ACO: Blues Symphony & Beyond Composer Spotlight – Courtney Bryan

Courtney Bryan, a native of New Orleans is “a pianist and composer of panoramic interests” (New York Times). Courtney is an alumna of ACO’s Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute. Her ACO commission, Sanctum, will have its world premiere April 9, 2015, at Jazz at Lincoln Center in Blues Symphony & Beyond. Courtney was kind enough to share her thoughts about the piece and its premiere with SoundAdvice.

Composer/pianist Courtney Bryan. Photo credit: Elizabeth Leitzell
American Composers Orchestra: You actually went to the same high school (though many years apart) as Wynton Marsalis. Can you tell us what it’s like, as a native New Orleans composer, to now share a bill with a New Orleans legend like Wynton?
Courtney Bryan: It is very fulfilling and a reminder of the cyclical nature of life. I first met Wynton Marsalis when I was a 12 years old student at the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp in New Orleans. Wynton Marsalis was the special guest for our performance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival that year, and we were all so thrilled to have a legend like him perform with us. I will always remember how he gave me encouraging nods and words when I took my solo.
I went to the same high schools as Wynton Marsalis – the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts and Benjamin Franklin High School. And like many musicians in New Orleans, I sought apprenticeship with musician/educators from the various major New Orleans music families. Some of my teachers included Clyde Kerr, Jr., Dr. Daniel Weilbaecher, Dean Curtis, Roger Dickerson, Kidd Jordan, Kent Jordan, Moses Hogan, Ellis Marsalis, and the entire faculty of the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Jazz Camp and NOCCA. This rich experience prepared me for my following opportunities. 
I expanded upon my New Orleans experience at the Oberlin Conservatory in Ohio, beginning with a triple major in music composition, classical piano, and jazz piano. I graduated with a B.M. in composition, having studied with Dr. Wendell Logan, Jeffrey Mumford, Marcus Belgrave, Billy Hart, and Frances Walker. Afterwards, I earned a M.M. at Rutgers University working with Stanley Cowell and Dr. Lewis Porter and began performing in New York. Meanwhile, I have always worked as a church musician. 
It was during my time at Columbia University, that I began actively integrating my New Orleans experience with my more recent ventures. My advisor George Lewis has not only opened many doors for me regarding music composition, but also has encouraged me to unapologetically be my full self in all situations and to always speak my voice. My pastor Rev. Dr. M. William Howard, from Bethany Baptist Church of Newark, has encouraged me to explore my spiritual path directly through my music and has given me a platform to actively combine my spiritual, artistic, and scholarly pursuits. As a result of my experiences at Columbia University, Bethany Baptist Church, performing in New York, and my experience at the Jazz Composers Orchestra Institute in 2012 at UCLA, I came to focus on notating the feeling improvisation, integrating the sacred and secular in my music, and exploring human emotions in sound.
Twenty years after that first meeting with Wynton Marsalis, I am excited to share this concert, Blues Symphony and Beyond. I am continuing the same goals and ambitions I had at 12, with the added experiences I have been blessed with between then and now. I hope this concert is part of a continuing cycle, and that I will be working more with Wynton Marsalis, as well as Uri Caine, in the near future.

ACO: You write that Sanctum is inspired by a 1973 recorded sermon by Pastor Shirley Caesar, The Praying Slave Lady. What about this sermon inspired your composition?

CB: This recorded sermon by Pastor Shirley Caesar is so powerful! I found it while browsing her music recordings on YouTube a few years ago. Sonically, what amazes me is the steady simmering intensity. It begins with a descending figure from the piano, and commences to a rumble from the bass and drums that surges like waves, with accompanying melodic fragments from the guitar, organ, and piano. Shirley Caesar and another vocalist sing Rev. Dr. Charles Albert Tindley’s 1905 hymn Stand By Me, while Caesar delivers her sermon, The Praying Slave Lady. The sermon is about an enslaved African-American woman who insists on praying despite the slave master’s threats. When he attempts to whip her, his arm is intercepted by a host of spirits. 
Hearing this sermon reminds me of the story of Igbo (Ibo/Ebo) Landing, which I first learned about from Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust, where in 1803 a group of Africans captured for slavery, upon arrival on the Georgia coast, walked back into the water in a mass suicide act of rebellion. Myths of that historical event include the Africans walking or flying back to Africa, and have inspired several works of art. As one who is interested in the idea of rebellion and healing through sound, I am drawn to stories like these and the challenge of conveying those elements in my music.  
While studying Caesar’s sermon, I was emotionally taking in the recent events in police brutality, particularly the case of Marlene Pinnock, who was filmed by a bystander being brutally beaten by a police officer on a highway interstate in Los Angeles. During the media coverage of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and other victims of police brutality, I would listen to this sermon, and particularly the singing of Stand By Me, and envision a magical realism flight from this harsh reality. I began collecting and making sound collages of recorded voices of Marlene Pinnock and protestors in Ferguson, and they became part of the fabric of Sanctum along with my interpretation of the improvisation in Holiness-style preaching, particularly in the recorded sermons of Caesar and Rev. Dr. C. L. Franklin.
I thank Tania León and Alvin Singleton for advising me from conception to completion of this project! I also thank Derek Bermel, Dr. Alexandra Vazquez, and Bill Lee for their advice. Meanwhile, as a postdoctorate fellow at the Center for African-American Studies at Princeton University, I have had an opportunity to have stimulating conversations about exploring politics through the arts, and attend lectures on related topics. These conversations and my concurrent project, Prophetika: an Oratorio, have been an integral part of the creation of Sanctum.

ACO: Is there anything you hope to prove to the audience, or yourself, with ACO’s premiere of Sanctum on April 9?

CB: “Every man and woman is born into the world to do something unique and something distinctive and if he or she does not do it, it will never be done.” – Dr. Benjamin E Mays
At this point in my life, my main goal is to be my complete self in all situations and give my most sincere efforts. I thank my parents and family for always encouraging me to be true to myself and to take risks. I try to focus less on proving anything and more on honoring my ancestors and praising God. 

ACO: What are you most looking forward to about the premiere of Sanctum by ACO at Jazz at Lincoln Center?

CB: I look forward to sharing this work with my friends and family, whose support is so important for all the work I do. I am excited to hear the premieres by Wynton Marsalis and Uri Caine, and know that this experience will fire up some inspiration for my future projects. I personally thank Michael Geller, Derek Bermel, Gregory Evans, and Alisa Herrington, as well as George Manahan and everyone from the American Composers Orchestra and Jazz at Lincoln Center for making this event possible. I am sincerely grateful.

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