John Hollenbeck's 'The Drum Major Instinct'

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Blog post by Chris Maskell

In celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Prof. John Hollenbeck will be presenting
his work “The Drum Major Instinct” in Tanna Schulich Hall on January 16, 2017, at
7:30 p.m. In advance of this concert, Schulich graduate student Chris Maskell spoke to Hollenbeck
about
the piece’s inspiration and development.


In addition to his legacy as a civil rights activist, Martin Luther King Jr. has long been
recognized as one of history's greatest public speakers. Now heard by countless people 
around the world, his speeches and sermons contain powerful messages that continue to
touch listeners to this day. The range of inspiration that King’s audiences can pull from
his addresses is striking – in the case of drummer John Hollenbeck, they provided the 
seed for a musical composition.

When Hollenbeck first heard a recording of King’s last sermon (originally delivered in
February 1968), he was still a student at the Eastman School of Music. He says he found
the sermon “emotionally moving, personally enlightening and extremely musical” and
felt motivated to write a piece to help spread King’s wise words.

“The sermon’s basic message is to use the power of your ego for good purposes. At the
time, this was a message that I wanted to give to a specific friend of mine who was
hurting others through his strong ego. I thought I could reach him easily by using this
sermon within a musical context. But the message is for everybody and is timeless – it’s
just as relevant now as it was in Martin Luther King Jr.’s time!”

Titled “The Drum Major Instinct,” the composition in question first appeared on
Hollenbeck’s debut album No Images, where it joins a recording of King’s final sermon
with three trombones and drums. Hollenbeck explained that this instrumentation was
carefully selected and was influenced by the “drum major” metaphor that King uses
throughout the sermon to represent one’s ego.

“I chose to set this sermon with trombones and drums to give it a ‘band’ sound, since a
‘drum major’ is the flamboyantly dressed conductor of a marching band. I’ve also
consistently found trombonists to have the smallest egos in most bands, and there’s a
tradition of trombone bands being used in some churches in the United States. Each
entity (the trombones, drums and King’s recorded voice) is in the foreground for a
portion of the piece and also in the background (or ‘inline’) at other times.”

Since it’s not too common to play along with a pre-recorded track in most jazz contexts,
Hollenbeck also discussed some of the advantages and disadvantages of doing so. “I
enjoy very much ‘playing’ with the voice because it’s always exactly the same! Once you
get the timing you can really improvise all around it and can even anticipate what King
says. You just have to make sure that you and all the other musicians can always hear the
recording, which is a challenge when everyone is playing loud!”

The work has also experienced a good deal of evolution over the years, eventually
tripling in size to reach its current state. Hollenbeck explained around the time of No
Images, the composition existed only as a single piece that was performed in total
darkness to blur the lines between the pre-recorded sermon and the live musicians.
However, as time progressed, he felt inspired to return to the work several times and
further develop the idea.

“About 10 years after graduating from Eastman, I started performing the piece in New
York City. At that time, I created Part 2 – a version of the piece with accordion, guitar,
vibraphone and piano to be played with the lights on. Both the new instrumentation and
composed music give the piece a completely different feel even though the sermon is the
same. Finally, many years after that, I performed the piece in Berlin and decided to add
one more part. This last one combines both ensembles simultaneously and also shows the
text of the sermon to the audience.”

Luckily for Montreal concertgoers, this year’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day will provide a
chance to experience all three parts of Hollenbeck’s work live in concert. On January 16,
Hollenbeck will be joined by guest trombonists Ed Neumeister and Jacob Garchik, as
well as Schulich faculty and students, to present a concert in honour of King. While each
powerful in their own right, this performance is sure to demonstrate the synergy between
masterfully spoken words and brilliantly crafted music, all while celebrating a legendary
man.