Instrumentation: 3 Solo trombones; 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, English horn, Eb clarinet, Bb clarinet, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon; 4 horns, 4 trumpets, tuba; timpani, 4 percussion; harp; strings
Publisher: Boosey and Hawkes, Hendon Music (BMI)
Duration: 11:30 minutes
Rosa Parks Boulevard pays tribute to the woman who, in 1955, helped set in motion the modern civil rights movement by her refusal to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1957, she moved to Detroit, Michigan, where she has lived ever since. One of the many honors bestowed upon Rosa Parks is a downtown Detroit boulevard bearing her name.
In the fall of 1999, I had the pleasure of attending a Sunday church service with Parks at the St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church in Detroit. For more than four decades she has attended this modest church with the motto “The Church Where Everybody Is Somebody” hand-painted over its entrance. During the four-hour service, I joined Parks and the congregation in singing various gospel hymns and listening to the preacher’s inspired oratory.
After the service, Parks told me her favorite piece of music was the traditional African-American spiritual, “Oh Freedom.” Since her association with the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the fifties, Parks has viewed the words spoken by African-American preachers as a source of strength. Preachers also inspired African-American poet James Weldon Johnson. In the preface to God’s Trombones, his 1927 volume of poetry, Johnson describes how the preacher “strode the pulpit up and down in what was actually a very rhythmic dance, and he brought into play the full gamut of his wonderful voice, a voice—what shall I say? Not of an organ or a trumpet, but rather of a trombone, the instrument possessing above all others the power to express the wide and varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice—and with greater amplitude. He intoned, he moaned, he pleaded, he blared, he crashed, he thundered. I sat fascinated; and more, I was, perhaps against my will, deeply moved; the emotional effect upon me was irresistible.”
Rosa Parks Boulevard features the trombone section, echoing the voices of generations of African-American preachers in Detroit and across the country. Fragments of the melody “Oh Freedom” are played in musical canons by the trombones, which I associate with the preacher. I also introduce a musical motive, which I associate with Parks, first heard in the woodwinds and vibraphone. These lyrical sections alternate with a turbulent bus ride, evoked by atonal polyrhythms in the trumpets, horns and non-pitched percussion. The recurrence of ominous beating in the bass drum reminds us that while progress was made in civil rights in the twentieth century, there is still much to be done in the twenty-first century.