The email came in less than two months after my performance at the Fillmore Jazz Festival. "My mom passed away a few days ago. She was a huge fan of yours..."
I have to admit it is next to impossible to keep track of all the people who are fans. They watch and listen to you intently for hours at a time and after a few concerts they feel as if they know you intimately... even though you may not know them. Fortunately, in this case I knew exactly who her mother was. Gloria. I didn't remember her last name or know much about her personal life, but I knew who she was.
Being on a stage is a unique experience. If you are lucky enough to get to the level where you can give concerts and not simply be background music, you quickly discover that performing onstage can be particularly exhausting. Countless faces looking at you... people who have all paid good money to have you fill with music whatever void aches inside them. People want music when they are happy, music when they sad, music when they are in love, music when they are hurt. All these souls with different backgrounds are assembled before you with only one thing in common: they want your music. It can be utterly draining.
Most shows take me all of the next day to recover from. But there are some rare audience members who, in addition to feeding on your energy, also feed your energy. When I first step on stage, I always scan the rows that I can see comfortably without the light blinding me and look for those familiar faces. Gloria was one of them. She was always in the front row or not too far from the front. Her face was always exquisitely filled with rapture, free from judgment or dissatisfaction. She was present. She was not one of those audience members who tips extravagantly to be seated in the front row only to proceed to talk to their companions or neck with their date. She was one of those souls that fill you up and give you more energy for the performance.
I had not been performing much lately, yet I was still expecting to see her at the Fillmore festival (sitting in the front row at this festival requires staking out a spot hours in advance). I arranged for my husband to bring my daughter to this show (and got her some noise-cancelling headphones so she could be near the stage), because I especially wanted to Gloria to see her.
I was on a diet at the time, and before the show I thought about what I would do if Gloria brought me something to eat. She was never empty-handed at my shows. People sometimes push their way to the autograph table to have me sign something or to take a photo together, but Gloria would push her way up to me so she could hand me a present. Nothing extravagant enough to make me uncomfortable — often, something as simple as a flower or a jar of homemade peach jam — but whatever it was, it was wrapped so extravagantly that I often did not even want to open it to see what lay inside!
This time, though, as I scanned those first few rows in the crowd, Gloria was nowhere to be seen.
When I learned that she had passed, I told her daughter I would sing a song at her memorial. A small group of people met in the park and reminisced about a woman I barely knew but felt as if I had known. We held hands in a circle and I sang a song that was sung at my mother's funeral: "I Feel Like Going On." As I sang my song during this informal service, her daughter — always so organized and so cheerful — finally lost a bit of her composure, and I felt her hand tightly squeeze mine.
When I was young, I imagined that the music floated up into the sky and created a ladder for the dead to climb up upon. It was a long way to the next world and so the songs at the wake would be interminably long with the organ swelling and fez-capped men shuffling in a circle in front the coffin moaning a dirge in unison. Now that I am older, I imagine these events are for the living: a chance to commune with others who all share the same love of a soul. I am not sure why music more than any other art form is such an integral part of the ritual of death, but it is. It felt so good to have had the opportunity to sing for Gloria's family, and I suddenly realized that Gloria had once again managed to give me one last extravagantly-wrapped gift.
I was asked to come to St. Petersburg, Florida this January to sing the song I wrote in 2013 about Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Sanford, FL. My song, entitled "Blues for Trayvon Martin (Big Hooded Black Man)," was only one of many songs in a kick-off event for the city's annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. celebrations (in San Francisco we can barely muster one day to honor Dr. King, but in Saint Pete they do it up for a week). The production was titled "Sounds of the Civil Rights Movement: The Power of Song," and it was written and produced by September Penn.
Kim (center) with September Penn (left) and Aleta Hayes
I had met September through Dr. Clayborne Carson, who was entrusted with Dr. King's papers by Coretta Scott King, and is the head of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University in Palo Alto. In 2013, Dr. Carson had asked me to put together the music for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 "March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom." He had only one request, which came in at the last minute: to add September to the artist roster. Because she was flying in from Florida, I didn't get a chance to meet her until the day of the performance. But she, vocalist and bassist Bryan Dyer, Stanford Professor of Dance and Performance Aleta Hayes and I vocally gelled together instantly.
September and Aleta were members of the Passages Singers, a group of singers who went to Palestine with Dr. Carson to perform an original play about Martin Luther King, Jr. The lead actors who played Dr. King and Malcolm X were Palestinian. The script had the two men engaged in debate on the politics of non-violence. The play was in Arabic, but the music was gospel/Civil Rights music, sung by both African American singers and Palestinians. Surprisingly, the Palestinians did not know much about Dr. King, but the results of the performance were transformative. The owner of the theater was murdered during the run (sadly, on the night of the 43rd anniversary of Dr. King's own murder), and it later sparked a non-violent bus protest based on the Freedom Riders of the American South during the Civil Rights struggle.
(There is a documentary film by award-winning producer Connie Fields, "Al Helm: Martin Luther King in Palestine," that recounts this historic trip. Here's a trailer and a review of the film. Ed.)
I felt very honored that September invited me to be a part of her event, since we barely knew each other beyond our brief performance together in 2013. And I was even more honored that she asked me to sing not just my song, but also to be part of the Passages Singers and sing a program of Civil Rights and gospel music. This was the first time the entire group had all gotten together since the play, and so it was reunion for them. It can be awkward being the kid who comes to summer camp on the last week, but the other Passages members — Chelsi Alabi, Ken Alston, Re Phillips, P Michael Williams, Aleta, September and Steve Wilson — all made me feel like part of their family. We also had a rehearsal the same day we all arrived in Florida, and there is something about raising voices with a group of people that is immediately bonding.
I didn't know the words or the melody or what my part would be on some of the songs we were set to perform. There was no sheet music. I started to sing alto and quickly realized that my tone was too thick and there was only one soprano, September, out of the five women. I decided to switch to soprano and sat next to September. We started singing "Precious Lord," in an arrangement by the late Nathan Carter, the director of the Morgan State University Choir, one of the premier choirs in the country. Ken is a counter-tenor and was one of Mr. Carter's protégés. As he started singing out parts, I found myself challenged in a way I had not been in years: singing that high, and being pushed to hold that "high head voice" continuously in the gossamer light piano that the arrangement called for. My final note was Bb5!
I honestly didn't know I still had it in me. September squeezed my hand whenever I faltered, giving me strength and reassurance. We sang for hours before going to bed, then woke up the next morning and rehearsed again after breakfast. Next came lights, blocking and sound check at the theater, which lasted through the evening.
The production traced the music of the Civil Rights movement from slavery to the present day. There was several choirs, dance troupes and youth organizations in addition to the soloists. Most of the singers had that incomparable COGIC (Church Of God In Christ) Pentecostal sound that is simply soul-shaking. Sharon Scott, who performed as the legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, was awe-inspiring. The man who sang Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" brought the house down. And just when you thought it couldn't get any better, things kicked up another notch when a local teenage saxophonist, Kenneth Goolsby, Jr., played a jazz rendition of "Precious Lord" as the play's timeline morphed from the traditional to the modern. Four little girls danced one at a time until their elegant arabesques collapsed one by one into a huddle as their names were solemnly called: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Denise McNair. I cried.
I felt inadequate, stark and plain next to the vocal ornamentive richness and power all around me. I sang "Blues for Trayvon Martin (Big Hooded Black Man)" with simplicity. I don't know what it looked like. I know the lyrics were displayed in back of me. I know that to either side of me and out in the audience, dim spot-follows illuminated hooded teenagers who seem shrouded and shadowed by Death itself.
I was told my song was the highlight of the program, and I could not believe it. I was very nervous because some of Trayvon's relatives were present. What if I took undue liberties? "No," everyone assured me. "You sang the truth. You didn't need to do anything because you sang the truth."
The whole experience was life-changing. The conversations we had in between singing were heady with reflections on race, God, gender, forgiveness, non-violence and freedom. P Michael's sweet giving nature, Chelsi's humor, Ken's openness, September's warmth, Re's communication, Aleta's rooted spirituality, Ivan's uncomplaining gentleness, Steve's humility and everyone's probity. It was an embarrassment of riches. I was happy to go home to my family, but at the same time reluctant to leave that special sacred place that we all inhabiteded in the time we were together in Florida. So blessed to be giving this opportunity!
And the audience was like no other. People often say Europeans appreciate jazz more, but no one appreciates Black music like an African-American audience. During our performance, the St. Petersburg audience fed us like an electrical current plugged directly into the band, into our voices and into our feet.
The energy, love and awareness of Dr. King's message we helped nurture in Florida has returned with me to San Francisco. I am currently in conversation with Dr. Carson about reviving his play, with me involved. There is something very special about doing socially conscious art. Black American music, and in particular the music of the Civil Rights movement (which began the moment an African foot touched the deck of a slave ship, and not, as history would try and tell us, in the 1960s). This music pulls on my umbilical cord in a profound, insistent way. I am happy to keep this music alive and, more importantly, I am happy I am making music about today's freedom struggle. There will be more to come.
P.S.: "Blues for Trayvon Martin (Big Hooded Black Man)" was written and recorded at the spur of the moment in angry response to something someone said to me when the Zimmerman not guilty verdict was delivered on July 13, 2013. You can watch the video of this song I made and posted on my You Tube channel.