Reggie Workman uses the past to present the future
by Ed Hazell
Veteran jazz players today face a ticklish problem: how to acknowledge history
without simply recreating it. When you are a musician like bassist Reggie
Workman, who was a member of history-making groups like the John Coltrane
quartet and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, the temptation to relive past glories
is strong. Fortunately, Workman is not the kind to rest on his laurels. In
fact, few jazz musicians have been able to sustain a level of creativity for as
long as he has. So when he brings his ambitious 20-piece African American
Legacy Project to UMass Amherst on February 5, to perform music from John
Coltrane's celebrated Africa/Brass album, expect more than a historical
A 15-voice choir will join the instrumentalists for a new piece by Workman,
and there will be compositions by musical director and trumpeter Charles
Tolliver, as well. "We don't want it to be just Africa/Brass Revisited,"
Workman says from his home in New Jersey during an interview. "We want it to
show John Coltrane as he relates to where our heads are today."
Workman was 24-year-old when he participated in the 1961 Africa/Brass session,
which forms the basis for the first part of the concert. It was a bold choice
for Coltrane to make as his first album for Impulse! Records. The
instrumentation is unusual -- four French horns, euphonium, tuba, three
trombones, and trumpet -- and the tunes are far from the usual jazz fare of the
day. The title track draws heavily on traditional African polyrhythms, and
Coltrane used the English folk song "Greensleeves" and a traditional
African-American tune, "Song of the Underground Railroad."
Unfortunately, the original scores were lost. The papers of saxophonist Eric
Dolphy, who wrote the orchestrations, were destroyed during rioting in Los
Angeles. Coltrane's longtime pianist McCoy Tyner, whose chords form the
harmonic vocabulary of the arrangements, didn't know where the charts were when
Workman asked about them. So Workman turned to Tolliver to transcribe the
record and arrange the music for the contemporary band.
The album's allusions to several cultures and its unusual instrumentation
inspired Workman's own piece, "Martyr's Hymn," a piece dedicated to Harriet
Tubman, Coltrane, John F. Kennedy, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and other departed
"The very fact that John Coltrane . . . had a different sound in
mind, a more vocal sound, is something I want to keep happening in my piece,"
Workman explains. "So I put the verbal aspect in the musical aspect. I wrote
the words in collaboration my niece, Angela Workman; she used to sing with the
Raelettes and she sings a lot of gospel. My whole idea of this is to connect
the tradition with the futuristic concept of Coltrane. What it does is reach
out to the gospel world and let them know that the spirituality of John
Coltrane is no different than what we hear every Sunday morning.
"Another part of the project relates to what the siblings of John Coltrane's
contemporaries are doing," he continues. "As we pass through this way, we want
to open the door for our children. So part of the idea for this thing is to
present our children as well."
Electric bassist Matthew Garrison, son of Jimmy Garrison, the bassist who
replaced Workman in Coltrane's group, will be a member of the big band, along
with saxophonist Zane Massey, son of the Philadelphia composer Cal Massey,
whose "The Damned Don't Cry" was recorded at the 1961 session.
The program has been presented only twice before, in Richmond, Virginia, and
in Washington, DC, and there are only two more performances currently
scheduled: one in Philadelphia and later this summer in New York. The show in
Amherst will be an opportunity to hear one of the most significant bassist in
modern jazz link the past with the present and with the future of the music.
"We want everyone to understand," Workman says, "that the continuum in
African-American music is real."
The Reggie Workman African American Legacy Project is the leadoff concert
in the 10th season of UMass Amherst's Magic Triangle jazz series. The group,
who appear at 8 p.m. on February 5, perform at Bowker Auditorium, University of
Massachusetts, Amherst. Tickets are $6 for students; $9 for the general
On April 1, the Kidd Jordan-Fred Anderson Quartet make their New England
debut. Then on April 30, pianist Andrew Hill leads his current sextet. Call
(413) 545-2511 or (800) 999-8627.