Tony Haynes, composer/director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.
It was just the best Easter Sunday ever, in New Orleans with my daughter Lily!
Following the parades through the French Quarter, we ended up in Jackson Square. As the glorious marching bands melted away, buskers took up the musical thread and peddlers began to hawk their trade – fortune-telling, palm reading, casting Tarot cards. I had just completed a very successful major project (see below), which inevitably leaves you feeling both high and low. (New Orleans of course has a word, and a song, for this: La Misère, or ‘depression’ in all its senses.) I considered consulting one of the old crones in the voudun booths on breaking the spell, but sticking pins in dolls didn’t seem quite appropriate! Nonetheless, some kind of cleansing ritual seemed in order.
Then, among the colourful stalls, one featuring the Mardi Gras Indians caught my eye. It was selling dolls representing the various ‘tribes’ (in effect community carnival organisations) of New Orleans, and I selected one named for the Sioux: in spite of its gaudy, extravagant head-dress and lavish costume it also had a malevolent, crow-like expression. At the same time, an old song in Creole French came to mind, which goes something like this:
C’été n’aut’ can-can, moi pas l’aimez ça
Un truc d’diable, donc enterrez là bas
(“It’s just more silly gossip, I don’t like that
A trick of the devil, so bury it deep”)
So we walked past the end of the French Market, along the levee, and down to the majestic Mississippi. You could imagine the river carrying rhythms endlessly for over a hundred years from New Orleans to Chicago and back again. At the water’s edge I caked the doll in Mississippi mud, and – chanting the old song – flung it far into the murky waters. It bobbed around for a while, before disappearing for ever, to end up on some distant shore. ‘Down by the riverside I’m gonna lay my burden down…’ – it felt like a great weight had been lifted from my mind.
For me, the cycle ‘Life, Death and Life Again’ is irrevocably associated with New Orleans funerals – the hearse drawn by plumed horses (the grooms would wipe their eyes with onion juice to make them cry!), the bands playing slow, stately hymns (‘flee as a bird to the mountain’), the burial and then the joyous return from the cemetery (‘Oh didn’t he ramble, he rambled all around, he rambled ‘til the butcher cut him down!’) – and it is of course central to the Christian ritual of Easter.
I had never until now visited the City, but it lived vividly in my childhood memories. By the age of 12 or 13, I played piano and violin, and knew little beyond classical and church music; but then a friend brought round some 78s of the 1920s recordings of King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band, the Louis Armstrong Hot Five and Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and I was hooked. ‘To get in on it’, as Jelly Roll would say, I joined the local brass band to gain access to a trombone, and formed my first band…
The spirit of this music has stayed with me ever since, often surfacing in many surprising and different ways, and here is an example. (It’s worth reiterating firmly again that ‘jazz’ is not a genre or musical style, but rather a radical approach or attitude towards how you make music, collectively individual music in which the artistic identity of each musician – their soul? – is paramount.) The climax of my very first Grand Union Orchestra show, The Song of Many Tongues (see below), in fact follows the form of a New Orleans funeral, while telling a story of moral courage and reflecting on prejudice and injustice – themes of many a GUO project since.
Elegy, lament and cutting loose
It begins with a song based on a poem by the German Marxist writer Wolf Biermann, telling of a one-man crusade by a white postman from Baltimore, William L. Moore, against segregation in the south of the USA. It is sung here by the late Vladimir Vega, a Chilean political exile who himself experienced imprisonment and ill treatment at the hands of General Pinochet. His panpipes and quena, traditional South American instruments, make their own poignant commentary on the story as it proceeds to its inevitable tragic end (‘and he died there on his own – but he won’t be alone…’):
The melody of this song and its chorus is now transformed by the brass into an in initially serene hymn-like lament, but the mood gradually breaks up into an angry, strident protest, which the African drums alone can calm down:
Following the relentless build-up of West African drumming and chants (Ghanaian singer/drummer Sarah Laryea), brass and saxophone riffs launch a transition into up-tempo swing for a solo by South African trumpeter Claude Deppa. Another transformation takes the music into a joyous hi-life rhythm with steel pans prominent; Claude is now joined by trombonist Rick Taylor, but again the music breaks down, with the intervention of a tenor saxophone (Courtney Pine). Then the rhythm picks up again, the brass/sax riffs return, and voices are added (Gail Anne Dorsey and Alison Limerick) intoning the simple refrain ‘and he won’t be alone’, urging the music on to a final exultant coda.
For once, I think, there is no need for any detailed musical analysis: the structure is very clear, and the development and relationship between the various melodic elements quite simple to hear. The ‘hymn’ of course is fully scored (I’m really proud of the 8-part brass writing!); but the third section is completely open, with riffs and other entries played and combined on cue. The three sections should play continuously as a playlist, but the entire piece (just over 20 minutes) can be heard here as an unbroken sequence:
The Song of Many Tongues was commissioned by the then Greater London Council to commemorate its Year Against Racism in 1984. It was performed to a huge, enthusiastic audience from the steps of St Paul’s, Covent Garden, on a beautifully sunny Sunday afternoon in September, produced by Alternative Arts and its visionary director Maggie Pinhorn. It marked the début of the Grand Union Orchestra, and was recorded (live in the studio) the following year.
The Rhythm of Rivers formed part of a concert by hundreds of young musicians and singers from Merton Music Foundation at the Royal Albert Hall in March 2019. Another highly successful original piece of work, by myself in collaboration with GUO percussionist Lilia Iontcheva, and featuring other GUO musicians Yousuf Ali Khan, Carlos Fuentes and Andres Lafone, it celebrated the lives of people in countries around the world that rely on rivers for their livelihood.