Bringing Harriet Tubman’s Legacy to the Jazz Scene
Stanford Live's short film, Marcus Shelby: Harriet Tubman and the Blues, will be available for viewing in March 2021 by Stanford Live members at the Patron ($100) level and above as well as to current Stanford students. Photo by Kimberly Pross
The timing is uncanny: Stanford Live is presenting Harriet Tubman and the Blues—a filmed program by jazz double bassist, bandleader, and educator Marcus Shelby—just as a new presidential administration has accelerated the campaign to have the abolitionist featured on the $20 bill.
Tubman’s story has actually weaved its way into Shelby’s life in a way that’s helped define this longtime San Francisco resident’s impressive career. And the ways in which he has honored her legacy have become foundational to his already considerable portfolio.
Performed by a trio featuring Shelby, pianist and longtime collaborator Adam Shulman, and wunderkind teen drummer Genius Wesley, Harriet Tubman and the Blues is adapted from the bandleader’s 11-part Harriet Tubman suite for big band and vocal quartet. The 10 original compositions (plus his arrangement of the spiritual “Go Down Moses”) were inspired by Bound for the Promised Land, historian Kate Clifford Larson’s 2003 Tubman biography.
“I remember being in this bookstore in downtown San Francisco with my then manager. There used to be a really big Borders in Union Square, and as I was walking down the stairs, I come across this brand-new biography on Harriet Tubman in white hardback,” Shelby recounts. “It wasn’t like I was there to find a book on Harriet Tubman,” he continues, by phone from his home in San Francisco’s Mission District. “But I bought the book and realized that her work in the Civil War and the women’s suffrage movement was a natural vehicle for music.”
When the Creative Work Fund awarded Shelby a grant in 2005 to write an oratorio about Tubman, he had only composed an extended work about the Port Chicago Riots three years prior. (He’s since gone on to write big band works about Black historical subjects that include Martin Luther King Jr., the Negro baseball leagues, and the music of the civil rights movement.)
“I was still learning this form—big band writing and creating and long-form composition and how a theme develops,” he admits, noting that the subject’s vast narrative arc helped guide his efforts. “There was obviously a lot of tension in her story, so you want to find the possibilities for brightness and to be uplifting too.”
“Harriet Tubman’s whole power came from the roots of the blues,” he adds. “That includes call and response, work songs, blues shows, hill hollers, hill cries, spirituals, and complaint calls.”
The Marcus Shelby trio includes pianist Adam Shulman and young drummer Genius Wesley. Photo by Kimberly Pross
One of the challenges of the Harriet Tubman and the Blues project was to select from a work that was performed by a 15-piece big band and four vocalists and to arrange it for an intimate piano trio. “The freedom is in the interpretation. And we approach it with a Bill Evansy freedom, which is exciting,” he says with a warm chuckle, referencing the late jazz piano legend and his innovatively interconnected trios.
Shelby’s introduction to Tubman came in grade school, when his mother bought him Sarah Bradford’s Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People. Originally published in 1886, the biography is sensationalist and insensitive by 21st-century standards. “But there just weren’t a lot of books for kids about Harriet Tubman in the ’70s,” he recalls. Two copies of Bradford’s book can currently be found on Shelby’s home bookshelf.
The initial inspiration of those two books about Tubman has been supplemented with academic research, some courtesy of Stanford University. As a 2006 fellow of the Ford Foundation Resident Dialogues Program of the Committee for Black Performing Arts, Shelby was able to visit campus for half a year, fortifying the foundation for his Tubman extended work.
“I spent one quarter in the library, where I just began creating melodies and lyric sheets. And I had access to all these books,” he shares, with a sense of wonder in his voice. “I then had another quarter where I had four students that worked with me.”
“I had a history student, I had a music student, and I had students studying two other disciplines,” he says. “They basically helped me research this story of Harriet Tubman— anything and everything that would possibly be important to be deeply informed about her journey.”
In addition to his big band musical suite, Shelby also wrote the soundtrack to the 2020 film Harriet Tubman: Through the Eyes of Children and has been developing the children’s opera Harriet’s Spirit since 2018. He recounts, “For 14 years, Harriet Tubman has been a major part of my practice teaching in schools. And I can’t tell you how many stages I’ve done Harriet Tubman on.”
A leader of the Bay Area jazz scene, Shelby grew up in Sacramento and had his jazz epiphany when he caught a concert in 1988 by trumpet great Wynton Marsalis’ quartet with pianist Marcus Roberts, bassist Bob Hurst, and drummer Jeff “Tain” Watts. He was studying electrical engineering at Cal Poly at the time and headed farther south to pursue jazz knowledge, winning a California Institute of the Arts scholarship for music in 1990. Leading the hard bop Black/Note band through the mid-1990s, he relocated to San Francisco once that all-star Generation X group broke up.
He formed the Marcus Shelby Orchestra in 1999, and the big band’s notable alumni include trumpeter and 2021 Grammy nominee Ambrose Akinmusire, trombonist Doug Beavers, and saxophonist Dayna Stephens. An SFJAZZ resident artistic director during 2019–20, he has served on the San Francisco Arts Commission since 2013 and took over as the Healdsburg Jazz Festival’s artistic director in October 2020.
Shelby’s generosity of spirit is one of his most identifiable characteristics as both a musical leader and civic presence. “When I first came to the Bay, I was in law school full-time. I didn’t have a network of people I could start building a musical rapport with, and I just started going to Marcus’ shows. He was very open and helpful in sharing information about the local music scene and giving me feedback about my writing and arranging,” shares Berkeley-based jazz vocalist Tiffany Austin, who has contributed to the Marcus Shelby Orchestra’s last two albums, including Harriet Tubman: Through the Eyes of Children.
“That’s just the way he operates: if you have a love for the music, if you show any excitement or interest, he’s going to stop and give you some help,” she proclaims. “Marcus just keeps on gaining more momentum, yet he still remains very accessible and very community oriented. And it’s absolutely infectious.”
A South Bay native and resident, independent journalist Yoshi Kato contributes to the San Francisco Chronicle, Palo Alto Weekly, and DownBeat and has enjoyed Stanford Live concerts from the Modern Jazz Quartet at Memorial Auditorium in the mid-‘90s to Yo-Yo Ma, I’m With Her, and the SFJAZZ Collective at Bing Concert Hall in the 21st Century.
Marcus Shelby: Harriet Tubman and the Blues will release in March 2021. Stanford Live's short films are available to Stanford Live members at the Patron ($100) level and to current Stanford University students. Learn more about our short film series on our Films & Screenings page. If you are not a current Stanford student, become a Stanford Live member to receive complimentary access along with 12 months of benefits.