The Scottish National Jazz Orchestra has turned disappointment into a positive opportunity.
Like their fellow musicians around the world, the orchestra, which was founded by its director, Edinburgh-born saxophonist Tommy Smith, has had concerts postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
In April, Smith and his colleagues were due to be joined by San Francisco-based singer Kenny Washington and New York-based vibraphonist Joe Locke to play new arrangements of pop, rock and soul classics in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth.
Among the songs selected was gospel-soul hero Sam Cooke’s classic Civil Rights anthem, A Change is Gonna Come, which Cooke wrote in response to several experiences including his entourage being turned away by a whites-only motel while on tour in Louisiana.
“I spoke to Kenny Washington and we felt that, sadly, this song still resonates very strongly, especially with the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the U.S. and here in Scotland,” says Smith. “And with International Nelson Mandela Day coming up on what would have been Mandela’s 102nd birthday, Saturday 18th July, we thought we could present A Change is Gonna Come as a tribute to Mandela while reiterating the message Sam Cooke sent when he wrote the song in 1963.”
Smith had already commissioned Joe Locke to arrange Cooke’s song and he sent everyone in the SNJO their parts and asked them to make videos of them playing the music. Over in San Francisco, Kenny Washington sang A Change is Gonna Come on a Zoom session with Smith. Joe Locke, similarly, sent over a video of him playing his vibraphone part and with musicians in lock-down in London and across the central belt emailing their contributions, Smith set about collating the nineteen videos into one performance.
“Initially we were just going to release the video as our tribute on International Nelson Mandela Day,” says Smith. “But we then had the idea of releasing it as a single that people can download and buy, with proceeds going to Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation.”
Smith has had a long association with the Foundation, having taken part in a concert it promoted in Mandela’s honour during Glasgow’s European City of Culture celebrations in 1990.
“I was lucky enough to perform with the Association of South African Students Choir, The Scottish Chamber Orchestra and the Scottish Philharmonic Singers on what was a really moving and inspiring day. The Foundation has had a long-term aim of creating a statue of Nelson Mandela in Nelson Mandela Place, in Glasgow City Centre, and if we can contribute towards that with this single, it would be a great reward for the time we’ve put into the recording.
The video of A Change is Gonna Come will be available to view here from 10am on Saturday 18th July and the recording will have its first radio broadcast on Jazz FM’s Breakfast at the Weekend show two hours earlier.
“I think people will find it a moving experience,” says Smith. “It’s a soul-stirring prayer for freedom and equality and Kenny sings it beautifully. As Kenny says himself, ‘The human race is of many colours — we can all learn from one another.’”