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An 'African-American Musical Portrait' Marking 400 Years Since U.S. Slavery's Inception

Historians still debate when groups of Africans were first taken by Europeans and brought against their will to the Americas. Many say 2019 is the 400th anniversary of the start of slavery in the U.S. 

Acclaimed jazz bassist Avery Sharpe has taken this significant number, and wrote a new hour-long piece called "400." 

Sharpe lives in western Massachusetts and has gigged over the decades with McCoy Tyner, Wynton Marsalis and others. He premieres "400" this week in Amherst and Hartford with his own ensemble.

When Sharpe first started talking about writing this soundtrack of history, he said he saw it as a puzzle.

“How do I fit 400 years into 60 minutes worth of music?” he said.

Sharpe breaks the centuries into eras, two or three songs each. He starts with 1619 and the arrival of 20 Africans on the shores of Virginia, moving into a piece called, "Is There A Way Home?"


The whole composition includes 10 pieces and takes creative leaps through time.

“I'm kind of going back and forth between the idiom of what was happening then, and the idiom of just me creating something to express that particular period,” Sharpe said.

The periods continue along, from the early colonial days to the Antebellum era.

By the time Sharpe reaches the piece "Fiddler," it's after the War of 1812. Cotton is the crop in the South. Abolitionists have begun their crusade to end slavery. The Civil War is coming.

The first part is quasi-classical, Sharpe said.

"Even though America had broken from England, there was still this sophistication, or class thing, you  know, if you listen to European classical music," he said. "And many times, if you had another craft that you could do, as a musician, you might be called upon to play for the plantation owner."

"Fiddler" takes a turn a few minutes in, demonstrating what types of original music slaves might have made in that time period, and their owners might have liked, Sharpe said.



In the history of American music, Africans and African-Americans often are the musicians making the popular music of the day, getting credit or not: Ragtime. The music of the Harlem Renaissance. The Blues.

As "400" continues into the 20th century, Sharpe's writing is influenced by what and who he knows, in history and family.

“I'm writing from my ancestors’ experience. I'm writing from my own personal experience as well,” he said.

Composer and bass player Avery Sharpe.
Credit Courtesy of Avery Sharpe
Courtesy of Avery Sharpe
Composer and bass player Avery Sharpe.

That includes his father's military service in the Air Force during World War II. Sharpe remembers hearing about how hard it was for him to return home to the openly, violently racist South.

By the time the Vietnam War arrived, Sharpe's family — seven kids and his parents — had left Georgia and made their way to Springfield, Massachusetts, with the civil rights movement in full swing. 

For this time period, Sharpe re-worked a well-known piece.

"Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" is among the African-American spirituals Sharpe grew up learning in the storefront churches he and most of his family attended almost every day of the week.

"I started writing things depicting that era, and everything I came up with, to me, sounded corny,” he said. "And so I said: well, let me just take something — a song that's already from that era — and just do an arrangement of it."

Sharpe's mother was a church piano player. And many of the Sharpes ended up being musical. The voices you hear on "400" are collectively The Extended Family Choir, including his sister Wanda Rivera, conducted by his brother Kevin Sharpe.

And one other family member helped bring "Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around" up to date.

“I asked my niece, Sofia Rivera, to come up with a spoken word," Sharpe said. “I kind of told her the subjects that I wanted to cover, and then she took it from there."

Rivera's "protest anthem" highlights African-Americans known for their accomplishments or how they died — including Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin.

Rivera speaks of lynching, segregation, voter suppression and over-policing. 

The song is the most overtly political piece on the album, although Sharpe — a self-described optimist — chose to end "400" with a look to a better future.

In his final piece on the album, Sharpe gives listeners another century to think about with a composition called "500."

"When I did '500,' that was more of a positive thing," he said. "You know, to say that I have faith in America, that we'll do the right thing."

Avery Sharpe.
Steven Sussman /
Avery Sharpe.
Avery Sharpe's new album is a history of Africans coming to America, over four centuries of music.
/ Courtesy of Avery Sharpe
Courtesy of Avery Sharpe
Avery Sharpe's new album is a history of Africans coming to America, over four centuries of music.

Copyright 2019 New England Public Media

Jill has been reporting, producing features and commentaries, and hosting shows at NEPR since 2005. Before that she spent almost 10 years at WBUR in Boston, five of them producing PRI’s “The Connection” with Christopher Lydon. In the months leading up to the 2000 primary in New Hampshire, Jill hosted NHPR’s daily talk show, and subsequently hosted NPR’s All Things Considered during the South Carolina Primary weekend. Right before coming to NEPR, Jill was an editor at PRI's The World, working with station based reporters on the international stories in their own domestic backyards. Getting people to tell her their stories, she says, never gets old.

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