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History translated musically

Original music to mark Nigara Movement Centennial

Original music to mark Nigara Movement Centennial

August 17, 2006|by JULIE E. GREENE

HARPERS FERRY, W.Va. - When saxophonist and composer Frank Foster toured Southern venues with the Count Basie Orchestra in the mid- to late 1950s, Foster and his fellow musicians couldn't stay at the big-name hotels.

"We had to stay at black hotels in the black community," he says.

They couldn't eat at roadside restaurants while touring, unless they just bought their food and left. At performance venues, they had to use bathrooms for black patrons and watch as black customers had to remain in the balcony or behind rope barriers on the main floor while white patrons danced.

"As much as black folks love to dance, the black folks had to sit in the balcony, and only the white folks could be on the dance floor," recalls Foster, who went on to lead the orchestra in the 1980s.

Foster says he didn't set out to use emotions from these memories and similar ones as a black youth growing up in Cincinnati when composing the three-movement "Niagara Centennial Suite." But, he's sure his feelings about how segregation affected himself and all blacks subconsciously influenced the work.

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Foster will conduct the Count Basie Orchestra's performance of the suite Saturday night during the Niagara Movement Centennial commemoration at Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. The Niagara Movement was the precursor to the NAACP and held its second meeting - its first meeting on U.S. soil - in Harpers Ferry in 1906.

The concert is just one of many free entertainment events and activities scheduled for the centennial celebration that starts today and runs through Sunday.

Other entertainment includes the seasoned New Orleans jazz band Preservation Hall Jazz Band; folk singer Odetta, who has inspired generations of musicians including Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin; and the Delfeayo Marsalis Quintet.

Foster says he was delighted when Todd Bolton, the National Park Service's project director for the centennial celebration, asked him to create a composition for the event because it presented a unique challenge.

Foster, 77, of Chesapeake, Va., reviewed historical information from Bolton about 19th-century abolitionist John Brown and the Niagara Movement to develop a historical sketch and create the music.

The first movement, "The Spirit of John Brown," is a rousing up-tempo piece with lots of excitement to depict the warlike conditions when Brown led a raid on an arsenal at Harpers Ferry in an attempt to use the weapons to liberate slaves, Foster says.

Foster describes the second movement, "Conference Time," as a neo-Negro spiritual with an uplifting attitude that looks forward "to a time when the freed slaves will really be like free people instead of continuing to live like slaves."

The third movement, "The Battle We Wage," is named for a quote from Niagara Movement leader W.E.B. Du Bois - "The battle we wage is not for ourselves alone, but for all true Americans."

Foster says this movement sounds somewhat majestic with a marching tempo for the determination and forward-looking attitude of people anticipating true freedom and a slower tempo and somewhat mournful sound. Lyrics for this movement describe how "What we have been, we'll be no more," he says.

Foster was hired by Basie in 1953 and remained with the orchestra until 1964.

By the time he returned to the band as its leader in 1986, Foster says the conditions the band dealt with while touring the South had gotten much better, thanks to the modern civil rights movement.

"In the '80s, I stayed at all the nice hotels, the Marriotts, etc." Foster says.

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