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  • Glenn Siegel

A People’s History: Avery Sharpe’s 400: An African-American Musical Portrait

As a presenter used to counting audience members by the dozen, having more than 650 people attend the latest Magic Triangle Jazz Series concert was out of the ordinary, to say the least. There are a few reasons why Bowker Auditorium was filled to the rafters on November 21. Avery Sharpe, who brought his quintet and eight-member choir to Amherst, is a UMass graduate and a long-time resident of the Pioneer Valley. The project he presented, “400: An African-American Musical Portrait,” marking the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, is timely and has epic sweep. He also happens to be an accomplished, world-renown bassist, composer and bandleader. Sharpe’s appearance generated cover stories, feature articles and radio interest throughout the region.

The pre-concert buzz was justified by a monumental, syncopated survey of the enormous contribution Black people have made to American music. Like the recent recording, 400 (JKNM Records,) the concert followed a chronological progression of African-American musical history. The evening – filled with joy, sorrow and resistance – touched on blues, ragtime, various jazz styles, spoken word and church music.

The strength and clarity of Sharpe’s writing, the sure direction of choir director Kevin Sharpe, and heavy contributions by Don Braden, tenor saxophone and flute, Duane Eubanks, trumpet, Edsel Gomez, piano, Ronnie Burrage, drums, and the choir, insured the evening was much more than a flat, breeze-through of various styles.

Early in the night, Sharpe, now 65, reminisced about sitting in the balcony of Bowker as an undergraduate, going crazy for the NY Bass Violin Choir. That night, watching Milt Hinton, Richard Davis and Bill Lee, the electric bassist decided to engage with the acoustic instrument. With guidance from then-UMass professor Reggie Workman, Sharpe embarked on a career that has taken him to the highest reaches of the jazz world. You could tell it was meaningful for him to return to this site of inspiration and present this large-scale project in front of so many friends and admirers.

When I originally contacted Avery about performing in the Magic Triangle Series, I was thinking quintet. When I heard the Extended Family Choir on the recording, I had a strong inclination to add voices. With brother Kevin Sharpe at the helm, the eight singers included sister Wanda Rivera, and niece and nephew Sofia and Rob Rivera. Avery reminded us that, unlike their brothers and sisters who were brought to South America and the Caribbean, Africans in North America were largely denied access to the drum. The voice, however, could be neither confiscated, nor silenced.

The Choir’s solo feature, “Antebellum,” occurring almost half way through the program, acted as a bridge between centuries three and four. It began with a beautifully sung hymn, and ended in gospel, with the insistent refrain, “Wake up, rise up.” Another vocal high point, the spiritual/protest anthem,“Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” was arranged by Sharpe. When Sofia Rivera stepped to the mic and threw down her own spoken words, “America, land I love, country that despises me in one breath then praises me in the next,” they fell on us like a mind bomb.

Generally speaking, I’m good with one bass solo a set. There were more than that on Thursday. How lucky for me then, that the bass player was Avery Sharpe, who thinks melodically and can play anything.

After the last piece, the forward-thinking, “500,” UMass Department of Afro-American Studies Chair Stephanie Shonekan, professor John Bracy and photographer Bobby Davis presented Sharpe with three large Davis photographs. It was a nice acknowledgement of Sharpe’s contribution to his alma mater, western Massachusetts and jazz. High on the music, with so many family and friends on the stage and in the audience, it was a feel-good moment.

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