When a composer creates a new album, they call it a projectespecially when the music is something more than that just notes and chords. Bassist Avery Sharpe refers to his new work 400: An African American Musical Portrait as a “serious project.” The album chronicles 400 years of slavery, starting in 1619 when the first enslaved Africans were brought to the United States. Sharpe recently performed 400 at his alma mater, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Producer Dave Fraser sat down with him after the performance and shares what inspires Sharpe’s music. 

This story originally aired on February 27, 2020.

Read the full transcript:

Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: This Saturday marks the celebration of Juneteenth, short for June 19th, which commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the state of Texas in 1865 and by extension, the end of slavery in America.

And in honor of that, this evening, we’re taking a look at the African-American experience through the work of local musician Avery Sharpe.

In music, when a composer creates an album, they call it a project, especially when the music is something more than just notes and chords. Bassist Avery Sharpe refers to his work, “400: An African American Musical Portrait” as a “serious project.” That’s because it chronicles 400 years of the African-American experience, starting in 1619, when the first enslaved Africans were brought to this country.

Sharpe first performed this album last year just prior to the pandemic, and producer Dave Fraser sat down with him to hear the story behind the music.

Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: Longtime bassist, composer, and recording artist Avery Sharpe released his latest work in 2019 entitled “400” An African-American Musical Portrait.”

Avery Sharpe, Bassist & Composer: It was Dr. Shirley Whitaker, who’s a kidney doctor, and I was at Whole Foods and I ran into her. And she goes, “2019.”

And when you say that to a lot of Black folks who study a lot, I knew immediately what she meant: 400 years, 1619 to 2019. And I just kind of spaced. I just started hearing a whole bunch of music and she started smiling.

She goes, “You’re not really listening to me.” I said, “No, I’m just hearing all this music now.”

How would I approach 400 years of Africans, African-Americans being in this country, you know, from a musical standpoint?  You know, and it’s not a it’s not a celebration, it’s just an acknowledgment.

Singers: Come on. Come on, come on. Come on. You gotta wake up. Wake up. Rise Up.

Dave Fraser: The music tells a harrowing-yet-inspiring tale century by century. Joining Sharpe on stage are some heavy hitters in the jazz world, plus his extended family choir.

Avery Sharpe: Every artist has to have their motivation. My motivation has always been my family. JKNM. It’s the first initial of my four kids, Jade, Keto, Nacossie, and Maya, and so I just honored them by name in the record label after them.

Dave Fraser: Much of the music that Sharpe composes and performs is music with a purpose. He has written pieces inspired by the stories of a number of noted African-American figures from Abolitionist Sojourner Truth, to star Olympic runner Jesse Owens, to Primus Mason, the 19th century Springfield philanthropist.

Avery Sharpe: You know, I was influenced by artists from the from the 60s. People said something when they saw some injustice, it’s not like go along, get along or no, I’m just an artist. I don’t get political.

You are political. I don’t care what country, you’re political. You may not want to be, but not saying anything makes you political, makes you silent, you just watch things as they happen as opposed to to getting into them. So, you are involved.

Dave Fraser: Sharpe was born in Georgia at a time when segregation was legal. His mother was the choir director in the Church of God in Christ and gave piano lessons to everyone in the family, including Avery, who was one of eight children.

Avery Sharpe: So, I went with my mother everywhere. She played for revivals. I was there, you know. So, she’s my first musical influence.

Dave Fraser: By the time he was a teenager, Sharpe had discovered the electric and eventually the acoustic bass. His family would move to Springfield, Massachusetts, and in the early 1970s, he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts.

And it was there that he was exposed to the world of jazz.

Avery Sharpe: Max Roach was there, the father of bebop music. He wasn’t just coming up from New York. He lived, he lived in Amherst.

Archie Ship, one of the great masters on saxophone who was a John Coltrane protege. He was at the University of Massachusetts.

Reggie Workman was my first bass teacher who used to play with John Coltrane, but he was coming up a couple of days a week from from Brooklyn.

But that was like, in the mid 70s, that was I mean, it’s hard to get those people together in New York. And here, I had ’em on campus.

Dave Fraser: After graduating from UMass, Sharp would hit the road, playing hundreds of gigs worldwide. But it was fitting that he would return to the UMass campus with his quintet and the extended family choir, for their performance of “400.”

Throughout the concert, Sharpe uses the African-American music of each era to tell the epic, Fluid story of those descended from the original Africans, brought in bondage to America 400 years ago.

The album’s penultimate track, “Ain’t Going To Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” is punctuated by Sharpe’s niece Sophia Rivera’s spoken word.

Sophia Rivera: America, land I love. Country that despises me in one breath, then praises me in the next. I am Black. I am American. I will not be dismayed.

I will not retreat. I will not back down. I will kneel. I will stand.

I will march. I will vote. I will run for office.

Never backward. Onward, forward.  There is no turning back now.

Dave Fraser: Sharpe’s final song on the album is called “Five Hundred,”  a riveting and adventurous piece that points the way towards the future.

Avery Sharpe: It’s a mystery. I don’t know. But in terms of hoping, I would hope that the country looks and thinks a little different. And that people just let live and let live.

I’m always trying to give people some information, that’s that’s my political thing, I’m not trying to slap you across the head, I want to entertain you. But when you walk out, I want you to say, “Dang!” I want you to think. You know, I just don’t want you to just say “I had a good time.”

I want you to have a good time, a great time. But if, by the way, “Wow, I learned something.” And for me, I think that’s what we’re here to do.