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Omar Thomas Of Our New Day Begun

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The Omar Thomas Large Ensemble at the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival. Photo by Erin X. Smithers

Hailed by Herbie Hancock as showing “great promise as a new voice in the further development of jazz in the future,” educator, arranger, trombonist, and award-winning composer Omar Thomas has created music extensively in the contemporary jazz ensemble idiom. It was while completing his Master of Music Degree that he was appointed the position of Assistant Professor of Harmony at Berklee College of Music at the surprisingly young age of 23. He was awarded the ASCAP Young Jazz Composers Award in 2008, and invited by the ASCAP Association to perform his music in their highly exclusive JaZzCap Showcase, held in New York City. In 2012, Omar was named the Boston Music Award‘s “Jazz Artist of the Year.”

“Of Our New Day Begun” was written by Omar Thomas to honor the nine beautiful souls who lost their lives to a callous act of hatred and domestic terrorism on the evening of June 17, 2015 while worshiping in their beloved sanctuary, the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church (affectionately referred to as “Mother Emanuel”) in Charleston, South Carolina. The piece was commissioned by a consortium of 38 wind ensembles nationwide, led by Western Kentucky University.

Omar Thomas writes: “My greatest challenge in creating this work was walking the line between reverence for the victims and their families, and honoring my strong, bitter feelings towards both the perpetrator and the segments of our society that continue to create people like him. I realized that the most powerful musical expression I could offer incorporated elements from both sides of that line – embracing my pain and anger while being moved by the displays of grace and forgiveness demonstrated by the victims’ families.”

It was premiered on February 20, 2016 at the Collegiate Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) conference at The Gaillard Center in Charleston, SC, located just across the street from Mother Emanuel AME. Members of the church were in attendance for the premiere performance; performed by the WKU Wind Ensemble under the direction of Dr. Gary Schallert at the 2016 CBDNA Southern Division Conference.  “I thought, ‘We have to do something to pay homage.’ It seemed only logical”, “We are excited to premiere this new piece of music in Charleston,” said Dr. Schallert, Music Professor and Director of Bands at WKU. “To have that piece of music premiered by our ensemble at this major conference is pretty special and I think they realize that and they are getting excited about it.”

“Of Our New Day Begun” begins with a unison statement of a melodic cell from “Lift Every Voice….” before suddenly giving way to ghostly, bluesy chords in the horns and bassoons. This section moves to a dolorous and bitter dirge presentation of the anthem in irregularly shifting 12/8 and 6/8 meter, which grows in intensity as it offers fleeting glimmers of hope and relief answered by cries of blues-inspired licks. A maddening, ostinato-driven section representing a frustration and weariness that words cannot, grows into a group singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” fueled by the stomping and clapping reminiscent of the black church. In the latter half of the piece the music turns hopeful, settling into 9/8 time and modulating up a step during its ascent to a glorious statement of the final lines of “Lift Every Voice….” in 4/4, honoring the powerful display of humanity set forth by the families of the victims. There is a long and emotional decrescendo that lands on a pensive and cathartic gospel-inspired hymnsong. Returning to 9/8 time, the piece comes to rest on a unison F that grows from a very distant hum to a thunderous roar, driven forward by march-like stomping to represent the ceaseless marching of black Americans towards equality.

Historically, black Americans have, in great number, turned to the church to find refuge and grounding in the most trying of times. Thus, the musical themes and ideas for “Of Our New Day Begun” are rooted in the Black American church tradition. The piece is anchored by James and John Johnson’s time-honored song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (known endearingly as the “Negro National Anthem”), and peppered with blues harmonies and melodies. Singing, stomping, and clapping are also prominent features of this work, as they have always been a mainstay of black music traditions, and the inclusion of the tambourine in these sections is a direct nod to black worship services.

“Towards the end of the piece, you can hear that there is the sound of hope,” Dr. Gary Schallert said, “hope that as a society, we are going to continue to grow and love each other and realize that the color of your skin is not how you judge each other.”

The CBDNA Southern Division includes bands/schools from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia and West Virginia. Other groups scheduled to perform at the 2016 conference are Charleston Wind Symphony, Douglas Anderson School of the Arts Wind Symphony, Florida Atlantic University, Lovinggood Middle School 8th Grade Symphonic Band, Kennesaw State University, Liberty University Wind Symphony, Palmetto Concert Band, Riverwatch Middle School Symphonic Band, Timber Creek High School and West Orange High School Wind Ensembles, University of Florida, University of Louisville and University of South Florida.

Omar Thomas at the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival. Photo by Erin X. Smithers

Described as “elegant, beautiful, sophisticated, intense, and crystal clear in emotional intent,” the music of Omar Thomas continues to move listeners everywhere it is performed. Born to Guyanese parents in Brooklyn, New York in 1984, Omar moved to Boston in 2006 to pursue a Master of Music in Jazz Composition at the New England Conservatory of Music. He is the protégé of lauded composers and educators Ken Schaphorst and Frank Carlberg, and has studied under multiple Grammy-winning composer and bandleader Maria Schneider.

Omar’s music has been performed in concert halls across the country. He has been commissioned to create works in both jazz and classical styles. His work has been performed by such diverse groups as the Eastman New Jazz Ensemble, the San Francisco and Boston Gay Mens’ Choruses, and the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, to name a few. Omar has had a number of celebrated singers perform over his arrangements, including Stephanie Mills, Yolanda Adams, Nona Hendryx, BeBe Winans, Kenny Lattimore, Marsha Ambrosius, Sheila E., Raul Midon, Leela James, Dionne Warwick, and Chaka Khan. His work is featured on Dianne Reeves’s Grammy Award-winning album, “Beautiful Life.”

Omar’s first album, “I AM,” debuted at #1 on iTunes Jazz Charts and peaked at #13 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz Albums Chart. His second release, ” We Will Know: An LGBT Civil Rigths Piece in Four Movements,” has been hailed by Grammy Award-wining drummer, composer, and producer Terri Lyne Carrington as being a “thought provoking, multi-layered masterpiece” which has “put him in the esteemed category of great artists.” “We Will Know” was nominated for four OUTMusic Awards, including “Album of the Year.” For this work, Omar was named the 2014 Lavender Rhino Award recipient by The History Project, acknowledging his work as an up-and-coming activist in the Boston LGBTQ community. Says Terri Lyne: “Omar Thomas will prove to be one of the more important composer/arrangers of his time.”

The Omar Thomas Large Ensemble at the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival. Photo by Erin X. Smithers

The Omar Thomas Large Ensemble is comprised of Boston’s best up-and-coming young talent. The group was first assembled for Omar’s graduate composition recital at the New England Conservatory of Music in the spring of 2008. The group was composed entirely of NEC students, both graduate and undergraduate. The ensemble and the music were so well received that the group decided to stay together. The Omar Thomas Large Ensemble now performs actively around the city of Boston. A smaller version of the group was featured in the ASCAP association’s JaZzcap showcase in New York City in the fall of 2008. While the personnel of the group has changed somewhat over the years, the core of the group remains NEC students, past and present. Other members include Eastman alums, Berklee students and faculty. All members of the group are also working on successful solo careers, featuring impressive albums, critically acclaimed both locally and abroad, and Grammy nominations.

 

 

Lift Every Voice and Sing 

By James Weldon Johnson

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.

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