Published in 1940, Richard Wright’s novel Native Son tells the story of Bigger Thomas, a 20-year-old African-American who kills a young white woman from a prominent Chicago family. The book unflinchingly deals with race, class, religion and the disenfranchisement of an entire segment of American society. This year marks the 75th anniversary of Native Son, one of the greatest works in Chicago’s rich literary history. To celebrate that milestone, Symphony Center Presents Jazz Series commissioned drummer and composer Dana Hall to create a multimedia work inspired by Wright’s novel.
That work, titled Hypocrisy of Justice: Sights and Sounds From the Black Metropolis — Riffin’ and Signifyin(g) on Richard Wright’s Native Son, with text by actress-scriptwriter Cheryl Lynn Bruce, will receive its world premiere June 19 at Symphony Center, performed by Hall and his quintet (trumpeter Marquis Hill; saxophonist Tim Warfield Jr.; pianist Bruce Barth and bassist Clark Sommers). They will be joined by special guests: visual artist Kerry James Marshall, actor Wendell Pierce (the film “Selma,” the Showtime series “Ray Donovan” and the HBO series “Treme” and “The Wire”), saxophonist-flutist Steve Wilson, trombonist Vincent Gardner, cellist Tomeka Reid and guitarist Jeff Parker.
A longtime fan of Marshall’s work, Hall recruited the Chicago-based artist to create the set designs for Riffin’ and Signifyin(g). “Having admired and been inspired by artist Kerry James Marshall’s body of work concerning the black experience, I didn’t hesitate to ask him if he would like to join me on this journey, and I’m delighted that he said yes,” Hall says. “My conversations over the past year with Kerry and Cheryl Lynn Bruce have yielded many rich ideas for the piece. Adding Wendell Pierce to the project, an actor of great depth and sensitivity, gives even greater momentum to our work.”
Hall’s work is ambitious in scope and grand in scale. “This is the largest project that I’ve had the good fortune to present,” he says. “And it’s a real honor to do so in my hometown. It’s a jazz work, so there will be a fair amount of improvisation, but all the themes are composed, and there’s written material for the musicians to perform throughout the evening.”
From the start, Hall did not see this as a one-man effort. “As much as I enjoy playing the drums, I don’t think anybody wants to hear 100 minutes of drum solo. The way this thing is going to be successful is to have like-minded, spirited individuals working with me. I think I’ve assembled the musicians and the other artists who can do that.”
Since beginning on the drums at age 4, Hall, now 46, has developed a broad range of experience. In high school, he took up the oboe. “I even made my own reeds,” he says. “But I also played drums and all the percussion instruments through high school and college. I’ve played some trumpet, and I’ve played the piano. Those instruments inform my practice as a jazz drummer and composer.
“I’ve been composing music for large and small ensembles, different instruments, for 30 years. As a jazz musician, I’m always engaged in the act of composing. But to write down specific themes, harmonies and progressions for musicians — that’s something I’ve been doing since I was a teenager. I compose as the ideas come to me. I don’t put myself on a specific schedule.”
Riffin’ and Signifyin(g) calls for four horn players, a cellist and a full rhythm section of piano, bass, drums and guitar. “There’s a lot of different instrumental combinations from within the ensemble,” Hall says. “Native Son is set in the 1930s, so there’ll be some reference to older styles of jazz, but it’s also the 50th anniversary of the AACM!,” he said, referring to the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. “Chicago has historically been a hotbed for experimental music. Expect to hear some of those experiments and a certain amount of modern energy as we bring this 75-year-old novel into our day.”
Riffin’ and Signifyin(g) does not attempt to re-create the text of Native Son. Nor does it involve the assigning of leitmotifs or specific musical ideas to the various characters. Instead, it examines the novel’s themes through a modern lens. Bruce’s text is based on the themes and ideas that Wright explores in the novel. “So there are issues — issues that exist because of class, politics and religion,” Hall says.
Hall’s advice to anyone planning on attending his first-ever evening length work: “Read the novel. That would be great! There are central themes in the novel that are expressed and explored that will illuminate what we’re going to be doing musically. But I don’t consider that a prerequisite for enjoying this work.”
Note: After the concert, Hall and Marshall will conduct a question-and-answer session, free to all ticket holders, in the Grainger Ballroom.
Jack Zimmerman, a recovering trombonist, is a Chicago-based writer and novelist.
TOP: Dana Hall (from left), Cheryl Lynn Bruce and Kerry James Marshall. | Photo: Anne Ryan