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Family Portrait in E Flat at Urban Bush Women

Jazz music does not always take the listener from A to Z in alphabetical order. When the ear is plopped down in the middle of a jazz tune, it doesn’t necessarily know where it’s landed. However, after the song ends, when the mind and heart take a step back, everything becomes clear. Out of the abstract comes a concrete sense of exactly what is inside of the music, inside of the musician’s experience, or inside of the dancer’s response. So it was with Urban Bush Women founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Hep Hep Sweet Sweet, one of three engrossing pieces performed by the company at their UW World Series visit to Meany Hall (February 12-14). In nonlinear sections, Hep Hep explored Zollar’s experiences growing up in Kansas City as a product of the Great Migration.

Urban Bush Women 6
Urban Bush Women
Photo by Rick McCullough 

Zollar’s voice sporadically narrated her choreography. In an homage to traditional African and Native American cultures, she named her lineage as far back as those she cannot name—the slaves who were her ancestors. She described her immediate family as Texans who migrated to escape Jim Crow in the South, only to find him in a different form in the Midwest. Jazz music was her family’s refuge, their joy, their frustration, and their escape.


This joy was embodied particularly at the beginning of the piece. Six dancers blazed onto the stage, all skin, sparkles, silver, and black. They stomped, jumped, and tossed their arms with abandon. Their flat-footed, powerful movements reflected Zollar’s influences of West African, early jazz, tap, and contemporary dance. Broad-smiling solos and duets opened an invitation for the audience to respond, and, even though the house was not sold out on Friday evening, laughter, cheers, and applause filled the theater.


Zollar’s parents never told her exactly why they left Texas. They both had “big dreams.”  However, they were forced into “deep poverty” by the Midwestern form of racism. They struggled to survive in their new home, but didn’t feel they could return to their old one either. They were forced to stay present. Similarly, jazz musicians must stay in the moment with the music. However, like in Zollar’s family, there is a delicate balance between being present in the moment and being stuck in the present. Tendayi Kuumba’s movement perfectly mirrored that balance of now-ness, as she wavered between coarse, staccato isolations and soft, undulating movements. Her hands shook almost uncontrollably, then stopped suddenly, while her hips made smooth circles. She scat-spit sounds until the word “can’t” came out between audible, deep inhalations. More scatting and spitting led to more “can’ts” and she placed her hands on her chest. Finally, she spit out “can’t go back.”

Urban Bush Women 5
Urban Bush Women
Photo by Rick McCullough 

Her voice was desperate, disdainful, and disempowered, and while her tottering feet moved her forward and back, she stayed in essentially the same spot. Her shaking finger pointed to what one could only imagine was Texas, the past. With melancholy in her tone of voice and a defeatedness to her quivering posture, she expressed anger, sadness, nostalgia, devastation, and pride, all at the same time. The statement “can’t go back” suggested that she (and, by extension, Zollar’s parents) did not want to return to such hatred. In contrast, she also felt stuck in her new home. Either way, she literally couldn’t “go back.”


Joy threatened to return toward the end of the piece, when the dancers broke into peppy movement. They ended in the same presentational positions from the end of the first chapter, but then slowly deflated from their poses and tried assuming those of other dancers. Nothing seemed to fit. They looked restless, hopeless, and unable to make a decision.


Zollar did not try to offer a happy ending. She was unafraid to show both the dark and the light in this little portrait of her family. Like a great jazz tune, when one took a step back from this non-linear, section-based piece, the message became clear. This portrait was but one of many, but Zollar offered conclusions about the black experience of the Great Migration in general while still keeping the story personal, true to the style of African-based culture. These were her family’s experiences, as filtered through her own lens, then again through the bodies, minds, and voices of her dancers. She explored the uncomfortable history of her family and others like hers, while successfully inviting the audience into a safe space to explore with her.

Urban Bush Women 4 (1)
Urban Bush Women
Photo by Rick McCullough

A similar invitation was offered in the other two pieces presented alongside Hep. nora chipaumire’s dark swan turned The Dying Swan on its white head and ruffled its feathers, exploring the use of the black female body as an object. The power of it lay in its dry humor and irony. The familiar Dying Swan music was played twice, while the dancers hardly moved. They jiggled, then bouréed backwards with bent knees on their heels. The second half of the piece took a more in-your-face approach. The dancers faced upstage and undulated their hips, making their backsides the major focus. Kuumba scatted again in dark swan, here slowly spitting out the word “black.” Her vocalization ended the unison undulations and immediately pulled everything together. The real exclamation point came at the very end, when the dancers exited strongly and royally, in charge of their own bodies.


The show-closer for the evening, Walking with ‘Trane, Chapter 2, was inspired by John Coltrane’s seminal jazz work A Love Supreme, which is coincidentally celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Choreographed by Zollar and Samantha Speis in collaboration with the company, this important, potent work was based on Coltrane’s spirituality. Although the company’s diverse influences were still apparent in the choreography, the movement was more contemporary in style, even balletic at times. Dressed in light, cottony clothing, the dancers moved with fluidity, grace, and poise. Even when they were close to the ground, they seemed to direct their movement and attention upward, perhaps to a higher power. The live music was gentle yet roiling, and the piano was an apt choice for the quietness of the movement.


Overall, the evening demonstrated Urban Bush Women’s unflinching, unapologetic, and courageous dedication to the beauty of the experiences of the African Diaspora. Like a good jazz tune, the artists invited the audience on a journey. They revealed diverse influences and deep meanings, movement by movement, sound by sound, emotion by emotion.