The Symbol of the Unconquered w/ William Hooker

Date/Time
Date(s) - Saturday 02/14/2009
7:00 pm - 9:00 pm

Percussionist William Hooker, the genre-bending free jazz legend, will improvise a live soundtrack to pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s 1920 silent film classic The Symbol of the Unconquered, originally advertised as a chance to come see “the annihilation of the Ku Klux Klan.”

William Hooker is an artistic whole, a vast circle of vision and execution.  A body of uninterrupted work beginning in the mid-seventies defines him as one of the most important composers and players in jazz.  As bandleader, Hooker has fielded ensembles in an incredibly diverse array of configurations.  Each collaboration has brought a serious investigation of his compositional agenda and the science of the modern drum kit.  As a player, Hooker has long been known for the persuasive power of his relationship with his instrument.  His work is frequently grounded in a narrative context.  Whether set against a silent film or anchored by a poetic theme, Hooker brings dramatic tension and human warmth to avant-garde jazz.  His ability to find fertile ground for moving music in a variety of settings that obliterate genre distinctions offers a much-needed statement of social optimism in the arts.  A disciplined, adaptive, and energetic approach to his medium insures that the oeuvre of William Hooker will continue to grow thicker and richer.  William Hooker has released more than 40 critically acclaimed CDs.  As a composer, he has received commissions from Meet the Composer, the NY State Council on the Arts, Real Art Ways, Walker Arts Center and others.

About William Hooker:

Drummer William Hooker, who moved to New York in 1974, remained fundamentally faithful to the aesthetic of free-jazz (despite a passion for exoteric/spiritual themes), starting with the double-LP Is Eternal Life (May 1975), a set of collaborations with other improvisers (including tenor saxophonists David Murray and David Ware.  Rediscovered by Sonic Youth’s guitarist Thurston Moore for the rock audience, Hooker returned to a more abstract and free-form kind of creative improvisation in the main works of his prolific middle age: Darkness (November 1992) and The Spirits Return (April 1994) on the live Radiation, by Hooker’s band featuring Donald Miller (Borbetomagus), electronic musician Brian Doherty, Compo, Kono; a duet with Moore (Sirius) and an electro acoustic duet with guitarist Elliot Sharp (The Hat) on Shamballa (1993), and recordings with Zeena Parkins, Billy Bang, and Lee Renaldo (Sonic Youth), DJ Olive, and Christian Marclay. 

The albums with Ranaldo were heavily influenced by his screeching sounds, just like his turbulent wall of noise heavily influenced the albums with Donald Miller.  Armageddon (February 1995) marked a change in direction, both because the improvisations turned towards a more sophisticated kind of sound painting and because the stylistic palette expanded dramatically, ranging from a Dadaistic duet with turntabilist Gregor “DJ Olive” Asch to the 16-minute free jam State Secrets for drums and two guitars. 

About the film:

Oscar Micheaux was an independent filmmaker and entrepreneur, whose earliest and most significant films were responses to D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation,” portraying the African-American struggle against white racism and the KKK. These films were “Within Our Gates” (1919) and “Symbol of the Unconquered” (1920), both lost for decades and restored in the 1990s.  In “Symbol of the Unconquered,” the black hero holds his ground and chivalrously protects a lovely light-skinned mulatto neighbor (who is passing as white) as a local gang of thieves and hooded, torch-carrying Klansmen plots to frighten him, steal his land and finally, to kill him.  Though how they do it remains unknown due to a key missing reel, the amorous “black” couple emerges from the ordeal unscathed and thrilled to discover their shared racial identity.  Laced within these (and many other) Micheaux melodramas are themes of inter- and intra-racial tensions and hatred. 

This event in the “Free Jazz from the Sanctuary” series is co-sponsored by the Arts Department at RPI and the Albany Sonic Arts Collective, with support from the NY State Council on the Arts and the NY State Music Fund, established by the New York State Attorney General at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

 Admission $10. 

Our press release: Master Drummer William Hooker Performs Live Soundtrack for Silent Film Classic “The Symbol of the Unconquered” at Sanctuary Season Opener (TROY) NYC-based drummer William Hooker makes his Capital Region premiere at The Sanctuary for Independent Media on Saturday, February 14, 2009 at 8 PM for a screening of the Oscar Micheaux 1920 silent film classic “The Symbol of the Unconquered.” Admission for the all-ages show is $10. This performance is part of the 13-part “Free Jazz from the Sanctuary” series being videotaped for national distribution. Call (518) 272-2390, email info@MediaSanctuary.org, or visit www.MediaSanctuary.org for directions and more information. The Sanctuary for Independent Media is located at 3361 6th Avenue in North Troy. Percussionist William Hooker—a genre-bending free jazz legend whose collaborations range from the Isley Brothers to Sonic Youth—will improvise a live soundtrack to this recently-rediscovered 1920 silent film by pioneering African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux, originally advertised as a chance to come see “the annihilation of the Ku Klux Klan.” William Hooker biography: by Nathan Bush, from www.AllMusic.com Working on the periphery of the jazz world since he moved to New York in 1974, William Hooker’s kinetically charged, free-time drumming style and spoken word poetry have been matched with some of the finest improvising talent across generations and stylistic boundaries. From solo explorations to collaborations with Billy Bang, Lee Ranaldo, and DJ Olive, Hooker’s music has surfaced on a smattering of independently minded record labels aiming to document some of the most distinctive musicians working this indefinable terrain. Born in New Britain, CT, on June 18, 1946, William Hooker initially approached the drum kit with reluctance. Hesitancy was soon replaced by commitment, however, and at age 12, he was getting his first taste of performing, supporting the Isley Brothers, Dionne Warwick, and Gary “U.S.” Bonds as a member of the Flames. In college, he enrolled in a course on 20th Century Composers, writing a paper on the atonal music of Alban Berg. Combined with an independent study of the jazz albums on Blue Note Records, the drummer was ensured a unique music education. Local musicians like the tenor saxophonist Al Pitts and bassist Bob Snell provided more practical tutelage. Hooker eventually made a trek out to the West Coast with his good friend Tyrone Lampkin (future drummer for Parliament/Funkadelic), an eye-opening experience for the young musician. While he was disappointed by the lack of ability on the jazz scene as a whole, the radical consciousness of the period led to his initial attempts at “free” playing. Hooker moved back to Hartford, CT, where he lived briefly before heading to New York in 1974. In his new home, the drummer quickly established himself amongst the city’s jazz, loft scene. The new jazz of Delmark and Actuel BYG began replacing the Blue Note Records in his collection. Unable to find a label for himself, Hooker established the non-profit Reality Unit Concepts to fund his debut, 1978’s Is Eternal Life, a collection of solo, duo, and trio performances with prominent tenor saxophonists David Murray and David S. Ware and altoist Jemeel Moondoc. Hooker spent much of the 1980s hard at work, performing with a number of his own ensembles. Rather than establishing a regular unit, the drummer drew from a community of musicians that included trumpeter Lewis Barnes, saxophonists Blaise Siwula and Charles Compo, pianist Mark Hennen, and guitarist Jesse Henry. Sadly, little of the music he made during the decade found its way onto records. It wasn’t until the early ’90s that more outlets became available. Hooker’s work emerged on independent labels like Knitting Factory, Silkheart, and Homestead. The drummer began receiving increasing attention from the underground rock sector. Fans and artists of post-punk and indie rock were turning their ear toward experimental and improvised music, including the sort of free jazz Hooker performed. Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore, a longtime admirer of the genre, released the drummer’s Subconscious album (1994) on his Ecstatic Peace label. Hooker soon began performing with younger musicians beyond the immediate scope of jazz (oftentimes at Knitting Factory jams). Shamballa (1993) pits Hooker’s fiery drumming against the unkempt feedback bursts of Moore and the calculated guitar electronics of Elliot Sharp. Envisioning (1994) captures an improv date with Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo that includes spoken word segments. The duo was joined by the ecstatic electric harp work of Zeena Parkins for the date that produced 1995’s the Gift of Tongues. Hooker also brought electronics into his music, collaborating with Brian Doherty, Doug Walker, and Gert-Jan Prins, and turntablists DJ Olive (on 1995’s Armageddon and 1997’s Mindfulness) and Christian Marclay (2000’s Bouquet). Oscar Micheaux biography: by Joseph Worrell, from www.SilentEra.com Writer, producer and director, Oscar Micheaux is the father of Afro-American cinema. The most prolific Afro-American filmmaker of the silent era, Micheaux produced more than 40 films between 1919 and 1940, and was active as a novelist until his death. Quaintly referred to as the “Cecil B. De Mille of Race Movies,” Micheaux was a controversial figure during his lifetime. Like today’s premier Afro-American director Spike Lee, Micheaux and his films were publicly misunderstood. The grandson of a slave, and the fifth of 11 children, Micheaux was born in Metropolis, Illinois on January 2, 1884. He worked at various jobs, a coal miner, a stockyards worker and a Pullman porter, before becoming a homesteader and novelist in Gregory, South Dakota, in the 1910s. Failing to get his novel, The Homesteader, made into a film through the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, Micheaux established his own motion picture and book publishing company while studying the techniques of film production. The Micheaux Film and Book Publishing Corporation, founded 1918 in Chicago, would soon be the most prolific of all black-owned independent film companies. The Homesteader (1919) with Charles D. Lucas, Evelyn Preer and Iris Hall was his first entry in the race-film industry. A fledging industry known as “race movies,” existed in the United States from 1910 to the end of World War II. Made predominantly by Blacks (especially in the 1920s) for black audiences, these independent films emerged from a direct response to Jim Crow theaters and an exclusionary Hollywood system. They were a part of the Afro-American community’s attempts in countering and providing alternative images to the stereotypes so prevalent in mainstream culture. The William D. Foster Film Company, actor and cofounder Nobel Johnson’s Lincoln Motion Picture, The Richard F. Norman Company of Florida (The Flying Ace, 1926), and the Philadelphia-based Colored Players Film Corp. (The Scar of Shame, 1929) were other important race-film producers. Produced outside the Hollywood system, Micheaux’s race cinema cannot be viewed as commercial entertainment. An appreciation of them must take Afro-American history and the prevailing ideology into context. Micheaux and other black filmmakers experienced manifold financial, technical and systemic obstacles in producing and distributing their films. He produced his films on low ‘shoestring’ budgets and marketed them himself peddling and reediting a single print from city to city for exhibitors, regional censorship boards and theatre owners. Always in search for new markets, Micheaux traveled to Europe and South America. An enterprising showman, Micheaux used this forte in persuading hesitant Southern theater owners to screen his films in segregated cinemas or at blacks-only “midnight ramble” showings. While on promotional tours, he would procure financial backers for upcoming projects, encourage black businessmen to invest in black theaters and scout for fresh screen talent. Micheaux Productions went bankrupt in 1928, reincorporated in 1930, going into final receivership in 1940. Like D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford, Micheaux also created his own star system/stock company of featured players. Evelyn Preer, a talented dramatic actress with the Lafayette Theatre Players Company, was his first leading lady. She starred in nine Micheaux features and was, in addition, a popular musical comedy and race recording artist. Lawrence Chenault, Lorenzo Tucker (dubbed the “black Rudolph Valentino”), Clarence Brooks, Ethel Moses, Andrew Bishop (a regular villain), Shingzie Howard, Alec Lovejoy, Katherine Noisette, Laura Bowman and his statuesque wife, Alice B. Russell, were other Micheaux regulars. Attractive and assertive personalities, they were detached from the Afro-American menial stereotypes found in Hollywood films. Biographical details about Micheaux players remain obscure. Micheaux, a maverick and a social activist, did not hesitate in confronting issues that agitated both black and white audiences. His films interrogated the value systems of both communities in a variety of controversial subjects, causing problems with the press and state censors in the process. In essence, Micheaux’s films represented the emergence of a radical black voice in the mass media. Tales of mixed-race relationships or miscegenation was his favorite theme in critiques of ‘passing,’ assimilation and racial betrayal. His second feature, Within Our Gates (1920), was a rebuttal to D.W. Griffith’s Ku Klux Klan propaganda of The Birth of a Nation (1915). Micheaux’s multiple subplots revolve around the travails of heroine Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) and her attempt to raise money from a wealthy Boston patroness to save a Southern black school. Within Our Gates remains a poignant indictment of a Southern lynching and the attempted rape of the mixed race heroine by a white molester who turns out to be her father. Here, Micheaux counters and exposes the trajectory contradictions of Klan vigilantism and White America’s fears of miscegenation. His films reflected his racial ‘uplift’ didacticism and were part of his attempts to raise social consciousness while probing the black community’s values in a realistic, if not always ‘positive’ light. Body and Soul (1925) featured Paul Robeson in his screen debut. Robeson plays a dual role of a ‘good’ twin brother and a bogus ‘preacher’ who preys on a small community’s religious fervor and then attempts to rape the heroine Julia Theresa Russell (Micheaux’s future sister-in-law). The Afro-American press, sometimes misguided, criticized him for representing corruption in the black clergy (a sensitive area) and ‘exploiting’ black urban life, crime and sexuality in his films. The film ran into trouble with New York censors. The censored and truncated print of Body and Soul, unfortunately, is all that survives of Micheaux’s original intentions. Forgotten for many years, most of Micheaux’s films were mislaid or destroyed. The Homesteader (1919), The Brute (1920), The Gunsaulus Mystery (1921), Birthright (1924), The House Behind the Cedars (1925), The Conjure Woman (1926), The Spider’s Web (1927), The Millionaire (1927), The Wages of Sin (1928) are among his presumed lost silent films. A Daughter of the Congo (1930), a part-talkie, and Easy Street (1930) are also presumed lost. The Library of Congress holds a 16mm reduction print of The Exile (1931), his first full-length sound feature. Considered lost for decades, Within Our Gates (La Negra) was discovered in Madrid’s Filmoteca Espanol in 1990. The Library of Congress later restored and retranslated its subtitles. Within Our Gates, The Symbol of the Unconquered (1920) discovered in a Belgian archive, and Body and Soul (restored by George Eastman House) are Micheaux’s earliest surviving features. Only Within Our Gates (1920) and Body and Soul (1925) are available on VHS and DVD home video. His equally rare sound films, Veiled Aristocrats (1932), The Girl from Chicago (1932), Murder in Harlem (1935), God’s Stepchildren (1937), Swing! (1938) and Lying Lips (1939) are currently available. Difficult to situate in history, it was convenient to ignore race filmmaking as an aesthetic or political practice. Today, Micheaux and his contemporaries (The R.F. Norman Company and The Colored Players Corporation) are experiencing a renaissance of critical study and appreciation. The recent efforts of archivists Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines and J. Ronald Green have ensured that their legacy is finally being recognized as a worthy contribution to American cinema. Micheaux died on March 25, 1951 in Charlotte, North Carolina, of heart disease. In 1987, he was honored with a star on Hollywood Boulevard. He remains a major film stylist and politico. Plot summary for The Symbol of the Unconquered: by Hans J. Wollstein, from www.allmovie.com This early-black cinema silent was produced and directed by the era’s most prolific African-American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux. Iris Hall played Evon Mason, “a beautiful Negress” travelling West to inspect her inheritance, a gold mine. She is thrown out of the area’s only hotel but is cared for by a black prospector (Lawrence Chenault), whose life she later saves. Racism rarely reared its ugly head in Micheaux’s films, at least not directly. It is therefore noteworthy that Symbol of the Unconquered contains a scene wherein the protagonist is barred from an all-white hotel, a situation all too familiar to the film’s African-American target audience. Symbol of the Unconquered also featured Walker Thompson, E.G. Tatum, Jim Burris, Mattie Wilkes, and Leigh Whipper. The latter, the first black member of Actors Equity and the founder of the Negro Actors Guild, was a highly regarded Broadway actor whose best remembered screen role was that of Crooks in Lewis Milestone’s film “Of Mice and Men.” Background on Oscar Micheaux and “The Symbol of the Unconquered”: “Identity and Betrayal: The Symbol of the Unconquered and Oscar Micheaux’s ‘Biographical Legend'” by Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence in The Birth of Whiteness by Daniel Berndardi http://tinyurl.com/Micheaux-analysis With A Crooked Stick: The Films of Oscar Micheaux by J. Rondald Green http://tinyurl.com/Micheaux-history Local presentation of William Hooker and “The Symbol of the Unconquered” is made possible by volunteer labor, small financial contributions from hundreds of patrons of The Sanctuary For Independent Media, in-kind support from the Arts Department at RPI, and funding from the Presenting program at the New York State Council on the Arts and The NY State Music Fund (established by the New York State Attorney General at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors). The Sanctuary for Independent Media is a telecommunications production facility dedicated to community media arts, located in an historic former church at 3361 6th Avenue in North Troy, NY. The Sanctuary hosts screening, production and performance facilities, training in media production and a meeting space for artists, activists and independent media makers of all kinds. # # # Hi res image of William Hooker: http://tinyurl.com/hooker-image