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BROWN BUTTERFLY is a multi-media work based on the movement of Muhammad Ali
Harris regards Muhammad Ali as one of the prime catalysts of the racial and cultural transformation that took place in the United States in the 1960s. Someone whose impact extended well beyond his appeal as a champion in the boxing ring. Brown Butterfly takes viewers on a multi-layered, percussive “dance” and presents the power of a man who stood as a humanitarian and beacon of hope for millions through the complex racial, social and political environment of the time.
" an ambitious album paying homage to the legacy of Muhammad Ali. The suite laces gnarled horn arrangements and spoken tributes to Ali over protean rhythms, drawing on influences as varied as Count Basie’s big band and the drum-and-bass of 1990s London; the music emulates the rugged grace and mercurial power of Ali in the ring…”
Acclaimed multi-instrumentalist, composer and bandleader Craig Harris has played alongside the contemporary jazz world's most iconic voices, including Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, Henry Threadgill, Abdullah Ibrahim and Jaki Byard. The focus of Harris' multimedia symphony Brown Butterfly is another immortal American: Muhammad Ali. Harris and his Septet present an operatic portrait of The Greatest with movements devoted to Ali's bouts with Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston, his association with Malcolm X and The Nation of Islam, and the legend's final fight against Parkinson's. Powered by complex motifs, nuanced musical mastery and an original accompanying video showing highlights of the champ in action, Brown Butterfly captures Muhammad Ali's speed, wit and spirit in a feast for the eyes and the ears. Harris is co-composer of the soundtrack for the film, Judas and the Black Messiah. His earlier projects include Souls Within the Veil; which he composed to commemorate the centennial of W. E. B. Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk
Harris’ soulful and kinetic compositions evoke cinematic works as they underscore various pivotal moments in Ali’s life and career. From the hip-hop centric “Road Work” and the Afro-Cuban bounce of “Rumble In The Land Of Lumumba” to the drum-and-bass driven “Ali Shuffle Interpolations” and melancholy ballad “Parkinson’s—Ali The Finale,” Brown Butterfly is a triumph.
Recently, Harris offered DownBeat fond recollections of watching Ali and explained how his athleticism informed the music on Brown Butterfly.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
Talk about the first time you saw Ali and why you’re in awe of his athleticism.
I must have been 9 years old when I first saw him on the living room black-and-white television. ABC had this show, The Wide World of Sports. I remember seeing this young man talking and signifying; I just said, “Who is this?”
When I saw Muhammad Ali flight, he didn’t just signify, he could back it up. That was what separated him from people who just talked a lot of shit. At the time, his outspokenness on national television seemed like it came out of nowhere. A lot of African Americans didn’t like this man in the beginning, because they thought it was a pretty boy who was arrogant and who talked a lot.
How did Ali’s boxing inspire you to write the music on Brown Butterfly?
Just watching his evolution as a human being inspired the music. Watching him refuse to go to the Vietnam War was the pinnacle for me. He transcended being an athlete. He informs people like Colin Kaepernick to this day. Just the idea that he stood up against the United States government, he became a historic figure in the same vein as people like Angela Davis.
Did you ever box as a kid?
I boxed for about 15 minutes. [laughs] I got into the boxing ring, put on the gloves, and the guy hit me upside my head a couple times. I just took the gloves off and said, “This ain’t my thing.”
Did you try to incorporate some of the rhythmic athleticism of Ali’s footwork and boxing technique into the music?
I was involved in sports—I played football, lacrosse and I wrestled. So, I had this understanding of being an athlete. The original idea was to do a piece about Muhammad Ali, James Brown and Tina Turner. I was going to write a trilogy of ballets for these three people, but I eventually just focused on Muhammad Ali.
The way that athletes move is incredible. You have people who are about 300 pounds who are running 48/40s—that’s incredible. And that sort of performance is something that African Americans have always done. We defy European logic—large people moving with so much grace and innovation; people like Wilt Chamberlain and Julius Erving. Look at the dancing singers like Jackie Wilson and James Brown, the way these people would move. It just goes to one of Ali’s famous quotes: “Impossible is temporary.”
You can equate the same thing to the way J.J. Johnson played trombone or Gene Ammons played the tenor saxophone or how the Duke Ellington Orchestra and the Sun Ra Arkestra blended so many things. We are constantly taking the “can’t” and making it a “can,” and defying all expectations. That was the inspiration for me.
So, I got all of Ali’s footage together and cut the sound off and just watched his movements. A very important fight for Muhammad Ali was the Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams fight. That’s the one that really established Ali and put him into another space. They were both the same size and they moved around the boxing ring as if the fight was a ballet. I would watch Ali’s footwork and the rhythms, and just put it to music. His force and energy inspired me to write the music.
Muhammad Ali’s boxing was very unorthodox. Early in his career, everyone thought that he would get knocked out because boxers then didn’t move backwards. You were supposed to move into the punch, not backwards. His unorthodox technique was the brilliance of him and his trainer, Angelo Dundee. Angelo left Ali alone instead trying to make him box “correctly.” DB
Aquil "AQ" Charlton, is a musician, teaching artist, and leader of public studio and instrument-making workshops as founder of Mobile Music Box and co-founder of Mobilize Creative Collaborative. An accomplished producer, DJ, and recording artist, Aquil also leads studio production, songwriting, and recording workshops for all experience levels. Aquil is a South Side Chicago resident and father. Find more information about him and his work at www.mobilizecreative.com and his music at https://aq-il.bandcamp.com
Amina J. Dickerson emcee
Art consultant Amina J. Dickerson
After completing the Harvard Program in arts administration in 1974, she joined the National Museum of African Art where she became director of education through 1982. In 1984, she became the new president of Chicago’s venerable DuSable Museum of African American History and Culture. Dickerson has presented on various arts and community issues and serves as a consultant to various arts, cultural and philanthropic organizations including the National Endowment for the Arts.
Tyehimba Jess is the author of two books of poetry, Leadbelly and Olio. Olio won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, The Midland Society Author’s Award in Poetry, and received an Outstanding Contribution to Publishing Citation from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. It was also nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award, the PEN Jean Stein Book Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. Leadbelly was a winner of the 2004 National Poetry Series. The Library Journal and Black Issues Book Review both named it one of the “Best Poetry Books of 2005.”
Jess, a Cave Canem and NYU Alumni, received a 2004 Literature Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was a 2004–2005 Winter Fellow at the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. Jess is also a veteran of the 2000 and 2001 Green Mill Poetry Slam Team, and won a 2000–2001 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in Poetry, the 2001 Chicago Sun-Times Poetry Award, and a 2006 Whiting Fellowship. He presented his poetry at the 2011 TedX Nashville Conference and won a 2016 Lannan Literary Award in Poetry. He received a Guggenheim fellowship in 2018. Jess is a Professor of English at College of Staten Island.
Jess' fiction and poetry have appeared in many journals, as well as anthologies such as Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry, Beyond The Frontier: African American Poetry for the Twenty-First Century, Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Power Lines: Ten Years of Poetry from Chicago's Guild Complex, and Slam: The Art of Performance Poetry.