Detroit Performs


Art of Survival

On this episode of Detroit Performs: Artist Sabrina Nelson creates and describes her exhibition Why You Wanna Fly Blackbird based on how Black women feel when their womb, their home becomes empty after a child is lost; The story of how Detroit’s iconic Orchestra Hall survived by becoming the Paradise Jazz Theatre; and how a philharmonic survives.

AIRED: May 19, 2020 | 0:26:40

- [DJ] In this episode of Detroit Performs

an artist shares her inner thoughts on an exhibition.

How Detroit's historic Orchestra Hall turned to jazz

and how a philharmonic survives.

It's all ahead in this edition of Detroit Performs.

(gentle music)

- [Narrator] Funding for Detroit Performs is provided

by The Fred A. And Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation,

The Kresge Foundation,

The A. Paul and Carol C. Schaap Foundation,

the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs,

the National Endowment for the Arts,

the DeRoy Testamentary Foundation,

and by contributions to your PBS station

from viewers like you.

Thank you.

(jazz music)

- Hello and welcome to Detroit Performs.

I am your host DJ Oliver and today I'm coming to you

from my social distancing abode.

Hope you guys are staying safe and healthy out there.

It is time to experience arts and culture

that we have right here in metro Detroit.

First up, artist Sabrina Nelson delves into her exhibition,

"Why You Wanna Fly Blackbird?",

which tells the story of how black women feel

when their womb, their home, becomes empty

after losing a child.

(melancholy music)

- I think my medicine is art, my language is art.

I think the term artist means to be responsible

for what's happening in the world,

how you see it, how you record it, how you make things

that are a result of what you are trying to say,

whether it's a question you're answering,

or a story you're trying to tell,

or here's something I need to make

because it's just embedded in me.

Like I have to make something.

Detroit is embedded in who I am.

I've been here all my life since the rebellion in 1967.

That's when I was born and so everything around me

becomes a part of the story I'm trying to tell,

or the question I'm trying to ask.

My superpower is being able to visually communicate

how I feel about what's happening in the world.

Nina Simone says, "If you're going to be an artist,

"it's your duty to reflect what's happening in the world."

And in the world that I live in,

from the time I can remember remembering,

there's always trauma, and hurt, and pain,

and I'm not always talking about that,

but you can't ignore it.

And on this day, I think about the lives that are lost,

that are constant, like coming at me

through different mediums, and so I'm thinking

about homicides, and deaths of young people,

and how I'm affected by it.

But I'm talking about death where people

aren't considered people.

Like you don't matter.

You're not important, so I'm just gonna take your life.

I don't care how old you are,

I don't care who you belong to,

and when that person is missing from our communities,

not just the blood family is affected.

We are all, or we should all be concerned.

You know, a life is a life, a human is a human.

And so in this work, I'm talking about that pain.

The name of the exhibition is,

"Why You Wanna Fly Blackbird?"

And I got it from a Nina Simone song,

who talks about black women, like how dare you

try and be happy in your life.

How dare you not expect pain.

Pain is gonna come, you have to move through it

and you have to live, but pain will be here.

I didn't want the colors to be so seductive

that it draws you in as pretty.

Like I don't like the idea of my work being pretty.

I want it to be impactful, I want it to be deeper

than just what you see, and I wanted it to be large enough

to have some girth to it.

So these particular pieces are very large drawings.

They're also reliquaries, if you will.

So they talk about, like the body,

the housing of the bodies that we have,

like the home and then what it's like

to have a nest with no eggs in it.

Thinking about the empty nest of children

who never return.

You know I don't care how old they are,

they never can return, so I'm just talking

about the darkness in that and expressing it

with the most eloquence that I can.

The cages will represent empty homes

that can be the home that they lived in,

that can be the community that they lived in.

How do you deal with that, you know that room that's empty?

And so when we lose these people that are not treated

with a value out of our communities,

how do you deal with that?

So Levan is helping me on the dresses,

'cause I want to make dresses that will hang

from the ceiling, just above the patrons' heads,

but the birdcages will be the empty wombs

underneath the dresses.

And so I'm asking him to help me figure out

how I'm gonna make the dresses,

which are made out of Japanese rice paper,

so that they can be sheer enough that the bird cages

can go underneath them and the patrons

can see them with the lighting

and hopefully they have the impact that's in my head

and in my heart.

I want people to pay attention to it

and to be more empathetic with others' lives.

If you see something happening

and you can do something about it, why wouldn't you?

And so when I look at the homicide rates across the country,

they're incredibly high for African American,

indigenous, and also Latin American children.

And so if this is all I can say and do about it,

I want someone to know that I care,

even though they're not my children,

I care that they're missing, that they're gone.

That there's somebody should think

about doing something about it.

The motion of movement when I'm making these things,

like when I did the nest here,

you know the motion of drawing, and drawing, and drawing.

You know that obsession of movement

and what it feels like to do that.

These movements that we do over and over

become very much ritual.

Maybe these are all prayers visually

to say I'm sorry that your life is gone,

but I wanna say that you meant something,

that you were important.

Every artist wants someone to look at their work

for a long time and I didn't want to make it

so obvious and obtruse where it's like,

you know you see people getting killed,

but I think the work and the drawings

and some of the paintings that I'm using can be seductive,

so I want people to make sure

that they walk away with knowing that I'm in a world,

I am affected by it, and don't just listen to the news

and be in the world, and not really take part

in what's happening.

Think about what your voice is and what your superpower is,

and see what you can do to help.

I wanna say something that's important,

and I wanna leave this world with something

that someone's learned from me.

My work might be sensual to draw you in

and then it's gonna slap you a little bit,

and that's what I hope I show.

- You can learn more about Sabrina Nelson

as well as all the artists that we feature


Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald,

are just some of the iconic performers

that have graced Orchestra Hall stage.

Up next, you'll see how the hall was transformed

in the 1940s to the Paradise Jazz Theater,

where some of the greatest jazz musicians of all time,

came to perform, making it one of the most important venues

during the decade for black entertainment in Detroit.

(gentle music)

- [Paul] The depression was horrible,

but in terms of Detroit music, it was nearly fatal.

- When you think about turning points

for an organization, the late 1930s

is one of those points where you think about,

well it could all fall apart here.

And in fact a few years later, it does,

and the orchestra goes out of business.

- [Narrator] With the country on the verge

of a second World War, and the automotive industry

more concerned with building tanks than cars,

the Detroit Symphony's move out of Orchestra Hall

had left the venue's fate hanging in the balance.

While it had been built on the legacy

of Europe's great classical musicians,

it would take a new, truly American art form to save it.

(jazz music)

- Jazz is a huge part of the history

and the present day of Detroit.

As jazz was becoming one of the dominant popular styles

in America, Detroit was one of the centers of that.

- There was a moment in time where the concert hall

was just for the orchestra, you know?

Jazz musicians weren't even being thought of

and then all of a sudden it started to turn around

and when it turned around,

people started to realize the significance of it.

- [Narrator] When the Detroit Symphony Orchestra originally

left its home in 1939, Orchestra Hall had a brief revival

as the Town Theater, but there were some in the community

who still knew that it was meant to be more

than just another Woodward corridor movie house.

- It was purchased by a couple of theater magnates,

Ben and Lou Cohen and there was a business man's association

across Woodward Avenue, in what was known

as Paradise Valley.

And so they come over and said,

"Look, let us take the Town Theater, old Orchestra Hall,

"and we're gonna bring headline events."

And so they reopened it as the Paradise Theater.

- Paradise Theater was close to the Brewster Projects

and it was close to the surrounding neighborhoods

that blacks were living in at the time.

- And so this building becomes a major place

for all of the top African American jazz

and related acts.

So the Duke Ellington Band plays here,

and Louis Armstrong, and Lionel Hampton,

and Billy Eckstine, and Lucky Millinder,

and Earl Hines.

- You have to remember that during that time,

these people were recording artists.

So you had all of their records.

You knew what they sound like

and now you're actually gonna see them.

That was phenomenal experience.

- Oh we had Lucky Millinder, we had Ruskin, Hawkins,

Billie Eckstine, Sarah Vaughan.

You go to Sara Vaughan so that you could sing along

with her.

- One time I was here, Lionel Hampton

was doing his theme song, "Flying Home,"

and the rhythm got so great that people

started getting up and dancing out in the aisles.

So that was a sight to see.

- I was in the balcony and the energy was so high

and everybody was clapping, and they were stomping,

and we were all so happy.

I told my cousin, I can feel the vibration

of this balcony moving

because everybody was so into Lionel Hampton.

- Just shaking, people clapping, people screaming,

people stomping, and we just had a ball.

Every great jazz player came there to play

and it was something to go there

because the Paradise was a beautiful place

and it's still beautiful,

but it was, we were in awe, you know?

We were African Americans.

You couldn't go to some white venues

because of segregation and that's one place we could go to

and we were happy to go there.

- The Paradise Theater was a necessity.

It didn't create the environment,

the environment needed that so it was invented.

- It was a safe place, it was an acceptable place,

at least in my family and my household.

Some of the other places were off limits

to a young girl at that time.

So it was, had great importance.

(melancholy music)

- [Jiam] You've got these two things that are going on,

you have a war that's going on, it's chaos that's going on,

and only one block away in the Cass Court area,

you were dealing with the Ku Klux Klan.

We were not allowed on the west side of Woodward Avenue.

- [Chris] And I do remember 1943, the riots.

It was terrible, but we could go there

to hear music and relax.

- This was a place to come to enjoy.

People would forget about what was happening

when you're coming in.

This was a house of joy.

- [Narrator] By 1951 however, the big band era

was coming to an end and so were the fortunes

of the Paradise Theater.

After 10 years as the center of jazz

and a safe haven from troubled times,

the doors of Orchestra Hall, now the Paradise Theater,

would be closed once more.

- Well it was basically, lives was changed,

just like everything else.

Las Vegas is opening up.

You got trios now, you got combos,

you got smaller groups playing bars.

- When you think about that period

when it was just a jazz hall, that in itself

speaks to me about the power of jazz

and about the power of this American art from,

and how it kept the doors open here, you know?

So it only makes sense that we have

this Paradise Jazz series here,

you know because you have a strong fan base here.

- Having Louis Armstrong or others in our facility

bring a prominence and pedigree to it,

it connects with every generation,

so I know my children love Louis Armstrong,

just not because of his sound,

but because of the connection he has to Orchestra Hall.

And having them live in spirit in that hall,

brings a richness to the hall

that you can't express in words, you can only feel it.

(jazz music)

- This is one of the few places that we play

where the energy in the room when we play here,

is a jazz energy.

In other places we play, there are people

who are enthusiastic and they come up,

but they don't have that kind of,

there's an energy when you play here,

I'm telling you, it's the damnedest thing.

They shout at the band, they shout with us,

the energy, so the concerts are always longer here

because we feel like playing more when we're here.

- When we think about the rich tradition

that's gone on here, it's both the highest level

of classical music and it is the highest level

of American vernacular music and African American culture,

have all happened in this building.

And so the diversity of the people in Detroit

that can say Orchestra Hall, that's our building,

is considerably wider than it is in a lot of cities

that have a great Orchestra Hall like building.

That's real profound, important stuff for this city.

(melancholy music)

- [Narrator] After serving as sanctuary

during a decade fraught with war and racial unrest,

Orchestra Hall was transformed into actual sanctuary

for five years as the Church of Our Prayer

under Reverend James Lofton.

By the following decade, however,

the bleakest era in Orchestra Hall's history had arrived.

(upbeat music)

- Now check out some upcoming events

coming to you virtually from around the D.

(upbeat music)

The Michigan Philharmonic led by Nan Washburn

is finding ways to survive during the pandemic.

Take a look as Nan joins WRCJ's Peter Whorf.

(symphonic music)

- Nan Washburn is music director

of the Michigan Philharmonic.

Tell us about what you have been saying

with your colleagues in the orchestra

and maybe other presenters and leaders

of other organizations throughout Michigan

and in your contacts?

- Well it's been interesting because I think,

you know the first two weeks,

everybody's just in shock and then as we learn more,

first it was just we're gonna have to cancel things

this season and postpone some things,

and then we'll be back to regular, you know?

And I think with weekly news reports,

and daily news reports, things are changing,

so we're talking, we're on lists and conversing,

and having webinars, and many Zoom sessions

with other arts groups and trying

to figure out the best plan.

Everybody's talking about similar kinds of things.

Streaming, obviously is something

that everybody wants to do.

Our board is also feeling like it's an opportunity

for us to really shake some things up.

We've always been kind of a little bit different

than other orchestras, but I think this is an opportunity

for us to change some things up even more.

I certainly want to get back to being able

to have very large concerts with big audiences.

I think that's probably gonna be a little bit

before we can get to that.

I think, conversing with other orchestras,

we've also had to be talking

with our youth orchestra conductors

and other youth orchestra conductors,

'cause all of a sudden we had to stop our weekly rehearsals

and thankfully Hektor Qyteti and Dennis Carter,

our youth orchestra conductors,

have been great doing Zoom sessions,

which basically are like almost

online individual lessons, almost.

And I think and as we move forward,

we're looking at still investigating

maybe the possibility of doing something outdoors

this summer if we can spread out.

We're looking at bringing in some small ensembles

to play, just to be visible in downtown Plymouth,

maybe Northville, and making sure

that everybody knows that we haven't gone away.

Next year is actually our 75th anniversary season

and we're gonna probably have to pull,

not do everything we wanted to do,

but we want to make sure that everybody is thinking about us

and that we will be back,

and doing as much as we can this year.

I think we're also probably going to be focusing

on maybe some smaller ensembles

that we already do, obviously.

We do, our January concert is historically

our miniature masterpieces.

That is something that we do with maybe 15 players or less.

And, so I think we're actually in a good position

because we've always been a flexible size orchestra.

That we have, we do full orchestra concerts,

but we do actually quite a few on the smaller side as well.

So we're gonna hopefully capitalize

on some of that flexibility in the months to come.

- I've been enjoying some of the performances.

Everything from maybe the four most famous notes

in classical music, from one of your Beethoven concerts

to maybe the most famous music by the,

one of my favorite 20th century composers, Arturo Marquez.

- Wonderful composer and we love that piece so much.

I mean it's a very popular piece.

"The Danzon Number 2," but he's written some other pieces

that we really hope to do soon as well.

But it's very sultry and just wonderful rhythms

and I just love it.

("Danzon Number 2" by Marquez)

It really was Beth Stewart, our executive director,

who thought let's start using all our

wonderful archival video

and so we've been sending them out.

Beth has sent out a couple each week at least,

so it's fun to kind of relive

some of those great performances,

and know that that's a way that we can be,

connect with our supporters.

- I also saw an Andrew Lloyd Webber performance

from, "Phantom."

I think it might have been from a Halloween concert

because it looked like you maybe,

may have been doing your best Amelia Earhart impersonation.

- That was the plan and what I didn't realize

in doing that particular costume,

which I was very excited about,

was that once you put the little flaps of the helmet on,

you can't hear as well, but actually in that clip,

the percussionists with a brand new tam tam,

are demonstrating, yes in fact you can hear

this giant tam tam.

And the more I smiled at 'em, the more they hit it,

bigger, and bigger, and bigger.

("Phantom of the Opera Overture" by Webber)

Halloween concerts are one of our most favorite things.

- I also enjoyed hearing the very end

of one of my favorite Dvorak symphonies.

You know you hear the, "New World," all the time

because it's great and the, "Eighth Symphony," as well,

but you shared a performance of the, "Seventh,"

and I listened to the last movement

which really did give me goose bumps.

- Oh, thank you.

I'm so thrilled, 'cause it is one

of my favorite symphonies ever

and I performed it I think in college,

maybe the first time as a flutist,

and I, when we started rehearsing it,

because it's not done as often,

a lot of our musicians didn't know it as well,

and I kept thinking (grumbling)

why aren't we doing the, "Ninth?"

Why aren't we doing the, Eighth?"

And I said, this is a fabulous symphony,

but it's in some ways harder, I think.

The rhythms, especially in some of the other movements

are very tricky and you know, but at the end

the musicians said, "I think this is my new favorite

"Dvorak symphony."

("Symphony Number Seven" by Dvorak)

- Thanks Nan, for all that you've shared with us

from your archive and for telling us

about what's ahead.

- Thank you, we really appreciate it.

(audience applauding)

- And that wraps it up for this edition of Detroit Performs.

As always for more arts and culture

head to,

where you'll find featured videos, blogs,

and information on upcoming arts events.

Also check us out on Facebook and Twitter.

Make sure you guys are staying safe out there

and we'll continue to do our part

to bring you the best of Detroit's arts scene.

Until next time, get out there and show the world

how Detroit performs y'all.

I'm DJ Oliver, thanks for watching guys.

(upbeat music)

- [Narrator] Funding for Detroit Performs is provided

by the Fred A. And Barbara M. Erb Family Foundation,

The Kresge Foundation,

The A. Paul and Carol C. Schaap Foundation

the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs,

the National Endowment for the Arts,

the DeRoy Testamentary Foundation,

and by contributions to your PBS station

from viewers like you.

Thank you.

(gentle music)


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