Making Sonic Contributions: An Interview with Marcus Elliot
As part of UMS’s Fall 2023 residency at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, Detroit-based saxophonist Marcus Elliot will lead a seven-piece band of musicians and artists in Sonic Contributions — a special collaboration with the African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County that celebrates the history of Ypsilanti as a refuge for Black Americans dating back to the 1830s.
In advance of the world premiere this September, Marcus spoke to UMS about the inspiration and creative process behind Sonic Contributions, and what audiences can expect from these upcoming performances:
Q: What was the catalyst for this project? Was it the Ypsilanti Residency itself, or something you’ve had in mind for some time?
It was the Residency itself. When Mark Jacobson and Cayenne Harris from UMS reached out to ask me to put something together, I just started daydreaming about what some things could be. I have some family and a lot of “like family” friends in Ypsilanti, and I’ve always had an interesting relationship with Ypsilanti just growing up in Michigan.
It’s one of those little pockets throughout Michigan that has a large African American population, so that’s kind of what sparked my interest in what I could do. I literally just typed into Google, “African American community in Ypsilanti,” and when I did that it was just, like, BOOM. All of this information started coming at me about it being tied to the Underground Railroad — it being such a Haven, connecting people from the South to Detroit.
But not just connecting people. A lot of families were getting there, and they were staying there, or they were headed to Canada and would come back to Ypsilanti. So that was really interesting to me, like, why would you come back? What was going on here that made you want to come back?
I reached out to my friend Miles Lindsey, also known as Intricate Dialect. He’s an amazing rapper, producer, poet, and storyteller. I asked him, “Hey, would you be interested in collaborating with me on this project?” And he said, “Absolutely.” Then I pitched it to Mark and Cayenne, and they said, “Absolutely!” So, here we are. It’s very exciting to really see these stories coming together and the music coming together.
Q: Can you talk a little bit about the instrumentation of Sonic Contributions, and what audiences can expect?
So the instrumentation is myself on saxophone, and we have trumpet, piano, bass, drums, and cello, plus Miles as narrator. Whenever I’m putting an ensemble together, I actually do it less about the instrumentation and more about the personalities. The personalities are really important to me.
We have Dwight Adams, one of the true legends of Detroit jazz music, but also just an amazing trumpet player. He played with folks like Stevie Wonder and Doug Hammond and I mean, just the list goes on and on of all the people that he’s played with, and so he’s kind of like a big brother mentor to me.
On bass, I have Joseph Deas. Joseph is an Ann Arbor and Detroit bass player…such a pillar in our music community. And with this project being in between in Ypsilanti, I can’t not have Joseph on this project. The energy that he brings is so potent, and it’s just exactly what this project needs.
And then on drums, we have Marquis Johnson. This will actually be my first time having Marquis on my own project, but I’ve played with Marquis a lot in different situations and Marquis is just a phenomenal drummer. Every time I see him play I’m just kind of like, Oh, my God! I can’t believe that a human being can do that on an instrument!
We have Jordan Anderson on piano. He’s originally from Minnesota but moved to Michigan to study here because he had a lot of early mentors that were originally from Detroit who told him he needed to get to Detroit. So Jordan is very invested in the scene, very invested in the history of Detroit, and so it also just felt right to have him on the project.
And then we have King Sophia on cello, and she is also someone that I actually haven’t had a chance to have in my own group yet. She’s somebody that is once again just a brilliant, brilliant person on her instrument and extremely expressive. She has this powerhouse energy and just her presence is amazing.
Sonically, I can tell you it’s going to be dramatic. It’s going to be a lot of drama inside of the music, and it’s going to take you along with the story that’s being told. It’s going to really bring you into a lot of different places. You’re going to have narration and poetry and storytelling by Miles, so he’ll be coming in and out with different stories. There’s gonna be moments honoring different people, different families, different places in Ypsilanti. There are moments of him sharing deep detailed stories of different situations and history and different people.
So there’s gonna be a lot of things happening. The other thing that I haven’t mentioned yet is that there’s a visual artist as well. Curtis Wallace, who is a visual artist from Ypsilanti, agreed to be a part of this. He’ll do some live visual art making — hearing the music, responding to that, and creating in the moment — which I’m very excited for.
So that’s what kind of people can expect. They can really expect a multimedia experience. They can expect to hopefully leave inspired by the stories and by the music, and hopefully also just be inspired to dig deeper into the history of Ypsilanti and the culture there…you know, it has its own thing. That’s the thing that I’ve been learning the most about doing this project is that Ypsilanti is not Ann Arbor. It is not Detroit. It is its own thing, and it deserves to be honored in that way. I’m really here just to bring some awareness to how amazing this place is, and to honor it in my own way.
Q: What does the rehearsal process look like?
So we haven’t gotten together yet to rehearse, just because we’re still working on finishing the music. But Miles and I have been getting together. And that’s been an amazing experience. It’s been really great to spend this time with my brother. We’ve been friends for about 10 years now, and I’ve been a fan of his work for such a long time, so it’s been great to get to work with him.
Basically, what we’ve been doing is going to Ypsilanti and going to different places. We’ve been going to South Adams Street because there’s so much history there visiting some of the churches. We went to the African American Cultural & Historical Museum of Washtenaw County and spent some time with Joyce Hunter (AACHM President and CEO). We’ve been going to different coffee shops and bars, and just walking around in different bookstores like Blackstone, and the Ypsilanti District Library. The library’s also been a huge hub for us, dreaming up what this project could be.
So yeah, that’s what the process is looking like. We have our first rehearsal with the band in the second week of September, and I’m very excited about that. That’s gonna be really great to have everybody in the same room, and start to kind of just get into this music.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share about Sonic Contributions?
I think it’s gonna be an impactful show. No doubt, it’s gonna be an impactful show. It’s already been impactful for me.
You know, just being African American, and working on these stories…when I look back at my own ancestry in my own history, it’s very much tied to these same stories. It’s basically stories of refugees, and so there’s been a lot of healing on my own in my own personal journey. Just kind of working through these, because I haven’t been able to really trace a lot of the stories in my own history. I’m in the process of doing that, and one day I’ll find something. But you know, it’s difficult for us to really pinpoint certain stories of our ancestry. So to kinda be able to dive into these stories and to read about them and to even hear some of the voices, has been a real healing process for me.
So I think that that’s another part of this, too… for people to hear these stories, whether they’re from Ypsilanti or not. This is all of our story, you know, like we all kind of can trace back to this in some way. It’s not just Black history. This is American history. I think that there is an opportunity for some real healing as well for folks.
Experience the world premiere performances of Sonic Contributions: Honoring the Past, Present, and Future of the African American Community in Ypsilanti, MI, live at the Ypsilanti Freighthouse, September 22-23, 2023. Pay-What-You-Wish tickets are on sale now.