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Byron Asher's Skrontch Music

by Byron Asher

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Recited Text: Supreme Court of the United States, No. 210, October Term, 1895. Homer Adolph Plessy, Plaintiff in Error, vs. J.H. Ferguson, Judge of Section "A" of the Criminal District Court for the Parish of Orleans In Error to the Supreme Court of the State of Louisiana This cause came on to be heard on the transcript of the record from the Supreme Court of the State of Louisiana, and was argued by counsel. On consideration whereof, It is now here ordered and adjudged by this Court that the judgment of the said Supreme Court, in this cause, be, and the same is hereby, affirmed with costs. per Mr. Justice Brown, May 18, 1896. Dissenting: Mr. Justice Harlan This was a petition for writs of prohibition and certiorari originally filed in the supreme court of the state by Plessy, the plaintiff in error, against the Hon. John H. Ferguson, judge of the criminal district court for the parish of Orleans, and setting forth, in substance, the following facts... That petitioner was a citizen of the United States and a resident of the state of Louisiana, of mixed descent, in the proportion of seven-eighths Caucasian and one-eighth African blood; that the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him, and that he was entitled to every recognition, right, privilege, and immunity secured to the citizens of the United States of the white race by its constitution and laws; that on June 7, 1892, he engaged and paid for a first-class passage on the East Louisiana Railway, from New Orleans to Covington, in the same state, and thereupon entered a passenger train, and took possession of a vacant seat in a coach where passengers of the white race were accommodated; that such railroad company was incorporated by the laws of Louisiana as a common carrier, and was not authorized to distinguish between citizens according to their race, but, notwithstanding this, petitioner was required by the conductor, under penalty of ejection from said train and imprisonment, to vacate said coach, and occupy another seat, in a coach assigned by said company for persons not of the white race, and for no other reason than that petitioner was of the colored race; that, upon petitioner's refusal to comply with such order, he was, with the aid of a police officer, forcibly ejected from said coach, and hurried off to, and imprisoned in, the parish jail of New Orleans, and there held to answer a charge made by such officer to the effect that he was guilty of having criminally violated an act of the general assembly of the state, approved July 10, 1890, in such case made and provided. The petitioner was subsequently brought before the recorder of the city for preliminary examination, and committed for trial to the criminal district court for the parish of Orleans, where an information was filed against him in the matter above set forth, for a violation of the above act, which act the petitioner affirmed to be null and void, because it was in conflict with the constitution of the United States....
Elegy 05:06 video


Skrontch Music is the ambitious debut recording by award-winning New Orleans-based composer and clarinetist/saxophonist Byron Asher. This five-movement, research-based suite for ten-piece ensemble explores the intertwined histories of New Orleans jazz and anti-Jim Crow activism during the early twentieth century. Skrontch Music juxtaposes contemporary composition with collective improvisation, archival recording sound collage, and excerpts from the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson U.S. Supreme Court ruling. A contemporary investigation into the early jazz tradition, Skrontch Music highlights that the development of the music was itself a form of resistance to the racist Jim Crow regime.

The generative seed for this project came in 2014 from Asher’s desire to more deeply understand the socio-political roots of the traditional jazz that he was regularly performing. Research began with frequent trips to the Hogan Jazz Archive at Tulane University, where Asher combed through the oral history collection. Considering the archival findings in relationship to deep reading into the Reconstruction era, the rise of Jim Crow, and the attendant development of what scholar Clyde Woods terms “the blues epistemology” illuminated the underlying thesis of the project. Through an artist residency at Tulane University's A Studio In The Woods in 2016, Asher drew upon this research to compose Skrontch Music. The composition was further informed by Asher concurrently conducting an oral history project with members of the elder generation of clarinetists working in New Orleans today, including Dr. Michael White and Charlie Gabriel of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.

Bassist and improvised music elder James Singleton describes the contemporary music found on this album as a continuation of the tradition of those early jazz musicians. "People have to understand: when Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Louis Armstrong were making their music, it wasn't traditional at all. It was radical, new, scary music, and I'm really thrilled that this piece continues that particular aspect of the tradition."

To record this album, Asher was joined in the studio by a diverse array of New Orleans' top improvisers, including Singleton (Astral Project, Nolatet), Aurora Nealand (Tim Berne, Monocle), Shaye Cohn (Tuba Skinny), Ricardo Pascal (Marcus Roberts, New Orleans Jazz Orchestra), Oscar Rossignoli (Extended, John Boutte), Steve Glenn (NOJO, Panorama Jazz Band), Emily Frederickson (NOJO), Paul Thibodeaux (Magnetic Ear, Royal Roses), and Reagan Mitchell (UNC School of the Arts). Justin Peake (Articulated Works) contributed additional post-production sound collage work.

Asher made an intentional decision to assemble a multiracial, inter-generational, and multi-gendered ensemble of instrumentalists. It's a true cross-section of the current creative music community in New Orleans. Asher explains: "I knew that asking free improvisers to play with straight-ahead virtuosos, and for them in turn to make space for traditional players was maybe asking a lot, but the number one thing everyone had in common was the size of their ears and their openness to each others' expression. On this recording, it's as if the ensemble developed a collective language unique to this particular piece of music."

Blues Obligato opens the suite with the full ensemble collectively improvising alongside a collage of early jazz recordings, including pieces by King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, Mamie Smith, and Bessie Smith. This chaotic first gesture brings the listener into the world of the piece, landing them on a contemporary, blues-tinged, avant-garde-leaning journey of collective ensemble work. There are two improvised duets in this movement led by Aurora Nealand's Bechet-esque clarinet and the growl of Emily Frederickson's trombone and rounded out by Shaye Cohn's 1920s-era cornet sound and the dense chromaticism of Reagan Mitchell's alto saxophone.

The words of legendary New Orleans clarinetists Alphonse Picou, Albert Nicholas and Barney Bigard weave throughout the second movement, Aural History. A sound collage constructed of excerpts of oral history interviews culled from the collection of the Hogan Jazz Archive, accompanies this track, which opens with a minimalist-inspired, Steve Reich-ian passage and transforms into a lush, Ellingtonian ballad. As a clarinetist himself, Asher has long been fascinated by the importance of that instrument to the development of New Orleans music and wanted to showcase those instrumentalists specifically in the piece.

Comité des Citoyens, the third movement, is named for the activist organization based in the 7th Ward of New Orleans whose act of civil disobedience led to the 1892 arrest of Homer Plessy. The angular up swing of this movement is intensified by text from the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling, recited by members of the ensemble. All of the clarinetists quoted in the previous movement and many more were born and raised in the same neighborhood, and Asher himself lived there while writing Skrontch Music. He notes, "It's a special place. There was something that was happening at the time that led to both political agitation and artistic excellence, and I wanted to address that duality." Fiery and virtuosic solos from tenor saxophonist Ricardo Pascal and pianist Oscar Rossignoli undergird this movement.

The final two movements, Elegy and After this/that, bleed from one into the next. First, there is a tone of reverence, an opportunity for the listener to digest the dense content of the first three movements. The written music slowly bleeds into collective improvisation by the full ensemble, which, in turn, fades into a solo piano ostinato that leads into the fifth movement. The melodic content of After this/that is built upon the ever-present foundation of that piano ostinato and is indebted to contemporary large ensemble writing in the spirit of Darcy James Argue. This movement also affords the most space for solo improvisation, including a sinewy clarinet solo by Asher himself, his only solo moment in the suite. Other solos include an explosive bowed statement by bassist Singleton, and explorations by Mitchell on soprano saxophone and Nealand on alto saxophone.

Skrontch Music borrows its name from a lesser-know swing era dance step, the Skrontch, which Duke Ellington featured in his show at the Cotton Club in the late 1930s. The lyrics to Duke's 1938 recording of Skrontch instruct us: "Skrontch on the four beat/Skrontch then you repeat/Skrontch up on your toes/And then start to cover ground." The emphasis on beat four propelled a dancer into the next measure of music, and like the step, Skrontch Music pauses in the here and now, looks back from where we came, and steps forward.


released October 25, 2019

Byron Asher, clarinet and tenor saxophone, compositions
Ricardo Pascal, clarinet and tenor saxophone
Aurora Nealand, clarinet and alto saxophone
Reagan Mitchell, soprano and alto saxophones
Shaye Cohn, cornet
Emily Frederickson, trombone
Oscar Rossignoli, piano
Steve Glenn, sousaphone
James Singleton, upright bass
Paul Thibodeaux, drumset

Skrontch Music was written during a 2016/2017 artist residency at Tulane University's A Studio In The Woods. The recording was funded by grants from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation and the Puffin Foundation as well as an independent fundraising campaign. Thank you to all who contributed financially to this project. It was premiered at Xavier University in New Orleans in April 2017.

This recording includes excerpts of oral history recordings of Alphonse Picou, Louis Tio, Albert Nicholas and Barney Bigard, courtesy of the Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University and Scott Ellsworth, Scott's Place. It also includes excerpts from public domain recordings by Mamie Smith (Crazy Blues), Bessie Smith (Put It Right Here), King Oliver (High Society), and Jelly Roll Morton (Shreveport Stomp). Text from the U.S. Supreme Court decision of 1896 in the case of Homer Adolphe Plessy v. J.H. Ferguson, Judge of Section "A" Criminal District Court for the Parish of Orleans. Album photograph by Ralston Crawford, courtesy of the Hogan Jazz Archive.

On "Blues Obligato," duets are performed by Aurora Nealand and Emily Frederickson, and by Reagan Mitchell and Shaye Cohn. On "Comité des Citoyens" solos are by Ricardo Pascal and Oscar Rossignoli. On "After this/that" solos are by Reagan Mitchell, Byron Asher, Aurora Nealand, and James Singleton.

Produced by Byron Asher, Scott Borne and Sinking City Records
Additional sound collage production by Justin Peake
Recorded and mixed by Rick Nelson, Marigny Studios, Winter 2018, New Orleans
Additional mixing by Paul Macdonald
Mastered by Kevin Blackler
Academic advisors Dr. Lydia Pelot-Hobbs and Dr. Sharlene Sinegal-DeCuir

Deep gratitude to Aurora, Emily, James, Oscar, Paul, Reagan, Ricardo, Steve. Scott and Brice at Sinking City Records, A Studio In The Woods, Ama Rogan, Cammie Hill-Prewitt, Grace Rennie, David Baker, Monique Moss, Benjamin Morris and Joe Carmichael, Dr. Tim Turner, Dr. Sharlene Sinegal-DeCuir, and Edward Kidd Jordan. Thank you to Dr. Michael White, Charlie Gabriel and Alonzo Bowens for sharing your stories. Thanks also to all my family, friends and collaborators. Thank you to Lydia Pelot-Hobbs.


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Byron Asher New Orleans, Louisiana

clarinetist and composer in New Orleans.

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