McBride’s The Movement Revisited and Sealy’s Africville Stories about destroyed Black Canadian community will be part of Meridian Hall double bill.
By Nick Krewen
Special to the Star
Four powerfully influential U.S. figures and one Canadian tragedy.
That’s what’s in store for appreciators of Black History Month when a potent jazz double bill of Christian McBride and Joe Sealy takes to the Meridian Hall Stage on February 17.
For the recreation of his 2020 album The Movement Revisited: A Musical Portrait of Four Icons, eight-time Grammy winning jazz bassist McBride focuses on a quartet of highly influential Black activists who stood for change, equality and progress when it came to civil rights: Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.
Closer to home, local pianist Sealy keeps the memory of a tragic blemish regarding Canadian Black constitutional freedoms through performing his Juno Award winning Africville Suite, the tiny, Afro-Canadian East Coast community that was obliterated from existence by the city of Halifax; the last building of the community razed in 1970.
Sealy’s production will be the more modest of the two: accompanying him on stage will be singer Jackie Richardson, bass player Paul Novotny, drummer Daniel Barnes and saxophonist Alison Young as he performs an abbreviated version of his compositional suite, warming up for headliner McBride.
It’s the music for which he is best known: a tribute to his father who was born in Africville, which Sealy described as “a community that consisted of about 400 residents scattered over 80 families.”
In a nutshell: Africville was established in the early 1800s on the Southern shore of Bedford Basin by formerly enslaved African Americans, largely from the Thirteen Colonies.
“It survived for over 100 years with its own schools and post office,” remembered Sealy, 83. who visited the area when he was a teenager.
“It was a thriving community. There was very little unemployment and most of the residents owned their own homes. Very few were ever on welfare and yet they were treated so badly.
“During the First World War they built a hospital for infectious diseases right beside it. I actually visited the community as a teenager with my Dad in 1956, I think. At that time, there was a burning garbage dump right next door.
“The city did everything they could to discourage the community.”
What did Halifax do? It’s more about what they didn’t do.
“In the 1950s, the city of Halifax had basically agreed to go in and put in water and sewage,” Sealy recalled. “These people were paying taxes on their property and the city promised them city water and sewer systems. So a number of citizens built bathrooms with pipes ready to be hooked up to the city only to be disappointed once again.
In 1962, Halifax City Council decided to pull the plug on the area they clearly considered a slum and over the next eight years, evicted its residents, mandatorily relocating them by garbage truck.
“They were offered so little for their homes,” Sealy explained. “Some of them were able to buy homes in other areas, and those who weren’t able to were relocated into houses which were already slated for demolition.
“Those who were reluctant to leave, the bulldozers came in and knocked their houses down. They were scrambling out the back door with their belongings as the bulldozers were coming in the front. This was serious situation.”
Sealy said his father’s parents relocated to Montréal when his father was nine years old, but that his Dad always hoped to return to Africville one day.
“He always said that when he’d retire, he’d love to live in Africville – buy a house and live there,” said Sealy. “Of course, by the time he died, the community was no longer in existence. So, as a tribute to him, I wrote a piece called ‘Africville,’ a piece of music in three movements” the beginnings and the life of the community and the demise of it.”
It was first performed at Halifax’s St. Mary’s University in 1993, and Sealy was implored by community leaders at the time to extend the piece.
He eventually decided to honour their request, and in his research discovered that jazz bandleader Duke Ellington‘s long-time companion Mildred Dixon had Africville ties through her parents, and that after his boxing career, Joe Louis also stayed with the Dixons.
“The show is an updated version of the album,” Sealy assured. “I recorded the album in 1996 – and so many people asked so many questions that I ended up writing a libretto, because every piece on the album is based on either an event or a personality or something that occurred within the community.
“People were so interested in the stories that I developed a project called ‘Africville Stories’ where I have a singer narrator telling stories behind the music.”
Although Sealy and company will be performing abridged versions of “Africville” at Meridian Hall and at Richmond Hill Centre for the Performing Arts two days earlier on February 15 at an afternoon performance for students (a full 85-minute performance will be held at the venue later that evening), the Toronto native says they won’t be shortchanged on the historical significance of the injustice.
“The stories that I told are still the true stories,” Sealy promised. “What the audience will see will be well represented of what I wrote.”
While Sealy remembers Africville’s “inviting, hospitable good community spirit” from his visit as a teen, he still feels gutted about its extinction.
“My sense of the injustice that was meted out to the community hasn’t changed,” he said. “It’s still a wound. I’m not directly related to the community except through my father, but I have a warm spot in my heart for it and a sense of the tragic loss of that community.
“This was an idyllic place in a lot of ways: where people were congenial, very few people ever locked their doors; in a way, a little bit of a Utopia. And with the racism of the time, just the fact that people could feel at home in their own tiny community at the edge of Halifax – you can’t buy that.”
The fact that Canadians probably know less about Africville than the four heroes depicted in Christian McBride’s The Movement: Revisited speaks volumes about the pervasive media and cultural presence of the U.S. in our nation, but the Philadelphia native is hoping to introduce some revelations of his own about Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Malcolm X when he headlines the show with his big band jazz outfit, a choir and a quartet of narrators.
“The biggest challenge in putting this piece together was figuring out which text I was going to use from each person,” McBride said during a recent phone interview.
“With someone like Dr. King, there’s so much text of his that exists. You can find any book, any video, any speech that he ever made in his career – you just basically close your eyes and drop your finger and you’ve got yourself a meaningful quote.
“Same thing with Malcolm X: but with Malcolm X, I specifically wanted to focus the last year of his life, which would have been when he changed his ideology from what he had been taught at the Nation of Islam. So, after his pilgrimage to Mecca, I felt that his outlook on life and race had a much broader outlook and understanding.”
McBride, who has recorded and performed with jazz superstars ranging from Diana Krall to Chick Corea and Pat Metheny to Herbie Hancock – but is equally adept in the pop and classical worlds (Paul McCartney, Sting, Céline Dion, Kathleen Battle, Edgar Meyer) – said finding fresh info regarding Rosa Parks was a challenge.
“You don’t see as much of her work – or as many of her quotes – as you do King or Malcolm X, but I found numerous books, did my due diligence and found a lot of good quotes.
“Same thing with Muhammed Ali; here’s a person, who in many ways, like Malcolm X, in throes of his religious ideology, changed once he got older. So, there’s a little bit of the Nation of Islam Ali, because a lot of what he learned there – and Malcolm X, too – a lot of that was very important and very true., in some cases, but what they learned after the Nation of Islam, now there was wisdom coming into play. So, I try to keep all of that in mind using the text of those four icons.”
Like Joe Sealy’s Africville, Christian McBride’s The Movement Revisited has been frequently updated.
“It’s evolved over the course of 20-plus years,” McBride, 50, explained. “The first iteration of the piece happened in 1998, at which time, it was just for a quartet and a choir and the narrators were inside the choir, so they were doing double duty.
“Then in 2007, I completely rewrote the piece for big band and choir. We had separate narrators that we brought in. And then in 2009, I composed a fifth movement called “Apotheosis, November 4, 2008,” so that’s where the piece currently stands.”
McBride said he first became fascinated with each individual “when I was a kid and I started to read about Black history and learn about American history.
“Something about the story of those four people really just captured me as a kid: Probably because they were four of the most celebrated, four of the most popular. So, it’s kind of difficult to read anything about Black history and not come across ample examples of their speeches and work and legacies.”
In an era where misinformed messages seem to be receiving greater amplification, McBride said it’s important to remind people of the truth.
“I feel in today’s sort of sensory overload period, you now have people who like to challenge things and literally make up stories because they know that somebody out there will listen to them,” he stated. “So, I find that the importance of these stories is greater now than ever.
“There are a lot of people, when they hear this piece, that do know the stories, but it’s good to be reminded – especially in the case of somebody like a Malcolm X. When people quote Malcolm X, they love quoting his ‘by any means necessary,’ snippet, but they don’t really know the context of what he was talking about. They really don’t know how he changed and when he was basically ousted from the Nation of Islam.
“A lot of people don’t know Rosa Park’s story. They know she was arrested for not giving up her seat on a bus, but that’s about the extent. They don’t know about what she thought about life and struggle. They don’t know a lot about how Dr. King’s ideology almost got…more radical, in a sense, towards the last year of his life.
“We like to define things in ways that we know and we’re comfortable with, and then we can really double down on what little we actually know.
“So, when people hear this piece, I hope they become curious about looking up some things they may or may not have known about the people represented here. Obviously, I also hope they enjoy it and are inspired by it.”