Lafayette Gilchrist Plays The 'Blues For Freddie Gray'

Jul 26, 2017
Originally published on July 26, 2017 9:40 am

Baltimore's Lafayette Gilchrist is a jazz pianist, but when his band the New Volcanoes backs him up, listeners also get something different: a go-go beat.

Gilchrist describes go-go, a style native to Washington, D.C., and its environs, as "almost like a slowed-down James Brown, but you have a combination of African rhythms." Blended with his jazz piano playing, that's the sound of Gilchrist's latest album, New Urban World Blues, released this May.

The album's powerful leading track is "Blues For Freddie Gray," dedicated to the young West Baltimore man who died in 2015 of severe spinal injuries sustained while in the custody of the Baltimore City Police. Gilchrist is from the part of Baltimore where Gray was arrested, and remembers getting caught in traffic as police shut down part of the city to prevent riots.

"It was bad," he says. "It was as bad as I've ever seen. No words to describe, really, the feeling of that day."

The track, which features Baltimore soul singer Brooks Long, begins with a gentle piano theme — a "lamenting statement" that stays largely in the background behind the noise of sirens and car doors. It aims to evoke "the inside of a police station where they take you to book you," Gilchrist says.

The song's lyrics were inspired by how Gilchrist's friends and neighbors processed Gray's death, which shook the community, and how they described the horrific events. "Listening to a blind gentleman describe what he heard gave me certain lyrics," Gilchrist says. "For example, 'Did you hear him as he screamed in pain?' "

None of the police officers connected with Freddie Gray's death was convicted of any crime. Nevertheless, Gilchrist remains optimistic about a better future — though he asserts that that future won't be achieved passively. That's evident from the song's closing lyrics:

I want to know that there's a day that's coming soon and fast
I want a justice and a peace that's made to last and last
Don't ya tell me
That we can't all get it done
You see I got this little one on my shoulders.

"To know that means you have to engage in the kind of activism in which people are able to secure that as a reality," Gilchrist says. "Am I hopeful of that? Yes. Yes, very."

Web intern Karen Gwee contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A lot of old folk songs are drawn from news events, frequently real disasters or crimes. And that is equally true of a new song by Lafayette Gilchrist.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST SONG "BLUES FOR FREDDIE GRAY")

INSKEEP: Gilchrist is a jazz pianist, and this is his song "Blues For Freddie Gray." Gray, of course, was the young man who suffered a fatal spinal cord injury in the back of a police van in 2015. Gilchrist is from the same part of Baltimore where Gray was arrested.

LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST: I'm right on the west side. I'm right smack in the middle of it.

INSKEEP: He recalls getting caught in traffic as police shut down part of the city.

GILCHRIST: It was bad. It was as bad as I've ever seen - no words to describe, really, the feeling of that day.

INSKEEP: His song starts with a gentle piano theme. And in the background, you faintly hear things like sirens and car doors.

GILCHRIST: It's really inside of a police station, where they take you to book you.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST SONG "BLUES FOR FREDDIE GRAY")

INSKEEP: And then the sound of the music changes, like the story itself.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST SONG "BLUES FOR FREDDIE GRAY")

INSKEEP: The music Lafayette Gilchrist uses to create the mood combines jazz with a style of funk known as go-go.

GILCHRIST: It's almost like a slowed-down James Brown. But, you know, you have a combination of African rhythms.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAFAYETTE GILCHRIST SONG "BLUES FOR FREDDIE GRAY")

INSKEEP: And the lyrics were inspired by how Gilchrist's friends and neighbors processed the news of Freddie Gray, how they described the horrors they witnessed on a video of his arrest.

GILCHRIST: Actually, listening to a blind gentleman describe what he heard gave me certain lyrics. For example, did you hear him as he screamed in pain?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUES FOR FREDDIE GRAY")

GILCHRIST: (Singing) Did you see him? Did you hear him as he screamed in pain? Well, record it on the telephone and frame by frame. Could you see him? Could you feel him as a man? Could you see him as a man like you? No. Oh, they were looking...

INSKEEP: The song, which begins with tragedy, ends more hopefully.

GILCHRIST: The closing lyric says, I want to know that there's a day that's coming soon and fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BLUES FOR FREDDIE GRAY")

GILCHRIST: (Singing) I want a justice and a peace that's made to last and last. Don't ya tell me...

To know means you have to engage in the kind of activism in which people are able to secure that as a reality. Am I hopeful of that? Yes - yes, very.

INSKEEP: That's Lafayette Gilchrist, whose song "Blues For Freddie Gray" can be found on his new album, "New Urban World Blues." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.