The release of Gregg August’s Dialogues on Race feels darkly relevant: The unsightly realities of how Covid-19 is disproportionately damaging black and brown communities is yet another reminder that America’s institutional inequities have daily and deadly consequences. Using the platform of his 2009 Jazz Gallery commission, bassist and composer Gregg August grapples with hard realities through Dialogues on Race, an album and series of beautiful videos using source material from Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Marilyn Nelson, and Mamie Till, the mother of Emmett Till. Though the album release show at The Jazz Gallery was postponed due to Covid-19, we spoke with August via phone to discuss the new reality.
The Jazz Gallery: Hey Gregg. Are you still in New York City?
Gregg August: I live in Brooklyn, but I’m actually at a second place that my lady and I bought a few years ago up in Massachusetts. We’ve been safely out of New York for about a month now. My place in New York is tight. I have four basses, a piano and drums, and couldn’t think about moving within New York, because of the real estate market. It’s impossible to afford a new place to rent, forget about buying anything. So, we bought this old Victorian house in the Berkshires in a city called North Adams. There’s a great museum here, MASSMoCA, where I do a residency every summer with Bang On A Can. I’ve grown fond of the area, so we bought a place. Right now, it’s saving us.
TJG: Is it big enough for you to at least not feel claustrophobic?
GA: Oh yeah, it’s an old Victorian duplex. We usually rent the units, but nobody’s renting right now. So we’re here, just figuring everything out. I’m just beginning to get my studio functional, trying to organize things. It’s not easy. I’m sure we’ll talk about… reality [laughs].
TJG: Are you in a headspace to jump in and talk reality?
GA: I’ll do my best, but things feel distant. The record isn’t where my head is right now.
TJG: Let’s start simple. Can you give me a run down of what you would have been doing during this time?
GA: Well, we had the record release for Dialogues on Race planned for May 29th. We had a gig that revolved around this release at The Jazz Gallery, scheduled for April 10th, which obviously was cancelled. The Jazz Gallery commissioned this piece ten years ago. When the recording was finally finished, Rio was nice enough to suggest that we do the release at the Gallery. Of course it’s all been postponed indefinitely. The CDs were in the process of being manufactured when the plant closed down. The LP’s are finished and on a boat coming from the Czech Republic. But my publicist Matt Merewitz needs CDs in-hand to get to journalists. Everything was going smoothly, but… the process has stopped. It’s disappointing, but certainly not life-or-death.
TJG: The videos are really nice. I’ve worked with Four/Ten before, they’re great.
GA: Oh man, they are so great. They just did another video for me, “Stand Up With Me,” which I published a few days ago. This was actually a separate project from Dialogues. I have a friend/colleague from The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra who is a bassoonist, but also sings! Her name is Gina Cuffari, and she commissioned the piece from me last year.
The videos associated with Dialogues On Race are “Your Only Child” and “Sherbet.” We did those last year in an amazing space in Brooklyn Heights, at a school called The Packer Collegiate Institute. Their chapel has 19th century stained-glass windows made by Tiffany. After first working with Evan and Kevin at Four/Ten on a video of my Trio for Violin, Piano and Bass, then discovering the beautiful chapel, it occurred to me that I needed to make videos of Dialogues on Race, in that space, with those guys. Making those videos helped incentivize getting the record done. With a lot of musicians, it’s expensive. Plus I’m balancing rehearsals, sessions, scheduling commitments, etc. Having those videos gave me a clear pathway to thinking, “Okay, now I have to get the record done.”
Publicity-wise, everything was going great and moving forward towards the release. To be clear, it’s not a big deal whether or not the record comes out right now. But the subject matter–race relations in the US–is a big deal. A big problem. Now, inequality is built into this Covid situation. We keep hearing about how African-Americans and Hispanics are more prone to getting and dying from the disease in the US. If I it understand correctly, it’s because many of these folks are “essential workers.” They have to go to work because they need to eat. Racism in the United States is once again rearing its ugly head, even in a pandemic… My record doesn’t matter, but the subject matter obviously does. (more…)