'The Last Supper' Turned Out to be No Cakewalk

Zan Stewart is a regular jazz contributor to The Times.

When choreographer Bill T. Jones hired saxophonist and composer Julius Hemphill to write the score for his epic "The Last Supper at Uncle Tom's Cabin/The Promised Land," he had just a few requests.

"At one point, he wanted a few bars of ' 'Round Midnight,' " remembers Hemphill. "At another he wanted some of an arrangement of 'Let's Get It On' that I had done. At some point, he wanted 'The Battle Hymn of the Republic.' "

Other than that, the veteran musician had complete latitude in what he wrote. "I guess he trusted me implicitly," Hemphill said by phone from his hotel room in Seattle, where his group was accompanying Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane & Co. prior to their performances Thursday through Saturday at UCLA's Royce Hall.

Covering a broad swath of American music with sounds ranging from early folk tunes, R&B; riffs and Ellington-like sax section swagger and moodiness to horn chorales, nursery rhymes and more, Hemphill's score provides a solid, and diverse, accompaniment to the dance/drama that unfolds on stage.

The two-hour-plus score, as played by a sextet of saxophonists--the 50-year-old Hemphill, Carl Grubbs and Sam Furnace, altos; Andrew White and James Carter, tenors; and Kenny Berger, baritone --was designed to do just that. "People usually set dance to music, but (Jones and I) did the reverse," said the artist, who's best known for his work with the avant-garde leaning World Saxophone Quartet--a group composed of Hemphill, David Murray, Oliver Lake and Hamiet Bluiett that was formed in 1976, and which Hemphill left in 1989.

"I wrote the music as he did the dances. If he didn't show up with a dance, I didn't proceed with the music," said the composer, who added that the score is "about 90% written and 10% improvised."

Still, the compositional task--which took Hemphill from April through September, 1990 to complete--was no cakewalk, for though he's conceived several large-scale works that intermingle music with theater and video and other art forms, Hemphill had never before written for dancers.

"(Jones) changes a lot and that threw me for a while," Hemphill said. "He edits stuff, or just deletes it. I'd write something and he'd say, 'This selection goes well here, but I like it better over there ,' so I had to go back and cover the old (spot). That was a little tricky at times," he added with a laugh.

Ultimately, Hemphill, who attended various Jones rehearsals in New York, England and at UCLA to learn the dances and "pick up information," used a "common sense approach" in concocting the wide variety of pieces. "The thing to do seemed to follow the story," he said. "If (the dancers) are going on a boat, you give them boat music, if they're dancing a dirge, you give them funeral music."

If Hemphill and his saxophonists aren't seen on stage during the production--"We play in a pit, and that's an advantage as we're rather static, visually"--the crew's role is still central to the performance. "We have to have sharp cuing, we have to pay attention throughout," he said. "There are 20 or 30 vignettes and we play for as long as a particular piece needs to go. We do what the job requires."

The Ft. Worth, Tex., native--who studied music at North Texas State University, played in the U.S. Army band, was a member of the St. Louis-based Black Artists Group and has been a New York City resident since 1972--came to the project in a quite serendipitous manner. Through a contractual agreement signed in September, 1989, the score was originally to be written by the four World Saxophone Quartet members. But in November, before any writing took place, Hemphill got into a dispute with his colleagues.

"They had wanted me to make a performance I had long in advance told them I would not be able to make, and instead of getting a substitute, as we had countless times in the past, I received a letter from the (other members) voting me out of the band," he said.

The action was the result, Hemphill said, of long-standing frictions. These were based primarily around the fact that, due to his substantial compositional contributions--Hemphill wrote a good portion of the band's book--he was getting the bulk of the credit for the band's successes. "People considered it my band practically and that got to be irksome," he said.

During this same period, Hemphill, who is a diabetic, suffered kidney failure, "so the letter came at a terrible time."

After establishing a treatment for his illness--a home dialysis treatment four times daily--Hemphill expressed his interest in writing for the Jones work. "I notified (the quartet members) that I planned to exercise my rights as a signee, and between that and the nature of the project, it opened up a way me for me to do the whole project," he said.

Working with Jones has been a rewarding experience, says Hemphill. "He's a very interesting fellow, a dazzlingly brilliant dancer and choreographer who makes dance out of life or vice versa. I've enjoyed coordinating my ideas with his."

Hemphill also found himself stimulated by its subject matter. "It covers so much ground and in a fairly entertaining way it raises some issues," he says. "It doesn't sacrifice entertainment for issues sake. It doesn't become humorless despite the fact that it's a serious understaking."

As an African American, Hemphill feels the project's depiction of racism raises concerns that are voiced today by people of color. "I don't think it attempts to depict racism as it is," he says. "It sort of says nothing much has changed and begs the question why has nothing changed if all this stuff is so. How can this be? How can Christians conduct slavery, how can black people become Christians at the point of a gun?"

But he stresses the show is not just about racism. "There's no one tone or one issue, it's about a lot of things and it doesn't all lead up to one conclusion. There's a lot of food for thought there. One might be concerned about some aspects and not so much others. It's up to the individual."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
59°