Al Strong: “LEVAS”

In 2018, local jazz trumpet virtuoso and The Art of Cool Project co-founder Al Strong washed his hands of Durham’s high-profile Art of Cool Music Festival. It was a big shift in direction; that same year, though, he found himself spearheading something bigger than anything he’d ever recorded: a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Now, three years later, he’s released “LEVAS,” a breathtaking, eight-minute jazz rendition of the classic song. It’s packaged with stunning visuals.

It all began in Raleigh during St. Augustine’s University’s 2018 annual CIAA Jazz Brunch, as the Al Strong Quartet intimately scorched and bopped across tunes as usual.

“We were in a vamp,” says Strong, now 40. “Then we just sort of transitioned into this vibe. So I began playing the “Lift Every Voice and Sing” melody over it and the musicians jumped on it. There was a reaction from the audience. Once everyone knew what song it was, they stood up and saluted. It was a really powerful moment.”

The song was originally written in 1899 as a poem by writer and activist James Weldon Johnson; soon after, Johnson’s older brother, the composer John Rosamond Johnson, put the three verses of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to music. The hymn debuted in February of the following year in the brothers’ hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, where 500 students of the segregated Stanton Normal School (where James Weldon Johnson was principal at the time) sang the mighty tune as part of a larger celebration.

In the 121 years since then, the song has been widely accepted as the “Black National Anthem” and canonized as one of the most important songs in American history. In 1972, it struck a mainstream chord when soul singer Kim Weston sang it from the historic Wattstax benefit concert stage; it also captured public consciousness in 1989 when a snippet from a Branford Marsalis’ cover accompanied the opening credits of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. In recent years, Beyoncé covered a chunk of it during her extravagantly pro-black 2018 Coachella performance and last month, the National Football League tapped Alicia Keys to perform a rendition for it to air during the Super Bowl LV pregame ceremony.

Still: Strong saw room to explore.

“I try to do as much research as I can before I cover songs and I didn’t hear any arrangements out there like this one,” says Strong, also an adjunct trumpet professor in N.C. Central University’s Music Department. “It’s such a sacred song in our community and I thought that it may be a little risky.”

Far be it for anyone to suggest that there aren’t certain risks involved in reworking such a revered hymn, but more remarkable is the rebellious audacity that Strong’s jazz arrangement of  “LEVAS” is armed with, as the song crescendos from the horns’ nobility to the strings’ keen rage.

“Just about every version I had heard was really down the middle in terms of it being a hymn, which is how it was originally intended,” says Strong. “We stepped away from it in such a big way.”

Shot by director Chris Charles in black and white at various locations throughout Durham, the video for “LEVAS’’ features Strong and his supporting band performing the song in the Hayti Heritage Center.

There are also appearances from various Black families, activists, artists, and students, prominent murals across the city, and footage of African-American pioneers such as Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, and Malcolm X. Youth dancer Bria Thompson, glides and guides us from scene to scene, angelically interpreting the song’s lyrics, “Yet with a steady beat/ Have not our weary feet/ Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

“This is my attempt at a positive depiction of the Black community. It combats some of the things we saw popping up online over the course of the pandemic,” Strong says. “I wanted to keep this as artistic and uplifting as possible. I felt like that eight minutes told the story of the Black experience as much as we can offer.” 

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