While the national dialogue has been more focused on race in the last year or so, it’s been on musician and Rotterdam native Gregg August’s mind for more than a decade.
The jazz bassist released “Dialogues on Race” earlier this year, an album that’s been in the works since 2009. It’s already earned a Grammy Award nomination for best large jazz ensemble album.
“I’m not used to getting those types of acknowledgments. So it was pretty cool,” August said.
He may not be used to such industry accolades, but his life is rooted in music.
Growing up, some of his first music lessons were with Peggy Delaney, a local jazz musician and August’s aunt. He also learned quite a bit from his uncle, Bill Delaney.
“She taught me piano and [music] theory so I’m very indebted to Peggy and Bill for bringing me into the world of music,” August said. “Their life still is all about music and I’ve been lucky to have them as role models.”
His father, Ed, is also a pianist, and from a young age, August knew his life was going to be all about music too. After graduating from Draper High School, he studied at SUNY Albany with Richard Albagli before transferring to the Eastman School of Music (University of Rochester) and going on to sudy at The Juilliard School, where he received his master’s degree in classical bass.
Since then, he’s performed with many orchestras and has recorded several albums with the JD Allen Trio and Arturo O’Farrill & The Afro-Latin Jazz Orchestra, the latter of which has won and been nominated for several Grammy Awards.
Lately, his attention has turned to “Dialogues on Race,” which he initially wrote as part of a commission from The Jazz Gallery in New York City.
The 12-track album was partly inspired by the 2005 documentary “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till.” The film was directed by Keith Beauchamp and delved into the life of Till, a young Black man who was murdered in 1955 when visiting his family in Mississippi.
“There was a particular scene in there that I was drawn to,” August said. “It was the scene where Mamie Till speaks about her son, describing seeing him in the casket for the first time. . . It was powerful and I [wanted] to bring the story of what happened to him into the piece.”
The album features a slew of soloists and spoken word pieces, weaving in inspiration from poems by Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Carolyn Kizer and Richard Katrovas. While it’s centered around Till’s story, it’s also about race in general.
When August first wrote and performed the music, the response was positive, and he knew he wanted to come back to it and keep developing some of the songs.
“Things got so crazy the last couple years . . . To be quite honest, people that played on the project with me were like ‘Man, you got to get that out. This is really the moment to get that piece out,’ ” August said.
Thus, in 2019, he got together with more than 20 musicians to record the album and film music videos. Some of the videos are performance videos with poems running across the screen, others, like “Mother Mamie’s Reflections,” feature only the haunting words from Emmett’s mother talking about the horrifying condition that her son was found in and why she wanted to have an open casket at his funeral.
While he planned to release the album in the spring of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic delayed production and it was instead released in August. At that time, Black Lives Matter protests were going on across the country, sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was killed during a police arrest.
“These topics have always been with us since our country’s founding. So the timing of the record for me was going to be relevant no matter when it was [released]. It’s just now because of the things that are happening on our screens we’re seeing them play out in a whole different clarity,” August said.
Since the album’s release, it’s had several positive reviews, though August noted that some people have claimed that because he is not a person of color, his discussion of Till’s story is cultural appropriation. However, many others, including Black musicians, have been supportive of the album, according to August.
“It’s just given me a lot more confidence to start the conversation and get through the awkwardness. I’ve made some incredible relationships in recent months because of this,” August said. That includes people like Beauchamp, who August said he’s become close with and has many discussions about race with. He hopes that the album will serve as a vehicle or a starting point for listeners to open up conversations about race.
“I can’t hide behind the music. I need to do what I’m doing with you which is talk about it. I’m not trying to judge white people or speak for white people or say I understand where Black people come from. I certainly don’t; I can’t. I’m just trying to figure this out for myself and I process everything through music,” August said during an interview with The Gazette.
“Dialogues on Race” is just the first volume of its kind and August is already working away at the second, in which he plans to incorporate more points of view.
“No matter what I compose at this point, it’s always going to be related to this topic in some way or another,” August said.
For more information visit greggaugust.com.