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MIT’s ‘It Must Be Now!’ advances social justice through music and media

Susan Saccoccia

A recipient of NEA Arts Journalism fellowships in dance, theater and music, Susan reviews visual and performing arts in the U.S. and overseas.

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MIT’s ‘It Must Be Now!’ advances social justice through music and media
(left to right) Debo Ray (seated), Sean Jones, Braxton Cook. PHOTO: CAROLINE ALDEN

On Saturday, May 7, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology presented an immersive music and multimedia event with themes of racial injustice and healing. Held live at Kresge Auditorium and viewable online through May 17, “It Must Be Now!” culminates a year-long series of virtual events and on-campus residencies at MIT to advance social justice actions through music and media.

“It Must Be Now!” and the programs leading up to it were organized by Frederick Harris Jr., Ph.D., director of wind and jazz ensembles at MIT, as an artistic, multidisciplinary response to the racial reckoning spurred by the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black Americans.

The two-hour program presents world premieres of commissioned works by three visiting artists who also conducted the online sessions and residencies: Emmy Award-winning alto saxophone virtuoso Braxton Cook; Sean Jones, renowned trumpeter and chair of jazz at the Peabody Institute of John Hopkins University; and Terri Lyne Carrington, three-time Grammy Award-winning drummer, 2019 Doris Duke Artist Award recipient and founder/artistic director of the Berklee College of Music Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice.

They perform their new works along with 125 musicians, multimedia artists and singers, including MIT’s Festival Jazz Ensemble, Vocal Jazz Ensemble and Wind Ensemble, other student musicians from MIT and Berklee, and guest soloists.

(left to right) Val Jeanty, Sean Jones, Terri Lyne Carrington, Mickalene Thomas, Braxton Cook, Frederick Harris. PHOTO: CAROLINE ALDEN

Cook’s composition reflects the pain of the pandemic and police brutality as well as movement toward healing. In a pre-concert video, Cook says, “This suite I’m working on, I hope helps me feel a little bit more whole.”

Jones conjures the Afrofuturistic concept of Pangea, an ancient supercontinent, and considers its potential to help imagine a better future. “What if in 2022 all the continents were joined together again?” Jones asks in the video. “Would we be more unified?”

Carrington says that her piece “investigates the sheer resilience of Black women” and explores “the legacy of creativity and invention of enslaved Africans and their descendants and aims to find a path forward to abolition, self-determination and justice.” Visual artist Mickalene Thomas accompanies Carrington’s score with a montage of archival photos.

The program also includes reinventions of four landmark works of jazz that trace the country’s rocky path toward racial justice.

“Duke Ellington said this music is all about freedom of expression,” says Harris, who opens the program with Ellington’s great spiritual “Come Sunday,” drawn from Ellington’s “Black, Brown, Beige” suite and newly arranged for big band and choir by Laura Grill Jaye, director of the MIT Vocal Jazz Ensemble. When Ellington premiered the suite in 1943 at Carnegie Hall, says Harris, he introduced it as “parallel to the history of the Negro in America.”

Producer/pianist/turntablist Wendel Patrick samples a recording of Charles Mingus singing his protest piece “Fables of Faubus,” which satirizes Orval Faubus, the Arkansas governor who summoned the National Guard to block nine Black teenagers from integrating Little Rock High School.

As DJ, Patrick joins Orlando Watson as he performs his poem “Strangest Fruit,” whose title evokes the ballad on lynching made famous by Billie Holiday.

The fourth landmark piece, “Freedom Jazz Dance,” was composed by Eddie Harris in 1965 to mark the passage of the Voting Rights Act. 

“I don’t see this as a concert,” says Harris, who regards music as a potent storytelling tool. “This is an initiative to engender empathy, education and change.”

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