Music takes on a historical note

June 27, 2002|by KATE COLEMAN

American history is a work in progress. Harpers Ferry's part in that history in the years beyond 1776 are explored by "Freedom's Birth, an American Experience."

For the first time, the annual celebration will feature jazz - sometimes called America's only original art form.

"What we've tried to do is to include elements of music that have had significance to Harpers Ferry history," says Todd Bolton, branch chief of visitor services at the park.

That takes event planners directly to Storer College graduate Don Redman, known as the first great arranger in jazz history. And who better to bring that history to life than legendary jazz trombonist Benny Powell, 70, who will return to Harpers Ferry to perform with the Howard Burns Quartet on Saturday.


Storer College, in Harpers Ferry, was one of the first schools founded to educate freed slaves after the Civil War and is preserved as part of the national park.

Also on the Freedom's Birth program is octogenarian jazz pianist and composer Jane Jarvis. She began her professional career in her native Indiana at age 11 - more than 70 years ago. For years she played the organ at Milwaukee Braves and New York Mets baseball games. She made more than 300 recordings for Muzak. But jazz was her true love; she's still playing. Powell produced her just-released CD - "Sagmo's Song."

Trumpeter Joe Wilder, 80, will join the jazz combo on the National Park stage.

As Powell did, Wilder met Redman when Redman was conducting and arranging for Pearl Bailey. He also played on a Redman recording with jazz saxophonist Coleman Hawkins.

Wilder, born into a musical family in Philadelphia in 1922, was the only African American kid in his Tilden Junior High School band and experienced discrimination early in his musical life. When the Tilden band went to play at another school, a teacher asked his music teacher Alberta Lewis, "How come you brought a nigger?"

"Would you rather we pack up and go home?" Lewis responded.

The incident made Wilder angry and he experienced similar slights in later years. But working with people - white people who stood by him, who walked out of restaurants where Wilder was refused service - enabled Wilder to see the good in good people and merely be annoyed by such "hoodlums.

"It's a disgrace, but we got long past it," he says.

Opportunities to play the classical music he loved were rare for a young black musician - a graduate of the Manhattan School of Music - in the late 1930s. Wilder was in demand in the age of the big band, however, playing in many big-name orchestras, including those of Lionel Hampton, Jimmie Lunceford, Dizzy Gillespie and Count Basie.

Wilder broke racial barriers on Broadway, first playing in the orchestra of the 1950's musical "Alive and Kicking." He also played with the original production of "Guys and Dolls" with Robert Alda and Stubby Kaye. Wilder recalls laughing as hard at the last performance of the show's three-year run as he had on opening night.

Wilder is a member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, which interprets and presents arrangements of jazz classics of the Big Band orchestras.

Bolton describes Wilder's playing as incredibly melodic. His solo on a recording of "Autumn in New York" brings tears to your eyes, he says.

"He's a treasure."

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