Etienne Charles: The Making of ‘San Juan Hill’


“We try to tell the story of where we come from as a way of navigating where we’re going next,” Charles said.

(Photo: Laura Ferreira)

Nearly half an hour into the Oct. 8 premiere of Etienne Charles’ epic suite San Juan Hill, the members of the New York Philharmonic began taking their seats onstage at a packed David Geffen Hall, triggering a round of applause so effusive that it seemed to shake the foundation of the hall’s home, Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

No surprise there. The hall was reopening after a major makeover, and the return of the philharmonic to its longtime base of operations was bound to be a seismic event. But even before the orchestra joined the fray, Charles’ sextet Creole Soul — augmented by a flutist, a turntablist and multimedia partners — set off a few tremors of its own, presenting five movements of the suite that left the audience slightly shaken but pleasantly stirred. Judging by the buzz in the room, they wanted to hear more from this man with the sweet trumpet and stinging pen.

A flamboyant stylist with radical instincts, Charles, 39, had emerged from the jazz world proffering a provocative collaboration between the philharmonic and his sextet. The piece would address, in historical context, Lincoln Center’s supplanting of the economically poor, culturally rich San Juan Hill neighborhood in Manhattan. And, as the piece played out on that afternoon, it addressed what happened — offering an intoxicating mix of sonic pleasures and seldom-heard social truths.

“It was a way to no longer have things swept under the proverbial rug,” Charles said in an interview a few days after the concert.

The small-group portion of the program laid bare some disquieting realities, opening with the soft strains of “Lenape,” a melancholy ode to the original inhabitants of the slice of Manahatta that became the Afro-diasporan redoubt for which the suite was named, and closing with the blunt force of “The Destroyer,” a devastating indictment of the policy of so-called slum clearance that leveled it. A sense of foreboding prevailed throughout.

That sense was established up front by the spectral presence of poet Eljon Wardally. Reciting lines offstage, Wardally appeared only as a disembodied voice, her words drifting in while filmmaker Maya Cozier’s moving pictures, projected onstage, showed children of color at play. Were they from the neighborhood, blissfully unaware of their impending displacement? To Wardally, it didn’t matter. They had a universality to them, as well as personal resonance. And both qualities echoed in her haunting lines.

“I saw a reflection of myself,” she said in an interview, noting that, like Charles, she is of Afro-Caribbean ancestry.

In “Lenape,” her voice, sonorous yet distant, intoned that the people of Lenapehoking were vanquished by the Dutch. With the poet’s words still hanging in the air, Elena Pinderhughes’ flute and John Davis’ toms summoned the native culture, even as Charles’ airily modern harmonies foreshadowed a 20th-century analog to its decimation.

The foreshadowing became fact in “Destroyer.” Opening with Wardally’s rumination on two views of San Juan Hill (“What one saw as trash / Another saw as treasure”), the poem closed with an unequivocal statement on where she and Charles, who wrote the concluding lines, stood: “What some first saw as a developer / Was revealed to be a destroyer.” A modal firestorm followed, sparked by DJ Logic’s turntable scratches and manipulated sound samples of real-world destruction.

With that sublime exercise in agitation as a lead-in and the orchestra members ready to play, it fell to their principal clarinetist, Anthony McGill, to up the ante with a dynamic reading of the opening to the next chapter in Charles’ work, “Riot: 1905.” In cool and clear tones, he delivered an anxious and impassioned clarion call to all who would listen that neither the issues addressed in San Juan Hill nor its composer could be ignored.

The movement depicted an actual event in which a small incident, fueled by a racist mob and the complicity of police, grew into a full-scale uprising in San Juan Hill. Building on McGill’s opening, Charles made full use of the textures available to him in the combined ensembles, layering an increasingly dense series of cross-rhythms and stacked harmonies across the canvas in disorienting brushstrokes. The effort yielded an indelible aural image of the chaos that reportedly ensued 117 years ago.

“They understood that it was about painting a picture,” Charles said of the musicians.

That picture, McGill said, was well realized. And he was well placed to know. Like Charles, who rose from steel bands working the streets of Trinidad to his newfound status as an elite orchestral composer, McGill had risen against the odds to become the first Black principal in the philharmonic’s 180-year history. And, like Charles, he had a history of denouncing racial injustice with his art. So he spoke with authority when he said that Charles was the right person to articulate the message and “Riot: 1905” was the right vehicle to convey it.

“It’s dissonant and it’s jarring and all those things that you can feel when the powers-that-be are against you,” he said. “That is the history of so many Black and brown people in a lot of our cities, it’s a part of that history. That did inform my interpretation. But it’s in the music. He wrote it.”

The bulk of the writing, which ultimately encompassed five orchestral movements, had yet to be completed when, at a March gathering at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse, the philharmonic announced its 2022–’23 schedule. At the gathering, Charles stood out, the bright colors and vivid patterns of his outfit matching the audacity of his offering.

Lincoln Center was, like other tradition-bound cultural institutions in the city, seeking new audiences. Addressing the history that led to its creation was considered critical to that mission. And commissioning Charles — whose oeuvre included unsparing historical works like Greenwood, a small-group suiteabout the destruction of the Black business district in Tulsa, Oklahoma — was seen as a means of doing so. Speaking at the gathering, Lincoln Center President and CEO Henry Timms said the commission would help demonstrate that “we’re engaged with that history.”

“We try to tell the story of where we come from as a way of navigating where we’re going next,” he said. “This is the piece that’s telling the story: This is your home.”

How seamlessly the philharmonic could integrate its 80 pieces with the jazz sextet was an open question. In an interview at the gathering, Jaap van Zweden, the philharmonic’s conductor and music director, expressed little doubt. He noted that his personal tastes extended beyond the realm of classical music, remarking that his son was a DJ and that he, himself, listened to popular music at home, as did philharmonic players.

“It fits in my whole body and in my spiritual life,” he said, adding: “The open minds of the orchestra members are amazing. The soul of the city comes out of these people. It feels very natural.”

In the months after that gathering, Charles began to compose. By August, during a break in a publicity photo shoot at Lincoln Center, he was able to lay out a full score at the Kaplan Penthouse. The score, which seemed well within the bounds of conventional orchestral writing, fleshed out key elements that in March had been conceived of in outline. Transferring paper to performance was the challenge ahead.

To be sure, the small-group portion of the show had required little rehearsal. The charts were basic, and for the veteran jazzmen of the sextet — saxophonist Godwin Louis, pianist Sullivan Fortner, guitarist Alex Wintz and bassist Ben Williams, as well as Davis and Charles — movements like “Swing Culture” were hardly a stretch. In nods to San Juan Hill luminaries like pianists Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols and clarinetist Russell Procope, that movement featured open blowing over Williams’ walking bass. Part of another movement, “Where Two Or More Are Gathered,” was freely improvised at the concert.

But the orchestral portion was not so simple. Fortner — whose scene-stealing stride turn on “Charleston At The Jungles” elicited the strongest audience reaction of any solo in the concert — recalled that, after two days of rehearsal with the full contingent of musicians on both the jazz side and the classical side, the complexities of working together became apparent.

“There [were] a lot of compromise that had to be made,” he said.

Timekeeping was an issue, Fortner noted, recalling one rehearsal where the concertmaster raised a point: “He asked, ‘Who should we listen to? Should we listen to the drummer or should we follow the conductor?’ I said, ‘The New York Philharmonic is a 100-year-old train. We’re going to follow you guys.’”

Charles, who exchanged subtle cues with van Zweden during the performance — at the same time juggling his congas, cajon, trumpet and hat used as a mute — acknowledged some give on the drummer’s part. But he also likened the situation to that of any large ensemble. “It was a little bit of a yield, but you have to do that when you’re playing with a big band as well,” he said.

“In terms of grooves,” Charles added, “I was learning how to play with the orchestra because you have all these people onstage. To find the time, I was listening back to front: I’m listening for accents, not for the upbeat.”

The accents of “Charleston,” he said, were especially important to advancing the movement’s narrative, which traced how the Gullah people brought their brand of two-beat syncopation from the low country of Georgia to San Juan Hill. There, pianist James P. Johnson incorporated it in his playing at the Jungles Casino, on 62nd Street. Adapted for popular consumption, it precipitated a national dance craze.

A long orchestral stretch was meant to illustrate the Gullah migration. But the heart of the movement was Fortner’s improvisation, a fantasia on the piano culture that was integral to the community’s social fabric. “It was like hip-hop in the ’80s — the hip, cool style,” Charles said. “So I tried to channel all that into this movement.”

Fortner found himself translating the syncopated vernacular for the orchestra’s players. “They’re not used to it,” he said. “It wasn’t that they couldn’t do it, but in talking with them about it, it was something that was a little wonky. Jazz musicians have a different kind of sensitivity than classical musicians have. It’s something we all had to adjust to.”

Knotty rhythmic issues required untangling throughout the suite, and Charles, alone save for his percussion, focused on that during a day of rehearsal with the orchestra. The challenges reached a peak with “House Rent Party,” a rousing final movement that employed a dizzying series of styles, starting with a waltz, ending with funk and alighting in between on stride piano, blues, ragtime, swing, mambo, calypso and disco.

“It was intense,” McGill recalled. “There was so much focus, our brains were on fire.”

For Charles, it was a bit of déjà vu. He personally embodied the migration of so many people of Afro-Caribbean descent bound for New York, having landed at the Juilliard School, part of Lincoln Center, in 2006. As it happened, he first learned of San Juan Hill and its Caribbean connection while at Juilliard, where, in studying about Nichols, he discovered that the pianist, born and raised in the neighborhood, had roots in Trinidad. “A hundred years ago, if I was moving from Trinidad, I would have moved to San Juan Hill,” Charles said. “It’s almost as if I’ve come full circle.” DB

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