Thomas Hart Benton’s art came alive on Thursday night through the music of Orrin Evans’ Captain Black Big Band.
The New York-based jazz band performed its “Harlem Suite” which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a tribute to Benton’s famed America Today mural, which is currently on display at the museum. Thursday night was only the second time the “Harlem Suite” had ever been performed.
“When we heard about this piece, it just felt like we should do this in Missouri,” said Jon Poses, executive director of the “We Always Swing” Jazz Series. The Jazz Series, along with the State Historical Society, collaborated to put on “In Sync with Thomas Hart Benton,” a three-day event that included film screenings and expert panels in addition to the final concert.
Benton was born in Neosho, Mo., and is known as one of the greatest American painters of the twentieth century. In addition to the America Today mural the “Harlem Suite” is based on, Benton painted “A Social History of Missouri,” the mural that adorns the walls of the House Lounge at the Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City.
The two-hour performance began with the band playing a selection of its own songs before preforming the “Harlem Suite” and an encore of Nat King Cole’s “Stardust.” During the “Harlem Suite,” images of Benton’s America Today mural were projected on a screen behind the band.
“Seeing the art that inspired the music paired together was really fun,” said Deb Sheals who came to the concert to see how the music and art would be brought together. “It was a great combination.”
When bandleader and pianist Orrin Evans received the commission from the Met, he tapped trumpeter Josh Lawrence to arrange the piece. Lawrence looked into his back catalogue to find pieces that resonated with him as he looked at Benton’s famous mural of Americans at work in the 1920s.
“A lot of what I saw in those panels really spoke to me about what was [my grandparents’] experience like at the time as a young person in that era,” Lawrence said. “So I just tried to connect on that kind of way through them.”
For many in the audience, it was exciting to see a big band take on the work of an artist who hits so close to home.
“He’s like our prodigal son,” said Byron Smith about Benton. Smith spent time with the band following their panel discussion on Wednesday night.
“It gave something very personal [to the performance],” Smith said. “They said it would be quite a performance, but I was really touched.”