Craig Harris: Sound Harlem Portrait

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[Music & Culture]

It cannot be disputed that there are many tales to tell within the story of life, stories of people, places, and even things. 

Harlem is a place filled with history and thus beckons storytellers to tell its tale. It is a tale that has been told many times by many writers and even by some who have captured its essence in music. 

If nothing else, the spirit of Harlem is passionate. Its breadth denotes a vastness that is beyond space. There is a demand for greatness from its people honed only via throes of agony and sublime joy. Harlem is not just a place. 

 Harlem is an attitude, a transforming spirit determined to survive. The polarity within Harlem’s people marks both successes and failures, rises and falls, yet their penchant for greatness is etched in the faces of a diverse community.  One has to be a Harlemite to understand Harlem’s true significance, its elegance, its grace of movement and form that begs to be captured in art.  Trombonist, composer, and Harlemite, Craig S. Harris, has walked the neighborhoods of Harlem for over 30 years. He knows its pulse, timbre, and rhythms and thus sought to record 30 years of Harlem through his sound portrait, TriHarLenium.

“Through my piece I have allowed structure but left room to improvise. I sought to capture the beauty, history, and culture of a people who have always been originators.  Harlem is currently undergoing gentrification and transition so I wanted to share its history through my TriHarLenium composition with Harlem’s people,” remarked the famed trombonist.

Harris will bring live music through 5 performances that serve to premiere his masterpiece.  Even though inclement weather threatened to mar the first night of Harris’ performance, audiences still came to support and listen at Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors and later gathered to hear his second rendition of the piece during “A Great Day In Harlem” at the 135th Street Stage because they knew the music represented them.  Enthusiastic about the music, communities continued to gather to hear Craig’s extended piece for the third time at Morningside Park where his composition was received with jubilation.

Born in Long Island, trombonist and composer, Craig Harris, studied at the State University of New York College of Old Westbury.  He moved to Harlem in 1976 where he worked with innovative jazz composer Sun Ra.  Harris later joined Sun Ra’s band and traveled throughout the world. “I used to visit Harlem a lot before moving here.  I went to Paris in July 1976 and returned in October ‘76.  I walked the street with Sun Ra back then.  I worked in Aaron Davis Hall.  I did a piece entitled “Brown Butterfly,” based on the physiology of Mohammad Ali which included 7 dancers and 7 musicians,” said Craig who became further known via the God’s Trombone project wherein Craig was able to put his own free form style and musical interpretation to the sermons and poems in James Weldon Johnson’s collection.

Craig’s work brought him to the attention of Barbara Horowitz, founder of Community Works, who with her partner Voza Rivers, Executive Producer of The New Heritage Theatre Group and in association with Bob O’Meally, Director of Columbia University’s Center for Jazz Studies,  commissioned Harris, via a grant awarded by the New York State Music Fund, established by the New York State Attorney General at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, to spend a year in the Harlem community composing his TriHarLenium piece; a piece that was to reflect the heartbeat soul and rhythm of the Harlem community. A piece created as a musical tribute to Harlem’s people.

“Artists should document their time.  A photographer documents his time visually, I plan to document my time sonically.  That is how TriHarLenium came about,” stated Craig.  “I worked with the magnificent Seku Sundiata.  I worked on a piece, Souls of Black Folks, based on a story by Dubois.  I constantly use the community and my heritage as my music.  It feeds me and gives me projects to work on.  Harlem is changing.” Craig reflected.  “People often say Harlem is coming back, its happening now.  But Harlem has always been happening.  People were in Harlem after the white flight.  They stayed, worked, raised, and educated their children.  They ran their businesses and went through trial and tribulation.  Harlem’s people have always been doing things. Now that Harlem is in vogue, people claim there is a renaissance.  But no, it has always been surviving, even during the time of the crack epidemic.  I am part of this community and thus see my composition as my gift and musical reflection.  This composition evolves out of a people’s culture and originality,” stated the talented performer. 

“It allows me to record and set to music their story with a vision of a people’s beauty, rhythm, history, and culture,” commented Harris. “TriHarLenium records the way I see them walk, talk, and pray. I’ve composed a piece I hope will record Harlem’s oral history for all posterity. That is how I tell my story.”

On Thursday, August 30th, 2007 at 7:00 p.m., Community Works in association with New Heritage Theatre Group and Columbia University Center for Jazz Studies, will present the 4th performance of Craig’s piece at a special invitation only gala at the Museum of the City of New York where Craig Harris and the Nation of Imagination band will perform TriHarLenium: A Sound Portrait of Harlem 1976–2006. Joining Craig will be award winning trombonist Ed Babb of McCullough Sons of Thunder, legendary R&B singer Chuck Jackson, and Tony Award and Emmy Award winner Lillias White. 

A documentary film by award winning filmmaker, writer, producer and Columbia University Professor, Jamal Joseph, chronicling TriHarLenium and the sounds of Harlem today will also be premiered. The final performance of TriHarLenium will showcase Thursday, September 6, 2007 at 5:30 p.m., at the State Office Building, Apollo Stage, located at 163 West 125th Street and Adam Clayton Powell.


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