The Life of Victoria Lancaster Smith
Through Spoken Word and Music
Storytelling set to music has an allure
all its own. It's no surprise that contemporary composers
often embrace this blended art form. And to what better
purpose than honoring the life of an extraordinary American?
One thinks of Aaron Copeland and his work celebrating
Abraham Lincoln. Yet how often has an African American's
life been the subject of a major musical tribute? And
moreover, how often has that tribute focused on unsung
heroes, the everyday people of the black community?
Until now. DARK TRIUMPH is jazz
vibraphonist Cecilia Smith's rich and complex musical
work which tells the story of an African American woman
who dedicated herself to serving others - first as a
nurse and later as a volunteer for both the Red Cross
and the Peace Corps. The selfless and extraordinary
life of one Victoria Smith is richly celebrated here
through a deft blend of orchestration and narration.
It is a stunning addition to a select
canon. Celebrating what it means to be both black and
American, Cecilia has written original compositions
that blend modern classical, jazz and contemporary popular
music. As such, her arrangements pay homage to an all-American
experience, yet are grounded in the specificity of an
"I found it very fulfilling to apply
certain practicalities used by classically-based composers,
but for a subject matter far more familiar to me --
and closer to my heart," explains Cecilia.
From the 17-string ensemble, to the voices
of The Boys Choir of Harlem, to the driving rhythm section,
to Cecilia's own incomparable vibes, the result is a
textured and complex and ultimately inspired work -the
perfect musical reflection of a woman whose life story
The work opens at the beginning of Victoria
Smith's life, with "Birth/Spring,"
an evocative piece that introduces the eight-bar melody
that weaves its way like silken thread throughout the
entire work. That melody and the lyrics that accompany
it were composed and written by Miss Victoria -- when
she was in eighth grade! A tune this woman carried inside
of her for more than 60 years has been powerfully realized
here. Note that the clarion voices of The Boys' Choir
of Harlem sing the melody in a different key from that
of the ensemble music. The result is a lovely, "off-key"
dissonance that mirrors Miss Victoria's personal story
-- as she was born into a world of chaos and uncertainty,
bringing into that world her own unique voice.
"The Darkest Child/Spring"
opens with a dark, somber harmonic structure, reflecting
Miss Victoria's precarious first moments of life; what
follows is a subtle repetition in the composition that
suggests a questioning. Will this child survive? The
texture of the music then shifts, characterized by the
Boys Choir of Harlem's voices hitting a high note as
they sing Miss Victoria's melody, illuminating her self-discovery
and newfound sense of value.
In "Seating by Color,"
Cecilia addresses the "double consciousness",
as W.E.B. DuBois called it, of African-Americans. Given
that Miss Victoria was as a child seated according to
her dark skin color in all-black classrooms, Cecilia
chose to mirror that irony in her choices for this piece.
Hence, the music shifts from a classical melodic devise
to classic jazz. The classical music is itself beautiful,
and acknowledges what is European-influenced in all
Americans; yet it also offers a playful tongue-in-cheek
reference to the irony of African Americans being taught
to appreciate western culture while facing daily racism.
The straight-ahead section is a counterweight, a response
as it were, to that contradictory situation. When Miss
Victoria becomes the first black nurses in her workplace
and is "constantly scrutinized" by her white
superiors and colleagues, she prevails. Hence the celebratory
nature of the straight-ahead section, complete with
improvisation that offers the listener a reprieve, a
chance to fully absorb this woman's tale of triumph
"Too Light a Negro for Me - A
Love Song" is just that, in all its full-blown
romanticism, punctuated by the sensuous use of strings.
It sets up perfectly the next piece, "New Births/Spring,"
which provides a rearrangement of and elaboration on
the recurring melody introduced in the first piece.
Here for a change, a woman - Elon Robin Dixon sings
the melody with the Boys Choir of Harlem members, giving
the piece a familial feeling. In "Grief and
Disasters," Cecilia conveys the mixed feelings
Miss Victoria grappled with when she became a disaster
nurse in the aftermath of her own husband's death. This
is achieved through innovative rhythmic concepts: the
drums, in double-time, play alongside the half-time
of the bass, while the melody does both - hooking up
with the drums, then slowing down to meet the bass.
The result is a sound that achingly reflects what it
must feel like to come to the aid of others in the midst
of one's own grief. While the piece is dark and heavy,
it pulls us in with its organic, raw quality.
Things lighten up in "Rio Frio,"
which represents Miss Victoria's journey to Costa Rico
as a volunteer in the Peace Corps. Here Cecilia mixes
it up again, combining the classic Latin grooves of
meringue and the characteristic strings used in Costa
Rican music with the harmonic structure of contemporary
African American-influenced music. Reflecting both cultural
influences, the piece works as a perfect backdrop for
the experiences Miss Victoria surely had as a black
American woman in a South American country.
"Africa Remembered" feels
like a signature piece. Thick with ideas, it opens with
somber vocals that mirror the beauty yet deep strife
of the African continent. The rhythmic concepts are
African in origin -- a nod to the depth of African music's
harmonic and rhythmic structure. Still the piece boasts
a rich intricacy -- as with the violin arrangement --
which speaks to the complexity of a continent so vast,
so misrepresented, so resonant. How ironic that Miss
Victoria found herself offering refuge to people in
the very land from which her own ancestors were stolen.
And yet, the piece conveys great exuberance and rejuvenation
and transcendence -- a tribute to African peoples, and
the human spirit.
"Confusion To Order - DARK TRIUMPH!",
the final piece, suggests an ultimate message conveyed
through Victoria Smith's extraordinary life. She found
her purpose, and with that came a kind of euphoria -
captured here in the voices of The Boys Choir of Harlem.
From a beginning fraught with confusion over identity
and skin color, she triumphed, becoming a whole and
giving individual. The graceful melody in this piece
celebrates that triumph of order over chaos, moving
as it does toward its satisfying finale.
Take your time to absorb and appreciate
DARK TRIUMPH, as it is not only a fitting musical
tribute to the incredible life of a great woman. It
is an historic first.
--Bridgett M. Davis