While growing up in Houston, Texas, Reggie Quinerly heard talk of Freedmantown, a largely forgotten African-American neighborhood established by newly emancipated slaves directly following the Civil War. He even attended Gregory Lincoln Middle School in the heart of the 28-block area that had once been Freedmantown and is now the city’s Fourth Ward. Yet until fairly recently, no plaque, building, or other marker memorialized this community, which historian Mary Louise Passey describes as a “stable, black residential neighborhood with a large number of homeowners.”
“I just knew the name,” Quinerly says now. “I didn’t know anything about the history.”
Although he left Houston in 1999 at age 18 to study at the Mannes School of Music at New York’s New School University and soon established himself as one of the busiest freelance drummers on the New York jazz scene, thoughts of Freedmantown continued to haunt him. On trips home, he visited libraries, tracked down rare historical texts, and began learning about some of the pioneers who built houses, schools, and businesses in that neighborhood.
Music Inspired by Freedmantown, Quinerly’s debut recording, is in many ways the result of that research. It pays tribute, he says, to “people working together for a common good in the midst of great uncertainty” and attempts to capture in music “a certain soulfulness” of both the joys and tremendous struggles of those who populated the area. Quinerly is joined on the disc by a cast of world-class players that includes tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield, bassist Vicente Archer, pianist Gerald Clayton, and guitarist Mike Moreno.
With the exception of the standards “I’m Old Fashioned” and “Sentimental Journey,” all the songs on the CD were composed by Quinerly and most relate directly to Freedmantown. The set kicks off with “A Corner View from Robin Street,” a salute to a street in Freedmantown on which the drummer alternates between a shuffle and swing groove while Warfield and Clayton solo. “Fenster” is a blues that features Warfield, Clayton, and Moreno and a remarkable drum solo played by Quinerly over Archer’s steady walking bass lines.
“Fenster” is about a fictional character—“someone who always knows where to go to have a good time. I imagined a theme song that would play as he walked the street in Freedmantown, then and now,” the drummer explains. “I’m sure they had party-lovin’ people then, and we have them now.”
“The Virginia Gentleman” contrasts two different New Orleans–inspired rhythms—one drawn from the second-line tradition, the other borrowed from the late, great Ahmad Jamal drummer Vernel Fournier, himself a New Orleans native. Quinerly named the song for Richard Allen, a Virginia-born slave brought to Houston who went on to become one of the first African-American elected state representatives.
Moreno and Clayton are also featured on “#2 Xylent Letters,” a jazz waltz that Quinerly describes as being “almost Wayne Shorter–inspired.” “There’s a little darkness to it in order to show that not everything as it relates to Freedmantown at that particular time is ebullient, not everything is joyous, not everything is overtly bluesy,” he adds. “There’s another mysterious sentiment underlying what’s going on.”
“A Portrait of a Southern Frame” is a dirge led by trumpeter Antoine Drye that features Quinerly’s funeral procession-like rolls and a drum solo that is unusual, particularly at such a slow tempo. “In Houston and in the South, the marching band tradition has always been used to evoke many different emotions,” Quinerly explains. “There’s a very somber element to this piece. It’s about the South, about a time that’s very difficult, very uncertain, and very new. The South was a war-torn region, vacillating between two very contrasting ways of thinking and potential outcomes. The resolution after the solo section alludes to the optimistic school of thought that produced the Reconstruction period after the South’s defeat.”
Quinerly’s song “Freedmantown” is a soulful homage to the neighborhood with a down-home, church-influenced groove. The drummer wrote the music, and Enoch Smith Jr. penned the lyrics, which he sings in almost whispered tenor tones. Smith, with whom Quinerly had first played at Calvary Baptist Church in Paterson, New Jersey, also wrote the arrangement, which includes a middle section featuring trumpeter Drye and trombonist Corey King. The instrumental polyphony after the solos is augmented by a group of people talking, which reflect the communal spirit that underlies Freedmantown.
“It’s a very celebratory vibe, almost more of a release,” Quinerly says of the performance of his song. “It’s like a homecoming or a very informal reunion.” (He adds that the reference to West Dallas in the lyric is not to the city of that name but to one of the thoroughfares in Freedmantown.)
The bossa nova–inspired “Live from the Last Row” does not relate directly to an experience in Freedmantown but is rather a showcase for the fluid, warmly melodic guitar of Moreno, Quinerly’s former classmate at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. And the drummer doesn’t even play on “Victoria,” which, at seven minutes and 37 seconds, is the longest track on the disc. He did, however, write the tune’s tender melody and lyrics and recorded it as a duet by fast-rising New York vocalist Sarah Elizabeth Charles and pianist Clayton. The song was written in dedication to his sister, Verrene Victoria Quinerly.
“I’m Old Fashioned” is taken at a double-time clip and serves as a showcase for Quinerly’s subtly swinging approach to the drums, both when using brushes and when playing with sticks. It’s a tip of the hat of sorts to his onetime teacher Kenny Washington’s work with the Bill Charlap Trio. “We wanted to capture that cool control often associated with the great piano groups of Oscar Peterson, Nat Cole, and Teddy Wilson,” Quinerly says.
Warfield and Clayton both solo on a swinging treatment of the Les Brown–Doris Day hit “Sentimental Journey,” which the drummer knew from Ella Fitzgerald’s version. He picked it because it’s his mother’s favorite song and, as Quinerly says, “something about the song and its lyrics always have a way of raising my spirits.”
Reggie Quinerly was born in Houston on November 16, 1980, and took up drums at age 8 after hearing drummer Lester Grant playing at Pilgrim United Church of Christ, which Quinerly attended with his family.
“Many people, including myself, come to jazz through church, with the latter helping to shape the way we hear and play the former. In my mind, he was a jazz drummer first,” Quinerly says of Grant. “Much later I discovered he had been a top session drummer in the ’50s for many traveling blues and jazz acts, which explained why the way he played wasn’t necessarily from the gospel tradition. It wasn’t shoutin’ music. Sitting at his side, I developed my sensibility for hearing the drums a little bit differently. It was definitely more low-key.”
He studied with Grant for a year, then with Sam Dinkins, about whom Quinerly says, “He knew how to play all the percussion instruments—not just drums, not just the drum set, but all of the world percussion. I was exposed to all kinds of music and all kinds of styles. He was also the consummate professional. Being a drummer, even a great one, was never enough. He stressed the importance of building businesses and creating opportunities for other artists to thrive. Those lessons have stayed with me.”
After graduating from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, where his classmates included Moreno, Robert Glasper, Eric Harland, and Jason Moran, he went straight to New York City and enrolled at the Mannes School of Music, where he got to pick as instructors three of his drum heroes—Jimmy Cobb, Lewis Nash, and Kenny Washington—from a list of possibilities provided by the school. He earned a B.A. from Mannes and later an M.A. from Juilliard, both in Jazz Studies. Since leaving Texas, Quinerly has worked with such notable musicians as Von Freeman, Vincent Herring, John Hicks, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, Christian McBride, Wynton Marsalis, and Greg Osby. With saxophonist Marcus Strickland, he also played and lectured in New York City schools as part of Lincoln Center’s Jazz in the Schools program.
“We talked about improvisation and syncopation,” the drummer says. “Putting broad concepts into compact, bite-sized pieces that the students could take with them to try and enjoy.”
Quinerly has lived in a former silk mill in Paterson, New Jersey, for the past ten years and has played drums every Sunday for the past six at Calvary Baptist Church in that city. He visits his family and friends in Houston frequently and nine years ago established Redefinition: An Artistic Experience. The multimedia event, held every December at Houston’s 400-seat Ensemble Theatre, features musicians, dancers, poets, and visual artists from the Gulf Coast region, as well as performers like Quinerly who are visiting home from places near and far.
“I knew dancers, visual artists, and musicians who’d gone to New York and gigged all over the world, but had no place to perform when they came home for Christmas,” the drummer explains. “Instead of asking a club for a date with my hat in my hand, I decided to put together our money and our resources to produce an event that would showcase our talent for the fans and family who supported us from day one.”
With Redefinition, Quinerly is giving back to the community that spawned him. And with Music Inspired by Freedmantown, he is giving Houston and the world at large vibrant musical memories of a time and place that should not be forgotten. •
Reggie Quinerly: Music Inspired by Freedmantown
Street Date: September 18, 2012
Web Site: www.reggiequinerly.com