Rosa Parks Boulevard for three trombones and orchestra was commissioned, premiered and recorded in 1999 by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Jarvi. The work pays tribute to the woman who helped set in motion the modern civil rights movement by her refusal to move to the back of the bus in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama. In 1957, she came to Detroit, Michigan, where she has lived ever since. Once of the many honors bestowed upon Rosa Parks, is a boulevard named after her, located in downtown Detroit. For me, Rosa Parks stands for the willingness to challenge boundaries and cross over them.
In the fall of 1999, I had the pleasure of attending a Sunday church service with Rosa Parks, at the St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church in Detroit. For more than four decades she has attended this modest church with the motto: "the Church Where Everybody is Somebody," hand-painted over its entrance. During the four hour service, I joined in with Rosa Parks and the congregation to sing various gospel hymns and hear the inspired oratory from the preacher, Reverend Robinson.
From her association with the Reverend Martin Luther King in the fifties to the present day, the spirit of the African American preacher has been a source of strength to Rosa Parks. The African American poet James Weldon Johnson was also inspired by the voice of the preacher in his 1927 volume of poetry, entitled "God’s Trombones." In his preface he describes how the preacher "strode the pulpit up and down in what was actually a very rhythmic dance, and he brought into play the full gamut of his wonderful voice, a voice — what shall I say? – not of an organ or a trumpet, but rather of a trombone, the instrument possessing above all others, the power to express the wide and varied range of emotions encompassed by the human voice – and with greater amplitude. He intoned, he moaned, he pleased – he blared, he crashed, he thundered. I sat fascinated; and more, I was, perhaps against my will, deeply moved; the emotional effect upon me was irresistible."
After the Church service, Rosa Parks told me her favorite piece of music was the traditional African American spiritual, "Oh Freedom." Fragments of this melody are played in musical canons by the trombone section, echoing the voices of many generations of African American preachers in Detroit and throughout America. In addition to the soulful trombones, I composed a musical motive which I associate with Rosa Parks. It is first heard in the woodwinds and vibraphone. These lyrical sections alternate with a turbulent bus ride, evoked by atonal polyrhythms in the trumpets, horns and percussion instruments. The recurrence of ominous beating in the bass drum reminds us that while progress was made in civil rights in the twentieth century, there is still much to be done in the twenty-first century.