Arts concert review

It Must Be Now! is a call for change

Tackling racial injustice through music

It Must Be Now!
MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and MIT Wind Ensemble
Conducted by Dr. Frederick Harris Jr.
Kresge Auditorium
May 7

MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble, MIT Wind Ensemble, MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble, and some special guests came together to perform It Must Be Now! (IMBN!), a two-year endeavor combining music, spoken word, and interpretive dance into a powerful call to action against racial injustice. The primary themes of the show were connectedness and resilience, which were explored through various forms of media, both visual and auditory. The concert showcased three renowned jazz artists: Sean Jones on the trumpet, Braxton Cook on the saxophone, and Terri Lyne Carrington on the drums.

The night opened with “Freedom Jazz Dance” by Eddie Harris, performed by the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble. The strong beat, lively synth portion, and saxophone and trumpet solos provided the perfect introduction to the concert. In addition, tap dancers Sabrina Drammis (G) and Tony Scott (G) performed a duet as the visual counterpart to the piece; the two dancers moved as though they were one and matched the music perfectly. Most importantly, the audience was rapt with attention throughout.

IMBN! also featured two incredibly emotive and stirring spoken word poems. Jet Lewis performed first with “Unlearning How to Save the Planet,” a piece about internalized racism and misogyny within the conservation community. She noted that “justice for the environment cannot happen without justice for its people,” citing the fact that conservation as a discipline was founded by white cisgender men and thus has never been inclusive to females or people of color. Drawing on her own experiences with racism and misogyny during her studies and career in conservation, she skillfully articulated her view that academia is too static: there is still a pushback against accepting different forms of learning and analysis as equally valid compared to those laid out by generations of white cisgender men in the past.

Lewis was accompanied by Peter Godart (G) on the piano as well as Vinson Fraley Jr. via his interpretive dance. Fraley’s contributions to the piece cannot be overstated. The incredible strength and fluidity in his motions were the perfect visual counterpart to Lewis’s oratory masterpiece.

Orlando Watson performed the second spoken word piece of the evening, an incredibly moving poem about police brutality entitled “Strangest Fruit.” Watson was accompanied by DJ Wendel Patrick, whose virtuoso sound mixing provided a rhythm that perfectly matched the intensity of Watson’s words. “Strangest Fruit” gave voice to the intensely traumatic experience of watching horrific scenes of police brutality trend on social media platforms. In the name of awareness, sharing such videos and images often crosses the line into exploitation, especially because no concrete action ever seems to be taken in the wake of this violence. Two quotes from the poem were especially powerful. Watson acknowledged that “the deceased are greeted with a deep indifference,” then elaborated, noting that “gunshots turn our torsos into hashtags.”

The MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble performed two pieces. First was a poignant rendition of Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday,” a piece about the experiences of the Black church community. The audience was visibly moved by the vocalists’ evocation of emotion, only enhanced by the slow, soulful beat and the saxophone and trumpet solos from the MIT Festival Jazz Ensemble. The group followed up with Dominique Eade’s “Before I Go,” a stellar piece that showcased the individual clarity of voice of each member of the ensemble.

“Fables of Faubus” by Charles Mingus was another highlight of the concert. One of Mingus’s more political pieces, “Fables of Faubus” was written in protest against Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, who attempted to forcibly prevent the integration of Little Rock High School in 1957. The performance featured an incredible saxophone solo and an intensely memorable melody. Most interesting, perhaps, was the inclusion of Wendel Patrick on the turntables. Incorporating sound mixing into more traditionally “jazzy” music added an element of surprise to the piece. Indeed, this is representative of the entire concert, which can be summed up as an experiment in combining seemingly disparate forms of music and media into one cohesive performance.

Ishaq Balogun ’25, an avid jazz enthusiast who attended the concert, said, “This is taking an art form, jazz, that was initially unconventional ... it has rules now, but again, we’re throwing something unexpected into that.”

The concert also featured the world premiere of several pieces, one of which was “Pangaea,” a composition arranged by trumpeter Sean Jones that explored the concept of connectedness, particularly through the spoken word component at the beginning. Wendel Patrick was also included in this piece, mixing alongside Jones’s absolutely sublime trumpet solo. Jones is simply an unbelievably talented musician and composer.

Next was “Lost and Found,” composed by Braxton Cook, which explored both the struggles the Black community in America faces as well as the concepts of hope and empowerment through those struggles. This could especially be seen by the repetition of the line “I’ll give it my everything.” Braxton Cook, who had up until now been playing the saxophone, performed as a vocalist for this piece, and his voice was incredibly soulful, emotive, and passionate. One particularly memorable portion of this piece was the spoken word exploring how African Americans don’t fit European standards of beauty, citing the Mona Lisa as an example. Ultimately, the music added a new dimension to the words of the piece.

The culmination of the concert was “Seen/Unseen,” a four-part piece combining image mixing, audio mixing, interpretive dance, and more classical forms of music to explore empowerment within the Black community. One of the most stunning parts of this piece was VJ Micklaene Thomas’s image manipulation. She combined clips of Black domestic life and culture, especially dancing, with imagery of slave ships, chains, and whippings. The juxtaposition drove home the broad spectrum of African American experiences; there is something to be said about seeing Michael Jackson’s music videos overlaid on protests against police brutality.

Aurally, “Seen/Unseen” was totally unexpected but absolutely beautiful. The turntables alongside the string instruments were refreshing, as were the jazz undertones to the piece. And interpretive dancer Vinson Fraley Jr. made a reappearance alongside singer Debo Ray, whose vocals conveyed pure emotion throughout. Ultimately, “Seen/Unseen” was a truly immersive, multisensory experience.

Overall, the concert was an integration of different mediums of music and various forms of expression. Put together, the pieces created a cohesive call to action that left the audience in awe.

Update 6/1/2022: A previous version of this article mistakenly attributed the piece “Lost and Found” to Sean Jones. The article has been updated to reflect that the actual composer of the piece is Braxton Cook.