Dialogues on Race (Iacuessa Records)

Gregg August

Released August 21, 2020

Grammy Nominee for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album 2021

AllMusic Favorite Jazz Albums 2020






Over the years, I’ve often found myself in situations where the topic of race would arise, and more often than not, an uneasiness would enter the room, quickly extinguishing any potential for constructive exchange. But I’ve also been fortunate to be surrounded by like-minded people, usually musicians, with whom I’ve had deeply personal and meaningful conversations, many of which helped form cherished friendships.

Yet America generally avoids discussing race related issues, and when we do, the conversations can be frustratingly awkward, especially when they’re taking place across cultural boundaries. The typical reaction that I’ve encountered is people retreating to their respective corners of familiarity, abandoning any chance of advancing progress. This is what was going through my head in 2009, when I composed Dialogues on Race, in the wake of electing Barack Obama, when we were being told that America had turned a corner away from its disturbing racial history. After the premiere in April of that year, I shelved my piece, even forgetting about it to some degree.

I suspected deep down that “the progress” we had supposedly made as a country might prove to be fleeting. After all, this is America. We are not known for knowing history, especially our own. (The number of people that have admitted that they don’t know who Emmett Till was is alarming, especially considering some of them were alive in 1955 when he was murdered). Little by little we started to see the veneer being stripped away. We went from Barack, to birtherism, to an unapologetic xenophobe enter the White House. Who could have imagined such a chronology, and in so short a period of time?

Many of the musicians that premiered Dialogues with me urged me to revive the piece, to record it. But I was hesitant. I understood that not everyone would be in accord with my setting the tragedy of Emmett Till to music. I understood the issue of cultural appropriation, and how it played out at the Whitney Museum in 2017 with Diane Schutz’s painting “Open Casket.” For she, like me, is white.

In my endless quest for approval and validation, I was reminded by the musician/ journalist Frank Oteri that Mamie Till opened the casket so EVERYONE could see what had happened to her son. She knew that his lynching wasn’t unique. But she was determined to show the world just how ugly human beings could treat other human beings.

I also found inspiration to persevere through revisiting the poems I had selected for my piece, for the hard truth that they spoke. From Langston Hughes in Sweet Words on Race, when he writes, “Sweet words, so brave when danger is not near,” to Carolyn Kizer’s observation, “I sang in the sun of my white oasis, as you broke to stone.” From Cornelius Eady’s Sherbet, when he exclaims, “The horror to sit, a black man with his white wife, and wait like a criminal for service.” Or in Richard Katrovas’ Sky, as he describes the discomfort felt between 2 strangers in a New Orleans street, a white man and a young black boy, “He looks at me and mumbles he’s just resting, which means don’t worry White Bread, I won’t smash your Ford or steal your VCR, just don’t worry. Today, this hour, I am meant for this stoop.”

My hope is that Dialogues on Race can in some small way serve as an integrated musical bridge to awareness, and maybe even stand as an affirmation against racism and injustice. Admittedly, these are lofty goals. However, through conversation, community and art, I know we can work together towards furthering understanding.

Gregg August (Brooklyn, New York 2020)

Track Listing:

1. Sherbet (Just to Be Certain That the Doubt Stays on Our Side of the Fence) (Gregg August) 08:18

2. Letter to America (Gregg August) 07:54

3. Your Only Child [First Statement, Male Singer] (Gregg August) 03:50

4. I Rise (Gregg August) 10:28

5. Sky (Gregg August) 08:53

6. Your Only Child [Second Statement, Solo Bass] (Gregg August) 01:53

7. I Sang in the Sun (Gregg August) 07:38

8. Mother Mamie’s Reflections (Gregg August) 04:30

9. Your Only Child [Third Statement, Female Singer] (Gregg August) 09:57

10. Sweet Words on Race (Gregg August) 08:58

11. The Bird Leaps (Gregg August) 07:30

12. Blues Finale (Gregg August) 05:04


John Ellis: soprano saxophone
Bruce Williams: alto saxophone
JD Allen: tenor saxophone
Ken Thomson: bass clarinet
John Bailey: trumpet / flugelhorn
Rafi Malkiel: trombone / euphonium
Marcus Rojas: tuba
Luis Perdomo: piano
Gregg August: bass / composer
Donald Edwards: drums
Mauricio Herrera: congas / shekeré/ castanets (1, 2, 3, 10)
Frank Lacy: vocals (3, 12)
Shelley Washington: vocals (9)
Forest VanDyke: vocals (7)
Leah Asher: violin (9)
Lena Vidulich: violin (9)
Yuri Namkung: violin (9)
Johnna Wu: violin (9)
Wendy Richman: viola (9)
Brian Zenone: viola (9)
Madeline Fayette: cello (9)
Wayne Smith: narrator (2)

Recorded February 25 – 26, 2019, at Oktaven Studios, Mt. Vernon, NY

Produced by Gregg August, Kabir Sehgal, Doug Davis

Audio Engineer: Tyler McDiarmid

Cover Design and Artwork: Rebecca Meek


Gregg August is a New York-based bassist, composer, and arranger, active in modern and Latin jazz scenes, classical, and avant-garde circles. He is a longstanding member of the J.D. Allen Trio. In 2009, after Barack Obama took office, and white media hyped the U.S. as a “post-racial society,” August penned Dialogues on Race with hope and healthy skepticism. Employing the works of poets, he examined race relations and meditated in particular on the short life and horrific murder of Emmett Till in 1955 which ignited the Civil Rights movement. When he’d finished it, August shelved the work until history intervened. In the 2000s and 2010s, Birtherism, the rise of white supremacy, and the birth of Black Lives Matter in the aftermath of murders of unarmed minorities by police, brought calls to release it. August, a white musician, was initially reluctant and consulted with black friends and musicians. Encouraged, he refined the suite’s dozen pieces for recording, assembled singers, narrator Wayne Smith, strings, and an 11-piece big band that included saxophonists Allen and John Ellis, bass clarinetist Ken Thomson, tuba player Marcus Rojas, and pianist Luis Perdomo.

Dialogues on Race is an awe-inspiring, big-band jazz meditation that simultaneously intersects the large group traditions of Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Carla Bley, and John Carter. Its compositions offer deftly scripted counterpoint, canny interplay, sprawling harmonic inquiries, nuanced textural expressions, and killer solos all befitting and underscoring the narrative subject’s poignancy. The work’s inspiration is Marilyn Nelson’s poem Your Only Child in which she compares the suffering of Mamie Till to Mary, the mother of Jesus. It appears three times here, first sung by Frank Lacy, second as an arco bass solo, and finally by Shelley Washington. Before and between are glorious tunes including set-opener “Sherbet,” based on a poem by Cornelius Eady. Its moaning tenor and arco bass trills introduce a complex exercise in hard-swinging post-bop. Activist and Vietnam vet Wayne Smith narrates Francisco X. Alarcon’s Letter to America. The music bridges the author’s moral conviction with Mingus’ deep blue harmonies and Ellington’s chromaticism. Carolyn Kizer’s poem I Sang in the Sun is offered by Forest Van Dyke. The elegant chart teases subtle dissonances from the harmony while engaging space as an additional narrative device. “Mother Mamie’s Reflections” uses a recording of Mamie Till’s voice — above crackling improv by Rojas, August, and Thomson — discussing Emmett, his violent death, and her insistence that his casket remain open so all could see what racist cruelty begets. “Sweet Words on Race,” based on a poem by Langston Hughes, offers intense interplay between conguero Mauricio Herrera and the horns, bridged by tight, boppish montunos from Perdomo. Set-closer “Blues Finale” offers dissonant Monk-ish cadences, Mingus’ grooving blue orchestrations, and smoking scat vocals from Lacy. Dialogues on Race, Vol. 1 is a major piece of music from a conscientious, gifted composer. Attractive in creative musicality and unflinching in honesty, August offers the jazz world a masterwork in contemporary art that demands discussion, evaluation, and dissemination.

Thom Jurek (AllMusic)