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He is a regular visitor to D.C. as part of Kahil El’Zabar‘s Ethnic Heritage Ensemble, but saxophonist Ernest Khabeer Dawkins has been here less frequently to play his own ambitious music. That changes with this year’s DC Jazz Festival; CapitalBop’s Jazz Loft Series will feature Dawkins and his In the Spirit Big Band on Saturday night as the headliner of a celebration of 50 years of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM). Dawkins, who currently chairs the storied Chicago-based collective of experimental musicians, and In the Spirit will perform Memory in the Center, an Afro-jazz opera, in tribute to the late South African president and anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela. Dawkins spoke to Arts Desk about his history in the AACM, his field of major compositions, and just what an Afro-jazz opera entails.

Arts Desk: I’d like to talk about the Memory in the Center project. Did you start writing it after Nelson Mandela died?

Dawkins: Yeah, though I actually tried to get it written before he passed. As it happened, the city of Chicago and the Jazz Institute commissioned me to write it after. We performed it as the opening act of the Chicago Jazz Festival last year. That’s what you’re hearing on the CD, that premiere performance.

You describe it as an Afro-jazz opera, but it’s obviously not an opera in any conventional sense of the term. 

Right. The conception is that oratory is in the music and in the poetry, and not necessarily in the vocals.

Is there any kind of dramatic action going on onstage as you perform?

Not necessarily any dramatic action, no. But I do have DVDs that will be for sale—-CDs and DVDs.

Can you tell me a little bit about the ensemble that will be performing it in D.C.?

Well, it will be pretty much the regular ensemble, except that the guest pianist on the recording was a guy that I brought in from Durban, South Africa—Neil Gonsalves—he won’t be there, but I’m bringing in one of the regular piano players. And you probably need a little bit of the history of the band.

The band was started as part of my Meet the Composers grant in 2000. I knew some of the musicians that are in the band now when they were like 7, 10 years old. I taught them in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians School of Music. The baritone player, I taught when he was 12; I met the trombonist when he was 10; some of the others, [trumpeter] Corey Wilkes and [drummer] Isaiah Spencer, I met them when they were 16.

So what happened was that I received this grant from Meet the Composers, and I constructed this big band out of all the up-and-coming young musicians in Chicago; actually, [flutist] Nicole Mitchell was initially in that band, along with [saxophonist] David Boykin. It’s morphed and changed over the years, but some of the people have been there from the beginning, like the baritone player Eric Gibson; Isaiah Spencer, Corey Wilkes have been there from the beginning. But new people have come in as other people have moved on to be more successful like Nicole.

So that’s kind of the history of the band, and over the last 10, 15 years I wrote a series of major pieces in relationship to Chicago history and African history all over the world. I wrote a piece for the Chicago Seven trial, Misconceptions Of A Delusion And Shades Of A Charade; that was my first major piece, recorded in Paris. Then I wrote A Black Op’era, for Fred Hampton. Then I wrote Until Emmett Till, which was written for the murder of Emmett Till. Then I wrote 1919, and A Dream Come True or a Dream Deferred, dealing with the 50th anniversary of the “I Have A Dream” speech, which was a year before last, and then Memory in the Center was last year.

Mitchell is also on the bill with you guys that night; any chance she’ll perform with the band?

Oh, no no. Nicole is not with us. But I will have Akua Allrich singing with us, as our D.C. guest. Corey Wallace on the trombone, Thaddeus Wilson on trumpet, and Akua—those are our three D.C. guests, and then I’m also getting three guys that are in the band but live in New York: [pianist] Willerm Delisfort, Marquis Hill, the trumpeter, and [saxophonist] Chris McBride. They’re coming down from New York.

Something I didn’t know until today is that you’re the current chair of the AACM. I know that as chair your job is partly to articulate a vision for the AACM. What vision are you trying to advance?

Financial stability. (Laughs) Yeah, just advancing the conceptual as well as the foundational attributes of the organizational, which at the base is finances.

Can you walk me through your history with the organization?

By the time I started playing saxophone, I was 19. And by that time my people told me, “You played bass, you played percussion, but you can’t play saxophone in this house!” So I would go to the park every day and practice, and there I met musicians who were practicing in Washington Park. Washington Park is just west of the University of Chicago, if you know anything about the South Side. So I grew up just west of the University of Chicago, which is where all the musicians were, particularly in AACM—they all lived around the Hyde Park neighborhood. And that was because the musicians’ building was in Hyde Park at that particular time, and a lot of the cats lived in the musicians’ building. [Henry] Threadgill lived just off the university; Malachi [Favors] lived over there; Lester Bowie had just moved over there; [Joseph] Jarman lived over there.

So I was hanging in the park with cats, and another musician, [bassoonist] James Johnson, who was and is in the AACM, said, “Man, you need to go to the AACM School of Music!” So I went out, and my first lesson was with Roscoe Mitchell, Chico Freeman, and Jarman, and they had me playing “Hot House.” And I liked it, so I said, “I’ll come back,” and became a teacher at the school, became a member, chairman, et cetera.

I know there’s a mandate in the AACM that you perform original material. At what point did you begin composing?

I began composing as soon as I got into the AACM because that’s what the mandate is! (Laughs) You had to do it. That’s what developed my composing chops, is because I had to do it and was doing it all the time, so I had to develop a sound and a style of my own.

Not to fall into an AACM caricature or anything, but do you use standard notation, or your own system?

I use standard notation but I also use my own system. This is like—-one of my main supporters in Chicago asked me, “Come on, man, how much of what you play is written, and how much is improvised?” I told him, “All of it’s written!” Because a lot of people think that when you do something and you improvise, it’s not as important as when it’s written. So that’s why I say it that way. Any time we deal with anything jazz, aesthetically, that means you don’t get paid. (Laughs) And that’s why I intentionally named this an “opera,” but it’s an African-American opera, which means it has different aesthetical values. Aesthetical values are repetition sometimes, and sometimes it’s based on form, or sometimes rhythm or harmony, or sometimes groove. But that doesn’t make it any less important than if it was a European opera.

And when I play this stuff for South Africans, they dig it. That’s the main thing. I showed them the video, and they said, “Look, man, we commend you, you did a 100 percent representation of one of our greatest heroes.” And when I get that kind of approval, nothing else makes any difference to me.

Do you have any more of these major pieces in the pipeline?

Well, I want to write something about 1917; that’s when all the black troops went over to Europe and jazz was introduced to Europe for the first time. We did the King piece in Brest, France, in 2013, and they said, “You know, this is the first place [WWI army ragtime bandleader] James Reese Europe and those guys came when they got off the boat. The first people to hear jazz was in Brest. You should write a piece about that.” I said “Okay!”

And then, since I did a Nelson Mandela piece for South Africa, at their suggestion I should do something about Steve Biko. Those are two ideas out there, the next thing is the funding!