John Daversa uses the political power of jazz with his Grammy-winning American Dreamers

Welcome to Earfood, a column from arts writer Ashante Infantry that aims to nourish, and satisfy, your sonic curiosity. Earfood explores the ingredients of jazz’s past and present, describing the music and the conditions of its creation and development, contextualizing the genre’s newest sounds. 

In her youth, when Leezia Dhalla played cello and sang in choirs, she never imagined herself a Grammy-winning artist. But Sunday night found the 29-year-old Edmonton native sharing the prize for best large jazz ensemble album.

Dhalla is one of 53 undocumented Americans featured on the John Daversa Big Band’s American Dreamers: Voices of Hope, Music of Freedom, which garnered three Grammys at the 61st annual awards.

Since the Deferred Action for Childhood Early Arrivals (DACA) policy was rescinded in 2017, about 800,000 DACA recipients, known as Dreamers, are in jeopardy of losing the school and work permits they were granted under the program and ultimately being deported.

Funded largely by private donors, the American Dreamers album features Dreamers from 17 states. They originally hailed from 17 different countries, including Canada; Dhalla left Alberta with her parents when she was six years old.

The family had a visa when they settled in Texas, but were unsuccessful in legalizing their status once it expired. Now living in Washington, D.C., where she works for an immigration reform advocacy organization, Dhalla helped Daversa’s team identify DACA musicians and vocalists for the recording. She also contributed to percussion.

“The reception has been incredible and really positive,” Dhalla said.

American Dreamers features a mix of banner anthems like Stars and Stripes Forever and America the Beautiful, and literal protest tunes such as Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song and Woody Gutherie’s Deportee.

“Here we have people from all walks of life with all different kinds of talent — it really shows that when you come together you can build something beautiful and unique,” Dhalla added.

john daversa
John Daversa won three awards at the 61st Grammys on Feb. 10, 2019.

Jazz has a rich history of addressing sociopolitical issues. The late ‘50s birthed both Dizzy Gillespie’s novel and controversial overseas tours on behalf of the U.S. government to counteract the spread of Soviet communism and mitigate the impression of racial unrest in the U.S., and We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Suite, which chronicled the civil-rights struggles of African Americans.

In recent years, New Orleanians Terence Blanchard and Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah have tackled specific issues: The former’s Hurricane Katrina requiem won two Grammys, while the latter has used his music to address police brutality.

“I think that as long as there’s a hunger for actual freedom in America, and actual discourse and dialogue about what is really happening in this place, then the music’s trajectory will continue to rise,” Scott told Rolling Stone magazine. “When the minds of Americans are hungry, they always go to jazz to get fed.”

Presently, Jane Bunnett and Terri Lynn Carrington are leaders in advancing women in jazz both on and off the bandstand. And on Feb. 15, trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith will release Rosa Parks: Pure Love. An Oratorio of Seven Songs, inspired by the civil-rights hero.

Daversa, the grandchild of Sicilian immigrants, was inspired by his musical predecessors.

“Some, like Max Roach, were very specific about social change, and some were more of this defiance of any kind of oppression, like Miles Davis — ‘I’m going to play my music in the most honest way that we can, and that is truth’ — or John Coltrane, where it’s inclusive; A Love Supreme, it’s about something much bigger than us even. And all of that translates through the music — it’s beautiful. And those were beacons for me,” Daversa said by phone from the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music, where he is chair of the Studio Music and Jazz Department.

“I’m not trying to come out with the bullhorn or get on the soapbox and yell out any biases. I just want to let everyone know that these (Dreamers) are real people and humanize the issue, and then everybody can make up their own mind politically where they are.”

With American Dreamers, Daversa said he was purposeful in including anthemic American numbers like Stars and Stripes Forever, which won him the Grammy for best arrangement (instrumental or a cappella).

“Those songs mean something deep and sometimes unconscious to every one that lives here,” said Daversa. “There’s a certain reverence that you have to bring to those pieces of music and then find your statement on it. There’s a sense of hope always with those songs, because that’s what the foundation of the country was built on: ‘Let’s see if we can make this better.’”

The album also includes a searing original, All Is One, that he composed. “It’s all about hope, love and joy, and that, for better or not, we’re all in this together,” he said.

“Music is a powerful thing, and any time we’re making music, at least for me, where I’m at right now, I need to really be responsible about what that purpose and what that meaning is with all these sounds, with all these vibrations, that are going out into the world.”

Ashante Infantry is a Canadian arts writer and a former Toronto Star journalist.