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Arturo O'Farrill & ALJO release; 'Four Questions' / Latin Jazz Network

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What does integrity do in the face of adversity / oppression? What does honesty do in the face of lies / deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? How does virtue meet brute force? These four questions posed by the great African American civil rights activist and author W. E. B. Du Bois in his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk are expounded upon in a speech given by Dr. Cornel West based on his book, Black Prophetic Fire, given October 9, 2014 at Town Hall in Seattle. That speech turned my life around and Dr. West has become a giant figure in my thinking.

Without a doubt, he is a controversial figure and many within his own intelligentsia community have attacked him for a variety of reasons. I have learned from firsthand experience that if you are under attack (especially by your own) it could be because standing strong for what you believe will threaten others in their complacency. Regardless of your stance on Dr. West, he holds our feet to the fire and demands that we deal with the social and political horrors of our day. Say what you will, he is a modern-day prophet and prophets throughout the ages are attacked for calling it like it is.

These are some of the ugliest times in American history. In my wildest imagination I could not have foreseen a time when a president would unabashedly divide the nation across racial lines for his own advance and aggrandizement. These days are marked by governance shaped by dishonesty and manipulation and will be a stain in our history for generations to come. More than ever the brilliance of Du Bois' introspections, West's interpretations and the pure jazz fire with which they are delivered are a salve for those who are hurt by this daily assault and an irritant to those who would use ideology to promote hatred and violence.

Four Questions was premiered as the Cornel West Concerto at the Apollo theater on May 21, 2016 by the Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra with Dr. Cornel West as guest soloist, conductor and percussionist. The gravity of the 2016 presidential election and its potential for doom was in the air. Dr. West and I were in conversation about Jazz and its inability to address social and political issues. We decided that many of its contemporary leaders had abdicated this responsibility as set forth by revolutionaries like Charles Mingus, Billy Holiday and even Louis Armstrong. Dr. West is a historian of jazz and knows more about its history than many scholars and journalists. We are devotees of the music but wondered where its bite had gone. It seems to be used more for selling nationalism, socio-economic status, soft drinks and luxury cars than to remind us of the history of the African Diaspora. At the end of the piece Dr. West references the ultimate sacrifice that many of our civil rights leaders have made in the continuing struggle. I looked out across my bandstand to see many of my musicians struggling to hold back tears. To look into the face of reality and examine one's own life in context, is the highest realization of this divine gift called music. Also, during my MacDowell residency, I composed a piece called Clump/Unclump. The piece is about the relentless law of gathering and scattering, the coming together and the falling asunder. It occurred to me that this law has a scientific, philosophical, and relational corollary. Some call it, Ying and Yang but it's far different. It's not about cycles or balance, but about elements coming together and then coming apart. When I wrote the piece, I was in the process of dealing with the fact that my oldest child was leaving the parental home and my remaining parent was terminally ill. All of the elements of my life which I thought were rock solid were pulling apart with centrifugal force. In physics, the idea of particles, strings, and atoms acting in this manner is understood but it seemed to me that this was a micro- lesson that's constantly revealed on a macro scale. It became an anthem for the period that we live in that has hatred and mediocrity as its guiding spirit, this too shall pass.

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