Today -- when this country may find itself at war -- is the birthday of one of the 20th century's greatest peacemakers, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. And tonight in Meyerhoff Hall, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's annual celebration of Dr. King's birthday will present Hannibal Peterson's "African Portraits," which the jazz composer and trumpeter has dedicated to "all the world's peace lovers."
Peterson, 42, is a Texas-born veteran of the Gil Evans Orchestra and the Elvin Jones and Roland Kirk groups, who now is best known for his own Hannibal Peterson Quartet. His music blends free jazz and bop at full blast in a manner reminiscent of John Coltrane. But in "African Portraits," he says he deliberately tried to meld all forms of African-American music.
"It's a musical and sociological history of the African peoples starting in Gambia before the slave trade right up until today," Peterson said in a recent interview. "It deals with all the major forms of music created by my people as a consequence of the slave trade."
The work, which was premiered in Carnegie Hall last November by the American Composer's Orchestra, is a series of murals that depict African and African-American history through the changes in black musical styles.
The first part of the work, Peterson said, is a narrative that is recited in Mandingo by African storyteller Papa Bunka Susso to the accompaniment of African drumming and the 100-member Morgan State University Choir. The work describes slave raids and passage in a ship's hold to a slave auction in Charleston, S.C. From there, the work jumps to the cotton fields for spirituals, to the Delta for a blues tune that will be sung by the legendary David "Honeyboy" Edwards, to some pure jazz played by Peterson and his quartet, and to a final gospel song.
It's a big piece -- 45 minutes in duration -- but this is not the first time Peterson has tackled so ambitious a subject in a musical style that fused symphonic and jazz media. A little more than 10 years ago, he wrote "Flames of South Africa" on a commission from the Hamburg Symphony. And almost 18 years ago, Peterson wrote "Children of the Fire," a work about the devastation of the Vietnam War. Although a recording of the work was nominated for a Grammy in 1974, Peterson had to record it at his own expense.
"All the record companies told me that they liked it, but that it was a subject that was just too controversial," he says. "Seems to me that the Vietnam War couldn't be more relevant than it is right now -- because I fear that we're about to get involved in more madness and killing."
Peterson says that he first had the idea for "African Portraits" 14 years ago and then wrote the piece in four weeks. When he composed it, he says he never consciously thought of Dr. King.
"As I wrote this piece, I had visions in my head of the elders of all people and all races who stood for hope and reason," Peterson said. "But since Dr. King lived and died for those very things, I guess you could say he was never far from my mind."
Tonight's concert has been sold out.