Betty Reid Soskin (standing behind violinist) with the CMC Teen Jazz Orchestra and vocalist Jamie Zimmer (third from right), photograph by Lisa Lee
Since the rise of the civil rights movement in the Fifties and Sixties, Betty Reid Soskin was doing her part by writing songs. Through her music she offered up her own poetic reflections on her experiences as a mixed-race woman confronting segregation at work and in the East Bay housing market. She built up a library of her work on personal tapes that were never released commercially or even produced in more professional settings.
Soskin is now 96. At that age she is America’s oldest park ranger. She is also a beneficiary of new technology through which all of her old recordings have been digitized to provide a historical record of the breadth of her songwriting efforts. Last night jazz bassist Marcus Shelby, who directs the CMC (Community Music Center) Teen Jazz Orchestra, prepared arrangements of a selection of these songs to bring them to the attention of a full concert audience. Shelby also recruited local jazz artist Jamie Zimmer to serve as vocalist.
The results of Shelby’s efforts were presented yesterday evening in the CMC Concert Hall. Soskin’s words and music could not have been more timely, particularly in light of the historical fact that last April 4 was the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Those of us who believe in steady progress would have thought that this would have been an occasion to appreciate how far things had advanced, particularly with the election of the 44th President of the United States. However, anyone who pays close attention to the daily news knows that regress is threatening to unravel all of that progress; and Soskin’s words could not be a better reminder of where that regress will take us (if it has not already done so).
Zimmer was an excellent choice for bringing Soskin’s words to performance. Between the clarity of her diction and her solid sense of pitch, the attentive listener could relish the full impact of every phrase in Soskin’s text. Her delivery was judiciously seasoned with improvised vocalizations that reflected the poignancy of the text, particularly in its expression of frustration. Soskin was skillful in keeping the anger under control; and, in doing so, she left that intensity to be filled in by any listener paying close attention to her words.
Soskin’s share of the program was preceded by a final “report” on the progress of the CMC Teen Jazz Orchestra. Shelby clearly wants this group to appreciate the legacy of past jazz masters in its repertoire. For this particular concert those masters were Herbie Hancock, Benny Golson, Duke Ellington, Freddie Hubbard, and Charles Mingus. All of his selections deserve attentive and informed listening; and, from a technical point of view, there was no hiding that the CMC players were not quite up to doing these pieces justice.
Nevertheless, Shelby brought a positive spirit to the occasion; and one could see how he was encouraging the group to keep going in their efforts to bring these thorny pieces under control. More importantly, however, was Shelby’s emphasis on the fact that any jazz playing worth listening to, no matter how modest the effort, deserves to be seasoned by some serious improvisation. If all of the CMC players still have a way to go before getting a piece like Mingus’ “Better Get Hit in Your Soul” under control, there was no mistaking all of the positive energy behind those who stood up to improvise their own takes on the tune. This may be “work in progress” jazz; but the committed jazz aficionado should have no trouble seeing where that progress is heading.