From May 21 to June 5, the inimitable bassist Christian McBride will serve as music director of the 92nd Street Y event “Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On – A 50th Anniversary Celebration.” This online tribute to the extraordinary singer-songwriter and his groundbreaking, passionate album, which was released 50 years ago (on May 21, 1971) by Motown Records, will include two concerts, a discussion and a listening party.
Gaye’s lyrics on What’s Going On songs such as “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Save the Children” and the title track express the disillusionment a Vietnam War veteran experiences when he returns home to a country plagued by racism, police brutality, poverty, injustice and ecological destruction. You can hear his anguish as Gaye pleads:
There’s too many of you crying
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way to bring some loving here today
The album, a departure from Gaye’s pop hits and ballads, was applauded by critics, fans and activists, and was ranked in 2020 as No. 1 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
“Marvin Gaye made only one album that was political, but it was a perfect album,” says McBride, who lives in Montclair. “After that, the majority of his albums were about the joy and pain of heartbreak and relationships. So his evolution was a 360-degree turn — pop duets, love ballads, political music, then back to love ballads. Artists making music in the ’60s, I believe, were forced to change and change quickly, much like now.
“Since the album was conceived as a long-form suite, it’s hard to separate the songs. Every song is a masterpiece. As for the themes expressed … Marvin Gaye filtered the pain and angst of that era through a lens of musical beauty that is timeless.”
What’s Going On was created during a year when, backed by American air and artillery support, South Vietnamese troops invaded Laos. The Weather Underground set off a bomb in the U.S. Capitol protesting the invasion, and Lt. William Calley was found guilty of 22 murders of unarmed South Vietnamese civilians in the My Lai Massacre (though hundreds of men, women and children were actually killed).
Young people (who attained the right to vote at age 18 in 1971) joined older adults in the 1971 May Day protests, a series of civil disobedience actions in Washington D.C. protesting the Vietnam War. More than 12,000 people were arrested. The Pentagon Papers were released, Gloria Steinem made her “Address to the Women of America” at the opening conference of the Nation Women’s Political Caucus and incarcerated people at the maximum security prison in Attica, N.Y., protested prison conditions, leading to the storming of the facility by the National Guard.
I asked McBride if we’ve made any progress over the last 50 years. “I’m sure that Marvin Gaye would be highly disappointed to know that many issues he wrote about are still today’s issues — police brutality, poverty, civil war, disease, climate change, etc,” he said. “The idea is not to have a perfect world where everyone is happy all of the time, but the level of disharmony is very high now. I feel like if you look back 50 years, there has been positive change, but maybe the collective gas was taken off the pedal. We’re ‘flooring it’ now.”
McBride grew up listening to Motown and opened the 2008 Detroit Jazz Festival with a big band tribute to Gaye. He has called “What’s Going On” the new national anthem.
“Marvin Gaye’s music is some of the first music I can remember hearing as a child along with other R&B/soul legends like James Brown, Aretha Franklin,” said McBride. “It’s a challenge to find a specific connection when talking about an artist that has touched everyone who’s ever heard his music. His music is timeless.”
“Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On – A 50th Anniversary Celebration” will begin with a McBride-led concert streamed from the 92nd Street Y stage, May 21 at 7 p.m., featuring soul-jazz instrumental interpretations of the album’s songs. McBride, on bass, will be joined by fellow jazz artists Marcus Strickland on tenor saxophone, David Gilmore on guitar, Gabo Lugo on percussion, Christian Sands on piano and keyboards and Billy Kilson on drums. The event will be available for three days after the initial streaming date.
McBride said, about Gaye’s connection to jazz: “Just listen to his very first recordings on Motown — they’re jazz recordings. It’s well known to most Marvin Gaye fans that his original goal was to be the next great adult pop/standards singer. He wanted to be a Sinatra/Nat King Cole/Tony Bennett-type singer. He begrudgingly became a soul/pop singer. Yes, he was very much a jazz and standards man at heart. … From strictly a music business standpoint, Gaye is known as an R&B/soul artist, but there are way more people from outside of the box who have been deeply influenced by him.”
McBride will lead a discussion, May 23 at 3 p.m., about the album’s legacy with Janis Gaye (Marvin Gaye’s widow), Gaye biographer David Ritz, music journalist Nelson George, writer and critic Angelika Beener and Steven Reneke (creator of a symphonic concert based on What’s Going On).
June 4 at 5 p.m., McBride will lead a free listening party with a playlist from Gaye’s entire career, including his “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” duet with Tammi Terrell, and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
June 5 at 7 p.m., pianist Ray Angry will host a second concert, “Let’s Get It On: The Soul of Marvin Gaye.” Three singers, including Victory Boyd, will perform songs that demonstrate Gaye’s contributions to ’70s soul music and reflect his personal struggles, including “Let’s Get It On,” “I Want You” and “Trouble Man.” This event will also be available for three days after the premiere streaming date.
“The 92Y had in mind that we’d do a specific concert dedicated to What’s Going On and another concert that would take a broader look at Marvin,” said McBride. “Since I decided to do What’s Going On, I was trying to think of someone who I knew had roots in both jazz and soul, someone who understands Marvin Gaye’s music and could do a good job at playing his music through a contemporary lens. Ray Angry was the name that came to mind. I’ve known Ray for a long time and have respected his work through the years, especially his 2018 album One.”
During the pandemic McBride has been “resting, practicing, writing and preparing for an eventual return to performing,” he said. We can look forward to McBride’s performance, along with others, at the 12th anniversary of the Montclair Jazz Festival, produced by Jazz House Kids, where he serves as artistic director. The festival will include outdoor shows from June to August and the main event on Sept. 24-26.
“Details coming soon,” said McBride. “Stay tuned.”
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