Composer and bandleader Russell Gunn’s relationship with impresario Leatrice Ellzy Wright sounds more like a tussle than a team effort.
“We’ve worked on a number of projects together,” said Gunn, 51, of Atlanta. “Our usual routine is her telling me she wants me to do something, I give her my view, we argue about it for a few weeks, and we eventually come together. It usually works out pretty good.”
Their latest collaboration is an evening-length celebration of Amiri Baraka’s iconic work of Black history and social criticism, “Blues People: Negro Music in White America.”
A suite of jazz, funk, poetry, rap and spoken word featuring Gunn on trumpet, his 24-piece Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra and a host of guest performers, the 90-minute experience is called “The Blues and Its People.”
Credit: Russell Gunn
Credit: Russell Gunn
The second-ever presentation of the work will take place at Symphony Hall Friday, May 26, a ticketed event to kick off the otherwise-free-of-charge Atlanta Jazz Festival, May 27-29.
The first-ever performance of this multi-genre suite was in February at the Apollo Theater, where Wright is senior director of programming.
In 2021 Wright was lured to the Apollo from Atlanta where she has worked in programming at the Woodruff Arts Center, the National Black Arts Festival and the Hammonds House Museum.
It was during her tenure with the National Black Arts Festival (NBAF) that she began devising a plan to gear the entire 2008 festival around a celebration of “Blues People” on its 45th anniversary, with Baraka in attendance. “Everything we did during that festival would point toward the book — music, humanities, dance, the entire thing.”
Her plan to focus on the book demonstrated the influence “Blues People” has had on African American arts leaders.
The book is a sweeping historical look at Black culture and its power to make a home for Black people, despite inhospitable circumstances. The book had a big impact, though Baraka often drew attention away from his scholarship with his political provocations.
Stanley Crouch, who, like Baraka, was a jazz critic, described Baraka’s writing as “incoherent” while others revered him, placing him with Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and James Baldwin.
In 2002, Baraka’s poem about the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center included lines that perpetuated anti-Semitic conspiracy theories that led to widespread condemnation and the elimination of his post as poet laureate of New Jersey.
Yet his writing was called “achingly beautiful” by National Public Radio, and “Blues People,” remains a foundational work.
Wright was unable to get funding for that 2008 NBAF plan, but when she moved to the Apollo she began thinking about “Blues People” again. “I still wanted to do work around that book, curate around that book. My vision was to get Russell to music-direct it, but I would invite different artists in with existing work.”
Then Russell came up with a feature-length composition, and Wright found funding at the Apollo to commission and stage it.
“The work was powerful, the music was excellent,” said Wright. “To experience it on the Apollo stage there — it’s intimate, you felt like you were sitting in something significant. It was a magical night.”
Gunn said “Blues and Its People” began as the third section of a large-form project he had already been working on, and it fortuitously fit what Wright was looking for.
Writing for a 24-piece orchestra is an act of faith, since few ensembles that size can tour regularly. (The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, a slightly smaller 15-piece band, which leader Wynton Marsalis will bring to the Atlanta Jazz Fest May 27, is a notable exception.)
Gunn said he doesn’t take economics into account when he’s composing. “I do it because I feel like it needs to be done, and what happens will happen.”
Then the Apollo happened. “I had no idea that I would end up doing this at the Apollo, let alone Symphony Hall in Atlanta.”
Gunn said almost all the musicians who premiered the piece at the Apollo come from Atlanta, and that bringing it back to Atlanta is “like a homecoming.”
Gunn was born in East St. Louis, and moved to New York City “for one purpose and one purpose only, and that was to be a part of the larger world of jazz musicians. I wanted to be a cat.”
After establishing his bona fides, he began looking for more comfortable surroundings, and in 1998 found himself deciding between Atlanta and Los Angeles.
“I was still really interested in what was going on in what we used to call hip-hop music. At the time the most interesting thing to me was going on in Atlanta, with the Goodie Mob, the Dungeon crew, Outkast; I decided I wanted to be part of this.” Within a week of arriving he was playing on a recording by CeeLo Green.
The new Atlantan has done much to expand jazz, embracing rap and funk and putting jazz back in the world of popular music.
In reference to “Blues People,” Gunn has written: “The thing that fascinates and inspires me most about our people is not only that we possess the ability to survive the seemingly unsurvivable; but to survive, adapt and create things of unparalleled beauty which can only be explained through our innate sensibilities.”
“The Blues and Its People.” Performed by Russell Gunn and the Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra, with special guests Warren Wolf, Jazzmeia Horn, Miles Griffith, Leon Timbo, Weedie Braimah and Jessica Care Moore; narrated by Amber Iman. 8 p.m., Friday, May 26; $49-$69. Atlanta Symphony Hall, Woodruff Arts Center, 1280 Peachtree St. atljazzfest.com
Atlanta Jazz Festival. May 27-29 at Piedmont Park. The festival is accompanied by a month of jazz performances, “31 Days of Jazz,” a “specially curated collection of jazz events from festival partners hosted throughout metro Atlanta.” For Information and tickets, go to atljazzfest.com
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