Imani Winds Hits Its Mark on 'Josephine Baker' If it's possible for a classically trained wind quintet to rock the house, Imani Winds blows the roof off. The five musicians came together 10 years ago with a common goal: To show young people of color there's a place for them in all of the arts. Imani Winds' Josephine Baker: A Life Of Le Jazz Hot! is a CD of original music inspired by Baker's life.
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Imani Winds Hits Its Mark on 'Josephine Baker'

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Imani Winds Hits Its Mark on 'Josephine Baker'


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Imani Winds Hits Its Mark on 'Josephine Baker'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

Imani Winds is a Grammy-winning woodwind quintet, whose members are African-American and Latino. The group formed 10 years ago to try to change the face and the sound of classical music. And on most accounts, they are succeeding.

To celebrate their anniversary, Imani Winds is releasing a CD tribute to legendary singer and dancer Josephine Baker.

Here's NPR's Elizabeth Blair with a profile.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: The first thing that strikes you about Imani Winds is how they look. Young, attractive and stylish - the four women and one man could easily be mistaken for a slick new R&B group, where it not for the fact that they play bassoon, flute, clarinet, oboe and French horn.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: Imani Winds was founded by flutist and composer, Valerie Coleman. Originally from Louisville, Kentucky, Coleman wanted to form a wind quintet made up of classically trained musicians of color. Only trouble was she didn't know very many, so she cold called music schools like Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music.

Ms. TORIN SPELLMAN-DIAZ (Oboist, Imani Winds): And asked who the young, hot musicians of color were.

BLAIR: Torin Spellman-Diaz plays oboe.

Ms. SPELLMAN-DIAZ: And I don't mean hot by, you know, looking, hot looking. I mean, the musicians that were doing pretty well in their schools.

BLAIR: The bassoonist for Imani Winds, Monica Ellis, says that she was intrigued by the idea of being in a group that would push some boundaries.

Ms. MONICA ELLIS (Bassoonist, Imani Winds): There's just a handful of professional wind quintet, so right then and there, you're already talking about a small pool. And then, when you're speaking of the ethnic backgrounds being similar, then that's obviously puts it in even a smaller pool of people. But that is not a challenge to us. In fact, that was the very point of the ensemble we formed in order to do something that hadn't been done before.

BLAIR: Like adding a lot more music to the rather limited wind quintet repertoire. Imani Winds has commissioned new works and discovered pieces by composers from Africa and Latin America. Both Valerie Coleman and Imani's French horn player, Jeff Scott, are composers who test out original material on the group.

For about a year, they immerse themselves in all things Josephine Baker, and wrote music for a show about her life.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: Josephine Baker was an exotic dancer, singer, comedian, expatriate in Paris and activist. For Valerie Coleman, she's a hero for what she did onstage and off.

Ms. VALERIE COLEMAN (Flutist, Imani Winds): I mean, hey, she was a spy for World War II. She snuck Jewish immigrants across the border to get away from Nazis. She was someone who inspired people to really think outside of themselves and to think freely a part of the way that she dance.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: Imani Winds will tour their multimedia Josephine Baker tribute this fall with Jazz singer Rene Marie.

(Soundbite of song, "Don't Touch My Tomatoes")

Ms. RENE MARIE (Jazz Singer): (Singing) Hey, mister, don't touch my tomatoes. Please, don't you touch my tomatoes. Touch me, pound me apple, potatoes. Please, don't you touch my tomatoes.

BLAIR: If you look at Imani's concert programs, you'll see works by traditional classical composers alongside those from jazz and world music. That was important to Valerie Coleman and a requirement for Jeff Scott, the lone male in the group.

Mr. JEFF SCOTT (French Hornist, Iman Winds): When I'd first joined the group, you know, the one of the things I told the girls is that if we were going to go on and do this as a career, I didn't want to just do Bach and Mozart.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SCOTT: You know, and God bless them. It's beautiful music. But, you know, music is just so expansive and it covers so many different genres. And so this was just a chance to really sink our teeth into something that is already inherently part of our tradition.

Ms. COLEMAN: Mm-hmm. Right. Right.

Mr. SCOTT: You know, I say, it just really gives you a chance to just relax and just, you know, play sounds and create and know that it's coming from a place that's really deep in you already.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: A few years ago, Valerie Coleman wrote an arrangement for the African-American anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." It builds from a simple folk tune into an energetic hem of joy.

(Soundbite of music)

BLAIR: One critic said Imani Winds is the future of the woodwind quintet. They are working pretty hard to groom future audiences by constantly putting on educational concerts for kids around the country. Torin Spellman-Diaz wrote a funny theater piece called, "How Jeff Got His Groove Back." The five members play different parts - sing, act and use their instruments as props. At one point, the flute is a telescope and the bassoon, a broomstick.

In the story, Jeff is a fifth grader, who wins a music competition with his rendition of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star," a real crowd pleaser.

(Soundbite of music, "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star")

BLAIR: A wicked witch steals Jeff's award, and along with it goes his groove. In his search to get it back, Jeff uses a payphone to call the opera-rator, sung by Torin Spellman-Diaz.

(Soundbite of musical, "How Jeff Got His Groove Back")

Ms. SPELLMAN-DIAZ: (As Opera-rator) (Singing) (Unintelligible)

Mr. SCOTT: (As Jeff) (Singing) What if I gave you 50 more cents, would you help me then?

Ms. SPELLMAN-DIAZ: (As Opera-rator) (Singing) Now you're speaking my language.

BLAIR: The members of the Imani Winds want to get rid of the idea that classical music is white musicians playing music by dead white men for largely white audiences. When you talk to them, it's clear they have got two goals in mind: reaching new audiences and promoting the wind quintet, a minority in a chamber music world dominated by string quartets.

From the beginning, Imani Winds reached out to the black press and vice versa. As a result, audiences for their concerts are mostly African-American. Torin Spellman-Diaz says there's been a lot of progress in the decade Imani has been together, but the broader classical world has a ways to go.

Ms. SPELLMAN-DIAZ: The face of the audience needs to be changed just as much as the face of the musician needs to be changed in classical music. Everybody needs to be involved with listening and appreciating and creating and helping to help the chamber music evolve.

BLAIR: Imani Winds has a signature tune they play at almost every gig, and included on their first two CDs. Written by Valerie Coleman, it's called "Umoja," which in Swahili means unity.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

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