May 27, 2024

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A North Texas native’s new album meditates on racism, violence, while paying homage to jazz greats: Photos, Video

Aaron Myers, who grew up outside Corsicana, addresses Black life in America on his latest effort, ‘The Pride Album.’ When Aaron Myers was growing up in Goodlow, Texas, a small town near Corsicana, his grandparents would talk about going to “the meeting.” They were referring to church, which was a vital part of their community.

Good grades were announced at church, as were feats on the football field. And it was for Mount B Zion Baptist Church that Myers began writing songs, and playing the piano in public.

Now 37, Myers created The Pride Album to emulate the experience of “the meeting.” Released last month, the jazz album features Myers on vocals and piano, with Samuel Prather also on piano, Herb Scott on saxophone, Kris Funn on bass, Stephen Arnold on guitar and Dana Hawkins on drums.

Jazz pianist and vocalist Aaron Myers created 'The Pride Album' to emulate the experience of going to “the meeting." That is how his grandparents referred to attending church.
Jazz pianist and vocalist Aaron Myers created ‘The Pride Album’ to emulate the experience of going to “the meeting.” That is how his grandparents referred to attending church. (Kris Funn)

The work also exists as a film that includes footage of the performers playing in the recording studio, spoken commentary from Myers between pieces and videos from Black Lives Matter protests accompanied by music from the album.

The first track, “Make Them Hear You,” from the Broadway musical Ragtime, serves as a call to gather, Myers says. In the subsequent rendition of the spiritual “Lay Down My Burdens,” Myers follows an African tradition, he says, requesting permission from his ancestors to speak.

The album then moves to its most powerful number, “New Jim Crow,” which takes its title from an influential book about the current effects of mass incarceration in America. In the first section of the song, the singer alternates between scatting in unison with the bass and saxophone and recounting a story about being pulled over by a police officer.

When the singer tells of reaching beside his seat, to grab his driver’s license, the music spirals into cacophony, with squeals in the saxophone, siren noises, drums pounding and cymbals crashing. After extended solos in the piano and sax, the vocalist reenters, wondering why blood is running down his side, and whether this is the way he’ll die. The work ends with all the musicians shouting, “It’s the New Jim Crow.”

Myers feels “an angst” when driving anywhere near a police car. “To know that that scenario can go awry so quickly, it’s the most frightening thing,” he says. “I’m hoping that the music … can speak and perhaps penetrate through color … so people can possibly understand the chaos in those particular moments.”

Myers can’t remember life without music. That’s probably because he started playing the piano when he was three.

His introduction to jazz came from a recording of Louis Armstrong’s 1925 “Gut Bucket Blues” from his grandparents’ record collection. Later, when Myers was in high school, his mom gave him a cassette tape featuring Herbie Hancock. Myers says it was mind-blowing: “I almost literally passed out.”

At Navarro College in Corsicana, Myers completed majors in business and theater. In 2003, while in college, he decided to run for mayor. He was 20 years old.

Though Myers lost the election, his bid marked the beginning of his active engagement in politics.

Myers took private piano lessons for a decade, but hasn’t had a formal jazz education. Instead, he’s honed his talent by performing. “Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, all those people you study in college, they learned the music the same way I’m learning the music now,” Myers says.­­­

These days, he lives in D.C., where he works as a musician and activist. An organizer of the D.C. Jazz Lobby, Myers pushes for increased performance opportunities for jazz musicians in the capital by working with government officials.

In addition to its ancestral connections, Myers’ Pride Album reaches back to different musical legacies — whether in a take on the Jazz Messengers staple “Moanin’,” a quote from “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” or a tribute to Chick Corea’s “Spain.” “I had to pay respects to my musical influences,” Myers says.

"I had to pay respects to my musical influences," Myers says of the songs on the album.
“I had to pay respects to my musical influences,” Myers says of the songs on the album.

And yet, the songs bear his own mark. In “Moanin’,” he adds references to the Proud Boys, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol and several Black Americans who were killed by the police or died in police custody. These include Craig Thomas, who died in 1993 in Corsicana at the hands of police after being stopped for a traffic violation. When audiences hear “Moanin’,” Myers says, he wants them to understand not why his forbearers moaned, but why he still has reasons to moan today.

Jazz pianist and vocalist Aaron Myers, who is originally from Goodlow, Texas, appears in the video version of "The Pride Album," released last month.

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