Vermont Arts Council

The Better Angels of Our Nature

Brian McCarthy is a saxophonist, composer, and educator. He also says he is a Civil War geek. One more thing: Brian is the recipient of an FY2015 Creation Grant from the Arts Council—funding that provided him the opportunity to write a chamber jazz suite. For inspiration, he dug into the written words of Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address; these words came as the Civil War was looming. Brian says he found the words of a lawyer, a president, and a human in that address. In the words he found most human, he discovered the title for the suite.

Lincoln: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”

Brian believes jazz is one of the better angels of our nature. Looking back to original sheet music via the Smithsonian, he has taken songs from the civil war era to compose for a jazz nonet. Brian knew from the beginning the players would include pianist Justin Kauflin. Comments in the interview about working with visually impaired musicians spring from Justin’s involvement.

In this Q&A, read about Brian’s creative process

Q. When you proposed this project, you said, “Composing and presenting the changing sound of jazz arranging is important to the art form, and to showcasing the genre as relevant and inspiring to our Vermont community.” Then you added, “We have entered a new era of jazz being taught in Universities and most of the music being written. Say a little bit about the changes in the genre. How do you describe the new era and changing landscape of jazz? What is different? Where is jazz going?

A. With fewer and fewer venues presenting jazz, album sales almost nonexistent, and more solid players than ever before, it’s a difficult environment for the jazz musician. Our challenge is to offer ways for the audience to take a chance on our art.  I find with young audiences today, they don’t even know why they haven’t given the music a chance.  If we offer honest and clear answers to “why jazz,” then the future audience will at least be at our gigs because they want to be there, not because someone told them they should be.

Q. You also said, “The changing landscape has created stereotypes for visually impaired performers centered on the fact they cannot read music, and therefore cannot learn new works. I hope to break some of these misconceptions.” Does this evolution actually create any challenges for visually impaired artists, or is that entirely a misconception?

A. Working with my friend and brother-in-musical-arms Justin Kauflin (who is a visually impaired pianist, and playing on this project), along with recently departed trumpet great Clark Terry, they’ve shown me through their experiences how strongly and responsibly I need to know my own music in order to run the best band possible. Jazz over the years has evolved into a more complex art form. So complex and acrobatic that it’s easy to lose sight of all the working parts. Because of this, there seems to be a misconception in regards to visually impaired musicians. Some composers/bandleaders have this fear of “how will they learn my new song in time for the gig tonight?!” There is a problem in my opinion, but it doesn’t lie with the visually impaired musician. No, the problem is with the musician that loses sight of their own music to the point that they don’t know how to convey the information effectively to anyone.

Q. Creation Grants are not commissions, and have no restrictions. You knew that going into the project, and said, “As a result, this project will showcase my abilities as a writer, not just for hire, but as a professional aesthetic artist….this project will allow me to use my full unrestricted ability to explore the colors and textures of the jazz idiom. Where did this take you? How does your aesthetic artist shine in the music?

A. The beauty of the Creation Grant is its trust in the artist to create with responsibility and without restrictions. It’s basically saying “show us what you can do…” Typically when I write, I have to keep the project in the scope of ability, length, genre, producer, etc. Not that those challenge aren’t enjoyable or workable, but when the artist becomes the producer, they are free to determine all the aspects of the project, and it is quite liberating. That liberation leads to self-discovery, which in turns leads to growth as an artist. It may be surprising for people to learn, but even though this is some of the best writing I’ve done (so far), we haven’t even played the music, and I’m ready to start my next project (and I have…)!”mccarthy-grins

Q. The work is almost ready for performance. What happened that you expected, and what happened that you didn’t expect?

A. I expected this project to challenge my creativity, which no doubt it has done. What I didn’t expect was such a positive reaction to something that no one has heard yet. Booking this project for the 2015-2016 season, Steve MacQueen (The Flynn’s artistic director) showed his adventurous spirit and trust in my track record. He has my eternal thanks for taking the chance in premiering the project. Reuben Jackson and the folks at Vermont Public Radio have also been quite supportive, featuring this project in their upcoming programming. Growing up listening to Jazz on VPR and attending shows at The Flynn Theater, this is quite special for me. So much buzz and excitement around this project, and we have yet to play one note!”

Q. You’ve built an entire career with your ability to create. Talk about that.

A. Like Darwin’s Theory, my career continues to evolve. Each gig, each project, learn and grow from it. It’s a grind, filled with success and not-success. But if you find something to take away from the good and the bad, then there is no such thing as failure…just the occasional harsh lesson.

You can hear the work either Friday or Saturday in the FlynnSpace.

Brian McCarthy’s website
Buy tickets for the performance

Links to music from the Civil War era

Battle Hymn of the Republic
sheet music:

The Battle Cry of Freedom
sheet music:

Weeping, Sad and Lonely
sheet music:

All Quiet Along the Potomac To-Night
sheet music:

Dixie’s Land—Note from McCarthy: This is the most controversial song, being attached to minstrelsy, the lyrics are a bit shocking when you realize its connection to slavery and racism.
sheet music:

Additional links relevant to the compositions

About the Battle of Shiloh

Lincoln’s first inaugural address