Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin] - Dialogues

The Year of James Baldwin -- Readings Fri 24 Apr 2015 12.00PM-1.30PM The New School University Center
Social Justice Hub
63 5th Avenue, 5th floor
New York City

Co-commissioned and co-presented in partnership with Harlem Stage.
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These readings are presented as part of the sound installation by Mendi + Keith Obadike, Blues Speaker [for James Baldwin], taking place in the stairwells of the New School University Center.

Blues Speaker celebrates James Baldwin's keen understanding of the social role of the blues. In his important 1957 short story "Sonny's Blues," the writer argued that attending to the blues required the listener to confront and accept both literal noise (sounds beyond the listener's understanding) and ideological noise (elements of the lives of those whose journeys have taken radically different paths), and seek beauty and understanding. If this relationship to listening is specific to the blues -- a form that takes its shape in response to the survival of black people in general and to the decisions of its craftspeople -- then musicians who seriously engage the blues must hold a knowledge deeply important for humanity that lives in the music and extends beyond that medium. To examine this proposition, the artists have invited several musicians who work with the blues to read the story "Sonny's Blues" on Fridays at noon during the month of April.

Dialogues -- Schedule
April 10: Melvin Gibbs
April 17: Brandon Ross
April 24: Karma Mayet Johnson

Blues Speaker -- Related Events

Blues Speaker - Opening Reception - Thursday, April 2nd, 5-7 pm
Join us for an opening celebration of the exhibition with remarks by LeRonn Brooks, refreshments will be served.

Artist Talk and Student Conversation - Friday, April 17th, 3-5 pm
Mendi + Keith speak with students and the public about their work.

Taking Listening Seriously: James Baldwin - Friday, April 24th, 4-5:30 pm
Part of the "What Now? The Politics of Listening" conference, Mendi + Keith participate in a panel discussion with Rich Blint, moderated by Julie Napolin

Reader Bios

Melvin Gibbs is a musician whose respect for the art and craft of music is equaled by the lack of respect he shows for externally drawn boundaries between musical forms. Born, raised, and a current resident of Brooklyn, N.Y. , his playing embodies the multicultural experience that is possible when New York City is explored to its' fullest. His early musical experiences in the nightclubs of NY spanned from the playing the musics of Trinidad, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Haiti in Brooklyn, to playing funk and jazz in Harlem, playing Country & Western in Midtown, and avant-garde jazz in the then burgeoning "loft jazz" scene downtown. Playing alongside now-obscure guitarist Alphonia Tims in The Flying Tigers, he had benefit of being mentored by both Ornette Coleman and Gil Evans.

He first came to notice as a member of Defunkt, a band that rose out of the early '80's "no wave" scene. He and long-time friend Vernon Reid were members of Ronald Shannon Jackson's seminal "free-funk" group The Decoding Society. He along with Ronald Shannon Jackson & Bill Frisell formed the group Power Tools. The band he co-lead, "Eye and I", was the inspiration for the Black Rock Coalition. As a member of the alt-rock Rollins Band he was nominated for a Grammy. He has been dubbed "the best bassist in the world" by Time Out New York magazine. He's released an album, "Ancients Speak," under the name Melvin Gibbs's Elevated Entity, and performs alongside Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame inductee Bernie Worrell in the band Socialybrium. He is a member of Harriet Tubman- the band, and is collaborating with the singer Cassandra Wilson in the project "Black Sun"

Brandon Ross is a guitarist/composer/arranger/singer/songwriter, who has crafted a personal approach to guitar and improvisation that has taken him all over the world. He leads Brandon Ross & Blazing Beauty, his improvising trio/quartet; 'For LiViNG Lovers', his acoustic duo with bassist Stomu Takeishi and co-leads the avant power trio, Harriet Tubman, (with bassist Melvin Gibbs, and drummer JT Lewis). Ross has performed and recorded with Cassandra Wilson, Henry Threadgill, James Carter, Jewel, Tony Williams, Arto Lindsay, Leroy Jenkins, Lawrence D. 'Butch' Morris, Bill Frisell, Me'Shell N'degeocello, Moreno Veloso, Arrested Development, Archie Shepp, Muhal Richard Abrams, Don Byron, Myra Melford, Ron Miles, Kip Hanrahan, Oliver Lake, Wadada Leo Smith, Lizz Wright and many others.

Ross has released 2 recordings of his solo work, "Costume", in 2004, and "Puppet" in 2006, on Intoxicate Records (Japan), and 3 recordings with Harriet Tubman "I Am A Man' 1998; "Prototype" 2000; and "Ascension" 2011 all to rave reviews, and several critic's "best of the year" lists. His acoustic duo, "For Living Lovers", with acoustic bass guitarist, Stomu Takeishi, released their debut CD, "Revealing Essence" in January 2014. on Sunnyside Records (USA).

Ross has scored music for [the surviving reel of] the 1923 Chinese silent film "Lotus Blossom" as well as the 2012 documentary film, "Melvin & Jean An American Story" by filmmaker Maia Wechsler (about the lives of the 1971 plane hijackers, then, Black Panther party members, Melvin & Jean McNair). Ross has been commissioned by the New York Guitar Festival to arrange and perform interpretations of the music of Bob Dylan, Reverend Gary Davis and Mississippi John Hurt. He has recorded and performed interpretations of the film music of Toru Takemitsu, [with classical guitarist Daisuke Suzuki and bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi] "Quotation Of Dream: For The Love and Soul of Toru Takemitsu", (Intoxicate Records, 2006) released in Japan to wide critical acclaim. He is also a 2014 Chamber Music America New Jazz Works grantee, for the project "Klee Nex", a sound and image collaboration with Venezuelan photographer & graphic artist, Carolina Munoz.
Ross is currently touring with Cassandra Wilson and composing for his latest electro-acoustic band collaboration, "Black Sun" with Melvin Gibbs, JT Lewis & Cassandra Wilson.

Karma Mayet Johnson is a multi-disciplinary performer, poet, composer, educator, and mystic. Offering what she labels "vital roots music for the 21st century," Karma Mayet Johnson's sound is equal parts "funk and glitter, Spanish moss, cornbread, and molasses."

Karma has performed at The Apollo Theater, Blue Note, The Juilliard School, Columbia University, Lincoln Center, and international venues including Sons d'Hiver in Paris and the Melbourne International Arts Festival. She has worked with the Albany Symphony Orchestra, Meshell Ndegeocello, The Burnt Sugar Arkestra, Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, Bill T. Jones, Antibalas, and The Roots. Collaborators have included filmmaker Michelle Parkerson, composer/pianist Major Scurlock, composer/guitarist Marvin Sewell, performance artist MonstaH Black, and the late guerilla theater innovator Rebecca Rice of D.C.'s Living Stage Theater Company, whose mentorship informs Karma's ongoing practice of arts education as social activism.

Karma is the composer of Indigo, a Blues Opera, a music and dance-infused story of love and liberation, via Lesbians on the Underground Railroad. She is a featured vocalist on The Mercy Suite, a collaboration between poet Yusef Komunyakaa and composer Tomas Doncker. Karma Mayet's original single September Song is available at or

This event is part of the year-long, city-wide celebration "The Year of James Baldwin", which is presented in partnership with Harlem Stage, Columbia University School of the Arts and New York Live Arts, and in collaboration with the Vera List Center for Art and Politics, the School of Media Studies, and the School of Writing at The New School.

Special thanks to the New School Facilities Management team, the Department of Public Programs and the University Social Justice Committee for their tremendous support.