Facing imminent death tends to sharpen the mind considerably, as Hannibal Peterson found out in 1977. The jazz trumpeter—who had built a successful career that included playing with Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Gil Evans and other jazz luminaries—was stricken with double pneumonia that year. But instead of checking into a New York City hospital as his doctor recommended, he booked the next flight to Africa. The move was the beginning of a journey that would result in his autobiographical musical-theater production, Diary of an African-American.
“It was always my dream to go there,” recalls Peterson. “At that point, I had in mind going there to die.”
Instead, Africa was his cure. A member of the Masai people met him at the Nairobi airport and took him to a rural village, where a holy man gave him a tea that cured him within 24 hours. He stayed a month.
“There began my real education,” says the 45-year-old musician. “I became totally re-educated as to the legacy of Africa.”
The opening section of Diary, entitled “Manhattan to Africa,” is based on this experience.
The production, which was produced in collaboration with New York’s Music Theatre Group, features a quartet of musicians: a pianist/keyboardist; a bassist, playing both acoustic and electric; a drummer; and Peterson, who not only plays the trumpet but also acts and sings. They are joined by two adult singer/actors—one male, one female—and a boy who plays the part of a kalimba-playing goatherd, a role that has special significance to Peterson.
“This little boy is a kid I had dreams about when I was growing up,” Peterson says. “I’d hear all the time in my dreams this thumb piano and see these goats. Then when I went to Africa, I saw this kid—the same kid—playing the kalimba, guarding goats. The Masai explained that the soul of every Black person who was taken from Africa is kept by someone who’s still in Africa, until they come back to claim it. This kid was the keeper of my soul. So this play goes to the marrow.”
The play gets to the heart of other parts of Peterson’s life, too: his time at Live Oak Grove Baptist Church in Smithville, Texas; at North Texas State University; in Texas City, where we see him and his mother at Christmas; on the road with fellow musicians; in Brooklyn; at a German club; and in the Elgin, Texas cotton field where the laborers mixed backbreaking labor with transcendent music.
“I heard the greatest music in my life in that field, man,” he says. “Never forgot it. It’s something when you play music for strength and for salvation. It’s different from cocktail music.”
Even so, Peterson’s professional playing is far from the cocktail scene, relying on fiery improvisations grounded in the entire history of African-American music—African drums, field songs, gospel, blues, and jazz.
Peterson has composed numerous works, including several acclaimed albums; an orchestral piece, African Portraits, with solo vocalists and instrumentalists, to be recorded by the Chicago Symphony; and a new jazz quintet album, One With The Wind. He is currently working on Eternal, a mass commissioned by Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.
It was the generosity of the Abyssinian Baptist Church that made it possible for Peterson and Lyn Austin, MTG’s founder and producing director, to fully develop Diary.
Peterson and Austin, who had met in 1987, had been talking about Peterson’s abilities not only as a composer/performer but as a writer. Bit by bit, as Peterson shared excerpts of his prose and poetry with Austin, Diary began to take shape. Then Calvin Butts, pastor of the church, invited them to develop and perform the work at his church, offering Abyssinian’s sanctuary as an artistic home for four weeks.
Austin recalls, “It was a miraculous gift to everyone touched by the production—not only artists, but every parishioner and staff member walking through the doors. In only three days, 1,700 people saw the production. Not since the performances of the New York Philharmonic in that sanctuary had the power of music been so palpable.”
After that auspicious beginning, the production went to the World Theatre in Minneapolis, On the Boards in Seattle, and the International Theatre Festival in Bogota, Colombia, where Peterson was given a UNESCO award for his work as composer, writer, and performer.
Peterson and his partners at Music Theatre Group are now mounting a tour for the 1994-95 season. As part of that tour, Peterson is looking forward to conducting residencies on the road.
Simplicity has been the watchword in designing the touring production.
“We bring a lighting designer, a stage manager, and a director,” says Peterson. “The piece is very portable. It doesn’t take any time to set up; we could do it in a chicken coop.
“In fact, I want to do it in some of those little Black Baptist churches way out in the woods, where people would never hear the music—where they’ve never heard somebody play a trumpet like it’s the last time.”
– Inside Arts magazine, Fall 1994 (Association of Performing Arts Presenters)