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Michael O. Mitchell on a new American songbook with African roots

Michael O. Mitchell

The pages of The Great American Songbook are filled with tunes written for Broadway stage and Hollywood’s golden era. Composers such as George and Ira Gershwin, Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers with Lorenz Hart created an arduous repertoire of songs that became the standards for singers and instrumentalists. The (imaginary) American Songbook has been updated to include the new standards created by Black American composers such as Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Nina Simone.

What’s Going On?: Songs of Change is a theatrical concert exploring the work of Black songwriters and artists whose music is an essential part of The American Songbook and has played an integral role in this country’s culture. I recently spoke with Michael O. Mitchell, an award-winning pianist, music director, composer, arranger and orchestrator, about this exciting new project that he created and conceived along with writer, director and choreographer Warren Adams that will have a limited run March 25-27 on stage at the 92nd Street Y, New York, as part of its Lyrics and Lyricists series.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview transcript:

Lezlie Harrison: The ‘60s and ‘70s were a really tumultuous time for us here in the United States, and it was dominated by political unrest. The Vietnam War, civil rights protests, feminist activism, and more. Much like today.  Here we are in 2023 and songs from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” to Dr. Billy Taylor’s “I Wish I Knew How It Felt to be Free” to Stevie Wonder’s “Love’s in Need of Love Today,” all of which are part of this upcoming program—these songs were and may still hold hope for change.  Could you let me know a little bit about your connection to these “Songs of Change” and what was the inspiration for you and Warren to conceive “What's Going On”?

Usually when people think about America, especially the American Songbook, they think Gershwin, they think Rodgers and Hammerstein, but oftentimes they don't include Nina Simone. Or they don't include the songs that are really for us, like “Wade in the Water.” That's a standard for us and our people, but that's not included in the American Songbook. At first, the show was going to be “Songs of Social Change,” but then that only puts us in that ‘60s era. But we're still going through a lot of the same things that our people have been going through.

We wanted to show that the American Songbook is more than that. The American Songbook has pain and it's our pain. If you want to know what American music is, listen to our music, because the root of blues comes from Africa. The root of jazz comes from Africa. The root of gospel comes from Africa. The root of blues comes from Africa. All of that comes from Africa.

I was talking with Warren in our first conversation and he was telling me that there's this place in South Africa known as “The Cave” that if you go into the cave, it has etchings on the wall that are about 28,000 years. In the middle of this big cave, there's a rock. If you hit that rock, it sounds like a djembe. This is where families gathered for years nonstop to celebrate, to be together, to make music. They would go to that place and beat that rock. All of a sudden you have community, you have family, you have connection. Our feeling is that the American Songbook has to include us and has to include our connection to this country, because as they say, “We built this country.”

You know, you're right.  The Great American Songbook is mostly associated with songs from Broadway musicals, Hollywood movie musicals, Tin Pan Alley—pretty much from 1920 to the ‘60s.  You have these great American composers, like you mentioned, Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Cole Porter who were greatly influenced by African American jazz musicians.  I have my own concept about the American Songbook, which I think should include all of these songs that you're talking about.  But why do you think the music of African American composers like Stevie Wonder and Billy Taylor and Marvin Gaye belong in The Great American Songbook?

Because America is a melting pot. If you call America a melting pot, the land of the free, the home of the brave, you have to include those who weren't free. A lot of what Elvis did was from the Black community. A lot of songs that were first made popular by Blacks, were then taken by whites and then spread into the cross culture. Again, a lot of what was popular for white culture came from Black culture. Even if you look at it now, you see something like box braids, that's strategically Black, but it's being taken and used in the white culture.

What was the process in choosing the music for “What's Going On?”

Conversations. Our first conversation lasted about four or five hours, and we didn't really talk much about music. Warren said for him, music was a cassette tape with certain songs because he grew up in South Africa where because of Apartheid, things were controlled, so they only got certain types of music. For him, music was different. You know he's a trained dancer. He traveled around the world and then got a chance to see, hear, and understand that music was more than what they allowed him to hear and see in South Africa.

Warren Adams
Warren Adams

On the other hand, I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, in the Midwest. My dad’s a pastor and my mother was a teacher, so a lot of the music in the house was Christian—very peaceful, calming, soft or classic rock. I’d hear Michael Bolton every now and then. That kind of easy classic rock. You'd hear a Stevie Wonder tune, you'd hear a Mahalia Jackson song. I grew up with that scope of music as well as classical music. I'm a classically trained pianist, so for me it was classical, gospel and whatever they were doing in choir at school.

It sounds a little bit like my background. I’m a granddaughter of a preacher. I have a show called “Come Sunday” where I play gospel music because I grew up listening to it on the radio in the house.  As well as Black radio, soul music, and the like. I grew up probably a little bit earlier than you in terms of what time I got on the planet, but soul music emerged out of the African American experience which was often protest music. The lyrics of soul songs often dealt with themes of social injustice, love and pride, and Black culture. The genre also helped to empower Black people and give them a voice during a time when we were fighting for our civil rights. And the fight continues as we know. How are you bringing new life to these songs from that era as a composer?

Some of the things that we're doing, we are respecting the songs as they are, but we are showing the connection from the African root. For example, “Tears of a Clown.” It sounds so happy and so uplifting, but the song is really saying, “You see the smile on my face, but behind all of that, it's darkness.” We want to pull on some of that darkness to take the happiness a little bit away - to show the struggle, to show the passion that we have.

Smokey Robinson & The Miracles - The Tears Of A Clown (Lyric Video)

In choosing the songs, we picked songs that, yes, show what the social struggle has been, that “the revolution will not be televised.” But we also picked songs that deal with the love that we have. “Love’s In Need of Love Today.” That never changes. Love is one of those things that, again, if you look at our struggle, if you look at the things we've been through, we've always been about the love. Just love us. You don't have to fight us. Just accept us and love us. We don't need to argue. We're not trying to make ourselves better than you. We're not trying to be different than you. We just want to be loved like you.

Choosing these songs is just us really wanting to say, “Hey, we are a people of love. We are a people of change. We are a people that are demanding and wanting to be in the same social circles, to be in the same places without there being fear, without there being disrespect.” A lot of the music that we chose shows our pain, but it also shows our love.

It's unfortunate because music's supposed to bring us all together.  We're still making the music but we're growing apart a lot.  This is the music of my generation.  A lot of the songs that I see that are going to be featured, they still ring true to today.

One of the songs that we have is “America the Beautiful.” We all know that song, but that's going get interrupted by “This is America.” Yes, we hear “Oh, beautiful for spacious skies.” But then it's like, “We know this is really America.” This is what we're dealing with. This is the struggle that we're still dealing with all of these years later. Yes, it's better, but no it’s not.

Is this program that's going to be happening at the 92nd Street Y New York going to be part of a bigger project that's coming down the pike? Maybe something that might go to Broadway?

It's something that we're trying to build to take to different places and to allow our music to be considered American Songbook. Allow others to know that, “Hey, the social struggle is still continuing.” We're still fighting for change. We're still fighting for equality. We're still fighting for clarity. We're still fighting for understanding. We're still fighting to be included. Things are better, but there's still a long way to go.

We've come this far by faith. Right?

Absolutely. Faith and fighting.

And a whole lot of nail biting. You and Warren Adams have assembled a wonderful, outstanding cast of Broadway veterans who will light up the stage with your unique arrangements—blending music, dance, poetry, and visual arts to tell this powerful story. Tell us a little bit about some of the actors and how you came to work with them.

Some of them have worked on Broadway, on the musical Motown. Some are friends that you just know in the business that are amazing and you think, “I need to work with you.” We assembled a group of people that have the same heart and the same passion for the story that we're trying to tell. We could have picked a million people because there are wonderful actors and singers everywhere, but we hand selected people that we knew loved the art as much as we do. Who we knew wanted to tell our story as much as we do, and we knew that could deliver the goods singing their part because our songbook and our artists are full of amazing singers, amazing writers. Often, we get pushed into certain dialogues, certain dialects, certain genres. Instead, we believe we are the kind of people that can do it all. We're everywhere.

Absolutely. You know, I'm a vocalist also and I, like a lot of singers who come into jazz especially, we learn music from the songs out of the Great American Songbook.  But what I'm noticing now are more singers like myself, we're singing songs of our generation or songs that speak more to our culture.  A lot of Stevie Wonder is included now in what I call the American Songbook.  A lot of Marvin Gaye, a lot of that Philadelphia soul sound.  What do you see in the future of music as you work with vocalists and the Great American Songbook?  Do you see this music being included more in repertoires?

I hear it so much in audition rooms. You used to hear “Hello Dolly" or “Feelings” from Cats or “Defying Gravity.” Again, they're all great songs but you're starting to hear more diverse songs. I’m even starting to hear more of Nina's stuff. They're starting to see the relevance of these songs because musicals are now changing. The concept of theater being a certain way is no longer. I mean, the fact that we had a Tupac musical on Broadway is amazing. People forget about it because it didn't last long because it was a rap musical that wasn't Hamilton, but that was full of Black folks. There was a little bit of controversy which was hard, but it was still there. I have to be excited and encouraged that it was there.

Once the pandemic started to lighten up, there was a play called Chicken and Biscuits, which I did the music for on Broadway. It didn't last very long because of the pandemic, but it still had a run. Now that show is now around the country, hitting and touching so many people and allowing our story to be told. Things are changing in acknowledgment that we're necessary and our music is necessary. I'm hearing more Marvin Gaye. I'm even hearing Pharrell’s “Freedom.” The fact that I'm hearing these songs now in audition rooms, that's very encouraging.

They're also being woven into the fabric of commercialism such as TV commercials. I watched a clip of a gymnast and the background music was not your typical classical music. It was a Black gymnast so there was a little hip hop. I was like, okay. It's good to hear that these songs are being included more in the whole fabric and in the Great American Songbook because it is American. You said something that I wanted to quote: “If you want to experience America, you simply have to listen to the music, and the social change were looking for is love.”

Yes, music has always been a part of the African American culture—from chants to work songs to exciting songs to love songs. It's always been a part of American culture. At the end of the day, what we really want is love. What we really want is acceptance. What we really want is appreciation.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Lezlie Harrison is her own personal renaissance. Her constant state of evolution and growth brings with it, gifts for those those paying attention.