‘Jazz and Chihuly, Songs of Protest & Reconciliation,’ New York Botanical Garden Summer Concert Series
Considering the Charlottesville, Virginia August 11th incidents and the tragic loss of one woman’s life, up through the president’s press conference of Tuesday, August 15th, these days of August have been tumultuous and divisive. Indeed, taking a stand to uphold human rights and decry hate groups that seek mainstream political power appears to be more vital than ever as protest marches this past weekend indicate. Symbolic action, whether it is through protest demonstrations or concerts is a reminder to all that Love trumps Hate. A great majority of Americans are committed to upholding the sanctity of every life, regardless of race or religion.
Serendipitiously, the final summer concert series at the New York Botanical Garden on Friday, 18 August was a majestic reminder of this citizen commitment. Despite the threatening thunderstorm and intermittent periods of rain throughout the day, the turnout to embrace Jazz and Chihuly, “Songs of Protest & Reconciliation” was overwhelming.
The tent was packed with a diverse crowd who were there to enjoy the all-star musical group led by award-winning pianist and vocalist, Damien Sneed, guest trumpeter Keyon Harrold and the other prodigiously talented musicians and vocal artists. Together, these individuals presented an evening of entertainment that was poignant and joyful. And after joining with them in celebrating some of the best songs created by greats of jazz, soul, gospel and contemporary music (including two composed by Damien Sneed), the audience was sent out into the night sans rain to appreciate the luminous Chihuly sculptures presented throughout the grounds and in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.
This final concert in the summer series was co-produced by the Catskill Jazz Factory and Absolutely Live Entertainment. The Catskill Jazz Factory encompasses a dynamic jazz program whose mission is to aid some of the finest young jazz artists with year-round workshops, concerts, residencies and world-class performances in the Hudson Valley. Absolutely Live Entertainment is a festival, tour and concert production company spearheaded by Danny Melnick. Malnick is the Producer of the Newport Jazz Festival and the Artistic Director of Carnegie Halls’ The Shape of Jazz series.
Damien Sneed is a master of practically every musical genre and a 2014 recipient of the Sphinx Medal of Excellence honor which is presented annually to emerging Black and Latino leaders in classical music. His facility with jazz, gospel, pop, R & B, opera and musical theater and his work with Aretha Franklin, Wynton Marsalis, Stevie Wonder and Diana Ross have served him in excellent stead.
Sneed facilely shepherded the ensemble of vocalists Chenee Campbell, Anitra McKinney, Djore Nance, Tiffany Stevenson, Matia Washington and musicians Stacy Dillard (saxophone) Corey Wilcox (trombone) Julius Rodriguez (Hammond B3 organ) John Matthew Clark (bass guitar), Mark Clark, Jr. (drums). The songs of protest “I Wish I knew How it Would Feel to Be Free” (Nina Simone), “Oh Freedom,” (African-American spiritual), “Follow the Drinking Gourd (Underground Railroad) and “Freedom (excerpt)” (Duke Ellington) for example, emphasized every individual’s yearning for freedom and what freedom means collectively and personally.
During the first half of the evening, an audience member brought up a T-Shirt and draped it on a music stand. The T-Shirt had the logo, “Black Lives Matter.” Her action was spontaneous and unstaged.
Interspersed with these songs of protest were the songs of reconciliation: “Bridge Over Troubled Water” (Simon and Garfunkel), “God Bless the Child, (Billie Holiday & Arthur Herzog, Jr., “Proud Mary,” (John Fogarty), “Is My Living in Vain,” (Twinkie Clark & The Clark Sisters) and more. Each number featured a powerful solo by one of the vocalists. The audience showed their appreciation with standing ovations.
During the second portion of the evening, Keyon Harrold performed a song he had composed. Harrold presented “When Will The Killing Stop?” as a dedication to Michael Brown and all the young, black men who have been killed for “no good reason.” His playing was at once soulful and poignant, his talent incredible. It is no wonder he has been featured on nearly 100 albums with a wide music range from jazz to R & B, from pop and gospel, to blues and hip-hop.
By the conclusion of the evening, the storm and rain had stopped and the audience had been refreshed and uplifted by the development of the program from seeking soul freedom to the process by which that freedom evolves: forgiveness, reconciliation and love.
On this night the evolution was inspired through music and exceptional artistry which united and uplifted a community of jazz, botanical and Chihuly enthusiasts. For audience members it was a clarification of the last few weeks and exemplification of all that is best in human hearts, further embodied by our wonderment at the fantastic, illuminated Chihuly sculptures.
For those of you who have visited Japan in the fall, you are familiar with kiku and will most probably have fond memories of kiku that you saw in amazing displays wherever you may have walked around Tokyo or other cities in the country. Kiku is the Japanese word for “chrysanthemum.” It is the most venerated of all Japanese fall flowering plants, not only for its beauty, but also for its medicinal qualities and ancient cultural tradition.
What is most amazing is how the Japanese for centuries have maintained what is now becoming the dying art of training and shaping liku into the most incredible designs. It is becoming a dying art because the process of training the growing, fragile Kiku into such lovely shapes requires great skill and is tremendously labor intensive. One false move, one mistake and the entire display may be ruined. Kiku are “no joke.” And it is for that reason they are celebrated in Japan as part of the traditional Japanese custom of enjoying the ephemeral beauty of flowers, known as hanami.
Kiku presentations in conceptualization and philosophy are perhaps one of the most fleeting flower arrangements of all. The displays cannot be preserved beyond a few weeks. They are original. They are easily damaged and during the process of the pruning and training, they are incredibly fragile. Considering that it takes 11 months to grow, train and shape kiku into a cascade design, for example, for 11 months of labor, one receives, if one is careful, two to three weeks of beauty that vanishes as if it never lived at all. It is that impermanence of life that is so captivating a reminder for us to appreciate all that is beautiful for a season, until it withers. The irony is that kiku cannot even regrow their shapes. So, the artistry required to get them to their state of loveliness is truly exceptional
Indeed, one wonders why, in our fast paced digital age, anyone cares about pinching the buds off some flowers to effect beauty. Precisely. When one understands the process and the effort, one appreciates their pageantry. Besides, like all craft and artistry, if it can be preserved, we stay connected with our historical past and the past of other countries and their cultures. In our blink-and-it’s gone current cultural oppression of time, kiku are at once given to us from the ancients and are made modern by having those who care bring the art into the 21st century.
The NYBG has taken on the laborious craft in order to insure that the art will continue to be enjoyed by visitors from Japan as well as those who are familiar with the fall chrysanthemums, but are unfamiliar with the ability of the plants to be trained and designed into magnificent trees, cascades, bridges and more. Each year the NYBG has its kiku exhibit in the fall, pioneered by the chrysanthemum masters at the Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden in Tokyo who educated Yukie Kurashina. Yukie has trained others like James Harkins in the fine art of floral theater. And under the supervision of Marc Hachadourian, Director of the Nolan Greenhouses for Living Collections, James (foreman of gardeners) and kiku expert Yukie with scores of volunteers have made the kiku exhibit at the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory into a place of refuge mirroring the past and merging it with the present.
During the exhibit Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Garden, you will see three traditional kiku styles:
- Ozukuri which means thousand bloom. A single stem of a chrysanthemum plant is trained to produce hundreds of simultaneous blossoms in a massive umbrella-shaped display.
- Kengai which means cascade. Small-flowered chrysanthemums are pruned and pinched to frameworks that flow downward like waterfalls for lengths up to six and one-half feet.
- Ogiku which means double and triple stem. These are enormous individual flowers presented at the end of stems that can reach up to six feet tall.
Kiku: The Art of the Japanese Garden is running from October 8 through October 30. For the full programming schedule that follows this exhibit, click HERE for the NYBG website.