On August 1, three of Atlanta’s premiere arts organizations will come together for the first time to celebrate the life and music of one of jazz history’s most prolific and profound composers: William Thomas Strayhorn. It’s a significant partnership because each organization brings to the table a unique perspective on a key element of Billy’s life: his ethnicity, music, and sexual identification.
When the AGMC music advisory committee and I began discussing our interest in programming this concert (originally commissioned by the gay men’s choruses in Los Angeles and New York), we knew right away that the forces involved had to be authentic. It wasn’t enough to hire professional instrumentalists to play the score, we needed a solid group that played together on a regular basis. Enter Brent Runnels, Artistic Director of Jazz Orchestra Atlanta, a world-class pianist, and a man who already knew Strayhorn’s music well. Two of the three collaborative components were in place.
Our partnership with the National Black Arts Festival was a long time coming, however. We were first on their radar over a year ago when I had the opportunity to meet Stephanie Hughley, Artistic Director of NBAF, who expressed genuine interest in this concert. However, like many arts organizations in this economic climate, NBAF had to revisit plans for this summer’s festival, putting the hope for a partnership in limbo for several months. Then, less than a month ago, our concert was enthusiastically embraced by NBAF and we learned it will appear as an official event in this season’s festival, scheduled for July 29 – August 2, 2009, at the Woodruff Arts Center.
But there is an even deeper convergence at play as we prepare for our final concert of the season. When I was in Los Angeles for GMCLA’s 30th anniversary concert last August, I had the opportunity to meet actress Donzaleigh Abernathy, who had been scheduled to speak at the performance, celebrating the chorus’ efforts toward the advancement of civil rights.
In her moving speech, Donzaleigh spoke of how proud her Uncle Martin would be to have been there and to see gay men’s choruses becoming leaders in the fight for equality. Donzaleigh is, of course, the daughter of Ralph David Abernathy, Dr. King’s partner in the civil rights movement. She always called him Uncle Martin and has made it her mission to champion his work, as demonstrated in her book Partners to History. Ms. Abernathy is also known for her role in the Lifetime Television series Any Day Now and, as I witnessed in Los Angeles, has the power to capture a live audience with her presence in a way one doesn’t often see. I came back to Atlanta ready to invite her to be part of this project. Soon after, the offer was made and she enthusiastically accepted.
Then, when reading David Hajdu’s biography of Billy Strayhorn, I noticed a photo of Billy in which Dr. King appears. It was taken at the baptism of Warren and Marian Logan’s son, over which King presided. It turns out that Billy, a close friend of the Logan’s, met Dr. King that weekend and a life-long friendship was born. Dr. King quickly came to support Billy, his openness and honesty, and asserted that Billy was doing important work simply by being open about who he was.
Donzaleigh, of course, knew the Logan familly name and remembers having met Marian at a very early age. And now, as the stars would have it, Marian is one of the four characters Donzaleigh will portray in a series of monologues that bring together the music of this concert in a very powerful way.
I believe connections like these are no accident and that once again we are poised for greatness as we break barriers and forge new connections.