As the son of an educator, Common — who was known as Lonnie Rashid Lynn while growing up in Calumet Heights — built his career around learning from new experiences. The rapper, activist and actor will continue following his imagination when he performs June 3 at Symphony Center with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
“I’ve done a lot of things at home, but have never performed with the symphony,” Common said of the concert, which will be conducted by Steven Reineke. “To perform with the Chicago Symphony is something that you never even think about, so I’m excited. And to be put in this category is a blessing in and of itself.”
Much of Common’s expansive music fits with symphonic arrangements. He has drawn on large-scale movie soundscapes for “Glory,” the Academy Award-winning theme from the movie “Selma” (2014). His “Black America Again” (2016) album features string sections and choirs. But bringing such elements to a concert hall presents its own challenge, especially when combined with Common’s freestyle delivery. He and his team are excited about this test.
“We had [bassist/producer] Derrick Hodge help put the arrangements together,” Common said. “We had him add a little more dynamics to [the score] and some soul to it. It’s a great experience because I’m used to just going free, where I stop where I want to stop. But when performing with the symphony, we’ll have to have a certain structure, which is good. It’s almost like theater, and I like the juxtaposition of that. We’ve still got a little bit of freedom in there — we set a section aside when we can free it up a little bit. Obviously, you can’t write out a freestyle, but the musicians can lay back, enjoy that part and come back when the next song starts.”
Another kind of improvisation, jazz, has also been important to Common, especially recently. His new memoir, Let Love Have The Last Word, includes heartfelt discussions of John Coltrane along with Common’s descriptions of absorbing saxophonist Gene Ammons’ records with his late father, Lonnie Lynn. Jazz chords also flow throughout the music of August Greene, a group that Common formed last year with keyboardist Robert Glasper and drummer/producer Karriem Riggins. That band is also rooted in Common’s visits to the revered Chicago venue Jazz Showcase, a few blocks away from Symphony Center.
“Jazz is the music that keeps me at peace, it filters me, centers me and frees my mind,” Common said. “I started listening to jazz because A Tribe Called Quest was sampling a lot of jazz, had [bassist] Ron Carter play on ‘The Low End Theory,’ and I was, like, ‘Wow, where did this music come from?’ That led me to jazz. From there, I remember having a Coltrane poster in my room and I just fell in love with [Coltrane’s] ‘A Love Supreme’ and and started to seek out everybody. I would go to the Jazz Showcase, and see Ahmad Jamal, Pharoah Sanders, Roy Hargrove. I connected with Karriem through Roy and I didn’t know at the time who Roy was, God rest his soul. I just went to the Jazz Showcase and found this group of traditional jazz musicians who were my age and playing this music, the way I loved to hear: like Miles Davis with Ron Carter, Milt Jackson and all those cats.”
While jazz is one of the cultural touchstones that Common promotes through his lyrics, his words turn more inward in Let Love Have the Last Word. In the book, he addresses his own vulnerabilities and painful memories not just for self-healing but also to raise issues that are not openly discussed among men in his former neighborhood on the South Side. Common’s determination to tell these stories connects with his faith.
“To go inside and talk about things that have weighed on you, talk about things that are taboo as a person, as a black man or things that people don’t talk about within black communities, or just men don’t talk about, I did take courage in knowing that I can go speak my truth,” Common said. “Because my confidence comes in knowing that I’m a child of God. What other people may criticize, joke about or look at as a weakness, I see it as a strength.”
Aaron Cohen is a Chicago-based journalist and lecturer. His latest book, “Move on Up: Chicago Soul Music and Black Cultural Power,” will be published in September by the University of Chicago Press.