Sunday, March 29, 2009
Breaking Bread with Lesa Terry
“To be sensual...is to respect and rejoice in the force of life, of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread.” James Baldwin
There’s a gorgeous book of dialogues between bell hooks and Cornel West called “Breaking Bread” that opens with that quote from Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. The spiritual, “Let us Break Bread Together on Our Knees” is celebrated by hooks for its attention to both community, sharing, breaking bread together--as well as the idea of mercy, the need we have for compassion, acceptance, understanding: “When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun, oh Lord have mercy on me.” I love any opportunity to revisit that tune, that Baldwin quote and this book of dialogues, and talking with Lesa Terry gave me plenty! One of the most moving moments in our conversation happened when Lesa told me about the time she performed “Let Us Break Bread Together” for Marianne Anderson (yes, Marianne Easter Sunday 1939 steps of the Lincoln Memorial Anderson). It began so casually she says...her group the Uptown String Quartet was recording their first CD in the same building The Cosby Show was taped. Max Roach pulled the quartet to his comrade Cosby’s studio for a rap party and there sitting in Mr. Cosby’s dressing room was Marianne Anderson. While the quartet performed, “Let Us...” Lesa tells me she heard Ms. Anderson turn to the person sitting next to her and say, “I used to sing that song...I always loved that song.” Lesa hadn’t remembered that story for some time and as she was telling it she became overwhelmed, “How could I not do what I do? I’ve been given opportunities that are so powerful...how could I not give what I give? I’m very grateful, very moved, I feel a great sense of purpose.”
It was Lesa’s mother, her French/Irish/Welsh mother that first played Marianne Anderson records for Lesa and her sisters as young girls...records she’d check out from the library along with other recordings of spirituals by Mahalia Jackson, Leontyne Price and Paul Robeson. Lesa is so grateful for her mother’s love of this music which she considers the most universal music there is because “It speaks of the human condition...it speaks of triumph and the ability to overcome difficulty...we all understand that.” Lesa credits her mother as giving her so many early musical gifts and spiritual lessons. While all the Terry girls started out on piano, Lesa noticed an old violin in her mother’s closet one day and “I wanted to be independent, do my own thing” so she reached for it. But once she started taking the violin to school, she noticed all the other kids had shiny, new instruments and hers was old and couldn’t possibly sound as good because of that. “My mother looked at me and said ‘Lesa, the sound of your instrument has nothing to do with the instrument itself, because sound is from the spirit and the heart...and when you learn how to make that connection, that’s when you’ll get a new instrument.’ I never forgot that.” Through private and university training in European Classical music, appointments with the Atlanta and Nashville Symphonies, on through to joining Max Roach’s Double quartet (a group that included the legendary drummer’s quartet with bass, sax and trumpet in combination with a string quartet) she never forgot that. Lesa remembers Odean Pope, the saxophonist from the Double Quartet always demanding to look at her fingers, insisting that there must be some physiological explanation for Lesa’s unique sound, he’d say “‘What is it? How do you do that?’...I said ‘Dude, it’s so not that, it’s centered on spirit.’” Beginning with her mother’s lesson she began to visualize sound as a kind of “healing balm that could go out and affect people...you could play on a old piece of drift wood floating down the river and make it speak because you’re just the conduit, you’re not the one...I’m just a vessel that the energy is passing through.” Lesa was gifted too by a particular classical violin teacher, Uli Fischer who echoed the power of what happens when musicians allow the spirit to move through them...he told her about a time when he sat behind piano legend Art Tatum and felt like it was a spiritual experience because how could anybody that was blind play with that kind of accuracy, precision and depth? The classical and the jazz worlds steadily kept intersecting as Lesa’s professional career blossomed. Luckily with Max Roach’s urging, Lesa did nothing but embrace both sides of her musical heritage.“There was one thing Max Roach always said to us, ‘don’t ever get rid of any part of you. You always are adding to your experience, never taking away. You grew up as a classical musician, Lesa, don’t try to change that, that’s part of who you are...but you can add to that...and let me show you who has done it before you’...so he began to help me see that there was a tradition already established with these great jazz violinists, the Ray Nances, the Stuff Smiths, and the Ginger Smocks.” Lesa was thrilled to learn these things and now insists as an educator on passing these lessons down to her students, “How fantastic...there are alternatives musically that we can choose as string players. It fuels my whole thing of trying to expose kids to something different, to reach inside themselves and pull music from their own culture and get to know what that is in its totality...And I don’t have to choose either side. I don’t have to be strictly jazz musician, or strictly classical musician or strictly any kind of thing...it all comes together in a very harmonious way and I think because of that I have a unique voice.” And now, prepare yourselves to be healed...Lesa and her ensemble may have you falling to your knees singing “have mercy.” I’m just saying...
Keep current with Lesa Terry’s profoundly unique projects by visiting her website: lesaterry.com
Please also treat yourself to the book, “Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life” by bell hooks and Cornel West. South End Press 1991.