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Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra: Port Chicago

Jack Bowers By

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Are you aware of Port Chicago, and do you know what happened there more than sixty years ago? Chances are you don't, as it's not something American history books will likely mention or military recruiters point to with pride. In brief: on July 17, 1944, a massive explosion at the Port Chicago Naval Base (near Oakland, California) killed more than 320 men, most of them African-American sailors, and injured some 400 others, by far the worst disaster on US soil during World War II.

When 258 black sailors protested the unsafe conditions—and the fact that they alone were assigned the task of loading ammunition onto ships docked at Port Chicago—the Navy called their work stoppage mutiny and convened a court martial, at which fifty black sailors were unfairly convicted by their white superior officers. Although the imprisoned sailors were released under a general amnesty at the end of the war, their convictions for mutiny have never been overturned.

To honor the sixtieth anniversary of the Port Chicago "mutiny, the Equal Justice Society commissioned an extended jazz work by composer/bassist Marcus Shelby, and his fourteen-part suite, written in collaboration with Robert L. Allen, author of The Port Chicago Mutiny, was performed for the first time in 2004 at the African American Museum and Library in Oakland.

The suite (sans Val Hendrickson's libretto) is now available on CD, and it is an incisive and powerful evocation of the events leading up to and following the horrific and deadly blast at Port Chicago. Written "in the tradition of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, the suite uses musical devices from swing to Afro-Hispanic rhythms, twelve-tone serial concepts, and even the European waltz to paint a dramatic portrait of the Port Chicago of 1944 and the events surrounding the so-called mutiny and the conviction of those who allegedly provoked it.

Depicting such soul-stirring events musically is a daunting task, but Shelby and his fifteen-piece Marcus Shelby Jazz Orchestra carry it off brilliantly. From the jazzy rhythms of the "Opening Dance, "Training Day and "Big Liberty Blues to the somber "Introduction" and "Call to War, the balladic "Sweet Brownness and "After, the wearisome "Barracks Life," the shocking "Explosion and abstractions of "Mechanized Women, "Black in Blue," "Work Routines and "Exoneration," one can derive at least a momentary sense of the spirit and character of life as it was for the ill-fated sailors and their comrades at Port Chicago.

This is the second thematic album by the MSJO (following The Lights Suite, 2001), and each one has served to enhance Shelby's credentials as a composer/arranger of remarkable insight and ability. Ensemble and soloists are superb, recorded sound exemplary, playing time as generous as can be. In fact, the entire package, including liner notes and photographs, is first-class. Warmly recommended.

Visit Marcus Shelby on the web.


Track Listing: Act 1: Introduction; Opening Dance; Call to War; Training Day; Mechanized Women; Work Routine; Barracks Life; Black in Blue. Act 2: Work Routine 2; Big Liberty Blues; Sweet Brownness; Explosion; After; Exoneration (76:54).

Personnel: Marcus Shelby: composer, arranger, conductor, bass; Dave Scott, Erik Jekabson, Darren Johnston, Joel Ryan: trumpet; Gabe Eaton: alto sax; Marcus Stephens: alto sax, clarinet; Rob Barics: tenor sax, clarinet; Evan Francis: tenor sax, flute; Tom Griesser: baritone sax; Danny Grewen, Scott Larson: trombone; Marc Bolin: bass trombone; Adam Shulman: piano; Jeff Marrs: drums.

Title: Port Chicago | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Noir Records


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