A Conversation with NYFA Fiscally Sponsored Artist Reggie Workman and Partner Francina Connors
“She taught me to love music and arts and to explore my creativity in it.”
Legendary jazz musician and NYFA Fellow Reggie Workman and his collaborator, accomplished jazz singer Francina Connors join us for this interview to discuss their Fiscally Sponsored project African American Legacy Project (AALP), a recent award winner of the 2015 NYFA Opportunity Grant.
RW WORKz “Inside/Outside” Concert
Location: Symphony Space, Leonard Thalia Theatre
Date: Friday, Sept.18, 2015
Time: 7 PM Pre-concert discussion feat. former AALP Youth Legacy Workshop participants.
RW WORKz will feature ELEW (Eric Lewis)(p), James Carter (multi-reeds), Tapan Modak (tablas), Reggie Workman (b) and Ferenc Nemeth (d).
Reggie Workman’s RW WORKz is a synergy of music Mavericks, stellar musicians and master improvisers in a spectrum of genres from classical to world and beyond on a mission to create new musical DNA, perfect wellspring for Workman’s ever-evolving creativity!
NYFA: You have both been collaborating on the African-American Legacy Project for quite some time. Can you tell us about the AALP and its origins?
Reggie Workman & Francina Connors: The goal of the African-American Legacy Project is to pay tribute to the significant contributions of African American (artists of the African diaspora), incorporating new composers, compositions and other artistic expression with each incarnation. It grew out of a project I had created in the 90’s. I was a member of the John Coltrane Quartet and because of my professional and personal affiliation with John, I commissioned Trumpeter Charles Tolliver to transcribe Coltrane’s Africa Brass, for an orchestra/chorus, which was quite successful. We performed from UMASS to Virginia Museum to Lincoln Center Out of Doors with Alice, Ravi and Orin Coltrane honoring us with their participation on one concert of that project.
Collaborating with Creative Consultant, Francina Connors in 2005, we revived the concept taking the wonderful orchestra/chorus from the community to Jazz at Lincoln Center’s [email protected] Concerts. With the AALP, we incorporated a “student buddying and mentoring component.” In 2006, Francina and I conceived the Sculptured Sounds Music Festival 2007, a four-part celebration of futuristic music and multi-arts, which included such recognized artists as Amiri Baraka, Billy Hart, Ashley Kahn and Umberto Grati. In selecting acts for the festival, the African American Legacy Project (AALP) was born with the project designated a featured act. We also conducted Open Community Workshops at the Harlem School for the Arts, as a way to draw audiences to the festival and to provide a more expansive community experience.
The success continued with an Open Community Workshop and Concert Series at The Harlem School for the Arts (2010), [email protected] Largely funded by the New School Faculty Development grant (with funding from The Jazz Foundation, Harlem Arts Alliance, Sculptured Sounds Productions and The Cinarae Group), the successful three open rehearsals and a concert were held at the Harlem School for the Arts and open to promising HSA and students from the community as well as the general public.
NYFA: Young musicians are partnered with noted professional musicians and perform alongside one another through AALP’s programming, specifically in your work with Harlem School for the Arts (HSA). How did this vision of mentorship become part of the concerts?
RW & FC: Committed to reversing the steady decline of arts and music education, particularly in underserved communities, we designed the AALP Workshops to provide a unique opportunity for talented aspiring music students to explore the wonderful legacy of African-American composers first-hand, “buddying” with noted professional musicians, fully participating in the rehearsal as they learn the rich history and legacy of this great music. The workshops were conducted by recognized artists and New School Faculty, Reggie Workman, Charles Tolliver and Richard Harper with HSA students and community students “buddying” with a virtual “Who’s Who” of the Jazz scene from stalwarts Billy Harper, Jimmy Owens to “new guard” Stephen Gladney and we also enlisted student assistants and several New School then current students and alumni in the project. The project was a big success employing 35 musicians (orchestra and chorus) for each event and a successful concert multi-generational audience attended by over 250 happy souls.
The AALP Youth Legacy Workshops and AALP Youth Legacy Band were an offshoot of the program. Proudly our students have graduated on to Berklee College of Music, Temple University and The New School playing the Apollo and international festivals and recently joined us at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem “Harlem Speaks” presentation with Reggie Workman.“ We are revising the workshops, particularly the scale of it, and incorporating concepts of new music into the curriculum.
In 2011, the glorious AALP chorus/orchestra celebration was invited to the tony halls of Jazz at Lincoln a Center as a featured act of the [email protected] concerts (2011) for two highly successful concerts as a featured act of the [email protected] Concerts (2011). Over the history of the project, the "legacy” has literally carried on by offspring (Matthew Garrison, Alice Coltrane, Ravi Coltrane), students and proteges (including E.J. Stickland, Robert Glasper) of the stalwarts who comprised the glorious chorus/orchestra celebration.
NYFA: Can each of you describe you first interactions with music? How do these experiences inform your interest in working with youth?
RW: I first started playing in community groups in Philadelphia. My parents recognized my aptitude for music and enrolled me in classes at Gimbels, a local dept. store in down town Philly.
I studied piano for several years. In Junior High school, I was assigned wind instruments for the marching band. I played Euphonium and Eb horn. They called my area of Philly “brickyard.” Music was everywhere and people came from all over the city to sit-in on jam sessions and enjoy the music. On a given night, you might see Lee Morgan, Kenny Rogers, the Wilson Brothers or Odean Pope. Archie Shepp and I were classmates. Since Philly was the stop before New York, I met John Coltrane on several occasions at jams before joining his band; it was an exciting period.
I’m from a family that highly valued education and was active in teaching in the community. My brothers and sisters were active in Boys Clubs, church and other community organizations. My parents recognized my aptitude for music and enrolled me music lessons at Gimbels Department store in downtown Philly. My first teaching experience was when my brother Larry invited me to teach high school students. Since then, I have been a bassist/art educator and arts advocate at the community level at the historic The East and New Muse in Brooklyn, Montclair Academy of Dance in New Jersey and recent AALP Community Workshops and Youth Legacy Band in Harlem. On the university level, I’ve been on faculty at UMASS (part of the first African American Studies program in the country joining such celebrated colleagues as Dr. Roland Wiggans, Max Roach, Dr. Fred Tillis and Archie Shepp.), Bennington College and I just celebrated my 27th year at The New School where I am a Tenured Associate Professor.
FC: I guess my first interaction with music was in womb. My mother was a classical pianist (Oberlin) and studying bass for a second degree in Music Education. I began singing around five joining choirs about eight. She taught me to love music and arts and to explore my creativity in it. Growing up in rehearsals, I developed a keen ear and a very rich diet of music from Rachmaninoff to Broadway, spirituals to pop and Jazz and extensive background in choral music.
I fell in love with Jazz while studying at Oberlin. Moving to New York, I’ve worked from off-Broadway to big band and leading my own bands with such noted artists as the late Joe Knight, Benny Powell and Dave Jackson (b) as well as Eric Lewis (p) and Bruce Edwards (g).
I started collaborating with Reggie in 2005, combining my extensive business and legal background with my love of music. Together we’ve created the Sculptured Sounds Music Festival, Sculptured Sounds presents at Twins (an eight concert series (Wash, DC), A film, TRIO 3: At This Time with Trio 3 (lake/workman/cyrille with guest pianist Geri Allen). I am a writer and songwriter with one of my proudest accomplishments composing a choral round with Reggie Workman (and Mark Garrison), which was performed by the AALP on the [email protected] concerts.
NYFA: This year marks the 30th Anniversary of NYFA Fellowships. Reggie, you were awarded a NYFA Music Composition Fellowship in 1987. What advice can you give to artists at the beginning of their professional careers?
RW: Yes, I was awarded the NYFA Fellowship in Music Composition in 1987. As you young artists pursue your careers and longevity in them, be aware that there are foundations like NYFA, whose mission is to support the arts. Seek them out and learn their criteria and requirements.
NYFA: Congratulations to the AALP for receiving a NYFA Opportunity Grant 2015! The funds from this award are being used to create a documentary about community programs the AALP is running in Harlem. How has the Opportunity Grant and NYFA Fiscal Sponsorship impacted the AALP?
RW: The Opportunity Grant will allow us to expand on Francina’s presentation shorts, creating a more expansive document of AALP’s history while bringing more exposure to the project.
The NYFA Fiscal Sponsorship has been an invaluable asset to the AALP. First, being fiscally sponsored by such a highly regarded organization in a pool of such great talent is an honor. Secondly, the fiscal sponsorship has allowed us to draw on funding that individuals or small budgeted organization like Sculptured Sounds would not have access to.
For more information on the African-American Legacy project or to contribute your support, click here.
All Photo Credits: Richard Conde.