acoustic bass player, leads the Marcus Shelby Trio as well as the MSJO. His educational endeavors include workshops on the intersection of music, politics and history. He has taught at San Francisco State University, the Stanford Jazz Workshop, the Berkeley Young Musicians Program and San Francisco's Rooftop Alternative School, among others.
For more information, including about the forthcoming CD of Shelby's tribute to Dr. King, see www.marcusshelby.com.