Since it was first published in 1951, Langston Hughes’ poem, “Harlem,” has been a source of awe and inspiration for generations of African American artists, notably Lorraine Hansbury, whose most famous play “A Raisin in the Sun” (1959), borrowed its title to enhance its theme of black families’ fraught and frustrated pursuit of the American Dream.
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LANGSTON HUGHES, “Harlem”
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore—
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over—
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
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Now, as our seemingly unending conversation about race is reenergized by a plague of police shooting unarmed black citizens and the accompanying lack of accountability for those actions, Ralph Peterson—percussionist, trumpeter, composer, bandleader and educator—has called upon Hughes’ iconic poem to give both title and theme to Dream Deferred, his 20th album as a leader and his sixth on his own label Onyx Music.
Dream Deferred is also the first to feature his new quintet, Aggregate Prime, comprising the powerful, all-star tandem of saxophonist/flutist Gary Thomas, guitarist Mark Whitfield, pianist Vijay Iyer, and bassist Kenny Davis.
“The album speaks to the question of that final question Langston Hughes asks in ‘Harlem’ and whether we as a society are close to answering it,” says Peterson. “The answer is already there in that if we don’t do the right thing, all of our hopes and dreams will explode.” The first rehearsal for the album was in October of 2015 as pre-trial hearings were underway for the three Baltimore police officers accused of murder in the death of Freddie Gray while he was in their custody. (Charges were dropped later.)
As with the whole album bearing its name, “Dream Deferred” tries, in Peterson’s words, “to capture some of the angst and hope that gave the protest music so much energy and excitement.” Peterson blends the instruments in his ensemble in a way as to match the roiling furor surrounding the Gray case and similar ones occurring throughout America over the past few years, while ending with the same tone of pointed, yet “elegant” inquiry culminating Hughes’ poem.
“I wanted to highlight Gary’s flute, thinking back to Eric Dolphy and how his flute playing could be heard back during times when music also reflected the restless energy of social change. Only,” he adds, “the sound Gary brings belongs only to him.”
The months since the Freddie Gray verdict have only seen more incidents and more protests like Eric Garner, Sandra Bland and Terence Crutcher. “What’s really at stake is whether black men will survive at all. It used to be that high cholesterol and blood pressure could kill us over time. Now all you got to do is get behind the wheel of a car.”
The issue has special poignancy for Peterson, the son of a former police chief and mayor of his native Pleasantville, New Jersey who once played drums professionally in nightclubs throughout the South Jersey area. Ralph, Sr. died two years ago and his son can’t help but contemplate how his dad would have reacted to this rash of excessive force.
“He’d have been appalled,” Peterson says. “He was a boxer and he was of the old-school belief that things could be worked out with your hands. He was against deadly force as a first or even second resort. It’s part of a whole bent of depending on guns that my dad wouldn’t have recognized today. And I wonder myself why it is that guns have become the only way to deal with conflict. People are into self-defense training. But nobody boxes in the streets anymore. It’s all about who has the most weaponry and that’s become a deeply fatal flaw in our society today.”
The death of his father was one of many personal and physical travails Peterson underwent in the past few years. He has undergone surgeries for spinal fusion, hip replacement and a reconstructed ankle. “I am Iron Man,” he says with a self-deprecatory humor. Yet the ensemble’s performance of Dolphy’s “Iron Man” is nothing to joke about.
A more serious, yet just as stoic approach to both Peterson’s physical struggles – and to the struggles both he and the rest of society have had to endure over the last couple years – is reflected in his composition, “Strongest Sword/Hottest Fire.” An avid student of martial arts, Peterson says he was inspired by a documentary about the Japanese samurai discipline of bushido, to whose most gifted practitioners goes a sword forged to meticulous and harshly-regimented cycles of extreme heat and cold.
Ultimately, Peterson says, “the ability of the sword to cut cleanly comes from what seems to be abusive extremes and that’s how we’re all tested by life. When life is heating up on you, your own tensile strength becomes more resilient until things cool down for a while before getting hot again. It’s these extremes that are ideal for stress test in strengthening metal…and your own mettle as well.”
Peterson is also proud of the manner in which he has prevailed over physical and personal difficulties. Along with the aforementioned surgeries, he has completed his second decade of being “drink and drug-free.” He has survived colon cancer and Bell’s Palsy in addition to the aforementioned orthopedic challenges.
“The strongest sword,” he says, “goes through the hottest fire.”